Archive for Gender

All About the Mens

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 14, 2009 by thebibliophile

Working on it…. thinking about the parallels between Tiger Woods, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and the intersections of race, culture, sexism – anti-black sentiment and the idea that all things must, will, should, and can be seen by our overworked media culture.

Somehow, I feel that being a womynist who speaks against and about the ways in which womyn’s gender and sexuality is promblematized, also means that one must look at the ways that masculinity and men are impacted by the system of sexism.

Perhpas Michel Martin said it best in her “Can I Just Tell You,” piece today when she talked about feeling compassion for Chris Brown and Tiger Woods despite their problematic behavior. Listen to Martin’s piece here.

Tiger Woods

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Oprah, Accents & Black Masculinity

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 27, 2009 by thebibliophile

Why is it that whenever Oprah goes anywhere and meets someone with an accent, she starts mimicking the accent, even when her own imitated accent is nowhere near imitating the accent of the person to whom she’s speaking?  I’m really confused by this behavior.  

  

Oprah & Jay-Z from O Magazine's October 2009 Issue. Photo Credit Unknown

  

And in other Oprah news, recently I read O Magazine’s interview with Jay-Z. I don’t know why, but this interchange between Oprah and Jay-Z seemed so revealing to me:  

O: How were you in school? I’ve heard that when you were in the sixth grade, you tested at a 12th-grade level.  

Jay-Z: I was bored and distracted.  

O: Did you like anything about school?  

Jay-Z: I loved English  

O: I know you love to read now. Were books part of your childhood?  

Jay-Z: No. I don’t remember that.  

O: And I thought we had so much in common!  

Jay-Z: I jut daydreamed a lot.  

O: You didn’t listen in class, you didn’t read books – and you still tested as a 12th grader. You must have a naturally high IQ.  

Jay-Z: Or I’m an idiot savant.  

Good one Jay-Z. Good one. What I found in this interview, is that despite some of the interchanges, in which you can see Oprah doesn’t fully understand the hip-hop generation, Jay-Z’s adultness still comes through. I am particularly struck by how Jay-Z positions and frames his own masculinity. His discussion of what it was like to grow up as the youngest of several brothers, of his father walking out on his family because of his own pain, and how dealing with his issues with his father opened the door to his being able to genuinely love a womyn and become a partner and husband.   

While Chris Rock is busy suggesting that hair that Black men can run their fingers through might help intimacy between Black men and womyn, Jay-Z has another idea, pointing to his own relationship with masculinity and his father. He tells Oprah,”Because when you’re growing up, your dad is your superhero. Once you’ve let yourself fall that in love with someone, once you put him on such a high pedestal and he lets you down, you never want to experience that pain again. So I remember just being really quiet and really cold. never wanting to let myself get close to someone like that again.” 

There’s a great deal of strength and vulnerability in that statement, even as it follows the same path of other narratives of Black male identity. What makes Jay-Z’s statement slightly different to me is that he is talking specifically about feeling abandoned by a parent. He doens’ say he wasn’t able to learn to be a man, or that his mother couldn’t raise a man, he implies instead, that he had to deal with his sense of abandonment from childhood. 

Jay-Z also works to position the womyn in his life, explaining how his mother helped facilitate his healing around his father’s abandonment. It’s just such a thoughtful, beautiful, and honest discussion about fatherhood, expectations for family, and love. 

 Speaking of how Black masculinity has evolved over the last 20 years: 

Reading on the Rails

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 9, 2009 by thebibliophile

As per usual, Racialicious is breaking it down, this time about how race and gender impact a person’s success with online dating. In a post by J Chang and using research from OK Cupid, entitled “Your Race Affects Whether People Write You Back,” there is a discussion with data analyzing trends in on-line dating. J Chang’s great post “Of Ok Cupid And Denials of Racism”  is a must read – and for me connects to the pieces I didn’t discuss in my post yesterday ‘Dr Benzer’s Stupid Prejudice Against Smart People.” In that post I focused on gender and intelligence, and didn’t go in-depth around race. Chang’s post does and I think it is so important.

