Your Silence Will Not Protect You

I’ve been searching tonight for my copy of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider because when in doubt, Audre Lorde has the answer. But, I haven’t been able to find it amidst boxes and boxes of books and I’m starting to think that maybe it’s at my parents’ house where I probably took it, reading it on the plane, in a fit of the same fierce need to get some Lorde in me.

But, no matter: her words haunt. Use your anger, she’s admonished me before. Women have power and are powerful, she always tells me. And this, which is the gut punch, the truest of the true: Your silence will not protect you.

It never has. Those ideas that I have for stories, for my novel, for my creative life, rot slow in my mouth. They do not grow in all that damp and dark. And they do not keep me from being seen, from people judging me, from being liked or disliked. Hidden away, they do not save me from myself or the world. And if the silence cannot save me from all of that, if the silence is not superhuman and immortal, catching bullets in its mouth and moving too fast for blades to slice it, why do I cling to it?

But, I did find some Lorde tonight because the internet is our friend. And as always, Lorde knows just what I mean:

And, of course, I am afraid– you can hear it in my voice– because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside of you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth.”

Here’s the wholeness and avoiding the right hook of our own fear.

Mad White Men

Three years ago, slightly depressed and living in New Mexico while I got my M.F.A., one of my friends said, “Oh my God, you haven’t seen Mad Men? You must see Mad Men.” Or something like that, something compelling enough that I started illegally downloading the first and second seasons.

The first year of the show, I actually had watched a few episodes, in real time with my sister while I lived in NY, but then missed some episodes and failed to pick it back up. When I began watching again, I got hooked for good. The clothing and the furniture of the 60s are kind of my thing, so that was easy enough to be pulled in to start, and the story did the rest. Don Draper was a terrible husband, a distant father, and an altogether fascinating human being. I couldn’t get enough and have waited for each season’s return, excited for what the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, would have in store for the ad men of Mad Avenue. And with that I measured my feelings about the treatment of race in the show. I hoped like a lot of viewers (and complained along with some non-viewers) that they would get to race and handle it deftly. Weiner had deftly handled gender, representing the sexism and repression present for women of that era, while also creating nuanced female characters. He showed the boot on every woman’s neck and then never hesitated to take the camera in close to show the bruises there too.

This year promised, according to its timeline, to change that. It’s 1968 and Martin Luther King is assassinated, and like Kennedy’s before him, his death helped to define that era. My heart kind of broke then when the event I had expected finally happened and Matthew Weiner proved the answer to this question so aptly asked by the writers over at The Atlantic: can Matthew Weiner do as good a job on race as he did on gender? My answer, minus some of the profanity included when I watched the April 28th episode of Man Men entitled The Flood: absolutely ______ not.

Some critics called the move by Weiner to treat race lightly, to focus the characters inward rather than outward struggle, as “brave.” Uhhh, yeah. Sure. Brave would have been allowing these characters–white, well-to-do or at least well-enough-to-do, and too ensconced in their own privilege to recognize the lack thereof for black people–to be more narrow-minded and glibly racist. Weiner allows one character to be that, one that viewers have come to expect to be ham-handed on just about everything. But what about Don or Roger? Joan gives an awkward hug to THE black secretary when she comes in late having struggled to get to work through the rioting in Harlem. It’s about the only moment in the show on race I thought was interesting. We all cozy up to our own privilege, our lighter skin, our skinnier body, our better house, our white collar job, and I can’t escape the idea that in the 1960s there would have been very little to stop these characters from cozying up to their privilege that much more. It’s New York you say, it isn’t Mississippi. Tell that to the Central Park Five or Amadou Diallou. Privilege is privilege and no one likes the people who threaten it.

