Out of Place: Whether in Segregation or Integration

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Flickr: Bushwick, Brooklyn
Flickr: Bushwick, Brooklyn

Education, Liberation – I LOVE YOU!

Just got off the phone with my mom. She and I graduated–spent our last years of adolescent black girlhoodat the same predominately white public school, Richard Montgomery High. It’s located in Rockville, Maryland just outside the beltway in Washington, D.C. Mama was in the 2nd class after Segregation ended (pun not intended, but … take it as it comes). I believe she attended 1958 – 1961. I attended 20 years later from 1977-79. I graduated at the age of 16. With my birthday in September this sounds amazing but it was not. That’s an altogether different story for another time. It sure looked good in the eyes of others to graduate at 16 but the real circumstances were not cute. I might write about it in another postif folks are interested.

It’s early Saturday morning and I’m sharing about my upcoming TEDx talk I’m givingMarch 20th at my alma mater, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The talk will be about race, value and black girls’ self-worth so I can really talk about racialization, sexualization and structural racism on YouTube. I am planning on starting my talk with a story about stage fright at my first audition at UofM.

Somehow we got to talking about our different experiences with Integration across our life courses. I was recording it in case I said something good for my talk. I transcribed the exchange because it rich with meaning and relevance esp. as I finish up an article highlighting the re-segregation of black girls on YouTube. Wanted to find a way to talk about segregated spaces on and off line, the blurring of public/privacy, the meaning of publicity in what are essentially segregated bedrooms broadcast online, and the inherent racialization of adolescent black female body and image while valorizing their white female counterparts. Even though big butts are valued they are stigmatized on black bodies.  Kim Khardasian can “Break the Internet” but when black girls try in twerking videos…as Nicki Minaj put it when talking about black girls doing a black thing, “it ain’t that poppin’!”

My new friend and one of the newest TED Fellows (Rock the TED Stage girl!!), choreographer Camille A. Brown articulated the dilemma we black girls face today, young and old,

Your body has value, but not on you!

Un-gawa, Black Powa

My conversation with my Mama is always like a roller-coaster. We cover lots of emotional terrain — sometimes it’s not easy but this was one of the more precious moments I want to remember forever.

She mentions the store Zaire’s which was a local department store in Wheaton, MD that my mom went to most of my childhood. She paid for new school clothes put on law-a-way often working 2 jobs a day. I got my first brown cordoroy bell-bottoms at Zaire’s when they were the “in” thing. Wish I had a copy of my 7th grade picture sportin those pants as the cheerleading squad assistant. Ungawa, Black Power was one of the cheers we black girls brought to the white junior high squad.

TRANSCRIPT

23:47″

Me: Ye-ah!
I was an integration baby. So you were supposed to fit in. I was always– the only black student in classical music until I got to Michigan. [That’s a little exaggerated. Tony Scales and his friend Virgil were in the music department with me to Montgomery College but no one else for 10 years of my classical training from 1979 until Michigan in 1988].

What made Michigan great for me was that there were THIRTY OTHER BLACK STUDENTS there. It was AWESOME! But…we didn’t see each other, ya know.  Even when I was [back] at Julius West [Junior High I thought] all of the black students, I thought we were in different classes, because I never saw them at school [in the spaces of learning, in the classroom; I saw them everyday at lunch. We played Spades on the regular]. [I later learned]  They were [all] in another class [tracking them vocational ed and not college prep].

24:19″
Mama:  The bad part of that was, in order for you to get a half-way decent chance to go to higher learning [college], I had to be on [them]… making sure you were in the right courses. Because there was some courses where the kids just played in the class all day [ME: a function of curriculum design not student laziness]. And that mighta been fun but in the long run. I mean…

24:59″  I never thought that Integration was the best thing.
I wanted to have the experience of being… [of] graduating from Carver High School. George Washington Carver high school!!   I wanted to graduate from there!!

25:09″  But..but  they– said–[parents and school authorities brokering the transtion], I was a student that who would be successful in going to the white schools.
I didn’t like it!!
And when I started to have problems with the teachers, my father said “you oughta be glad you’re going to school with whites.” That’s what he said.

