BHM: Black Girl Scouts and the Powerful Black Women Who Made it and Other Empowering Things Happen

Despite their stated commitment to the empowerment of all girls, Girl Scouts of America has a bad name amongst many of the feminists I know and teach; however, for me, Girl Scouts of America has been a place where both I and my peers learned invaluable skills denied us elsewhere. More than that, in doing research about key African American women in Girl Scouts, I uncovered a herstory of black female leadership that included radical involvement in the betterment of black people’s lives. While most people think Girl Scouts are just the girls in green uniforms pushing thin mints like drugs on the corner or outside the bank, the reality is that Girl Scouts of America was actually founded to encourage female leadership and civic duty. Not only have they helped girls with public speaking, survival skills (including how to find clean water, identify edible plants, and build a makeshift dwelling when lost in the woods) that are still considered largely the domain of men, and girls self-esteem, but they are actively involved in service work with the elderly, differently-abled people, low income and “poor performing” schools, animal rescue shelters, homeless shelters, etc. They provide opportunities for girls to work with and/or learn from women working in industries where we are underrepresented, who own their own businesses, or work for places like NASA, NGOs, or the White House, encouraging girls to challenge glass ceilings and reach for their dreams. And they have worked, with inconsistent results, to be more inclusive, have more cultural education components, and to deal critically and more often with global girls’ issues, including the oft forgotten issue of differently-abled girls’ empowerment. So today, my slightly biased black herstory post (I was a girl scout) goes out to the Black Girl Scouts, both the black girls who have been members since the segregated troops which helped lay the ground for integration of Girl Scouts and its ongoing efforts to serve girls regardless of race or country of origin living in the U.S. (1) and the black women who took groundbreaking leadership positions.

African American Girl Scout Troop in Dixie 1930s

According to GSA, the first African-American Girl Scout troupe was formed in 1917. However, all other historical records point to the first troupe having been formed in 1924 by Josephine Groves Holloway. (2) Holloway received a degree in Sociology from Fisk in 1923 after putting herself through college. Immediately following graduation, she became a Girls’ Worker at Bethlehem Center and attended training to become a Girl Scout Leader at George Peabody College for Teachers. She successfully started the first troop for African American girls in 1924.

Unfortunately, that troop would shut down less than 2 years later after Holloway was forced out of her position by her supervisor. She was told the reason for her dismissal in 1925, shortly after she got married, was that a married woman “did not have enough time to dedicate to the girls.” The woman appointed by her supervisor, focused her energy elsewhere, whether this was by design or not we will never know. Her lack of attention meant the troop ceased activity within the year.

There were no other approved troops again until 1943, when Josephine Holloway finally got approval to start a new group after years of lobbying. Between 1925 and 1943, Holloway tried repeatedly to get approval for an African American Girl Scout troop but was denied by the national and local Girl Scout leadership. They even refused to let her have an old Girl Scout manual. However, Holloway started a “Girl Scout like” organization with special uniforms similar to those of the Girl Scouts and taught them the basic ethics, organization and leadership skills, etc. of the Girl Scouts using an old handbook her husband acquired in Chicago. By 1943, the girls had been trained in the exact same way as Girl Scouts and the leadership of GSA could see no way around including them in the organization and officially recognized troop 200 of Tennessee.

A year later, the GSA hired as an organizer and field adviser to the Girl Scout Council, making her the first African American woman to hold a high ranking staff position in GSC and the first black female exec in Girl Scouts in Middle TN. Her hire represented a critical paradigm shift in the racial thinking of the organization, partially inspired by troop 200. By the 1950s, GSA was actively desegregating Girl Scout troops. By the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. had referred to them as “a force for desegregation [in the South].” (GSA website)

white and black members of Girl Scouts sit together at camp in Aug 1941

When Holloway died, she gave Girl Scouts of America her family farm to convert into a Girl Scout camp. The farm became one of the “most modern and ADA compliant camp sites” (GSUSA website) that Girl Scouts own. The camp comes full circle for Holloway who was honored with a campsite named after her when Girl Scouts officially integrated their troops to honor her efforts toward the equality and inclusion of black girls. In 2008, the camp hosted Josephine Holloway day in which women and girls were taught the history of African American women and girls involvement in Girl Scouts, provided opportunities to learn activities that girls learned in the 1920s and 30s primarily by local African American women artists and small business owners, and watched a documentary on Holloway’s life.

In 1969, Dr. Dorothy Ferebee became the first African American Vice President of Girl Scouts of America. Dr. Ferebee’s brought with her, her considerable leadership skills and commitment to the health and well being of African American children forged in a long career of healthcare advocacy in the American South.

Dr. Ferebee graduated 5th in her class at Medical school in 1924 but, like other African American doctors and nurses, was denied internships at white hospitals. She interned at the Freedman’s Hospital in DC instead. The Freedman hospital was one of the largest and one of the only hospitals serving African Americans in the 1920s in the Capitol. Interning there, impressed upon her the need for more medical options and services to African American patients, so she opened her own clinic in the same area in 1925 and both she and her staff provided free rides to the clinic for emergencies, because there were no ambulance services for African Americans either. The more she worked in DC. the more concerned about the welfare and health of African American women and children. Speaking about her time at both her internship and the clinic she said:

“So I learned a great deal about the needs of the negro people in Washington, because most of them were concentrated in Southeast. So it was there that I learned there was very little opportunity for the children. Even though they were in school, they weren’t learning anything. And then it occurred to me, there’s something wrong with this town. Anytime a child goes hungry, and the mother has to work and leave her child home like this we need some place for children. We need a day care center.”

To meet the need of female patients and their children, Dr. Ferebee started the Southeast Neighborhood Society, with playgrounds and day care for children of working mothers.

In 1934, she was appointed Medical Director of the Mississippi Health Project, a program that operated during the summers with a mix of physicians and nurses from the North and the South. Despite having funding, supplies, and permission to build 5 clinics in Mississippi, Dr. Ferebee said the seldom met the needs of the African American community because of Plantation owners interference. While they allowed the clinics to be built, they did not allow farm workers to leave the plantations or access needed medical care during work hours and often harassed them about going on off hours as well. Since farm workers could not go to the clinics, their children also seldom got the medical care they needed because there was no one to take them. Dr. Ferebee worried about what this meant for both the health and safety of young girls, so she decided to turn the supplies and funding into mobile clinics. Instead of watching amused plantation owners thwart black people’s health, Dr. Ferebee made house calls and regular on-plantation health check ups for 7 years. And while there, she used the opportunity to educate plantation owners about health care benefits and equality.

Under her leadership, project workers launched vaccine programs against smallpox and diphtheria throughout poor communities. They also treated venereal disease and educated communities about malnutrition while counter the impact of widespread malnutrition due to discrimination and poverty.

Dr. Ferebees commitment to women and children was also evidenced in her work for women’s organizations prior to becoming the Vice President of Girl Scouts of America. In 1949, she was elected President of the National Council of Negro Women after having been a member for several years. The Civil Rights organization focused on discrimination against women in education, employment, housing, voting, the military, and health care. It advocated for their equality as both African Americans and women. She also founded the Women’s Institute to advocate for women’s health care and gender inclusivity in health education and research. While a member of the faculty at Howard, she not only taught about women’s health but was also a member of the Pan-American Women’s Alliance and the White Houses Children and Youth Council, sharing her expertise about the needs of African American women and girls health and the health needs of poor women.

Her time at Girl Scouts of America helped shift the organization’s focus to include more health care related service learning and a wider body of knowledge about intersecting oppressions related to gender, poverty, and discrimination.

Finally, Dr. Gloria Randall Dean Scott became the first African American President of Girl Scouts in 1975 and remained in the position for 3 years. Dr. Scott was the first African American to get a degree in Zoology from Indiana University. She was an avid advocate for education and educational equity for both women and African Americans as well, getting her Ed degree from IU and working as President of Bennett College for women for nearly 14 years. Her commitment to women’s empowerment included starting the Women’s Leadership Institute that helps women succeed in business and leadership positions. She also created/opened the Center for African Women and Women of the African Diaspora to ensure that black women had a place that encouraged, supported, and mentored them in ways that women’s resource centers on campus often fail to do.

Here she is talking about her work to help encourage and support African American and African women’s leadership:

Dr. Scott joined Girl Scouts in 1953 after saving money from a part time job to afford dues and a uniform. Her troop was segregated but provided her with key opportunities to work with black female leadership and her black female peers. Her commitment to the empowerment of young girls and her own leadership skills, caught the eye of the Girl Scouts and she was nominated for several positions within the organization including: President of the Negro Girl Scout Senior Planning Board, delegate to the Region V Senior Girl Scout event in 1954-1955 at University of Oklahoma, and adelegate to the Texas State Senior Girl Scout Conference in Austin, Texas in 1955. This involvement made it possible for Dr. Scott to help encourage the desegregation of Girl Scouts.

In 1969, Dr. Scott participated in the first integrated Triennial Meeting for Girl Scouts of America. The meeting was preceded by the GSA leadership voting to open 15 positions for women of color on the Board of Girl Scouts. As 1 of 2 existing women of color on the Board, Dr. Scott had high hopes as a result of this decision not only for African American women but also women of color. In an NPR interview done much later, she talks about why it was important for there to be more diversity and acknowledges that diversity meant all women of color

Dr. SCOTT: When I joined the national board in 1969, there were two African-American women out of 65 members of the board, and so the board made a deliberate decision that it would create 15 positions so that a critical mass of African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American women would join the board out of 65 and could therefore be influential.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this, though, Dr. Scott, though; why do you think it’s important to the Scouting organization that it be diverse?

Dr. SCOTT: Because we all bring, as human beings, skills an abilities that are the same, and the color of the skin, and the background in culture means that this is the world, and certainly this is us in America, deliberately created for us in America.

It is important for all kinds of girls, white girls, Asian girls, Hispanic, black, to understand that the abilities of everybody is needed by Girl Scouting and that the color of the skin is a factor that they bring genetically with them. (excerpt NPR interview on Girl Scouts)

She describes the highs and lows of the event with regards to race and racism like this:

I remember the Girl Scout’s Triennial Meeting of 1969 in Seattle, Washington, I was excited about it because it was going to be the first interracial Triennial Meeting for the Girl Scouts. There were several black leadership organizations invited – NAACP, Urban League Black Coalition and Seattle’s Today Show host who was a black female,” she reflected. “Sixty cities were invited to see our One Hundred Voice Choir and extraordinary flag ceremony. However, a hush went through the crowd when the curtains opened to reveal an all white choir and all white flag girls. (San Jacinto Council of the GSUSA)

The continued failure to be inclusive on the part of the Girl Scouts was not overlooked by Dr. Scott or the other black women in attendance. Instead, they got together and formulated the “Guidelines for Scouting for Black Girls” which included 18 points of improvement needed for the organization to attract, retain, and meet the needs of black girls and women involved in the organization. It also called upon the organization to truly committed to its stated goal of serving “all girls” and to stop assuming that diversity statements, or intentions about inclusivity, translated to actually doing the work of equality and empowerment for all girls.

When Dr. Scott was nominated for President of the organization 6 years later, she wrote back with a simple question: What is the status of black girls in Girl Scouts.

Her commitment to the equality and inclusion of black girls in Girl Scouts has been invaluable from those first segregated days in the 1950s. Like the other African American women leaders highlighted here, Dr. Scott’s commitment to ensuring young black girls have a place to feel empowered, learn new and critical survival skills, and hone their leadership skills in a multicultural environment has never wavered.

The willingness of all of the black women leaders, and those whose names never made into history, to address racism and help Girl Scouts of America recognize, respect, and embed racial diversity within their commitment to girls’ empowerment continues to make it possible for young black girls to find their way in a world that often discounts them. Today African American girls use their involvement in Girl Scouts to help rebuild New Orleans, address the education gap for young black girls, encourage girls to invest in Math and Science and become involved in local elections and politics, etc.

