Latin@ Book Giveaway

lasbooks

Adele @ A Book Without a Cover is giving away 5 free books by Latin@s to celebrate Latin@ Book Month. All you have to do is email her with the reason why these books will enhance your life or help you to enhance the lives of others.  You can find out the title of the books (pictured above) and the “rules” by clicking here.

I am actually reading a stack of Latina books right now for a course I am teaching next semester in Latin American History (yes, I assign literature . . . isn’t that old school by now?), so I make a commitment to post at least once a week about Latin@ authors as part of Latin@ Book Month.  Since so many in the last few months in the younger feminist blogosphere have been asking about Chicana feminism beyond Anzaldua, I’ve been thinking about doing another feminists of color series like the ones permanently linked to on the right hand side of the blog. . . so we’ll see where this takes us. 😀

Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur died of cancer while I was on blog break. While most people are lamenting the loss of our “Golden Girl,” including my partner whose obsession with that show is frightening, I want to remind everyone of the feminist tv show that made Bea Arthur a star: Maude.

(due to the ridiculous policing of the song on youtube by WMG, I can’t give you the opening credits scene, but here is the iconic theme song sung by Michael Mishaw; lyrics at bottom of post)

Maude tackled such important topics as reproductive choice, equal pay, racial reconciliation, and so many others.

In this hilarious clip, Maude tackles the difference between middle class “drug use” and working class “drug addiction.” I love this clip not only for its subtleties about drugs but also because Maude and Florida’s interactions provided endless hilarity.

Here’s a discussion about mainstream feminism’s proximity to patriarchy (and pregnancy for the reproductively adverse) that cracks me up:

In short, the character Maude (and the show) was a strong, outspoken, unapologetic woman, every single episode. In many ways, I think Arthur has always been playing Maude on television. Though the actress was said to be more quiet than the character, her strong feminism was akin to both Maude and Dorothy and it showed.

Interestingly, as the clip above shows, Bea Arthur and, Golden Girl co-star, Rue McClanahan met on Maude when McClanahan replaced a previously cast actress on Maude.

Perhaps I love this character best, b/c when I railed against oppression, my mother used to say “And then there’s Maude.”

Maude Theme Song: And Then There’s Maude

by David Gruesen and Andrew Berman

Lady Godiva was a freedom rider
She didn’t care if the whole world looked.
Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her
She was a sister who really cooked.

Isadora was the first bra burner
And you’re glad she showed up. (Oh yeah)
And when the country was falling apart
Betsy Ross got it all sewed up.

And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s

That old compromisin’, enterprisin’, anything but tranquilizing,
Right on Maude.

What Sorts of People Series on Eugenicisim, Philo, and Disability

The bloggers over at What Sorts of People have been posting both the video and transcripts from their 4 person panel at the Western Candian Philosophy Associations annual conference over the last month. As Implied by the title of this post, their panel addressed Eugenicism, Philosophy, and Disability. I’ve been reading the transcripts with keen interest not only in the ongoing links between eugenicism and thinking around disability rights but also the legacy eugenicism has within the university.

For those unfamiliar with eugenicism as a doctrine/pseudo science, basically eugenicists believe in controlled reproduction for the “good of society.” It is predicated on the belief that savagery and civilization are inherent qualities linked to specific races, locations, classes, and abilities. Only certain groups (white, able-bodied, upper class, heterosexual, etc.) should reproduce. Often, we talk about eugenicism in terms of race and culture since the most widescale examples of eugnicism include Nazi Germany and the forced sterilization of Indigenous and Puerto Rican women under a law penned by George W. Bush long before he was made president. However, eugenicist interference in the reproductive rights of women has a long history with regards to dis/ability and incarceration, as well as any number of poor women, women of color, and other marginalized women. That history can be traced to prominent feminist canonical figures like Margaret Sanger, current pregnancy prevention programs like C.R.A.C.K, and ongoing discussions about the sexual and reproductive rights of differently-abled people in national and international news.

