Today’s BHM: Ode to the White Men Who Think They Are Black

Ok, seriously, this is not a real Black History Month post and a real one will be forthcoming; yet, I could not let John Mayers comments about his relationship to both blackness and white supremacy for yet another popular magazine published in February slide and I thought we might want think about the context and not just the content.

The following quotes were first reported by Black Snob and come to me by way of Feminist Texican, and are excerpts from the February Playboy interview of John Mayer. In talking about how he sees himself and his struggle as a musician, Mayer actually mused that he was really just like an average “black dude”:

What is being black? It’s making the most of your life, not taking a single moment for granted. Taking something that’s seen as a struggle and making it work for you, or you’ll die inside. Not to say that my struggle is like the collective struggle of black America. But maybe my struggle is similar to one black dude’s.

Not only does this quote minimize the experience of racism in N. America by making it akin to a personal struggle against adversity that anyone can and has endured, by Mayer seems to realize how off base he is about racism even as he drives the metaphor home. His equation of himself with the black struggle then is predicated on a growing desire of white people to take racism out of its historical, legal, systemic, violent, ongoing context and place it in a vacuum in which it is both a thing of the past and character building. With regard to the latter, this myth-making is specific to a liberal fantasy of blackness where in white liberals envy the imagined version of blackness that is a mix of minor and excusable oppressions that ultimately creates the equally mythic “Black Culture”of their fantasies. Real black people and the atrocities they have endured in the past and continue to endure in the present are erased to leave us with a watered down mix of Marley, Huggy Bear, Thompson, and occassionally, when they are called on their crap, Obama. Racism, in their view, is reduced to a series of inconveniences that anyone endures, as Mayer says “taking something that is seen as a struggle and making it work for you.” In other words, there is no real struggle, there is a perception of struggle. And better yet, when black people don’t get seated at a restaurant they can go all Laurence Fishbourne on someone, but when white guys don’t get a promotion they just have to suck it up. See how this fantasy plays into the idea of reverse discrimination and white victimhood?

In essence, this version of blackness is reduced to the white male desire to be Lenny Kravitz for the day and miraculously confront “inconveniences” with “the race card.” Embedded in this fantasy of course is definitions of masculinity dating all the way back to eugenicism. While white males were seen as the ideal civilized men in the grand narrative of eugenicism, black men were the animalistic antithesis of white masculinity often used to justify and mask the barbarism of white male colonials. The figure of the black man, and/or black masculinity, rather than actual black men, was created as a place where white males could project and ultimately otherize their own violence and violent desires, including sexual ones we will address later. Where actual ownership and dominance of black male bodies have fallen away, ritualistic fantasies have remained in the form of sports, video games, and film.

Race fantasies cross politic boundaries. Disgraced former Governor Blagojevich also werighed in this year about being black in Esquire Magazine:

“I am blacker than Obama … I shined shoes, I grew up in a five-room apartment, and my father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived.”

Where blackness is synonymous with “badass” in hipster hate, it is synonymous with poverty and menial labor amongst older, still supposedly liberal, white men. Despite the shift in perspective, the erasure of racism in favor of the “every man” fantasy remains. Thus Blagovich sees himself as the true victim of oppression vis-a-vis black people because while Obama got an ivy education he was off shining shoes. The white man as victim here relies on your understanding of unspoken racial messages, that include the incredulity that Blagojevich feels at losing his job in the government at the same time an “uppity negro” was being made president. Whiteness should make this impossible. And investment in whiteness subsequently makes it possible to be indignant about the “unfairness” of this situation despite the fact that Obama earned his position and Blagojevich was engaged in criminal activity that cost him his; because the narrative of reverse discrimination is predicated on the assumption of white innocence regardless of fact. In both versions then racism “is seen as struggle” but the real struggle is white male survival in an emasculating world where they seemingly have no access to the “race card”.

While many people critiquing Blagojevich’s quote rallied against the ways he reduced black men to the shoe shine guy of old Hollywood, they missed the critical shift in racial narratives in which Blagojevich engaging. Like Mayer, he calls up a particular recognizable image of blackness in the white psyche and then replaces it with a white male figure. In Mayer’s version this white man is “similar to one black dude”having a bad day (the liberal version), while in Blagojevich’s version he is the oppressed Other whose struggle began with a tenuous grasp to whiteness that has now been rested away by the ever looming black aggressor (the moderate bordering on conservative version). Where Mayer imagines himself as Avatar, Blagojevich sees himself as the misunderstood helpmate of black folks who then turn on him.

In this way, he is not dissimilar to former President Clinton during the elections last year. While Clinton did not self-proclaim that he was the first black president, he certainly rode on the coattails of that distinction most of his presidency and well into the campaign of Hillary Clinton. When he diminished the success of then-candidate Obama, he not only balked at criticism of his racism and/or racialized discourse but underneath that balking was a clearly unspoken “everyone knows I’m the first black president.” And like the other two men in this category, he also relied on the growing belief that white men are the real victims in this country. Thus Clinton publicly complained that the Obama campaign had “pulled the race card on me” in response to being called out on his racism and later commented that long-time friend Senator Clyburn had benefited from all that Clinton had “done for him” but then “turned on him” and was no longer a friend.

This sense of victimization at the hands of black men was also tied to an investment in white privilege. According to the new tell all book Game Change, Bill Clinton is said to have called Teddy Kennedy to get an endorsement for Hillary Clinton. In the midst of that conversation, Clinton allegedly said:

A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.

Like Blagojevich, Clinton’s version of blackness depends on the fantasy of the “good white guy” who unlike his racist neighbors has always helped black folks as long as they “stay in their place.” Thus while Mayer access the fantasy of hyper-masculinity in the face of his own subdued hipster sense of inadequacy vis-a-vis the fantasy black man, Blagojevich and Clinton are more akin to the French in Algiers who saw themselves as kinder gentler colonials until black people dared to ask for equality and then they enacted unspeakable torture and massacred them.

If this were the end of the story, it would be bad enough. However, these colonial fantasies are not just predicated on white male fantasies about masculinity and emasculation. Instead, they also include the fetishization of black women and imagined black sexual desire. Clinton accessed these fantasies through an unspoken understanding that his cheating was part of his proximity to blackness in the same way that colonial rapists claimed they were “going native” or unduly influenced by “the overwhelming licentiousness of colonized women.” Mayer on the other hand, does a role reversal in which he moves from the most liberal of the three wannabe black men to the most conservative:

I don’t think I open myself to it [interracial relationships with black women]. My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.

In other words, while Mayer fantasizes about being a black man, his fantasy relies on theunderlining anxieties of the Birth of a Nation narrative in which his “big black cock” is used to punish white women but never ever to cross the color line. This racialized misogyny depends on not only the myth of the black rapist but also the hyper-stud that Mayer accesses through his fantasy passing. The black male body then becomes an essential layer through which he claims his manhood back from both the black people who are supposedly destabilizing his own real struggles with their perceived ones but also the white women he imagines reject him for not being man enough, as opposed to seeing him as the unappealing person he clearly is. And it is this white male fantasy of blackness that ultimately masks sexist violation of black women by white men, both with regards to actual sanctioned sexual assault and daily denigration of black women’s femininity, bodily integrity, and humanity, and similar violent denigration of white women by them, in which fantasies about black women or the fear of those fantasies often predetermine white female expression of sexuality or aid in white men’s ability to coerce or demean said expressions.

Mayer’s quote also depends on similar beliefs about black people’s place in society to those of the other two men, as he never questions the desires of black women for him. In his racialized misogynist lens, black women are always and forever available to him as white male but it is he, who determines whose sexuality matters when and where. Thus if he dates “separately from his dick”, black women will come a runnin’ with little regard to his racist preferences. Moreover, by compartmentalizing along traditional first wave feminist criticism of men, he is able to distance himself from his racism even as he compares his desires to that of a well known leading member of the Klan, at the same time he access language he believes will exempt him from critique from women.

His cognitive dissonance surrounding his sense of inadequacy that has caused him to invest in the fantasy black man and racial passing to over come his fear of women (the thread about black women in the interview came directly after a discussion about how Mayer goes home and fantasizes about women rather than engages real ones) also allows him to openly insult actual black women he says he’d be “willing to sleep with”:

I always thought Holly Robinson Peete was gorgeous. Every white dude loved Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And Kerry Washington. She’s superhot, and she’s also white-girl crazy. Kerry Washington would break your heart like a white girl. Just all of a sudden she’d be like, “Yeah, I sucked his dick. Whatever.” And you’d be like, “What? We weren’t talking about that.”

