An edited version of this article ran in the July 2013 issue of Ebony magazine.
Knocking the Sense Out of Us?
She would send us out to get the switch. And you couldn't come back with a small one either! Well, my daddy, he would take off his belt - or just act like he was gonna take off his belt. And that was all it took. We would just fix our faces and act right. Lemme tell you, my mamma would slap us around with her house shoe?Her house shoe?!... Her house shoe?
You may have heard grown folks chuckle and fondly recall their own childhoods using language a lot like that. Maybe, you've even heard lines like these in your own head, when you think back on your own childhood, and remember how it was.
But, maybe, it is time to stop those voices, to re-examine how it was, and to question our collective past - a past when spankings, beatings, "whuppings," and the occasional knock upside the back of the head were so common, had been around for so long, no one ever thought to question them. Indeed, no one ever dared to.
Maybe it's time to be daring, especially because, according to many researchers, all those slaps upside the head - and on the behind - may literally be knocking the sense out of our children.
Research suggests that physical punishment has a measurable negative impact on cognitive development, as children who are spanked on a regular basis score as much as 5 points lower on IQ tests than children who are not spanked. And they?re our children. A 2000 National Survey of Early Childhood Health published in the official journal of the AAP found that, while 31% of African American mothers surveyed admitted to spanking their children, only 21% of Latino mothers and 16% of White mothers did so.
Parenting is a hard job. It is exhausting. And frustrating. Children create chaos. However, turning everyday household encounters with these natural-born chaos-creators into opportunities for positive verbal communication will reap huge rewards.
The First Five Years
From birth to age 5, especially, children need the opportunity to reach, grab, taste, examine, and test, test, test - and that behavior can test the limits of any caregiver who also has to cope with the stresses of the adult world. Yet, as their young brains develop through this crucial early period of human brain development, when all the synapses are forming and the mind is getting wired for life, test is what the human baby must do.
When little explorers throw their cereal on the floor, grab pots and pans from the cabinet to bang together, and pull apart the bed you just made, their brains are actually growing in healthy ways. The best response to help those brain synapses get wired just right is to show your baby how to pick the Cheerios up using the pincer grasp with forefinger and thumb, as that will help her hold her pencil properly when it's time to learn to write. Bang along for a few minutes with your toddler, then show him how to restack the cookware in size order to fit back in the cupboard, and you've helped prepare him for math class. Give your preschooler an edge of the blanket, show him how to pull it up to the top of the bed, and you've given him a lesson in cooperative work that will serve him well through college and into the working world.
Employing healthy responses to early childhood behavior is so crucial to brain development, that the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City devotes an entire component to discipline through a program called The Baby College, a free, nine-week course for parents of children through age 3 that helps them understand human brain development, child development, and specific health hazards like asthma and lead poisoning. Baby College Director Marilyn Joseph says that "discipline instead of punishment" is a key component of the program, which "helps parents learn non-physical ways to discipline our children."
Joseph says "The Harlem Children's Zone goal is to ensure children graduate from college and grow to be satisfied, self-sufficient adults. Toward that goal, we feel the earlier we work with children and families, the better the chances are that children will succeed in school. Since we believe corporal punishment can negatively impact a child's development, we feel it is critical that we help caregivers improve their parenting skills as early as possible."
Parents are encouraged to employ verbal warnings using age-appropriate language when they correct their children's behavior. If the child's behavior does not stop, then parents are asked to follow-up with a timeout of no more than one minute per year of the child's life. After the timeout, Joseph suggests parents have an age-appropriate discussion with the child about their behavior and about their expectations for future improvement.
This conversation following a timeout might provide a rich opportunity for cognitive development, as well as social and emotional development. While reasoning with your child might take more time in the short-term, there are long-term benefits to discipline using language, instead of spanking.
According to Joe Brewster, MD, psychiatrist, and co-author with his wife, Michele Stephenson, of the forthcoming book American Promise: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life, those benefits include improved communication skills and critical thinking skills, stronger bonding with the caretaker and stronger interpersonal relationships with others, and increased ability to think and express emotion in a complicated manner. While he and his wife have chosen not to spank their two sons as a way to discipline them, Brewster says he does understand the thinking of parents who do.
"I beat you because I love you."
According to Brewster, some researchers suggest that "motivation to discipline African-American boys more harshly is an adaptation to slavery and post-slavery societal conditions. The failure of African-American men to be submissive to whites has been associated (and continues to be) with death or violent punishment. Unfortunately, these highly disciplined males tend to thrive and live within environments wherein external control of behavior is most prevalent, the military and the criminal justice system."
Given the level of violence Black bodies experience in the public realm, many parents believe the short-term benefits of spanking in the home will prepare their children to survive everywhere else, from the schoolyard to the streets. They believe spanking will save their children's lives.
"Physical punishment is action-oriented, which is one of the reasons that it is effective," says Arthur L Whaley, PhD, DrPH, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Texas Southern University. "Attempts to emulate the White community by using verbal reasoning are generally not effective and may be inappropriate for children. This is particularly the case when the American society is still very hostile against Black youth, as situations like cases of the Central Park Jogger, the Jena 6, and Trayvon Martin remind us. Action-oriented disciplinary strategies are necessary because the costs are too high for our children."
Whaley believes that, when applied to correct a child's dangerous behavior rather than to satisfy an adult's frustration with that behavior, corporal punishment can have a positive outcome on Black children's lives. "I was told over a decade ago that a book was written about the lives of Black males who were successful," he says. "One of the things that they all acknowledged, according to second hand reports, was that receiving a spanking from their parent (mainly mothers) kept them on the straight and narrow."
A Black Parenting Style?
Researchers have identified four major parenting styles: Authoritarian, Uninvolved, Permissive, and Authoritative. Brewster asserts that there is no one Black parenting style but adds that "there are a number of patterns of parenting that are more prevalent in African American families."
Brewster goes on to say that, "All children seem to prosper, academically, financially and socio-emotionally when they are parented with an authoritative style. This style is one in which parents are more emotionally supportive while also being the most demanding. It is a parenting style that encourages dialogue between the parents and their offspring. It is also a style that African-American parents are reluctant to embrace with their boys. Only seven percent of African-American boys are parented in an authoritative fashion, a style that correlates with higher graduation rates, higher academic achievement and higher incomes."
Massa's Whipping - Mamma's Whupping
Some African Americans scoff at the use of dialogue with young people, even teenagers, as "the way White folks raise their kids." Indeed, when in the presence of other African Americans, some Black parents will perform a harsher approach to discipline for fear that they will be caught asking their child to perform a task - instead of telling them to do so. This tacit complicity in the harsher punishment of Black children, especially Black boys, is likely rooted in slavery.
Many scholars believe that older slaves would perform a similar kind of harsh discipline in the presence of a master or overseer. They assert that our cultural tradition of "getting the switch" and "whupping" a child derive from the tradition of whipping slaves. The thinking is that a loving slave adult telling a child to get the switch would do less harm than any White person telling that same child to get ready for the whip. These scholars suggest that Black caregivers would actively try to assume the role of disciplinarian to protect their children from the more severe physical punishment likely to come from an overseer or slave owner. Some scholars also assert that slave parents would perform the role of disciplinarian in an exaggerated, overly aggressive way to satisfy overseers and owners. One of these scholars is Dr. Stacey Patton, author of a memoir called That Mean Old Yesterday and founder of Spare the Kids, Inc.
Patton says she sees, "a clear link between the historical trauma of slavery and racial discrimination and the ways too many Black folks embrace violent childrearing practices today. The Civil War may have destroyed the institution of slavery, but the trauma still lives with us. Many of the most dysfunctional behaviors that far too many Blacks view as normative, from colorism to beating children, can be traced back to slavery and Jim Crow. Where else could it have all come from?"
Patton laments the fact that some African Americans still believe beating their children will keep them out of jail when, ironically enough, the ability to "fix your face" and "act right" in tense situations actually prepares children for adult experiences in harsh institutions like prisons.
"Black children don't need whippings to add to their problems," she says. "They live in a society that fundamentally hates them. When we beat our children we extend the master's lash and we assist in their continued devaluation."
Time for some new calculations: Intelligence is a better predictor of success in school and in a career than any other score. Five points can make a difference between being a semi-skilled worker or a skilled one, between being on a team of clerical workers or the administrator who manages them. Five points can make the difference between starting college and finishing it. Since talking to our children instead of hitting them gives them that edge, then let's start a fresh narrative in our community, with voices that affirm and honor our beautiful brown babies.
New mother Nyisha (last name withheld) was raised in Trinidad and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, who is half Senegalese and half Swiss/German. Together, Nyisha and her husband have decided they will not spank their 9 month old daughter, Sophia.
Nyisha says she "thought a lot" about how she and her husband would raise Sophia before she was even born. Nyisha herself was spanked as a child, as were all her friends. "That's the way that we were all raised during that time," she says. "Spanking wasn't considered out of the norm." Thinking about friends she had growing up, whose more adventurous personalities were crushed because their parents beat them, Nyisha says she and her husband decided they would command respect and make sure Sophia does the right thing without instilling her with dread or fear, an approach to parenting that, she acknowledges, "takes more creativity. It takes more time."
But, for her, the extra work is worth it. Nyisha says her goal with Sophia is "building her" as a young girl, not "training her to follow orders rather than think independently." Despite the challenges Nyisha says she knows Sophia will face as a Black girl in America, she wants her daughter to speak up for herself, to know that "no opportunity to communicate is detrimental."
Deanna Morea agrees. A native of Ohio who is raising two boys ages 1 and 4 with her husband, who grew up in New Jersey, Morea says she believes spanking actually "promotes aggressiveness" instead of preventing it. Adding that she thinks boys are already naturally more aggressive than girls, Morea says she wants her sons to learn to think their way through any problem. "I don't want them to think they have to fight their way through the world."
About her older son, Morea says, "When he has had a tantrum I did feel proud that my attempt to calm the tantrum was the best way - even if I didn't stop the tantrum. I try to hug him out of tantrums, and that's usually how we end up." Morea thinks her approach will enable a kind of fearlessness in both her sons that will serve them well in the future, a time when, she hopes, they will look back and "respect how they were raised."
"I think our generation realizes that parenting out of fear is not what creates leaders," she says. "Trying to get your child to do what you say is not what we're working toward. The next Steve Jobs is not going to come from someone who was raised not to speak up, from someone who was raised not to think differently. I think people who are raised to speak up and voice their opinions are the people who become leaders in this world, leaders like Barack Obama."
My wonderful writer sister Bridgett Davis invited me to join this blog tour. I think it's a terrific idea! I love that different writers, all women so far, I think, are sharing their experiences with their own work. The energy around this tour is lovely, so I feel honored to be part of it. I also feel lucky to be friends with Bridgett. I am reading a galley copy of her new novel, Into the Go-Slow. It will be published in September, and I urge you to pick it up. Set in Detroit and Lagos, it examines one woman's journey to reclaim the memory of her older sister, who was struck by a car in Nigeria's busiest city. Given all the attention Nigeria has been getting recently, especially because of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Bridgett's beautifully written novel offers the world a fresh perspective on the country and its people.
OK, here are my answers to the blog tour questions.
1) What are you working on?
Right now I'm finishing my second novel. I have to type in the last handwritten pages of the book, and of course that process involves quite a bit of rethinking and rewriting what I've done in longhand. It is slow, but satisfying work. Bridgett has actually read much of my work in progress. Maybe because she was tired of hearing me call it 'New Novel,' she even gave me a title. "Why don't you call it The Possible Place?" she said one day in her living room. I think I sipped some tea to let my head hem and haw over her suggestion, but deep inside my chest I kinda knew she had gotten it just right. My heart had already started saying "Yes, yes, yes. That's it, girl! That's it indeed." So, I can state that I am working on The Possible Place. I am finishing it. I am almost done. I am feeling accomplished, too.
2) How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?
I'm not sure I can answer this question. I teach the work of Black women writers to undergraduates at Hunter College, and I tend to focus on the elements of the narratives that are similar. My interest is really in what connects us. I guess I'm also hesitating because I think it should be up to the readers to answer a question like this. All I can really say is that Crystelle Mourning and The Possible Place are my stories. With Crystelle Mourning, I explore the very contemporary experiences of a young Black woman haunted by the ghost of a childhood friend. This friend was shot and killed by a young man who grew up with them in West Philadelphia. The Possible Place goes back, to slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore and freedom in Baltimore. Possible Place traces one family line through the generations to the present day. These are my stories, and no one else could tell them the way that I have, so I guess that's what makes these novels different from the work of my sister scribes. Themes of loss and recovery persist in the work of Black women writers, and I think that's part of what joins me to other writers who look like me.
3) Why do you write what you do?
Another hard one. So, these voices come, and my job is to write them down, but you already know this. Every writer has this experience, right? I guess everything I've ever done or felt informs the work in some way. There are things that I write consciously. A whole passage might come out of a conscious attempt to express a feeling or idea in a way that communicates what I intend to the reader. Much of my fiction, however, is sort of generated out of this well of subconscious images, tastes, smells - memories.
Memories - I have visited former slave plantations in Louisiana, South Carolina, Maryland, and Jamaica, and I have felt the energy in these spaces. Iron chains hanging from the wall in Baltimore's Blacks in Wax Museum; a list of names at the African Burial Ground in New York; Korey Wise alone, anguished in the film The Central Park Five as the voice over tells us he is the only child wrongfully convicted in the Central Park jogger case to be sent to a prison populated by adult men; newsreel images of another child, whose name I do not know, being handed to a stranger who dangles from a rescue helicopter above the Lower Ninth: This is all in me, and it comes out in my work. But this is all in me in a particular way because of who I am and my own family line, and I think this is why I write what I do.
4) How does your writing process work?
I used to rise early in the morning and write until I was finished for the day. That was how my writing process worked. Right now it works whenever I can get it in before my son wakes up. The other day, instead of working on my novel, I took time to write out sight words that my 5 year old is starting to read. This kind of writing is a joy, and I wouldn't trade it for anything, not even for a top literary honor. He comes first. He is first. But, I would be dishonest if I didn't admit that, as I wrote out words like 'tag' and 'bag' on index cards for us to use in a matching game later that evening, I was thinking about my novel, about what I wanted my character to say. I was thinking, "I could be working on my novel right now, but I'm not doing that. I'm doing this instead." I can't write my own work when he's here, though. My small apartment does not offer the luxury of an office, one with a door I can shut. I'm not sure he would stay on the other side of that door anyway. He's too young to get that I need space and time to complete work that is meaningful but separate from him. So, I wake early, write, and stop when he pads out of bed for his morning hug. Jewell Parker Rhodes gave me terrific advice: She told me to always smile when he interrupts. That's what children do to their mamma writers. They interrupt. Jewell taught me to smile, for him, for me, and for the work. It was really the best advice on writing that I've gotten in a very long time.
So, now I need to stop writing this blog and get back to writing Possible Place. I've invited two women writers whose names you should know to go next.
Martha Southgate is the author of Another Way to Dance, The Fall of Rome, Third Girl From the Left, and The Taste of Salt. Her New York Times article "Writers Like Me" led to the formation of ringShout: A Place for Black Literature, an organization that I am mighty proud to be part of. She also has a great smile. Her daughter babysits my son, and that's just kind of cool.
Catherine McKinley is author of The Book of Sarahs: A Family in Parts and Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World. She also edited Afrikete: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Writing. She and I went to Sarah Lawrence together, and she was one of the first people to welcome me on campus when I arrived. One Spring Break we went to Nassau with another SLC friend, and we wandered the spaces between the real Bahamas and the touristy Bahamas for several days together. Cathy was always a gifted student leader who helped organize SLC's 10 day takeover back in 1989. I missed it all because that was my junior year away, and so I was sitting in to protest Lee Atwater down at Howard - back when you couldn't live tweet from the sit-in. Anyway, we go back like Cracker Jacks. She has a great smile, too. And her laugh is distinctive and special.
This article originally ran on Truthout:
Wednesday, 22 January 2014 09:31
By Eisa Nefertari Ulen, Truthout | News Analysis
Dis: 1. to treat or speak to someone in a way that does not show them respect; "Yo, you just got dissed." 2. This; "Dis redemption waan 'appen."
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences dissed Black America. By nominating 12 Years a Slave for Oscar awards in nine categories, Hollywood highlighted the color line that still runs through La La Land. Obviously the Steven McQueen film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o, both of whom received nominations, deserves every accolade. But it is not the only film examining Black life that does. Indeed, 2013 was such an important year for Black filmmakers, this year's Oscar snubs feel more like carefully crafted quotas: Rather than lift the velvet rope to let a representative number of Black creatives in, The Academy is acting like a bad bouncer at the hottest club in town, clicking the velvet rope back in place to keep out all the Black creatives good enough to get in.
Our creative power, however, has never been content to wait in line.
A New New Wave
Four Black films, three of which were directed by Black men, have helped signal a shift in cinema in this new century. McQueen's 12 Years, Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniel's The Butler and white director Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom deserve special attention not just because they portray the lives of real Black men in situations of historical significance. Each of these four films renders Black male encounters with the dominant white with sensitivity and accuracy and even a kind of surrealist beauty. That the audience for each of these films is moved to a different emotional state is also important. And these films are good - really, really good - made by moviemakers who have paid careful attention to craft. These four films also deserve special attention because they do all this not only for the Black men driving the narratives, but also for the Black women in supporting roles.
The men directing these films are not alone. Another filmmaker re-envisioning the African-American experience as part of this new New Wave is woman director Ava DuVernay. DuVernay's award-winning examination of Black female life, Middle of Nowhere, garnered her the Sundance prize for Best Director, the first ever win for a Black woman in that category. Works such as Mother of George (2013), directed by Andrew Dosunmu, and Dee Rees' Pariah (2011) must be added to the list of elegant films that provide a wider scope of vision of what it means to be Black and female in America. Even Malcolm Lee's 2013 popcorn hit The Best Man Holiday is an important movie to include in this newest wave, not just because it gave the four Black female characters equal development as the male characters - but also because the good time Best Man gave was good. 2014 likely will shift the public discourse back to Black women with the release of Amma Asante's highly anticipated Belle; but, if barrier-breaking productions belonged to a Black woman in 2012, then in 2013 and this awards season the barrier-breaking should have belonged to a whole troop of Black men ? and at least two Black women.
Coogler and Chadwick deserved nominations for Best Director because they, like McQueen, delivered stellar productions that honor the art of filmmaking. Michael B Jordan and Idris Elba deserved nominations for Best Actor because they, like Ejiofor, delivered stellar performances that honor the real-life experiences of the Black men they played. And, for stellar performances that honor the real-life women who loved them, both Oprah Winfrey and Nyong'o deserved nominations for Best Supporting Actress.
By placing the rich fullness of authentic Black life onscreen, by lingering over us in all of our beauty and all of our ugly, all of our victimhood and all of our victory ? by lingering on us in all of our humanity, the creatives that worked on these productions have shown us that they love us. These four films express great emotion, understanding and engagement with real Black life.
A Murmur of Rhythms
In an opening sequence of the film adaptation of Solomon Northrup's same-titled slave narrative, Ejiofor lies in a room with several sleeping adult slaves. A woman next to him stirs, rouses him, and positions his hand between her legs, inside her body. After using his hand to satisfy herself, she rolls back over and weeps. Juxtaposed with images of Northrup and his wife, played by Kelsey Scott, this scene emphasizes the depravity of slavery, the human degradation that it induces, the departure from the spiritual aspects of sex achievable only in freedom. Though brief, this scene offers a pulse point for the film, a beat in the murmur of rhythms that express to the audience the vital aspects of the narrative.
In less capable hands, this scene would have devolved into voyeuristic, exploitative titillation. With McQueen's direction and both actors' fine acting, however, this scene presents a substantive and too often silenced aspect of slave life in larger-than-life images that expose the truth of slavery's personal horrors. Forced into captivity hundreds of miles away from his lawful wife, Northrup is forced to perform sex acts on a woman; but, even more compellingly, his rape is also hers.
Denied the opportunity to achieve healthy sexual partnerships, this slave woman's personal experience, her relationship with her own body, is predetermined by an institution that treats her like a beast. Even in a room full of women and men like her, this slave is in isolation, too dispossessed of a future she can self-determine to enter a lasting and fulfilling union with a man, totally disconnected from the possibility of the healthy human relationship she craves. Neither she nor Northrup can be fully human. Unable to say no to chains, no to whips, no to sly gestures of ownership and superimposed will that scar their flesh, unable to say no to a communal space designated for sleep, no to lack of privacy in sleep, no to the length of time designated for sleep, no to the forced nocturnal awakenings that deny sleep, neither Nortrup nor this nameless slave woman next to him can experience sex as a liberating force. Nothing in the slave system liberates. Nothing. Both are victims, both raped, both in anguish over the silencing of their bodies.
Complex, disturbing, surreal, this scene emphasizes the revolutionary aspects of Black intimacy as experienced by a free Northrup and his wife in The North. Lying face to face, free to smile (to freely smile) and gaze, free to linger, Northrup and his wife perform a revolutionary act. In this historical context, Black love is revolutionary.
This scene also prepares the viewer for Patsey's rape, when every gesture, every slap, every grunt disembowels her. As she stares out and away from the brute who owns her, a fracture occurs, a disembodiment, and a denial. That Patsey will know rape, and only rape, her entire life explains why she so earnestly begs Northrup to take that life away. Multiplied by hundreds of millions of Black women (and men) whose experience was the same - hundreds of millions over hundreds of years, through hundreds of generations, across hundreds upon hundreds of slave-lands throughout this country, and every country in the Caribbean, and most of South America, too - it is a wonder that we survived it all. It is a wonder that we even exist, here, at all.
Leaving the audience with questions like that is just one of the countless ways McQueen's film triumphs over the blaxploitative slave story that, incredibly and insultingly, won an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, at last year's awards. Rather than titillate with images of African-American women more stylized than a Hype Williams music video, McQueen registers the truth of Black female hypersexualization with a child (Quvenzhané Wallis) separated from her mother because her light skin and features will fetch more money for the trader when she reaches puberty and with a dark-skinned woman (Alfre Woodard) sitting on the porch, articulating her Machiavellian approach to survival and her certainty that the owners who forced her to such egregious acts of survival will face retributive punishment, not her. Women wail; women strategize; women feel and think through their oppression ? they do not sip on thin phallic symbols, they do not blow smoke in an Ellisonian obstruction of Truth.
The stark contrast between Quentin Tarantino and McQueen is so significant, it is not possible to celebrate the latter without deriding the former. An African-descended filmmaker, one rooted in a 500-year legacy that feeds cultural memory and holds the artist's vision in a sacred, psychic space, our narrative of resistance and rebellion, of anguish and suffering, indeed of afro-surrealism, sorrow songs and blues, remembers and tells. A White filmmaker, one rooted in a 50-year legacy of pimpology, distorts cultural memory and unleashes the fury and psychic violence of White Supremacy to reinforce stereotypes in the audience's mind.
Family Man, and Felon
None of the stereotypes that dominated Django Unchained appear in Fruitvale, although Tarantino exploited the tropes associated with contemporary Black culture in his historical narrative, and Coogler honors history in his contemporary narrative. Indeed, women are not props in Coogler's aching depiction of Bay Area resident Oscar Grant's last day alive. One of the many compelling aspects of this rich film is the depiction of Grant's relationships with women.
