Archive for November, 2009

ABC and the Story Arc of Coercive Sex

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 30, 2009 by thebibliophile

Amanda, David, and baby Trevor

ABC has nearly always been in the lead with its soap operas’ daring use of current events. Though it was CBS that actually seems to allow folks of color to be on their soap operas, ABC dealt with the first sexual assault (General Hospital, One Life to Live) on a soap opera, HIV/AIDs (General Hospital), and incest and abuse (One Life to Live).

Recently in a story line about paternity on ABC’s All My Children, David Howard has trapped Amanda into producing him another heir, once he discovers that Amanda and Jake kept his first baby from him. David Howard threatens Amanda and Jake (who are married) with a custody battle for Amanda’s baby, Trevor. David demands that Amanda and Trevor live with him and that Amanda produce a baby with him. Naturally, Amanda agrees, and Jake goes along with it.

Amanda leaves her home with Jake and moves in with her baby Trevor into David’s home. Once a month she does in vitro treatments so that she can get pregnant. Month after month the treatments are unsuccessful. Then on the way to their in vitro clinic appointment, located conveniently in the middle of nowhere and anywhere but here, David runs out of gas. Amanda panics, David suggests they make the baby the old-fashioned way. At first Amanda scoffs, but finally she gives in.

Wracked by guilt, Amanda begins to show stressors: she can’t stand to be around David, doesn’t want him to touch her, is skittish and fearful. Based on his wife’s behavior, Jake assumes that David raped his wife, and attacks him. Amanda denies that David sexually assaulted her, repeatedly and vehemently, and eventually confesses to Jake that she had consensual sex with David – afraid that if she didn’t she’d have to wait another month to try in vitro.

ABC’s problematic and sexist approach and resolutions to sexual assault have been well established. On ABC’s General Hospital, Luke rapes Laura, only to have the story arc have her forgive him, fall in love with him, and marry him – though for the rest of her life she wrestles with disturbing bouts with mental illness and depression. The two were fan favorites.

On One Life to Live, Marty Saybrook was brutally sexually assaulted by several fraternity brothers, led by Todd Manning. When Saybrook’s character returns to the show, her son falls in love with Todd’s daughter (whom he gets pregnant and they have a baby, Hope, making Marty and Todd grandparents of the same child). Todd and Marty are reunited, when in an accident Marty looses her memory – Todd moves in and convinces Marty they were in love and moves forward plans for them to run away together. Just in time, Marty recovers her memory.

Now with the Amanda, David, Jake story arc, All My Children has yet again introduced the figure of sexual assault; this time the area seems so shady, the writing so ambivalent, that it is even more dangerous and frightening to witness. While Amanda insists she had consensual sex with David, what she doesn’t know, is that David intentionally ran out of gas, that he has been consistently trying to undermine her marriage, and his ultimate goal is to destroy said marriage.

It was not an accident that they were stranded. Moreover, it is David who first recommends that they try to “make the baby the old-fashioned way.” What’s more, it is David’s coercive and demand for the demeaning family arrangement, which he secures through threats, that has Amanda under his control.

So while it may be that David did not sexually assault Amanda in the way that media encourages us to see and understand sexually assault, I think it is undoubtedly the case that Amanda having sex with David was coerced. David is, after all, described and billed by the show as “a master manipulator.” It seems to follow that he manipulated Amanda into a situation where she would agree, when coerced and feeling trapped, into having sex.

In “Everyday Life, ” Michelle Mattlemart points out that soap operas often follow a pattern that affirms normativity. She says

the good and virtuous  are rewarded. Love sanctioned by the legitimate union of marriage is better than passion, which is always punished by fate. The female characters ennoble values of purity and virginity for girls, and often become heroic matyrs to men who in fact get away with abusing their masculine authority and class power; but, after putting her through great suffering and temptation, they confirm the happiness of the girl from a modest background by offering her a ring and married life.

Amanda is a “recovering” bad girl, who only recently has been renovated into a mother, a wife, and a womyn “worthy” of a central role in the diegetic world of Pine Valley. Her transformation from into a mother and wife, allowing Amanda’s greatest endeavor to be what Tania Modleski calls womyn’s “highest goal [in soap operas] is to see their families united and happy, while consoling them for their inability to bring about familial harmony.

