Let’s Talk Julie Dash’s 90’s Indie: Daughters of the Dust, & What It May Mean For Black Identity

 

 

 

"I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence that you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name." Nana Peazant (Daughters of the Dust), via The Thunder, Perfect Mind

It was through this incredible 90s seminar that I was introduced to Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust. I thought to myself, “this looks like Beyoncé’s video.” In fact, the year that Mrs. Knowles-Carter dropped her historic Lemonade visual album marked the 25th anniversary for Daughters of the Dust, as well as a seemingly pivotal time in defining and accepting black identity; I don’t think it happened coincidentally.

Daughters of the Dust tells a compelling story of a self-preserved Gullah Island family who overtime, has been able to maintain their ancestor’s unique culture.  They are the direct descendants of the slaves who worked the area.  The film is packed with tradition and gives a new meaning to perseverance. However, after many years, much of the Peazant family has decided to move into the “mainland.” This manifestation of assimilation into mainstream and modern culture is a major theme throughout the film. While the matriarch of the family, Nana, would probably never give the mainland the time of day, others are willing to part ways with tradition in hope of easier life. What they don’t realize however, is that mainland life isn’t as glorious as it appears. (As evident in the return of Yellow Mary)

I began to think about black identity, specifically, black American identity. I can’t be the only one who has felt as if black Americans, to Africans, are another rendition of the light-skinned versus dark-skinned beef. Again, it brings me to question what black identity really is, what it isn’t, and who gets to make these decisions?

Maybe we are struggling so much in determining black identity because for once, we are peaking out of the veil and feeling the need to define ourselves, for ourselves. Daughters of the Dust offers a revelation that the antagonist of their black Gullah identity is influence of European culture. (The mainland) This could explain why blacks from Africa often disregard black American’s as their own, due to American influence in our black American culture. This also helps to explain the dark-skinned versus light-skinned beef, as lighter-skin is too often associated with European relation.

So…I paint the question to you; what really is black identity? Sociologist have long said that race, “black” and “white” are merely social constructs but with what identity does that leave the entire black race when we consistently label the assets of our identity with the inclusion of the word “black”?

Could it be possible that identifying black culture begins with embracing, understanding, and breaking down what it means to be African American? Both African. And American.

I believe America’s war on black people makes it difficult for us to want to identify ourselves as pieces of them, but truth be told, we are. Also, and not to be confused with assimilation, maybe we can come to consider ourselves as the evolved versions of our ancestors. Not to get evolution confused as being “advanced,” but rather “a new model fit for its circumstances.”

What Daughters of the Dust offers us is a chance at witnessing a facet of our African American culture.

Let us consider long gowns in modesty, oversized hats, Sunday’s best with ruffles, white lace and a small dose of sheer, capable of bearing imagination. Let us consider traditional names that speak to our being, and a tongue that makes love with the creole. Let us embrace, and not abuse family; “Eli, your wife does not belong to you, she only married you.” And for our women, embrace your independence, “for it fine to want a man to depend on for only if you need to.” Embrace nature around you and the organics things nature give to you. Try fresh gumbo and weaving baskets.

Let your hair be the feelings that you wear; brief or long, twisted or puffed, free or tamed. To be sassy in demeanor is ok, enthralled with the spirits of your ancestors, but always in love and protection. If you shall dance, dance; Practice your footwork, let your arms go and let your body tell its message. Be spiritual; in whole like your hopped jewelry. Love and respect thy elders in a way the master respected thy whip.

Too, the pieces of this very archive, the years surrounding it, the historical black American events, trials and tribulations, further aid in the quest to define our African American identities.

On this 27th anniversary of Daughters of the Dust, I consider preservation, multiculturalism and evolution. From the time I began to learn in depth about black American identity I felt that black Americans must have it the hardest. Because truly, we are African and truly, we are American. One must come to a place of balance, a place of love, two seemingly polarized identities in which you’ve been birth. Without the impact of this social construct of  what”blackness” means to our European counterparts, the African and the America represents the true essence of double consciousness. (As defined by Du Bois)

-Tysheira Scribner


More To Ponder: In defining black and African American identities Daughter’s of the Dust can give us insight on assimilation as a negative occurrence. I think it is important to note that as African Americas, we are not assimilated, yet more so of heterogeneous nature. 