Check his quote to responses on Ok Cupid to their findings about race and success with internet dating:

“The whole matter of preferences is not necessarily racism, but can be, if you are judging what a person is like by their race and not by their actual character/appearance. However, no matter how innocent any individual preference is, if you look at the way that preference twists and turns over a large group, as we see in this study, racism clearly exists at the systemic level. Regardless of whether or not any person’s preference is racist, on an individual level, the fact of the matter remains that men (as a group) find black women less attractive than other women and that women (as a group) find white men more attractive than other men. While each individual preference might just be aesthetic, it points to a system wide conditioning of the sample group to have racial bias. Your preference might not be racist in itself, but the standards of beauty/attractiveness in the society that influences and shapes your own personal aesthetic preferences are most certainly racist.”

I heart Racialicious.

Chanel Iman and Jourdun Dunn in Teen Vogue

Over on Threadbared, they did a piece about Teen Vogue’s latest issue featuring Chanel Iman and Jourdun Dunn and the discussion of race and fashion. And they reference a post over at Jezebel that looks closely at the Teen Vogue issue.

I’ve seen the pictures from the magazine and am struck, not only about the conversation about race in fashion, but also by the actual images. There is something here – particularly about the placement of the bodies. Nevertheless these are two stunning (if frighteningly thin) womyn.

Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dun in Teen Vogue

The images are not particularly groundbreaking. While it is a pleasure to see brown-skinned womyn womyn “>reprented, it is important to note that both womyn in some way “fit”the standard of beauty: they are exceptionally thin, their hair has been processed/altered so that it is long and bone straight.

It is also of note that neither womyn is shown in the androgynous trends (plaid, menswear – with the exception of Dunn’s jaunty hat) that are so ubiquitous this season. I am also interested in the positioning and placement of the two womyn’s bodies, which to me signals both homoeroticism (which I’m not mad at, because I think it is unintentionally subversive even if it is a problematic trope in this particular situation) and a level of competition. This is bolstered by quotes from Dunn and Iman, who explain,

“Until recently, we barely even spoke. We went from being superclose in the beginning,” she says, “to dead silence if we saw each other backstage at a show.” Not even a hello? “If we did say hi, it was hi, and that’s it.”

“It’s competition,” Jourdan says. “There aren’t a lot of us, but instead of sticking together, we’re pitted against each other. People will say things in Chanel’s ear like, ‘Jourdan is taking your spot,’ and then they’ll say to me, ‘Don’t trust Chanel.'”

Over at Have Mastered The Art Of Christina Anderson is posting some interesting stuff and getting ready for the debut of her play Drip at the CrowdedFire Theatre in San Francisco. Her miniblog has great/intriguing visual snippets that are worth a visit.  Drip is an extraordinary play by one of American’s most promising young playwrights. And the language is amazing. If you’re in the Bay Area this is a must see.

I heart the internet.

Harriet Jacobs: A Reminder of Resistance

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 7, 2009 by thebibliophile

Cruelty is contagious in uncivilized communities.
                                                – Harriet Jacobs

Learn more about Harriet Jacobs here , here, and here. Sometimes you just need reminders of resilience and resistance.

 Harriet Jacobs bravely resisted slavery by hiding in the equivalent of an attic crawl space 9x7x3 for seven years. Her “owner” and the man who was determined to sexually assault her, James Norcom continued to very literally hunt for her, advertising for her capture.

The text of the notice reads:

$100 REWARD

WILL be given for the apprehension and delivery of my Servant Girl HARRIET. She is a light mulatto, 21 years of age, about 5 feet 4 inches high, of a     thick and corpulent habit, having on her head a thick covering of black hair that curls naturally, but which can be easily combed straight. She speaks easily and fluently, and has an agreeable carriage and address. Being a good seamstress, she has been accustomed to dress well, has a variety of very fine clothes, made in the prevailing fashion, and will probably appear, if abroad, tricked out in gay and fashionable finery. As this girl absconded from the plantation of my son without any known cause or provocation, it is probable she designs to transport herself to the North.

The above reward, with all reasonable charges, will be given for apprehending her, or securing her in any prison or jail within the U. States.

All persons are hereby forewarned against harboring or entertaining her, or being in any way instrumental in her escape, under the most rigorous penalties of the law.

JAMES NORCOM.

