Celebrity and Shame: Harriet Tubman on a $20 Bill

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” ― Harriet Tubman
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”
C.G. Jung

Today’s topic is shame. And there is much to talk about whether around twerking videos or the new face of the $20 bill. But first a bit about my new blog theme and title.

Most of your know I was trained as an ethnomusicologist and that I wrote a book about black girlhood from double-dutch to hip-hop. The arch of my 20 year career has been spent on the intersectional study of race, gender and sexuality in embodied musical games by girls and that will continue.

The old title “Broadcasting the Bottomlines” worked but the direction of the work I’ve been doing with my undergrads lately is more like the CSI of online black girls. As we qualitatively code and analyze 800 videos of adolescent black girls twerking on YouTube, we examine how their love of dance and expression is overshadowed by shame about their sexuality, shame that comes from the ways their images are exploited by males, by media companies and by mega artists, as well as how the persistence of race and their uploaded content as young girls may come back to haunt their employability in a nation that has no “right to be forgotten” laws about things you did as an adolescent.

You never get a second chance at a first impression.

This blog allows me to share my thoughts about YouTube and digital privacy, about my love of teaching and my interests in empowering online black girls (esp. those ages 13-16 and younger) with digital media literacies. It also allows me to respond to current affairs in social media that intersect with these interests.

So, today’s blog post topic is about a current topic circulating on the web: Raven-Symone’s response to putting the face of Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill.

Celebrity and Shame

A video featuring soon-to-be-thirty-year-old gazillionaire Raven-Symoné has been circulating on Facebook and trending on Twitter since May14th. You, like me, may know her as the adorable child star from the final seasons of The Bill Cosby ShowThe version of the video I saw on FB timeline had over 1.3 million views. Appearing as a guest on ABC’s The View with Rosie Perez and others, Raven gives us her celebrity opinion encapsulated in a caption below the FB video, which read:

America wants Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—but Raven-Symoné disagrees: “I don’t like that idea… I think we need to move a little bit more forward.”

20-dollar-bill-transfer-transferframe198

I doubt seriously that all of America wants Tubman on the bill. Confederate flag wavers are probably not in that line. I’d rather discuss the culture of shame that seems to lurk behind her comments that is reminiscent of many comments I hear from black youth, and non-black youth, who’d rather dismiss the “dark” past of slavery especially since  it draws us back to race which is also taboo. This cultural of shame was something I once resisted in my own youth as a black teenager. I want to discuss this without demonizing Raven-Symoné but I will use her comments to make my points.

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson in His Journals

A culture of shame lurks among black people, especially youth or those ignorant of the powerful lives of enslaved persons. Instead the try to brush of the memory that were are descended from “slaves”. We don’t even call them “African” slaves like we are talking about people and not property. I suspect that since Integration in the late 1960s through the 1980s (there was resistance to federal mandates), segregated, under-resourced and undervalued black youth who strive to be upwardly mobile (i.e. gain individual wealth) have rejected the “dark” past of being a former slave like Harriet Tubman. Generations of youth were taught to reject everything African including people and the traces of its culture and biology including our own skin color and hair. It did this as a child and still suffer its psychological wages. When I was a kid it was “You got African hair” said disparagingly to mean that kinky was not desired, was not good like hair that resembled long white blonde tresses. Only straight hair would satisfy that hegemonic norm. We rejected our own natural textures for straightening combs and perms that burn your scalp again and again. We carry shame in our very existence when it’s up against the backdrop of whiteness.

If Media is Entertainment, What is History?

The media taught us these things while our parents were slaving in menial and then lower management jobs to eek out a living in a racist society. The children like me of the lindy hopping teenagers who had access to handheld transistor radios and TV sets were taught to reject the old for the new while also rejecting the darker skinned entertainers for the light. The mediated screen of televisions helped us learn these visual and cognitive lessons. We rejected black and white silver screen movies for the technicolor of television and the soulful sounds of Motown and disc jockeys on the regional radio.

So when Raven says we need to “move a little bit more forward” by choosing Rosa Parks over Tubman, I interpret that to mean we need to get over that slavery thing, those “things” (treating people like objects) of past generations and strive for what inspires today’s youth. The battle in Ferguson rings of this same generational struggle. The past is the past is what Raven is arguing for. Leave that old darker black woman’s past behind for the lighter, more palatable and respectable likes of a Rosa Parks. No disrespect but 14 year old Claudette Colvin and other dark-skinned black girls who took a seat in the white section of the segregated bus were not deemed sufficient role models by the NAACP. So Rosa was not the first. She was the most acceptable. Respectability politics has roots in our struggle.

