The Art of Imagination

I’m loving Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange album. He left a few mouths agape when he revealed (with less ta-da than Anderson Cooper) that his first love was a man. I’ve had conversations with other Negro girls before who wonder if they would really be able to listen to a male musician singing a song about another guy. They would only be able to picture two men together, they say, making the song distinctly less sexy, less appealing, less escapist for them.

This brings up two ideas for me: one, hetero-normative thinking. Who ever said most men had ever been singing about them to begin with? Hello, Luther Vandross! But, at larger issue to me is one about art and the suspension of disbelief. Writers are often pressured at reading question and answer sessions to reveal the bibliographic parts of their fiction. “Is this about you?” the grumpy guy in khakis might wonder, stabbing the cover of the offending book. When we should suspend disbelief, we can’t. When we should, maybe so that we come to art without prejudiced ewws on our lips, we can’t.

But, art is made for our imaginations. It’s why you can look at an Ellsworth Kelly painting and see not just a triangle of blue, but a spot on the French Riviera. Frank Ocean is using the reality of his romance to make each of us imagine love in the world, love that we may believe is beyond us and outside of us, but love nonetheless. But both love and art make us feel and you can’t tell me when you hear Frank Ocean sing: “And though you were my first time/A new feel/It won’t ever get old, not in my soul/Not in my spirit, keep it alive/We’ll go down this road/’Til it turns from color to black and white.”

Hear it for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F15IjgyHd60

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The Souls of White Folks

I finally did it. Like a dreaded homework assignment I’d been putting off, I finally watched The Help. Although I feel like that title is misleading, as though the movie is actually about the help. I feel like White Girl Utopia might have been a better title. Perhaps Miss Skeeter All Growed Up. Or even something a bit more poetic like I Dreamed of Jackson. Dreamed seems appropriate. A hallucination, a fabrication. You know how you wake up and tell people you had the strangest dream and in it you baked a sh*t pie for a white woman in 1960s Mississippi and somehow didn’t end up dead in a ditch?

But I digress, because although I struggled factually with the movie, it’s fine because it’s not like anyone watches this movie and imagines they’ve gotten an accurate history lesson, right? I mean no one uses pop culture as a substitution for facts. Right? I see now the fault was mine because I thought that a movie featuring black women’s stories would have actually focused on the black women. Or did I miss what happened to Abilene’s husband or any family other than her son in the midst of Skeeter getting her hair done? I hate when I miss character development because I start thinking about how cu-ute someone’s hair is! Gee, that dress sure is pretty Miss Hilly. Wait, did the first act of violence in the movie come at the hands of a black husband towards his black wife? And then the only other act of violence on screen come from the police legitimately arresting a woman who had stolen? Well, that’s certainly the only violence I remember reading about in the Jim Crow South. Fiddle-dee-dee Miss Scarlett. Who cares about all that if we can one day sit down at the table of Brotherly Love, soothe white guilt, and eat some fried chicken?

Thurgood Marshall once said: “I’m so tired of trying to save white folks’ souls.” I have a feeling Hollywood’s never heard that one before.

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Undignified

All hail Viola Davis. I couldn’t bring myself to see the movie, but Viola Davis almost convinced me to and this only proves why she’s great and frankly better the material: http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2011/11/there-are-three-words-viola-davis-would-rather-not-hear-anymore.html?mid=378086&rid=122574027

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A Luxury

I finally finished the first draft of my collection of short stories (hence the non-posting). I am one of the smart suckers that’s talked about in this Slate article: graduate students in the humanities who are cheap labor and doomed to go into a job market already overcrowded with other humanities grad students. Here are some people who took issue with that.

My cousin recently called my degree in creative writing a luxury degree. I bristled a bit at the description, but well, she’s right. It’s not a degree that guarantees me anything and isn’t necessary to be a writer. Doctors have to go to medical school. The path to law is also clear. The arts–writing, music, painting, etc.–proffer a murky trudge to those who want to make it their career. A guy once said when I told him I was a writer, “So you just write down stuff that you imagine.” It felt like such a small life when he said it. It felt childlike and unimportant. I suppose playing around all day, goofing off with your imaginings doesn’t sound much like work. It sounds luxurious. But, I think more and more, after having lived a life when work never felt like anything but work, that the idea of living a life of luxury, all play and no worries, should be my goal. I’m thinking it should be everyone’s goal.

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“All Borders Stores Are Now Closed. Thank You.”

Borders, a behemoth of bookselling in the 1990s, lost its way in the 00’s and finally succumbed to bankruptcy. Its stores sold off their inventory last week. As a writer, I know the loss of a bookstore shouldn’t be celebrated, but as an African-American writer, Borders felt like a kind of enemy.