Edenton, N.C. June 30

I think Harriet Jacobs is on my mind because this weekend I reread Octavia Butler’s Kindred. The landmark book, published in 1979 is often considered in the science fiction genre, however, its a far broader and deeper genre that relates to sci-fi because of the use of time travel. In the novel, Dana Franklin recently moves into a new house in California with her white husband, on her 26th birthday. She is inexplicably transported to the antebellum South, where she learns that her own existence is dependent upon a white slave owner, and one of her ancestors, Rufus Weylin.

The cover of Butler's novel Kindred

Butler’s novel was revolutionary when it was first published. Not only was the plot superbly innovative, but Butler herself was an innovation, being one of the first African American womyn writers. I find myself returning to this book again and again as it raises so many questions about power, resistance, and survival. And to know, this was not fictional for so many womyn, womyn like Harriet Jacobs, who faced the very real question of situational ethics and personal dignity and agency.

A Brief Comparison: Kahlo & Ferguson, Ability, Gender, Race and the Structure of Conveying Difference

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

The Broken Column, Frida Kahlo; 1944.

Frida Kahlo was an amazing, daring artist, who I, like many others admire. I find myself over the years, returning to her paitinings, and finind something new, meaningful, and insightful in her work.

Yesterday, I posted about artist Laura Ferguson, a newYork-based artist, who uses her own medical expeeriences, in a visual autobiography, to examine the ways in which her body as object is subject to manipulation and the gaze. Ferguson’s work is detailed, highly technically skilled, and moving. This is is large part, because it is so accurate. Ferguson took pains to render a realistic portrayal of the body and its inner workings. In this way she argues, she takes something flawed, and shows its beauty.

Yesterday, I thought a lot about intersections, particularly of race, (dis)ability, gender, and class. Today, in thinking more about Ferguson’s work, and how the work of Frida Kahlo, a womyn of color, is really the progenitor/ancestor of Ferguson’s concept and work.   

Kahlo managed (dis)ability her entire life. According to biographies of her life, she was diagnosed with polio at the age of six. As a result she had some paralysis in her right leg. As a young womyn, she was in a devastating bus accident that had life long consequences.  Like Laura Ferguson, Kahlo sustained injury to her spinal cord. Ferguson’s spine has a curvature of her spine, while Kahlo’s spine was  broken (along with her leg, foot, and three ribs) in three places. for the rest of her life, Kahlo would suffer from chronic pain and illness for the rest of her life. 

I’m struck at how you can see a difference in the way that Kahlo represents her (dis)ability and the way that Ferguson  represents her difference.

The Broken Column, Frida Kahlo; 1944

  

What I am struck by is the fact that Kahlo looks directly at the viewer, through and amidst her preceived brokenness. She shows her pain in a bold and direct way. We do not know what Ferguson’s expression is and we cannot guess at the pain, because her face is hidden. It’s odd but Kahlo seems powerful to me in The Broken Column  – even through her pain.

Mommas Boys – How It All Began

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 13, 2009 by thebibliophile
On December 16th, NBC aired “Momma’s Boy’s” a show that features 3 men below the age of 30 and their mother’s all trying to find the self-proclaimed “momma’s boys”, mates. The boys, follow the advice of their mothers, and try to balance their attractions and interests, with their mother’s desires for wholesome, kind womyn – womyn, whom they’d like to be very similar to who they are.
 
But the real jump off from the show has come from Khalood Bojanowski, an Iraqi-American womyn, participating with her 21-year old son, Jojo. Known as Mrs. B on the program, she bring a whole new set of attributes to “hockey moms,” when Mrs. B introduced herself, by listing in callous and inappropriate detail, all the womyn who would not suit her son. From “a Black,” to a “fat one,” to Jewish womyn, Mrs. B’s list is as extensive as it is representative of her internalized oppression. See for yourself:

Mommas Boys – Bitch, Are you crazy? (12/16)

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Video Recaps | Full Episodes | Webisodes

In a previous post – focusing on the only self-identified Latina in the group in the group of womyn on “Momma’s Boy,” it was clear this show would have plenty of fodder. The womyn I focused on had a fantastic quote about a certain part of anatomy she has on loan from men. 

The show hasn’t disappointed: it’s a hot mess of internalized oppression, which lends itself, in fact compels you, to analyze. From the uncomfortably close relationships between mother and son, to the clear patriarchal associations and structures it supports, “Momma’s Boys,” provides at least a Master’s level worth of foolishness, from which you could get a degree in “whack cultural ish that Americans aren’t necessarily watching, but which some folks are still acting up on.”

