Archive for Race

National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 3, 2009 by thebibliophile

Author Carleen Brice. Photo credit: Gail Gudder

Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey, has launched a blog celebrating December as “Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black” month. Her blog, White Readers, Meet Black Authors, is designed as (a somewhat tongue in cheek) introduction of white readers to Black authors. You can hear Brice on Tavis Smiley, discussing her grassroots efforts, here

Brice, citing an online conversation post-election about whether white readers could be persuaded to read Black authors, and a viral letter to Oprah encouraging the mogul who fiercely celebrates reading, to incorporate and promote literature written by a more diverse spectrum of Black authors – not those just widely known (and accepted) by the literary canon like Toni Morrison, Stephen Carter, and Alice Walker, but also those writing experimental, accessible, or different kinds of stories. Authors like Brice herself, who received strong praise for her novel Orange Mint and Honey, Erica Simone Turnipseed who wrote A Love Noire and its follow up Hunger, Bernice L. McFadden author of Sugar, or Martha Southgate author of two critically acclaimed books for adults, The Fall of Rome and Third Girl from the Left. In her list of “Top 10 reasons white readers should read Black authors,” Brice balances a good deal of humor, while making some serious points, saying:  

6.You already like our music, dances, food, fashion and films.
5. Didn’t you resolve to try new things this year?
4. In October, Nikki Giovanni told me this was the best book of 2008 (so far).
3. Paraphrasing President-Elect Obama, we’re not black states of fiction and white states of fiction. We’re the United States of fiction.
2. We read your books.     

Underlying the humor is a reasonable question: why is it that Black readers are expected to read white authors, but white readers are seldom required to, or have rarely read or expect to read, Black authors?  Hidden behind this question is an assumption that what Black authors write, is not as good as what white authors produce, or that loving African-American or African diasporic literature means that somehow one isn’t “well read,” or the assumption is made that the only books you’re reading, must be under the now ubiquitous “urban lit,” publishing category.    

Supposedly, in this post-racial climate, all doors have been flung open, and race is no longer an indicator of access or success. But the publishing field is nothing if not a business, and right now, that business is enamoured with so-called “urban lit,” often rapidly produced literature that purports to portray Black urban street life. With its accessible language, urban dialect, focus on sex and the drug game, this novels at first experienced a grassroots level popularity. Then, by all accounts, the publishing industry took notice, and the rest was history. Now you can find such gems as Purple Panties and Pit Bulls in Skirts, in the same shelf as authors like Brice, Colson Whitehead, or even (gasp) Morrison.    

I’m of two minds about urban literature. One, it needs to be clearly understood that more now than ever “urban lit,” is controlled by the publishing houses – and it’s being used to lock in African American readers, so that publishers don’t necessarily have to venture out for talent or support current Black authors. Far easier to make money hand over fist. On the other hand, the revulsion of many in Black literary circles to “urban lit,” I think is sometimes informed by issues of class and appropriateness.  To be sure, I think the concerns and critique about urban literature are real and accurate. Urban lit glorifies violence, drugs, and hypersexualization of the Black community.    

Yet, I also think we have to find a way to talk about what makes this genre appealing , in a way that doesn’t demonize those who read and enjoy reading urban lit; in a way that seeks to understand the draw of the novels, while proactively trying to shift the focus away from the genre and onto novels that offer better writing, fuller story lines, more developed characters – and not just a longer version of a BET video.  I think we also have to be honest about whether or not readers are honestly seeing a reflection of themselves in these novels, and the very real impediment of literacy as informing what readers (who may genuinely love to read, but may be limited by their literacy) select to read.    

That’s why I love Carleen Brice’s grassroots effort. She’s actively working to promote Black authors, books by Black authors, and I think encouraging Black folks to continue our grand tradition of story telling.    

It reminds me of a great quote from Toni Morrison who said,    

I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”    

An early edition of Octavia E. Butler's book Dawn.

 Both Brice and Morrison are challenging us, and specifically the publishing industry, on what is considered and labeled “universal.” Morrison hits the nail on the head when she points out that there is a “suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing.” Morrison is even bolder in her assertion of Black humanity and the right to story telling, when she says that from her “perspective there are only black people,” here she subverts and ultimately inverts the entire idea of universality, by centering black people as the sole protagonists of her literary universe – and unapologetically so. Black people are the people that concern Morrison.   

