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IMG_1767There’s a reading tonight hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) but I was simply too tired to attend; I think jet lag is finally setting in so I opted to stay at the hotel, order room service, and work on my presentation on “configuring the past and present.” I can hear a preacher screaming “Hallelujah!” outside—there must be a church nearby. I’m watching Ghana TV and a women’s show, The Standpoint, just ended—the Oprah equivalent Dr. Gifty had guests and experts on to discuss life after your husband’s death. This has been a day of death, in a way—today’s program ended with an emotional tribute to Jayne Cortez, OWWA co-founder who passed suddenly last December. I only met Jayne twice but it was clear to me that she was a formidable woman. I was surprised to find myself shedding a few tears during the tribute; I watched Ama Ata Aidoo being helped to her feet—someone holding her cane, someone else holding the mic so her hands were free to hold the bowl—and then she spoke in Fante because she knew Jayne wouldn’t want a libation prayer to be said in English. She had to pause midway to pull a kerchief from her blouse and it was very moving to see this elder weeping for her lost friend. They met in the 1970s so that’s a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That will be us someday.” I feel so blessed to be here with my close friends—my life has been enriched and enlarged because of these incredible black women who don’t have the anxiety issues that make me too risk-averse and too content to stay at home. Would I have come to Ghana without them? Maybe, but I’m grateful that they continue to “lift me as they climb.”

IMG_1753I don’t think I can do justice to the four panels I attended today. The first was on getting your work out into the world, and moderator Tara Betts (right, with Camille Dungy) drew rich insights from the three panelists. Latasha Diggs (below right, with Gabrielle Civil)reminded us that it’s not *always* about the book—having one doesn’t make you legitimate, doing the WORK and getting it out there (by yourself, if necessary) is what matters most along with building community. How can you ward off competition between you and your fellow writers? Hang with musicians and other artists working in different media. Kadija George Sesay, publisher of Sable magazine, urged self-publishers to register their publications and get an ISBN/ISSN; that means your work can be catalogued, archived, and then you can be certain that you’re IMG_1754leaving a record behind.

IMG_1759During the brief break Michelle Martin and I went down to the book vendors and did a bit of shopping. No more books! I think I’ve bought ten so far, mostly for my nieces and nephew, though I got a couple of novels for myself today. It’s so wonderful to have the authors sign their books, too. I had lunch with Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and was thrilled to get an English translation of her novel, Carapace. She and her partner Zulma also wrote out a list of Afro-Latino women writers whose work is available in English. I want to add more Latina content to my Black Women in the Americas class. I was disturbed to learn that Yolanda and Zulma were harassed and threatened in the Osu market earlier this week, but it was wonderful to learn that their homeland of Puerto Rico recently passed legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people. Maybe the jetlag is making me emotional or maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many amazing women—I feel protective of everyone! Protective and powerless at the same time. I should switch gears and go work on my talk because these are the issues I want to address: is it enough to rewrite history, to write black women back into the historical record through art and/or scholarship, or must we MAKE history ourselves? I feel like history is made by women who are bolder than me, but maybe that’s just what I want to believe…

IMG_1745The afternoon panel on Africa, the diaspora, and children’s literature was great. One Ghanaian panelist talked about the need to ensure that girls on the continent have access to education—whether it’s in a traditional school, via cell phone, or on the radio. Another Nigerian panelist, Akachi Ezeigbo, talked about her decision to write girls as heroines in her books for young readers, and Michelle Martin captivated the audience with her slideshow and talk on hair politics in children’s picture books. Deborah Ahenkorah doubled as panelist and moderator and had a chance to share her innovative strategies for getting books into the hands of Ghanaian kids. “If we can send a man to Mars, we can ensure that Ghanaian children have culturally relevant, quality books!” Stay tuned for an interview with Deborah in the next day or two…

The fourth panel was intense; four writers talked about their activism and the ways they channel the ancestors in order to better serve their community around issues like environmental justice and domestic violence. You can learn more about the important, community-based projects coordinated by Angelique Nixon’s nonprofit Ayiti Resurrect. Moderator (and friend!) Ira Dworkin moderated and gave us all an update on the challenges facing women writers in Egypt. You can learn more about the threats facing Mona Prince here.