The two opening talks in the series give some historical background to eugenicism. Dick Sobsey’s “Varieties of Eugenics Experience in the 21st Century” takes a look at social connections and how societies are constituted prior to eugenicism and then after as well as a pop culture, easy access, look at some of the key concepts. In his talk, entitled “Preventing Disability: Nordic Perspectives”, Simo Vehmas outlines the basic history of eugenicism and then breaks down its impact for differently-abled people in Finland. One of the key points of his talk is the location of controlling differently-abled people’s sexual expression and sexuality as part of a control of their reproductive rights. So that they are rendered asexual and forced to be so as part of the eugenicist agenda even tho sex and reproduction do not necessarily have to be linked:

the sexual activities of women with impairments were regarded dangerous because sex in their cases resulted with great probability in a birth of a child with similar characteristics, similar unwanted characteristics.

The second 1/2 of his talk goes on to suggest that with regards to dis/ability rights the issue of “informed consent” as an out clause to forced sterilization becomes a misnomer. Which raises several questions around the reproductive rights of differently-abled women: How can consent be given? by whom? And does the failure to establish consent then mean that no differently-abled patients can be sterilized even if they request the procedure themselves?

This part of his talk also includes a discussion of how abortion was used as a eugenicist tool to enforce sterilization by requiring those getting abortions to also get sterilized. While there was no similar uniform and stated policy in the U.S., many women of color and differently-abled women have reported to being forceable sterilized during abortions or told that complications with the abortion required sterilization or hysterechtomies that are not certain were actually required. Others have reported going in for birth control and being talked into sterilization. So that these issues permeate marginalized women’s reproductive choices regardless of legal policy or illegal practice. And when we think about reproductive rights the continued failure to adequately address the impact of eugenicism on both the past and the present of many marginalized women’s lives has often translated into a racially and ability divided movement in which marginalized women are stigmatized as ignorant or arch conservative when that might not be the case.

Finally Simo questions the autonomy model that has replaced overt reproductive interference as potentially modern day eugenicism:

paradigm change in prenatal practice. Whereas previously, the main goal was prevention of disability but now the main-and this was based and it was even admitted that this goal was based pretty much on eugenic principles-but now the main goal is providing people with autonomous unlimited freedom for choice and so the success of prenatal genetic testing and various measures is measured by freedom of choice. So autonomy is the prominent value, everything is based on autonomy. In practice this means that the more tests there are available, the more choices you have and the more freedom you have. This is the kind of logic, which can be… and people actually, I think, believe this, although of course it’s not very credible, because more medicalized and technical pregnancy gets, women are more and more at the mercy of doctors who are the only ones who actually know what’s being tested and how to interpret and understand these test results.

As this quote points out, the increasing medical testing involved in pregnancy not only creates a situation where women are reliant on doctors who may be invested in unspoken prejudices about ability, race, class, and sexuality, but the emphasis on able-bodied delivery remains intact. Worse, because it now follows a freedom and autnomy script, the desire for able bodied children, testing to prevent the birth of differently-abled children, and the potential for termination of differently-abled fetuses becomes a function of “freedom.”  That language leads to ideological acceptance of eugenicism as evidenced in discussions excusing or empathizing with parents who kill their own differently-abled children intentionally or through long term neglect.

The third installment at WSP deals with naming, history, and honor. More specifically, Philosopher Martin Tweedale discusses the decision to stop awarding the John McEachran prize to students in philosophy because of McEachran involvement in eugenicist driven sterilizations of inmates in Alberta Canada. His target was primarily people with mental and physical disabilities and indigenous peoples and took place over several decades. John McEachran was also the founder of the philosophy and psychology departments at U Alberta and one time Provost. The prize established posthumously in his honor was funded in such a way that it could not be renamed nor the monies funneled into other programs and awarded through other means.

The debate surrounding defunding the prize related to issues of honoring exceptional student’s work, ensuring that student need was met, and whether or not a man who had participated in heinous research should have the positive contributions of his career permanently blotted out as a result. With regards to the latter, anyone who has read my thoughts on the DW Griffith award knows that I think we can acknowledge the positive contributions of people without permanently enshrining them or honoring them or others through them in ways that erase their offenses or render them irrelevant or lesser. Nor do I believe that it would be honor to receive a prize in the name of someone who had forcibly sterilized people on the basis of a racist, classist, and ableist belief that certain groups of people should not be allowed to reproduce in the same way, I see no honor in receiving a prize named after a person who cemented the myth of the black rapist and valorized the creation of the Klan at a time when lynching, burning, and deadly beatings of black people at the hands of said group was at its height. Tweedale offers a more complex opinion in which he argues that the university was never implicated in MacEachran’s research nor did have the resources to replace the needed prize. (Can you be implicated in life of a man if you choose to honor him and others through him in a prize that does not acknowledge his offensive legacy?)

