What can be said about Tyler Perry after Aaron McGruder’s vitriolic lampooning? The Boondocks’ “Pause” episode depicts Perry as a preacher-pimp tending to majority female congregation that he generally holds in contempt. But don’t let anyone - McGruder included - ever tell you different: Perry’s a genius. I don’t mean “genius” in the Thelonius Monk, Barbara McClintock or John Nash way. More like in the P-Diddy sense. Perry has an uncanny ability to give people what they want. Even before they ask for it.
2011 was a rough year for media conscious black women. It seems predators, of all shades and of walks of life, joined hands in systematically profiting from their assaults on black women’s minds and bodies. “Life Always”, a right to life group, sought to portray black women as the number one killers of black people. And, apparently, black skin and two x chromosomes = will NEVER be married (gasp) or a failed marriage unless she actually does the “unthinkable” and weds a white man, which isn't a real solution because – according to Psychology Today and rock solid data from an e-dating site – there just ain’t enough interested white men to go around. Hard times. Now, with the good-girl-gone-stinking-rich and Michelle Obama subject to racially charged insults, even the pinnacle of success offers black women no protection from white racist contempt. But fear not! Peterson and Leonard ride to the rescue with “Attacking the Black Woman”: a piece which is to black male “feminism” what Madea is to manners.
Who’s Yo' Daddy?!
What might be humanity’s oldest conquest strategy stays in place not only by the instigating violence, but by a secondary one: turning “victim” responses to ends that serve the oppressor/protectors. And so, in a macro-political sense at least, men `protecting’ women from sexism is something like a fox bravely stepping forth to guard the chicken coop from coyotes.
Petersen and Leonard’s “solidarity” is signaled by their use of part-time feminist catchwords, like ‘voice’ and ‘silence’; by referencing requisite tropes: the gaze, the body etc. and quickly name dropping “Jezebel” and “Mammie”. It makes me wonder if they “got the memo” about Diane Caroll’s “Julia”, Tatyana Ali’s “Ashley Banks”, Felicia Pearson’s “Snoop”, Kellie William's “Laura Winslow” or the one about public personas like Lisa Leslie, Jean Grae, Condi Rice, Oprah Winfrey and Tyra Banks? In “Attacking the Black Woman”, the fairer sex can only be tragic objects requiring rescue. I’d think it all very fox-like, if not for Petersen and Leonard’s ham-fistedness. I mean, the article’s url is: http://loop21.com/life/protecting-black-womans-body-when-no-else-will.
One ought not make too much of this though. It must be a mislabeling. Anyone who’d pay a bodyguard to watch an assailant kick his/her ass then rattle off a dull post-beatdown analysis should hire these two. “Attacking the Black Woman” did nothing to protect no one but falls into a womanist clap-trap where Leonard and Petersen “play knight”, eschew critical engagement, alternate readings or meaningfully working into their analyses the uncomfortable implications of black women’s choices and agency. Yet, women are none too gently reminded of the omnipresence of social violence - and who the real protectors are. “Attacking the Black Woman” benefited from and reproduced the interfaces and relations that serve the “twisted ideology” that Petersen and Leonard supposedly defend “the black woman” against.
In this, I’d like to think that Petersen and Leonard were simply ignorant. But they admit that ass-fixation diverted from concerns about food justice, "In calling her a hypocrite, claiming that her body precludes her from having a voice, the Rep's rhetoric policies Michelle Obama's activities and her desire to challenge the ways in which access to quality and healthy food is a fundamental issue". Okay. But, do they return to that fundamental issue – or give it any attention? Nope. It’s all protecting asses.
Fact is, it’s easier to mine a preoccupation with social (i.e., white, male) acceptance and play ju-ju master in our fetishization of status (i.e., whiteness, maleness), than to illustrate the necessity of co-operative, issue-focused, results-based approaches to the complex social factors that impact our lives. Predictably, “Attacking the Black Woman” ends with the go nowhere-forever “kumbyaism” of : "When congressional representative and magazine editors have yet to get the "Humanity: Black Women Have it Too" memo, the war for gender and racial equality seems much too far from being over". If anyone took Debra Dickerson’s End of Blackness seriously, we should by now know that “gaining equality by attacking ___ isms” is a fool’s errand; a mis-orientation that does little but re-create – or at least leave ample space for – white ascendancy. And, well, poodle-faking reynards too.
Identity is interplay. Race and gender still play out – or are performed - in arbitrary yet measured ways. For, example, with this Rihanna thing. In Barbados, particularly with an Indo-Guyanese mother, Rihanna’s regarded as ‘dougla’ or `brown’. In America - and the world - she’s ‘black’ – partly because she’s Caribbean. However, her music and image “transcend race”. That fluidity, complexity and “rootedness” is an exoticism that appeals to ‘blacks’, ‘whites’, self-identifying multi-racial people, etc. Yet, in response to Hoeke’s “racism” Rihanna “embodies the Sapphire” - as Melissa Harris-Perry might put it - and becomes unquestionably - and fiercely - `black’. So. No wonder that the existential horror of Hansberry’s representational schema, that Petersen and Leonard put so much stock in, didn’t at all stop black women in the millions from supporting Tyler Perry, The Help or NBA wives for that matter.
When the voice of Bootylicious-ness herself dons blackface and poses in L’Offciel Paris Magazine to “celebrate her African roots”, what exactly is she saying?
Or what’s the message when Naomi Campbell poses a top a chocolate bunny then later tries to use racial outrage to rally the soldiers against Cadbury when in one of their ads she is “honorifically” referred to as “dark chocolate”?