Ok, time to turn in. I haven’t actually left the hotel compound yet so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lineup, which includes a performance by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Rosamond S. King, and Gabrielle Civil. We start here and then finish at the seashore…

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This afternoon I will be on a diversity panel at the NYPL. I thought I’d post some of my slides for those of you who are unable to attend. A full report will be posted tomorrow…

The US Children’s Publishing Industry:

Is the door open or closed?

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My thoroughly unscientific, simplified representation of diversity in publishing in 2013 (based on observation and anecdotal evidence):

img506I believe there’s a direct link between limited diversity in the publishing profession and the lack of diversity in books for young readers. Although it is important for white authors to learn how to accurately represent people of color in their work, that alone will NOT change the status quo. I’m wary of groups whose goal is to “celebrate diversity” without also promoting equity.

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What IS the difference between diversity and equity? Diversity focuses on difference but equity focuses on fairness. These definitions come from the UC Berkeley website:

Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ, and it encompasses all the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another. It is all-inclusive and recognizes everyone and every group as part of the diversity that should be valued. A broad definition includes not only race, ethnicity, and gender — the groups that most often come to mind when the term “diversity” is used — but also age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance. It also involves different ideas, perspectives, and values.

Equity is the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all…while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations and that fairness regarding these unbalanced conditions is needed to assist equality in the provision of effective opportunities to all groups.

The first step in creating greater diversity and equity in the publishing industry involves developing a vision of progress. Here’s what I hope the industry will look like in 2020:

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What would YOUR ideal children’s literature community look like?

The UK Publishing Equalities Charter offers specific actions groups can take to promote equality and diversity. Learn more at equalityinpublishing.org

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Third Conference on Women Writers of African Descent

Will Honor Jayne Cortez &
Feature Angela Davis, Sapphire, Evelyne Trouillot, and 50 others
this May in Accra, Ghana

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New York, NY – The Organization of Women Writers of Africa (OWWA) and New York University, in collaboration with the Mbaasem Foundation, will present Yari Yari Ntoaso: Continuing the Dialogue – An International Conference on Literature by Women of African Ancestry. This major conference will put writers, critics, and readers from across Africa, the USA, Europe, and the Caribbean in dialogue with each other in Accra, Ghana, May 16‐19, 2013.

The public can help support authors’ participation at

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/318981

OWWA is deeply saddened by the loss of its President and Co‐Founder, Jayne Cortez, the amazing poet, performer, and activist described by The New York Times as “one of the central figures of the Black Arts Movement.” Cortez was the driving force behind the first two Yari Yari conferences, and OWWA and NYU’s Institute of African‐American Affairs have committed to presenting the third Yari Yari as scheduled in Jayne’s honor.

The conference will consist of panels, readings, performances, and film screenings, and will be devoted to the study, evaluation, and celebration of the creativity and diversity of women writers of African descent. Fifteen years after OWWA’s first major conference, Yari Yari Ntoaso continues the dialogue of previous Yari Yari gatherings, which were the largest events of their kind, putting hundreds of women writers and scholars of African descent in dialogue with thousands of people. Confirmed participants come from more than a dozen countries, and include individuals who have been Poet Laureates and won a variety of other awards. (See the list of participants below.)
OWWA is actively fundraising to cover the costs of Yari Yari Ntoaso, and the Cortez/Edwards family encourages donations in Jayne’s name to OWWA. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/318981 or mailed to P.O. Box 652; Village Station; New York, NY 10014.
Yari Yari Ntoaso is FREE to everyone who wants to attend; attendees should register
online at http://www.owwainc.org where information about travel discounts and logistics are also available. Updates will be posted regularly on OWWA’s Indiegogo site and Facebook page.