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  1. The website says that they “serve all girls” and has no language regarding cis or trans, so I have written this post accordingly.
  2. I was disappointed to discover that the official website of Girl Scouts of America contains several errors about African American leaders on their Black History Month pages, including the date of the first black troop and the middle names/last names of its African American pioneers; the names included on the site do not reflect marriages or other editions to their names after their time as leaders. I was also disappointed to discover that when you run a search on the leaders they highlight, the only pages that come up are the Black History month pages that actually don’t tell you anything except their titles and the years they served.

BHM: Call for Authors, Call for Activism

Today’s BHM comes from M. LaVora Perry, the Founder of Forest Hill Publishing. Perry was invited by a different press to write a book about several generations of black people in a single family who needed organ transplants centering around the struggle of one black mother & her attempts to recover from transplant surgery while worrying about her son’s new diagnosis. The story was meant to aid the family and shed light on the struggles of African Americans who

“represent a disproportionally high number of people in need of transplant —and die because they did not receive them—and a disproportionately low number of people who serve as organ and tissue donors.”

When the publishing company who had commissioned the book went under in 2006, the book was shelved. In the three years that followed, it became clear that African Americans continued to die for lack of transplant while the media and the medical community largely remained silent and inactive around saving black lives. So Perry, has just resurrected the project to be published by her own publsihing company, Forest Hill Publishing.

Working from a place of community and communal action and uplift, Perry has put out a call for stories from African Americans awaiting transplant or who have received a transplant themselves or have a family member who has received one. Perry hopes that by including multiple personal and political stories about the intersections of race-medicine and the dire need for change in the transplant industry with regards to donor cultivation and information in the black community, that the tide will turn.

Please see the CFP Below and circulate to your readers, colleagues, and friends:

Forest Hill Publishing will launch a book relaying true stories of transplant recipients and donors of color. People of color represent a disproportionately high number of those who need organ transplants–and die because the didn’t receive them–and a disproportionately low number of people who serve as organ and tissue donors. Click here to read more about this reality in a article from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

Our hope at Forest Hill Publishing is that our upcoming book will inspire many more people of color to become organ and tissue donors.

If you are an organ transplant recipient or donor, or a relative or friend of one, and you’d like your story considered for this project, please send a 2 – 5 sentence description of your transplant experience in a message with “Transplant Story” in the subject line to email @ foresthillpublishing.com. To raise awareness about this project, Forest Hill Publishing reserves the right to publish, on the Internet and elsewhere, brief comments sent to us in response to this call for submissions

If you are selected, we will send you a questionnaire, which must be completed in the English language and returned to us by April 1, 2010. If you have questions about this project, please email us.

She has also collaborated on a series of youtube videos to help inform the black community about issues relating to our need for more involvement in and death from lack of transplants seen below:

M. LaVora Perry is a modern day black female activist who is using the power of the word to educate, advocate, and save lives.

BHM: Bonnie St. John

Bonnie St. John is best known for her Silver medal in at the 1984 paraolympics and her time on staff in the Clinton White House. St. John was the first differently-abled person (regardless of race or gender) to attend the Ski Racing Academy in Vermont. The school’s assumptions about able-bodiedness meant that Bonnie was often disabled by her environment (I am using political definition here, see fn 1); despite being a limber athlete, she fell down regularly trying to get to the cafeteria because many of the walkways were gravel & she could not feel the ground shifting beneath her temporary leg, then she broke her new artificial leg on a soccer field that was not evened out properly. Despite the ablism in her environment, Bonnie held her own with able-bodied competitors and faculty alike and went on to win a silver medal in the Winter paraolympics in 1984. Had she not slipped on a particular ice patch on the trail, a patch that many others also slipped on, she would have won gold. She often refers to the experience like this:

People fall down; winners get up. (paralympics.org)

Avoiding the “Super Crip” (fn 2) story, St. John’s many interviews about being a differently-abled (fn 3) athlete, highlighted the mindfulness required by people disabled by ablism rather than positing herself as an exception who overcame what others simply fail to do. She pointed out that she had to make a conscious decision to become an athlete and then actively woo coaches and opportunities to compete. Often she trained alongside able-bodied people in arenas designed exclusively for them; ie, facilities that were only minimally ADA compliant if at all. For her, watching able-bodied athletes be recruited and groomed for the Olympics, taught her to be her own best advocate, to think critically about her decisions, and to pursue her dreams with the passion of someone who understand that even the most basic things (like getting to lunch) could not be taken for granted.

Her drive did not stop with her athletic competitions. St. John also credits being involved in sport at the intersections of race, gender, and ability as teaching her the discipline and the drive she needed to graduate from Harvard and Oxford and become a Rhodes Scholar. Her academic and Olympic accomplishments caught the eye of then-President Bill Clinton. He appointed her to his cabinet as Director of the National Economic Council, making her one of the first differently-abled African Americans to hold a cabinet position in the White House.

St. John is also deeply committed to the success of women and girls. She credits her nurse at Shriner’s hospital for helping her to succeed

“She kept telling me, ‘you have to push harder, you have to push harder.’ … She taught me some really important lessons (ibid)

and wants to offer the same kind of help to other women and girls. Thus she became a motivational speaker who has published 4 books encouraging heterosexual women to build happy and productive relationships, and be successful at business and parenting at the same time. When she got divorced, she also sat down to write her own story of child hood sexual abuse and marital struggle to motivate other women to put their emotional and physical health first. That same book, How Strong Women Pray, included interviews with 25 other women who combined their spirituality with strength and healing in order to become successful. St. John wanted to highlight women’s voices from all areas of life to inspire other women, not just posit her own experience as a guide. She continues this desire for a chorus of diverse women and experiences as a guide and helpmate to other women and girls in her 2009 project with her 14 year old daughter. The two have teamed up to write a book about inspirational women leaders and are asking young women to nominate people to be included based on having been inspired by them. In working with her daughter, St. John also wanted her to be inspired by other women and the power of feminism. So far they have interviewed the current President of Liberia Ellen J. Serleaf, designer Eileen Fisher, and Noemi Vivas Ocana a Managua resident who, after putting herself through school only to be downsized at her job, became a small business owner and leader of her community’s lending circle which empowers women through shared wealth and small business loans.

St. John’s activism has also always included the empowerment of women and girls. In 2008, she was the guest speaker at the same Shriner’s Hospital where she had recovered from her amputation as a child. Afterward she talked about how the hospital is a place of both profound hope and despair because of the ways that disability is treated in our society and the fears embedded in not being able-bodied. For St. John these fears take on particular gendered aspects as young girls are taught both that their self-worth is tied up in attractiveness and that differently-abled bodies are not attractive nor should differently-abled women have or express sexuality.

“I worked so hard over the years, to feel strong and feel beautiful, to get away from the feeling of being an awkward disabled kid. I could smell the fear and discomfort. It was a battleground. And I thought, ‘I’m going in. And I’m not leaving any soldiers behind.’ (MLive.com)

As part of her talk, she reminded young differently-abled girls that they were beautiful, desirable, and had the right to dream of the same companionship as able-bodied girls and women.

Bonnie St. John’s powerful example, deep commitment to intersectional women’s issues, and her understanding about the importance of both global feminism and inspiring and caring for the next generation of young women, make her a quintessential figure in black herstory. As one of only a handful of prominent black differently-abled women she is also someone we should all know.

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footnotes

  1. I am using the term “disabled” politically here in the tradition of radical disability feminists to mean “The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical [and/or cognitive/developmental/mental] impairments and thus excludes them from  mainstream society” (Oliver 1992 as quoted in Clare Exile & Pride Southend:1999, 6)
  2. “Super Crip” is a term used to describe people whose stories and images have been used to make temporarily able-bodied people feel good about themselves and the lives of differently-abled people rather than question the ableism that makes differently-abled people’s success seem like such an anomaly. In other words, the story focuses on individuals “over coming disability [a physical or mental impariment]” rather than on them succeeding in an ableist and therefore disabling world. (It should be note that Bonnie St. John does tell her story utilizing elements of the “super crip” and certainly reports do as well; however, the more secure she has gotten with herself and her herstory the more her narrative has let go of these elements for a more nuanced look at her life. She has always included discussion of ableism and its impact on her and society in her work.
  3. some people with disabilities have taken exception to my use of the term “differently-abled” as opposed to “disabled”. Differently-abled is the term I use to describe myself and it is the prevailing term used by disability rights activists in my region of the country; for us, the term recognizes that there are differences in our abilities that represent diversity within the community of people with disabilities and diversity amongst us and temporarily able-bodied people. It was also an effort to destabilize hierarchies between people who were born differently-abled and people who became differently-abled and between those with visible disabilities and those with hidden ones, while also recognizing that these differences meant that we experience disabling environments and ableism differently.


BHM: You Be the Judge

Constance Baker Motley was the first African American (1)  female Federal Judge and the first black woman voted into the New York State Senate. Prior to becoming a judge she worked on issues of Civil Rights and education, including briefs on Brown vs Board of Education.

State Senator Constance Baker Motley with Mayor Wagner, February 7, 1963

Judge Motley has actually been involved in several black herstory moments. Besides the firsts listed above, she was also:

  • the first African American woman accepted at Columbia Law School
  • the first woman (regardless of race) to hold the position of Manhattan Borough President
  • among the first African-American women judges to be appointed to a senior judge position
  • the first African American woman to serve as Chief Judge

Motley’s story is one of the great N. American rags to riches stories. Born to immigrant parents from the small island of Nevis, she started her work career as a maid at the local Community House. Inspired by African American authors writing about equality and racism, Motley gave a speech at the Community House about the need for African Americans to be included in leadership and leadership decisions. That speech impressed a local member so much that he actually paid for her to go to college.  Motley quickly advanced, becoming the first African American woman to be accepted into Columbia Law School.

During her time working for the NAACP, Motley won 9 of 10 civil rights cases. Her work on Brown v Board Education not only helped ensure equal access to education for African Americans but her work with James Meredith helped ensure the beginning of the end of racial discrimination in admissions at the university level as well. She worked on three key decision making cases related to educational discrimination through admissions discrimination at the university level involving state schools in Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. She also worked on a similar discrimination case in South Carolina involving Clemson University, one of the schools whose recent black face incidents is depicted on my John Mayer post for this month. Finally, she successfully argued for 1,000 youth to be reinstated at school in Birmingham, Ala., after the local school board had expelled them for demonstrating.

Motley was also a consummate civil rights activist. At the age of 15 she became President of the local NAACP Youth Council. She visited Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail and helped him get permission to march in Albany Georgia. She also spent time talking with Medgar Evers just before his murder. She was one of the strong lawyers who risked their own safety to represent the Freedom Riders; in her autobiography, she said it never occurred to her that Civil Rights could fail or that her work would not lead to change. That change was more important than threats she received. And her legal work included wins that helped end discrimination at lunch counters and restaurants in Birmingham and Memphis respectively. She was also a church girl, and she sang civil rights songs in the bombed churches of the era to celebrate the resilience of black communities and mourn the passing of bombed adults and children.

Her civil rights work extended to both women’s and gay right’s as well. Motley worked on cases that allowed female reporters into locker rooms; their exclusion had previously justified not hiring or promoting female journalists in sports journalism. Her rulings also upheld the right for gay protesters, excluded from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, to protest outside the Cathedral involved in excluding them.

Charlene Hunter-Gault, whose case to be admitted to UGA after being turned down for being black, described Motley like this:

“It was as if she would lull them into an affirmation of their own arrogance, causing them to relax as she appeared to wander aimlessly off into and around left field, until she suddenly threw a curveball with so much skill and power it would knock them off their chair.” (Hunter-Gault 993 In My Place)

Like so many of us, Motley understodd that at the intersections of racism and sexism is the strongly held belief that black women are both stupid and incompetent and used it to her advantage on a regular basis. She was once quoted as saying that Thurgood Marshall thought these intersections would protect her in the turbulant South as well, though she understand that being black woman in N. America did not protect you from abuse and often opened you up to more of it.

