culture

We Owe “Scary Spice” An Apology

Originally published on Medium in the Human Parts Collection. It was also listed in Dazed Magazine’s “Best of The Web” the week that it was published. 

mel b

Lately, I’ve been in my Black Girl Hair feelings. It’s winter and I’ve been travelling up and down the East Coast, so I’m spending more time in beauty salons, straightening it so that I don’t have wash it and risk pneumonia while it air dries (into curlsicles). But really, there’s never not a time that Black Girl Hair isn’t in my feelings. Solange’s wedding photos had every Black girl in the world — me included — feeling some kind of way. And as I finish testing over 15 products for an article about affordable hair care products for women of color in Paris, I’m being confronted with the global issues of how little Black hair is considered, much less, the possibility that it’s beautiful.

Of course, there are those comments to think about. The comments about Zendaya’s hair. The sound bites: weed. Patchouli. Dreads. Deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, the subtext of these remarks “dirty,” “undesirable,” and “unworthy.” Hair that is so unabashedly Black that it cannot be fantasied into racial ambiguity or “otherness” and thus, must be dealt with severely for its inability to amuse and/or be exoticized. Coiled dreads that are so unabashedly Black that Zendaya — who months ago many claimed she was not Black enough to play Aaliyah — is now so Black that she reeks of weed and patchouli through the television screen.

All of this talk has me thinking about Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown. For me, she was the first Black woman who wore curls and wore them proudly, the first I could identify with. And I think of her when White women say they are excluded from the natural hair movement, the new focus on curly hair in beauty products that hesitates to mention that aforementioned movement for fear of associating with Blackness. And in 2015, where a Black woman’s hair on the red carpet is evocative of deviant behavior, it’s worth collectively examining how we consider Blackness in its follicle form and the pathological fears and stereotypes that those follicles are wrapped in for mainstream consumption.

Nearly 20 years later, I still can’t get over the fact that we thought it was okay to call a brown girl with beautiful curls “Scary.” I can’t believe that we’re still using that name for her in headlines. Sure, she uses it herself in her Twitter profile — but as a public figure who uses name recognition as part of her brand, does she have much agency in the matter? That nickname is awful, erroneous, and racist. Why was Melanie scary? Because she’s Black? Because she has big curly hair? Because she’s the only Black girl girl in a group of White girls? Because mainstream doesn’t know what box to toss her in?

I remember so vividly the first time I saw Mel B. and her curls bouncing across the Zenith television in my room. My eyes immediately zeroed in on the cool Black girl amongst the other White girls, feeling an immediate kinship with that mise en scéne. (I was one of the few Black kids at my suburban elementary school.) It wasn’t that I didn’t think that Posh’s Gucci mini dress wasn’t cute or that I didn’t want Baby Spice’s pigtails; it’s just that I knew those things were unattainable for me. There was nothing in Baby Spice’s long, thin, blonde hair pigtails that went almost to her waist that spoke to my curls-turned-cute Afro puffs, not in any way. (And my mother was not buying a Gucci mini dress for her 12-year-old.) But Mel B. — she was a girl who looked like me. I was immediately obsessed. I wondered if she fought with her hair the way that I did, if she had ever gotten a relaxer (a Black girl in the 90s that did not get a relaxer might as well have been a unicorn), if she had spent hours of her Saturday mornings in beauty salons slathering creamy crack onto her curly roots while her White girlfriends were at soccer practice. I wanted to be Mel’s friend or at the very least, a pen pal. I did numerous and unfruitful searches on Netscape 2.0 for “Scary Spice hair conditioner.” Without question, “Scary Spice” was my first Black girl crush. After an 80s and 90s childhood that demanded I find myself in Alicia Silverstone and Winona Ryder, that gave me hair advice and tips that would never apply to my hair, Mel B. and her ringlets were manna from MTV.