In the above video, it’s interesting to watch as each group of womyn hears her group named. Mrs. B starts with hair and “boobs,” and then like a train careening through a station she goes straight from hair and boobs to “a Jewish or a Black.” An interesting mental leap, that tellingly links certain beauty attributes with identities, locking and linking the “wrong” hair and boobs, with Mrs. B’s feeling of the wrong races and ethnicities. She then transitions back to labeling body type. I think, Mrs. B. is interchangeably using pheno and body type with race and ethnicity. As the womyn begin to fret, Camilla, a Black womyn keeps her cool, explaining “racism isn’t dead.” Sure ‘nough.

While shocking to most politically correct and culturally fluent Americans (some of whom are genuinely shocked and some of whom know to seem “shocked”), the reactions are staggered. It’s pretty interesting to watch the reactions cascade.

When one considers the statistics around Black womyn and marriage, namely that only 1 in 4 Black womyn is married by the age of 40, this scene to me, represents the ways in which Black womyn are removed from the “competition of mating,” often because of stereotypes and deeply embedded racism – being propagated, often times, by other womyn.  This is where superficially – and in all the wrong ways, we can see “feminism is to lavender, as womynism is to purple.” Sure by the end of Mrs. B’s rant everyone is upset – but no one leaves the competition, none of the white womyn featured on camera decide to boycott or confront Mrs. B, in fact it’s only the womyn of color, whom Mrs. B has dehumanized most forcefully, who ultimately end up engaging with her most frequently. Ironically, it is Black womyn whom Mrs. B cries to and with. The other mothers, even caring mothering Esther, whom Mrs. B blatantly dismissed with her “not a Jewish one” do nothing to confront her. Though in the case of Esther, and considering her recent behavior, perhaps she thought: “Yes! All the Jewish womyn are for my Robbie.” But even if the other mothers wouldn’t address a personal offense, neither did Lorraine or Esther assuage the hurt feelings of the womyn of color. None of them pull Mrs. B aside to address her blatant racism: it’s not their problem; not personally anyway.

I recognize, on a show of this very low low caliber, such solidarity is a tall order; nevertheless, as a microcosm of deeply immature people, one must wonder: in the arena of sexual politics, is the lack of solidarity yet another example of ways in which womyn of color and white womyn are divided by racialized sexism/sexualized racism? In other words, in the competition for sexual attention, equity, and access to mates, in which all people ultimately compete on some level, are womyn of color disenfranchised because of the way that desire is politicized?

Much attention has been given to Mrs. B’s overtly racist beliefs and behavior, but Esther, in recent episodes – especially in this Monday’s (1/12) episode, evidenced significant distain for Camilla, the womyn of color whom her son Rob seems clearly and genuinely – as genuine as it can be on a show where your first date is in the Virgin Islands, attracted to, on the show.  Esther frames her discomfort with Camilla  as a concern that Camilla would be unable to be a good steward of Rob’s  faith. Moreover, she says that Rob as the descendant of two pairs of Holocaust surviving grandparents, would be neglecting a very important part of his history, by not marrying a Jewish womyn. I suppose Esther isn’t interested in winning the oppression lottery by combining the oppressed history of Jewish people and Black people. No..no..okay. Esther is clear about her commitment to her son marrying a womyn who can continue the cultural traditions of her ethnicity and family.  And she has also begun to say, that it would just “be easier,” and “more comfortable,” to be with someone who knows Jewish traditions. Nevermind, that not all Jewish people practice the same cultural traditions – Ashkenazi Jewish people, Sephardic Jewish people, Latin-American Jewish people, Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox. The group from which Esther wants her future daughter in-law to come, is not monolithic.

At the beginning of the show, Esther’s desire for a Jewish womyn, seemed benign – a request or suggestion. As the show has progressed, Esther’s request has morphed into rhetoric. She sounds more and more like a polished Mrs. B – both after all are extremely threatened by the idea of their sons with Black womyn; both cite their reasons as being the protection of their culture (Black womyn, apparently are extremely destructive of culture) – without apparently understanding anything (real) about Black cutlures; both are associating their son’s desire of Black womyn as deviant or abnormal; both clearly take the attraction and connection to a Black womyn as a direct rejection of themselves. Yet Esther, at first, and in large part, seemed mostly committed to continuing a rich cultural heritage – not in excluding a particular racial or ethnic group. In the bright light of Mrs. B’s clear internalized oppression and racism, Esther’s preference wasn’t even a pinprick of light.