Claudette ColvinIn my lessons as a student, a teacher and scholar (and I remain a life-long student), I’ve noticed the shame as a mechanism of control around race and slavery. It’s also part of pop entertainment on-stage and off. A Wikipedia entry on the “shame society” reads that shame is

the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining social order is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism.

Our relationship to history around entertainment as popular culture has been as a vehicle for a lot shame of artists we no longer wish to see or hear anymore.

In my informed analysis as a scholar, I remember how black folk rejected jazz vocalist and actress Ethel Waters who could sing circles around Lena Horne. Horne was favored because she was lighter and “prettier” though Waters was, for a significant moment in the 1930s into the 40s, much more powerful and prestigious in the entertainment world. Waters, who came from abject poverty in Chester, PA, was the first black entertainer with her own show on television (not Nat King Cole). She integrated Broadway and produced her own shows there. She became the wealthiest woman in Hollywood and on Broadway (notice I did not say “black” woman). Maybe Raven-Symoné would prefer Ethel Waters as the new face of the $20 bill but I wonder if she even knows of her legacy. Because Waters played maids at the end of her career in the advent of television, she was remembered by youth like me not as a legend in entertainment but as a stereotypical role. Whites get stereotyped in a profession of acting. Blacks are stereotyped in all of life. Like black girls twerking on YouTube, they are robbed of their full humanity off-screen.

For Symoné, Rosa Parks is probably a more palatable choice than Harriet Tubman, although Raven and her sympathizers might be convinced if they had had Tubman as a Barbie Doll figure during her youth. Imagine a Nickolodean commercial for Black Moses Barbie (“freedom oars” sold separately). Click the previous link for some humor and critique!

Ethel Waters in fur

Power: Wealth Alone Won’t Do

Raven take note: History of the past is not self-perpetuating but the cultural biases of human interactions sure seem to be. The meme of racial and sexual bias continues unabated as does naïveté. Ethel Waters was the wealthiest woman in Hollywood (not unlike Raven herself might be today) but was eventually rejected because of her age, race and sex despite her social prestige and her wealth. Back then Waters was arguably one of the 1%. The shame comes in when you realize that Ethel Waters was rejected from black cultural memory because of the roles she had to play to survive in the industry at the end of her career. This same pattern is why we don’t really know Paul Robeson.

In the 1954 Edward Murrow interview, Waters recites lines from the play Mamba’s Daughters, based on a novel of the same name written by DuBose Heyward (watch the interview here on YouTube). Waters used her economic capital to produce and star in the play on Broadway circa 1939. I can’t think of a dramatic Broadway play produced by a black woman since then. (H/T to Sara Jones who might fit this category but I don’t know that arena well. If you know, do tell!)  Waters recites these lines in the interview and likens their message to her own life as an entertainer:

Listen, Lissa. We black folks have one thing over white folks …  and that is…there ain’t no problem so big we can’t sing ’bout ’em. Best thing for trouble, honey, is singin’ … and werkin’. And when your werk is singin’, then you is holdin’ a charm against trouble.

The cultural shame about which I write here comes from not knowing these rich details of the lives of black people as people not as characters or roles from our past. Harriet Tubman is a stereotypical slave to someone who has not had much education in how the people we call slaves, or actors (pardon the analogy), really are.

The advent of television meant that skin color privilege would be valued and celebrated in celebrities not the community’s cultural narratives of ethnic power and change. I heard Dhoruba bin Wahad of the former Black Panther Party say that Huey Newton said, “Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired fashion.” Of course, in our capitalist economy, money empowers such an ability.

Within black cultural memory over time we have rejected actors for acting, musicians for musicking their inherited traditions and ghettoes (and its people), the products of environmental racism, as personalized problems enacted against us. There will be shame. The young and naïve often collapse the characters celebrities portray on screen with who they might actually be in real life off screen (from buffoons and maids to, for your consideration, Sasha Fierce aka Mrs. Carter). This kind of context collapse disallows the complexities of black lives and their multiple selves.

The Chains of Bondage Remain

Here is a more chilling example.

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (May 30, 1902 – November 19, 1985) was a comedian who became the first black actor to become a millionaire of film, but he is stereotypically remembered as a buffoon over early television known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit.