In a speech in which she accepted the Florence E. Allen Award, Motley talked at length about the women who had influenced her and kept her going in the face of both gender and race discrimination. She explained that she was even discouraged from going to law school by a supervisor who respected her work, because “women never amount to anything in the law.” It was her belief in the equality of women and people of color and the companionship of other black and female activists that made her push on. For her these women were mentors,  door openers (whose race had got them in and whose gender gave them sympathy for other women locked out), and fellow activists striking at the multi-layered glass ceiling in society and the law.

Judge Constance Baker Motley died at the age of 84 in 2005. Her legacy to black herstory, particularly with regards to civil rights in education, is immeasurable.

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note

  1. Mosley is actually Caribbean American, as both her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nevis but identifies as African American.

imge

  • Motley and the Kings at an SLCC conference
  • Motley/MSNBC/unattributed

BHM: The Valentine’s Edition

Who better to cover for Valentine’s Day than Sade?

Sade Adu blew away the music scene with her soulful love songs in 1984. Her debut album, Diamond Life sold over 50 million copies and included songs like “Smooth Operator” and “Your Love is King”. The former continues to play on radio today.

The African-born, black British songstress’ sound mixed soul, jazz, R & B, and a wee bit of new wave, that was yet distinctly her own. Her lyricism touched deep chords amongst her fans and music critics exposing the beauty and the pain of love. Though she is often talked about for her moving voice, it is important to note that she is also credited for writing or co-writing the majority of the songs in her career, and all of the songs on her first three albums. And while she has only released 6 studio albums in 25 years, preferring to focus on her interpersonal relationships and family, the power of her voice has kept people enthralled by her musical journey.

Her string of hits have not only provided the soundtrack for many women’s love affairs, but has also given many women of color a voice from which to speak their own desires, joys, and heart aches. While her music has universal appeal, I am hard pressed to think of any of my friends from within the black diaspora who do not have a Sade album and a story unique to the black female experience that come attached to why they love it. For me, I remember that Sade was one of a handful of black women who I could count on seeing on MTV or hearing on my radio outside of Hip Hop and that was critical b/c at the time I was living in a state with very few people of color and any reflection of blackness, and bi-racial identity, made me feel less alone.

Here is the latest release from Sade, Soldier of Love, which is already making old fans swoon and new fans rediscover the soulful side of love:

So this Valentine’s Day, whether you are planning something with a loved one or just with the person you should always remember to love, ie yourself, why not also celebrate a little black herstory with the songstress of love: Sade. 🙂 Whatever you do, remember to love and be loved today and not let a holiday define or judge you.

BHM: Lucille Clifton

Today’s Black Herstory Month post is both in honor of an amazing poet and a sad announcement that Ms Clifton died early this morning.

Lucille Clifton wrote her first book of poetry, Good Times, while still employed as a social service worker for the state of New York. Despite critical acclaim for her premiere collection, she stayed with the state for 2 more years out of a commitment to doing social justice from within.

In 1971, she became a full time poet and frequent artist in residence. She was part of a contemporary African-American and black poetic re-imagining that posited a black aesthetic into poetic form. Thus she used a number of free form and “unconventional” techniques to centered the lives, language(s), and vision of black people in her work and also combined several spiritual traditions from Christianity to Hinduism to Yoruba. The radicalism of her first collections, especially Good News, led some white reviewers to conclude that she “hates whites” rather than to see her complex confrontation of racism and her hopeful positing of poems about black leadership and religious figures as a way to over come them. Her collections also centered women’s lives and women’s issues. Two such collection, The Good Woman and the Two-Headed Woman were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes. She also received several female poet awards, local artist awards, and two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts. The Good Woman in particular addressed many of Clifton’s personal triumphs and tragedies as a woman, wife, mother, daughter, and sister. Many of these poems also addressed mental and physical disabilities in her family and the way they intersect with the women in her family’s lives. In her collection Quilting, she uses the quilt forms often associated with black female quiltmakers to tell a story of black female history from unnamed slaves, to Fannie Lou Hamer, to Winnie Mandela, embracing the diasporic identities of black women around the globe and highlighting specific liberation struggles. Her poems to her uterus and about menstruation are oft-quoted amongst feminists and women’s groups as well.

Clifton reading her poem “Homage to My Hips”

She was also a prolific writer of children’s books geared toward African American children and showing them in a positive light in literature. Among these books was her Everett Anderson series that centered the adventures and life lessons of young black boy living in the inner-city. Everett Anderson’s Goodbye won the Coretta Scott King Award in 1984. Her collaboration on adaptations of her books led to an Academy Award. Her children’s books about women and girls often centered black girls lives but also included a story with a white female protagonist showing Clifton’s commitment to the progress of girls across the color line. Among my favorites is The Lucky Stone, that shows three generations of black women made who have been blessed by possession of a wish granting stone; each generation of women has used the stone wisely to enhance their community and the position of women, at the story’s end the stone is passed on to the granddaughter with the hopes she will carry on the tradition.

Whether speaking about her poetry or her children’s books, Clifton’s thematic issues remained largely the same. She was deeply concerned about inequality based on both racial and gender prejudices in N. America. She often wrote characters and poems that directly challenged images of women and people of color as predatory, evil, impotent, or constant victims, refusing to take on either the vilification or victim stance often required of women’s and ethnic lit/poetry by publishers and instead gave us characters and poems that were complex and independent. While her focus was often on the racism and sexism experienced by black women, she also made important connections to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Indian women, and the black diaspora in general. One such poem connected Gettysburg, Nagasaki, and Jonestown. Her words worked to highlight the interconnections of women and girls even in conflict and to celebrate the resilience of women and black people even as the scathingly critiqued racism and sexism.

While her prolific publishing rate in a declining market and her endless list of awards and accolades help to credential her, it is her poetry itself that matters most.

Sisters

me and you be sisters.
we be the same.

me and you
coming from the same place.

me and you
be greasing our legs
touching up our edges.

me and you
be scared of rats
be stepping on roaches.

me and you
come running high down purdy street one time
and mama laugh and shake her head at
me and you.

me and you

got babies

got thirty-five
got black
let our hair go back
be loving ourselves
be loving ourselves
be sisters.

only where you sing,
I poet.

L. Clifton

BHM: Including Black Trans Women in the Queer Alphabet

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to structure this year’s BHM posts as I’ve said before, and I keep coming back to this idea of texts and textuality. It seems like the digital age rather than helping us archive core texts by black women and other marginalized voices, it is actually helping to hasten their demise. Think about the number of people who quote Lorde or hooks or PHC without ever once citing them? They do it on blogs, the do it in articles, and worse some academics have even got away with doing it in their books. And in the rush to process and transmit information in the blink of an eye, these omissions become more concrete than the truth of black women’s intellectual contributions. Thus I have seen gay male Latino colleagues credited with saying things my generation knows were said by famous black lesbian feminist activist-theorists all across the internet and subsequently in junior faculty’s syllabi. And as I was having about this with another colleague who teaches Intro to Black Feminisms, I began to think back to the blog posts I did 2 years ago on women of color feminisms where I included a key text in each post. So I am still not quite sure how I want this to look, but at least once a week for the rest of Black Herstory Month, I am going to try and post all or part of critical texts written by and about black women.

Today marks the inaugural attempt.

On April 7, 2006, Monica Roberts became the third black trans woman to win the International Foundation for Gender Education Trinity Award winner. Roberts is best known for her insightful/incite-ful blog on black trans women’s rights and experiences, Transgriot. Transgriot is one of the oldest and most well known blogs of its kind and has been instrumental in bringing the black female subject from a transgender perspective into the praxis and thinking of feminists, women of color, and the queer community. Her insight has been invaluable to the struggle to include the lives of ALL women in feminism and queer organizing and her unapologetic willingness to stand up for the rights of black women even within transgender communities has set the standard for how all of us need to be held accountable in the identity politics game and self-reflexive about our own roles in it.

In 2006, Roberts used her acceptance speech to question trans erasure in mainstream media, the male-centric focus in the media and queer organizing both with regards to gender and sexuality, and the need for practices and language that was both inclusive and inviting to African American transgender women. She also pointed out how past failures at both the center and the margin erase the very existence of black trans women and make it impossible for them to participate. Her fiery speech does not conclude with condemnation but instead offers a series of suggestions for how to change.

Below, please find the full text of her speech and consider the import of her words:

Giving honor to God, the leadership of IFGE, friends and family. I am humbled to be standing before you today as a representative of Transsistahs-Transbrothas, the Lone Star State, the Bluegrass State, and my hometown of Houston to officially become the third African-American transperson to be awarded a Trinity.

This day is one that I thought that I’d never see because of my outspokenness about a myriad of issues in the transgender community. But like my mentors, Phyllis Frye and Sarah DePalma and one of my leadership role models the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, I have not hesitated to call people and organizations out when I felt that they could and should do better to uphold the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. The Transgender Rights Movement is the next evolution in the ongoing struggle for human rights and we need to take that seriously.

It’s been an interesting road that I’ve traveled to get to this point in my life and ironically I have IFGE to thank for giving me the impetus for jump starting my activist career.

At the beginning of my transition in 1994 I started a subscription to Tapestry. (hold up the magazines) Inside these two issues were the Out, Proud and Trans series that pissed me off to the point that I made it my mission to attend my first GenderPAC Lobby days in 1998, a subsequent one in 1999 and become a leader in the transgender community.

What was it about these two issues that made me angry? Well, the problem for transgender people of color has always been visibility. Ever since Christine Jorgensen stepped off that flight from Denmark onto the tarmac at JFK airport in 1953 the lion’s share of the coverage of GLBT people has been of people that looked like you and her.

Out of the 50 people that these two issues honored for being “Out and Proud”, the two they found to represent me were RuPaul and Dennis Rodman. Neither are transgender people like the other two African-American Trinity winners who preceded me at this podium, Dawn Wilson and Dr. Marisa Richmond. RuPaul and Dennis Rodman both stated publicly that they didn’t want to be. So why hold them up as representatives of my community? The other problem is that it unintentionally reinforced a stereotype that the only thing that my people can do, can become or be recognized for is being an entertainer or an athlete.

Why is this important For a transkid of Euro-American descent they get to see role models that are lawyers, doctors, airline pilots, police officers, et cetera that cancel out the negative Jerry Springer images. A transkid that shares my ethnic heritage doesn?t have that balance and that concerns us. A reasonably intelligent college bound African-American transkid is left to wonder after seeing that contrast, ?Where are the people who look like me?? ?If I transition is this what my life is going to be like?? ?Do professional African-American transpeople exist??

In my era my first exposure to transgender people that looked like me besides the 1977 Jefferson’s episode was either through attending drag shows or seeing transgender sex workers plying their trade. The ones that did pass were hiding in deep stealth mode. I didn?t meet another out professional African-American transperson like myself until 1999.

Lack of media coverage hurts. I can only name two African-American transpeople that I read articles about when I was growing up and both were surprisingly published in one of the journalistic Bibles of Black America, Jet Magazine.

Justina Williams had one written about her transition and her struggles with General Motors in 1979. It’s also interesting to note that in this article the author used the proper pronouns to describe Justina 20 years before the AP changed their stylebooks.  Almost a decade later, in 1987 an article appeared about Sharon Davis which chronicled her transition and the book she was writing about it entitled “A Finer Specimen of Womanhood”.

When you’re a minority, positive role models, a connection to your history, and faith are vitally important building blocks to the maintenance of one’s pride and self-esteem. That fuels personal achievement that uplifts the entire group. IFGE has played a major role in documenting that history and honoring the people doing their part to build a transgender community and for that I applaud and support their efforts to do so. From this day forward I will be doing my part by not only writing occasional articles for Tapestry but encourage other people of color to do so.

One of the problems that we’ve had in the African-American trans community is that for various reasons we haven’t had a similar ongoing effort to organize it on a national scale until now. The late Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Toure once stated, “In order to become a part of the greater society, you must first close ranks.”