OWWA Mission Statement:
The Organization of Women Writers of Africa, Inc (OWWA) was founded in 1991 by Jayne Cortez of the USA and Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana for the purpose of establishing links between professional African women writers. OWWA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit literary organization concerned with the development and advancement of the literature of women writers from Africa and its Diaspora. OWWA is also a non‐ governmental organization associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information (UNDPI). Board members include Louise Meriwether, J.e. Franklin, Maya Angelou, Rosamond S. King, Margaret Busby, and Maryse Condé.
Confirmed Participants as of January 2013:
Anne Adams (USA) – Scholar of African literature
Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana) – Fiction writer, OWWA CoFounder
Esther Armah (Ghana, UK, USA) – Journalist, playwright, radio host
Bibi Bakare (Nigeria) – Publisher
Samiya Bashir (Somalia/USA) – Poet
Sokhna Benga (Senegal) – Novelist, children’s author
Tara Betts (USA) – Poet
Carole Boyce Davies (Trinidad & Tobago/USA) – Scholar of African diaspora literatures &
cultures
Prof. Joanne Braxton (USA) – Scholar of AfricanAmerican
poetry
Margaret Busby (Ghana/UK) – Editor, publisher
Gabrielle Civil (Haiti/USA) – Performance artist, poet
Jayne Cortez (USA) – Poet, OWWA CoFounder
Angela Davis (USA) – Scholar of prison abolition
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers (South Africa) – Poet, performer
Latasha N. Diggs (USA) – Performer, poet
Camille Dungy (USA, SFSU) – Poet
Alison Duke (Canada) – Filmmaker
Ira Dworkin (US/Egypt) – Scholar of AfricanAmerican
literature
Zetta Elliott (Canada/USA) – Fiction writer, scholar of literature & publishing
Donette Francis (Jamaica/USA) – Scholar of Caribbean literature
Gladys M. Francis (Guadeloupe/USA) – Scholar of African & Caribbean literature
Kadija George (UK/Sierra Leone) – Publisher, poet
Wangui wa Goro (Kenya) – Translator, poet
Philo Ikonya (Kenya) – Author, journalist
Rashidah Ismaili (Benin/USA) – Poet
Tayari Jones (USA) – Novelist
Madhu Kaza (India/USA) – Fiction writer
Fatou Keita (Cote d’Ivoire) – Children’s author
Jason King (USA) – Scholar of music & popular culture
Rosamond S. King – Poet, Performance Artist, Yari Yari Ntoaso Conference Director
Kinna Likimani (Ghana) – Blogger
Fungai Machirori (Zimbabwe) – Blogger, activist
Michelle Martin (USA) – Scholar of children’s literature
Roshnie Moonsammy (South Africa) ‐ Arts administrator
Micere Mugo (Kenya) ‐ Playwright, poet, scholar of African literature & orature
Angelique Nixon (Bahamas) – Scholar of literature & tourism, poet
Wura‐Natasha Ogunji (Nigeria/USA) ‐ Performance artist
Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria/USA) – Young adult novelist
Tess Onwueme (Nigeria)‐ Playwright
Hermine Pinson (USA) – Poet, scholar of AfricanAmerican
literature
Sapphire (USA) – Poet, novelist
Lola Shoneyin (Nigeria) – Novelist, poet
Eintou Springer (Trinidad & Tobago) – Poet, playwright
Cheryl Sterling (USA) – Scholar of African & diaspora literature
Veronique Tadjo (Cote d’Ivoire/SA) – Novelist
Coumba Touré – Author (Mali) – Children’s author
Evelyne Trouillot (Haiti) – Novelist
Wana Udobang (Nigeria) – Journalist, blogger, radio host
Gina Athena Ulysse (Haiti/USA) – Performance artist, scholar of Caribbean anthropology &
blogger
Crystal Williams (USA) – Poet
Christopher Winks (USA) – Scholar of Caribbean literature