Lincoln Perry

In my youngest years I never learned about Perry’s wealth–a wealth that surely came with no power in the film business of 1940s and 50s, I was simply embarrassed by his portrayals on the television screen. His public identity on screen trumped any knowledge of his humanity as a millionaire or his family life as a father. The logic of shame found in the filters of cognition was borne out to me in a conversation with a colleague at the University of Virginia in my first years of teaching. Prof. Angela Davis, not the black power activist and prison abolitionist we all know, but a former HBCU student who attended college with Perry’s son, told me that Donald Perry made headlines when he killed three people and then committed suicide on the NJ/PA Turnpike. She said he left a note saying he was embarrassed by his father’s image as Stepin Fetchit. We collapse what’s on stage with what’s off and those collisions have repercussions well into the future. That was 1969, decades before his father’s own death.

“Chains and Things” (by BB King, 1970, No. 6 on Billboard R&B)

This week, we lost BB King at the age 89. Shame was registered in a NYTimes article announcing his death. When the blues went out of fashion with young black audiences in the early 1960s, he was booed at the Royal Theater in Baltimore by teenagers who cheered the sweeter sounds of Sam Cooke. As reported in the NYTimes, “They didn’t know about the blues,” he said 40 years after the fact. “They had been taught that the blues was the bottom of the totem pole, done by slaves, and they didn’t want to think along those lines.” (see NYT link above for more).

cartoon3 on abolition and mother

Getting back to Raven and her comments on the $20 Bill and the shame of being descended from the old black Joe news attached to the chains of blackness, what strikes me as an educator is how 29 year-old Symoné (with a cosmopolitan “e” added for stylish flair) uses the characteristic adverbial phrases of twenty-somethings who like to say “super organized” or “super lazy” or when they are not so sure “a little bit more forward.” This kind of discourse among my students tends hide in plain sight their insecurity about their opinion or their desire to find others among them who might back them up–cuz we all know the adolescent or naïve thinker loves to prop up the “underdog” in the fight. This is a common and individualistic approach to personal views in arguments that rarely reflect being informed or demonstrate critical thinking.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking offers a rich definition of critical thinking, which I intend to use more often from now on. It’s super good! Thanks Google! It reads: “Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one’s groups’, vested interest.” It goes on to add: “everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought,” and let me add, celebrities as well as scholars are prone to these episodes.

While I’d bet money on the latter, scholars are rarely invited guests on The View. We are the wrong age demographic in the wrong cultural climate; news as entertainment is not our bag; sound bytes on talk shows, not our fortés. So today, they offer us Raven-Symoné as commentator on the feminist politics of treasury bills, civil rights agendas and slavery.

shame children cognition

The networks that permit such remarks knowing it’s entertainment news for Twitter water-cooler sessions and social media banter.  But what are we learning culturally, asks the anthropologist in me, about thinking and cognition as a result? What lessons are we being taught? Increasingly, it seems as if celebrities have the answers that circulate, but they never have any questions about their own thinking. We all need this modelled more than ever in a noisy social media landscape of mostly entertainment news. And we all need to practice examining our own logic and our own uninformed thinking…from celebrities to scholars but particularly youth in the fast-pace of social media and globalization online.

The kind of “logic” I mean might be called A Private Universe (1987), to borrow the title of a favorite short academic documentary (see clip below). The narrative of the documentary is about science but it’s really about objectivity or informed thinking and the barriers to it in our learning environments, in the very educational institutions that are supposed to help us be more informed citizens and better human beings. The Harvard grads and professors interviewed in the start of the documentary hold onto a fallacy about the earth’s orbit and without a second thought confidently give the wrong answers and justify them by stating the courses they passed as evidence. I got an A, therefore I am know. This is a form of cognitive bias known as the overconfidence effect. Raven’s comments could fit the description of cognitive bias known as “The Semmelweis Reflex” which is summed up as “if the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts.” (Aside: Found a disconcerting yet provocative blog post about the Semmelweis reflex called: “I’m not gay no more!”)

 

The kind of “logic” I mean might be called A Private Universe (1987), to borrow the title of a favorite short academic documentary (see clip below). The narrative of the documentary is about science but it’s really about objectivity or informed thinking and the barriers to it in our learning environments, in the very educational institutions that are supposed to help us be more informed citizens and better human beings. The Harvard grads and professors interviewed in the start of the documentary hold onto a fallacy about the earth’s orbit and without a second thought confidently give the wrong answers and justify them by stating the courses they passed as evidence. I got an A, therefore I am know. This is a form of cognitive bias known as “the overconfidence effect“. Raven’s comments could fit the description of cognitive bias known as “The Semmelweis Reflex” which is summed up as “if the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts.” (Aside: Found a disconcerting yet provocative blog post about the Semmelweis reflex called: “I’m not gay no more!”)