For me this, not the use of the “n word” earlier in the interview, is the most offensive part of Mayer’s “I’m just a black dude” diatribe. He is so at ease in his cis white male heterosexual privilege that he actually rates the beauty of black women after saying his “dick is David Duke.” Rating black women is offensive enough, rating them on a scale of how much they turn white guys on is a whole new level of racist misogyny I would not have imagined seeing in public media. Thus Hilary, the actress playing her completely erased, is attractive because “every white dude loved [her]” not because the black actress playing Hilary was attractive in any way.

Worse, Mayer quickly moves from rating black women’s beauty to reinserting his racialized colonial fantasies onto the black female body. Thus Kerry Washington as subject is transformed into sexual object in Mayer’s interview. She moves from articulate black female actress to white male fantasy [black] whore in which her sole expression is about whose “dick she has sucked.” And Mayer is quick to racialize his sexist reinterpretation of her by adding “What we [white men or himself] weren’t talking about that.” So that it is not his fantasy of her that is operating in this quote but rather her “overwhelming black licentiousness” that inserts inappropriate sexual banter into an otherwise “civilized” conversation. And this Mayer tells us is what turns him on about her, ie his ability to project readily available wanton sexual degradation on to her for his pleasure while ultimately distancing himself from the desire to be with her.

Like so many other supremacists before him, Mayer’s David Duke penis that points decidedly to the “purity” of white women, apparently finds itself walking into the backhouse like slave masters of old. Except what Mayer, and his fellow compatriots in this post, do not seem to understand is that fantasy time is over. While racism and sexism continue to make black women vulnerable to assault, neither Mayer nor Blagojevich will ever attract a willing black woman with their narratives of white victimhood and misogyny. The ease with which they claim to be disempowered while exerting power over black women speaks to the conflation of sexism and racism bound tightly by white privileged access to the black female body that in the case of Mayer’s fantasies are wholly impossible. And it is my opinion that he likens his penis to a violent white supremacist for this reason and this reason alone; he knows he can’t get any from a black woman so his response is to say on the one hand he doesn’t want any and on the other he is willing to access race based violence to mask his anger at being shut out. He imagines himself as a black man not only to minimize racism and posit himself as the new victim but also to justify his violent desires for black women, writing that violence on to the black male body as assuredly as Birth of a Nation.

And for those who are confused about how we move from racism to racialized sexism to sexism, Mayer is happy to help you out. Not only does he try to cover his offensive sexist demeaning of Washington by insulting white women with his “white-girl crazy” comment, as if insulting one group of women will mask having already insulted women but he masks another dig at women’s sexuality as praise only moments later. Thus just moments after insulting black women, he goes on to say that women have more power than men:

I feel like women are getting their comeuppance against men now. I hear about man-whores more than I hear about whores. When women are whorish, they’re owning their sexuality. When men are whorish, they’re disgusting beasts. I think they’re paying us back for a double standard that’s lasted for a hundred years.

Once again mixing misogyny with pseudo-third wave feminism, Mayer thinks his relegation of black women to “whores” is somehow compatable with his claims that women’s sexuality is centered and empowered vis-a-vis men’s in our society. It seems like many pseudo-feminist men, Mayer thinks that the few gains women have made erase the continued discipline and punishment of women for expressing their sexuality, from his own distancing in his discussion of Kerry Washington to the actual rape, beating, and murder of women every day in this country for working in the sex industry, daring to go to frat parties, or even daring to serve in the military, to name just a few obvious places. Moreover while his sexism is indiscriminate, he, like many others, mixes it with racial expectations that color (pun intended) they way he mobilizes his misogyny. Understanding this is the first step to building a feminist movement that address violence and misogyny against ALL women by recognizing that we are all targets and we experience that targeting differently. In Mayer’s world that means black women fantasy about getting him off while white women break his heart b/c they are “crazy.” The only constant here is Mayer and his obvious hatred of women in the face of his sense of sexual inadequacy.

Mayer’s ability to separate out his racism from his sexism has also led to him issuing an apology for the use of the “n-word” in his interview but not for his flagrant sexism, racialized or otherwise, throughout this interview nor how his own feelings of male inadequacy played out in his racial fantasies of both black men and women. And I for one believe the ease with which he makes these distinctions and gave these answers speaks to a larger problem amongst white men that is partially exposed by the other examples in this post and yet remains unaddressed by most of us.

The sad fact is that in post-racial, aka still racist, N. America the only thing that seems to have changed is the ease with which white men discuss their racial fantasies in public spaces. They seem to believe that having a “played the race card” all the way into the White House, black people have no more cards left to play and the realities of racial antagonism can thus shine bright in the light of day. If anything positive can be found here, it is that with each passing comment white men on the Left are exposing the ways in which white cis male masculinity is intimately tied to race and racism, sexuality, sexism and racialized sexism. The exposure of these connections should renew a discussion amongst feminists about how white male power and white male heterosexual fantasty play into specific types of oppression of different women and ultimately predetermine certain expressions of both masculinity and sexuality that disempower all of us.

(Note: I say white male heterosexual power here because I am talking specifically about heterosexuality in this post, and I have not qualified that with the precursor “cis” even though all of the men quoted are because I know white trans men who are guilty of these same fantasies about masculinity and desire; but I wanted to point out that white gay men are not exempt from engaging in black face, fantasies of blackness, or the intersections of misogyny and blackness as evidenced by the popularity of MS. Shirley Q Liquor, a white male performer who makes his living portraying the made-up character who is an addicted, uneducated, single mother of 19 children none of whom have the same father. The investment in whiteness embedded in this character is no less excepted than the fantasies listed above and considered no less damning for public figures seen with him, as you can see from the pic below where the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy cast openly hangs out and laughs with him at a club:

Similar black face can be found amongst white women or through the capitulation of white women; from the fantasies of being Foxy Brown common amongst so-called white feminists to the girls who dance along in the Clemson photo above as either “hood rats” or “white female victims of black male brutality”. In both of the latter cases their gender helps anchor the linking of heteropatriarchy with white supremacy through gendered enactment. While this is related to Mayer’s fantasies, this post is not about them today. And as far as I know, there has not been a recent onslaught of white women openly discussing their “blackness” and their fantasies regarding it. If I’m wrong on that please let me know and leave a cite in the comments section.)

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images

  • “70s pimp outfit” costume
  • Costume sold at Halloween Adventures under the title “Freak black wig”
  • Ted Danson in blackface at Whoopi Goldberg roast, source on photo; Danson thought he’d get away with it b/c he was dating Whoopie at the time and she reportedly signed off on it
  • “Living the Dream Party” held at Clemson University the day before Martin Luther King’s Birthday 2007
  • “Three White Men and a Black Woman (The Rape of The Negress)” by Christiaen van Couwenbergh (1924)
  • candid photo of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy cast with Charles Knipp in black face comes from Black Super Woman; in the same post she points out that criticism of his performance by a black lesbian led to death threats against her

Madonna & Child: Religious Calendar Featuring Trans Women Models

COGAM201004Apr-viA new calendar has been released in Spain by LGBTQ activists featuring trans women models as La Virgen. It seems the ideal subject for a Sunday post here on the blog where I try not to get to religious on you all until today. As a Catholic girl in Catholic School I was taught that we can only truly know the Divine when we imagine Him [or Her] in the body of the most marginalized among us. That teaching was part of a core ethic of stewardship, service, and ultimate understanding of the “Body'” (faith as embodied and interconnected) that is often lacking in the images of the modern day church and the arch-conservatives who seek to [mis]represent our faith. Moreover, it reflects the stories of Jesus’ life, which was a life spent among the most marginalized by choice and by recognition of the humanity and faith of people pushed to the margins. If Jesus taught nothing else, He taught us to see the Divine in those society abuses and throws away and called us to be like them. So when I look on the majority of the images for this calender, I see our Body taking the next step in an ongoing reclamation of the Divine by the faithful not, as some others have claimed, blasphemy. For me, it is a long over due celebration of who we are as believers.