In ‘The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Opera’s,” Modleski also explains that “anxiety about conception is transferred to the male…the male suffers the typically feminine anxiety over the threatened absence of his children.” It is David’s fear of paternity, anxiety, and abuse of his power and class status that leads to his coercion of Amanda. I wonder how ABC can possibly resolve this in a way that is not completely disturbing and inappropriate.


Isn’t She Lovely

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on November 25, 2009 by thebibliophile

You can tell how much they love each other. Beautiful.

Michelle Obama’s style game is fierce – six ways ’til Sunday. Wow. We see you appreciating Mr. President.

Oh yes, the National Book Award

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 19, 2009 by thebibliophile

Let the Great World Spin: A Novel

 Colum McCann was awarded the National Book Award for his fifth novel “Let the Great World Spin.” The book chronicles the impact on the lives of several New Yorkers who witness the daring tightrope walk of a man balanced between the Twin Towers in 1970s New York.
Author Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward JusticePhillip Hoose was awarded in the Young people’s Literature category for his book, “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” a biography of the life of Claudette Colvin who refused to give her seat up to a white man 9 months before Rosa Parks’ refusal, but whose story has been largely hidden, because she was deemed an “unacceptable” womyn to represent the boycott. She was deemed “inappropriate” for a test case because she was a teenager and because she was pregnant by the time her case went to trial.
Colvin herself believes that her skin color, as compared to Rosa Parks, her class, and age also played a role in her erasure from history. 
The NY Times article that announced the award winner’s after last night’s ceremony at Cipriani in New York noted that National Book Award winners receive far less attention than Pulitzer-prize winner or Man-Booker Prize winners. As a huge fan of Man-Booker Prize winning books, this rang true for me. I wait each year for both the short and long list of the Bookers and then eagerly add each to my reading list. But the National Book Award holds no similar pull for me. I am not sure why.
I think it may have to do with the marketing – both of the National Book Award, but also of the publishers who are nominated, not doing enough. For my part, I stumbled onto Man Booker prize winners, reading over the course of a year, several books I truly loved, only to discover they were either on the long or short list of Bookers. No such discovery, or literary stumbling has happened for me for the National Book Award.
I think the Times asks a good question though. It makes me want to explore more National Book Award winners.

Yinka Shonibare MBE Series, Part II: Juxtapositions, Satire, & the Politics of Imagination

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 16, 2009 by thebibliophile

Yinka Shonibare MBE‘s current show at the National Museum of African Art, serves as a 12-year retrospective of his work, featuring over 2 dozen pieces that highlight  his unique vision and talent for satire, juxtaposition, and imagination – from which this post gets its title.

Shonibare is receiving serious attention this year. First his exhibition in Australia at the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art which closed on September 20th, to the show currently at NMAfA, Shonibare’s work is being seen by, feted upon, and delighting and confusing a wide array of audiences.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE

Yinka Shonibare MBE catalogue

Shonibare MBE’s schedule for the Washington, DC opening at the NMAfA has been quite comprehensive, in large part, because the Shonibare MBE exhibit serves as the anchor to launching a revitalized and reinvigorated National Museum of African Art. Festivities began on November 9th with an official opening reception, convened by the new director Johnetta B. Cole, and co-hosted as previously mentioned by Dr. Camille Cosby, and the First Lady of Nigeria Hajiya Turai Umaru Yar’ Adua.

The following day, Rachel Kent curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, held a special curator’s tour of the exhibit, followed by a book signing of the fantastic catalogue with the artist.

Later in the week, in a great collaboration between two Smithsonian museums, the Hirshhorn Museum hosted a discussion between the NMAfA curator, Karen Milbourne and Yinka Shonibare MBE. Aided by visuals of Shonibare’s pieces, Milbourne and Shonibare MBE were seated on the stage of the Hirshhorn’s Ring Auditorium, in front of at least 100 eager audience members – hipsters, the people who love them, artists, and a surprisingly (and wonderfully) a diverse audience, to discuss Shonibare’s work, his message, and the way in which his work has evolved over the last 10 years. 