This talk arrives at WSP blog at the exact moment that historians, anthropologists, and philosophers are knee deep in discussions about ritual and honor over at Dead Voles. For me it provides another unique layer to the discussion of how we honor past academics tho clearly from a different standpoint. Given how many times we have uncovered eugenicism or unethical research in our intellectual histories, the decision making at the U Alberta and the reflections Tweedale is engaging in in the talk may provide early steps to the redress many of us involved in university level governance may one day have to take.

You can, and should, read the series at their blog using the following links

They have not, as far as I know, posted the fourth and final speaker’s work on the panel. But as you can see from the synopsis here, it is well worth the read and the thinking it should raise. For feminist bloggers thinking through the discussion of how to be more accountable to differently-abled women and to engaging disability rights, the second panel discussion is a good jumping off point. (Then again, based on that last comment by Piny 3/30 at 1pm, maybe not . . .)

BHM: Still Black a Movie Review

Ok, this is a repost of a previous two part post in which I reviewed Kortney’s film (below) and a film by Harjant Gill. While I could apologize for not offering up a new post as part of black herstory month, instead I am going to point out how important I think this documentary is to a growing understanding of gender and sexuality for both black and queer communities. While the documentary, and its amazing director, are both new, the issues it tackles are a part of our her/his/hirstory and therefore part of this February series. (In going over the piece recently, I realized what re-posted was a draft version. I have corrected the text to reflect the final version.)


sbscreenshot

still black: A portrait of black transmen

Kortnery Ryan Ziegler’s debut documentary, still black, centers on the narratives of six black transmen about their identities and their lives. They discuss themes as expected and varied as: transitioning, employment, marriage, parenting, poetry, ability, sexuality, gendered space, and social movements. The group of participants is also extremely diverse, vary by age, education, faith, and location. This serves to remind us of the diversity within the black transcommunity as much as within the larger black and queer ones.

For me the two most groundbreaking aspects of the documentary are

  1. its insertion of black masculinity in a transgender narrative in which black is almost always seen as MTF/transwomen if represented at all
  2. the complexities of the participants stories; they ask us to think critically not only about gender but also social space, family, and identity in the intersections.

The majority of the participants in still black tell the expected/required medical narrative of gender – feeling discomfort kortney2in women’s clothing, playing with toys coded male, wondering when their “penis was going to grow in,” etc. While I don’t question the authenticity of their memories/stories, I wonder how the film would have differed had each participant not retold this story at the beginning of each of their segments. I ask this not to undermine the narrative, which comes across in the film as authentic, but rather because of the growing body of theory questioning the medical model. These theories argue that there is a formulaic narrative of gender required to receive approval for transition and anyone unwilling or unable to repeat this model not only remains outside of hardening gender categories but also access to medical transition. The participants themselves have much more complex relationships to gender identity than the narratives imply as well, making me all the more curious about how they would have talked about themselves and their transitioning without the overlay of the medical model.

Far more interesting to me is the way that Ziegler’s participants discuss learning socially accepted gender codes or masculinity. Her first participant, Kylar, discusses workshops at trans conferences about how to dress, tie a tie, etc.

“I’m already the man I want to be. I just have to live it.”

While two other participants talk about their father and brother showing them how to “be a man;” and while both locate gender knowledge in those interactions with their father, they are also both jokingy about this process.  For some, bodies matter in ways that some in the audience might not expect. Ethan, quoted above, says that a uterus was not a problem for him but breasts, which are “external and visible,” had to go or he did not feel right. On the other hand, Louis believes “feeling like a guy and having a period just sucks.” These narratives, and others in the film,  serve to remind us that gender is not only constructed but also learned. It is mapped not only on the bod but also on the socio-cultural understandings of oneself and gender in general. There is also a communal investment in gender codes, both in the sense of transmen pooling their knowledge about masculinity to fit normative gender identity and in born-men passing onjay their knowledge to ensure proper adherence to dominant codes. The documentary’s discussion of this latter issue could serve invaluable in discussing how we all subconsciously know there is a gender script and how to follow it even if consciously some deny it or call it natural.