Basically that is what the African-American transgender community is doing. We’re not doing it to shut you out of the process but turning inward to build the same kind of infrastructure and support systems that you have enjoyed for two decades. We seek to not only build a community that our kids can be proud of but at the same time build and lift ourselves up in order to become a stronger partner for the entire transcommunity. We spent a few days during TSTBC 2005 hammering out a document that we call the African-American Transgender Action Plan or AA-TAP for short. It is a ten-point program rooted in the lessons that our ancestors brought here with them from Africa that will serve as the guiding organizing principles for building our community

TSTBC is a major building block in that effort. Just as the IFGE conference over the last 20 years has served to educate, inform and train our past, present and future leaders and allies the Transsistahs and Transbrothas Conference will do the same. It will also provide a way for you to reach our people that may not be comfortable coming to an IFGE conference or to SCC but will show up in Louisville to hang out with their peeps.

By the way, the second annual TSTBC is happening October 18-22 once again in Louisville.

So why aren’t African-American transpeople comfortable attending events like this? It always mystified me when I attended SCC for example why there were almost no peeps like me that were attending this event except the hotel staff and the conference was hosted in the Black gay mecca of Atlanta, GA.

Well, let me tell you a few reasons why. One of them is the cultural difference. African-Americans have always been a spiritual people with a church centered culture. I am a Christian as are many people who are African-American and transgender. I have seen every faith tradition represented and respected at GLBT events except Christianity. Granted, some people who profess to be Christians have invited this negative response but there’s a major difference between little “c” Christians and big “C” ones. Big “C” Christians believe in love, tolerance, understanding others and their differences and embracing them. Little “c” Christians are the intolerant ones who are using the faith as a white sheet to camouflage their bigotry and hatred. Christianity isn’t the private property of right-wing zealots. It?s past time for those of us in the GLBT community who are Christian to proclaim it, stand up to those thugs and take our faith back from the Pharisees who are using it as a baton to beat us down with.

Unfortunately because of the hurt and pain that’s been inflicted on GLBT people by these Bible-thumping posers, some GLBT people have begun denigrating ALL Christians in response to what has been done unto them. Bashing Christians doesn’t play well in my community. In fact one of the things that we were adamant about during the planning for TSTBC 2005 was starting a tradition of having a church service to close it. We also wanted to create an environment where not only Christianity is respected but we strive to respect TSTBC attendees whose faith traditions differ from our own.

Another thing that doesn’t play well in my community is America’s original sin, racism. As I have written, taught and said to anyone who would listen, the transgender community is a microcosm of society at large. The same problems that exist in the parent society also exist in our subset of it.

I have been called the n-word in Euro-American dominated online groups. I have been called an uppity nigger behind my back. I incredulously saw someone post last year on another list that the only reason that TSTBC was being held was because it would make it easier for us to solicit tricks. We have had activists walk into Congressional Black Caucus offices during lobby days and tell legislators that share my ethnic background that African-American transpeople don’t exist.

Yes Virginia, racism does exist in the trans community and we need to put a stop to it post haste before it creates a permanent split between the African-American transgender community and you. That is dangerously close to happening right now.

It also pisses us off when you don’t listen to us or dismiss what we have to say. I have been a minority since I was born at 10:45 PM on May 4, 1962. People of color are equipped with coping skills and mechanisms that we learned growing up that allow us to deal with the daily slights, slings and arrows that come with minority status. We have an uncanny ability to read people or organizations that say one thing and do the opposite since we?ve been historically lied to over the years. So if we tell you not to trust them, listen to us. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief in the future.

And please don’t ever in life use the words “you’re just playing the race card”. It infuriates me and other people of color when that term is used to marginalize our very real experiences with bigotry and the racism we deal with in this country by disrespectfully comparing it to a card game.

Since I’ve laid out some things that depress African-American participation in the overall transgender community, It’s only fair that I offer a few suggestions that will hopefully increase it.

The dots have to be connected in terms of the historical roles that African-American transpeople have played in shaping the transgender community. An African-American transwoman was present at the Stonewall Riots. We helped found GenderPac, NTAC, BGB and the Tennessee Vals in addition to other regional organizations that have uplifted transgender people. Unfortunately we’ve gotten very little recognition for it or have been edited out of the historical records. That needs to stop. If the historical record reflects the fact that we helped found it, then people of color will be more inclined to take ownership of the various groups and participate in them.

We have to have some media face time too. The African-American transgender community has some long term plans to help correct that imbalance. While we’re working on that, the bottom line is that media peeps will call the white transgender community first because you already have the infrastructure in place. When you get that call, make sure that you also let them know that there are people of color that need to be included in this conversation. Basically that’s how Dawn and I got the notification for the Courier-Journal article that we’re featured in. Reporter Angie Fenton called Fairness looking for help in finding transgender people who?d be willing to talk on the record and they referred her to us. When transkids of color see peeps in the media that look like them who are living their lives and telling their stories, it’s a win-win for all of us.

Second. Make events affordable and accessible. African-Americans only get 70 cents to every dollar a white person earns. When you have a conference in a hotel in which a room costs $200 dollars a day and you then have to pay conference registration fees on top of that, it creates participation barriers. The fiscal participation barrier leads to a perception that people of color aren’t wanted and that’s how you end up with an event that ends up 99% white transpeople.

I realize that middle and upper class transgender people support IFGE, other transgender conventions and our organizations. However, this fiscal access problem that shuts out TPOCs also is keeping other T people of color out including the Asian and Latino/a communities. Watching the economics of conventions and keeping hotel prices affordable will grow the community amongst all transgender people, make the convention programming resources accessible to more T people of all income levels and make this community more inclusive in general. It?s a simple formula. Make the events more affordable and eventually all colors of the transgender rainbow will appear.

The accessibility issue is also important. Too many times support group meetings are held in suburban locations with little or no access to public transportation. If your city has a GLBT Community center that is located close to public transportation consider using that as a meeting site. If you’re planning a convention ensure that your host hotel is close to public transportation and that schedules and route maps are widely available to the convention attendees.

Third. If you want us at your events, you’re gonna have to advertise in our media too. There are African-American newspapers in many cities that would love to not only get the advertising dollars but want stories about transgender issues. For example, CLIK magazine is an Atlanta-based GLBT publication that caters to the national African-American community.

I’ll close with the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King from a November 1956 speech he gave in Montgomery, AL entitled “Facing the Challenge of a New Age.?”

“Another thing we must do in speeding up the coming of the new age is to develop intelligent, courageous, and dedicated leadership. This is one of the pressing needs of the hour. In this period of transition and growing social change there is a dire need for leaders who are calm and yet positive. Leaders who avoid the extremes of ‘hot-headedness’ and ‘Uncle Tomism’. The urgency of the hour calls for leaders of wise judgment and sound integrity-leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice;
Leaders not in love with publicity but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.”

Dr. King continues by paraphrasing an author with the last name of Holland by saying:

God give us leaders!
A time like this demands strong minds, great hearts
True faith and ready hands
Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill
Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy
Leaders who possess opinions and a will
Leaders who have honor, leaders who will not lie
Leaders who can stand before a demagogue
And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking!
Tall leaders, sun crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty and private thinking.

I hope and pray that over the last 8 years that I’ve evolved into that type of leader and will continue to do so in the coming years.

BHM: Rutina Wesley and Her “True Blood”

I recently included Rutina Wesley on a list of potential up and comers in “young Hollywood” in response to the Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” edition that includes no women of color. Wesley was born in a working class area of Las Vegas to a Vegas Show Girl mom and a tap dancer father; thus, dance was her first love. While Rutina’s most famous character to date is an under-educated young black woman whose bitterness defines most of her life and relationships,  Rutina herself is a classically trained actress/dancer with a degree from Julliard and a summer study at the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts in London. Anyone who has spent time in Las Vegas schools knows that both official and unofficial tracking occurs for youth of color, particularly young women of color, so Rutina’s success was no doubt guided by the myriad of Las Vegas teachers bucking a system, dedicated parents, and her own amazing intelligence and will.

Wesley  no doubt channeled her early educational experience into her role as Reyanne, the strong female lead in the 2007 film How She Move. Her character was an aspiring medical student who had lost one of her siblings and was forced to return to the neglected public school of her youth after her family fell on hard economic times. The story centered on her sense of duty to herself, her family, and increasingly the community she left behind in the hopes of a better life. And as she defends herself and her dreams, she also helps others discover their own potential and re-discovers her own. The film centered a black female experience that recognized the humanity, intelligence, and struggle of black women abandoned by districting/red lining. By including not only Reyanne’s story but that of her female friends who were left behind, and the hopes and dreams they struggled with supposedly in her shadow, How She move moved beyond a narrative of exceptionalism to a subtle critique of gendered life in low income urban centers that work to pit women and young girls against one another and reduce them to exploitable objects. Wesley also pointed out that the character has a strong mother who is constantly encouraging her dreams . Unlike other films about young black girls that often show emotional absent or drug addicted black mothers, How She Move made sure not to vilify black motherhood while keeping the realities of working class/subsistence level existence fully centered.

How She Move also attempted to update the urban dance film genre that had largely left black women behind for stories about black male dancers and/or interracial relationships between black men and white women or between Latin@s and Anglos. Unfortunately, the market for the dance movie had already reached its saturation point and so Wesley’s work failed to reach a wide audience. However, the film was a unique addition to black herstory precisely because it centered an African American woman dancing in a male dominated competition who struggled with the dual oppressions of gender within the scene and racialized class issues within society at large. The story was not just a dance vehicle that showed off Wesley’s considerable dancing talent and played off of some half true half-imagined version of the hood, but rather a critical look at the complex negotiations of talented young black girls trying to thrive in a world that is riddled with racism, sexism, and classism from within the community and outside of it. Wesley’s performance in particular helped elevate the low production value of the film out of the realm of typical MTV exploitation film.

Where Wesley’s proud African American girl character failed to resonate with audiences, her problematic turn as Tara Thornton in True Blood has captivated them. Like the women reviewed in the previous post on The Vampire Diaries, Rutina Wesley’s role on True Blood is important partially because it integrates a genre that is increasingly devoid of racial diversity. Unlike the women on the Vampire Diaries however, Tara and her family are much more stereotype than counter-stereotype. Despite this fact, however, it is interesting to note that Tara has far more sexual agency and overall power vis-a-vis the supernatural men she encounters than the far less stereotypical Bennett women.

The Story (Note I am told that the tv show varies widely from the books which many black readers have called openly racist, & so we are focusing on the story as told by the show)

The Thorntons and the Stackhouses are neighbors in Bon Temps, a small, somewhat backwood, Louisiana town. The young girls in both families are drawn together because they are both poor and outcasts. People in Bon Temps think Sookie Stackhouse is slow because they don’t know that when she gets that glazed look in her eyes it is because she can hear their thoughts not because her own have stopped working. Tara, on the other hand, is stigmatized by her quick temper and her alcoholic mother who make the townspeople both suck their teeth and avoid her. In a desperate attempt to find friendship and safety the two girls bond and are best friends. This friendship is meant to tie the Stackhouses and the Thorntons together throughout the show, but as we shall see, it seldom resonates after the first season.

During season one of True Blood, we are introduced to Tara through an internal dialogue in which she is raging at the ignorance of the people she has to serve in her working class job and the town itself. As her raging grows louder, she has an altercation with a white customer who asks her for help finding a rake. Instead of helping, Tara launches into a verbal tirade followed by her accusing the woman and her supervisor, who fires her over the incident, of being racist. This scene solidifies the point of view of the show, which is decidedly eurocentric. Not only is Tara the stereotypical angry black woman, her rage has no explanation in this scene. She’s just angry because she is angry. Worse, when she gets caught raging and refusing to do her job, she cries racism. Thus the scene follows a narrative of the white imaginary in which racism is a figure of the black imagination; we are in a perpetual inexplicable rage that causes conflict and confusion amongst the poor white people just trying to go about their day, and if we don’t get what we want we just pull out our huge deck of race cards. Not is this ridiculous but even its profound disservice to both the character and black people in general, the scene’s ultimate conclusion with Tara losing her job proves how very useless such a card would be if in fact we had them.