Erica Kennedy's book, Feminista

 The struggle by Black authors for attention and parity in the publishing field is not new. Science fiction great Octavia E.  Butler’s novels were often produced with white characters on the cover, even though the protagonists were predominantly of color (Black, Latino, Asian, multiracial), as a way to attract white readers – in a genre dominated nearly to exhaustive proportions by white male writers. Recently, while reading a review of Erica Kennedy’s book, Feminista, which has received strong early reviews, I recognized an unsettling trend on her book cover: though the book features Black protagonists, the cover features white-skinned people (literally, the color white) – erasing any sense of racial identification, perhaps in an attempt to broaden the “selling power” of the novel.  So! Get to your nearest computer, bookstore, or Kindle and find a book to give by a Black author. Do a search on a site like or check out Amazon. Below is a suggested list of titles  – classics and new books, to check out:    

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Intuitionist or Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead
  • Song Yet Sung, by James McBride
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed
  • Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, by Toi Derricotte
  • The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton – for Y/A readers
  • A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
  • Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice
  • Incognegro by Mat Johnson – a graphic novel
  • Bayou, by Jeremy Love – a graphic novel
  • Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
  • Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke
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    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.

    Social Hierarchy In America Captured, Robert Franks at the Met

    Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on September 26, 2009 by thebibliophile

    "Trolley" by Robert Franks, 1955


    What a great example of James Sidanius’  nuanced theory of social dominance, which establishes a quadrant system to understand race, gender, and class hierarchy.  In the image, by Robert Franks, we see the hierarchy of race in mid-century American (and some would argue the hierarchy continues today. Seated in the trolley care in New Orleans in order of the hierarchy is: a white man, a white womyn, a white male child, a white female child, a Black man, and seated in the last seat, a Black womyn. The quadrant theory of race and gender holds that white men have the privilege of race and gender, yielding a ++, white womyn have the privlege of race juxtaposed with the disempowerment of gender (+-), as do Black men (+-), while Black womyn experience the hierarchy as a double negative of race and gender (–). This photo seems to capture that hieararchy perfectly.

    Robert Franks was a German-Jewish- American photographer who came to the United States and began his career. An exhibition of his work entitled, “The Americans,” is being shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m not very familiar with his work and am excited to check out the exhibit.

    Beer Makes it Better? Masculinity & Race on Display

    Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on July 31, 2009 by thebibliophile

    President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard Professor Dr. Henry Gates, and arresting Camridge police officer Sgt. Crowley. Photo credit: Stephen Crowley, New York Times

    Yesterday afternoon, President Obama invited Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley to The White House for a beer to discuss the incident in which Sgt. Crowley arrested professor Gates in his own home, as he returned from an international trip to China. This snapshot raises much for me, but the most top of mind reflection, is the way in which gender, and specifically masculinity allows space for forgiveness and bridging of racial tensions. I noticed often, that the dynamic, at least from the outside looking in, between Black and white men, is often mediated of course by masculinity and the attendant (and yes, problematic) notions and stereotypes, that in some ways Black men “out man,” white men, through hyper-sexuality and physicality. Black men are to be feared, posited, cruelly and inaccurately as being animalistic, and thus a threat to the logical minded white man. Some of that has even played out in the reports of Dr. Gates response to Crowley: Crowley was being “rational” and thoughtful and Dr. Gates (understandly the media is quick to say) was exhausted and may have responded irrationally (with his physical or verbal prowess). This analysis seems to suggest that Gates, the Black man jumped to action, while Crowley pondered. I’m sure this psychological trope of response based on racist ideology is also in part why folks responded so virulently when President Obama said Crowley’s acted stupidly. We’re not used to white men (Bush and Quayle’s aside) being called stupid publicly, and certainly not be a Black man, who also happens to be the leader of the free world.

    To smooth it all over, President Obama, Dr. Gates, Vice President Biden, and Sgt. Crowley met for a beer at the White House. Somehow this is a particularly gendered event to me – designed to trade on the common attribute of gender: all guys love to kick back with a beer, right? But I find this photo so interesting. Sgt. Crowley looks decidely uneasy (though handsome), Biden, looks distracted and distant, but certainly not present. President Obama as always looks cool and at ease. But Dr. Henry Louis Gates looks as if he might be truly enjoying himself…after all it’s a trip to be an invited guest at the White House, no matter how you slice it.