While we were all paying attention to Mrs. B’s overt racism – a racism borne out of ignorance, insecurity and deeply embedded internalized oppression, Esther’s more insiduous distaste and concern is cloaked in what appears (and I would argue is to a point) an acceptable desire to have her faith/ethnicity continued. It becomes apparent, however, that Esther is using “a womyn who shares our faith,” as a code to exclude Black womyn. And it is Black womyn Esther wants to exclude. The doctor whom Robbie liked was also not Jewish (but did have a Jewish grandmother, I believe), but as Esther exclaimed, “a doctor!” In other words, the class and professional prestige outweighed the cultural demand. To me, this makes Esther’s stance more than a little shaky.

I’m reminded of an Essence Magazinearticle a few years ago, that called for Black womyn to teach their sons to marry Black womyn. Which got me thinking: maybe Esther is on to something. She is insistent on a cultural practice of carrying on tradition. Maybe her insistence, isn’t so different from womyn of color’s insistence about marrying others from the same ethnic/racial group, or their anger when men of color marry womyn outside of the ethnic/racial group. Yet, when Black womyn, in particular say such things, its turned back as, “you’re just upset no one wants you,” – personalized, as opposed to reflecting on the racist politics that are increasingly embedded in sexual desire. In the end though, we love who we love – and Camilla has made a concerted effort to be respectful and thoughtful – carefully watching the Hanukkah traditions and being more than willing to learn; overturning Esther’s assertion that a Black womyn wouldn’t respect of carry on the family traditions.  And she and Rob are (gasp!) sweet in a reality t.v. way with one another. Meanwhile, Esther’s hand-picked Lauren, doesn’t seem that interested in “her Robbie” – and seems instead content to let her race and class privilege carry her through the show, even without developing a connection with Rob.

So, where is the line? Esther’s request comes from a deep commitment to continue the traditions of her faith, but it is also sitting in the same room, sharing the same couch, with her racism – producing a deep discomfort with Black womyn. It offers a quandary of sorts: the assumption has been that many Jewish Americans, understanding the Holocaust, oppression, and exclusion, have a natural kinship to Black people (and vice-versa). Jewish Americans participated in the Civil Rights Movement and have undoubtedly been allies during and through many struggles for equity in the U.S. And like many people of color, particularly Black people, Jewish Americans have watched as assimilation and integration have eroded cultural heritage. Part of that erosion for both Black people and Jewish people in America, may be the integration of internalized oppression. In other words: Black folks continue with the internalized oppression that teaches us not to love who we are, while also participating in “double-consciousness”; Jewish Americans, in a process of cultural shedding and assimilation, are becoming more traditionally white, by integrating ideologies of white supremacy borrowed from U.S. culture – and increasingly marrying outside of their faith.

Throughout  history Black womyn have been exploited – tricked, trapped and abused, but in the cultural lexicon of oppressive fantasies about womyn, no fantasies (and let’s be clear, “Momma’s Boys is a fantasy) see Black womyn as great partners – wifey material, for real. That’s why Black womyn never make it on reality shows that are selling fantasies of family and desire.

Maybe our new Obama Camelot will change that…

The Curious Case of Integrated Racism in Benjamin Button

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 6, 2009 by thebibliophile

Ann Hornaday

Ota Benga 1904

Ota Benga

Film critic, Ann Hornaday recently wrote an article in The Washington Post about the film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which connects one of the characters in the film, with Ota Benga – an African of the Bawta tribe (otherwise known as a  pygmy), who was enslaved and later “displayed,” Hottentot Venus style in the Bronx Zoo, beginning in 1906.  Hornaday, the great-great-great grandniece of William Temple Hornaday, the man who exhibited Ota Benga, reveals her ignorance up until  a few years ago, about her ancestor’s role in displaying another human being. Hornaday says:

My father never met “Temple,” as he called his great-great-uncle. But he often related stories passed down from his own father, who recalled him as an eccentric man — a teetotaler, for example, known to make an exception for a glass or two of champagne. Another favorite family tale was how during his stint as the first director of the New York Zoological Park (more commonly known as the Bronx Zoo), Temple invited my grandfather, then a medical student, to come to New York and oversee the monkey house. (Before running the Bronx Zoo, Temple spent eight years at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where he helped plan the National Zoo.)