At the same time, many of the participants in the film discuss wanting to do gender differently. For instance, Jay spends the bulk of his narrative talking about the fluidity of his gender identity. While he is a man, he is not invested in “[male] manners” and likes that he can identify with and be identified with by women while “still being a man.” He admits however that the pressure to conform makes him “question [his] manhood” on occasion. Deacon Carl credits feminists for making him aware of his traditional gender adaptations and expectations and wanting to be more fluid about gender roles and dynamics in his marriage.

The discussion of sexuality is equally complex in this film, reminding us that sexuality and gender are not uniquely tied together. Ziegler’s film includes a gay man, a lesbian couple turned heterosexual couple, a hetero couple, and a transman who desires women but spent a considerable amount of time in early transition dating gay men. The range of their sexual identities and the anxieties and triumphs the come with them again show a complexity that is not normally missing in academic discussions of genderqueer identity.

For people who are lesbian identified even those attracted to butch lesbians there is something about being with a man that is not compelling to them at all.

So says one of Ziegler’s participants in discussing the importance of seeing transition not only as a project filmfinalcoverpage_2of
the self but also a process for partners and family. Louis discusses how his partner, a femme lesbian, had to consider both desire and her own identity in order to make the transition with him. Their negotiation included what it meant to go from being lesbians to being seen as straight, exclusion from all female and lesbian spaces as a couple, and also the layers of invisibility that would occur sepcifically for his femme partner. His articulation of this process as individual, shared, and communal is one of the most fruitful moments in the documentary.

While Louis finds a positive resolution to these negotiations, he and his partner get married and have a solid relationship, Rashad, another participant, muses about possibly never having a committed long-term relationship. In the early days after Rashad’s transition he talks about dating anyone who desired him in order to suss out “who is attracted to transmen.” He found he was most attractive to straight and gay men.

” Everybody wants to be desired.”

Rashad said he willing went out with gay men for a while but that he has always and will always desire women. There is a reticence in his voice about how his desires and those who desire him may not match up, that made me wonder about the common narrative that FTMs are moving into a position of universal male privilege. One of the key pieces of patriarchy is the ability to attract what you desire and to take it by force when you cannot without much fear of the consequences. And while black men have mediated access to that kind of male power, as strange fruit, masculinity still implies power over the female body and female desires. Defying gender ultimately has consequences for sexuality, hetero or queer, that we need to be more cognizant of when discussing the transcommunity.

“We don’t have a white picket fence yet, but we have everything else.”

Deacon Carl and his wife Wanda met after he had transitioned and had children shortly after they got married. Much of their narrative is taken up discussing family and parenting. They discuss the typical trials of gender divisions in household labor, difficulties with childbirth and parenting, and figuring out balance in marriage. What I loved about their carlstory was when Wanda said they wanted to write a book about family and parenting. Unlike other more media oriented transparents of late, Wanda and Carl seemed genuinely interested in discussing the family dynamics of early marriage and parenting as part of a normative lifecycle and a desire to ensure that every type of family is represented. (I hope they get their book deal)

Ethan, on the other hand, knew that he was gay. He had a long term relationship with a woman as a lesbian prior to transitioning but felt that was a part of moving into the body and identity that he had always known.

They [gay men] wouldn’t want to be with me the way my body was . . . I lived
as a lesbian just to be a part of the queer community.

Ethan makes a point of saying how much he loved and respected his female partner before her death, she died of
cervical cancer, so that there is no confusion about his feelings for her. However, of all of the stories about gender and sexuality I find his the most engaging from multiple vantage points. What does it mean to change one’s body in order to express one’s sexual desires? This question, prompted by an early screening of Ethan’s interview last year, kept my colleagues and I deep in conversation well into the night. And in what ways does our discussion of sexuality and desire have to shift, if at all, to make room for both Ethan and Rashad’s stories. Often theory has talked about the fluidity of desire but reality has led to the shunning of long time lesbians who marry a man or transition. Does Ethan’s story or Louis’ story make us have to take new stock of practice?