And, did Petersen and Leonard read the communiqués that were the lives of women as diverse as Josephine Baker, Zora Neale “signed your pickaninny” Hurston and some enslaved plantation mistresses? They too have used “sexualized, racialized” images to personal advantage and fulfillment. In fact, even for feminists, these racialized gender tropes, these reifications of former social-political strategies, are very much part of what “authentic blackness” is about. On Mark Anthony Neal's "Left of Black", Hip-Hop feminist Joan Morgan, for example, talked about dreaming of being like the ‘Lady in Orange’.
While coquettes – like some of their “darker “antecedents - are bold and sophisticated in their antagonisms and investments, they are ultimately reliant on the powers they trifle with - or allegedly disdain. Similarly, the failure of anti-oppression politics is due to an essentially defeatist, opportunistic, egoism that is in an unacknowledged co-dependent relationship with “power” – or at least the gaze – which distorts discourse. In an era where two of the world’s biggest “black” music stars perform the “gosh we sure glad we made it” anthem, “Nigg*s in Paris”, for predominantly white audiences who recite all the words - even the n-ones – isn’t racist but proof that we all can get along, a Danish woman’s awkward two-step into Ebonics - which Rob Fields rightly describes as more clumsily “honorific” than Klanish – shouldn’t be noteworthy, really. But, “black politic’s” coquettish vanity doesn’t permit for such silence.
When a Colored Girl’s Best Intentions…Aren’t Really Intentions
In response to “Attacking the Black Woman”, Joan Morgan wrote: “Esther Armah and I often lament the lack of male initiative when it comes to riding with us on clearly feminist issues. Love that you'll have my back if I ask, but frankly I'd rather not ask. I'd rather you realize that my ish is your ish, not that Feminist ish. So I'm really happy to post this jawn. Thanks James Braxton Peterson and David J. Leonard for writing this..and not making us ask. LOVE.”
Morgan doesn’t here define feminist takes on major social issues or outline what “clear feminist issues” are. One would think that that respecting a woman’s voice and agency is “clearly feminist issue” and “asking” illustrative of that.
Let’s be frank. More times, “Men taking initiative” does weird things to a woman’s right to choose. It got us the placating neo-chivalry of “Attacking the Black Woman” and the runaway success of a certain cross-dressing man who Morgan and Sofia Quintero one day dressed down for taking the wrong kind of initiative: “If I had one request for Tyler Perry it’s that if he finds the narratives of black women so compelling then I would much prefer that he uses his access and male privilege to enable black women to tell those stories” Quintero says. Morgan interjects to exclaim “that’s Black Male feminism!”. At about 34 minutes in, she grows more impassioned, “Historically as women of colour, our voice is all we have our voice and our ability to articulate our stories has been all that we’ve had. Go back to Phyllis Wheatley a slave woman her ability to read and to right poetry at times is all we have. When you take that from us, when you don’t pull us through doors that your male privilege allows you to walk through, you are shutting us down in ways that are not only bad for one generation of filmmakers, but… Ntzoke Shange’s work inspired me to write. So I don’t know that a young person – back to your first question – goes to this particular adaptation of for colored girls and says `wow. I want to be a woman who writes’ I want to be a woman who tells our stories. I think for that to be lost is terrible.”
In some stories, the loudest things are the silences. While Morgan and Quintero were careful to laud the film’s female actors they didn’t question the responsibility established women like Janet Jackson, Loretta Divine, Thandie Newton and/or Felicia Rashaad’s had –as women - to Shange’s work. Or ask why “just doing their jobs” was more important than - at least coquettishly - undermining Perry’s appropriative vision. Also, mum was the word on how it was women’s choices that made Perry “the most successful African American director in history” as host Mark Anthony Neal put it. Those selective silences precluded a discussion of startling senselessness that is attacking Perry’s “male privilege”: that privilege is – in more ways than one – a feminine construct. Further, Morgan gave voice to lament “losing” a cherished work to the robber-bridegroom Perry but didn’t speak a word on why he was able to acquire the rights to Shange’s work. “Ntozakhe”, after all, means “she who has her own things.”
Can't Black Male “Feminism” Critique “Feminism”?
Black male `feminism’ - if I dare define it for myself – isn’t just solidarity with women (i.e., “seeing that your ish is my ish”) but a recognition of women’s capability and autonomy. It is eschewing propriety attitudes toward women, checking the ways that his identity and status demands impinge on women’s freedoms. Being an ally doesn't mean toddishly defending honor as Petersen and Leonard do, but by questioning non-gender specific hegemonic processes. Even – and especially - those embedded in “womanist” dialogues. These sensibilities are further developed and honed by listening – critically of course - to women’s stories, realizing that it is better for all concerned if those stories were in fact “theirs” to control.
Perry’s nod to and embrace of Black women might’ve at first seemed affectionate – empathetic even. But it quickly grew gripping as he fascinates them with a trauma-trolling pastiche of race-gender pride, scandal, “justified” cruelties, religiosity and ‘tough love’ conservativism, an early iteration of the winsome, simpering “womanism” that infects neo-chivalric works like "Attacking the Black Woman". Similarly, as a group, anti-oppression academics do more than their bit to reorganize and reproduce the oppressions they “attack”. So-called "social justice movements" devote more of their resources to centralizing hegemony than do mainstream media. That - more than racially, sexually-charged name-calling – warrants our concern. In favoring an “endless war” to the exclusion of intra-group co-operation that subverts the “mainstream” and creates alternatives, our responses – whether feminized or masculinised – help “twisted ideologies” spin ever faster; leaving their victims rudderless, forever fixing their sails to catch their hegemonic wind. Be it hot air or a brain fart.
Now. With all conflicts over “the black woman’s body” – using it to get attention or protecting from the wrong kinds of attention – who has bothered to concern themselves with how well women nourish each other?