That would have been the same monkey house where Temple displayed Ota Benga, but I’d never heard his name until several years ago, when I heard his story on the radio. I was sipping coffee and reading the paper, wondering with half an ear how anyone could put a fellow human being in a zoo, when the name “William Temple Hornaday” rang out. I put the coffee down, mortified, and listened more closely. 

Ota Benga possibly at the Bronx Zoo

The article entitled, “Basest Instinct,” explored Hornaday’s unexpected connection to Ota Benga, and Ota Benga’s celluloid facsimile in the Christmas release film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Read the  entire article here. Hornaday shares how she explored her family’s connection to Ota Benga. Initially she asked her father:

When I first heard about Ota Benga, I asked my father whether he knew about him. He responded immediately and un-self-consciously. “Oh yes,” he said, his voice trailing off, an ellipsis that served as an apt metaphor for America’s ongoing conversation about race, in which so much has gone unspoken, misremembered and distorted over hundreds of years. It’s the same silence that explains why it’s common to meet descendants of slaves, but far more rare to meet descendants of slave owners. It’s the same silence that lets so many white Americans think of race as someone else’s story.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Hornaday’s admission, her honesty about her own lack of knowledge of her ancestor’s history and how she came to see that history, reflected as a character in “Benjamin Button,” serves as an example of how racial history and racism are embedded in U.S. history. Moreover, it shows how that history refracted and reframed through media, is integrated, reshaped and fed back to us, without the needed analysis that would break the link between the reincarnated image, and the oppressive history it mimics and represents. 

To be sure, film critics have beamed about “Button,” calling it a timeless tale of love, loss, and aging. And in large part, that is true. The movie is beautiful to watch and certainly intriguing. There are in fact, touching moments. “Button,” chronicles the life and ultimately the death, of Benjamin Button, a boy born, aging in reverse. In the film, Benjamin’s frantic, disgusted and despairing father first tries to drown his newborn son, interrupted by police officers, he instead leaves him on the steps of a nursing home – which as it turns out, is just the right place for Benjamin to be raised. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film uses Fitzgerald’s short story as a guideline as opposed to adhering to the story entirely as it is written. Gary Collins, in his review of the movie explains that, “In contrast to Fitzgerald’s story, Fincher’s adaptation casts Benjamin as a foundling abandoned by his frightened father outside a New Orleans’ seniors home. The man-child known as Benjamin is quickly adopted by the building’s barren black housekeeper Queenie (Taraji P. Henson)…Periodically, this apolitical faintness undermines Fincher’s overall subtext. For instance, there is no analysis of race or class relations, despite Benjamin being raised by African-American parents. Nor is there any genuine attempt to reconcile Benjamin’s later accumulation of wealth. Instead, Benjamin becomes a man simultaneously of his time and not; an individual desperate to freeze time, who increasingly becomes wary of his situation.” (Gary Collins, 12/27/2008 http://www.noripcord.com/reviews/film/curious-case-benjamin-button; emphasis added.)

Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

What’s been most interesting to me, is to observe how reviewers of this movie, and Hollywood itself, have obscured or ignored the race and class representations in the film – content instead to congratulate itself for the aesthetic beauty and apparent gravitas of the film (Hollywood actors who let themselves be aged! Gasp!) Collins’ quote is a great example. He chides the movie for having no analysis of race or class, and yet himself refers to Taraji P. Henson, rather callously as the “barren black housekeeper,” who’s name is Queenie, no less. He neglects to engage in his own critique (either in the structure or language of his writing) or in his analysis. Only Hornaday seems able, possibly because of her very personal connection, to splice apart and mention aloud the racial history that is ignored (or tacitly implied – as when Benjamin and Ota’s film incarnation sit at the back of the street car on which they ride) in the film.