But “Scary Spice.” It felt so wrong to call her that. Why was I calling this beautiful woman that looked like me, “Scary”? Sure, I thought she was beautiful, but why would the “people in charge” (in my 12-year-old mind, everyone) call her “Scary” if she were really pretty? I looked at her, trying to find something to justify the name, but couldn’t. And then I began to think, “Well, is she as pretty as I think that she is? Does that mean that I’m ugly?” The girls at my suburban middle school, many of whom vacillated between wanting to be Posh or Baby Spice, did not notice Mel B. at all. Was it because she was ugly? Less than that, she didn’t even register. She was just “the Black girl.” And though the “lesbian” and “slut” coding of Melanie Chisholm (“Sporty Spice”) and Gerri Halliwell (“Ginger Spice”) are for another day, the invisibility of Melanie Brown’s beauty to my friends only made me love her more, as I didn’t have to compete with anyone to prove who was a bigger fan of Melanie B. But it was also a reminder as to how hostile the world would be to me and the things that made me beautiful.

In normalizing “Scary Spice,” we trained a whole generation of Millennials to think about Black women and Black hair as frightening. (Millennials are less racially tolerant than you think.) Without realizing it, we’ve helped create a generation of feminists that lack intersectionality; those excluded are made to create their own spaces because of a lack of inclusion. And we’ve given a whole generation the continued license to not consider Blackness as something that can be beautiful without Whiteness being a reference point, thus enforcing White supremacy by means of implying that Whiteness is a neutral, identity-less baseline of objectivity. Beauty standards built on restrictive norms enforce this idea that beauty is a scarce resource and that anything outside of those resource boundaries (i.e., Whiteness) must be attacked and diminished to preserve the potency of resource horde.

I don’t think for one minute that Giuliana Rancic was thinking about all of that colonialism, perpetuation, and preservation of patriarchy when she compared the scent of a Black woman’s hair to patchouli or weed. I really believe she didn’t understand why those comments were hurtful. I think her apology was sincere and should be an example of how to listen to people of color and be an ally. But that’s the thing; the messages of ugliness, the unworthiness, the otherness of Blackness has been so thoroughly engrained and approved by our society, that the bias is implicit and subconscious. The associations of inferiority that were made were so smooth and unassuming, just like the straight, thin locks our society covets. Some might feel that being cognizant of how stereotypes and tropes are perpetuated isn’t fun, but having one’s humanity confined by them is a helluva lot less fun.

We owed Melanie Brown the apology that Giuliana Rancic gave Zandaya 18 years ago. And I’m glad to see we’ve come far enough that Zandaya received it. I don’t know Melanie Brown in real life, but she seems to be a complex, beautiful, and rather full person. A collective disregard and fear of Blackness and Black femininity prevented a more thorough appreciation of Melanie Brown, both then and now. The casualness of saying that a young woman on the red carpet at the Oscars smelled like drugs because of her un-malleable Blackness is completely related to the fact that for almost twenty years, we’ve called another Black woman scary because she too, had non-negotiable Blackness.

Some might say Melanie Brown’s singing talents are mediocre. This may be true, but then again, when did that ever stop the majority of White pop singers in this country? Melanie Brown deserves more credit than what we’ve given her. Not because she’s an overlooked talent, but because she stands as a testament to our subconscious anti-Blackness that is still rampant in its casualness and frequency. Mel B. was a big influence to finally cut off the chemicals and embrace their curls, and their Blackness, for many Black women — myself included — who went natural in the early 2000s. And though she’s rarely seen today with her curls, I still want to ask her what conditioner she uses — and to apologize for calling her “Scary Spice” without understanding what I was continuing or condoning.

Something New, Something Blue and Something Not For Many of Us: A Response to Tiffany’s Gay Ad

gay tiffany couple

This was written by Joe von Hutch in a response to last week’s post about Tiffany’s engagement advertisement targeted towards the gay community.

Before diving into my response, I first have to apologize to all of my friends, married and unmarried who may be offended at some of what I say. That’s not my desire, but I enjoy open dialogue on my page so here goes.

First, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (sampled on Beyonce’s “Flawless”): “Because I am female / I am expected to aspire to marriage / I am expected to make my life choices / Always keeping in mind that / Marriage is the most important / Now marriage can be a source of / Joy and love and mutual support / But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage / And we don’t teach boys the same?”

Throughout what will fairly accurately be described as an anti-marriage rant, please keep in mind that I agree with Ngozi Adichie that marriage *can* be fantastic; at least in its modern form practiced by partners who are more or less equal. But, historically, marriage was state-sanctioned slavery and I think it is a mistake that LGBT activists have applied most of their intellectual and economic weight to this one cause (and usually at the exclusion of all others e.g. employment discrimination, HIV/Aids research, youth homelessness, etc.). But, here we are, and esp. when I think of my friends who have or will be married, the fact that they cannot do so in only 14 states is a tremendous accomplishment and a true testament to the hard work of all the men and women who fought and fight tirelessly for us to get here.