While some of the images for the calendar have more nudity than Vatican I Catholics are likely to stand for, and at least one looks more like the seduction than the virgin, many are hiding behind issues of the naked form and sexuality to mask transmisogyny and cissexism. They argue that trans women’s bodies are not fit to represent the Virgen nor can they do justice to the Madonna and child. These arguments are erroneously biological, assuming that trans women do not have children. Not only is that categorically untrue but it also negates faith based on the mysticism of the virgin birth. If G-d can will a virgen to have a baby, why not a trans woman as well? Worse, the dissmisal of this calendar as profane relies on the oppressive disregard for the gender identity and right to personhood, let alone access to the Divine, of trans women. It denies the teaching and life of Jesus in order to recenter cis female bodies and privileged readings of Christianity that are more institutional-cultural than faith based. Accompanying this anti-trans sentiment, is no doubt homophobia against the gay male aesthetic present in every image that have gotten other [non-transgender] queer renditions of the Madonna in trouble in the past. (see Alma Lopez’s work for example of female queer aesthetic, La Virgen, and censorship surrounding it.)

As the calendar’s images circulate the blogs, you may be able to anticipate my one complaint about this effort: there is only one trans woman of tspaincolor in the calender (pictured left). Modern day Spain is an international country with Middle Eastern, African, and Asian people and Latin@s living within its borders as new comers or third and fourth generation Spaniards. It would have been fairly easy to include trans women of color under these circumstances. The links between Spain, Africa, and the Middle East are never more evident than in the Moor section of Madrid or the images of the black Madonna that are loving carved into municipal buildings and storefronts. I once spent a whole day simply photographing all of the different places where you could find her likeness in the city. On the one hand that renders the one twoc who did make it into the calendar common place and still sadly, extraordinary as the only one.

So while I applaud the calendar and the bloggers standing up for it across the internet, I also want to remind that once again we, women of color, are still not included in the vision of the Divine even when the vision is queered, radical, or transgressive. Neither the mainstream queer community nor the religious community imagines people of color as part of the Body. Even when correcting the transmisogyny of traditional Christian images, queer activists continue to make these dual exclusions, except for the month of April. (If it was a N. American calender I bet it would have been February.) In choosing one of the many white trans women depicted the bloggers talking about this calendar further the process. So that trans women of color are erased and marginalized on all sides.

At the same time, I cannot help but stand in solidarity with the sentiment behind this project precisely because of the ways it writes/rights members of our faith community/ies back into the foreground by demanding equal footing for the transgender community/ies. We are all children of G-d, whichever g-d or spiritual being you choose to believe in, and this calender forces hypocrites who would quote doctrine to remember the most basic tenets of our faith. Either we embrace those teaching by seeing the Divine in all of G-d’s creations or we fail.

But don’t take my silly Catholic ramblings for truth. Instead, listen to the most powerful and poignant discussion of this effort by the trans women involved. Featured trans model, Carla Antonelli, said it best:

“I posed myself the following scenario: Why is it that a transsexual woman can’t represent a religious icon given life by so many other actors and actresses throughout history? To not do it would be akin to internalizing the same discriminatory principles that people want to throw against us” – Carla Antonelli (as quoted by @Blabbeando)


Stonewall and HIV/AIDs Activist Miss Major Comes to Texas

Miss Major Comes to Austin

ts-Miss Major3
Miss Major was at the Stonewall uprisings in ’69, has worked at HIV/AIDS organizations through­out California, was an original member of the first all-transgender gospel choir and has been an activist and advocate in her community for over forty years, mentoring and empowering many of today’s transgender leaders to stand tall, step into their own power, and defend their human rights.
  • Thursday Sept 24 6pm – “Stonewall and the Transgender Community Today” A Lecture sponsored by: the Gender & Sexuality Center at UT Supported by allgo Free
  • Fri., Sept 25  9 am –  Join Miss Major for coffee and doughnuts Gender and Sexuality Center, UT,Austin, TX Free

BLBG: Staceyann Chin Other Side of Paradise a Review

This is the second review of books from our Black Lesbian Book Group at Swandiver’s blog. My review for our first book, which I didn’t like, can be found here. As I committed to at the beginning of the summer, I will review the rest of the books as we read them.

Staceyann Chin’s The Other Side of Paradise begins with a mythic birth scene that imagines Chin as wholly unto her own. It is a metaphor that foreshadows the main point of the nearly 300 page autobiography in which Stacyann figures as a precocious, unwanted, and abused child. For the bulk of the book, she is shuttled between relatives and caregivers who provide the littlest amount of care possible. In this version of her childhood, Chin is a victim of overzealous religiosity, classism, colorism, and sexism long before she stumbles on homophobia.

A poor child, abandoned by her mother and rejected by her father, Stacyann spends her early years with her protective brother and her God-fearing, hard working, grandmother. Though they don’t have much, the three of them live mostly happy lives of Bible study, school, and dreams of their mother’s return until they inexplicably lose their house and have to move in with the first of many Aunties. While women unrelated to Chin are often depicted as Aunties who care for her during her stormy childhood typified by severe beatings and humiliation punctuated by Bible passages, her blood relatives are mostly “long suffering black women” who see her as an undue burden. Through it all, her grandmother and her brother do their best to help tame the rage that Staceyann feels at not receiving enough love or being punished for being “too” inquisitive, “to0” self-directed, and “too” forthright.

At age 9, even they fade into the background of increasing poverty, sexualized abuse, and desperation. By the time Staceyann passes her exams to go to high school, her brother doesn’t even talk to her. By the time she is ready for college, he has immigrated to Germany without a word. For most of her tweens, he lives with his father on the other side of town and barely waves at her if they pass by one another on the way to school. Her grandmother is gone from the story all together, left behind when one of their Aunts decides to punish their mother by sending the children back to her. Both of them reappear once or twice in the later half of Staceyann’s story but the ease with which they disappear from her life and her narrative illustrates how fragile and fleeting human relationships are in Chin’s childhood.

Her brother’s slow and unexplained abandonment is typical of the men in The Other Side of Paradise. Men in the book represent a fleeting yet significant presence in Chin’s life. Most of the adult men in her early life are sick, drunk, and/or mentally ill. Their absenteeism is ever present whether it is physical absence or psycho-social.

Her father, who is the most important man in her life b/c of his ongoing absence, denies her to her face. Though he does pay for her schooling, and help her get into college, he treats her as a somewhat unwanted associate never his flesh and blood. While his indifference chafes, her brother’s father’s seeming care is soon undermined in similar ways. Both men write checks, but neither offer love. Worse, though he gives Staceyann money and food, he also makes uncomfortable and unexplained advances on her that often leave her feeling violated by his touch. Other men, like the Preacher in her church make overt sexually advances, behaving in predatory ways that Chin inexplicably avoids.

Young men in the book are almost all sexual aggressors. She spends her tweens and teens dodging three of them in her own home. They try to catch her in the bathroom or changing her clothes, and corner her in various parts of the house. Her first attempt at a boyfriend results in a sexually explicit letter asking for favors she has made clear she is unwilling to give. And tho she has a seemingly normal relationship with her second boyfriend, the normalcy is undermined by his unwillingness to make any real commitment to her, transforming him into another emotionally distant man who uses her for sex. When she comes out in college, these boys transformer into a raving band of rapists in a scene that not only rings true but also reflects a general sense in the narrative the young men are just old rapists and drunks in the making.

Lest anti-feminist readers see this as yet another example of  “feminazi man-hating,” women and girls fair little better in Staceyann’s text. Staceyann’s mother starts out as a sympathetic character whose return transforms her into a self-obsessed violent woman. Her erratic behavior and violent shifts from cooing at her children to raking them with her long red nails and bitterness mirror that of clinical schizophrenia so much so that I expected to be told she hadn’t abandoned the children but instead been sent away. Not so. Though Chin makes her mother sound clinically ill, this too is a function of the child narrator, who experiences the terror of her mother’s behavior but has no explanation for it.

The other adult women in Chin’s life, with few exceptions, seem to take great pride in humiliating her in front of classmates and female peers. They demean her because of her heritage, her class, and her inquisitiveness. Most importantly, they check her outspokenness with swift violence designed to silence her voice and teach her to become invisible. Their anxieties about her precociousness and blunt struggles with social norms and religion, speak to the fears of working class and lower middle class women about “respectability” and male power. Yet while Chin is thoughtfully introspective about why she acts out against them, her child narrator is unable to provide similar introspection about the reasons they discipline her so harshly. There is no excuse for their abusiveness, but Chin’s corrective look back on it in the epilogue is lacking in the story itself.