This isn’t to say that Hornaday gets it all right – the Post comments section is littered with comments about how brave Hornaday is for telling “her” story, and she does bring to light a very important aspect of the film. Certainly, I appreciate that, even as I note that  in fact, the story of Ota Benga is not hers, though she and her family are indeed entangled in Ota Benga’s story. But the praise, in the comments, and in Hornaday’s own  revealing of herself in the article, reminds me of a joke many Black comics have made: when people want you to congratulate or praise them, for doing what is in fact, their job – what they are supposed to be doing.  Fathers who want you to get excited when they parent or pay child support, folks who show up for work on time and want acknowledgement, the government wanting appreciation for holding hearings for an SEC which they let steal $50 billion, or in this case, when white Americans remove the veil from their conscious and unconscious connections to and participation in race and class in America. In short, the awe created when white Americans choose to be engaged in critical thinking about race and class.

But I digress.

Perhaps Scott Foundas, writing for The Kansas City Pitch, comes far closer when he explains the dynamics of identity as represented in the film:

Roth reduces our complex times to a parade of shockingly straight-faced kitsch. A hellfire-and-brimstone tent revivalist imbues Benjamin with the holy spirit; a pygmy Lothario serves as his introduction to the outside world; and a drunken, Irish tugboat captain shows him how to be a man. But where Gump actively trivialized history, Benjamin Button effectively ignores it. Although Benjamin briefly exchanges fire with a German submarine during World War II, and Hurricane Katrina makes a cameo toward the end, this movie about a white baby raised by a black adoptive mother during the inglorious years of the Jim Crow South never once addresses race.(Scott Foundas, The Kansas City Pitch, 12/23/2008 http://www.pitch.com/2008-12-25/film/the-curious-case-of-benjamin-button/)

Taraji P. Henson introduces Benjamin Button, photo credit to Merrick Morton

Taraji P. Henson, as Queenie, introduces Benjamin Button, to his new home. Photo credit: Merrick Morton

 Even Oprah missed (or carefully sidestepped) the race dynamics  of the film, neglecting to have Taraji P. Henson appear on her show when Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt appeared, and not asking a single question about the race dynamics that might arise for Benjamin being raised in by Black parents. Henson herself occludes the issue. In an interview about the film she says, “I just thought that was really, really bold to make the mother [figure] African-American. Initially when I got the script, I thought there were bold choices across the board.”  According to the article, written by Barbara Vancheri,”the original story of Benjamin Button is a scant 24 pages and features no one named Queenie, although a woman named Nanny makes a late, brief appearance.” (Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri, http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08356/936135-60.stm, 12/21/08) Henson, then is in fact, thanking Hollywood for re-writing a Hattie McDanielesque part into a supposedly modern “post-racial” movie. Given that Roth and Fincher made so many other liberal alterations from story to movie, why not write a more nuanced “Queenie.”? Better yet, why not give her a first and last name, and aspirations and dreams, outside of her desire for a child?

I’d offer that as Hornaday suggests about America,  Fincher and Roth, are unable to authentically engage in an understanding of race because “so much has gone unspoken, misremembered and distorted over hundreds of years. It’s the same silence that explains why it’s common to meet descendants of slaves, but far more rare to meet descendants of slave owners. It’s the same silence that lets so many white Americans think of race as someone else’s story.” (Hornaday) That for a film where building character a connection between a character and audience is paramount, for Queenie’s character to be so flat, represents a conflict with how to approach race – an example where  Roth is unable to imagine Black people as fully integrated into the story of American history. So very literally, in creating characters of color, or characters that are not mainstream, those authentic voices – voices that could have had an opportunity to tell a full history are strangely absent. Even Forrest Gump, to which this film has been compared, as a character, made interesting observations about class, race, and gender. In comparison, none of the characters in Button note race or class – as Keith Phillips points out “Button should get a unique perspective on life from his unique condition. Instead, it apparently keeps his eyes wide and his mind set to “naïf” as he wanders through the decades and an on-again, off-again relationship with the restless Blanchett. (Keith Phipps, 1/3/2008 http://austin.decider.com/movies/curious-case-of-benjamin-button,68/) In missing the opportunity to make Benjamin and the viewer real observers, the film missed the opportunity to turn a solid holiday movie, into a truly fantastic film.