Some would argue that this glancing treatment of race is Matthew Weiner working hard to be true to the era. It’s the same response people give when someone comments on how sexist the show is. But, remember that boot I talked about earlier? In the course of this episode, I realized that Weiner probably has no idea how to show the bruises on the neck of black people. Get me David Simon, stat! The only two real black characters on the show are mostly absent. I won’t necessarily quarrel with that creative choice, but why must one woman call the black people rioting in Harlem fools? Why does the other black woman practically beg to stay at the office for fear of what she would find in Harlem? How could a writer who made Don Draper so greatly three-dimensional, so tender and terrible, how could that writer not have known or allowed those characters to express some joy at the rioting? How could he have not understood that those women would have hungered, just like any of the “fools” in the street, to let the world know how angry they were? I didn’t need this episode to end with We Shall Overcome, the thought of that makes me ill. But no one can tell me that Weiner’s failure to be bold in some way, in any way, in this episode was brave. It was actually out and out cowardly.

Every Inch of You Is A Scandal

I love the television show Scandal: Kerry Washington in a starring vehicle and Shonda Rhimes behind the scenes. It’s a Negro girl’s dream. I never watched Rhimes’s other shows, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and the short-lived Off the Map. Mostly because of medical show burnout, but now when I watch Scandal, I get the appeal those other shows must have. It’s decadent, a dessert and you can’t help digging in again and again. I’ve had conversations with black women from their twenties to their seventies who all love Scandal. And then, I’ve also had friends, who are both entranced with and troubled by the character Kerry Washington plays, Olivia Pope. A recent episode was entitled, A Criminal, A Whore, An Idiot, and A Liar. All ended up being features of Olivia Pope. She loves the wrong man, doesn’t marry the one who’s right for her, breaks the law, breaks her friend’s heart, kidnaps, double deals, and would do most all of it again, any time it was needed.

A new ad for the show has Kerry Washington in just her underwear with scenes of the show projected onto her body. At the end the announcer says, “When you’re having an affair with the president, every inch of you is a scandal.” Not a bad tagline and as beautiful as Kerry Washington is not a bad visual either. But the second part of that line, that every inch of her body is a scandal, was too fraught to not stick in my mind for a few days after the first time I saw the ad. Because although Olivia Pope is in many ways delightfully complex, she is also a symbol. Shonda Rhimes has been clear that the character isn’t a role model and so the character’s choices are not meant to be applauded or to uplift the race. Black art often gets weighed down with those expectations. I had a conversation with a friend once as we imagined how sweet it would be to not be saddled with race sometimes, to live with the audacity of a white man, when your body is labeled as nothing but your own, not one that anyone else can own or bargain with, never needing your consent to label your body as someone else sees fit. Little black girls can be cunts and women on the stage at the Superbowl singing and dancing their hearts out can be no more than black hoes (what one white man in my Superbowl watching group jokingly called Beyonce and her dancers). Because that Scandal ad is right: every inch of the black body is a scandal.

But, the black body isn’t just a sexual scandal like Olivia Pope’s might be considered, it’s also a scandal as in a violation, something of which to be ashamed. On The Walking Dead, the black female character of Michonne is that kind of scandal. She has mutilated one of the white male characters, a man called The Governor (think Southern, racist, turn-the-dogs-and-the-firehoses-on-people-kind-of-governor) and in order to save themselves the group the viewer is meant to root for, the group with which Michonne has stayed, fought, and now even helped save, might offer her up to The Governor. On tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead, we’ll discover whether or not the group actually gives up Michonne in order to save themselves. It seems an understandable choice, right? Michonne has committed an act of violence and really, shouldn’t everything possible be done to save themselves? But perhaps more importantly, it would rid their group of the one who is markedly different, darker with coarse hair and wider nostrils. Michonne is a scandal and Olivia Pope is one too because they are othered, from (nappy) head to (brown) toe. Black bodies looked at as violations made slavery an easier enterprise. And Jim Crow. And housing discrimination. And letting forty years go by between a black woman as a lead in a network drama. Those who we malign can ever after be easily oppressed.

Every inch of the black body is a scandal.

But, I’ll wonder when I see that Scandal ad again, when will that only be the tagline for a television show and not a sentiment that people believe?

Oh Yeah? And Where’s Your Shelf?