Many of the participants also discuss the intersections of race and gender. They question both the meaning of black drivbmasculinity as it is presented in society and the impact of becoming black men on their own mobility and status. Ethan’s story of being stuck in his wheel chair a block from home is perhaps the most illustrative of the fear and loathing that black masculinity creates in the minds of the mainstream. He talks of being stuck in the snow for over 1/2 an hour while no one stopped to help. People  stared at him from inside their cars for an endless amount of time until finally someone rolled their window down slightly and offered to call the police. Ethan explained that he was only a block from home and that he would likely be frozen to death by the time the police came. Yet it took even longer for someone to do what they had done multiple times before, when he still had a female body, which was to get out of their car and help him on to the sidewalk. Ethan is incredulous that anyone would fear his permanently disabled and visible immobile (lower half) body. Yet he has not grown up with the fear and loathing that would allow him to understand the particularly gendered grafting of criminality onto the black male body that makes people doubt their own eyes and worry that he is faking it to lure them out of their cars into a carjacking. Or worse, that the fear of the black man trumps the infantilizing ableist gaze to the point that they literally cannot comprehend his immobility. Nancy Lopez has done some interesting work on the difference between the way men of color and women of color are criminalized along specific gendered expectations and its impact on their development. Since it is less about the criminal justice system and more about youth and development it might make an interesting companion piece to this part of the film.

Kylar also talks about racism, locating his critique within the transcommunity itself. He observes the easily recognizable exclusions many of us in social movements have experienced, where transmen of color are cut out of public imaginings, conference participation, and movement building by the age old “where can we find qualified people of color?” question that dogs all of us. While he does not discuss the unspoken assumption in that question, that poc are never qualified, he does discuss the white normative gaze that allows white transactivists to know and interact with transmen of color and still not think of them when it comes time to plan events.

He also points to how his insistence that race be an integral part of planning and discussion in the movement has
led to powerful recriminations from white transmen that he is trying to play “oppression olympics.” Again, like most of usfenner in social movements, he has made a point of saying “No oppressions are greater than any others.” His point is not just that race matters but that discussing race and racial oppression does not negate any other oppression present including transphobia. More importantly, racism is part of transphobia since transmen of color experience both as well as a transphobia that is irrevocably racialized.

Louis also tackles the problem of movement building across intersections. For him the issues are ones of gender because he was once “an elder in the lesbian community” and is now a transman. He felt that his most painful critiques came from butch lesbians who felt he was selling out the community and himself. Like Kylar, Louis works hard in his own social movement work to address the real and the perceived transphobic issues within the lesbian community and to trouble the latter in productive ways.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Ziegler’s film is a complex and engaging look at transgendered identity through the lens of the black transmale experience. It offers us a chance to understand and explore identities in the intersections and the margins of multiple communities. The subjects it tackles have not always been given the attention and respect that are so clearly presented here. Ziegler’s  attention to complexity makes them all the more poignant. Hir film challenges us to think differently and more in depth about queerness (all of the letters in the GLBTQ pantheon) and ultimately about ourselves. It is a film not to be missed.

—–

images
  • still black promotional image
  • “Kortney Ryan Ziegler”. unattributed
  • “Jay”. Kortney Ryan Ziegler.
  • Poster for Oakland Black LGBT Film Festival 2007
  • “untitled.” Kara Delahunt. Colorlines Jan/Feb 2008 (from article on similar themes.)
  • “untitled” unattributed.

BHM: The Boys

B/c it is Saturday and I just spent 50 million years hopping from myspace to myspace and back to youtube in between looking for usable video tracks for my Hip Hop post (none of which panned out), and therefore I have nothing deep to tell you about black herstory today. I did however find this lyrically deep and powerful image ladden video for you from a gay hip hop artists talking about black history and hope:

BHM: Black Women’s Cinema as Historiography

I’ve been trying to make these black herstory month posts about groups, collectives, the little known, or some of the unknowns in the well-know . . .

2007-black-women-directors-0001(Black Women Directors Honored by the BHERC 2007)

Today, as part of my commitment to also shine a light on African American female film directors, I am going to switch gears slightly and focus on a single artist. Since black women film makers are often completely invisible in Hollywood and in the popular imaginary, I think it is important to give each of these women there own space to shine as individuals who make up a collective body of cinematic knowledge and sacrifice. So every Friday for this month, and maybe into the next, we are going to spotlight a black woman director.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Cheryl Dunye

cheryl_dunye(Cheryl Dunye/ unattributed)