Me: Ye-ah! Our…our experiences are like mirrors ..

25:35″
Mama:  We all had things we had to go through, ya know?  and I had a few teachers at Richard Montgomery — my U.S. history teacher — probably if it wasn’t for her I probably wouldn’t had — her and maybe Mr. Preston — I would have had just a TERRIBLE time at Rich’rd Montgomery all together. I mean 9…well…I had…well, less than 50% good experience there most of my time there, and I was just glad to get outta there! (she laughs at the irony)

26: 19″  And I had to work at Zaire’s behind the food counter! [It was] my first job after I got outta high school.

Me: Wow, I didn’t know that. [She’d never told me this before. And we continued shopping there for years.]

Mama: YE-AH!!! So what was the… ya know..
                                                               Me: ..the benefit…
Mama: Ye-ah!

Me: You got to go to a white school with white people but you didn’t get any better of a job.                                                                                                              Mama: Right!!!

Mama: … an’ COULDN’T SIT AT THE COUN’ER!

Me: WOW!!!!!! <pause>  Really??!?

Mama: YE-AH!!

     ————-

The Flawed System of Race

Notice how even as black woman’s own daughter, I respond in disbelief at racism. That my moms went to a predominately white school–we have arrived–to still deal with segregation in the rest of society, in her first workplace, after getting her degree.  This ish is a trip! And this trip around the sun for black folks has come with way too much ish.  Situations matter. There is not global solution to the racial ideology that still fools far too many of us into thinking what we do online or off is ok if I own my own body. No man, woman and child is an island.

We are all accomplices, co-creators — past and present — the shaping black girls’ social identity and their self-worth.  That’s it for now. But our conversation reminded me of a poem set to music in an African American art song by David Nathaniel Baker.  Thought the poem was by Langston Hughes. Delighted to learn and remember it was written by Mari Evans, whom I spoke to when writing my first book. She wrote a fabulous poem about black women and the poem “status symbol” [note the lower case spelling] is from her book I am a Black Woman (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1970).

 

status symbol

By Mari Evans

i

Have Arrived

I

am the

New Negro

I

      am the result of

           President Lincoln

  World War I

and Paris

the

          Red Ball Express

                   white drinking fountains

    sitdowns and

sit-ins

       Federal Troops

                     Marches on Washington

  And

       prayer meetings

today

   They hired me

  it

is a status

job . . .

along

      with my papers

They

    gave me my

       Status Symbol

the

key

to the

                 White . . . Locked . . .

John.

Publicity Means No More Locked Doors, Right?.

“Bottoms Up” (film)? Thumbs Down!–Entertainment Info Is Not News

Sara Baartman was a celebrity. Carried on a chair, she went to meet a duke. (73) Elites from out of town came to visit her. On Duke Street, two African children [freak show organizer Alexander] Dunlop had brought from Cape Town, probably in conditions of slavery, served her and the men. On Sundays, she went for rides in a carriage— much more like a woman of the elite than of the working class. Cartoonists represented her, songs were written, and poems were composed.(74)

Baartman was a celebrity who had to endure people poking her bottom and commenting on her figure. Her experience fit that of many performers of freak shows at the time, when freak meant wondrous or strange as much as it did awful and inferior.(75)           — Scully and Crais (2008, 316-317) on the “Venus Hottentot”

Unable to attribute authorship of this image. Any info is welcome.

LIKING TOO MUCH: BOTTOMS UP (the film)

Connection. Real connection. Everyone of us knows that social media is not giving us the biological connection we truly need to be authentically social. But we keep buying in. LIKING it all. Like. Like. Like. And more Like buttons. And top it off with a Share. What are we sharing for? This week I decided to stop using the LIKE button on Facebook in lieu of actually leaving comments if I liked something a friend or stranger posted on the walls of our daily exchange.

And what a week it’s been of entertainment info while #Ferguson freedom summer has been happening. Nicky Minaj released her Anaconda twerk-fest video and Taylor Swift has been criticized for what doesn’t even come close to twerking in my mind though she has one black woman doin the do. So much hate when what artists do is play with dominant scripts in our consciousness from the words of Kanye to the meme of twerking.

Presently, I’m writing a new article about “ways of seeing” the black bottom though the inherited media of popular music. While searching the web, I learned of a new documentary available that was featured by Madame Noire (August 6) in a CBS entertainment-information piece about butt augmentation. The film Bottoms Up was advertised there.

On the surface, “Bottoms Up” is a documentary film that examines the newest booming trend in aesthetic surgery – big butts. Placed under a microscope, the film explores the media’s impact and other societal pressures that have propelled big butts from a cult fetish to a mainstream phenomenon.

From Sir Mix-a-Lot, whose 1992 hit “Baby Got Back,” sensationalized round posteriors  – I like big butts and I cannot lie – to new artists like 2Chainz – She got a big booty so I call her big booty, it is men who actively pursue women with this new fetishized feature. So who is to blame – the media? Men? Women? – See more.

Baby Got Back is still gettin views, entertainment info traffic, distributing its messages to toddlers and adolescents across all nations who have little contact with black girls or women or recognize the objectification of their bodies they are being taught. A recent video of Sir Mix-A-Lot with the Seattle Symphony features a spectacle of mostly white woman shaking their asses like they just don’t care.  Where is the counter cultural critique of this by white women? By conductors at symphonies or the black members? OH! They only have one black musician in the orchestra. That’s another conversation close to my heart as a classically-trained musician. But off-topic here. Twerking — Stay focused, Kyra!

 

 

WHY STUDY BLACK GIRLS WHO TWERK?

When I began exploring my interest in a practice on YouTube by black girls that most people I meet find repellent …if they even know what twerking is, I never imagined the richness of this study. I have begun to understand the pleasure and escape found in black girls’ who broadcast while they twerk. I still am learning how to represent it ethnographically in a way that honors the exploration of adolescence, the play and sensuality of black dance and sociality, and the complexity of twerking in online video. YouTube seems so liberatory and at the same time its a place of neoliberal exploitation of youth and their expressive cultural traditions and practices.

It’s been complicated by my own parallels as a black woman and formerly black girl adolescent struggling to discover my place in a world that denigrates blackness. Whether it was being called “pretty for a black girl” or being teased by white boys for what was then a small butt by comparison to the one I have grown into now.  This is about me and not about me or my history at all. But what constantly comes up is the emotional injustice and subjective manipulation, dare I say the microaggressive assaults upon the ways others see my body and thereby how I perceive who I may be for others in the world. It dominates who I want to be at times. Worry for what others see and think and how I must overcome that to be free–and the struggle continues. But it’s personal that it’s not at all about me. It’s the sociology of being black and female if you have (or perhaps don’t have) the right big butt.

I often wonder what it would be like to be 13 today with Beyonce singing about surfboards and Kardashians implanting their bodies with what never shined on us.

So when I just discovered this new documentary Bottoms Up available on Google Play, iTunes and Amazon, I find myself trapped in a sort of damned if I do, damned if I don’t mentality. Buy it and contribute to the madness of our objectification in popular music media esp. online participatory video. Ignore it and shirk my objective research agenda. Contradictory #bottomlines if there ever was one.

CONSUMING AND BEING CONSUMED

This form of consumption is entangled with constantly sensing that the body you happen to possess is the object of derision and lascivious attention often masking any real attention to who I really am, the me within this body. And it’s entangled in that everybody is making a profit off it as long as they are not too dark or too black, too sexy or too cultural. Our bodies in some crazy neoliberal reality (not fantasy) is expropriated, extracted, take all the colonializing language of exploitation and globalization and it becomes a metaphor for the mountaintop (or bottom) removal of black women and girls from what’s profitable. We, it seems, are only viable as spectators of the sport or entertainment-info that uses our body for profit whether social or economic capital.

I find this work tiring. Hard. Difficult to parse out. I have to bite my tongue, the very last thing needed for a writer or scholar or for a black girl or woman. Shutting down breeds the bitterness. Better to take the bitter pill and dive in, I keep reminding myself time and time again.

I began to think of this work as being more about cognitive justice as well as emotional, ecological and sociobiological inquiry into violence vs. fitness for black girls (and women). Really for myself, too. This is inner warrior work and staying strong when the entertainment info machine and attention economy uses what houses your live and used to be part of your dance not the focus, takes deep and rigorous courage.

So with that, here is the trailer for the documentary Bottoms Up. If anyone has a way around buying this, I would definitely avoid doing so.

When the Music Stops: The Micro-Wages of Patriarchy (Beyoncé to R Kelly)

NOTE: Since this post was in part inspired by my grad school memory of R Kelly’s 1995 single “You Remind Me of Something” (yes, you women remind me of some THING), I initially though I’d post the music video, but on second thought, I refuse. I refuse to give currency (literally adding views on YouTube) to his digital presence and his commercial work. Instead, please watch and listen to the Jim DeRogatis’s YouTube series The Kelly Conversations with guest Psychology Professor Charmaine Jake-Matthews, a black woman who as a teen attended the academy where R Kelly preyed on underage girls.

Ahead of R. Kelly headlining Pitchfork Music Festival, WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis conducts a series of conversations with smart, passionate cultural critics.

As a professor of ethnomusicology, or rather the sociology of a gendered musical blackness on and off line, I have become increasingly committed to a womanist/feminist critique of pedagogy, of the digitally divided, and of the lack of an intergenerational and intersectional analysis of the oppression and domination tactics being used against black girls and women.  So it might seem strange that  recent controversies around whatever mega-artists’ latest release whether its Yeezy or Queen Bey, are often not all that interesting to me.

Usually I am not and have never really been interested in being dragged by the current into a maelstrom of opinions and argumentation, of bullying and social agreement. Perhaps it’s being an only child who even as an adult still feels introverted and outside what’s really popular. I’ve always been more interested in how the vernacular and local popular works for black girls and women. The micro-sociologies and the micro-stories of our ethnography–the first-hand, personal study of local settings.

The new popular with its advent of “new media”–the always-on, always available participatory culture and networks from YouTube to Facebook and Twitter–it all seems so irresistible. This immediately compelling “now now” (the term someone told me must be used to transact for an immediate demand of action by request in South African work culture)  distracts and dissuades us from our own need to personalize our habits of work, money and health. It distracts and dissuades us as well as from any radical (the thing we really need–whatever that may be for you and you– given the generalized indifference to black female existence by “IMPERIALIST WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY.” We need a radical collective action one that actually stops, thinks, and plans actions like what’s needed with regards to the most beloved and often the wealthiest, and most symbolically powerful, actors of musical blackness whose linguistic and symbolic imperialism often defy any local concerns for the linguistic and symbolic violence and emotional and cognitive abuse being waged against black girls and women.

The micro-wages and -aggressions of patriarchy whose consequences range from a lack of consent in mundane transactions like calling out gender when it’s irrelevant (The Fem-Cee Jean Grae!!!) to the invasive domination of rape, sexual assault and murder are hidden by the controversies around Yeezy and Bey. Then all these micro-wages and aggressions are expropriated to all communities of girls and women via American pop culture and YouTube in almost invisible ways. Witness over time the increased visibility of formerly denigrated and now objectified ideals of black female bodies where non-black bodies have and manufacture through cosmetics and cosmetic surgeries fuller lips, fuller hips, and tanned skin but not kinky hair, fuller noses and definitely not chocolate-bar to  blue-black skin tones. This goes unseen or unnoticed in the speedy highlights of new media blazing new new stories at the speed of lightness.

This is the outflow from my keyboard this morning after reading a story about R Kelly and accusations of sexual assaults dating back to when I was in graduate school in the early 1990s. And it bleeds into some concern I had that maybe I should take a bigger role in the black feminist blogosphere’s conversations about Beyoncé.

When we critique Beyoncé’s new  (old) work without considering the larger socio-political contexts of what bell hooks calls “IMPERIALIST WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY” as well as the social imagination of a heteronormative, non-consensual, pornificated gender politics that black girls and women are constantly re-subjected to by major black and non-black, major male and non-male superstars dating back decades, we miss what inter-generational critiques have to offer. I’d love to do a Google Chat that has 16 year olds, 30 year olds and 50 year old at the table sharing simply about the micro-wages and -oppressions they have felt from watching Bey’s new work or from moments in time then-then that reminds them this now-now.

I remember back in the early 90s when I was in grad school at Michigan with about 650 currently enrolled grad students of color–one of the most radical moments of my academic experience having formerly only existed in tiny groups of minority students before that–I was disgusted by R Kelly’s song lyric “You remind me of a Jeep. I wanna ride it! You remind me of a credit card. I wanna buy it!” I don’t remember too much public outrage about the sisters I knew then but I did complain about it. There was no new media to circulate our thoughts beyond our immediate sphere. Well there was email which we did use to galvanize a full-page ad in defense of ourselves and Anita Hill in what was it 1991 which came out of womanist actions by Michigan faculty–female and male. But back then I was just beginning to learn that I didn’t have the language to identify its connections to “IMPERIALIST WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY.”

Yesterday’s December 16, 2013 Village Voice article about the stomach-churning stories about R. Kelly and a one-man crusade by one music journalist to investigate and publicize his factual sexual abuse cases brings the facts of “IMPERIALIST WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY”  into view for deeper analysis of Beyoncé and more importantly of ourselves.

These are facts that are plagued by the lack of media literacy among young and old that leads way too  many of us refusing to confront

  • what is being peddled and for whom
  • what is being bought and by whom,
  • what (not who) is being sold to our minds through popular and social media culture then and now
  • and why…to and for what ends are we constantly being distracted by new media?

I am realizing that I must keep blogging here but I ask that today, in this now now, you carve time out to:

Read the “Stomach-Churning” Sexual Assault Accusations Against R. Kelly in Full

Here is a telling excerpt:

Jessica Hopper/Village Voice: Some of our young critical peers, they’re 24 and all they know of Kelly’s past is some vague sense of scandal, because they were introduced to him as kids via Space Jam. A lot of your reporting on this is not online, it is not Google-able. Collective memory is that he “just” peed in a girl’s mouth.

Music journalist Jim DeRogatis: To be fair, I teach 20-year-olds at Columbia. Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody knows everything. A lot of art, great art, is made by despicable people. James Brown beat his wife. …

The art very rarely talks about these things. There are not pro-rape Led Zeppelin songs. There are not pro-wife-beating James Brown songs. I think in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, rock music, or pop culture people misbehaving and behaving badly sexually with young women, rare is the amount of evidence compiled against anyone apart from R. Kelly. Dozens of girls — not one, not two, dozens — with harrowing lawsuits. The videotapes — and not just one videotape, numerous videotapes. And not Tommy Lee/Pam Anderson, Kardashian fun video. You watch the video for which he was indicted and there is the disembodied look of the rape victim. He orders her to call him Daddy. He urinates in her mouth and instructs her at great length on how to position herself to receive his “gift.” It’s a rape that you’re watching. So we’re not talking about rock star misbehavior, which men or women can do. We’re talking about predatory behavior. Their lives were ruined. Read the lawsuits!” READ MORE.

CLOSE QUOTES:

We have been raised to view any difference other than sex as a reason for destruction, and for Black women and white women to face each other’s anger without denial or immobility or silence or guilt is in itself a heretical and generative idea. It implies peers meeting upon a common basis to examine difference, and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference. For it is those distortions which separate us. And we must ask ourselves. Who profits from all this?
Audre Lorde. “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” Sister Outsider. Crossing Press Berkley. 1984. Originally published as the keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Storrs, Connecticut, June 1981