When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar.

tumblr_n1uoglCvBv1smnm8eo1_250tumblr_n1uoglCvBv1smnm8eo2_250

This is a story of an elegance carefully cultivated. This is no sudden ascendancy to delicate silks and bold brocades, no tale of a girl plucked from obscurity or hardship, conferred the brass ring of Tinseltown by princely powers-that-be. It is, instead, a story of privilege, of justice. It is what happens when a Kenyan senator entrusts his daughter’s post-secondary education to The Yale School of Drama, rather than insisting she study medicine or law or finance. And these — the highest accolades in the field — are what’s expected when such a daughter is daring enough to pursue a life in pictures, within a family of professors, physicians, and politicians.

This is not a reality as well known to American black girls with silver screen ambitions. We watch our stateside actresses languish in Hollywood for decades, delivering pounds of flesh just for bit parts: girlfriends in black films and girlfriends in white films and staid, put-upon wives in comedies, action films, biopics. And yes, even now, the occasional brave domestic, even now, the harrowingly tortured slave. We see them shed their apple-cheeked innocence all too quickly, becoming more vocal and more cynical about the dearth of complex and meaty work for them to do as they age.

Our ingenues rarely win Oscars. It is our seasoned comediennes, sassing their way through lines like, “Molly, you in danger, girl!” or throwing frying pans at their pregnant daughters, who take home the gold. It is the reality star who belts a gut-wrenching beggarly torch song to a man already walking away or the naked grieving mother sexing the guard who executed her husband, the round, battered, quick-witted maid who bakes her own excrement into pies. They are the ones who win. And we are proud of their achievements. We take everything we get, and we are glad for, if critical of, it.

We know how hard those actresses had to work to get it, know how many low-budget straight-to-DVD flicks they made to keep themselves visible, how many blond wigs and gold teeth and fishnets they had to don and exactly how much of their bodies they had to bare — just for the opportunity to be seen. We suffered through Whoopi encouraging her ex to appear in blackface. We accept not just the existence, but the five-year run of The Parkers. And we swallow the painful realization that though many a role easily procured by a Paltrow, a Portman, or a Witherspoon could be played, if not better, certainly just as well, by an actress of color, the film would not likely be attended by as large an audience.

Because this our sisters’ lot in all of the American workforce. We are offered little, we earn less, we hustle harder and stress more — all in response to the idea that our appearance and ideas and work are not as marketable as a white colleague’s would be. Why should Hollywood be different?

tumblr_n1uyraUeOu1rdf2ito1_500

We are gathering our awe and placing it like so much frankincense and myrrh at the feet of Lupita in direct response to this resignation. This awards season she has become the boilerplate of every blackgirl dream deferred, and it is understandable. Her skin, a brown so rich and deep it seems to welcome the seeding of our hopes and the promise of harvest, is politicized (and romanticized) because such things are inevitable in any country where skin color can ignite or exempt citizens of resentment or responsibility. Nyong’o herself speaks to the significance of women who look like her ascending in high-visibility markets. She cites Alek Wek and any number of American black actresses as her own self-image inspirations. And she is similarly self-aware of what it means to be a literal projection of an audience’s desires, history, and needs.

But the story of Nyong’o’s near-instant entree to the A-list is uniquely her own. She stars in an elegant, brutal British film about American slavery, deeply connecting with part of the diasporic experience that is foreign to her family in ways it is not to the American black’s. And she graciously accepts a well-deserved Oscar for that portrayal without having to carry the full weight of the awards’ contentious racial history.

If she hears any naysaying speculation, any claims that she “only” got the Oscar for playing a slave or that the win isn’t one the black community can fully claim because she “isn’t ‘black’ enough,” the criticism will not dampen the moment, will not force her to interrogate her joy to the degree that it would for an American black actress.