Cheryl Dunye’s first feature length film, Watermelon Woman, is largely credited as the first feature length film to star an out African American lesbian. While the film is significant for this reason alone, it has always interested me because of its watermelonwomancritique historiography and cinema. Watermelon Woman tells the story of a struggling black filmmaker, Cheryl, who is researching an unnamed actress in old Hollywood who was having an interracial relationship with a white film star. Cheryl, played by Dunye, encounters multiple layers of oppression in attempting to uncover the story while also fielding the criticism of her black lesbian cohort for her own interracial relationship. Despite the fact the Fae Richards appears in many small parts throughout the golden age of hollywood she is neither credited in most, accept once as the “watermelon woman,” nor remembered. As a black woman, her career is both significant, because of the number of films she was in, and insignificant, because of the roles and position of black actors in mainstream Hollywood. Thus Cheryl is forced to try and piece together the woman’s life from old photographs and rapidly decaying film.

Her first clandestine efforts with cinematic archives is a failure precisely because the “watermelon woman” was not considered significant enough to document. Cheryl’s archival mismatches shine a light on what many historians of queer culture have argued, that often we are left with rumors, letters, journals, and the keen since of gaydar to find our way. usingpageAdd in another layer of intersecting oppression and becomes that much harder.

Moving away from Hollywood as her source, the director then confronts racism in the queer and feminist archives, neither of which have bothered to spend a significant amount of time documenting the lives of black women. At the feminist archive, Cheryl is given a single box of unsorted materials and chastised for trying to use the documents within. At the queer archives she confronts both the absence of black herstory and the overwhelming emphasis on gay men’s history. In these moments she exposes the problems of the left in which race, class, and region often remain hegemonic even as the center shifts toward women or queer culture, which also continues to have the dual problem of addressing women and transpeople equally.

Failing once again to find any trace of our shared and overlapping histories, Cheryl goes to the family members of the Watermelon Woman’s possible girlfriend. At first, they are excited to meet her but as soon as they discover her film is about lesbians, they back out.  Family members claim they know nothing, despite having photos of the two together, or that they were coerced in their interviews. These fictional encounters mirror the homophobia surrounding the later release of Looking for Langston (1988 ) which was rejected by the Hughes’ family and barred from referring to Langston Hughes himself or his sexuality by the estate. In the latter case it was black homophobia that got in the way, in the Dunye film it is white homophobia.

The basic premise of the film, then forces us to confront the ways in which neither archives nor history are neutral but rather filtered through the same biases that govern our society. Instead of making a binary argument in which racism is the sole problem and progressives are all liberated, Dunye takes a critical to eye to the ways that multiple groups have failed to think and act intersectionally. In so doing, she clearly documents how our collective failures have robbed us of a rich mutlicultural, multi-gendered, multi-desiring, vision of our history that is much more accurate than the tightly boxed up ones we deal with now.

As Dunye put it:

By the end of the film it’s back in your face saying the Watermelon Woman is a fiction, I made it all up. What does that mean now, you have to do something (interview)

In other words, it is our task to confront both the oppressions of the past and the present in order to tell and display a more complete history of our world and the cultures within it.

Though Watermelon Woman did well on the independent circuit, Dunye also expressed concern about funding and commitment to the film. In a comment that we will see is all too typical of black women’s experiences in Hollywood, Dunye lamented how little funding she was able to garner from either the black community/ies or the queer one(s):

I’ve given up my life for the last four years and would have hoped that more progressive folks and those kind of communities of labels of identity politics and race politics, etc. would have made it out to the film or helped with the film or supported the film, but they haven’t so there’s a lot of work to do. (ibid)

While many independent filmmakers struggle to make their films and get distribution, one of the things that has plagued black cinema in particular is the failure to garner funding from within the black community or the usual channels accessed in Hollywood by independents. Part of this has to do with the limited resources available to the black community as opposed to the often affluent white first time directors. It also has to do with major structural inequities that make it easier for dominant culture to get loans, lines of credit, and introduced to other funding sources through affluent networks that are largely closed to African American, and especially African American female directors. A final layer of removal comes in the erasure of the black queer experience from both mainstream black culture(s) and white queer culture(s). Meaning that while Dunye expected to get funding and support from both black and queer culture, her subject matters seat in the intersection prevented such support. Worse, for certain segments of the queer of color communities, interracial dating is itself a controversy further removing Dunye’s film from a place of support.

