Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged black feminist artists, Gina Athena Ulysse, Glenn Ligon, life balance, mental health, Nina Simone, rasanblaj, Studio Museum of Harlem, Theaster Gates on March 2, 2014 | 3 Comments »
I teach on the weekend but yesterday I needed a mental health day. On Friday I was thrilled to sit down with 7 other black women artists/scholars to talk about the richness and challenge of our hybrid lives in an affirming way. The rasanblaj, “defined as assembly, compilation, enlisting, regrouping, (of ideas, things, people, spirits),” was coordinated by Gina Athena Ulysse, a performance artist/scholar I met in Ghana last spring. Gina invited us “to symbolically break bread in the spirit of rasanblaj,” reminding us that, for Blacks in the Americas, “once upon a time gathering was a profound act of opposition and resistance.” We met at the Studio Museum of Harlem and sat at the table (above) installed by Theaster Gates; Glenn Ligon‘s illuminated artwork hung on the wall behind us and Nina Simone‘s voice drowned us out every few minutes, a song of hers I couldn’t name playing on a loop. At the table were playwrights, actors, performance artists, a sculptor, a poet, a figure skater (!), and a novelist. Some of us were old friends and some of us had never met before yet it didn’t take much for the words to flow. Something happens when people gather around a table. I hate mingling but I love dinner parties—it’s so much easier to get to know someone when you’re seated across from one another. There’s something automatically equitable about a table, especially when no one’s sitting “at the head.” You’re aware of who’s talking and who’s not, how each person is reacting to what’s being said. And for the most part, no one was checking her phone…We talked for two hours and then bundled up and walked over to The Cecil to continue the conversation. I didn’t end the night with an answer to my question: “Does art benefit or suffer from security?” But at least I left knowing that others are grappling with this question, too. Become an expatriate or never leave NYC? Stay in the academy or hustle to make art that sells? Go along to get along or put out-of-line people back in their place? We do it all, it seems. It’s rarely either/or. So I will finish this article for a UK website and then finish up my grading…
It’s done! The talk at Harvard has been hanging over my head for such a long time and I’m very relieved that it’s finally behind me. To my surprise, I wasn’t nervous at all. It helped that the talk was held in a large classroom; the desks were arranged in a square and my two cousins, Laura and Nathan, sat to my right and our gracious host for the evening (a graduate student and young adult novelist!) sat to my left. We started out with only three other people but finished with about a dozen; my talk was well received and the Q&A sparked an interesting conversation that lasted throughout dinner at the Faculty Club. Apparently the Canada Seminar attracts a mix of professors, students, and community members and last night was no exception. I’d been worried about having to deal with pretentious elites but everyone was down to earth and truly interested in learning about Canada. That’s a rare experience and since it’s hard for me to find an audience in Canada, it was a real treat to have such a frank conversation. The whole trip was memorable—my cousin Laura came all the way from Toronto to hear my talk and hers was the first face I saw when I got off the train in Boston. Her brother Nathan works in Boston and his girlfriend Beth took us to an Italian restaurant for a delicious meal. We finished with gelato and a brief, chilly walking tour that included Paul Revere’s house! My talk was partly about how the failure of the family inspires great writing, but I was *very* grateful for my cousins’ presence this weekend. I also met Linda (below) who said she found my talk inspiring but she impressed me with her determination to study at Harvard! She left her home in Texas to relocate to Massachusetts, and was supposed to go see another campus event with Herbie Hancock but stopped by the Weatherhead Center instead. I didn’t get to see Jamaica Kincaid but I did leave a bundle of books for her. I met an entrepreneur, Dianne, who is a Brooklyn Tech grad—and that’s where I’ll be heading tomorrow for an afternoon school visit. The weather has turned—again—and we’re expecting snow tomorrow. I’ve got papers to grade and one more article to send off, but I’m going to ride this high as long as I can! Thank goodness for everyday people…
I had a surreal experience today: I went to WNBC’s studio and saw the newscasters I watch every day in action! I was nervous—TV isn’t made for introverts!—but everyone in the studio was very kind and I relaxed after a while. Last fall I sent my books and some diversity articles to several media personalities, hoping they’d be willing to start a public conversation about the need for change. Basir Mchawi at WBAI and David Ushery at WNBC are the only two who responded, and I’m very grateful that they let me share my views on race and publishing. The Debrief with David Ushery airs on Sunday mornings at 5:30 am but if you’re not a morning person, you can watch my segment on “the diversity gap” here.
Stuart Hall died last week and since hearing the news I’ve been feeling weary and blue. Last night I had a dream about my father; he was puttering around in the basement and I think I was trying to help him build something. He was ten years younger than Stuart Hall—and died ten years sooner—but both men left the Caribbean in search of something more. Both stayed abroad, married white women, and had two
daughters children. I don’t think I was able to understand myself and my difficult relationship with my father until I read the work of Stuart Hall. All week I’ve tried and failed to write about that particular moment in my life. So last night, after reading an interview Hall gave in 1992, I put on some melancholy music (Adele’s “Hometown Glory”) and waited for the words to flow. But they’re still stuck. I could have met Stuart Hall back in 2008 or 2009. I was at a conference (either London or Paris) and folks began to whisper that Stuart Hall had arrived. I turned and saw him surrounded by a tight circle of colleagues; he had a cane and seemed rather frail but I could have reached out and touched his arm. I could have told him how much his essay, “Minimal Selves,” meant to me, how I discovered it just as I decided to leave graduate school and pursue my dream of becoming a novelist. This week if I had Stuart Hall within reach I would probably blurt out, “I love you!” Which wouldn’t be untrue, though it may seem unlikely and certainly inappropriate in an academic context. But I am not an academic and have no shame admitting that some texts—some voices—have spoken to me at just the right moment. Just when I felt certain that graduate school had been an utter waste of time, I took a seminar with Tricia Rose, read two essays by Stuart Hall, and wrote an essay in a voice that I truly recognized as my own. And I was able to do that because Stuart Hall modeled a kind of honesty in his own work that was both startling and liberating:
Migration is a one-way trip. There is no ‘home’ to go back to. There never was…The truth is, I am here because it’s where my family is not. I really came here to get away from my mother. Isn’t that the universal story of life? One is where one is to try and get away from somewhere else. That was the story which I could never tell anybody about myself. So I had to find other stories, other fictions, which were more authentic or, at any rate, more acceptable, in place of the Big Story of the endless evasion of patriarchal family life. Who I am—the ‘real’ me—was formed in relation to a whole set of other narratives. I was aware of the fact that identity is an invention from the very beginning, long before I understood any of this theoretically.
I’m giving a talk about Canada at Harvard next week and I’m sure there won’t be more than half a dozen people in the room. My host let me know that even he won’t be in attendance but I want to do a good job nonetheless. Jamaica Kincaid teaches in the English Department there and part of me wants to email her and ask her to attend. Like Hall, her books also found me when I needed them most. And yes, it might be awkward to stand at a podium and say, “Once I was drowning and your words kept me afloat.” But shouldn’t an author know how their words operate in the world—the good that they do? Did Stuart Hall know about the tremendous impact he had not only on the field of cultural studies but also on individuals outside of academia? I hope so.
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged (H)afrocentric, Black women, comics, Juliana "Jewels" Smith, power, Qahera, Qiana Whitted, Schomburg, sexuality, stereotypes, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix on February 14, 2014 | 2 Comments »
Last month I attended the Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg. I only went to one panel but it was worth the trip to Harlem because that’s how I first learned about the work of Juliana “Jewels” Smith, creator of (H)afrocentric. Jewels kindly agreed to answer some questions for me; since my last post (“Do Comics Empower Black Girls?“) I’ve had a few conversations with black women creators and scholars that give me hope about the field. Qiana Whitted is compiling a list of great comics for girls and I’ve started my own collection of black feminist comics. If we want to see different images and stories, we’ve got to support the creators who are trying to make it happen!
1. How can comics empower Black girls? Conventional representations of women in comics seem to reinforce the worst stereotypes of patriarchal society. Can unconventional representations of men and women really transform our understanding of race and gender (& class & sexuality)?
Comics, like any form of media or art, have the ability to change the way we see reality. If all you see as a reader and consumer of culture is women as sexual objects with limited AGENCY/POWER, then you may think that is the way the world is and should be. Conversely, you may see strong women characters that have a physical prowess (often seen as a masculine quality) but are redeemed through their sexuality, particularly heterosexuality. God forbid you have a strong character that is a lesbian or bisexual too! Aaaahhh!