One of My Best Friends is Black: Representations of Blackness in 90s Cartoons

One of My Best Friends is Black: Representations of Blackness in 90s Cartoons

The 90s has been lauded as the greatest era of television, especially when it comes to representations of Black folks. Shows like The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, and A Different World offered representations of black life that were relatable. But, while black sitcoms saturated daytime and primetime television, there seemed to be a void of children’s cartoon staring black characters. Black characters peppered the casts of mostly white 90s cartoons, making blackness visible even in animation. For my childhood, the most memorable shows that I still watch on occasion introduced black animated characters who were not merely background cast and sidekicks. In Nickelodeon’s Rugrats and Hey Arnold! and ABC’s Recess, their Black characters were not mere tokens of representation, but full-fledged, well-rounded depictions of animated Blackness.

Rugrats is one of Nickelodeon’s most recognizable cartoons, and arguably their best. The show revolved around the adventures babies Tommy Pickles, Chuckie, Phil, and Lil, and three-year-old Angelica Pickles, the spoiled toddler who often bullied and harassed her cousin and his three friends. In the second season of Rugrats, the show introduced another toddler, three-year-old Susie Carmichael. Susie’s vivacious personality immediately endears her to the babies. Set up as a foil to Angelica, Susie storms onto the scene ready champion the babies, herself, and even Angelica, when she needs one. She matches Angelica’s sass and outspokenness with more kindness, empathy, and caring. Susie’s constant support for the babies help them navigate and avoid pitfalls of their own making and those that Angelica ropes them into. Always willing to share her toys and her knowledge, Susie quickly becomes an important part of the babies and Angelica’s growth. Susie often succeeds in making Angelica see the error of her ways where others fail. Susie is everything Angelica is not, and everything the babies want to be.

Susie is a well-rounded toddler. She is smart as evidenced by her desire to be a doctor, which she immediately puts into action by “doctoring” the babies’ broken toys, and even saving Angelica’s favorite doll despite Angelica’s dismissal of her talents. Susie is also tough. Not one to take Angelica’s bullying, Susie stands up for her by proving Angelica wrong and demanding an apology when necessary. Her talent for singing and dancing shine through in multiple episodes. With all of Susie’s positive and almost extraordinary characterization, the show doesn’t forget to humanize her or let her be a three-year-old. Susie is quick to apologize when she is wrong and unafraid to cry when she has had enough. And through it all Susie relies on her parents and three older siblings. Her mother is a doctor and her father writes for a popular kids show. They shows Susie the same kindness and patience she gives to the babies. In an episode where Susie’s older sister babysits Susie and the other babies, the relationship between Susie and her siblings. A close nit crew, the Carmichael kids always have each others backs. They encourage each other to be brave and encourage each other when things get tough. Susie is everything Black Girl Magic represents, and the representation little black girls needed.

While Rugrats served a fierce representation of Black girlhood, Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! and ABC’s Recessbrings Black boyhood to life in the characters of Gerald and Vince. Both shows follow the lives of a group of fourth grades friends as the navigate life in and out of school. Hey Arnold!is set an urban city and neighborhood life is virtually inseparable from school life. Hey Arnold!’s cast of prepubescent characters run the gambit of ethnicity and race. Recess is set in the suburbs and most of its action takes place at school during the titular recess period. While Hey Arnold! serves inner city realness, Recess takes a lighter touch to show the microcosm the students create that mirrors the adult world around them. The group of friends shirk the system to create an eclectic group that prizes friendship over cliques. Though Hey Arnold! premiered a year before Recess, the shows are very similar. The central friend group in Recessis led by fun-loving troublemaker, T.J. Detweiler and, Arnold Shortman acts as the unofficial leader of the neighborhood kids in Hey Arnold! In both shows, Gerald and Vince are the right-hands and best friends of their respective leaders.