Instead, Queenie is weighted with foolish dialogue that consists of  the “I believe in Jesus” variety declarations – and thus robbing Henson of the  opportunities as an actor, to dig deep and show the full range of her talents. Never is there any examination of what she might have felt adopting Benjamin – it’s assumed to be natural. And why wouldn’t we assume such an adoption to be normalized? Through much of American history, Black mothers for white children has been a familiar trope. In fact, Black womyn did much of the raising of white children (as many Black, Asian, and Latina womyn continue to do today.)  particularly in the South. But what exactly would possess a Black woman in New Orleans (where the movie has been moved, from Baltimore where Fitzgerald originally set the  story), near the nadir of white aggression on Black Americans, to take in and raise a white child? Historically, how would that work out? I think the implied answer, is that it’s only possible when that white child is seen as different ; when that child is seen as deformed or unnatural – then the child can be handed over to a Black mother. To the film’s credit, the issue of disability and “how people are made,” is dealt with upfront. We are told Benjamin is “unusual,” quickly corrected from making him deformed as the film progresses.

The fantasy of the Black mother, seems a particularly white American fantasy. Contrast this, with Colson Whitehead’s recently released book, Apex Hides the Hurt, in which a speechless white child stumbles into a Black camp settlement, immediately beginning an uproar of panic and fear. All of the Black people are terrified, no one immediately wants to take in the child, without a detailed conversation about all of the consequences. Because as history has shown, Black folks are well aware of the consequences of being misunderstood by white folks, when the power of racism and the violence it can incite exists. It’s so clear for the character’s in Whitehead’s novel, that they develop a plan to address the issue – and it doesn’t include keeping the orphan.

The image we are presented of Queenie is an old image – a reincarnation of the self-effacing, solely intuiting Black mammy, who doesn’t consider consequences when protecting white people – particularly white children. It’s the fantasy that Black people, particularly Black womyn, long to and delight in, taking care of white America. And it’s a timely representation, at a historic moment, in which many people are quite unsettled by having a Black president, and are wondering: will he take care of us? Don’t worry, like the man said, he “will be your President too.”

Even Ann Hornaday’s well written review of “Benjamin Button,” calls out the film for being less interesting than it could have been. Yet Hornaday, does not address the embedded depictions of race in her mainstream review. In fact, she mentions nothing about racism in her review, even though it figures prominently in her “Basest Instincts” article. A slightly amiss omission, that I think would have made her initial review of the movie, and her subsequent admission of connection to and awareness of U.S. racism, even more compelling. Personally, Roth and Fincher are responsible for not using the extraordinary resources they had (sparkling and exceptionally talented cast, technological breakthroughs, great story to base the screenplay on) to their best advantage.

Now all this said, there were two moments in the film, that I thought were touching – had they been expounded upon, the film would have been more meaningful. When Benjamin, sleeping below Queenie, reaches up and grasps her hand. The image of him authentically seeking comfort from Queenie, openly showing his vulnerability and need for connection is touching – and in a landscape in which white America often asks for Black Americans to proffer comfort (often while white America is engaged in some form of abuse of people of color) these moment of clear vulnerability and need, makes bare what most people of color know: that white America needs and desires us, particularly in the role of comforter. And that ultimately, all of us need comfort. Second, is when Benjamin enjoys a moment with his stepfather in the kitchen, as his stepfather recites Shakespeare. The actor who plays the part, does so superbly, particularly in this scene – and the moment between the two characters seems genuine. It also  serves as a contrast to the image of Mammy and Lothario (which Ota Benga’s celluloid representation is revamped into).

Part of me wonders if Roth supposed that Americans viewing the film would have a greater understanding of American history, and thus be able to decipher the nuances and references he dispersed throughout the film: to the multiracial family that lost a son (who must have been passing or in an all-Black unit,because the armed forces were not yet integrated in WWI), that led to the creation of the clock that is tied to Benjamin’s “unusual circumstances;” to the bow to Ota Benga whose film incarnation has a far more romantic ending (and philisophical perspective on being locked in a cage), than Benga, who killed himself, had in real life; to setting the film in New Orleans, and then showing through flashbacks that race and class were always intertwined; to the bohemian Beat generation in New York and Paris; to Hurricane Katrina. I’d like to say that Roth and Fincher made a highly intelligent film, with nuances that Americans may just happen to  miss…

I’d really like to say that.

Additional review about about race in “Button”:

http://blog.spout.com/2008/12/22/the-curious-case-of-benjamin-button-review/