Dunye is critical of the way the industry often requires black artists to seek white patrons, but astute enough to point out how this too is a historical process:

. . . most of the cast is of color and a lot of the producers aren’t. There are moments when I felt disempowered but with it but there were moments in history, looking back at the Harlem Renaissance which some of my film does look back to and you know, that’s how culture gets made with black people. Yes we have to break that chain but yes we have the kind of culture that functions on that philanthropy. (ibid)

Her words echo those of artists and intellectuals like Cullen, Baldwin, Dunham, and Hurston all of whom had scathing critiques for the way that philanthropy worked during the Harlem Renaissance particular within the queer community and across gender lines.

At the same time, Dunye is more philosophical about the possibilities embeded in philanthropy:

Being a token is, as Essex Hemphill said to me, “when you are given a token or made a token what do you do? you take a ride, you ride with it.” I feel like a lot of the kind of people that I worked with believed that themselves as well as I did in the sense of moving forward. I think we all got something out of it whether we work together again or not. There’s a certain sense of empowerment in creating art and there’s a certain sense of disempowerment in creating art and culture. (ibid)

The positive aspects show in all of Dunye’s films. The success of Watermelon Woman in particular had a lot to do with blapintersectional support. Much of the minimal budget for Watermelon Woman came through Women Make Movies, a feminist media group that helps ensure the production, promotion, distribution, etc. of female directors and films by and for women. As the fiscal sponsor, WMM helped Dunye secure funding she would not otherwise have been able to receive though they did not provide funds themselves (they don’t do that). And while I have long had issue with the price of WMM films and acquisitions, because schools like pov u are essentially priced out of owning or even exhibiting many of their films, their work not only ensures that women’s films get made but that those films are permanently archived.

First Run Features was also instrumental in the distribution of Watermelon Woman. FRF is one of the largest distributers of independent and documentary films in the U.S. and they have considerable holdings of queer and international films as well as films by people of color. They are also the distributers of a collection of Dunye’s early work which predates Watermelon Woman and includes: Greetings from Africa, The Potluck and the Passion, An Untitled Portrait, Vanilla Sex, She Don’t Fade, and Janine. Taken together, these shorts represent some of the key issues in lesbian experience from a black lesbian vantage point including: sexuality, family, interracial dating, and the potluck.

Dunye’s collection of early works was also debuted on the West Coast at the Queer Women of Color Film Festival which presents and promotes the work of women of colors from all racial backgrounds to an audience of white and women ofdunyeandex color, the gay community, and its allies. Dunye also spoke at the event, further expanding the reach of her unique cinematic form, her stories of a black lesbian experience, and inspire a new generation of women of color filmmakers.

Despite her modesty about it, Dunye has always been a director who understands the necessity of history and the blending of historiographic and cinematic form. Not only did Watermelon Woman and several of her shorts combine these, but her next major film project Stranger Inside did as well.

Stranger Inside moved out of archival examination and into oral history. Dunye and her partners worked with inmates to collect stories about their experiences that were most important to them. As Dunye began to develop the script for her sophmore effort, she also asked inmates to workshop the characters and scenes with her in order to make them as authentic a reflection of prison life as she could. strangerRather than turning the experience into spectacle, Dunye wanted to give voice to the inmate experience and to respect the voices she found within the prison walls.

Stranger Inside follows the tragic decision of a teenage inmate searching for her mother.  Treasure Lee is a young inmate with only a few months left on her sentence. She and another friend have been sent to jail for gang activity, both of them having experienced the cycle of racism-poverty-and incarceration that is all too predicatable in N. America’s forgotten neighborhoods. Unlike her friend, who uses these last few months to start an education and develop a plan for her life away from the gangs, Treasure commits a capital offense in order to stay in prison and join the mother she barely remembers. The film has a tragic twist to it that I will not reveal but one that left my students stunned and silent as the film came to a close in our joint showing with a sociology of race course.

When the film was first introduced to me by both Netflix and a graduate student, both called it a “queer film.”  I would argue that most of the characters are not queer and it is unclear if Treasure is either or if she just getting her needs met on the inside. Either way, the film once again expands discussion of sexuality through the lens of prison hierarchies and lifers as well of shifting the meaning of a “woman’s prison” or “lesbians in prison” film.latifah

This film also branches out from the black-white binary of Dunye’s earlier work by including Asian and Latina characters. I have some concerns about how the Asian woman comes across in this film as well as how the femme does, but the complexity of the script and the direction are such that I continue to mull these concerns over rather than landing on a single reading. That perhaps is the best sign of Dunye’s craft, that it makes you think and sticks with you in ways that keeps changing.