In Hey Arnold!, Gerald Johanssen is the counterbalance to Arnold’s overly optimistic attitude. He often attempts to dissuade Arnold from jumping into situations without seeing were they might fail. While Gerald is more pessimistic than Arnold, he is a better judge of character as seen in the episode “Cool Jerk” when Arnold ignores Gerald’s warning about befriending and older boy who wants to use Arnold. Gerald saves Arnold from potentially life altering consequences of a bad decision to trust the wrong person. Aside from being street-smart, Gerald is the keeper of history for the neighborhood kids. Sid, one of the neighborhood kids, usually introduces the urban legends that Gerald then tells. Like RugratsHey Arnold! makes sure to highlight Gerald’s family as well. The Johanssens are a close knit rambunctious nuclear family of five. Gerald’s mother works as a cashier and his father is a business man. Gerald has a typical relationship with his older brother, Jamie O, and his younger sister Timberly. Sandwiched between his two siblings, Gerald often finds himself at the mercy of Jamie O’s bullying and cleaning up his sister’s messes. In the episode “Gerald Moves Out,” Gerald leaves home but quickly realizes that even though his family annoys him he loves and needs them. Gerald brings style and flavor to Hey Arnold!.

As a more lighthearted look at fourth grade life, Recess centers around the school and its hierarchy. T.J. often finds himself at odds with the established order with his group of friends by his side. Like Gerald, Vince usually tries to talk T.J. out of his ideas only to end up a part of them. When Vince is not fighting against playground hierarchy with T.J. and the Gang, he is most often playing schoolyard sports. Vince’s athletic ability is legendary among the students. Vince never turns down a challenge and always wins, even when he is challenged t o make something edible out of the school’s lunch. Vince’s athletic superiority make him one of the school’s most popular and coolest kids. The only kid considered cooler than Vince is his older brother Chad. However, this is shaken when Vince comes to realize that Chad is actually a nerd in the episode “Big Brother Chad.” Vince worries that he too will become a nerd, but when Chad stands up to a bully on behalf of some younger students, Vince learns that there are different ways to be cool. His adoration of his brother and his friendship with the rest of the Gang proves he is able to look past school hierarchy and accept people as they come.

The similarities between Gerald and Vince are not hard to miss. Aside from both being fourth graders, they each wear jersey’s and are good at sports. They even rock the same hairstyle even though Gerald’s fade stands quite a bit taller than Vince’s. Their popularity makes them leaders as they both serve as class presidents. Smart, athletic, and loyal, Gerald and Vince give visibility to black boyhood just as Susie for black girlhood. Rugrats, Hey Arnold, and Recess were diverse shows that represented animated childhood across age ranges and demographics. 

–– A. Latson

 

 

Darius Rucker — Reclaimer of Country Music or Uncle Tom Sell-Out?

Maybe we can’t change the world but
I wanna love you the best that…

…the best that I caaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

– “Hold my Hand,” Cracked Rear View, Hootie and the Blowfish.

That’s the perfect blend of optimistic pessimism and cheerful apathy we’ve come to expect from the surprisingly successful “rock” band “Hootie and the Blowfish,” whose name was lit up in khaki-colored lights for some of the mid-90’s. The name of the band seemed enough of a reason to approach their music with caution, lest we caught Loser Cooties by being seen anywhere near the vicinity of their band, even just next to the CD at Sam Goody’s. But a stranger image stamped a large red “What The Hell” on everyone’s faces: why was some black guy wearing tan pants singing with those three white dudes in the back? Did they kidnap him and force him Rep for The Plaid? Was he mocking them for playing the geetar, and we’d soon hear the DJ’s (insert scratch noise here) and this dude would reappear in a Cadillac, sippin’ on ‘gnac? And why was his name “Hootie?” Was he a new addition to the Dungeon Family?

(Hootie Hooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!)

Darius Rucker, frontman of the band, later explained that he thought of the name “Hootie and the Blowfish” in college during a party: he saw one guy who wore glasses (and, thus, projected an owl-like demeanor) and another whose cheeks were puffy. He nicknamed the former “Hootie,” the latter “Blowfish,” and anointed them lead singers of hypothetical band, Hootie and the Blowfish. His dream became a reality when, just one week later, he and his friends started a band by the same name. (He says their exact response to his suggestion was: “Whatever.” Ironically, “Hootie” went on to halfway rename himself when he began a solo career as Darius Rucker, country musician, while his indifferent bandmates seemed destined to always, and only ever, be known simply as “The Blowfish.”)