In any Borders, you could search through a variety of sections, maybe finally get that self-help book about your procrastination, buy a new cooking book, or find out how to fix cars. Every store also had a fiction section, massive areas where classic literature and the newest fiction sat nestled together on the shelves. But if you went to a Borders fiction section hoping to find Pulitzer Prize winning author Edward P. Jones or MacArthur genius grant fellow Colson Whitehead or New Yorker 20 Under 40 writer ZZ Packer, well you’d be disappointed. All of them, solely by virtue of race, would have been over in the African American Interest section of that Borders. Barnes & Noble has an African American Interest section too. Both claim that black book buyers want their own section, that it even helps to promote the books of those writers. The difference at Barnes & Noble is that those writers are also shelved in fiction. Borders kept its African American writers separate, segregated. If you’re an African writer at Borders, you were shelved in fiction. If you were a white writer writing about black people, like Kathryn Stockett, you were shelved in fiction. Why ghettoize the African-American writers? Those black writers were deprived of non-black readers, those readers who would browse the shelves in Borders looking for a good book to read by a good writer. Writers in Borders were considered black first and writers second. And how precisely do you determine what is of “African American interest” if the only determining factor is the race of the writer. Could Toni Morrison have written about a Swedish woman and been shelved in fiction? No. But it would be in African American Interest.

I’ll mourn the loss of one more place for someone to buy books, to find new ideas, maybe even find themselves. I won’t mourn a strike for equality.

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A Good Whitewashing

For the first time a few days ago, I saw the movie I Love You Man starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, where they become friends because Paul Rudd needs male friends and a best man for his upcoming wedding. Rudd’s fiancee is Rashida Jones, an actor who has been making her way on shows like Parks and Recreation and who is also the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton.

Negro Girls everywhere I thought could rejoice a bit. Here is a colored girl whose color isn’t the point in the movie. The prospect of her not being white isn’t even mentioned. Color blindness I don’t believe in, but color-beside-the-pointness I can get. At the end of the movie, when Rashida Jones heads down the aisle to meet Paul Rudd, she isn’t escorted by her father, but we’ve been told that her father is out of the picture. Yet, no one at all from the family of Jones’s character seems to be there. Besides a black minister, there doesn’t actually appear to be any people of color at the wedding. It made me…uncomfortable. Was there a decision to not even in a minor way nod to the fact that Jones isn’t just another white girl? Does she want it that way? It seems in more roles than just this one that she is stripped of any racial designation. Or maybe producers and directors want it that way? Or maybe, I was making more of this than necessary. Except for the other day.

Jones is in a new series of Dove hair commercials that asks if your hair has a mind of its own and wants women “to make friends with their hair.” Sure. Sounds good. In the commercial that just started running, Jones shows up to lunch with her white girlfriends. Her hair is a mess, bedraggled, bushy, unmanageable. Is her race equally unmanageable in Hollywood? Dove wants to tame her hair, make it lay down in submission and make it no different than the sleek and shiny hair of the white girls across from her at the lunch table. But, she is different. She isn’t just like them in hair or in color. A decision to be homogenous would make getting roles easier, better to not stand out Rashida Jones might think. I would hope it would actually be better for she and every woman of color be incorporated to make a broader spectrum instead of being whitewashed.

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Filming in Soft Focus

All summer, I ranted about the movie The Help (hear other opinions here and here). I’d actually been ranting since the book came out, but I’ll save my bookstore rant for another time. I still haven’t gone to see the movie, and I have no plans to do so. I’m sure some Saturday afternoon not too long from now, I’ll stomach watching it on Lifetime or maybe OWN. I am a movie lover though, especially a classic movie lover. If I had no other channel than Turner Classic Movies (ok and probably Bravo for Top Chef and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), I would be content. I can end up watching old movies all day when I’m supposed to do far more productive things.

Being a Negro Girl, however, troubles the waters of say a Carole Lombard marathon. In Hands Across the Table, Lombard’s love interest Fred MacMurray does a racist impression of a Chinese man. Later, a bumbling black man comes to give Carole Lombard a message. The black man is Fred Toones, better known by his nickname Snowflake. He was often the shoeshine man in the movies and if you look at his long list of films he goes uncredited in most of them. It could be said that films have progressed far from Snowflake, at least The Help is bringing race concerns to forefront. Fred Toones would never have had such luck. Or The Help is just doing an updated version of what lots of old movies did: filming in soft focus.

In The Misfits, screen icon’s Marilyn Monroe’s last movie (and also that of her co-star Clark Gable, he more famously of a movie that speaks to racial depiction and Hollywood: Gone with the Wind) she is filmed in soft focus. Her features are slightly blurred, her eyes soft and welcoming. Who couldn’t fall in love with that idealized image? But whenever there’s a shot that includes her and background, the background is blurred as well. Maybe it was a stipulation of Monroe’s, maybe because of depression and drug abuse, director John Huston looked at the movie and thought it was better for her features to not be sharp. But when you watch the movie, it does more of a disservice to Monroe. If you fall in love with that soft focus, you aren’t falling in love with the truth. And if you leave The Help feeling like you’ve just gotten a history lesson about the lives of black women in the sixties, you’re leaving with a feeling that isn’t based on the truth. The Help and the story of the Civil Rights Movement, of racism and racial struggle itself, are filmed in soft focus. It is a way to make racism more comfortable, more palatable, easily digestible. But I can’t see when there’s ever a time when racism should go down easy. Injustice–fire hoses and church bombings and lynchings–should burn all the way down.

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