On Cognition and Thinking

I often tell my students there is a difference between thinking and thoughting. The former takes more glucose or energy and tired and lazy intellectual practice resorts to thoughting or opinions, fallacies, faulty logic, and over erroneous common knowledge.

Thinking (vs. thoughting — using knowledge you already knew but not incorporating the new things you are not so skilled at using yet in a course) requires more glucose. Without the real thinking, we often resort to stereotypical, short-hand thoughts. The brain does this to preserve glucose, to save you energy. It’s just biologically efficient and your brain knows this. You don’t! The more arrogant or naïve you are, the more likely you are to not realize this and the bigger tendency for you to speak your private universe of opinions to the world. Those thoughts can be costly to you and to others, esp. when you have a microphone that broadcasts to the world called “celebrity”. And you may never know it. This is bigger than you having your own opinion. Everyone does have that right.

“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
Harlan Ellison

I can only imagine why the cosmopolitan and individual Raven-Simoné (and her accent) prefers Rosa Parks and not… Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Anna Julia Cooper or a Mary McLeod Bethune much less someone like Harriet Tubman who is so directly linked to slavery. It also directly links our of black people (not black skin) to the effects of capitalism on our labor and humanity. I think young people feel feel chained to the past and cannot quite understand esp. given all the state violence we have been witnessing in social media (that black folks have known all our lives), videos that remind us of an era of lynchings and centuries of subjugation by overseers in sharecropping, on plantations and on slave ships.

Mary McLeod Bethune with her students at the Dayton School
Mary McLeod Bethune with her students at the Dayton School

Young people in the black community (and any community) have the most limited vision of our culture, history, memory and ontology–the science of knowing. That is no fault of their own or anyone else’s. It;s how youth works. But they also can be some of the most impulsive and self-centered beings without critical thinking as they attempt to assert their self identity in a larger public. Wisdom soon tells us that we must also learn to defer and collaborate so we all thrive intergenerationally. Specialized understandings of this take time.

I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.  ― Harriet Tubman
America wants Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—but Raven-Symoné disagrees: “I don’t like that idea… I think we need to move a little bit more forward.”

Forward past slavery, in my opinion, would mean confronting the biggest wealth inequality gap in the history of our nation that also must be read against the reality of black women’s economic lives today in America.

Small changes like putting the face of Harriet Tubman, a black woman, on a $20 bill is seemingly small but a powerful gesture. The circulation of images in many ways can be a primary tool for instituting ideology and may instigate change over time. Think of all the images that have affected us from billboards to bedroom posters, from TV and  personalized mobile webcams and photography.

Net Worth vs. Negative Worth

Yet, and still, the substantive changes that give rise to access to those very dollars in an age of the most extreme wealth inequalities is a matter not so easily transacted and gained. Women and children, esp. black women and their children, are among the lowest paid, lowest valued and have the lowest examples of net worth — zero net-worth often called “negative net worth” — as demographic groups. From the ages 18 to 64, black women have less than $150 in savings after deducting their debt.
 
Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 12.29.28 PM

It is possible that women and children seeing Tubman’s face on the $20 bill might “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” more, not something I’d bank on as a solution, but the bigger challenge is not individual net-worth. Leverage comes from systemic change — how black girls and women, as well as women in general, are valued in a patriarchal society. That fact will not change by putting a historic black woman’s face on our currency. It’s more like entertainment than news in that light.
Harriet Tubman took slaves by gunpoint at times to force them out of their mental slavery. The UGGR, an acronym used by enslaved and formerly enslaved people like my great, great grandfather in his emancipation letter of 1855, stands for the Underground Railroad. No one else as Bob Marley sang can free you from those chains and from the chains of shame. The same ends as the colonized mind learns the reality of our lives with full humanity. I never learned that slaves actually had the skills to read and write to a larger degree than I could ever imagine. These 19th centuries media literacies surely contributed the end of the institution of chattel slavery.  Perhaps a similar read/write/create revolution is needed in the 21st century such that once emancipated from our lack of access to digital media literacies (read write create curate develop), would make it hard to maintain control over people with agency. Digital tools can help us organize their lives and adapt to our new online and offline environments and identities. In biology, the process of adaptation to an environment is known as “ecological fitness“. This is what I am after for myself and for online black girls and women.
And all this writing from watching a video of Raven-Symoné.  Thanks Raven!!
 