The exact genre of the band’s music is the subject of much debate –  pop, rock, pop rock, light country, pop country, country pop, pop grunge, happy grunge, dad rock, or toothless cousin folk? – and neither fans nor critics of it knew quite what to make of this “Hootie” or his band.

Rucker grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, in a home with his mother and a few siblings. He loved the radio and listened to all kinds of music. Whenever his older brother apparently teased him about listening to “white boy music,” his mother insisted he be allowed to listen to whatever he liked without grief from anyone else – though she did reportedly supplement his daily diet of musical mayonnaise with some Al Green.

A telling picture shown in a televised interview with Rucker and Dan Rather (of course, one of Rucker’s all-time heroes, representing warm American goodness with extra picked-from-George-Washington’s-own-cherry-tree cherries on top) finds a young Rucker, smiling, surrounded by a group of happy white children. Schools in his area had been integrated just after Rucker finished kindergarten, so though he lived in an all-black neighborhood, he didn’t experience the same culture shock his older siblings and friends did. He felt comfortable around his new white friends. During high school, he realized he loved to sing, joined a singing group, and started listening more closely to a variety of artists, becoming interested in Kenny Rodgers, Randy Foster, and Charley Pride, one of the few black country artists who was widely accepted by white audiences.

“Country Music Hall of Fame – Charley Pride”

“He was doing something he wasn’t supposed to do and proving everyone wrong,” he says to Rather, knowing the connections Rather must be making.

Rucker and his buddies found modest success in Charleston, but every now and then, they’d find themselves performing in a bar or venue that didn’t seem very welcoming of their color-blind inter…musical stylings. Rucker remembers developing extremely thick skin, determined (albeit in his signature sheepish-grin-shrugging-shoulders way) not to let some small-minded people stop him from making the music he liked. Nine years later, a label look a chance on “Hootie and the Blowfish,” and they soon found themselves playing on New York City radio stations and performing on David Letterman’s late night talk show. As they worked their favorite-worn-pair-of-jeans charm on America, they also faced some backlash, mostly in the form of spoofing or sarcastic teasing. But there were harsher critiques from fans of both Biggie and George Jones: no one seemed to know whom Hootie was repping for. Had Hootie lost his black card, or at least some points from it, for daring to put out what might effectively be called, “Nuthin’ but a Coon Thing, Baby?”

Hootie and the Blowfish – Live on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1995

But, surprise! It turns out Darius Rucker only knew what many had forgotten: that slightly country sound, the one that runs through his music, the one he’s constantly mocked for singing, has its roots in black culture, just like pretty much everything else that’s actually good about America.

The music industry was largely responsible for how music was marketed to audiences of different colors and how country music came be identified as “white” music despite sharing much of its genetic makeup with the blues tradition, which is decisively black and also the precursor rhythm ‘n blues, rock ‘n roll, psychedelic rock, heavy metal, and even rap beats. As a result of exploitation and appropriation, country music failed to accurately represent any of the cultural intermixing that occurred in the nascent stage of this genre’s development.

Brief Peek into Country Music’s African-American Roots:

“African-American Influence Part of Country Music’s Legacy”

Black Artists Whose Work Shaped Country (and, really, American) Music:

Mamie Smith – “Crazy Blues”

Bessie Smith – “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”

Little Brother Montgomery – “Riverside Boogie”

T-Bone Walker – “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong”

“Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells – ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ & ‘Mannish Boy'”

Darius Rucker is, and has been, one of the few country musicians of color to have a lengthy career, and though he was originally teased for not being “black enough” and selling out to white country audiences, I posit he’d receive more support if he debuted today. “Hootie and the Blowfish” was not a bona fide country band, but in the intimidatingly talented shadow of new artists who dominated the 90’s music scene with rap, alt rock, and grunge, all languages that seemed to en-trance young people who hungered for words to put to their rage and their pent up energies, Hootie’s light seemed to shine on older, less hip crowds who had settled into routines of adult life that made young rage look not only pointless but tiring.