As if this is not bad enough, soon after Tara is fired from her job we are introduced to her mother, a stone cold, fall down, drunk who quotes the Bible at her daughter while beating her. Like Tara, Lettie Mae Thornton is a stereotype born straight out of the Moynihan report, which referred to the female headed households of black families as a “tangle of pathology” and “fundamental source of weakness” (Moynihan: 218-19). Where Sookie Stackhouse was raised with a doting grandmother who teaches her morality and kindness, Lettie Mae is a violent and angry woman who barely swims up from the bottle long enough to tear her own child down. And we are told that part of what binds Sookie to Tara is the desire of the Stackhouses to protect her from drunken beatings in the night.

This vision of black female pathology is mediated only once in the first season, when Lettie Mae is seen to ask Adele Stackhouse to care for Tara because she cannot. In these scenes we are introduced to a mother who actually does care about her child’s emotional well-being but recognizes that her own disappointments turned to addiction prevent her from meeting those needs. It is a story, when divorced from racism, with which we can empathize. On the one hand. Lettie Mae is an addict who recognizes that in her addiction she cannot parent but her child still needs love and care. On the other, Lettie Mae is one of two main characters who is black and female and one of two who is completely dysfunctional in stereotypically racist ways. For most viewers, the brief scene that allows us to see the former is forever eclipsed by the hegemonic nature of the latter coupled with the writers utter failure to provide any back story for Lettie Mae’s behavior or any counter narrative of black female normalcy in the show. Worse, the writers have Tara Thornton telling Sookie how much she wished she was a Stackhouse and lived with them. The Blue-eyed doll of Morrison has been replaced with the blue-eyed live action figure of True Blood.

Tara is also enthralled with white men in season one; and while interracial dating is normal, unless your John Mayer, Tara’s obsession seems more about the character’s racialized self-hate brimming just below the surface than her desires. Thus she has a long time crush on Jason Stackhouse, the town slut, that is intimately mixed up with her feelings about her mother and the Stackhouses as refuge. Unfortunately for Tara, while Jason will sleep with anything that moves in Bon Temps, he apparently is another one of those guys with a “David Duke penis”, because no matter how much Tara throws herself at him, he does not even notice she is alive. While this could easily play out as an issue of desire in which Jason thinks of her as an official sibling, Jason’s entire character hinges on the fact that he doesn’t care who he sleeps with as long as he does not go to bed alone. This should make Tara easy pickings and yet it does not.

When Tara is given the opportunity to build real love near the end of the first season, it is with one Sookie’s cast offs, Sam Merlotte. In the early days of their relationship, Sam makes it very clear that his true desires lie with Sookie and Tara’s self-esteem is so low she is willing to be the Jezebel in waiting. But Sam is not a bad man, and soon he actually develops real feelings for her that her anger management issues promptly punish and try to destroy. The message, Tara is unlovable. Like the myth of the angry black woman who works men to death with her constant criticism and mood swings, Tara oscillates between rage and judgment with Sam, refusing to let him in. Their interactions are scripted to highlight her dysfunction vis-a-vis his attempts at understanding rather than give us a complex portrait of a young woman broken by abuse re-learning to love. Again the racial overtones of this relationship never allow it the depth it deserves in which come to understand the particularly brokenness both Tara and Sam seem to share.

As if to reinforce the idea of black female pathology in True Blood, the season also includes a backwoods swindler, also played by a black woman, who tells both Tara and her mother that they have demons inside them. It isn’t racism and classism in a small southern town that is making them angry and broken, it is the evil inside them. Worse, in season two, that evil will be externalized in such a way that the entire town is at risk. And part of what makes Tara and her mother at risk for both being swindled and actually possessed by a real demon, is their ignorance. That ignorance is  seemingly embodied by their belief in syncretic African inspired religion in these scenes which the show about supernatural beings depicts as sham.

Lest we miss the non-verbal cues that black people are ignorant, Tara is also a school drop out. Early in the show, Tara actually explains:

School is just for white people looking for other white people to read to them. I figure I’ll save my money and read to myself.

I don’t think there is any black person in the world who thinks this way about education. In fact, since slavery black people in the United States have struggled to get equal access to education, first risking their lives to teach each other to read and write on plantations and then risking them again to start or attend freedom schools, forcibly integrated schools, and panther schools. North American history is littered with broken, bruised, bombed, and even lynched bodies of black educators and their white allies. However, Tara’s belief that education was for white folks resonates with victim-blaming school of thought that argues black people are responsible for their own lower test scores and educational attainment because they do not put enough stock in the importance of education.

Season Two

The hope that the Thortons might get better in season two is quickly dashed by the slavery-reminiscent opening scenes with Tara’s cousin Lafayette which set the tone for the entire season.The backwoods scam, aka the mock African syncretic religious service,  Tara and her mother participated in leads to the rise of an ancient evil creature that feeds on people’s excess. Maryann Forrester, aka the Maenad, introduces violence and sexual abandon that threatens to tear the town apart.

While the whole town is under Maryanne’s spell, Tara and her mother bear the brunt of her abuse and like everything else it is tinged with racialization. Though Lettie Mae has found Jesus and subsequently sobered, she begins the season by telling Tara that she is unlovable and must move out. Like the audience, Tara is incredulous at her mother’s lack of maternal care and unrelenting judgment in the face of all the care Tara has given her in life. And though Lettie Mae tries to make up for it, even being the first to notice that Tara needs help and to seek it out for her, Maryann is there as a constant reminder that Lettie Mae is a failed mother. Several episodes are filled with Maryann, played by white actress Michelle Forbes, viciously tearing into Lettie Mae for being a bad mother, a pathological abuser, and a failed human being. The vehemence with which these scenes are written and acted was hard to watch as they dripped with unchecked racialized self-righteousness that we as the audience are supposed to overlook precisely because of how bad a mother Lettie Mae has actually been. Yet, these scenes do not mirror those of a woman defending an abused young women but rather smack of race hatred in which Maryann’s innocence and authority are assumed for no visible or explained reason. Her anger and constant derrogation far exceed her knowledge of the events or her actual support of Tara. Nor does her behavior enable Tara to find her own voice, define her own abuse, and confront it. Instead it silence and entraps her. Yet Tara drools on at her surrogate mother in the same way she once did with the elder Stackhouse. Again, the opportunity to actually explore abuse survivor narratives and resolution or conflict within abusive natal families is lost to uphold the overarching narrative of black pathology. Sadly, this is only slightly tempered by the fact Maryann is completely pathological herself since this is revealed long after she tears into Lettie Mae unchecked.

On the postive side, Tara’s sexual agency is a critical part of the show. In True Blood, in general, much of the story lines and the characters identities are tied up in who they have sex with, when, where, and how. Tara’s character is no different. That very fact is somewhat revolutionary since black women are often depicted asexual in movies and television in which they are not the main characters, and some times when they are the main characters. While the show has been extremely timid in its depiction of black gay male sexual relationships on the show, Tara’s character ensures that there is some equity in the depiction of heterosexual relationships on the show. (I discuss the good and the bad of homosexual relationships on the show in a different post.)

Until Maryann begins messing with her, Tara’s sexual agency shows real progress from her first introduction in Season One as the only unrequited Jason Stackhouse groupie to an adult relationship with series newcomer Eggs. Tara chooses who she likes and with whom she sleeps. And once she gets over Jason, she also ensures that her sexual needs are met even as she tries to figure out her emotional ones. Where she is played as purely unlovable in her relationship with Sam, she develops the ability to discuss her feelings and her needs and work on needed compromises in her relationship with Eggs. Eggs willingness to do the same, makes the relationship between them one of the most mature of the entire season and the show in general. It also a pleasant counter narrative to the stereotypical depiction of black couples as non-existent or violent, but only for a while.

Unfortunately, Tara’s relationship with Eggs is also marred by Maryann’s racialized interference. While she manipulates all of the townspeople into having sex against their will and in perverse ways (someone actually has sex with a tree at one point), she takes perverse pleasure out of making the black characters in town mix their sex with violence. Thus the same woman who dares to position herself above Tara’s mother because Lettie Mae beat her, has Eggs beat Tara while she watches. Worse, she uses magic to make Tara laps it up and beg for more. They are the only couple to whom Maryann makes this happen. In other words, the director and writers subject the audience to drawn out domestic and sexual violence scenes between Eggs and Tara in which Tara plays objectification loving black female to Eggs violent black male. Also, while all of the couples engage in sex acts forced upon them by Maryann’s presence, no other couple is depicted in increasingly bestial rape scenes in which the female partner has expressly said no before hand.

Maryann also uses this same magic to have Eggs kill people for her. Despite being able to manipulate anyone she wants and having the entire police department at her disposal, as well as being superhuman herself, Eggs is the only person she manipulates into committing murder. The number Eggs has killed under her sway is never revealed but several scenes imply there are many victims. When he discovers this, he goes to confess and is murdered by Jason Stackhouse who, of course, thinks he is a violent criminal. Like the underlining narrative of the show itself that perpetually connects black characters with violence, Jason’s white normativity makes him assume that Eggs is violent and so he shoots him. The tragedy actualized far too many times in real life in North America is played out in close up for True Blood viewers’ entertainment, just like Tara’s rape and brutal beatings.

Sisterhood?

And where is Tara’s best friend when all of this is unfolding? In season One, Sookie Stackhouse actually steals Tara’s boyfriend, not because she wants him but because of a sense of entitlement. Even though Sookie is dating Bill and has no desires for Sam, when she finds out about Tara and Sam she has the nerve to ask him if the relationship is real. For some unexplained reason, she just can’t wrap her mind around why Same would date Tara instead of pine for her. And though she has never actually dated Sam, and does not think the relationship he has with Tara means anything, she actually gives Tara permission to continue dating him. Again, some how she seems to have the right to decide what is real and what isn’t and who her black best friend can and cannot date, even though she was already doing it at the time.

Why does Sookie have the right to judge their relationship, let alone give permission for it? And if she has given permission than why does she ultimately take Sam back like a pair of borrowed socks she sees on the floor of Tara’s room? Asking these questions requires a racialized lens that subverts the centrality of the main female character of the show in order to see how identification with her excuses both patriarchy-serving gendered competition between heterosexual women and gendered racism that erases black women’s desires in order to not only privilege white women’s desires.

When Bill leaves town, Sam not only comes a runnin’ but Sookie takes Sam back first as an interested friend and then as a lover without ever asking about the impact on Tara. Like the friendship that Stefan Salvatore has with Bonnie Bennett, black women’s agency only matters to these sympathetic main characters in as much as it does not get in the way of what they want or feel they are entitled to. And like so many other shows where black people simply fade into the background when included at all, Tara disappears for several episodes while Sam and Sookie hook up. When she re-enters, there are no recriminations for Sookie’s behavior nor judgment for Sam. Tara simply agrees with Sam that they had nothing going on anyway. Tara’s decision serves two purposes, to reinforce the idea of her character as unlovable, which is underpinned by her low self-esteem and subsequent inability to fight for her relationship, and to re-establish racial hierarchies that permeate the narrative of the first season. (It should be noted that this narrative is not only present between black and white people in Bon Temps but also in the subtle differences in which white and Creole characters are developed, so that racial hierarchies in the show follow distinctly colonial gradations that place upperclass European whiteness at the top even as the narrative centers a working class white female character.)

Now ask yourself, why does Sookie think she has the right to give Tara permission to date Sam but no one thinks Sookie should ask Tara before she sleeps with her boyfriend?