She is not saddled with centuries of diminishing returns. Accordingly, Lupita is a carefree black girl par excellence — and we have yet to see what the career of a black actress this successful with just one feature-length role under her belt, and this comparatively unburdened by Hollywood’s racist legacy, looks like. (Consider other recent black American actress nominees with one role their belts — Quevenzhane Wallis and Gabourey Sidibe — and how their reception in Hollywood and media compares to Lupita Nyong’o’s. Neither swanned through her awards season unscathed by racist, appearance-policing coverage — and Sidibe is still the subject of think pieces that actually use their headlines to implore that the public treat her with more respect.)

It is this lack of similar encumbrance — perhaps above all else — that excites me so about Nyong’o. We have yet to see what happens when a privileged black woman begins her acting career with Ivy League theatre pedigree, unchallenged fashion icon status, and an Oscar for her very first role.

It would be easiest to succumb to the skepticism I’ve been keeping at bay. I know America; it’s my homeland. It is not Nyong’o’s. I’d imagine — and I could well be wrong — that she is coming into Hollywood with the un-self-conscious approach to race that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah heroine Ifemelu (and indeed, Adichie herself) have brought with them to this country.  Adichie was famously quoted last year as saying that American blackness did not initially occur to or appeal to her:

In Nigeria I didn’t think of myself as black. I didn’t need to. And I still don’t when I’m in Nigeria. Race doesn’t occur to me. Many other things occur to me. But in the United States, yes…. Also, race is something that one has to learn. I had to learn what it meant to be black…. If you’re coming from Nigeria, you have no idea what’s going on. When I came to the United States, I hadn’t stayed very long, but I already knew that to be “black” was not a good thing in America, and so I didn’t want to be “black.”

While I don’t get the impression that Nyong’o, having spent the last two years of her life immersing herself in study and portrayal of the American slave experience, would hold the same perception of American blackness as Adichie initially did, it is safe to say she can still hold herself aloft from it. For her, blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity. She will play plenty of other roles, but she will not feel “relegated” to stereotypical portrayals in quite the way that American black actresses do.

I already know what Hollywood will try to make her. I know the gradations of blackness they will implore her to learn. But I do not know how she will resist. I do not know what she herself will teach. But she is entering the field with just enough privilege and confidence to inspire my hope that she will do just that: instruct rather than simply accept — and learn from black actresses (rather than white directors) how best to navigate this space.

Watch with me. And just you wait.

To Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Re: The Burning of Sharmeka Moffitt.

Revision: Like many who’ve attempted swift and supportive responses to the news of Sharmeka Moffitt’s burning, I took her at her word and wrote with the assumption that she’d been attacked. Frankly, the police investigators’ conclusion that the alleged attack was likely fabricated does little to change many of the views expressed in this essay: black lives are undervalued. And the fact that racism is still so overt and prevalent in Louisiana and surrounding Southern states made such a fabrication quite plausible. We may find that Moffitt suffers from mental illness (it would difficult to believe she’d immolate herself under any other circumstances), and we may never know what motivated her actions. Perhaps those motives are no longer our business. I hope she receives the treatment she may need, but more, I hope that her experience isn’t held up as rule that disproves the existence of racial animus, rather than the rare exception where it was not a factor or cause.

Immediately after the awful barbarism which disgraced the State of Georgia in April of last year, during which time more than a dozen colored people were put to death with unspeakable barbarity, I published a full report showing that Sam Hose, who was burned to death during that time, never committed a criminal assault, and that he killed his employer in self-defense.

Since that time I have been engaged on a work not yet finished, which I interrupt now to tell the story of the mob in New Orleans, which, despising all law, roamed the streets day and night, searching for colored men and women, whom they beat, shot and killed at will. [...] We do not believe that the American people who have encouraged such scenes by their indifference will read unmoved these accounts of brutality, injustice and oppression. We do not believe that the moral conscience of the nation — that which is highest and best among us — will always remain silent in face of such outrages, for God is not dead, and His Spirit is not entirely driven from men’s hearts.