I’m supposed to be at a friend’sbarbeque right now. Please excuse my typos or any jumbled sentences. Drop me a note if something is illegible.  And if you made it this far and like something you read, THANK YOU!! Why not leave a comment??!!PLEASE comment!
Tell me what you’d like me to write about next or what you like about my blog or this post. Suggestions are welcome!
Advertisements

Females as Content Creators on YouTube & Hip-hop Videos

“In a time of destruction, create something.”
Maxine Hong Kingston

This summer statistics got me. YouTube decided to stop allowing you to see the statistics on videos for age and sex which totally effed up my research agenda this summer.

This happened in the middle of my summer session courses. The final week was planned around gathering data for music videos viewed by Female 13-17 as a top demographic for VEVO videos by Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne. These are not subjects of hip-hop I really would have ever wanted to study but because my earlier work in on girls and hip-hop, I went there.

It was intriguing to me that girls 13-17 could be counted on, literally, to view videos with lyrics like “Love Me” by Lil Wayne with Drake and Future. This is a cut-n-paste from RapGenius.com so you can also see what fans are saying about the lyrics line-by-line:

[Hook: Future and Drake]
I’m on that good kush and alcohol
I got some down bitches I can call
I don’t know what I would do without y’all
I’mma ball til the day I fall

Yeah, long as my bitches love me (yeah, yeah)
I can give a fuck ’bout no hater
Long as my bitches love me
I can give a fuck ’bout no niggas
Long as these bitches love me

[Verse 1: Lil Wayne]
Uh, pussy ass nigga stop hating
Lil Tunechi got that fire
And these ho’s love me like Satan, maaaan!

Fuck with me and get bodied
And all she eat is dick
She’s on a strict diet,
that’s my baby
With no makeup she a ten
And she the best with that head
Even better then Karrine

She don’t want money
She want the time that we could spend

She said “Cause I really need somebody
So tell me you’re that somebody”

Girl, I fuck who I want and fuck who I don’t
Got that A1 credit, that’s that filet mignon
She said “I never want to make you mad
I just want to make you proud”
I said “Baby just make me cum
Then don’t make a sound”

Boys 13-17 are not watching these kind of videos. 18 and up yes but not the youngest male demographic.

Students in both my sections were invited into my research exploration in girls and hip-hop videos on YouTube. Yesterday we watched what looked like a 10 year old white kid lip-syncing to “(Long as my bitches) Love Me” from his bedroom. 13 is the youngest you can be to have a YouTube account but it was clear from this video that smart digital natives have work arounds. The students and I have been talking about the ethics of young people on YouTube as a vulnerable demographic esp. under 13 but also 13-17 given the nature of the lyrical and visual content of rap videos (not to mention other nudity, vulgarity and obscenity found on YouTube even the Yasin Bey Guardian video is not appropriate for young people without parental guidance). More on that in another post.

It’s been a fascinating inquiry with 30+ undergraduate students ranging from 19 – 30. I challenged them to do participant observation after 5 weeks of studying and testing. Become a creator on  YouTube. Create a 2-4 minute video broadcasting yourself. Do what you want. Can be related to the class or not. They were also asked to watch 10 TED Talks, TEDx talks or TED-ED talks of their choosing.  The final project was to create a YouTube playlist that began with their created content + at least 3 TED talks which they had to go public with and share with at least 3 people.

All the students have been amazing themselves becoming creators and we’ve been able to talk about the multi-local sites of YouTube in ways we couldn’t before this week.

One student named Caroline got affected by the video of Yasin Bey electing to subject himself to the force feeding that Guantanamo Bay detainees on hunger strikes are being subjected to twice daily. I watched it Monday and shared about it in class.

Today, she came with a really remarkable video of her own with the help of her friends back in Lexington, Kentucky. I love the power of participatory social media and her video exemplified this. It was brave. Provocative. Collaborative. Engaging. Real!

I wanted to share it and I could say so much more but I gotta run to finish my essay for a book on Obama, Change and Hip-hop that started all this mess and rich study for me. Take a look and tell me what you think.

Caroline wants to meet and interview Mos Def aka Yasin Bey as a budding actress and a committed social activist in the making. This is the first time she’s EVER done anything like this or gotten involved. If you can pass this on, please do SHARE THIS!

We ended by talking about how young girls are not commonly content creators around hip-hop culture and on YouTube compared to young males. Caroline’s video though she is not in it herself is a kind of power a woman can wield from behind the scenes if she so chooses and she did!

Share this video below along with the Guardian video featuring Yasin Bey. The link is featured in Caroline’s playlist here and don’t forget to leave her a comment so she can learn the impact of her work in my class! Thank you!

Curiosity works! The access is through the unspoken. Voice it!

Kyra