Sookie is also absent in Season Two when Tara is seduced by Maryann. While this is due largely to her trip out of town with Bill and a completely separate story line that unfolds as a result, Sookie is in town when Maryann arrives and Tara is Sookie’s roommate when she leaves town. Before Sookie leaves town she registers several red flags about Maryann and does attempt to get Tara away from her influence. However, just like how Elena’s obsession with Stefan causes her to put him first at a critical moment for the Bennet women in Vampire Diaries, Sookie’s obsession with Bill ensures she does not follow up with Tara before it is too late.  She does not ask Tara what is going on and does not call to check on Tara prior to when Sookie gets kidnapped and has her own showdown to deal with. At least Elena Gilbert actually does look out for Bonnie Bennett most of the time. Even when her self-absorption costs Bonnie’s grandmother her life, Elena eventually goes over to check on Bonnie and will likely lend her comfort when the season returns. Sookie shows no similar compassion for Tara until it is far too late. And if the promos for the third season are any indication, her lack of compassion based on the centering of her own desires and the negation of Tara’s only deepens as the series continues.

When Sookie finally does return to Bon Temps and is alerted, by Tara’s relatives, to the Tara’s demise, Sookie is positioned as the Angel on high vis-a-vis Tara’s demon possession. Like a bad Beneton ad, Sookie pours out the light while Tara growls black eyed. Sookie manages to save Tara through some untapped magical goodness inside only to stand in judgment of Tara’s commitment to save Eggs. She seems horrified that Tara wants to go back for Eggs as if the life of her black boyfriend is some how less relevant than the life of either Bill, who Sookie has risked her life for on more than one occasion, or Sam, who Sookie will risk her life for before the end of the season.

Ask yourself how many times Sookie has put her life on the line for Bill or Eric, neither of whom were under the spell of a woman forcing them to beat, rape, and kill people. Why is Eggs life less important?

Like Maryann, Sookie also has harsh words for Tara’s mother, who, in recognizing the equal humanity of black characters to white ones, is swayed by tara’s argument that somebody must save Eggs. She judges Lettie Mae’s need to bond with Tara after so much abuse with complete disregard for both the underlining repositioning of black subjecthood, ie black lives matter, and the reality that while Sookie was off making sure Bill’s friends were helped, Lettie Mae was the only one who was trying to save Tara from Maryann. The irony is lost on her and is written in such a way as to ensure it is also lost on the audience. Just in case, they also have Lafayette tear into Lettie Mae with complete disregard for Eggs’ life or Tara’s love.

It takes a profound level of cognitive dissonance to watch these scenes and imagine Sookie as Tara’s savior both in terms of the action of the season and in contrast to Tara’s caretaking of Sookie when her grandmother dies in the previous season. Like Bonnie in the Vampire Diaries, Tara takes the friendship to heart in ways that Sookie fails to do. While some of this is about the intoxication of new love Sookie feels, much of it is inexplicable when you add up the amount of abuse and abandonment Tara has been left to deal with in the wake of limited to no support from her best friend.

Conclusion

The depictions of black womanhood on this show are offensive at best and at worse they underscore much of the negative stereotypes about black women in N. American society. If you couple the depiction of black women with the stereotypical images of both black straight and gay men in this show, it isn’t hard to understand why the producers chose to include historical footage of a Klan rally in the opening credits despite no characters in the Klan on True Blood. The juxtaposition of depraved and abusive black women with magical white women caretakers whose sexual agency is always to their benefit, plays out like a bad John Mayer interview. Gone from the adult world of vampires is a real commitment to sisterhood in action, though still present in word. And while the black family in True Blood has survived two seasons while the black family in Vampire Diaries is hanging on a thread, it is clear that to truly enjoy True Blood one has to divorce it from any critical race and racialized gender analysis.

At the same time, Rutina Wesley and Adina Porter, who plays Lettie Mae, turn in powerful performances as mother and daughter. Both infuse the characters with as much critical gaze and irony as they can. In less capable hands, both of these characters would be even more offensive. Instead Wesley and Porter constantly raise the bar and attempt to re-center the gaze while working with material which I would argue is decidedly anti-black female personhood. I don’t know if that is a good thing or not, but I do know that Rutina Wesley has consistently shown the acting chops to do much better things in the future and the popularity of True Blood can only help to make that happen.

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  • How She Move/MTV/ 2007
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • Fan Pic/hyrulebranch
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2009

BHM: The Women of Vampire Diaries

Before the John Mayer debacle broke on Wednesday, I had been planning to do a slightly fluffy Black Herstory/Latinegras post on the black diasporic connections embodied by the family of witches on the Vampire Diaries. The post was fluffy, but I had a critical race feminism point. (see footnote one for more) It is broken into two parts: analysis of the black female characters on the show and praise for the black diasporic actresses who played them, and marked accordingly. Even if you don’t care about the show and its meanings for black female representation in television take some time out to read the second part on the amazing black actresses who play the roles.

The Plot and the Characters:

Vampires are hot, or so sayeth the media. Since True Blood took HBO’s ratings to new heights and Twilight sent tweens and their parents into uncritical swooning fits, Vampires have dominated television, film, and published Young Adult fiction. Despite the rush to capitalize on the vampire craze, many of these projects have failed to garner the attention of break outs like True Blood and Vampire Diaries (which is based on a YA series). These two shows have dominated the ratings amongst their age groups and represent key anchors in the line up for their respective networks. Both blend vampire lore with other supernatural forces and the strong bond between a lead actress and an apologetic vampire lover that seem to be critical to the fan base, and both have a black family amidst their main characters, but that is where the similarities end.  While True Blood offers us a dysfunctional black family riddled with racial stereotype and storylines that often capitalize on both a racialized and sexualized gaze, Vampire Diaries offers an alternative vision of blackness as critical to the town’s success.

Thus in the small town of Mystic Falls, the popular kids, the stoners, and the vampires (all mostly white) are joined by a matriarchy of witches, all of whom are black. Like the white families in this small town, the Bennetts can trace their heritage back to the founding of Mystic Falls and also like them, the Bennett’s friendships and relationships are entwined with all of the prominent families in town. Though this seems like an obvious way to build character development and ensure cohesion of story lines, Vampire Diaries like True Blood stand out precisely because they tied the main black character’s histories and story lines to the main white ones rather than using the add black people and stir method. In most television programs black characters’ story lines only go back as far as their present friendship with a white character, they often have more relationships outside of town and off screen than on them, and they often represent the only person of color or the only black person on the show. All of these factors help make it easy to write black characters out of multiple episodes in a season or drop their story lines all together; in the worst versions of this, black people simply disappear one day without the writers or the show ever explaining where they went. And while True Blood has come dangerously close to permanently splitting the story lines between white and black characters that facilitates this process, after such a promising start, the same cannot be said for Vampire Diaries, where not only do the humans have important generational connections, but the supernatural characters are dependent on their connections to one another.

The fate of Bennetts (the black witches) and the Salvatores (the white upper class vampires) were forged through persecution. At the center of both their stories is an ancient vampire named Katherine, played by Easter European actress Nina Dobrev. For love of Katherine, the Salvatore brothers become vampires just before the Mystic Falls vampire massacre led by their father, while Bonnie Bennett’s Great Grandmother Emily arrived in town as part of the famed vampire Katherine’s entourage.  While Katherine and the other female vampires in the town successful insert themselves as prominent Ladies (title not gender) in the town, Emily Bennett is left to play servant. She moves amongst the then-young/human Salvatore brothers with an ease that shows their respect for her and while she maintains her servant role, Katherine’s references to her invaluable interventions speaks to her import amongst the vampires as well. When the town’s people rise up against the vampires, Damon Salvatore asks Emily Bennett to save the vampires’ lives. In his mind, and that of his brother Steffan, Emily Bennett casts a spell that saves the brothers and the vampires at his request; however, her spell gives both families their freedom. Emily is set free from the servant role she plays vis-a-vis Katherine’s class aspirations and the Salvatores should be set free from their blinding love for Katherine. Emily’s magic also seemingly binds the two families together in ways that has often protected both their lives through generations.

For Damon Salvatore, the Bennetts represent power he both needs and coerces to his own ends, while for Stefan the Bennetts are important allies against any number of supernatural evils, including in the vampire ranks. While from the perspective of the Salvatores, the Bennetts fulfill the traditional role of black women in the white imaginary, as Saphires and caretakers for their hopes and dreams, rather than subjects with their own agency, the Bennetts are far from stereotype. In fact, not only do the flashback episodes (“History Repeating”, “The Turning Point”, and “Bloodlines”) call into question how the humans learned of herbal defenses against the vampires, something a witch would certainly know, but when Damon first attempts to free the vampires from the spell Emily cast to keep them from dying in the town’s genocidal burning attempt, Emily returns from the dead to stop him. It seems her goal was not just to save the lives of the vampires but also the humans whom they would have extracted vengeance upon. Further, Emily lets Damon know that she has seen how he has threatened and harassed her family throughout the generations and that he cannot win. Though the youngest Bennett, Bonnie, has barely come to know her powers and is taken hostage by Emily’s possession of her, she too stands up to Damon to ensure that she and her family are not manipulated or abused by him. Finally, as Shiela Bennett warns Stefan, in “Bloodlines”, “I will help you but if it comes to a choice between you and Bonnie, I will protect my own.” In other words, the witches are willing to help out but they are not objects for the Salvatores to move across the chessboard of their own making; the Bennetts make their own destinies and their own choices and ultimately determine their own subjecthood and agency. And while Stefan Salvatore is clearly protective of Bonnie and treats all of the Bennett women with respect, Sheila Bennett’s warning also reminds us that Stefan’s kindness still does not completely translate to seeing the Bennetts as equally important in his struggle with his brother Damon.

Unfortunately, the repeated powerful agency of the Bennett women begins to wane in the serious as Damon enacts vengeance on several of the Bennett women. Though Emily is able to best Damon magically and ensure that her will remains unbroken, Damon repays her defiance with a violent banishing of her soul and an attempt on the life of her grand-daughter. This penchant to murder Bennetts for failing to do what he wants, will ultimately decimate the Bennett line before the end of Black History Month. In what will likely be seen as a throwaway episode in the franchise, Damon takes Stefan’s girlfriend Elena, to visit Bree Bennett, played by Cuban-American actress Gina Torres. As “Bloodlines” unfolds, we find out that Damon found and wooed Bree Bennett in college, failing to tell her that he knew exactly who she was and that his love/attraction to her was a mask to get her to do help him let Katherine out of the tomb in which her ancestor Emily had sealed her. And though we are told that Bree considers Damon the love of her life, we are not told why they broke up, only that he cannot be trusted. Since Bree is the one who told Damon how to do the ritual that brought Emily back to protect the spell in the first place, we can only imagine that part of Bree’s broken heart is related to Damon’s obvious manipulation of her.

Bree is no victim however. While she pretends to entertain Damon, she is secretly helping to get him drunk and off guard so another vampire can kill him. She sets him up for heartlessly killing Stefan’s best-friend, a 300 year old white female vampire who poses no threat to the Salvatores except that she encourages Stefan’s independence. When Damon discovers the ruse, Bree also makes it known that she takes the same vervain that the humans who hunted down Katherine miraculously “discovered” in the past.

There are two ways to interpret Bree’s actions and her ultimate fate. On the one hand, while Bree never paid Damon back for whatever emotional, and potentially physical and sexual, violence he has done to her in the past, she risks her life to make him pay for killing her white female friend following a mammy narrative that disregards abuse against black women for the safety and comfort of white ones. On the other hand, Bree’s final stand can be interpreted as her fially coming into her own against Damon’s abusiveness and showing female solidarity. In other words, Bree had to come through whatever abusive history she had with Damon first, in order to find the strength to fight back; often we think of empowered, strong, women as exempt from cycles of violence and the emotional scars that come with them, but DSV crosses all classes and all types of women and Torres infuses Bree with a knowing reticence that speaks to this history even where the writers have failed to provide it. If we see Bree as a survivor, then we can also interpret her actions in “Bloodlines” as an attempt to ensure that Damon is not able to perpetrate against any other women, vampire, witch, or human, ever again.