Not only do adult women figure prominently in her ongoing physical abuse, but young girls seem to torment Staceyann wherever she goes. Whether they are relatives or kids at school, the girls Staceyann meets mock and humiliate her because of her color, her class, and sometimes her diction. Colorism and classism dog Staceyann at every institution, in ever person’s home she visits, and even causes a bitter fight between her and her brother.  Despite what she says about juxtaposing homophobia in Jamaica to racism in the U.S. in the book promo clip at the beginning of this post, her book makes race (colorism) a central plot point in which it is no less salient to her life than racism would have been in N. America. Her prose is never more honest nor poignant than when lessons about color and poverty hit home in the text.

All of these characters represent the pain and abandonment that is at the center of the entire story. They figure far more prominently than the nuns, teachers, and friends who are actually kind to Staceyann in her childhood. The underdevelopment of the latter gives her story a sense of urgency at the same time that it makes her narrative seem somewhat overdetermined. The truth value of one’s memories is less important to me than what falls out as a result.  Because Chin gives us no concentrated description of mentors or heroes her memoir gives us no insight into how she became an artist. Subtle glimpses of her being assigned journaling or finally finding a home in the theater department are like footnotes in the long and painful story of abandonment and abuse. When did she decide words were her refuge? When did she find the excitement in sharing her voice instead of the shame that was almost always put upon her every time she spoke in the book? Where are the inklings of the poet in her childhood?

Those looking for a poignant coming out story that mirrors the powerful and beautiful poetry Chin writes, will also be disappointed. Chin has two crushes in her early childhood but neither are written in a way that foreshadows same sex attraction or the awakening of same sex desire. Instead, one of her crushes isn’t even identified as an object of desire until they mutually come out to one another in college.  Her desires for the other girl are easily overlooked by both girls pursuits of boyfriends and Christian morality that permeates their lives. There are subtle ways the prose lets those of us who know what we are seeing, know we are seeing it, but for those uninitiated, much of the subtlety will be lost. In both cases, Staceyann’s emotions for them are wrapped up in class longing, desires for friendship and popularity at school, or gratefulness for the kindness of adults these other girls experience. Thus for many readers, only the very blunt jokes about not marrying boys will hit home in these passages while the homosocial commitment to one another, the subtle care in the way they are with one another, etc. will be lost.

Chin doesn’t speak about her sexuality until the book is almost over. With only 70 pages left, she embarks on the subject of her coming out and trying to find women to be with at a break neck speed that barely leaves any time for character development, internal reflection, or some other narrative device that would make the sea of rejection and hookups crammed into this section as insightful as her poetry on the subject. It’s unfortunate because this portion of the book has an adult narrator who could be introspective and multi-viewed about the characters introduced. In many ways, it feels as though Chin is still holding this part of herself back from her readers, afraid of what prose, as opposed to poetry, might tell us and her about these tumultuous days before she immigrated.

As a result, her coming out years whiz by, literally punctuated by cliched lesbian music and the shaving of her head. While Chin hints at a thriving underground queer culture, she never lets her prose linger on it long enough for us to get a sense of what queer Jamaica looks like to her or how GLBTQI ppl navigate homophobia there. As an insider, her insights on these issues could have been a critical counterpoint to a colonialist gaze on Jamaica that elevates violence against the queer community there while erasing it in the West. It’s unclear if she is trying to protect the women she left behind by not describing them or their encounters in detail or if she has sacrificed this aspect of the story to make her larger point about the homophobia in Jamaica that drove her to leave. If it is the latter, homophobia has not only robbed her of her home but her readers of a story about sexuality and (fraught) communities, for one of violent homophobia. Both are clearly present, but as in other identities represented in the book, the latter dominates.

Thus while women, female lab partners, sexual encounters, and her growing attachment to the stage moves so quickly they blur into nothing, the homophobic potential gang rape Chin survived in her college bathroom is described in detail. For survivors it will likely be triggering. For people inclined to vilify Jamaica as the most homophobic place on earth,  it will provide perfect fodder. And yet, this moment is a defining one in Chin’s life. The prose she uses to describe it not only reflect the way time works for some survivors during abuse but also ensures that readers cannot look away from the intersection of sexism and homophobia, fear and male-sanctioned violence. Its familiarity opens the doors for talking about global homophobia, sexism, and male violence in ways that expand rather than contract feminist discourses on the subject for anti-imperialist readers. Not only is this moment critical to understanding Chin’s critique of homophobia, it is also perhaps the most feminist moment in the book because it not only exposes male domination but also demands bodily integrity for all women and feminism from men.

Ultimately, if you commit to the story Staceyann Chin has set out to tell, you will not be disappointed by this book. For those looking for the feisty feminist lesbian who bellows out the words in proud defiance of social norms, you will see glimpses of her here but never quite connect the dots. And those looking for an immigration based bildungsroman ala other Caribbean-American writers, you will have to look elsewhere, as Chin acknowledges the ever-presence of immigration while also proving how life in sending communities is about the dailiness of living not just a holding pattern until one goes abroad. In a world where we have come to expect artists lives to be unique and special, punctuated by clearly defined awakenings, it is an act of extreme bravery to depict oneself as rejected, broken, and yearning for love just like everybody else. That is the story Staceyann wants us to know, the story of a girl who overcame, who makes her living speaking when so many tried beat her into silence. And tho it isn’t the story I was expecting, I for one, respect that.

The Black Lesbian Book Group is discussing this book now. The current discussion question from Luna Kiss is: what were your impressions of the title before you read the book? (Obviously this question is meant to go beyond Chin’s own statement that she was referring to the class divide in the town of Paradise where she spent her formative years.)

Book I’m Looking Forward to Reading

So, I promised myself this semester I was not only going to teach the overload our department desperately needs with so many on leave, but that I was going to continue my summer commitment of reading for pleasure. I know . . . I’ve over-estimated access to time and space (physical alone time) again. Nevertheless, I have already picked out a book from my vast shelf of  “things I meant to read but life got in the way”:

Not only does this book sound exciting, but since it does dovetail with a core course I have to teach in Spring, I can call it work when I have to and free-time when I don’t.

I’m curious, does anyone else find that they have stopped reading for pleasure during the term? It’s really a shame.

After the two cancer scares this summer (a pet and a human family member), I promised that all the things I put off for work, I’m going to somehow fit in. Don’t want to breathe my last breath having failed “to suck the marrow out of life.”

Reflections on Being Human (A Series Review – Spoilers)

On the surface, the plot of Being Human is fairly simply: A vampire named Mitchell and his closest friend, George, a werewolf, move into a home already inhabited by a ghost named Annie unbeknownst to them. The three of them make a commitment to look out for one another while they figure out their “lives.” Each character spends the short 6 epi series wrestling with their identities with the hopes of fitting in and appearing human.

Under this seemingly simple surface, is a long term musing on the nature of humanity. What does it mean to be human? Is humanity any better than the “demons” they fear? And what makes people who have the kind of power which allows you to easily kill, herd, or terrorize others, choose oppression over cooperation and understanding?

being_human - CopyBeing Human/BBC 4 2009

Sitting down to watch the second to the last episode of Being Human tonight (it’s the second time I’ve watched the series through), I find myself reminded of what I learned from the first season of Torchwood: trust the process.

You see, watching the first few episodes of the series, I wondered about the entertainment value of a show that perpetually insulted women’s basic reproductive functions in order to explain away or belittle their anger, sorrow, or expression of sexuality. There is at least one derogatory reference to menstruation in each of the first few episodes of Being Human. The kind of misogyny necessary to demean women in that way makes how weak and insipid both main character Annie, a Annie-being-human - Copyghost, and secondary character Lauren, a vampire, initially seem almost expected. However the real straw, involves Annie being assaulted by a werewolf named Tully. After Tully terrorizes and literally sends her shaken into the street begging for help, Mitchell finds and comforts her, but when they tell George, he responds by screaming “And I bet she loved it!” Though he regrets this comment later, it’s his decision to let Annie’s attacker continue to live in the home she is spiritually bound to that seems utterly inexcusable.

However, one of the main questions in the series is about what it means to be human and sadly, part of humanity is misogyny and violence against women. The series is unapologetic about those moments when even good people resort to cruelty; and in doing so, it makes us question the idea that “good people” cannot do bad things. More importantly, and the reason I give this show a pass when I have failed others for less, Being Human does not allow cruelty to women to go unquestioned. Nor do the directors shoot the show in a way that encourages the audience to empathize with misogyny. Instead, each of these scenes juxtaposes misogyny with caring. When George constantly refers to Annie’s mood swings as her monthly, Mitchell is always there to make a correcting look or remark. And when Tully attacks Annie, not only does Mitchell help and stand up for her, but he is horrified by George’s behavior. George himself acknowledges he was out of line twice when alone with Tully and again when he is next with Annie.

