The failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.― Audre Lorde
“The best way to avoid being confused about [Caitlin] Jenner is get your head out of [her] bedroom and closet, and then think about all of the things you’ve been hiding and been miserable about. … Just focus on the feeling of finally disclosing something that enables you to be free and to live as authentically as possible. …[then] you will no longer be confused.” ― Robin Caldwell
To study marginalized girls and digital seduction online means I also have to constantly revisit and stay current with ways people are thinking and moving from what they think they know about gender (vs. sex), gender roles, gender stratification or the unequal distribution of multiple forms of capital on YouTube. I do this so I can try to accurately interpret how gender performance is at work within the digital ecologies and spaces of YouTube and not just in rap music videos. I need to understand how vloggers/creators as well as viewers and invisible audiences are grappling with those ideas.
This week as we study the socio-cultural construction of gender in my intro to anthro courses, an ambitious and curious student reminded me of the Genderbread Person. The designer of this brilliant graphic and meme is Sam Killermann (ya can’t make these names up). He writes: “Gender is one of those things everyone thinks they understand, but don’t. This tasty little guide is meant to be an appetizer for understanding. It’s okay if you’re hungry for more.” – See more at: http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/#sthash.c9Nmralr.dpuf
He has three versions in the evolution of the Genderbread Person by Sam Killermann. One of my favorite pages on his website is Breaking Through the Binary. Check out the evolution of his ideas:
Teaching students to revise their ideas is what shows up when I see these three versions. Crafting a practice of revision of thought is so essential as new media seduces us to click-whirr and simply save cognitive energy by merely reading and accepting what comes across our feed. There’s little time to revise and reflect or as Audre Lorde suggests in the quote above to redefine and re-empower the process of thinking not thoughting. That’s it for now!
Happy queering your thinking not your thought, people!!
“One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves…. We proclaim our devotion to [our passion or dream], but we sadly practice the very opposite of [its] creed. … This strange dichotomy, this agonising gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.” ― Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love
This past week or two has been what I might call my test at confronting the tragedy of not crossing the gulf between practice and profession, between what needs to be done and what I do instead. It ended in giving the talk of my life at TEDxUofM on my Bottomlines YouTube research about the digital ‘net worth of black girls ages 13-17 and younger on YouTube. I talked about the racialized and sexualized disparities in search results, views as currency, and in the comments directed towards white girls vs. black girls. No one had to tell me I accomplished something spectacular when I left the stage. I’d done more than I ever imagined and felt it was some of my very best work as a writer, a speaker and even as a singer.
When I left the stage, my former voice teacher, the renowned MET tenor George Shirley with whom I studied for 2-1/2 years at the University of Michigan, was waiting to congratulate me backstage. What a joy that moment was!! I hadn’t seen him for over 20 years. He said “You sound good!” And we spent about an hour over tea talking about the work you must do to do you best and how that work will eventually pay off in whatever you do. Even if you don’t sing for a living. He intimated that the work he saw me do on the stage of Power Center in Ann Arbor was my life’s mission, what I was made to do on this earth. I fell and felt that way. It was like belonging and being all rolled into one and finally the place or my skin didn’t matter. I wasn’t diminishing my own voice anymore.
For 20 years I’ve been studying the intersection of race and gender in black expressive cultures through the lens of black girlhood and their musical play. For the last 2 years, my attention has focused on online black girls who are “messing around” on YouTube–uploading videos with editing, twerking to invisible audiences from the “privacy” of their bedrooms while others degrade their practices below their videos treating them like call girls and sluts. On YouTube you are who others say you are, or so it seems for online black girls. And so it has seemed for me as a black woman, as an African American citizen whose family has been in these lands for 9 generations and still suffers the effects of institutional racism.
The Life Course for Black Girls and Women
The black women in my family are not far ahead of the stats from 2010 that says we have zero or negative net worth and yet we come from an ancestral connection to middle class values. My grandmother was educated at the Mary McLeod Bethune Finishing School and almost went to the New England Conservatory of Music before she married my maternal grandfather, a Navy cook. My mother and her older and younger sisters had two parents at home. I was an only child but our lives were still touched by drugs, by gettin’ by cause the system didn’t seem to allow black folks after Desegregation to have a sovereign way of life or earn a real living that had comparable worth to white women or white men and their families.
So, for me to return to a stage where I’d had some of my worst moments of stage fright and give a talk that spoke to the self-worth and digital ‘net worth of African American girls who twerk!! It was a revolutionary moment for me and I hope for the 1300 people witnessing my shedding of skin and releasing of burdens. Mine and others. And not just black folk.
The view of the online adolescent black girls that I study in YouTube twerking videos are being shaped in ways I never was offline by interactions with people who don’t understand our history or the history of white superiority and hegemony in this country. They just adopt the stereotypical positions that black girls are ratchet, low-class, baby mamas or reckless and ignorant or that their parents don’t no know better. They are slut shamed and respectability shamed by whites and blacks online. Who will protect them from doing what all of us are doing online–playing with sharing our identities and trying on new things.
We were being introduced to one of the most precious of American freedoms, which is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others. — Ralph Ellison (1986, 186).
This past 7 days I’ve given my talk on The Bottomlines Project: On Black Girls’ Digital ‘Net Worth in Ann Arbor, at the Nassau Community College in Long Island, and at City College (CCNY) in an evening of work about hip-hop by my dear brother media assassin Harry Allen and fellow ethnomusicologist Tim Mangin. The TEDxUofM talk should be available online soon.
Confronting the Weight Not the Burden
I don’t feel tragically divided this week and with that feeling I realize that 2015 must be a line in the sand for me about my life goals and my ethics and my mission as a scholar and professor. It also must be the year I handle my biology and my health since black girls and women are the top demographic for obesity and I know now how absolutely essential to where I am heading that my well-being is to my success. I know but there I am still a bit tragically divided. I haven’t been to the gym for almost 2 weeks. I know what I ought to do but the gulf is there between what is.
So when my old American U collegemate Ken Brown tagged me on this video this morning, I knew I’d post it here. The world is listening, Kyra, and that world includes YOU! As India Arie sang, “The words that come from your mouth, you’re the first to hear!” #towerk #twerk
So today, I werk. I write. I write articles to publish. To get back in a tenure track job. I am here and I’m bringing new knowledge for a weary world. New insights that inspire and challenge us to grow with online black girls. #whywecantwait
H/T to Ari Gagne, a fellow ethnomusicologist who writes and studies the bounce scene in NOLA. He pointed me towards the Ellison quote and is educating me about bounce and its queens.
“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
Education, Liberation – I LOVE YOU!
Just got off the phone with my mom. She and I graduated–spent our last years of adolescent black girlhood—at 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.
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. GeorgeWashingtonCarver 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 alltogether. 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??!?
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).
In a classic joke of observer bias, scientists of different nationalities studying rats ‘‘discover’’ in the rats the behavioral traits associated with the stereotypical conceptions of the scientists’ own nationalities. One group of scientists sees the rats operating in organized hierarchies, another group of scientists sees the rats responding to the impulses of the moment, yet another group of scientists sees the rats engaging in creative long-term adaptations to the environments in which they are placed, and so on. Each group of scientists sees what its members already‘‘know’’to be the nature of mammalian life. Each has difficulty seeing what the other groups of scientists observe. (Joshua Meyrowitz on “Power, Pleasure and Patterns: Intersecting Narratives of Media Influence,” 2008).
Crack Kills: On The Mediation of Booty by Black Female Emcees
Naw, i am trying to make no jokes about hoodrats with the quote above from a scholarly journal article. Instead, I am simply hinting at there are many ways to look at Minaj’s latest video Anaconda. But I would assert that when our biology is triggered with the sugar of sexuality, the choices start to get very narrow and dare I say hard.
Clearly black women see Nicky Minaj’s video Anaconda with a certain set of lenses. But it’s been interesting. It’s easy to find vlogs by black or non-black males on YouTube reacting to the video. I watched one video by HotNewHipHop, some random entertainment news channel on YouTube, that was utterly sexist in the man-on-the-street interviews with men and women including a lesbian woman. The interviewer asked if you’d trade a pair of Air Jordans for a lap dance with Minaj.
This was the first by a black woman. A vlog that really goes in deep with her entertaining analysis of the sexual politics of going the route of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s novelty song “Baby Got Back”. Watch!!
“And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea:
we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
― June Jordan
ARE YOU INSECURE? CAN ONLINE VIDEO HELP?
Meet Miyya (pronounced like Maya). I watched this amazingly courageous black girl on Facebook today.I’m supposed to be on my way to the Bronx for an annual jam session and BBQ at my friend Benny’s place. But this video lingered on in my mind. This video is not yet available on YouTube. It surely will be soon.My friend (in real life and online) Bill Lamond wrote this about Miyya after I posted her video on my wall.
I transfixed by this…better than any movie I could have gone to see. More riveting. More alive. More gripping. More entertaining. More. Just more. This is a being who has mastered Divine Compassion with a Mother who knew that the only way through was to get over herself and get beautiful. I found the simple message, “I lived” an opener to my heart. In a world of whining and complaining and Whyme’ing, I found this intoxicating. Thank you.
YouTube is a distribution platform for many other platforms. But this video from FB is so—- courageous and an inspiring example of the power of online video for black girls out there who would otherwise never have such a public audience before digital media changed everything for youth of color.
It’s amazing when you can introduce people to the audacity of humanity via socially-networked media. Before I share it with you one word about owning your body online.
WHAT DOES OWNINGYOURBODY MEAN ONLINE??
Earlier today, I was writing about black girls who twerk after what was projected as the end of the Digital Divide. I was preparing another manuscript to be submitted for a peer-reviewed journal review. This one is about the so-called freedom of YouTube and its digital seduction 50 years after the sit-ins and freedom rides that marked the protest by youth for Civil Rights.
Back then a black body was “owned” in the worst kinds of ways in public. Sitting at a lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960 to gain access to public accommodations was a radicalpublic act. The Freedom Summer of 1964 became a deadly act for those whose bodies and person were identified as black and female or male between 13 and 24.
On YouTube today and other online video platforms, showing your adolescent or teen female body is not always privileged when it comes to twerking especially compared to non-black bodies. In other ways, black bodies rule, they are privileged, but more often than not it is negative or dysfunktional, as my friend Robin Kelley called it. Now, they call it ratchet.
BEARING WITNESS: One’s Body as a Testimony
Miyya (pronounced Maya) gives a whole different interpretation to using the body in her online video. She’s facing the camera as opposed to backin that thang up. Let me stop you in caseyou worry, I am not interested in diminishing the social value and play of twerking. If I were a teen, I’d been doing it today. My scholarly interest is in helping young girls and women understand the implications of broadcastingyourself while claiming to “own their own body” in ways that are not so free.
Miyya flips any script about the lack of agency among black girls owning their body, broadcasting from a recording webcam.
I couldn’t download this video. Haven’t figured that out yet on Facebook but if you click POST below you can watch it. You will feel blessed to have clicked it. Don’t wait! No need to imitate this one. It’s rare!! It’s absolutely incredible to behold and to learn what courage looks like.
This video and photo project by a friend Lacey C. Clark with Sisters’ Sanctuary in Philly is an empowerment project for black girls. The artist she uses as a soundtrack is captivating. The singer @Anhayla reminds us in the song U.G.L.Y. that You Gotta Love Yourself!! So I added her YouTube video below that because it speaks directly to those who feel insecure.
I did once. Sometimes still do. Anhayla paints a big picture to help young and old understand–it ain’t personal! It’s human.
Now that the barriers are crumbling everywhere, the Negro in America must be ever vigilant lest his forces be marshaled behind wrong causes and undemocratic movements. – Mary McLeod Bethune, Last Will & Testament
In my previous post Class is (Not) in Session, I mentioned that one of the best submissions to the Juicy J contest was made private when the winner of the contest was announced. Since then YouTuber Miss Kimari has made the complex submission public once again and I hope you’ll not only take a look but you’ll take multiple looks at what a complicated representation of self is in an age where context collapse (having the context of who you are, where you came from, what you really mean to portray from your POV) denies viewers a complex understanding of black girlhood and black female agency and consciousness.
I have begun interviewing Miss Kimari about a week ago and I’d like to share one thing she shared with me. I asked her several questions that are helping me ethnographically understand what is happening inside being a practitioner of twerking. Kimari is an undergraduate student at a major university in the so-called Dirty South where twerking is common body language. She has had an online identity since about 2005 on MySpace as a ninth grader and has “shut down” a couple of her YouTube accounts to manage her public persona, which was something I was not expected to hear from her. My preconceptions of the women who might twerk for the contest was stereotypical until I started studying the phenomenon and remembering the dances I did at her age and beyond as part of the black expressive vernacular communities of music and dance.
She said one thing that struck me. I wasn’t surprised as much as I was struck by my own past identity as a college student, as a black female student, who had never learned that black people even went to college before Civil Rights until I went to a school, the University of Michigan, that had a significant black presence on faculty and among the graduate students. What she shared reminded me of both the empowerment that comes with learning about being black in America and the disempowerment that comes from learning more about patriarchy and sex oppression. I am paraphrasing from my notes because I haven’t yet transcribed the recording.
Miss Kimari (paraphrasing): Last semester I was learning about black women’s struggles in the transnational state in all of my Africana classes and what I learned was who I am is a problem and that’s what I’ve seen my whole life. The way we talk about stereotypes. the way we reproduce them…it kills people living this reality.
In the video, Miss Kimari lets us see her black feminist textbooks and her twerking. She has video, the context of which gets collapsed, from when she danced professionally in a former iteration of her life, and video of her teaching classes at college. She consciously presents views of race, gender and sexuality which the generalized other on YouTube and other social media channels might consider challenging to their moral or societal values about young women and their freedom of expression in this day and age. But she has agency. She is exploring and quite consciously and, as her withdrawal of her video from YouTube suggests, she knows she is not completely in control of it all.
We live in a world of radical openness and we often, I can attest, learn our mistakes in highly public ways that can be emotionally traumatizing before we realize that we left the doors to our safety unlocked. While we think we see what we are doing when we create a video of twerking or even a personal vlog, we are totally unawares of the infinite ways that chunk of media could have not only now but in the infinite nows that will live as a result of our transmission.
It’s hard our here for a black girl. But this is the new context of our self-construction and it’s not just a adolescent age thing. Anyone on YouTube or social media is slowly learning the very old lessons once taught by Reconstruction era grandparents. This is why when I was a girl we had oratory lessons in our privatized spaces. Practicing how you present yourself to a general audience mattered and it still does. But YouTube is a mixed space where things that were once private and local and highly publicized, persistent (you may never get rid of it online) and no longer personal.
Would love your thoughts about how you manage your online identity but also invite you to consider HOW you online interactions are reshaping the construction of your SELF. Once online, always online. Be careful out there!