Additionally, rap music and grunge rock are often committed to portraying a certain authenticity – those artists don’t hide their dark, violent feelings or the grim realities of life. But black audiences, and even certain white ones, have always craved and prized authentic expressions, starting with “Negro” folk music of the early twentieth century, which were rerecorded but unsuccessfully marketed to black listeners because, according to black vaudevillian artist Perry Bradford, they didn’t sound right:

“There’s fourteen million Negroes in our great country and they will buy something if recorded by one of their own because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle correctly” (Keyes 112).

Rucker’s response to haters echoed that call for authenticity: “I mean, it was better to be honest.”

“Hootie and the Blowfish,” then, was also just trying to keep it real. As a child, Rucker dreamed of leaving Charleston for the big city of New York, NY London, England Paris, France Columbia, SC, but after living there for several years, he couldn’t shake the urge to go back home, physically, emotionally, and apparently culturally. It’s hard to “Hootie and the Blowfish” as anything more than a feel-good memory of pre-Trump America, but after learning that Darius Rucker might actually be the keeper of one of black music’s lesser known traditions, it’s hard not to think of him as the hero some people really needed, one who could interpret country music’s “real” soul and serve it hot and fresh off that metaphorical griddle. Perhaps the 90’s should’ve have allowed poor “Hootie” — sigh, fine, Darius Rucker — to just let him do him. Although, that glint in his non-threatening eye has always said: Let the Haters Cry.

Radhika Nataraj

Works Cited

  • “Darius Rucker.” The Big Interview with Dan Rather. AXS TV, 21 Apr. 2014.
  • Dre featuring Snoop Doggy Dogg. “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang.” The Chronic, Death Row, 1992.
  • Hootie and the Blowfish. “Hold My Hand.” Cracked Rear View, Atlantic, 1994.
  • —. “Let Her Cry.” Cracked Rear View, Atlantic, 1994.
  • Keyes, Cheryl L. “The Aesthetic Significance of African-American Sound Culture and Its Impact on American Popular Music Style and Industry.” The World of Music, vol. 45, no. 3, 2003, pp. 105-29.
  • Lewis, George H. “The Color of Country: Black Influence and Experience in American Country Music.” Popular Music and Society, pp. 107-19.
  • “Hootie Hoo.” Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, LaFace, 1994.

Venus and Serena Williams: From Compton to the Courts

With big smiles and several tiny braids adorned with colorful beads, the Williams sisters arrived on the tennis courts that never saw them coming. Legend (and a snippet from an E! True Hollywood Story) has it that their father Richard, who worked security before the sisters were born, once watched the winner of a women’s tennis match collect a check for more money than he’d ever made and prophesied his future daughters’ domination of the tennis world. He trained them on courts near their home in Compton, California – the same hood where those O.G.s of Gangsta Rap, Dr. Dre and Snoop, put both their raps and their macks down.

But, well, back to the lecture at hand.

Serena, Venus, and their five siblings were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses in a part of Compton that didn’t make it to music videos: the wholly unglamorous one-story homes with picket fences surrounding small backyards. The Williams family led a fairly routine, “normal” life which included several hours of early morning tennis practice followed by home-school lessons. In a brazen move, while affluent parents sought expensive and exclusive lessons for their future tennis champions, Mr. Williams initially coached the girls himself after teaching himself the game via instructional videos. This tension between the carefully crafted game of prestige and the scrappy, can-do attitude of the Williamses played out in myriad ways, some nuanced and some blatant.

The Williams Sisters – Their Rise to Fame

Williams continued to coach the girls, only sending the girls to Brentwood coaches and tennis academies every now and then, and he boldly chose to keep his daughters out of the junior tennis circuits, where products of elite training schools competed for press and notoriety. The Williams Sisters’ sudden appearance on the courts seemed to shock the country club crowd that didn’t seem previously exposed to such… diversity.

They were viewed by some as disrespectful disturbers of the tennis circuit’s norms. Their powerful strength game visibly differed from the precision and speed game the beiger players had meticulously cultivated, and their absence from the prep schools and junior tournaments appeared to confirm their lack of “proper” training and etiquette.