The show avoids the simple construction of good guy vs. bad guy as well. Despite George’s behavior above, he is the kindhearted one to Mitchell’s bad guy. As a vampire, Mitchell has millenia of violence against humans in his past and has particularly targeted defenseless women in homosocial rituals with his maker. Much of who Mitchell is now is an atonement for who he was then. Thus George is as much Mitchell’s conscience as the other way around. In fact, George confronts Mitchell’s violence early on in the series b/c even tho Mitchell is reformed from the bad old days, he continues to drink from young, pretty, women and either kill them or turn them. George reminds Mitchell that his hunger is no excuse for targeting young women.

When George discovers his new girlfriend, Nina,  has been permanently disfigured from abuse, presumably done by a male attacker, George makes it clear that violence against women is wrong. More than that, George does not take the typical “patriarchal” approach to violence against women by making it all about his hurt feelings and turning into a rescue, but rather encourages & expresses his concern for Nina. He has the same reaction to Annie’s abuse at the hands of Owen, their landlord and Annie’s ex-fiance/murderer. He consistently encourages her to stand up for herself.  In scenes meant to be funny, he even coaches her on being scary when she proves too nice on her own. There is something quite telling about those moments when juxtaposed with Annie’s eventual coming into her own power, both in the ways they illustrate how women are taught to behave and how the latter scenes assure us that it is Annie’s strength and not just coaching from a man that make her able to stand up to her abuser. Thus, both Nina and Annie are encouraged to stand up on their own by both George and the narrative arcs of the series itself.

In many ways, George’s behavior toward Annie could be seen as projection. George is as afraid of life as Annie. He is awkward around women and when he fails he annieandgeorge - Copyoften returns home to sulk. His general passiveness often leaves him desperate to hideaway in his house and/or disappear in his entry level positions. Annie is far more out going with people on the surface, but she is equally shut in. Like George, she often retreats to the house or a fetal position on the couch whenever things go wrong. Thus, its easy to believe that George sees himself in her. When he yells at her to stand up and take control of her life, he is really yelling at himself. His real feelings crystallize in last night’s episode, when he begs Annie not to go. His pain-filled begging for her to “just stay” with them is like a giant light shining on the entire relationship. As she hugs him and says, he never really liked her anyway, he admits it in a way that makes the connection between them permanently clear; George loves Annie, he just hates the things about her that he sees in himself. And as we will see from season’s end, Annie feels the same way about George.

While Annie often plays the victim in the series, not only does she help save the day in the last two episodes of the season, but she is also the most successful at making the human connections all of the housemates wish they could. She is outgoing and friendly, reduced to depression and self-pity only when her abusive mitchell-and-annie-in-being-human - Copyex-fiance is in the picture. While this may be annoying too many, it is a fairly accurate depiction of how many women feel similarly when caught up in the cycle of violence. Like Annie they oscillate between love and hurt, between anger and defeat, trying to find the strength they once had and needing validation b/c abusers are so good at stripping everything good away. If there is any confusion as to why Annie yo-yos through emotions, it should have become clear in last night’s episode when Owen is not only unphased by her attempts to frighten him but also uses her attempts to gain back her power as an opportunity to tear her down emotionally and sexually. Though it initially takes George telling her to take control of her life, and all three of them to scare Owen, Annie’s ultimate stand against Owen is all her own. What she whispers in his ear drives him mad. And when she believes that George has abandoned Mitchell for a “normal life” she tries to rally him the way that he did for her. When that fails, Annie rises up on her own to fight back the vampires and save the innocent. Fully in control of her life and her power, in more ways than one, Annie then discovers what is really going on with Mitchell’s last stand against the vampires and drags George into the fight. Where he once called on her to be strong, she now calls on him. And where George initially shows fear, Annie stands strong against Herrick. Her strength finally shining through.

The other women in the show have equally deceptive characters when it comes to gender stereotypes. Lauren, a 20 something vampire, seems to be a needy, laurenmitchell - Copycontrolling, desperate woman who is stuck on a single man, Mitchell, instead of getting her own “life.” She often shows up just to make Mitchell feel bad about turning her; she clearly hopes that his guilt will permanently bind him to her in a way that desire failed to do so. When tears don’t work to manipulate him, she uses sex, making her character the worst kind of derogatory image of women. Worse, when she isn’t doing these things out of her own obsessing, she does it at the behest of Herrick and his lackey Seth. In other words, Lauren is a stereotypical whiny woman motivated and manipulated by all the men around her.

However, as the series continues, Lauren’s humanity starts to shine through. She stops obsessing about Mitchell and instead asks him for help in breaking her addiction to killing. Part of her admission that she wants to be stronger is the revelation that Herrick and Seth forced her to have sex with an abusive man and let them videotape it. Her story isn’t another manipulation, but part of a larger backstory Lauren tells that shows she has always been controlled and bullied by others; for her sex and tears are some of the only tools she knows to turn the tide. As the series concludes, Lauren, like Annie, finds her own strength and desperately works to develop new tools that will make her proud of herself. The person Lauren wants love from the most is herself not the men around her.

While she fights the lust for blood, Lauren slowly builds the strength to take control of her life. Not only does she finally detach from Mitchell lauren - Copycompletely, but she begins to center her life around her own needs. When Mitchell rejoins the vampires, Lauren is the one who tries to tell him what is really going on. she endures his scorn and the thinly-veiled threat from Herrick and his minions to try to rise above the genocide they are proposing. She also tries to help Mitchell see that turning the people he loves into vampires is not the solution, foreshadowing her own revelations about who she wants to be vs. whom she is becoming.

Both Lauren and Annie are pivotal in saving Mitchell and George when they try to escape the vampires. When the others are out-numbered and destined to fail, Lauren is the one who ultimately rescues them. Though Lauren’s final decision may not seem like an empowering one to many, the choice is on her own terms and for all the right reasons. Her decision brings her the freedom she never had in life nor un-death. It also acts as a lesson to the others about making hard choices and owning the consequences of bad behavior (both Lauren’s and Mitchell’s). And while it might have been stronger to see her complete the task on her own, I understand the director’s wanting to bring Lauren’s story full circle.

Nina, George’s girlfriend, rounds out the main female cast. Nina, as far as we know throughout the majority of the season, is human. And while she too comes across as a stereotype nina - Copyin her introduction to the show, she is the quickest of the three to establish herself as a multi-dimensional character. When we are introduced to her,  Nina is a cranky shrew who mocks George because of his job, his awkwardness, and seemingly b/c he is a man. When George takes misogynist advice from Tully on how to ask her out, Nina emasculates him with little effort. In an act of supreme irony, the writers construct this scene so that Nina also unknowingly dings George for all his “monthlies” comments earlier on.

As the series continues, Nina stands up for her sexual and emotional needs more directly and consistently than any of the women on the show. When George lies and says he has sexual problems, she gets sex positive pamphlets out and delicately explains to him all of the different ways they can be together, with an emphasis on ensuring her pleasure. The humor of this scene helps to alleviate the anxiety many people have about having such frank conversations about sex and sexual pleasure, and I think despite the real issue, George’s werewolf status, encourage other women to be bold.

Nina also confronts George about his secrecy and lets him know that despite loving him she will leave if he cannot create a healthy -honest relationship with her.  And when George tries to break up with her without any explanation, Nina demands he take her and their relationship seriously. In other words, she models for other women how to be fully alive and establish mutuality in their relationships. She acts as a counterpoint to the initial actions of the other women, not as the empowered woman vs. the victims, but rather as a survivor of violence herself.

Lest viewers mistake her empowerment as power over George rather than mutuality, Nina’s finest hour comes when she provides George the strength to not be overtaken by the wolf inside him. Despite not knowing about his condition, she walks boldly into his transformation and subsequent battle with Herrick without ever looking away. While the revelations in the final episode might lesson the impact of that a little, she still comes across as bold, strong, and clear headed. Like the other women in the show, her presence was essential to the triumph over the vampires.

Nina’s character is extremely well-rounded. She shows George her vulnerable side on more than one occasion and always when he has earned the right to see it. She also opens up to him and encourages him to do the same. When he hurts her by hiding who he is or what is going on in the roommates’ lives, her character feels that hurt on screen rather than just stuffing it under some man-hating commentary that other lesser well-written female character’s would do in cinema. And I especially applaud the way the writers are able to create her softer edges as part and parcel of her strength, intelligence, and forthrightness rather than as a curative to them.