– Ida B. Wells, Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and his Fight to the Death, 1900

Authorities say Sharmeka Moffitt, 20, called 911 from Civitan Park about 8 p.m. Sunday after she was allegedly attacked and burned by three men wearing white hoodies while she was on the walking trail in the southern end of the park.

The girl lives, burned. She is in critical condition, the flesh of her arms, her chest, one leg: wet and raw and unrecognizable. This is literal: the burn unit, the stench of singed skin and its tenderness.  But I imagine her consumed by a different fire: yours, an ancestral blaze, a blood memory she could hear whispering its recollections: they came for us on foot. They still come for us.

The girl is twenty. She was not old enough to vote in the last election. She has come of age in the era of Obama; they are selling her generation a fraudulent bill of goods, goading them into renouncing racism’s existence, forcing them to admit how much better they have it than you did. We are ever reminded of what we are now permitted to pursue. The you should be thanking us is still implied.

You and the girl are more than a century removed from one another. But in Louisiana, it is likely she has known the mob violence you risked yourself to expose. Segregation, for her, is not a construct flattened into outdated history texts. In her state and those surrounding, high schools are still struggling to house all their students’ races under one roof for senior proms; judges can still deny interracial couples marriage licenses; and Ole Miss is just electing its first black homecoming queen. In 2012.

I would hope she understands, as you did, that progress is amorphous. It is not a steady climb. And the success of one person of color does not ensure protection for all–even if that success comes in the package of a presidency.

I believe you were with her that Sunday night. You were on the path, as the three men approached, observing, as you so often must, the outcomes of your handiwork. You must have been telling her to hold her ground, to breathe and leave enough air in her lungs to call the police: You must make them see you; these days, their eyes, if not their hearts, are duty-bound.

If it was not you with her that night, it may have been one of the many whose stories you reported. It may’ve been Sam Hose himself–or the detective, Louis Le Vin, who thoroughly investigated his death, before saying, “I made my way home thoroughly convinced that a Negro’s life is a very cheap thing in Georgia.”

Much has changed, Ms. Wells-Barnett, but the value this country places on the Negro’s life has not. Blood still runs in streams along our streets, still stains the backseats of police cruisers, still splatters our suburban sidewalks. And the outrage, if it surges at all, is fleeting and underreported. It is easier to claim we are exaggerating, that these instances are the isolated exceptions to a post-racial rule, that this latest burning is an act of barbarism, the likes of which the country has seldom seen. We pretend that black women have always been safe walking paths, that crime scenes rife with obvious evidence need days and weeks of speculation before the heinous acts committed there can be labeled as hate crimes.

It is tempting to pretend. We long for a world where all that are left to fight are dusty institutions who still grapple with the idea of affirmative action or actors and comedians who doggedly insist on appropriating  blackface and racial slurs to enliven their flagging careers. Would that these were our biggest challenges!

Then we could say with certainty that your work was done.

But some of us still toss in the night, thrashing until our bedsheets become  our restraints. For us, it is impossible to feel free when our people are still being dragged and burned and shot unarmed. Our gains, however considerable, in politics, in media, at homecoming dances, do not serve to lessen the degree of Sharmeka Moffitt’s burns, do not act as a sufficient salve for our people’s suffering.

Like you, we cannot rest. We will not. We open our eyes. We publish the stories. We distribute them, even when they are met with squirming discomfort or outright denial. This is your legacy. This is the world you’ve left us: burning, but still alive.

Answer the Wind: Notes on the Democratic National Convention

dnc

In this country, some woods still howl; I’ve heard them. You need only venture South, to a city where the work of Ida B. Wells still looms large in the hearts of so many haunted families. Stand in the ruddy dirt of a clearing, let the fire ants seep between the straps of your sandals and nip your skin, wait for the trees to bear witness. Someone died there.