Several platforms sustained efforts to subtly critique sisters’ background, family bond, dress/hair style, athletic strength. The intense media surveillance of them almost seemed determined to “keep an eye” on what was considered a threat. The media tried to downplay the sisters’ major achievements, their contributions to the black community, and their obvious inherent talent. But neither Venus nor Serena made an effort to hide signifiers of black culture and style, like braids, or their cultivation of outside interests, and the black community often voiced praise of the young women who had already broken barriers just by stepping onto those courts and appearing in the news articles which noted black talent, black excellence, and just overall black girl magic.

Even as they faced criticism from their peers for being aloof and daring to pursue educations, they quickly caught Corporate America’s attention and signed lucrative endorsement deals, one with Reebok for $12,000, 000 over five years.

The family continued on The Glow Up (that Concept Formerly Known as The American Dream): Venus was representing international brand, they bought a mansion in Florida with its own tennis courts, and the girls started to attend a noteworthy private school. The Williams were following the footsteps of Althea Gibson, who was the only African-American woman to win a Grand Slam title before Venus and Serena basically won the 90’s – they won their first Doubles title in 1998 and the U.S. Open Doubles title in 1999, the same year Serena defeated longtime champion Martina Hingis to win the U.S. Open Grand Slam. Their international tennis rankings skyrocketed; their investments of time and hard work were finally paying off, and they would eventually continue on to win the 00’s. But performing on a larger stage brought even more visible racist sentiments to the forefront.

Serena, in particular, was routinely attacked for qualities white culture has often attributed to black women. In the 1800s, Saartjie Baartman (“Hottentot Venus”), a South African woman, was brought to London in 1810 as a symbol of racial difference (and the supposed superiority of white beauty) and placed in a circus display alongside conjoined twins, dwarfs, and other alleged “deviants.”

“… Hottentot was assigned the role of a creature bridging human and animal realms” (Strother, 4).

According to their father, the Williams sisters were trained to be “warriors,” “attack dogs.” But the media and several tennis enthusiasts ridiculed and chastised them for their “beast-like” physical appearances, “lewd” athletic wear, and “angry” outbursts. They tended to characterize Serena and Venus using some of the most common stereotypes of black women: overly sexualized women (who chose to wear outfits they liked whether or not those clothes highlighted physical features that tennis viewers were not used to seeing) and angry black women (who dared to express basic human emotions like frustration without wearing a mask to protect the “delicate” sensibilities of an audience famous for its dignified silence and barely audible clapping).

During the 1997 U.S. Open Women’s Singles Semi-Final match between an unseeded Venus and an 11th-seeded Irina Spirlea, both players bumped into each other as they customarily switched sides during a changeover. Williams said neither of them were looking where they were going; Spirlea said she expected Venus to move out of the way.

Venus Williams_Irina Spirlea US Open “Bump”

“She’s not going to turn … I’ve done it all the time, I turn. But she just walks. I wanted to see if she was going to turn. She didn’t.” – Irina Spirlea (This is the clean version of the quote. Make your best guess for which obscenity she used to describe Venus.)

Such inane controversies were veiled attempts to subdue the sisters who would routinely take long breaks from the game, only to come back stronger and more determined to embarrass those who underestimated them.

Venus and Serena continue to raise questions about what it means to be feminine, beautiful, strong, black, successful, wealthy, and sisters; despite their numerous successes, they also unfortunately still encounter racism, forcing them to boycott tournaments and defend themselves when they choose to finally fight  back. Their eagerly and bitterly watched debut in the 90’s served as a harsh reminder that the black athleticism which white audiences celebrated on basketball courts and football fields did not translate to women’s sports, especially one which still requires its players to dress in all white for certain tournaments. But their exuberance in play and dignity in the face of charged attacks and elitist snubbing also won them many fans who finally saw themselves represented in uncharted territory.