I went to a networking event last night for writers and literary folk. I had some nice conversations and met some good people. Late into the night, I talked to a publicist, whose firm had organized the get-together. I started telling her about my writing and the book(s) I’m working on. I knew my synopsis of the books were disorganized and I felt like I was rambling. She was kind though and then said, “What you’ll have to think about is where will it be shelved.” In the midst of the meandering description, she had clued into how tough I’ve found it to categorize what I want to do with one of the books. It’s got some speculative fiction, shellacked with satire, and doused with social commentary. Indeed, what shelf would it be on!

But then she hit me with, “Like would it be shelved in African American Literature?” since I had told her both books star black women. Oh. That’s what she meant. I felt a flash back to my Borders rant. In all the words I’d given her, the plot points I’d touched on, the setting I’d sketched out, it seems what she’s mostly heard was BLACK. I know it was her thinking as a publicist, as someone who would try to promote a book, but then there’s part of the problem.

Where’s my shelf? she wanted to know. While white writers can decide to be on just about any shelf because they aren’t constrained by race, by people considering race before they consider story. I’m not looking for a colorblind readership, as though there is something wrong with being a black writer and writing black stories. I just want a readership open to the stories of people who may not look just like they do.

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Black IS Beautiful. Does Hollywood Know It?

A couple of weeks ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild got nominated for some big-time Oscar categories, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It’s the story of a little girl, Hushpuppy, living in rural Louisiana, a place they call the Bathtub, with her father. It’s off the grid kind of living and by the end of the movie, Hushpuppy has to find the strength to navigate that world on her own.

I saw the movie a few months ago, after hearing a lot about it and how vivid it was. Lots of critics loved it and have lauded it for its naturalistic scenes, its celebration of community, and its entry into folklore. Not to mention, who doesn’t love an underdog story of a first-time director filming people who had never before acted in post-Katrina Louisiana? And there is no denying that Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy) is a powerhouse on screen. She has a ton of presence and is cute as all get out in this interview with Andre Leon Talley:

Andre Leon Talley and Quvenzhané Wallis

But, the same day I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild, I also saw Chicken With Plums, Marjane Satrapi’s live-action movie based on the graphic novel of the same name. It was kind of an indie movie marathon day for me. Satrapi’s Persepolis, a movie that came out in 2007, is one of those movies that I grow to love more each time I see it, and I loved it a lot initially. Chicken With Plums mines the same geography as Persepolis: Iran. It begins with its lead character’s death and the movie tells the story of how that death occurred. What a downer, you might think. But, the movie, though it did make me cry, was achingly beautiful. A beautiful story with an inclination to view life, even this life that we know from the beginning will soon be over, as beautiful. Beasts of the Southern Wild, on the other hand, lacked even an ounce of beauty. The movie tackled the difficult subject of poverty (and we do probably talk about and deal with death better in this country than poverty) and wrenched sympathy from the viewer in shot after shot of Hushpuppy wandering the swamp in dirty underwear looking for her absent father. The shots meant to strike us as uplifting, as a kind of beautiful, like when Hushpuppy breaks into a crab all by herself, felt instead like sport, like poverty porn. A viewer can watch a scene of small triumph for a person who has been struggling and get off on it, derive pleasure from thinking that now all is well for that character and can leave the theater glad that you’re not one of them. Don’t even get me started on Precious.

A couple  walked out of the screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild and I understood the inclination. The movie didn’t make me feel connected to Hushpuppy or the folks of the Bathtub. It seemed to be written and shot to make a viewer feel that they were apart from the characters. Welcome to the Freak Show, I seemed to be told during scenes showing the odd education the children receive, the wretched conditions they live in, or at the kind of love that’s between this father and daughter. The beauty of Chicken With Plums was the belief that the lead character’s story was worthy and that in the telling–even in the sad, inevitable end–there was beauty to be bestowed on any one who watched it. But, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, black and poor and disenfranchised was never made to feel worthy of any more than the pitying gaze of the moviegoer.