Being Human also takes on queer issues, though they are largely relegated to a single episode. When Mitchell starts spending time with a child from across the street,mitchellandgeorge - Copy his mother, Fleur, makes a seemingly innocuous comment correcting her son’s use of a homophobic slur and referencing her brother and his partner. Like other complexities in the series, the moment establishes Fleur as queer positive only to complicate that when she thinks Mitchell is a child predator with a particularly kinky gay porn collection. When her own child is at risk, Fleur mobilizes homophobia to her advantage, whipping up a child protection frenzy predicated on the myth of the gay male predator.  Her actions mirror many people who have queer friends or accept same sex desire in theory but are quick to resort to homophobia and heterosexism when talking about gay marriage, employment protection, or gay neighbors.

However, this episode is problematic from a child protection stand point. Fleur is not only acting on/ mobilizing thru homophobic myths, she also has clear evidence that Mitchell is into violent kink, kink that she catches her child watching in the middle of the night. In any other circumstances but these, that would be more than enough concrete proof that Mitchell was a child predator. Though the show makes much of how her son denies what is going on to no avail, such denials fit with children so intimidated by their abusers that they minimize or deny what has happened. More than that, while Mitchell is incredulous about Fleur refusing to let him explain, I know very few mothers who would let someone explain after giving their child 1) a sex video and 2) a video that ends with the star bleeding out while an invisible figure walks thru his blood. Thus while Fleur’s main reason for not listening to Mitchell is a homophobic reaction that instantly transforms him into pervert b/c, as she exclaims, “it was a naked man!” in the video, I think the point would have been better made had Fleur simply suddenly stopped letting Mitchell see her son when she realized he lived with George. If she had then begun spreading rumors clubbing - Copybased on the noises coming from the home, which included growling, furniture being shoved around, dishes crashing, and any number of other things that in a homophobic mind could lead to utterly unfair rumor and innuendo, her behavior would still  that still have exposed the myth of the gay male child abuser. More than that, it would not give those inclined to believe in it room to find alternative explanations for Fleur and the neighbors outrageous and violent behavior.

Any other queer elements in the show are solely window-dressing.  As the writers of The Lair once said  “vampires and werewolves are always a metaphor for being gay, b/c of their alienation from themselves and the mainstream world.”  No one embodies this concept more than George, whose ease with Mitchell is juxtaposed against his misogyny toward Annie and painful awkwardness with other women. Though the show ultimately pairs all of the characters up in heterosexual relationships by series end (even Annie has a male ghost in love with her), until the characters embrace their identities, the homosocial relationships at the core of the show. For instance, George is mostly only cruel to Annie when she is seemingly in the middle. He resents Annie’s presence in the house b/c it was supposed to be just him and Mitchell. Mitchell’s hero complex means he is unusually protective and attentive to Annie which George remarks draws the attention away from him on more than one occasion. And as I’ve said above, he demeans Annie after Tully attacks her mostly b/c Tully is quickly becoming the center of his universe. One could easily re-read George’s hurt and anger at Annie’s accusation as one in which he sees the man he desires choosing her over him; this of course, requires ignoring the fact that it was assault.

Yet, I think it is a stretch to see George as queer precisely because he spends so much time trying to talk to and date women. From the very first episode to the second to the last, George’s struggle with establishing a long term relationship with a woman is as important as his coming to terms with being the wolf. And while it is easy to presume a quiet, awkward man, with so many successful homosocial relationships and failed heterosexual ones is queer, it seems to buy into a certain kind of stereotype about masculinity and sexuality that I think those of us who do queer media need to get away from. As I’ve argued earlier, the writers of Being Human are troubling easy constructs throughout the show.

The writers/directors of Being Human do play on the George-Mitchell window-dressing for a brief moment however, when the characters try to hide the fact they were spying on Annie. They jump onto the couch in a make-out pose without thinking. They are fully entwined when they look at one another and realize what they are doing. As they mitchellherrick - Copypull themselves apart, there is the briefest moment of homophobia, but mostly they just laugh at one another with an ease that plays much more subversively if they are straight.

Herrick’s seething resentment of George is also a less direct exploration of this phenomena. Before George, Herrick and Mitchell were inseparable. Much of Mitchell’s violence against women was set up by Herrick in the homosocial rituals I mentioned earlier. These moments in which they bonded and were excited by each other over the death of an innocent women, smacks of problematic Fruedian constructions of sexuality in which internalized homophobia manifests as misogynist homosociality. Herrick’s disdain for George and inexplicable anger at Mitchell’s having chosen him over the vampires also plays out like the jealous lover. And the final battle between Herrick and George reinforces this reading as the fight is as much about who has Mitchell’s love and loyalty as it is about the fate of the human race.

Unfortunately, these storylines never make it beyond window-dressing, While some viewers can imagine all kinds of backstory about who George and Mitchell were to each other before they moved in with Annie, not only do George’s denials of homosexuality in the same child abuse episode discussed above work against them but the final episode of the show tells us exactly how Mitchell and George met. Not only were they not lovers, Mitchell’s rescue of George includes George’s complaint that he has just lost his long term girlfriend and cannot lose anything else. This loss is regularly referenced throughout the show to explain why George is so timid with women in the present. More than that, Mitchell’s rescue of George has no homosocial overtones, instead Mitchell seems to pity George. He is motivated both by that pity and his own growing discomfort at being a vampire. Ultimately, George’s weaknesses in this scene, all tied to his girlfriend and the wolf, provide Mitchell a means of escape from the vampires he desperately needs. There is no desire here.

Despite the desire to read George as queer, it is perhaps easier to see Mitchell as open to the possibilities. While his character does not resonate with standard markers of gay identity on television the way George’s does, his character is consistently more easy going about making wide and varied connections. Not only does he let his glasses linger next to George after their accidental embrace but he is unfazed by accusations of queerness. His anger in the child abuse episode stems from how easily identity is used to stir up a mob, create violence in the absence of extensive documentation, and ultimately lead to the death of innocents. He does not care if his neighbors think he is gay and clearly finds George’s denials ridiculous. More than that, he has has two long term homosocial relationships on the show that define him, one with the George and the other with Herrick. And as I’ve said, it is easy to imagine that part of why Herrick is so desperate to get Mitchell back into the fold, and why Seth hates him so much, is that Herrick resents Mitchell sharing his life and his adventures with any other man.

For me, while we can queer the way we watch Being Human, the entire vein of seeing actual queerness present is a stretch. SugarRush - Copythe show encourages us to see heterosexuality in these characters, not by default, but by careful construction of it into their core identities. Every single one of them has both a heterosexual past and a heterosexual present. Much of their struggles are intimately tied to these relationships. While we often see George getting unusually close to his male companions, be it Mitchell or Tully, this closeness is always undermined by heterosexual narratives and explained away by clearly presented alternative narratives.

As implied there are no same sex attracted women in the series, an ongoing issue in many of BBC’s cross-over sci fi offerings. But we do get the other requirement for this show to get a pass on gender issues, women do talk to one another and they do so about more than the men they are dating. (For those who don’t know, the standard Bechdel rules are that there must be more than 1 woman, they must talk to each other, and they must talk about more than the men they are dating/want to date for it to count as female positive. Of course these rules assume heterosexuality.) I don’t know, the series has so many positive homosocial relationships and accepting main characters that I think it has room for actual queer characters in the future. And certainly Crichlow, the woman portraying Annie, could pull it off. Cross your fingers.

You may have noted that I did not mention race in this review. Despite the fact that Annie is played by a woman of color, the character was written before the actress was cast and was originally given to a white woman, presumably b/c the character was imagined as white. While Gregg Chillin might be partially South Asian, no reference to him being a man of color is made in the show and he will likely read as white by most viewers. The decision to go with race blind casting and the fact that all of the women in the show experience some form of male violence leaves little to deconstruct. More salient in this show is the decision to cast and/or write so many Irish and Scottish characters into the script/ as main characters. Overall, the show is extremely diverse when you think about race and ethnicity together being_human_21 - Copyand as far as I remember there isn’t a single racist moment. There are ethnic slurs howeverm but they only occur when the celtic vampires are laughing about draining the people who used them. One thing I would like to see improved in a second season however is more visible diversity in the “crowd shots”, they work in a hospital but there are no people of color, there are no Black British vampires in the lair, no people of color in club shots or their neighborhood, etc.