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imagesI think my list of black-authored MG/YA novels published in the US is pretty complete—thanks to Edi and everyone on Facebook for helping me develop the 2012 list. We came up with 53 titles altogether, but 3 were reprints so that leaves us with 50 new middle grade and young adult titles. Of those 50 books, 11 were published by Saddleback Educational Publishing; the Juicy Central and Lockwood Lions series feature “hi-lo” content for teens reading below grade level. The two major romance publishers—Harlequin and Kensington—are next in line: Kensington’s K-Teen Dafina imprint published 10 black-authored titles in 2012 and Harlequin’s Kimani-Tru imprint published 3. That means THREE publishers are responsible for almost HALF (24) of the black-authored novels published for young readers this year. Scholastic and Aladdin both published 3 titles and Amistad published 2. The rest of the titles are “loners”—they represent the only black-authored MG/YA novel published by Wendy A. Lamb Books, Chronicle, Carolrhoda, Nancy Paulsen Books, HarperTeen, HarperCollins, Little, Brown, St. Martin’s Griffin, Darby Creek Publishing, Margaret K. McElderry Books, Henry Holt, Knopf, Simon & Schuster, Urban Books, Turner, Harper & Wells, and my own publisher AmazonEncore. I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out which imprints belong to the “big 5.” It would also be interesting to figure out how many first-time authors are published each year—are publishers even looking for new talent or are they happy to just wait for their “regulars” to produce a new novel? Any way you slice it, it’s not good. There are 13 million African Americans in the US and our kids have fewer than 50 novels to choose from each year…and how many do you think have LGBT content? (3, I think)

We need greater transparency in the publishing industry, which is why I compile these lists. We’re working on a new initiative so stay tuned…

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I have finally got my conference paper down to 12 pages! Unfortunately, in my effort to include as many quotes from my interviewees as possible, I cut a really strong passage and *forgot* to paste it into the footnotes. Crap. In that passage I analyzed a troubling review Ship of Souls received from a Canadian bookseller—and one of her critiques was the “unnecessary” inclusion of crude language (“crap” and “pissed off”). I use crap in order to avoid using “sh**”—which is what lots of kids use every day. But that was a minor issue for me. I had more of a problem with her description of Hakeem as “a stereotypical black jock.” She did note that he was Muslim, but made no mention of the fact that he’s biracial (Senegalese father, Bangladeshi mother), that he’s determined to graduate from high school AND college despite his athletic ability, and that he dreams of becoming a chef and opening his own restaurant someday. If he really is a stereotype, I’d love for this reviewer to list the other books that feature a kid like Keem. She couldn’t, of course, (especially not in Canada, where there are NO books about contemporary black boys) which was the point I was trying to make in my paper. Bad reviews are part of life for an author; generally we read them, fume a bit, and move on. But when there are only two review journals for children’s literature in the country, you really need those reviewers to be on point.

I wanted to say something in my conference paper about the competency of reviewers—cultural competency, which for the most part has nothing to do with race. As I tried to explain to the editor of the journal that ran the review, I’m not qualified to teach Black Studies because I’m black—I’m qualified b/c I’ve been trained in the field. And several other reviewers—white and black—have noted that the cast of kids in SoS is remarkably diverse. They note that, I think, because they’ve read enough speculative fiction and African American kidlit to know just what’s stereotypical and what’s not. Queer kids of color don’t often see themselves reflected in MG/YA lit, so my choice to have Nyla question her sexuality was deliberate; this particular reviewer felt the “odd reference to lesbianism” was “unnecessary to the story.” But this was the comment that stunned me:

…Canadian children will have to do some quick double think to incorporate the views of the American Revolution presented here in which their ancestors are clearly portrayed as the enemy of the brave Americans.

I still don’t know how to process this remark. Is the reviewer saying that Canadian children will feel conflicted because they’ll conjure British loyalists while reading the book? There are no references to the British in my novel—in fact, the patriot ghosts recount fending off German soldiers (Hessians). So what’s the problem? And I have to wonder which Canadian children she’s worried about. I seriously doubt that black children in Canada would read this story and experience anxiety around their loyalty to the Crown. There were black loyalists, of course, but I doubt that’s what she’s talking about. I suspect this reviewer worries that WHITE Canadian children will be unable to identify with the African American protagonists, and will therefore align themselves with the whites who aren’t even present in the novel—the British. Good grief. This reviewer gave Ship of Souls two stars out of four, yet still declared it “recommended.” Thanks.