Unfortunately for Bree, the assassination fails. Damon kills Bree by reaching into her chest and pulling out her still beating heart. The implication is that Damon is crushed by her betrayal because a part of him loved her and that he thinks her attempted murder was heartless and her inability to help him save Katherine has ripped out his heart. But again, that version of the story requires the centering of Damon and his desires over those of the women he continues to manipulate and/or kill. Both Bree and Emily understood that where they had shown love and compassion to Damon he could only repay in violence and thus had to be stopped. It was not an expression of Damon’s broken heart then that caused him to tear out Bree’s but rather a visual reminder of how Damon expresses his own disappointment and desire for dominance through emotional violence and manipulation of women’s desires often culminating in murder. Thus watching “Bloodlines”through the lens of intersectionality moves us away from a throwaway “road trip” bonding episode between Damon and Elena into the realm of powerful commentary on how we, as women, especially young women, are conditioned to interpret abusive behavior as love and obsession as praise. If you are inclined to see Damon as tragic the way Elena does despite all of the violence she saw him enact on her own friend, Caroline Forbes, in this episode, the image of Bree’s still beating heart in Damon’s bloody fist, reminds: He’ll tear out your heart, if you let him.

Bree’s senseless death marks the beginning of a critical shift in the discourse of female power represented by the Bennett women. For all their magic, Damon continues to kill them. Bree casts no spells, she places no protections around herself, her bar, or the vampire she calls to kill Damon. Outside of drinking vervain “every day since [he] left”, Bree does nothing but beg Damon to let her live. Unlike Emily, who stands defiant against Damon at the tomb, Bree’s last breaths are choked out through sobs begging for her life.

In “Fool Me Once”, the final episode before the current hiatus, Sheila Bennett, played by the formidable Jasmine Guy, also dies because of Damon’s quest to free Katherine. The strongest of the Bennetts, Sheila agrees to help Stefan and Damon free Katherine in the hopes of ending Damon’s reign of terror against her family. Though she warns Stefan again that her help will not supersede her commitment to her family, both brothers rush in as if their desires are the only relevant ones at play. However, they soon discover that Sheila’s warnings are never idle and that the Bennett women are never just pawns in vampire games. While Sheila promised to open the door to the tomb, she never promised to lift the curse that keeps vampires inside it and thus when Damon rushes in to get Katherine, he should end up trapped forever.

Though the Bennett women should finally have been free from the menace of rogue vampires, Stefan also enters the tomb against warning to save Elena who he fears is being drained by an Asian-American vampire named Pearl, also trapped in the tomb. Though Sheila warns him against it and feels no remorse for the choice he makes, the youngest Bennett, Bonnie, begs her to let him out. When Sheila refuses, Bonnie, like Bree, puts her friendship with Elena over that of everything else and tries to work the magic on her own. In an act of female and familial solidarity, Sheila helps her, echoing a tradition of joining magic across generations of black women in the show.

Despite great risk, the two remaining Bennetts work the ancient magic needed to free Stefan from the tomb. Had he exited the tomb with Elena, this act of solidarity would not only have upheld the bonds of women within and outside of the Bennett family on the show but also ensured the ongoing love story between Steffan Salvatore and Elena upon which the show hinges. However, with little regard to the lives of the two black women holding the magic at bay, Elena gives Stefan permission to go back into the tomb to find Damon because her word to a manipulative and often abuse vampire matters more to her than the friendship with and the lives of the black women who put their lives on the line to save her boyfriend. Stefan, who was prepared to be trapped forever only moments before, rushes back into the tomb to save his brother with equal disregard for the weakening witches reminding us of why Sheila keeps her distance from both Salvatore brothers.

Like Bree, only a few episodes before, the Bennett women’s cross-racial feminism is repaid by death. By episode end, Damon, Stefan, and Elena are free and primarily worrying about each other. Pearl and her daughter Ana are also free; though once again, Damon shows up and threatens them, almost crushing the life out of Pearl, because he didn’t get what he wanted. The weakened Bennetts go home with a simple “thank you”, and while Elena goes to check on her bestfriend, after taking care of herself and her boyfriend first, Stefan makes no similar gesture. As evening turns into night, Sheila, the most powerful of the Bennett witches, dies from the expenditure of magic it took to hold the door open for the Salvatore brothers. Three black women gone, two in the course of black history month, all walking a very thin line between subject and object.

What started out as a powerful commentary on black female strength and a critical counterpoint to the weakness and obsession shown by many of the younger female characters in the show, regardless of race, ends with a dignified whimper.

The Actresses and the Diaspora:

Not only does the Bennett family initially offer us a critical intervention into the increasingly eurocentric vampire folklore and a media machine that sees black women as tangential if at all, its existence also offers the opportunity to see powerful black female actresses infusing the roles with both feminism and to some extent race consciousness. Just as three generations of Bennetts are shown on screen, the actresses who play them also represent three generations of black women. The casting of the characters also gives us an opportunity to see the diaspora at work, as two of the actresses are Latinegras/Afra-Latina, one is Black British/African and the other is an African American.

Jasmine Guy

I was actually drawn to the Vampire Diaries because of the re-emergence of Jasmine Guy on the show. Guy, who is African-American and Portuguese, is best known for her role as bourgeois Whitley Gilbert on a Different World. She infused the character with such elitest flair that I actually despised Guy, the actress, for some time. And yet, anyone who watched that show, also witnessed Guy transform Whitley from a stereotype of the light-skinned black bourgeoisie into a complex character with insecurities, heart ache, and compassion.

After a series of guest appearances on black sitcoms, including a powerful role as a therapist to Khadija, played by Queen Latifah, on Living Single, where she helped Khadija come to terms with her mental health issues and how “strong black women” are encouraged not to take care of their mental health, Guy returned to serialized tv on Dead Like Me. While her character in Dead Like Me, Roxy Harvey, was also largely a stereotype of the angry black woman, Guy infused the character with just enough pathos and compassion to elevate it out of stereotype.

Having watched her expand so many black female roles into complex meditations on the lives of varied black women, I can’t help but think of Jasmine Guy as a modern Hattie McDaniel. For those who do not know, Hattie McDaniel was instrumental in transforming the role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. While the character remained largely mired by stereotype, McDaniel refused to say several of the more offensive lines in the original script, successfully getting them removed at a time when black female actresses had even less power in Hollywood than they do now. McDaniel’s also managed to work in double consciousness readings of several of her lines and unscripted appearances in that otherwise extremely offensive film “classic”, and was rewarded for her talent as the first African-American woman and person to win an Academy Award. If Guy were given the right vehicles, I think she could become one of less than a handful of black women who have been awarded in this way.

Her ability to transform characters no doubt also stems from her commitment to black women’s empowerment. Among the many speaking engagements she has done to encourage black women and girls to follow their dreams and love themselves, Guy collaborated with Afeni Shakur to write one of a handful of black female panther memoirs, Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary. Thus it comes as no surprise that Jasmine Guy’s Sheila Bennett was a powerhouse on Vampire Diaries despite being given so few lines. Each time Guy graced the screen, she infused Sheila Bennett with compassion and care for the women and girls of the show and strength beyond measure against the men who would manipulate and potentially abuse them. Though most of her time on the show amounted to a few lines uttered through a cracked door way, Guy made Sheila sing with strength and race and feminist consciousness. When Stefan Salvatore waxes poetic about his memories of her oratory skills during the Civil Rights Movement, it comes across as genuine rather than pathetic chronology which always reduces blackness to either slavery or civil rights in this country, precisely because of Guy’s presence in the role. And when she steps outside her house to stare down Damon Salvatore, I actually stopped breathing. The way she put him in check with one glance spoke volumes about the potential for female power on the show and for Guy to transform and lead the female characters around her.

Gina Torres

Watching Jasmine Guy die on Vampire Diaries was like a knife through the heart, as the last death of the established strong black women actresses on the show, she left behind only new comer Katerina Graham to fill the void. However, Guy was at least given time to infuse her character with such strength and determination that she became invaluable to the storyline and at least my connection to the show, beyond an academic interest. Gina Torres, on the other hand, was largely wasted talent on the show.

Gina Torres, an Afra-Latina of Cuban descent, played Bree Bennett in a single episode during black history month. Despite only having the one show to work with, Torres brought her immense strength and humor to the character and the show. Her Bree exuded sexuality and power, humor and flirtatiousness, and a quiet strength that was only undermined in the last few minutes of the character’s life. Two moments speak to her considerable talent in this episode: the way she managed to show solidarity with Elena, warning her about the company that she kept with body language and inflection in dialogue that in less capable hands would never have brought the two women’s story lines together, and the fact she managed to make Ian Somerhalder look taller in the scenes where they flirted and menacing/able to best her in the scene where he ultimately kills her despite being several inches taller and more muscular than he.

Despite the fact I know they won’t, I can only hope they bring Torres back in flashback sequences. She has a long list of scifi and fantasy credits under her belt, including the critically acclaimed Firefly, Alias, Angel, and Matrix series. Whether in hit or miss television shows or films, Torres has always been a powerful presence on screen. She infuses her characters with strength, humor, loyalty, and knowledge that makes her stand out in even the smallest of roles. And what some may not know is she is also a theater actress, who has appeared in stage productions like Antigone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Dreamgirls.

Like Guy, Torres also brings considerable socio-political consciousness to her roles. Prior to moving in to television, Torres worked with a theater company that brought classic plays and plays written by and about black people into low income schools in New York in order to encourage people of color to embrace the arts and see themselves reflected in them. At the same time, these performances also helped mainstream audiences learn the tradition of black theater and imagine canonized plays beyond the unspoken race orientied casting that often excludes black performers. Also like Guy, Torres has resisted the urge to play a “pretty face” on television and film despite overwhelming beauty in order to be taken seriously and to develop/use all of her considerable acting talent; subsequently, she helps show young actresses that while looks are becoming even more important in Hollywood than ever, that what really matters is your ability to act.

Gina Torres’ work not only encourages basic gender and race consciousness in tv and film, but she also helps to reverse the trend of erasing the African diasporic presence in Latin@ communities. As and Afra-Latina/Latinegra, Torres reminds mainstream audiences of the diversity of the Latin@ community and Latin@s of our mixed heritage. She also provides Afra-latinas themselves the chance to see one of their own succeeding in Hollywood as a beautiful and powerful woman. This impact is immeasurable.

Katerina Graham

I can only imagine what it was like for African-Swiss “new comer” Katerina Graham to work with these two women (if in fact she was able to meet Torres, with whom she shared no scenes). Guy, who played her mentor and grandmother on the show, no doubt also mentored her off screen as well.

I recently pointed out that Katerina Graham could easily have graced the cover of the Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” edition. She began her entertainment career at the age of 6, starring in a series of commercials before landing several roles on Disney shows known for making tween stars, including Hannah Montana. Disney was committed enough to her to offer her a major role in their remake of 17 Again, which though it flopped helped her land the Vampire Diaries.

What you may not know, is that Katerina also has a successful music and dancing career amongst the international tween market. She has danced on the BET Awards and as back up to artists like Missy Elliot, whose choreographer is universally critically acclaimed. While it isn’t music I would listen to it is certainly no less insipid than Cyrus or Swift. Her collaborative work continues work with the Black Eye Peas, Will.I.Am and Snoop. One of her first songs was featured in a blockbuster film. More important, she is a self-taught engineer and producer. After her first few songs broke, Graham decided to buy her own studio and learn that production end of music in order to empower her own craft and that of other young artists. She later went on to complete a degree in music engineering before reaching her 17th birthday.

Her role as the youngest Bennett on the Vampire Diaries represents a critical shift away from the unofficial whites-only policy that seems to dominate the casting of teen and tween shows on the CW network. Graham plays the bestfriend of the main character, Elena, on the show and also the youngest witch on the show. Her character follows in the footsteps of the other young women on the show in being concerned about fitting in and dating that is both typical of the age group and yet handled by the show in ways that is largely miss in terms of female empowerment. Graham’s character Bonnie, much like Caroline Forbes, often makes the wrong choices in love and finds herself on the receiving end of mental and physical abuse or disdain. During black history month, she was beaten, kidnapped, and ridiculed by the boy she liked for being “so needy”; but that is pretty much par for the course for the young women on this show, with the exception of Elena and Ana.