It’s a safe assumption that, as the white man who killed him kicked free the wood slab that had staved off the noose, the vision quickly dimming in that dying man’s eyes was not of a diverse and well-heeled audience, promising him that everything he wanted for his children would come to pass. It was not of Latino twins from Texas whose mother’s work as a domestic cleared their path to plush seats in Southern politics. It was not of a brother-governor openly voicing his displeasure with his white predecessor without the threat of violent consequence. And it was certainly not of a black president, his brilliant Chicago-bred wife, and their two elegant, well-educated girls who speak of fear, not through the life-or-death lens of racial animus, but only as it relates to the demise of their healthy home life.

No, what was far more likely flickering before the eyes of the man — swinging, gagging, slackening in the clearing where you can still hear his howls –was a cluster of sneering faces: eyes absent apology, their drunken drawls rising loudly in the whorls of their oil-torch embers: “There goes one less nigger with his hand out, one less mouth we’ve got to pay to support, one less mind that dares to dream beyond its station. We are one step closer to getting our country back. We own this.”

Depending on the decade of his death, he may have left this world without much expectation that this crime against him would someday be avenged or that there’d ever be a day when this kind of existence became abnormal for men who looked like him. He would’ve hoped, but not hard enough to envision so many faces similar to his own in positions of congressional power, not high enough to hear the voice of a remarkably accomplished woman extolling a black family’s hard work and high debt as virtues and vices capable of yielding them not just their own plot of land, but the highest office in the land.

As he hung there dying, here are the ideas that would’ve been easier for him to apprehend: a digital effigy of the first black first lady’s face superimposed on a topless slave’s body; the existence and froth-mouthed intensity of the Tea Party; the willful ignorance of Birthers; a presidential candidate so entitled and unwilling to relate to the people he hopes to govern that he and his staunchest supporters consider themselves benevolent when they offer to relieve us of our hard-earned rights.

If ever you find yourself in those woods that howl, answer the wind. Tell all the voices of our restless ancestries that, though our generation remains far more similar to theirs than we’d hoped, we exist in a realm far beyond any they could imagine. Race still matters so much more than it should — and, on occasion, in ways that can still get you killed. But we are freer than we were, we understand that we are not free enough, and today, we have so many more means to defend our liberty on the countless occasions when it’s challenged. Assure them that when they see us rejoicing it is not because their sacrifices have been absorbed and gradually forgotten. There will always be those among us who volunteer to tote the barge of history and remind others of the vast indignities for which we have yet to atone. We rejoice because we have the wisdom to know that the power to affect real change — however fleeting or illusory or jeopardized — is still possible for people like us to wield. Tell them, come November, when we cast our unsuppressed votes, it is their hearts we’ll be holding in our hands.

Bunkers: A Meditation on Post-Obama Parenting.

The president’s daughters look like you.

Malia, the oldest, is remarkably tall for a thirteen-year-old. She’s reserved and is said to have her father’s measured, pensive temperament. Perhaps as a rite into adolescence, she has taken to wearing silk blouses with built-in neckties, like a miniature executive. The youngest, Sasha, has been called the firebrand. Her smiles are grander, freer. Candid photographs of her suggest that she’s not above giving her father last minute tips on his stump speeches and the occasional State of the Union address. They attend school in a city with one of the most embattled, economically depressed systems in the country.

But, as students at one of the capitol area’s most prestigious private institutions, they will never be touched by that affliction.

Should their father win a second term, they will be nearly-grown women when you are six. One will have selected a college–painstakingly and likely with attention to public opinion. The other will be visiting drought-stricken villages and delivering assembly speeches at foreign academies and orphanages where the children’s faces—but not their experiences—seem familiar to her.

Like their mother, both will be conducting this business in couture fashion.

Their second term will find them at the fore more often than this first. As they grow, their doings will become increasingly difficult to keep hidden from our collective gaze.