It was a great relief to see such a diverse audience, and I think serves as notice of how excited the DC-area is about Shonibare’s work. It has become all too common to attend an event at the Smithsonian, only to find very few people of color in attendance. Despite this wonderful representation, the tone of the Q&A portion of the evening still proved problematic – but more on that later.

To say that Yinka Shonibare MBE is charming is to commit a crime of understatement. He is magnetic. He is genuinely compelling in a quiet, cool, and absolutely fully possessed way, at a time when the cult of personality in the art world, often has artists adopting personalities that have nothing to do with their core. In the old Black Southern vernacular, one might say, “he’s right on time,” to highlight the perfection of the timing of his responses, his unconquerable wit, sense of humor, and his unshakeable cool. Too often, the audience has a vision of who the artist should be, Shonibare seems wholly aware of this, and obliges, just enough, without moving from his center.

With a voice like nutty honey, as enigmatically sensuous and strong as his work, Shonibare MBE discussed his influences and what he is attempting to convey. That’s important for any artist, but even more so for an artist that deals with concepts of race, identity, power, “sexual decadence,” and globalization, in a society in which not all people have the same visual or conceptual vocabulary. Shonibare MBE then, must be prepared to have discussions on many different levels, depending on his audience’s ability to comprehend his symbology, their own understanding of global history, and their comfort with historical syncretism. As Shonibare MBE explained, “my work refuses one way of looking.”

Shonibare MBE is committed to complicating our ideas about power, race, and sexuality, but as he says, rather than screaming about what he does not like, ” a lot of my work is about critique of something I don’t like. Rather than screaming about it, I make art.”

A swatch of Dutch wax-print cloth

While he uses humor and fun  – a certain irreverence in his work, perhaps best represented in his 2005 Headless Man Trying to Drink, a sculpture featuring the ever recurring figure of a well-dressed dandy in bespoke Dutch wax-print cloth, drinking (or attempting to at least) inexplicably from a water fountain, and 2008’s  Globe Children, in which two diminutive fiberglass mannequins prance atop a globe that shows the impact of global climate change  – Shonibare’s work is deeply serious and reflective of what he said on Thursday evening was about “something that’s happening in the moment.” Frivolity, play, and the imagination are an entry point for Shonibare, devices that when launched, capture and compel the viewer, but it is what is stuck on the underside of the humor and satire, that propels his work.

Take for instance Shonibare MBE’s playful juxtaposition and satire of Jean Honore Fragonard’s 18th century painting, The Swing (1767), which Shonibare has re-interpreted and re-presented in one of his most well-known sculptural pieces, The Swing (after Fradonard), made in 2001. Shonibare’s life-size re-presentation is ripe for interpretation. Fragonard, who gained popularity in the 18th century as an artist who captured the decadence and exuberance of the French pre-revolution elite, in The Swing, shows an aristocratic young womyn being pushed on a swing, surrounded by lush greenery, while her lover lay prone below her, in full view of what is under her elaborate skirts, as her shoe whimsically flies through the air. Behind her, hidden by shadow, a clergyman pushes her to and ‘fro.

In Shonibare’s sculptural rendering, reflected in minute detail, a life-size and headless fiberglass mannequin stands in for the aristocratic womyn in Fragonard’s work. Instead of the highly feminine pink accoutrements of the womyn in Fragonard’s image, Shonibare’s sculptural womyn is headless and ostentatiously outfitted in an elaborate Dutch wax-print cloth, that is emblazoned with the Chanel logo. In Shonibare’s revision of The Swing, the young womyn’s lover and the clergyman are absent, instead the figure floats through space, held only by the limb of the tree, her shoe, still flying though the air. Now we, as the viewer, are positioned where the lover once was, able to see the figure’s garter, which during the 18th century was considered a rather racy element of a womyn’s toilette. Shonibare’s piece updates and reinterprets the sexual decadence of the 18th century, exhibiting the abandon and materialism of an over-sexualized youth obsessed culture.