Ultimately, Being Human gets off to a rocky start with gender issues but soon presents us with complexity that is both fantastical and extremely astute about the human condition. While the first few episodes likely turned feminists off, as well as viewer’s sick of supernatural creatures who feel guilty about who they are rather than embracing it, the series offers varied characters and complex interactions that soon undermine easy reading. The last two episodes in particular are not to be missed. Not only does the series fill up with unapologetic vampires on the hunt by season end, but all of the women in the show come into their own in these episodes. Lauren and Nina both display immense strength and self-reflection, and Annie becomes a powerhouse neither the vampires nor her abuser can best.

Being Human has been confirmed for a second season. Given what they have promised about both Annie and Nina’s characters in the final episode, the series can only get better.

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  • images 1-4, 7-8 & 12 – Being Human/BBC 4 2009
  • images 5-6, & 9-10 –  BBC Touchpaper 2009 via Being-Human.tv
  • image 11 Sugar Rush/BBC 4 2005

Quote of the Week: Body Image and Black Femalehood

“The real issue is not that Caster Semenya is butch or buff. Its an old old tale that began with colonist and caucasian ideas that Africans that still exist today. Caster Semenya is the fastest female this year, at a mere 18 years has become our South African Golden girl. Her biggest offense is that he [sic] has no breasts, no shapely hips or ‘soft features’. I never imagined being a tomboy could be an international dispute or debate. Infact I fear for my own gender-standards that I may take up face-painting and crude uncomfortable shoes commonly worn by women to accentuate beauty. In a world where most girls suffer from eating disorders and their mothers have liposuction, plastic surgery, botox and implants its no wonder the Western media attacks you for embracing and accepting your natural shape.”Child of Colour

I know this is an unusually long quote for quote of the week but I thought it was so poignant. It covers the problem with how thin black women’s bodies are viewed in a nutshell regardless of our location in the diaspora.

blackwomensarms - Copy(images unattributed)

For me,the quote and the current questions about Semenya’s right to girl/womanhood reminds me of discussion of Michelle Obama’s shapely, sleeveless, arms that distracted the national media and prompted blog posts and comments about monkeys and animals and “respectability.” It makes me flashback to Lauryn Hill’s beautiful, sleeveless, white leather outfit on the grammy awards and the way my drooling was interrupted by comments about “her arms” said as a slur. And even more than these contemporary images, it makes me flash back to Sojourner Truth’s own description of her body and its relationship to the rights of womanhood:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? Sojourner Truth (emphasis added)

I never had an athletes body. I had curves before my time. And with those curves came years of body policing attached to the other stereotype of black and brown women as sexually available and lacking the right to bodily integrity. I always envied those strong muscular arms that marked other women’s bodies as untouchable, powerful. When I saw my gf that first time, after her kind eyes, I noticed the bulge of her arms the rock hardness of her abs. Where I have always seen beauty and strength, so many see gender transgression needing to be violently corrected; they police our bodies for daring to adapt and even shine in conditions that they have long reserved solely for us – laborers, athletes, dancers, etc.

In an instance that only now hits me as strikingly similar to talk about the First Lady, I know what it was like to be called aside and asked to wear bermuda shorts or sweats to gym class because I was “distracting the boys.” FYI the images below are “booty shorts”, “cut-offs” and “hot pants” respectively

booty - Copy

The image of the First Lady, whose shorts were the same length as mine as a kid, except that I also had a long, baggy t-shirt over them as well, are what we used to call “mom shorts.” They are both slightly longer than regular shorts and profoundly unflattering on most women’s body types b/c they flatten out the bottom, accentuate the tummy, and shorten the leg. Many outside of the U.S. also associate these types of shorts with “tacky middle aged tourists” getting us back to the PETA fatphobia connection to ageism I was outlining in a previous post.

Michelle-Obama-Shorts - Copy(Dana Felthauser/AP)

I was never athletic in school b/c of my disability but after early onset puberty the gym teacher practically begged me not to even walk at a fast pace less my bounce also “distract the boys” , the nuns always made sure to put the ruler between me and the boy I was forced to dance with at any of our school dances (all the while glaring at me as if I had horns) and the entire 5/6th grade geography class came to a standstill when my bra strap ferreted it’s way out of my sleeve  . . . The saddest part is my butt was flat by woc standards and my nickname at home was “flea bite” not “melon.” Like the First Lady, the truth of our bodies was less salient than the racialized gender lens through which they were being read.

While I wish that these stories were about the cruelty of children, the fact is that both these over-policed women/girls and I have all been picked over by adults checking our bodies like property or out of place flesh that must be tamed and discarded. I was recently reminded on a thread at historiann’s that I also know what it is like to discover a male colleague has drawn pictures of me exaggerating my curves  and placing them on the internet for what I can only interpret as both general misogyny and punishment for daring to exert my right to desire someone other than him. The constant touching, grabbing, assaulting eyes that seem to long for the days when they could just throw you down and take what is yours like you were Celia seems like one side of a coin in which the other is the violent assault on your right to exist outside of labor or entertainment. When the lights go down and the medals have all been won, you are supposed to disappear not continue to exist and to excel. And if you do both, or one or the other, too publicly or too well, there will be a price involving perverse medical speculation, possible intervention, and certainly public discussion as violent as any colonial endeavor across our bodies.

But, sincle coin or not, I have no idea what it is like to have someone look right through your femaleness. To deny you your sex. To be a child degraded at the most basic level because you are too strong, too hard working, too different than the cult of femininity they never let any of us have access to anyway.

And as more people weigh in on the controversy, not only is Semenya navigating the racialized gender horror of being denied womanhood but the most perverse transphobia. It has already convicted her as intentional gender transgressor and hopes to make an example out of her to police trans women everywhere. In their world trans women become not-women, not-women expands to police anyone but them. Comments like Germaine Greer’s at once deny Semenya’s potential cis femaleness and trash transgender identity regardless of her chromosomes:

‘Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female.’Germain Greer

The hatred of both cis women of color and trans women, of women in sport in general, all swirls together with little regard for this young girl’s well-being or for the others caught in this racist body policing worldwind. Whatever the outcome, the damage is done. The message is sent, black, transgender, or both, your body does not belong here; your flesh is not “ours.”

To have gotten away with mobilizing transphobia to target all women for so long is unimaginale in its dark historical truth. To try and hide this legacy in overt transphobic wrapping that explicitly targets actual trans women is inexcusable.

As a curvy girl who has been thin and thick but never a hard, glistening, powerful-bodied girl, I recognize the shared oppression of women/girls who dare to be black and female in a world in which even feminists sometimes deny us the right to be beautiful and free.


POC in Sci Fi Meme: Derrick Bell’s Afrolantica Legacies

The Meme: Recommend, review, and/or discuss poc characters/authors in sci fi

Afrolantica Legacies

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Derrick Bell’s Afrolantica Legacies begins with a question: how to explain the innovations of the present to President Jefferson if he were to appear in the present. The answer: start with how a black man has the right to explain anything to a white one.

As this question and answer imply, the book explores the progress of African Americans while questioning the legacy of racism that remains constant in our nation even amongst liberals and the working class. Often the discussion goes beyond the stereotypical white=bad: black=good discussion and starts to interrogate black leaders, civil rights tactics, and the meaning of oppression in general. Unlike both traditional race and science fiction narratives, it also includes strong female characters and discussions of feminism. Where it falters is in the execution of some of its ideas and characters, clunks dialogue, and a section of Jewish-black issues that is problematic at best.

The Form and the Content

The mythic island of Afrolantica is resurfacing equadistant from the U.S. and Africa. It’s previous appearance prompted African Americans and members of the African Diaspora to pack up their lives and attempt to establish a free society on the island oasis only hospital to black people. Instead, they received a list of 7 principles with which to confront oppression and empower themselves while the island returned to the ocean.

As the nation and the world prepare for its return, several parties prepare for critical discussions about race and what it will mean for black people to leave N. America for good over inequality. Among them is a speech by the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, apologizing for racism and the author of the speech, Derrick Bell, and his alien/sorceress colleague Geneva Crenshaw, outlining illustrations of the 7 principles to light the way.

Each chapter of the book is an individual story illustrating a corresponding principle and introduced by some stilted banter between Crenshaw and Bell as they “relax” on the island of Afrolantica. Some stories are more succesful than others as pieces of fiction; the majority operate more as intellectual essays on the issues barely passing themselves off as part of the semi-fantastical world that supposedly frames them. On the positive side, these essays/stories are full of cited research and law cases that illustrate how race, privilege, and moderate or liberal (defined as changing laws to equalize representation and protections in the existing system) politics have worked in the U.S. over time. Many of these essays ask the reader to think about how power is amassed, retained, and learned, all important things to understand if we are ever to dismantle oppression.