(I would argue that her religious symbolism is far less complex or thought provoking however.)

Dunye herself is quick to remind others that she is not alone in the struggle to represent positive black lesbian in_the_carexperiences in film. She pointed to Whoopi Goldberg’s role in Boys on the Side and Latifah’s role in Set It Off as two groundbreaking  mainstream examples that inspire her. These films are important because one was made for a mainstream independent film audience and the other was made for mainstream black audiences both of whom might not crossover to watching films about black lesbians. The inclusion of black lesbian characters in these films then expands the knowledge of its audience and exposes them to identities that are normally hidden to them. This is what Dunye is trying to accomplish with her own work.

She also places her work within the context of other black lesbian filmmakers such as: Jocelyn Taylor (who plays Cheryl’s bestfriend in Watermelon Woman), Leah Gilliam, Dawn Suggs, Shari Frilot, Michelle Parkerson, and Yvonne Welbonsapphire. She credits all of these women as a co-creative circle that critiques, curates, and lends love and support to one another’s projects. Yvonne Welbon’s work inspired me to write these film posts in the first place and I will be doing a post on all of these women as lesser known black women directors as part of this series.

And echoing a running, and yet unintentional thread, in the Black Herstory Posts, Dunye is a college professor. She currently teaches at Temple where I have no doubt a whole new group of intersectionally oriented cinematic historiographers are being born every day.

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images:

  • watermelon woman DVD cover
  • lesbian history archive image
  • black gay and lesbian archive project brochure cover
  • Dunye and her ex-girlfriend
  • stranger inside DVD cover
  • Latifah movie still from Set it Off
  • Whoopi, Barrymoore, and Parker movie still Boys on the Side
  • Leah Gilliam in Saphire and the Slave Girl


Michelle Obama’s Dress & The Politics of Race

Apparently the Black Artist Association is upset that neither of Michelle Obama’s outfits were designed by African Americans. They feel that this was a missed opportunity for the Obamas to highlight African American designers and further situate themselves within a particularly black narrative of this nation.obamawu

Like Slant Eye for the Round Eye, who first alerted me to this issue, I have a much more positive take. To me, Michelle’s choice was in keeping with the larger multicultural message of the Obama campaign. It also managed to weave in non-black poc into the center of the inauguration discussion where they were otherwise missing. As I noted in my post about the inauguration, the fact that all of the speakers were either black or white during the inauguration was not lost on me even as the faces surrounding Obama and in the audience were far more diverse. By choosing designers of color who were not of African descent Michelle Obama shifted that binary falsehood and ultimately honored all of us.

I was also particularly happy to see Jason Wu among her choices for designers because he embodied all of the characteristics of the base I was worried Obama might leave behind. He was young, queer, and Asian American. And for those who do not know, that particular demographic, as well as the demographics it intersects, was essential to grassroots mobilization for Obama on the West Coast.

The choice of Isabel Toledo was equally important in that it highlighted a Latina immigrant designer who may have lost mobamadayoutfither job at Anne Klein for failing to meet the same aesthetic as white, N. American born, designers. This of course is the inverse of the typical racialized narrative of immigration in the U.S. Given how little the Obama campaign talked about immigration in public forums, the choice of a Latina immigrant also has particularly powerful implications by simultaneously standing in solidarity with the dominant image of the immigrant and highlighting an industry that continues to be the least vilified and yet among the most implicated in immigrant exploitation in the U.S. Finally, Latinos were another important voting bloc in the general election and if they had not swung left for Obama he would have had a much harder time taking home the win. (Toledo has designed for Michelle Obama before as well.)

While I think most African Americans yearned for a “black narrative” (whatever that really means) in this inauguration, I think Michelle Obama’s clothing choices represented a uniquely feminist of color aesthetic that embraced all people of color. In so doing, Michelle Obama once again reminds us how to navigate these troubled waters with astuteness and grace.

(All though there is still that perming of the kids hair right before the DNC issue . . .)

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both images were unattributed but are likely cropped from AP Photos