Other African Canadian authors made more concise statements about the issue of race and reviews, so I’ll focus on them in my paper. Which it’s time to get back to…

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Yesterday was not my best teaching day. I try to let my students express themselves in class, and I try to listen patiently even when problematic ideas are coming out of their mouths. After all, the point is to figure out where they’re starting from—what they know now so that we can try to move forward together. I’m usually ok if they disagree with me on something—so long as they can back it up. But when we’re talking about sensitive issues (like homosexuality) I find I sometimes lose my patience. Yesterday was one of those days. I knew we had fifteen minutes left in class and I didn’t want to “go there” when it was clear that this one particular student wasn’t ready to reconsider her position. So I left her there and moved on. Didn’t feel good about it, but I had another class to teach and a faculty film group to facilitate after that…and there will be opportunities later in the semester to revisit the subject. I got back to my office after the faculty group wrapped up and another student from that class had sent me this email:

Good afternoon Professor Elliot, I’m _____ from your noon class on Tuesday and Thursday and I just wanted to say that I’m really enjoying this class. I almost didn’t sign up for it but I’m happy i did. You are a excellent professor and I’m really learning more in this class than my others. By the way this Isn’t sucking up or anything I’m just showing that i have interest in your class.

Sounds like sucking up to me, but you know what? I really needed to hear that yesterday! Attendance in my morning class was down by about a third, and I couldn’t help but wonder if students skipped class because they didn’t want to talk about homosexuality. I need to do better. And I’ll try, though this semester is proving to be much harder than I thought. On Monday I got this sweet email from a former student, which reminded me of the long-term impact great teaching can have:

I am SO happy to hear you are still teaching and showing some of the materials you used for us at MHC; I really cannot even begin to tell you how much your courses continue to help me. It is really crazy to see how so many students have never spoken about or taken any classes on race relations in the US or on Black studies/Black history at an education school like ____ of all places; so, I find myself longing for and appreciating the work we did in your courses at MHC all the time. I am using so many of the readings from both of your courses, particularly from the Black Studies Reader, Tricia Rose articles, and poems from Amiri Baraka to conduct a literature review on work regarding ethnic studies courses, hip hop collegians, and language (particularly signifying–to this day, the most fascinating thing I ever learned, so thank you!) Please stay in touch and let your students know just how incredibly fortunate they are to have you as their Professor. Best of luck with the launch of your new book!

So tomorrow I’ll put on my new school marm dress and try to get it right. I did learn yesterday that I got a travel grant to help pay for my trip to France, so I’m going to focus on the positive and keep pressing on…

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…take the Birthday Party Pledge! Today is our official launch day. If you haven’t already visited the BPP site, please stop by and take the pledge. If you’re a book blogger, grab the code and add our button to your site. If you know others who could benefit from the many lists on our site, spread the word! Our team has compiled book lists with dozens of multicultural titles in all genres: poetry, historical fiction, books boys love, graphic novels, speculative fiction, books girls love, chapter books, LGBTQ, picture books, sports books, and non-fiction.

About Us:

The Birthday Party Pledge emerged from an ongoing conversation between authors, educators, librarians, and book bloggers. We wanted to promote children’s books by authors of color, and we wanted to encourage the building of home libraries in low-income communities. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, less than 5% of all books published annually for children in the US are written by people of color. Many publishers insist that they can’t find more writers of color and/or claim that the market doesn’t exist for books about children of color. Yet a study conducted by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation revealed that many adults want to purchase multicultural books and are simply unable to find them:

Nearly eight in ten (78%) U.S. adults believe that it is important for children to be exposed to picture books that feature main characters of various ethnicities or races—but one-third (33%) report that it is difficult to find such books, according to a recent survey that was commissioned by The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the love of reading and learning in all children.