But, if you read a heaping amount of strong women getting on soapboxes, leading movements, kicking ass, and also being vulnerable, we can begin to see representation that is both complicated and nuanced, like all of us. And that is what I hope to do as a writer and storyteller. I think the best thing we can do as writers and storytellers is continue to try and nuance characters (representations of blackness and gender) and tell stories that may alter the way we see the world.
2. As an educator, I’m troubled by my students’ attitude toward literature; most don’t read recreationally and therefore struggle with assigned readings for class. I’ve resisted appeals to pen a graphic novel, though I appreciate the broad appeal of comics and the importance of visual literacy. As a writer, why did you choose to tell stories this way?
I started precisely for this reason. When I was teaching at Laney College in Oakland, I was experimenting with comic books as a way to introduce really complicated concepts like the prison industrial complex to my students. I gave my students the Real Costs of Prisons Comix and they really enjoyed it. So much so that I had a student in my class said she had given the comic book to her grandmother to read. I was floored. I thought to myself, comics are a really powerful medium that I should explore. I was already a huge fan of The Boondocks and using that in class as well.
Later, I started writing (H)afrocentric in response to my work life, being a young educator in Community Colleges, my family life; musing on the relationship between my brother and I, my hometown, and my current life in Oakland.
3. Can you recommend a few artists and/or titles that have a progressive and/or unconventional approach to representing women and men in comics?
I really like Qahera, a story about a Muslim woman superhero who kicks the ass of misogynist men and white savior complex feminists. How can you be mad at that? Sounds like a match made in heaven.
Also, buy my comic book!!! It’s funny and instead of saving Africans by adopting them, you can save an African American artist.
Juliana “Jewels” Smith is a cultural worker, educator, writer and organizer. She earned her B.A. in Sociology from UC Riverside and M.A. in Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego. As an educator in community colleges Smith decided she could reach more of her students through an unorthodox medium, a comic book. She created (H)afrocentric as a way to challenge students and readers alike about the presumptions around race, class, gender and sexuality through character dialogue. Her practice focuses on the links between racial justice, gender equity, and political literacy; using creativity to facilitate dialogue. Follow her on Twitter (@hafrocentric) and on Facebook.
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged Amma Asante, Athena Film Festival, Barbara Smith, Belle, Black Women's Blueprint, Brooklyn Museum, Chirlane McCray, Recy Taylor, Tony Porter, Zong on February 9, 2014 | Leave a Comment »
I saw Belle on Thursday night and thought I would write a long review here on the blog, but then yesterday I went to another woman-centered event that left me at a loss for words. I changed my teaching schedule this semester so that I have class Thursday morning, Friday night, and Saturday morning. So far my students are *wonderful*—very sweet and candid about how much they’re enjoying the assigned texts and conversations. After class on Thursday I spent the afternoon in my office; lunch was leftover Indian food from the previous day when I met three women colleagues for our monthly debrief. No students came to office hours and so I lingered awhile to look at our department intern’s wedding photos and then I walked from Chambers St. to Loehmann’s at 7th Ave. and 18th. Rosa met me there, we went next door to have dinner at Cafeteria, and then we caught a cab up to Barnard for the opening night of the Athena Film Festival. The room was packed—mostly white women, mostly middle-aged (I think), but there were plenty of students in the room and some very striking Black women. Rosa pointed out one such woman in an elegant black gown and, of course, it was the director, Amma Asante. She was called up on stage to say a few words about the film and then it began. In my film class, students aren’t allowed to talk during a screening. I’m so accustomed to watching films in silence that it’s hard for me to sit in a public theater and that night was no exception. Who knew feminists could be so animated during a movie! Lots of laughter and cheering, which I suppose must have been gratifying to the director. She took questions at the end and then Rosa and I stepped outside and agreed to give feedback to another black woman filmmaker who set up a camera in the lobby. I had so much to say then but now…I don’t know. My students will be required to write a review of the film when it’s released nationwide on May 2. And I encourage everyone to go—I often say I’m over the tragic mulatta narrative, but this one offers something new. The cast is fantastic (especially Penelope Wilton as Aunt Mary) and the costumes are impressive (though Amma shared the torturous process by which the actors were folded into those gowns). I liked that Dido (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was a snob, wore very little