Graham’s character actually has some of the most potential on the show. As a new witch who was just learning how to use her powers, she has the ability to grow and develop into a powerful presence in the town. Stefan Salvatore has already showed considerable interest in helping her develop her powers and stay safe from Damon’s unfair influence; though as I noted in the first part of this post, one cannot assume his interest is completely altruistic. It is also disconcerting that the show’s producers decided to leave a vacuum in Bonnie’s education by killing off her grandmother that will now be filled by Stefan. Not only does reinsert a master narrative of race and gender, but it severs the important storyline about shared female power and powerful family ties in the black community.

Bianca Lawson

Finally, African-American Bianca Lawson rounds out the cast in the critical role of Emily Bennett. While she wasn’t really given a chance to breakout in the role, she did a great job of playing both a subtle background character in the flashback sequences and a powerful presence in the tomb sequences against Damon. Both she and Graham collaborated well to pull of a possession that was partially acted by Graham and partially by Lawson. Lawson has over 37 television and film credits during her long career as a child star turned young adult actress. She has appeared in a number of television roles including her brief stint as Kendra, the racially problematic slayer on Buffy, and is set to appear on ABC Family, an affiliate of Disney’s, as 1 of 4 main characters in Pretty Little Liars, a YA book series turned tv program. Should the show do well, Lawson may finally be poised for her big break.

Conclusions

While I am sure the casting agents at the CW do not pay nearly as much attention to ethnicity as I do as a teacher and published author on race and media, it was nice to see them include such a wide range of the black diaspora in their show. For young black women watching, it provided them not only with the rare chance to see talented black women doing there thing on a popular tv show but also to find their unique reflections in one or more of the actresses. The only thing missing in their casting decisions was the use of dark-skinned black actresses along side these talented, and mostly bi-racial, women. By casting astute and gifted actresses who took their roles very seriously, they also ensured that even the smallest parts would resonate along both feminist and race consciousness lines while appealing to a wide range of the audience.

Now that the black history month cleansing of black folk on Vampire Diaries has come to an end, it will be interesting to see if they retain Bonnie as a central character or shove her to the side like that black kid from Smallville. While I still believe the show has done more for ensuring the presence of positive black characters, played by strong black actresses, than many other shows on tv, I can’t help but be concerned about the recent loss of so many of them coupled with the rise of the black male demon image in the final moments of “Fool Me Once.” For now, I am just grateful to see so many amazing black women in major roles on the show and the reinsertion of diversity into both the CW tween market and the vampire folklore as depicted by modern television and film.

——

footnotes

  1. My goal in writing this post had actually been to use the tween-oriented People’s Choice Award winner for Best New Show as a launching point for talking about the diaspora and setting the stage for a contrasting piece about the treatment of blackness and black families in popular vampire television. The post was partially inspired by my post, Do You See What I see the Black Herstory edition, on the Vanity Fair white washing of “young Hollywood”. It was also an attempt to reconcile the differences between a show that most of my contemporaries find entertaining and frothy, while failing to address the overarching racial messages embedded within, and a show that is universally mocked outside of its age demographic that openly chooses to avoid these messages. Unfortunately, in the two days that the post waited on the shelf in my brain, the realities of blackness on Vampire Diaries radically changed. In the course of just 3 episodes, all aired in February, the black matriarchy on the show has been reduced to one survivor; two of three black women, both played by Afra-Latinas, have died or been killed in the service of the white male leads. Another member of the matriarchy, who was already dead, was also re-killed last month. And while brutal murder is an essential part of the vampire lore of the show, the death of 3 of 4 central black characters to the show, espec in February, raise major questions about the shows actual commitment to diversity; what ultimately clenched it for me was that last night’s show ended with the resurrection of the black demon/black male rapist as a cliffhanger for their second mid-season hiatus.

images

  • Unpleasantville episode Guy D’alema/The CW
  • Children of the Damned. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
  • History Repeating. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
  • Bloodlines. Guy D’Alema/The CW
  • Fool Me Once. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
  • Unpleasantville. Guy D’Alema/The CW
  • Bonnie and Grams cast spell. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
  • Jasmine Guy/unattributed
  • Gina Torres/unattributed
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer/WB/unattributed

BHM: Marcus Books knowledge is power

Marcus Books is the oldest and still thriving bookstores dedicated to African American and black authors. It has been serving the Bay area for 50 years and has survived the gentrification of their neighborhood when so few other black owned businesses ever do. More important for African American herstory, Marcus Books was co-founded by Raye Richardson, along with her husband, and she continues to be committed to the store’s success. Currently, Marcus Books is run by her two daughters, Blanche Richardson and Karen Johnson who most store patrons credit as being the most knowledgeable people about black books they have ever met. Rounding out this matriarchy of black female booksellers/owners is Johnson’s daughter Tamiko who already helps out in the bookstore and will likely be in charge of it when her mother and aunt pass it on.

The store focuses on history and literature by and about African Americans from children’s literature to adult fiction and is named after black national Marcus Garvey. Both Richardson and her husband grew up in households heavily influenced by Garvey’s writing and Raye credits black nationalism as one of the reasons she had such a thirst for black books. As she grew up, she found herself lending her books out to all of her friends, who were also having a hard time finding or being exposed to new black books. The bookstore idea came from both the need to have ready access to books and to allow avid readers to retain their copies; you see, like me, when Richardson lent out her books, she almost never got them back because people loved them so much.

The bookstore marks a critical and long term intervention into the narrow publishing and stocking traditions of publishing houses and bookstores by refusing to ghettoize African American literary production. As one store patron put it:

” Years ago I grew tired of looking for books in the ‘African American Section’ of Borders or B[arnes] &N[oble] only to be inundated with trashy Black novels about a man who ain’t “no good” and the Sistah strong enought [sic] to love him.” – Jabir F

As many of us know, this and historical books about slavery are about all you can get on the shelves of mainstream bookstores. And if you want something on black women and empowerment or black women and feminism, you will neither find it in the WS section nor in the AFAm section unless it is a chapter in a book about [white women and] feminism in general or church women or a civil rights picture book respectively. Thus mainstream bookstores’ ordering policies work to erase a wide range of black intellectual thought and to perpetuate urban fantasies and the erasure of black women feminists and pro-woman movements.

Another patron explains his trouble in finding two popular biographies at the chain stores and how Marcus Books filled in the gap:

After much back and forth, I finally decided to purchase either Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story or The Pact for my ninth grade mentees.  So I hit my usual haunts Borders – “if we have it will be in the African-American section located on the second floor rear corner.” Bad sign.  Some 50 years post Rosa and we are still riding the back of the bus. “Most likely we don’t have it and can order it and have it in a couple of days.”

I call Stacey’s ask them about both books.  “I haven’t heard of The Pact and Gifted Hands is the that by Robbins?”

“The Pact, about 3 Newark doctors who made a pact to finish school, to become doctors, and to return to help the community.  Gifted Hands by and about Dr. Ben Carson, who escaped the mean streets of Detroit to become a gifted peds neurosurgeon.”

“Don’t have it, we can order it.”

“I need to find me an ethnic bookstore.”

“Good-bye.” Click.

One google search later, I find Marcus Books in Oakland.  “The Pact, about the doctors, they have another book coming out; we hope to have them back when they do their book tour.  Yes, we have two copies.  I don’t see that we have Gifted Hands in stock but I will call our San Francisco store…Yes, they have both books.”

Marcus Book Store I love you.  Like the big chain stores, Marcus has the technical, historical context books that white professionals like to read to understand the ways of black folk, but unlike the big chains and the “other local bookstores,” Marcus actually has general interest books, books about people, poetry, and every type of book by, about or for [black people that] you would find in Borders except [Borders only has these books about white people]. – Ralph C

This story is all too familiar to most of us. What is disconcerting about it is less that the books weren’t stocked, as we all should have expected that, but that these books were mainstream titles (meaning they were published by publishers these chains order from) and yet unknown to anyone working at the store. Worse, when mildly confronted about their absence, the response was not “we can order it” but to simply hand up on the potential buyer.

And while mainstream bookstores have failed to represent a wide range of black authors and historic and contemporary events, black bookstores have often had limited, aging, and male-centric selections that make them unappealing to the average browser and the discerning feminist reader. According to another book patron at Marcus books however, they have not fallen into this trap:

Aside from the late Karibu chain in DC/MD, in the past I’ve been disappointed by the offerings of black bookstores. But this place has a GREAT selection, even of hard to find books (I needed an older Percival Everett joint for a last minute gift, and couldn’t find it ANYWHERE except Marcus Books).  They had everything i wanted, some things I didn’t know I wanted (like Zora Neale Hurston’s writeup of her ethnographic work on voodoo), and offered to order anything I couldn’t find. – Jakeya C

And while many of the guest speakers at Marcus Books have been male authors and intellectuals, they also have a thriving number of up and coming and established female authors who have spoken or had book readings at the store.

I’ve seen Nikki Giovanni and Octavia Butler read here, to a room full of people of color, mostly Black folks. Need I say more? – Rona F

Marcus Books is also implicated in a larger narrative of African American history in the Bay area. During the 1950s, the bookstore shared the building with Jimbo’s Bop City, a famous Jazz club. Artists such as John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Art Tatum would stop by the store before late night jam sessions. They also featured talks by Elison (a classmate of Richardson’s husband), Baldwin, and Malcom X as well as contemporary movers and shakers in the black literary scene like Angelou and Morrison. The bookstore also embraces contemporary fiction, including urban fiction which they see as potentially an observation on the plight of working class and subsistence level black youth in a setting that both booksellers and readers can easily identify (way to make something subversive, no?), and the authors writing it.

While Marcus Books is small, housing only 6000 volumes, it also manages to keep several of the most high demand books in stock and on the shelves according to patrons. This is extremely important to readers of black literature because Marcus Books circumvents the unfair tax mainstream stores’ “we can order it” places on their customers. By unfair tax, I mean not only potentially monetary cost but also emotional tax, ie:

  1. unlike white readers or readers looking for books by/for/about white people, black readers and ppl with interest in black books have to wait 5-14 business days to get a book they are interested in reading
  2. if the person is unable to return to the store to pick up their books or chooses to buy online out of frustration, they have to pay shipping and handling when mainstream white readers do not
  3. readers of black books almost always have to ask for help in the hopes of finding a book and as a result run the risk of being hung up on or the in person equivalent like the story quoted above
  4. even when they are not hung up on these book searches often include the tiring task of having to explain repeatedly what the book is and what it is about, even when the book is a popular paperback, which reinforces the idea that black literature and black lives are less important
  5. while mainstream white readers can spend hours roaming the stacks of any mainstream bookstore only to stumble upon a book they have never heard of but soon becomes their favorite, readers of black books have 1 small shelf to look through meaning they will likely never be exposed to the wide array of black books available to them in a bookstore

The last of the above list is critical for two reasons:

  1. the ongoing lack of exposure to a wide array of black books for patrons of bookstores (regardless of their interests)
  2. the reinforcing failure to buy a substantial number of black books b/c no one knows about them that the publishers and bookstores use for neither publishing nor stocking black books

The availability of inventory at Marcus books has not only been helpful to regular readers but also to academics. Several of the patrons attesting to the import of Marcus books were students or teachers/professors all of whom claimed Marcus Books has been invaluable to their own reading and their teaching. As one graduate student put it:

Marcus is responsible for more than half of my cherished book collection. – Jamila N

And one principal credits the bookstore with ensuring her school had a diverse lending library and curriculum for its diverse students.

For me, growing up in areas where black owned bookstores have been tiny, ratty, hovels with only a handful of ancient books and where the feminist bookstore is just as guilty of failing to stock a wide range of black women’s literature and theory as the mainstream stores, Marcus Books is an inspiration on how to get independent bookstores and black lit right. I wish anyone running a bookstore, but especially an independent feminist one, would have the opportunity to sit down with these three generations of women with 50 years of black owned bookstore knowledge behind them and ask how they can better represent black women’s intellectual production and black books in general.

Recently the store launched an online community to help customers and people outside of the Bay area stay connected (see link at top of page) as well as twitter @marcusbooks.