Dutch wax-print cloth is used throughout Shonibare’s work. Shonibare MBE explains his use of the fabric through analogy, ” a picture of a pipe isn’t necessarily a pipe, an image of “African” fabric isn’t necessarily authentically [and wholly] African.” In the case of Dutch wax-print cloth, the designs and use of the cloth were originally developed and based on batik prints from Indonesia. The Dutch noticed the popularity of these prints in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia, and in an attempt to open and cultivate a new market – or in the language of our telling current business lingo, in an attempt to “penetrate a new market,” the Dutch began to manufacture fabric that mimicked the batiks of Indonesia, attempting to sell the fabric in Southeast Asia’s (and cut out the local manufacturers of the fabric.)

The Dutch attempts were unsuccessful – the quality of their imitation batiks were deemed of less quality and did not sell in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia. So in the mid 1850s, the Dutch began to market (and later to brand) the wax-print cloth in Africa, particularly in Western Africa in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana. According to VLISCO the company primarily responsible for the Dutch wax cloth for the last 200 years…; they provide a  VLISCO timeline on their website, outlining their perspective on how Dutch wax-print cloth became so widely used throughout Africa. As Shonibare explained, as independence movement swept the African continent, Dutch wax-print cloth became an emblem of liberation, and thus was identified (cleverly and erroneously) with Africa, even though its creation was originally based on an exploitative relationship with the Dutch cloth market, and with Dutch entrepeneurs, whose relationship with Africa, and particularly slavery (rum trade, anyone?) is particularly fraught with inequitable issues of power and exportation (both of cloth and of people.)

By using Dutch wax-print cloth repeatedly in his work, fashioned in styles that replicate 18th century French and British Victorian  fashion, upon headless mannequins, Shonibare reframes Europe and its relationship to its own colonialism and to Africa. So often, the pressure is on the colonized to reframe or retrain the gaze of the oppressor, Shonibare offers us the opportunity to look differently at the colonizer, to reframe and complicate the simple story of power and conqueror, and challenges us to imagine that “blackness” in the white imagination has so very much to do with projection, covered in playfulness.

Learn more about the exhibit, hear about the artist, and from the curators Rachel Kent and Karen Milbourne here. Susan Samberg did a piece for NPR’s Morning Edition.




Fall – Winter Reading List

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 11, 2009 by thebibliophile

Here’s a list of books I’m excited to read this fall and winter:

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

 The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
image of the book cover The Line of Beauty

Nalo Hopkinson

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 10, 2009 by thebibliophile
The Salt Roads

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

 Fantastic science fiction writer, Nalo Hopkinson, author of several books in the science fiction genre that center people of color, posted a great essay to her blog, entitled “Looking for Clues”  addressing the oft posed question: Why do you write science fiction? In her blog essay, Hopkinson tackles representation, the power of envisioning the future, and the importance of being seen and imagined into the future.  She begins her essay, originally a speech she gave at Wiscon, by saying,

“There’s a thing that often happens at some point when I’m being interviewed about my writing. The interviewer, whatever part of the world or whatever       subculture they come from, will put on a curious look and say, “And why do you write science fiction?” the implication being, “Why are you, a black woman from the Caribbean, interested in a literature that still is largely by and about white people, largely men, using technology largely made by the dominant cultures, to turn the world and the people in it to their desires?””

Hopkinson is a talented writer, creating powerful worlds where gender, sexuality, oppression, racism, and issues of power are not avoided but directly confronted, challenged, or reimagined. I’m (embarrassingly) new to Hopkinson’s work, but when I discovered her this summer through her book The Salt Roads, I felt much like I felt when I first stumbled upon Octavia Butler: as if I had been presented with a very special gift, selected specially for me.

What I appreciate about Hopkinson’s essay is that her voice comes clearly through – and that she uses that voice, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, “in the service of her vision,” to directly address the lack of diversity, diverse stories, and the erasure of people of color in science fiction. She fully embraces the genre, while also pointing out the dangerous cracks in its foundation – namely the racism and sexism that are ground into the genre. Hopkinson shares a startling anecdote about a science fiction story she read as a child:

There was a book I read when I was little; it was a story in which a group of children had to endure a number of dangers and travails. At the end, they reached a fantasy land where they would live happily ever after and they were each rewarded with their heart’s desire. The white children asked for horses, castles, jewels; in other words, property, title and money. And what words did the writer put in the mouth of the one black child to make the journey safely? He asked for a small everbearing watermelon patch and all the watermelon he could eat. And he got it. He spent the eternity of Paradise lying outdoors in a watermelon patch with a huge smile on his face, devouring slice after slice of watermelon the size of his head. The writer intimated that this was quaint and charming and oh so culturally specific and appropriate. My child’s brain understood it as the best to which I would be able to aspire.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of SandWhat an analysis! I am particularly struck by Hopkinson’s incisive observation that,”The white children asked for horses, castles, jewels; in other words, property, title and money.” This captures, to me, the early indoctrination about what one as a child, can or should possess, and how that is conveyed and messaged using every available resource – even our literacy and imagination. We’re always told that reading makes us better – we can broader insights, and certainly, I would never truly disagree with this central principle as a reader. Yet, I also hold that it’s true that depending on who the author is, reading may also narrow what we can even begin to imagine for ourselves. Hopkinson throughout her essay, repeatedly quotes Samuel R. Delany, the Black gay science fiction writer who points out that, “we need visions of the future, and our people need them more than most.” 

I’d argue that Black diasporic cultures are deeply familiar with the science fiction genre because of our history of syncretism, as a result of colonialization and slavery, and the importance of storytelling in many Black diasporic cultures. Both Delany and Hopkinson are right. And I hear echoes of James Baldwin in both of their sentiments. Folks of color must imagine and vision ourselves in the future, and in some cases, in a very different (and healthier) future than the present we currently inhabit. Hopkinson challenges the idea that having characters in science fiction who are solely white really represents an effectively imagined future, saying,

My friend Ian Hagemann, a regular at Wiscon, once said on a panel that when he reads science fiction futures that are full of white people and no one else, he wonders when the race war happened that wiped out the majority of the human race, and why the writer hasn’t mentioned such an important plot point.

Perhaps the science fiction futures where there are only white people represent a fantasy of sorts for a world without people of color – and that too is deeply disturbing, but makes it all the more important to have diverse representation within the genre. Hopkinson’s essay is a must read – not only for those who are fans of science fiction, but also for authors of color and readers thinking critically about representation. Thank you Ms. Hopkinson!

I’d love to hear Hopkinson’s thoughts on Zane and the explosively popular “urban fiction” genre.

Over at The Root recently published a piece titled, “The Root Rewrites the Western Canon,” in which staffers suggest 25 books that could replace/be considered part of the Western Canon of literature. I appreciate the list as it names some authors and titles that may not be well known, though it also neglects some key figures and gems, including Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Octavia Butler, George C. Wolfe, James McBride, Patricia Hill Collins, and Ann Petry – who in my humble opinion is consistently overlooked, though she was a mighty talent who’s naturalism rivaled (and outdid Wright).

What do you think? What books would make your rewrite of the Western canon?

Yinka Shonibare Mbe, A Series

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on November 10, 2009 by thebibliophile

In recognition of Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare Mbe, who has two exhibits up in the U.S. – one at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the other at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, I’ll be doing a series on Shonibare and his art. In an earlier post I linked to the National Museum of African Art’s foray into using social media and blogging to introduce the public to their exhibitions.

Tonight the National Museum of African Art hosted a very elegant and extremely well attended opening reception for the show. The opening was convened by the new Director of the museum, Dr. Johnetta B. Cole, and co-hosted by Dr. Camille Cosby, and Her Excellency the First lady of Nigeria Hajiya Turai Umaru Yar’ Adua. Guests included Lonnie Bunch the Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as the Deputy Director of that museum Kinshasha Holman Conwill.

The artist, Yinka Shonibare Mbe, spoke briefly about the importance of challenging normativity and the great power of art; particularly in art’s power to directly confront, engage, and deconstruct concepts of race. He also joked gamely about being good at art bringing “ladies.” The event went smoothly until one of the guests passed out from the heat. Shonibare was unperturbed, pausing considerately until the situation was handled, and then continuing on graciously.

I’ll post pictures and additional thoughts as Part II of this series. I imagine that I’ll write 5 parts to the series, discussing Shonibare’s exhibit in Washington, DC; the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum; Shonibare’s positioning in the art field; the role of identity in his work; and Shonibare’s own unique perspective based on his global citizenship, race, gender, and ability – which I am particularly interested in exploring as it impacts how his art his produced.