    I have to say, I’m so very curious as to what was discussed.  As apparently were the press corps and every one else according to The Washington Post. Race porn. This country is fascinated with race in the same ways its fascinated with sex. It all leaves me with a question: is it easier for men to negotiate race with one another because they can bond around masculinity? That seems a simplistic question – it isn’t so for womyn of color and white womyn. But it does seem different for men. And if masculine gender does make race different between men of color and white men, what are the reasons for that?

    Spring is Sprung: Life Captures the Evolution of Race in America

    Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 22, 2009 by thebibliophile

    Life Magazine Photo by Yale Joel taken in 1962. Image is featured on Google under "Spring Hats" on April 19, 2009.

    I truly do believe that old axiom that a picture holds a thousand words. In fact, I think my love of art and visual culture, makes me more likely to believe and think that far more than a thousand words can be captured in an image. Images can carry a weight of history, a whole Britannica of history and conflict. So my discovery of this image, featured on google as a link to Life Magazine‘s tribute to Spring Hats on April 19, 2009. The series of photos was taken by photographer Yale Joel, for Life,in 1962. Joel seems to be photographing in an upscale store, in New York city.

    As a hat lover, I was inclined to explore the link. Two things struck me: 1.) stumbling across this series of womyn and men posing in front of the statue of what appears to be a life-sized black jockey/servant and 2.) the fact that Life featured no womyn of color – no Black womyn in particular, because hat wearing is a cultural heritage that many womyn of color carry on today. So, where were the womyn of color. And what, pray tell, the heck is going on in these images.

    Life Magazine Photo by Yale Joel taken in 1962. Image is featured on Google under "Spring Hats" on April 19, 2009.

    To me, the posing womyn seem to capture the juxtaposition and conflict between white female sexuality and privilege/oppression and “othered” (here read as Black male) sexuality and the fantastical imagined gaze of the Black male. In many of the photos it appears that most of the womyn trying ton hats are completely oblivious or unaware of their placement in relation to the statue – though in some it looks as if the presence of the “servant” somehow enhances the play of trying on hats.

    What a way to encapsulate the way that fashion can simultaneously ignore and exotify, distort, and subjugate the presence and images of people of color. On the one hand, the presence of the outrageously outfitted figurine, heightens the whimsy of trying on hats. On the other hand, none of the womyn seem at all to be engaging with or noticing the figure – even though it is in their direct line of sight. Only the man pictured in the image at right, seems to be playing at bending the realities in the photo – both playing at gender, and at the presence of the Black figurine. There is something in his playfulness, combined with the gaze into the mirror (a familiar narcissistic trope of film/literature that feminizes and suggests doom of a protagonist. For example Broken Blossoms, Snow White)

    The attire of the mannequin is also telling; the clothing seems to be of European provenance in the 16th or 17th century. The mannequin is heavily ornamented – with earrings, pearl necklaces, and the costume the figurine wears is also heavily decorated. It appears that a candle-shaped light is placed in the mannequins left hand.

    Life Magazine Photo by Yale Joel taken in 1962. Image is featured on Google under "Spring Hats" on April 19, 2009.

    What do you think?

    Life Magazine Photo by Yale Joel taken in 1962. Image is featured on Google under "Spring Hats" on April 19, 2009.

    Can fashion ever truly be trusted to put people of color into the full center of fashion, thus making itself more authentic, when so much of the experience, tension, and witty retorts of fashion are made at the expense of the “other,” or through co-optation of the styles of others?  As bell hooks wonders, albeit on a much larger scale, how can we move from margin to center? And how can we do so, without being at the center of a bonfire of vanities, but at the center of an multicultural industry with a truly sophisticated, inclusive, realistic and yet daring philosophy toward aesthetics and fashion.

    Or maybe it’s all fun and games – fashion means nothing, race in fashion means nothing, aesthetics don’t reflect cultural meaning….



    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)

    [clearspring_widget title=”Mommas Boys – Bitch, Are you crazy? (12/16)” wid=”4727a250e66f9723″ pid=”496ccda46652caf3″ width=”384″ height=”283″ domain=””]

    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. 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; 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

    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,, 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, 1/3/2008,68/) 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”: