“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.