makeup, AND didn’t know how to comb her hair—the film was realistic in some ways and less so in others (smooching with your beloved on a public street? I don’t think so). Amma Asante talked about her discovery of Jane Austen’s novels as an adult and her fascination with women’s interior lives and marriage prospects. Dido has her own money in the film, so she doesn’t have to marry—she does so for love, and though I’m not a big romantic, that particular love story was intelligent enough to hold my attention. The Zong case is actually central to the film, and that means I can finally teach Marlene NourbeSe Philip’s book of experimental poetry. I left Barnard that night feeling very satisfied with my life. I like to think I’m always aware of my privilege and in class on Saturday we took turns sharing the ways we experience advantage and disadvantage in society. I talked about what it means to be light-skinned in a white supremacist society and the moments I’ve tried to use my unearned privilege to help others. Then class ended and I got some groceries at Whole Foods before heading back to Brooklyn. I had a quick bite and then walked up to the Brooklyn Museum for a 2pm performance, “Mother Tongue Monologues.” It didn’t start for another hour and I fought to keep my eyes from closing; Barbara Smith was there, seated next to the First Lady of NYC, Chirlane McCray, and the auditorium was full of stylish, attractive black women. I bought a ticket because the event was organized by the Black Women’s Blueprint, and I’d just shared Tony Porter’s TED Talk in my morning class so I hoped to hear him in conversation with other Black male pro-feminists. But I didn’t last that long. A procession began and the stage filled with Black women of various ages—they embraced one another and then stood side by side as a poet and drummer took center stage. Then, one by one, women stepped to the mic and shared their harrowing tales of incest and rape. Within five minutes I was in tears but I knew I didn’t have the right to leave. Bearing witness is important—I tell my students that all the time—so I wiped my eyes and stayed in my seat. Yet by the ninth speaker I couldn’t take any more. I left during the story of the 1944 gang rape of Recy Taylor. When I got home, I found the address for Black Women’s Blueprint. Making a donation and sending copies of my books doesn’t make up for my early departure. And I don’t know if my work will make it into the hands of the young woman who stood at the mic with her friend and described a lifetime of abuse—she looked like she was no more than 17. When I left the museum I thought about Barbara Smith and Chirlane McCray and what it might feel like as a Second Wave feminist to sit and listen to so much suffering. We have far better resources for abused women today thanks to them, but we haven’t actually stopped the abuse. We need films like Belle; we need to see Black women in gorgeous gowns who are independently wealthy and politically engaged. She was a real woman and her story needs to be told. But the harsh, ongoing reality of rape culture can’t be avoided. There is an assault in the film, and I’m sure Dido faced numerous insults that we’ll never know about. But most Black women in British colonies had no protection, no wealth, and no status in society. And though the condition of Black women has improved since then—my privileged life is proof of that—the abuse persists. Those stories need to be told, too. Told—and heard.
Every year in February the team of authors and illustrators over at The Brown Bookshelf features a range of Black contributors to the kidlit community. I was surprised and honored to be invited to participate this year, and my interview can be found here. Here’s a bit of what I had to say:
I often listen to Emeli Sandé and I once heard her say in an interview that she felt the people attending her concerts were outsiders; she was happy that her music served as a vehicle for creating community among people who often felt alone. I identify with that idea—I love that more and more Black people are openly identifying as geeks and nerds (or “blerds”). The Afropunk community creates space for so many different kinds of Black folks, and that didn’t seem possible when I was growing up. If you weren’t into hip hop, you weren’t Black—end of conversation. I’m drawn to artists who support the idea of Black multiplicity. We aren’t monolithic; here in the US and across the African diaspora we’re an incredibly diverse group and that’s a strength, not a weakness. I think young adult literature needs to reflect that reality.
I wish I’d had this kind of clarity when I was 6…
Last night I had the privilege of talking about my books with Basir Mchawi, host of WBAI’s Education at the Crossroads. The podcast is already available if you want to listen to our half hour conversation about decolonizing the imagination and honoring the ancestors in our daily lives. Basir responded immediately when I reached out to him last fall about the release of The Deep; he even took the time to read Ship of Souls and The Deep. New York’s other public radio station has shown no interest, so I’m very grateful for this opportunity to talk about my work. WBAI is just entering their winter fundraising campaign, so if you appreciate their commitment to diversity and social justice, please make a donation here.