In this way, you will be fortunate. You will spend your formative years observing two prominent black girls become prominent black women, observing two prominent black parents govern our country. You have a fleeting vantage, one to which no generation before yours has been privy and, if the nation’s reception of this family is any indication, one that is unlikely to be granted to our immediate successors.

And here is where it becomes critical for me to adjust your lens.

Since, at six, you won’t fully grasp the import of what you’re witnessing, it will be left to me to interpret the times. And the times are, above all, perilous.

Concurrent with the ascendancy of the first black first family, the country has entered a regressive twilight. The hellhounds we thought we’d outrun–hooded menaces turning our loved ones from rib and rising lung to conjecture and corpse; the Great Blue Shield with its selective sight and hearing, with its billy clubs and snarling dogs, its hoses; the branding and the lash—have circled back, baring the fangs that the progress of polite society had been keeping muzzled.

No one’s holding back anymore. The lip service paid to past injustice is reduced to little more than a murmur. The governmental apologies for the African blood soaked into this country’s crop-bearing soil: for the thousands of charred, swinging bodies, for centuries of suppressing literacy, wage-earning, the vote, have all but ceased. And the so-called corrective measures that policymakers swore were being implemented to “level the playing field” are constantly circumvented.

Regardless of era, we’re used to broken promises, to freedoms dangled then yanked out of view. In fact, in more recent decades, this is the type of racism to which we’ve grown most accustomed, this covert, institutional variety that’s so easy to pretend away. We are all too acquainted with accusations of hypersensitivity, of an unwillingness to relinquish the phantom limbs of our past. We are told we are making things up. We are told that we should be grateful for our biracial president and his gorgeous Afrocentric wife—both of whom were educated in institutions that once would’ve barred them (“Just look how far you’ve come!”)—and for their daughters with their natural hairstyles, their crosscontinental jaunts and their Sidwell Friends pedigree.

As a result, my generation is used to swallowing the bulk of its protest. Before Obama, there was, after all, no refuting the gains of society’s gradual progress. Hate crimes were still occurring, but our culture had the good sense to at least pretend a unified moral outrage and a class-based or regional distance: surely, the perpetrators were deep Southern caricatures whose slurs were in no way representative of a whole.

Things felt safer then, with everyone feigning progressive attitudes, and easier, with no one believing those attitudes would be put to the most improbable litmus test of all: a black presidency.

Now, I feel like I’m raising you amid steaming rubble and broken mirrors. Every time some newly emboldened racist verbally attacks a little black girl, I resist the urge to build us a bunker and go underground until I’m able to build us a second skin thick enough to combat all this toxicity. This is not the world to which I’d grown cautiously less guarded and grudgingly accustomed. This is an unfamiliar place, where people are so unabashed in their hatred for women who look like us that they’re using the First Lady and her children as proxies for their vitriol.

You are twenty months old and I am already so exhausted. Outrage is costly. But so is apathy. Neither will equip you with what you need to thrive in a world where people feel this way about you.

What will help you is love.

At the library, there is a children’s room where a dish runs away with a spoon on its low walls and sunlight flooding in on a cushioned rocking chair. In one corner, there are buckets of toys. The last time we went, a father sat in the rocking chair, reading with his eldest daughter while the younger–just a few months older than you–played in the toy bucket corner. When you sauntered up to her, she shared her toy with you and you chatted her up in that indecipherable way you do almost everyone. Her father smiled politely as I sat with the two of you, and though I bristled, hoping he wasn’t regarding me with suspicion, I smiled without reservation at the abandon with which you cheered whenever she pushed a plastic shape into the right space in the sorter.

At the church we’ve been visiting, where we are two of six black attendees, you toddle indiscriminately into every set of arms that opens to you—and there are many. You let them lift you and feed you treats and hug you close, and there, in the sanctuary of their guilelessness, I get a weekly respite from cynicism.

Perhaps, dear child, these are our bunkers.