On the negative side, the essays/stories will appeal more to academic readers interested in the subject than to science fiction or fantasies readers who might become interested if introduced through their favorite genre. Worse, the genre itself seems to be a mere prop that is often falling down. Thus while the first two stories involve an alien and a fantasy land respectively, others take place between academics on campus or are review essays of novels or significant historical figures.

While Bell makes several key points about race that remain critcally salient today (and resonate with current events), he is less successful or consistent with other identities presented in the book. Though Bell fills his book with strong women, many of the descriptions or internal narratives about his attraction or lack there of to them arer completely out of line and out of place. Moreover, the recognizable women of color in his novel are all aliens or sorceresses whose concerns are largely for their own agendas. The one exception is a character named Tamara, who functions as white in a story about a Citadel full of people with unearned privilege who lorde it over lowlanders. Tamara is described as extremely intelligent and passionate both of which she gets from her father b/c her mother is dead, and these characteristics are written as gifts from her father rather than hard earned traits. In attempting to solve race relations, Tamara champions lowlanders in typical bleeding heart fashion, remaining silent in public when it will cost her prestige, feeling both attracted and distracted from the “best” lowlander in the area, etc. It is not until the end of the story that we discover that Tamara and the rest of the Citadel dwellers are people of color and that they got their power by taking it from the white lowlanders who use to oppress them. In terms of a racial discourse, this is a fascinating twist that calls up Fanon and/or Lorde. However both Tamara and Offred (yes that Offred) are the most developed female characters in the book. They are written clearly as feminist revolutionaries from which the rest of the characters in the stories can and should learn. There is no similar championing of  Chiara who is duplicitous, occassionally judgmental, and seems as various points to use or advocate violence or Crenshaw, who is judgmental, unattached, and also weilds power in ways that do not take into account Bell’s schedule or needs.  Thus Bell gives us a world in which all the men are black and all the feminists are white, or passing for it, and everyone is straight. (Interestingly, the Chiara story does include a critique of gender and gender binaries, tho there are no transgendered characters in the book.)

At the same time, Bell has to be commended for including women as powerful presences in almost all of the essays/stories in the book. All of them are strong, intelligent, and outspoken. Many of their struggles symbolize the struggle of African-Americans in the book drawing and clear and important line of connection between women’s rights and those of people of color (regardless of gender). Often Bell, as narrator, takes time out to point out the efforts of women, breakdown their activism, and champion it. And in at least one story, he promises a brand new world founded by a woman who chose to be cast out rather than collude any longer.

Unfortunately, he is less successful in discussing antisemitism and the conflict between some Jewish people and some African Americans. His essay/story “Shadowboxing” dispenses with any pretense of science fiction or even much fiction in order to posit a conversation between Bell and a fictional Jewish colleague who Bell feels is unreasonable and slightly racist. Hirsch, the colleague, comes across as a hyper-sensitive, self-obsorbed, colleague invested not so much oppression olympics as oppression eclipse in which only Jewish people suffer. In other words his character is an offensive stereotype. Worse the way that fiction Bell interacts with him about race and ethnicity exempts antisemitism while holding Jewish people accountable for racism. I’m unclear what is worse in this chapter, the insistence that Jewish people overreact to antisemitism to the erasure of other forms of oppression by a character who is guilty of the exact same thing, or the fact that important events in which Jewish boycotts of black leaders and companies led to their demise are eclipsed by the profoundly negative narrative of this chapter. It took me days to push through this chapter and its presence in the collection ensured that I could not recommend this book or gift it to anyone else.

Ultimately, despite pedantic and clunky metaphors and dialogue, inconsistent use of the genre and depiction of women, and the essay above, the book has some incredibly insightful things to say about race and racism and gender and feminism. Better still, it backs up much of its argument like a traditional academic essay, chalked full of references to research, court cases, novels, and historical figues and events. The endnotes alone make this worth perusing in your local library. But if you choose to read it, you should know only some of it is science fiction and only some of it is truly committed to equality.

Youngest Female Pilot Honors Tuskegee Airmen

So I often I report the negative news on the blog; today, I am happy to be reporting something else.

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Kimberly Anyadike/ Facebook

15 year-old, Kimberly Anyadike ended a 13 day flight over the nation yesterday. She is believed to be the youngest African American female to have completed the journey, and among the youngest people in the nation (regardless of race or gender) to have done so.

She left from Compton at the end of last month on a small red-tailed Cessna. The tail of the plane was painted red in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen who she hoped to honor:

They [The Tuskegee Airmen] left such a great legacy. I had big shoes to fill . . . All they wanted to do was to be patriots for this country. They were told no, that they were stupid, that they didn’t have cognitive development to fly planes. They didn’t listen. They just did what they wanted to do. (LA Times)

Anyadike’s co-pilot was also a Tuskegee Airman and during the 13 day trip, she stopped in 4 different states along the eastbound leg of the trip to meet surviving members of the all African-American Air Force unit. 50 Airman signed her small plane in thanks. Many were glad to see the legacy of African American pilots continuing into the next generation.

airbriefing“Tuskegee Airmen Briefing” Toni Frisell 1945

Anyadike also understands the importance of continuing the legacy, stating her other main reason for taking the flight amidst discouragement from others was:

I wanted to inspire other kids to really believe in themselves. (ibid)

Given that the first all African-American female crew (pilot, co-pilot, and flight attendants) flew only a year ago, Anyadike’s significance to women’s aviation cannot be underestimated. Not only does her flight represent an important shift away from a largely male, or male only, tradition in aviation (black or white) but was also part of the efforts of several strong women to keep the program where she learned to fly alive. Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum, designed to inspire at-risk and low income youth to not only learn to fly but also to take hold of their dreams, was largely supported by female Congressmen. Senator Diane Finestein and Congresswoman Richardson have been key advocates for the program and were also on hand to meet Anyadike when she reached the East Coast. Congresswomen Juanita Millender-McDonald and Figueroa have been important local advocates for the program, taking their accomplishments to the hill. Congresswoman Millender-McDonal also helped spearhead efforts to get the program re-funded under the Bush administration; those effots were stopped by then-Pres Bush, citing Katrina rebuilding as his reason, tho many believe it was part of a longstanding tradition of Republicans to refuse to fund targeted programs regardless of how beneficial they may be. While Bush failed to see the significance of the program, the male pilots behind the program were much clearer on its goals and were just as keen as the women involved to ensure female representation and gender equity in the program.

blackpilotsT. Airman Thornhill, Anyadike & Petgrave/ Facebook

TAM is also a shining examples of black people doing for themselves. Founder, Jamaican-American, Robin Petgrave started the program to inspire youth and get them off the streets and away from exploitation. It is currently supported by the Association of Black Pilots and the Tuskegee Airman Chapter in LA, as well as the KIPP school (open to all inner city youth seeking college prep education). And TAM is part of a larger community effort to help inspire kids from Compton that many locals have spoken out in praise of and helped support through time, effort, media, and funds.

In a world where we are still willing to kick children out of a pool for being the wrong “complexion” or to disparage the intelligence of young girls while encouraging them to see their power in flesh and product, Anyadike offers a critical alternative of hardwork, knowing one’s history, and daring to dream. The collective effort of women and men from Congress to Compton ensured that the youngest black female pilot just made a safe and historic flight around our nation. Her skills and accomplishment will no doubt inspire other young girls and nationally disparaged youth; they certainly inspired me.

(According to the LA Beez, President Obama has authorized the funding Bush canceled.)

Exile and Pride: Book Giveaway Winner

289_popupThanks to all who wrote both public and private requests for our first book giveaway. I’m glad you all continued to send in your requests despite all of the chaos here at the spot lately. 😀

I just wanted to say to all of you that your stories about why this book would mean something to you, your students, or your friends were truly moving and I wish more of you would have been willing to share those with the rest of the blog.

Our book winner is long time reader/lurker: Anna M.

Anna intends to use the book in a reading group she is starting at her newly opened feminist lending room ( a small room off a coffee shop donated by the coffee shop owner, that will house a lending library of feminist texts). The book will be the first queer feminist disability addition to their lending room and will be the inaugural book in their reading group. Anna hopes it will heal some wounds in her community amongst organizers and encourage diverse groups to participate in the building and sustaining of the feminist lending room.

I wish her and her group the very best. 😀

You can learn more about Exile and Pride here or order it here