— Radhika Nataraj

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Rachel. “Open Final Lands on Venus.” Washington Post, 6 Sept. 1997, p. B1.
  • Bass-Adams, Valerie N., Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, Howard C. Stevenson. “That Not the Me I see on TV…! African American Youth Interpret Media Images of Black Females.” Women, Gender, and Families of Color, vol. 2, no. 1, 2014, pp. 79-100.
  • Douglas, Delia. “Venus, Serena, and the Inconspicuous Consumption of Blackness: A Commentary on Surveillance, Race Talk, and New Racism(s).” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2012, pp. 127-45.
  • Hobson, Janell. “The ‘Batty’ Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body.” Hypatia, vol. 18, no. 4, 2003, pp. 87-105.
  • Strother, Z.S. “Display of the body Hottentot.” Africans on Stage, Indiana UP, 1999, pp. 1-
  • Wright, Joshua. “Be Like Mike? The Black Athlete’s Dilemma.” Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, vol. 4, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-19.

 

So Anxious: Black Love & Intimacy in Black R&B Music Videos

 

What does Black love feel like?

Many of us have grown up listening to sultry sexy artist like D’Angelo, Jodeci, Janet Jackson, Sade, Ginuwine and SWV. These are just a few of many R&B artists that have provided the perfect soundtrack to serenade your lover. If you had the perfect night in with your lover, D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” or Monica’s “Angel of Mine” probably set the mood and help the one you loved most understand and sense what you were feeling. However, one important aspect of these artists and their passionate love songs is how the artist and director were both able to create an intimate imagery of Black love and sexuality that was nostalgic and beautiful.

What does Black love look like?

If I had to decide, to me it looks like Erykah Badu and Andre 3000 in her 1997 song “Otherside of the Game”. Erykah describes the commitment and love she has for her Black man and the things she goes through as the girlfriend of a drug dealer. In the video, you see a pregnant Erykah and a busy Andre 3000 co-existing in their loft starting their day. Importantly, this song provides an iconic soundtrack to what they are experiencing that morning along with showcasing their love as she wakes Andre up, they play fight, he caresses her belly and holds her tight as they embrace. This video provides an everydayness of waking up together and loving each other where others who watch the video can resonate with.

I also think in Joe’s video, “All The Things Your Man Wont Do”, there is sex appeal and curiosity between him and his lover.  In the beginning, you see Joe confessing his love to a woman on a pay phone and telling her that she deserves better.

This inevitably leads him to make an appearance at her job where he continues to serenade her and convince this Black woman that he possesses qualities that her current boyfriend does not. Throughout the video, the director creates a late-night mood and intimacy that is shared between the two. This is seen in the way the young woman flirts with Joe in the restaurant and making the ultimate sacrifice to take a chance with a better man

How far will Black love go?

A classic R&B music video that had a more scandalous storyline, but still had meaningful lyrics was Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time”. Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton, directed his first music video which was set in ancient Egypt and starred Eddie Murphy and supermodel Iman. Although Michael Jackson also serenaded someone else’s wife in the video, this video honored  Black people as rulers of ancient Egypt, the fight for love and an amazing dance sequence with both Black men and women of all shades. This video, in particular, reflects on the past of two lovers while still honoring the beauty of Black love and Blackness through the wardrobe selection and various skin tones of Black characters and dancers.

While many 90s artists brought us sexy and intimate love ballads, their music videos accompanied imagery that made you believe in Black love that was complicated, honest and sincere. While the videos discussed aren’t true to every relationship, these videos did portray a side of Black love and intimacy that wasn’t easily found in the typical raunchy Hip-Hop videos. R&B music videos were able to tastefully showcase all shades of Blackness that wasn’t necessarily misogynistic or overly provocative. However, it did showcase a variation of Black love and intimacy that took place in ordinary locations such as the subway, club or local coffee shop. A brotha would proclaim his love in the rain, or on the phone. A sistah would make a late night trip to her man’s crib or wake him up and sing to him in the early morning. Either way, watching and reminiscing on 90s R&B I’m sure one could find the perfect video that embodies and reflects how they feel about their Black love. — Adeerya J.