I left the theater trying to remember the last time I had seen a beautiful image of blackness in media, maybe I’ll just have to enjoy images like this all the more.


Django Unchained: Reparations for the New Millenium

Liking Django Unchained, director Quentin Tarantino’s slavery era Western, has become the ilk of race traitors. Seeing it, according to some, was bad enough. But enjoying the bloody, hyperbolic film? Out of the question. Tarantino has envisioned a fantasy slavery, that’s true and some viewers take issue with that. Yet, the movie isn’t really about slavery. No one will leave the theater with a clear, historical perspective on the Antebellum south, but the lack of it being about SLAVERY and instead being set during slavery is actually part of why I enjoyed it. It’s a revenge western starring a black man rescuing a black woman, a scenario which feels rare in cinema. Kerry Washington, Broomhilda and the love of Django (Jamie Foxx), is laying alone after she believes she will never see Django again and when he opens the door to find her, he says, “It’s me, baby.” It felt like it had been an eternity since I had heard such sweet words spoken between a black man and a black woman. That Tarantino was the one to get them to the screen might be an issue for another day.

Of course, Django being set in the midst of slavery, even Tarantino’s satirized version of it, does mean that it actually must be discussed. Movies about slavery, or anything that is difficult and troubling to deal with, often end up didactic and therefore static in the thinking and response to it. Spike set color consciousness, intra-racial racism in the black community with its roots in slavery, to music! Why can’t Tarantino have a bold, satirical take on an institution so brutal, an era so painful that it’s rarely spoken of, much less dealt with? Nazi is in our every day lexicon, someone openly acknowledged as evil. But when was the last time, someone was called a slaver? Black people might joke and indict with some of the language of slavery: overseer, y’assuh massuh, but if as a culture we don’t accept and acknowledge, universally, that those labels of slavery are evil, how are we ever assured that the oppression that fed slavery and kept it fat and satisfied for centuries, can one day be no more? Jamie Foxx shooting whites willing to enslave other humans–to buy and sell and demand handshakes over dessert to seal the deal–felt like reparations to me. Payback never looked so twisted and messy and imperfect: kind of the way race relations still looks in this country.

The World Is Too Close

I joined Twitter a few years ago, but had up until earlier this year tweeted exactly twice. In the last few months, though, I’ve tried to change that, mostly because I’m job hunting and trying to transition to a new city. Twitter seemed a good way to stay aware of what’s happening in that city and in the arts community there. I picked some people to follow, writers I admired, publications I trust, arts organizations I hoped would magically tweet me job offers. I also found celebrities, lots of them. Twitter is teeming with them. Of course, I should know this from any celebrity scandal that has broken in the last couple of years. Somewhere surrounding the before, during or after of the scandal, an entertainment reporter is checking Twitter feeds. But, when a writer I admire and had decided to follow followed me back, I was paralyzed. What would I write to prove to her that I was smart and witty and worthy of being followed? I wouldn’t consider myself a star-struck person. I don’t have autograph books. I have no iPhone pictures of me interrupting an actor’s meal at a steakhouse. The Lenny Kravitz poster that used to hang on my wall when I was a teenager was taken down long ago. Twitter, however, begs for you to interrupt, to eavesdrop, to feel like you could be their best friend. Inappropriateness sets in. And it isn’t just with celebrities.

I know I’m late to this: who hasn’t worried over social media in the last few years? I’ve discovered far too much about people I barely know over the years via Facebook. Somehow though, that famous author suddenly having access to what I say and think brought the world too close and I think, it’s too close without the reward of real intimacy. This moment right now, of you reading my words, well that’s a sort of collapsed distance too. And yet, the distance of writer to audience is one I accept somehow. Maybe because it’s more established, but probably because as far I know I’m not in conversation with anyone in particular, only with this screen or only with the page. And maybe that’s why the world feels too close, maybe that’s why I’ve tweeted just once to an @soandso and felt painfully awkward afterward.

I’d rather the world stayed a bit of a distance away, things tend to look prettier when they aren’t viewed through a microscope.