When Grant cuddles with his family in a room too small for three people, yet somehow just right for his daughter, her mother and he to hold each other, it is clear that this filmmaker brings an authentic portrayal of Black manhood in the era of police brutality to the screen. Played by Jordan, Grant is The Truth. He is real, his struggle to support a household, to maintain even that tiny space so that the three of them can live there, together, is the struggle of the 21st century Black family man in America. It is the struggle of my fathers, of my husband. It will one day be the struggle of my son. We Black women know our men are here, right here with us, trying to hold it down, even if they are with us in family configurations that are not traditional in structure. As a counter-narrative to the mainstream storyline of Black male disappearance, Black male abandonment, this image of an imperfect Grant holding the woman and girl he loves is a wonder.
Grant's girlfriend Sohpina, played by Melodie Diaz, who also offered a solid performance in the lovely 2002 indie Raising Victor Vargas, is fully integrated into Grant's extended family in Fruitvale. And Uncle Oscar is fully integrated in hers. The ease with which they laugh and work with each other's aunties, uncles, mammas and cousins answers the question 12 Years asked. We are here; we have survived - across cultures and across time - because of the family ties we've held together.
The image of Sophina holding hands with Grant's family in a simple act of grace before eating the seafood dinner Grant helped put together to celebrate his mother's birthday is just as important as the image of him playing on the floor with the children in hers. Under Coogler's direction, the camera lovingly records images of Black people laughing together, honoring God together, being together, keeping us together.
Coogler is also deft at handling America's fear of Black manhood with his use of the white shopper Grant assists in the grocery store where he begs for a job. All defiance and male bravado as he confronts the male manager who fired him for recurring lateness, Jordan transitions back to a sweet helpfulness with the shopper who can't fry fish.
Coogler shows that transition, and his decision as a filmmaker is meant to trigger anxiety in audiences. Grant's simple encounter with a white woman heightens narrative tension and shames American racism when Grant is killed by a BART officer, a murder the white woman witnesses. Again, under less-skilled direction, less-nuanced acting, this scene would have collapsed into an exploitative mess. These creatives hold the story up, though ? using motifs as old as Miss Anne herself to say something more, something much more substantive and powerful, about white women and their nearness to the condition of the Black men they've been taught to fear.
A complexity of the same shade also adds to the depth and substance of Butler's latest film. Like 12 Years and Fruitvale, The Butler is richer for its scenes of ordinary Black life. The camera's willingness to linger on Black people in community is a gift this film also gives. At the center of many of these scenes is real-life White House butler Cecil Gaines' wife, Gloria, played by Winfrey.
Just as Jordan offers a dynamic examination of the 21st-century Black man, one who is both family man and felon, Winfrey delivers a performance of the 20th-century Black woman that is equally genuine. She is a wife who is both devoted and an adulteress, a mother who is both loving and a lush. This visible, felt performance of a flawed housewife should have garnered her an Oscar nomination, if not a win.
To Remember and Tell
Among Black people in The West, the most important act is to remember and tell. By bearing witness to our shared experience of dispossession, Africans in the Americas have offered the only counter-narratives to the text of White Supremacy. It is essential that we people of the Diaspora hold the event, retain it within, in our individual hearts and minds, to feel and think our way through our dispossession. It is also essential that the tale be told, and retold, in those sacred spaces dedicated to the task. We have always communicated our stories to one another. We have also always communicated our stories to The Other.
If Black love is revolutionary, than these loving Black creatives are revolutionaries, loving us, well, onscreen. The real revolution, of course, has already taken place in the souls of the large audiences that paid to experience some of our many Truths in theaters. In the collaborative art of making movies, these teams of Black creatives already have done the work, already have earned The Prize. After all, we all already know that revolution does not require red carpets and velvet ropes and flashing lights. We require no validation from Tinsletown. Although a Black Night in White Hollywood would have been nice, a kind of glory to see, it would not have been the real revolution anyway. After all, the real revolution, The Revolution, will not be televised.
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