 

Representations of Black Gay Men in “Paris is Burning” & “Tongues Untied”

Both “Paris is Burning” (1990), a documentary film by Jennie Livingston, and “Tongues Untied” (1989), a semi-autobiographical docufilm by Marlon Riggs explore the communities of transgender and gay people of color and its members’ efforts to reconcile racial and sexual identities.

paris_is_burning

Both films are groundbreaking in their portrayal of the difficulty of exploring various identities while living under the scrutiny of white, patriarchal society. Via the pageantry and pomp of the drag and ballroom scene in New York in the 80s and 90s, “Paris is Burning” explores gay Black, Latino, and transgender communities, as its members confront issues of race, gender, and sexuality. In interviews, often melancholic, the documentary participants (i.e. Pepper Labeija, Dorian Corey, & Angie Xtravaganza) often profoundly muse on lives plagued by familial, romantic, and societal rejection based on their sexuality.

Each speaks candidly about homelessness and ostracization, and how ballroom scenes offered places of refuge, kinship, and security. They too admit how
such arenas allowed them to escape realities and act out desires to attain a more affluent, Eurocentric standard of living. “Paris is Burning” has been legitimately critiqued for being more exploitative than politically challenging. Albeit a valid point, the film retains some cultural value.

“Tongues Untied” melds Tongues-untiednarrative accounts via its director, Marlon Riggs, with fictional vignettes and interpretive poetry that represent a collective yet varied and mutable black, gay identity. The docufilm focuses primarily on gay black men (e.g. Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Craig Harris and Riggs himself) , who also openly and unapologetically confront the ugly heads of racism and homophobia. Scenes of clips from homophobic stand up routines (e.g. by Eddie Murphy) and of the Civil Rights Movements serve to combat negative stereotypes and link the struggles of black, gay men with an historical legacy of resistance. Undoubtedly, “Tongues Untied” is focused and political in its thrust, arguably more so than “Paris is Burning.” Unlike Livingston, Riggs chooses not only to depict men stymied under the weight of white supremacy, but also takes the system to task, illustrating instances of fierce opposition. One such oppositional method is the refutation of silence preluded by the film’s title. Riggs directly challenges this inclination towards silence, not in a way that begets shame (he focuses his critique on a society that promotes and demands speechlessness), but rather one that privileges the power of black, gay men’s voices. Undoubtedly, herein lies the revolutionary mark of “Tongues Untied.”

Many comparisons have and continue to be drawn between the two films, with respect to representation of gay and transgender communities. bell hooks’ commentaries on the “gaze” and “subjectivity” are good entry points to discuss this issue. Interestingly, hooks discusses “Paris is Burning” in her book Black Looks: Race and Representation. She writes,

“(…) Jennie Livingston approaches her subject matter as an outsider looking in. Since her presence as a white/lesbian filmmaker is “absent” from Paris Is Burning, it is easy for viewers to imagine that they are watching an ethnographic film documenting the life of black gay “natives” and not recognize that they are watching a work shaped and formed by a standpoint and perspective specific to Livingston.”

Livingston, albeit a lesbian woman, operates from a place of privilege as a white woman. And, her racial and social status, though it should not discredit her or deem her incapable of exploring a culture outside her own, should call into question intent and the adequacy of her representation. Yes, Livingston sought to give voice to a particular community. However, her method becomes problematic considering it does not allow “subjects” to negotiate the terms of their own representation. They speak on their experiences and struggles, joys and pains, yes. However, they relinquish substantial ownership over the telling of their stories. Thus, they do not even retain any centrality in the work as it were. That these men and trans women fell back into relative obscurity post-film further elucidates the reality of their marginalization.

On the other hand, Riggs intentionally positions black, gay men centrally in “Tongues Untied.” Worthy of consideration is the holistic picture presented by Riggs and his cohort. Inherent in the film is a clear beginning, a journey that ebbs-and-flows, and an ending that is not altogether complete, but unmistakably hopeful. In the end, Riggs, having reflected on intense pain and internal conflict, remarks, “Whatever awaits me, this much I know: I was blind to my brother’s beauty, and now I see my own.” Unlike “Tongues Untied”, “Paris is Burning” is more fragmented, and the totality of experiences of gay men of color goes unaddressed. That TU is both created for and composed by black men undergirds and reaffirms its closing remark, “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.” —Keith Freeman

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Works Cited

hooks, bell. “Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. New York, NY: South End Press, 1992. 145-156. Print.

Paris is Burning. Dir. Jennie Livingston, 1990. Film.

 Tongues Untied. Dir. Marlon Riggs, 1989. Film.