Some parents simply can’t afford to buy books, and we encourage all families to draw on the resources available at their local public library. In other cases, buying books for children is a matter of shifting priorities and redirecting resources. Compared to video games and other toys, books are relatively inexpensive (and can often be purchased “like new” from online resellers). Buying books locally puts money back into your community, and we encourage you to support those independent bookstores that carry multicultural books.

The BPP has two goals:

1. To encourage childhood literacy in order to promote a lifelong love of books.

2. To assist adults in providing children with books that truly reflect the diverse society in which we live.

Take the pledge today!

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Doret has posted her 2011 list of MG & YA novels by authors of color. If we take a look at Doret’s list and mine, how many of these novels feature LGBTQ characters? Can queer kids of color find their mirrors in these books?

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(l-r: J.E. Franklin, Rosamond King, Louise Meriwether, Angela Davis, Pamela Booker, Rashidah Ismaili, me)

On Monday I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Angela Davis; she was being filmed by OWWA (Organization of Women Writers of Africa) and that interview will be added to their collection at the Schomburg. We gathered at NYU at the Institute for African Affairs and Rashidah Ismaili started the interview by asking Dr. Davis to reflect on her childhood and the early influences in her life. We learned that both of her parents were school teachers and so Davis grew up in a home where she was encouraged to read and grow—she and all of her siblings left home as teens, with Dr. Davis going to New York for her last two years of high school. She moved in radical circles and learned from her family members not to talk to the FBI—a lesson that came in handy when she was later arrested as a fugitive. The remark that most stood out to me was Dr. Davis’ assessment of her parents’ vision for her; more than once she stressed the importance of the imagination and the need for young people to “not be too ensconced in the present.” Dr. Davis’ mother fought to secure an education for herself and then made sure her children understood that they had to prepare for a reality that didn’t yet exist. The interview ended with a Q&A and Pam asked an intriguing question about the Buddhist principle of mindfulness: how do you stay present in each moment if you’re constantly looking ahead? That’s a big challenge for any creative writer because we spend so much of our time dreaming; as a writer of historical and speculative fiction, I’m often lost in the past or the future, and it can be difficult to stay on top of your responsibilities (like grading!) when you’re trying to produce work that will hopefully create change. My question was related to an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with some friends on what it means to be an “ethical professor.” One friend’s college is considering merit pay, but if all faculty at the school are being underpaid, what does a two thousand dollar bonus for a handful of profs do to advance equity? Some friends teach two courses per semester and some teach three; right now I teach four, and others in the community college system teach five or six. That kind of teaching schedule doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for activism! The academy is a conservative institution, so how can one be a radical and/or create change without being changed by the institution? Dr. Davis said she often heard academics who insisted they would do the work they really wanted to do just as soon as they got tenure—or just as soon as they got promoted—or just as soon as….and on it went. “What matters,” she said, “is to do the work wherever you are.” In other words, don’t make excuses and don’t let institutional constraints hold you back. Build community—that was her advice—build a network so that when things go awry, you’ve got people who will lift you up and support your work. Later at lunch I talked to the elder members of OWWA and told them about the challenge of teaching effectively with 38 students in the class. Yes, one professor can make an impact, but how much greater would that impact be if the students who most need quality instruction had a lower student to professor ratio? I’m often torn between wanting to do more for my students and wanting to get my own work done—that’s been especially true this semester since my next book’s in production and certain things need my attention. I wrote three sentences last weekend and wished I could disappear and immerse myself in that new project but I can’t. Not until winter break. And maybe that will be my new writing schedule; maybe I’ll only write short pieces that can be completed while I’m not teaching. Audre Lorde says poetry is the most “economical” art form because women can write it on the train, while doing laundry, while the kids are napping…maybe poetry and novellas are in my future. Today would be my day off but I’ve got a training at work so off I go. If I grade my last midterms on the train, I’ll have a weekend FREE of grading!

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My head’s full of stories but I haven’t allowed myself to sit and write. The fall semester starts in less than two weeks and I’ve been obsessing over my syllabi; new courses are always a challenge, especially when the course (African Civilization) falls outside my area of expertise. I like the course I’ve designed, and keep stumbling across texts that “fit”—like this response to historian David Starkey’s racist rant on the BBC. Are the riots a result of “whites becoming black”? Did black people (and Jamaicans specifically) really teach white youth to act out violently? Nabil Abdul Rashid went straight to the Moors: “we taught you how to bathe.” He goes on to use historical events to demonstrate that violence and looting are deeply embedded in British culture, predating the arrival of Jamaicans in the UK. He even suggests that the African slave trade was a form of looting…I see an interesting class discussion following this text. I also decided to show Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video on the first day of class as an example of how ancient African civilizations manifest in contemporary culture…

Saw two great films in the past week but don’t have headroom for a thorough review. Gun Hill Road is an important film about a Latino father who returns from prison to find his beloved son is transitioning to a young woman. Mikey (Harmony Santana) has grown his hair out and regularly performs at a poetry club as “Vanessa.” Accepted by her friends, her mother, and her mother’s boyfriend Hector, Vanessa nonetheless struggles to live as a teenage girl; she’s harassed at school, the boy she’s servicing sexually (in part to raise money for breast implants) doesn’t want to be seen with her in public, and her father—who was raped in prison—can’t accept that his son is rejecting masculinity. Enrique (Esai Morales) learns that his rapist has been released from prison and brutally exacts revenge in an alley; he then takes Mikey to a prostitute and waits outside the bedroom door to make sure his son “becomes a man.” Traumatized, Vanessa leaves home and finds sanctuary with Hector (who has also been menaced/mugged by possessive Enrique). This film is incredibly honest and Harmony Santana gives an amazing performance—her difficult sexual encounters left me with a knot in my stomach. But there are moments of tenderness in the film as well, and Enrique softens his stance before leaving the family once more. I have to admit that I left the theater wondering what would happen to Enrique—Vanessa still faces a lot of challenges as a transgender teen, but I felt more confident of her transition than her father’s. How likely is he to “become a better man” in prison? At least one of Enrique’s friends, though a petty criminal, was able to accept Mikey as Vanessa. Without that kind of support, it doesn’t seem likely that Enrique will be able to address his transphobia, nor is he likely to receive treatment for his own trauma as a rape victim.

Attack the Block also attempts to redeem predatory masculinity—like Super 8, this film follows a group of teenage boys who discover that aliens have invaded their government housing project. For the first half hour of the film I had to agree with the white female character (Sam) who, after being mugged at knife point, described the boys as “fucking monsters.” Of course, she later realizes that the real monsters are the greater threat and aligns herself with Moses and his crew after they defend her and kill one of the aliens. The best moment in this film—for me—was when Moses’ prospective girlfriend jumps into action to save his life; paralyzed by fear, Moses hides as one of his boys gets killed by the aliens, unable to repeat his heroic samurai sword act performed earlier in Sam’s apartment. His female counterparts grab a halogen lamp and an ice skate (I’m still laughing as I write this!) and disable the alien, giving Moses time to find his courage. Nonetheless, he’s saved by Sam who daringly plunges a kitchen knife into the alien’s jaw just as it prepares to devour Moses. There are witty jabs at white liberals throughout the film, and unlike the innocent boys in Super 8, the teens immediately accept Moses’ theory that the Feds (police) planted the aliens on their block just as they sent in drugs and guns to decimate the community. The film’s ending was pleasantly surprising—Moses realizes his own aggression (killing the lone female alien) is to blame for much of the chaos, and we see (through Sam’s eyes) the neglect he faces at home, which made him self-reliant by pushing him into the street. Read against the recent riots that swept across the UK, Attack the Block offers an honest and entertaining look at a multiracial, working-class “band of  brothers” who demonstrate loyalty, creativity, courage, and humility. I know it’s showing in Toronto and NYC—do go see it if you have the chance.

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