Now please take it back. Seriously, I don’t want it. And while I am happy for my friends who choose monogamy and monogrammed towels, I neither want the pressure to aspire to the same nor disapproval from both within and without my community when I choose to remain a deviant. Because what we forget is that the movement used to be about radical change and accepting people for who they are and how they choose to live. And I know society can only be changed in discrete ways, but images of (a seemingly happy and loving couple, mazel tov) white, well-to-do men being used to hawk bits of rock mined by Africans under, at best, questionable and, at worst, slave-like conditions just to further global capitalism, exclusion, patriarchy and white privilege is simply not my idea of true activism. Pandering, yes. Smart business, yes. But there is nothing radical or inspiring about this, at least not to me. I’m sure others will disagree, as they should.

And I think I’m also particularly rankled by this because I know people who are currently facing housing issues for being “dirty, disgusting faggots”. And people who do not feel comfortable being out at work for fear of what certain partners might think. And a lot of it is because the media (and we as activists) are selling an image of an antiseptic and non-offensive gay man or woman that rarely matches the reality of me and my friends on the pansexual, polyamorous and BDSM margins. And, domestically, while this image might do some good in convincing the few remaining dinosaurs that “I guess gay people are people too”, it will do nothing for the young queers living on the streets or the trans men and women, whose families slot them back into another sex at their deaths. And, internationally, I would love to see more being done to improve the lives of the people who actually dig these things out of the ground than the lives of those who can afford them.

A Confederacy of Colorblinds: Charlie Hebdo and French Racism

“You lack context!”

That seems to be the cry of defense for the French, on this blog and across the internet, this week and last as more and more people question the role of Charlie Hebdo‘s satire and the general state of equality in French society and of course, a controversial article on this site, Je ne suis pas Charlie.

There seems to be lots of context that I lack, according to the comments (and rants) of enraged Frenchmen of all hues. Lack of French cultural context, which to certain degrees, is very true. Lack of an understanding of French comedy, which to certain degrees, is also very true. The French are relentless in their assessment of the American political gung-ho cowboy approach, often with fair criticisms. The French make no secret that with a few exceptions, most Americans are considered to be classless and proudly ignorant. And given that most French citizens travel in a way that many Americans do not, they are fair in their right to hold that informed opinion. But America has a pretty long history in dealing with racism and calling it by its name – and probably know it better when they see it, even if it’s in another country. Why is it that the French identity and humor needs mounds of contextualization to explain comics, which by the very nature of not being dependent upon words, needs very little explanation? Why can’t a country which for better or for worse, is renowned for its fight for racial equality, not qualified to remark on a France’s problem with race, even though the French don’t know what their country looks like?

anonymous Creole woman from Martinique, 1880s

anonymous Creole woman from Martinique, 1880s

French identity, with regards to race, has always full of contexts, asterisks and explanations; it is a democracy that one could forcefully argue still has colonies. It is a multi-racial society which has no statistics to tacitly prove this. A haven for African-Americans seeking political asylum in the 20th century, it also put an African-American woman in a phallic, banana skirt, half naked on stage, to dance and amuse French audiences.

The irony of it all.

French identity, tolerance and esteem has always depended upon proximities to White Frenchness; a minister of Louis XIV described the value of the Canadian Indians ripe for “civilization” as, “one must summon the inhabitants of the country to a life in common with the French, instruct them in the tenets of our religion and our customs, as to form with the inhabitants…one people….” It was the beginnings of the privilege of “French extraction”, a colorful mélange that tantalizes the French imagination and aesthetic, satisfying equal fetishes for thorough Frenchness and the thoroughly un-French exotique. The privileges and obsession with mixed race people (and creating them) functions as trophies of French assimilation; it is still a standard and mechanism of progress in French society. For all France’s history of race based slavery, colonization, subjugation, an obsession with all things Asian that is/was so strong that it named a style of furniture, sexual exoticism of women of color ( lest we not forget that Gauguin was a Frenchman and was the first to document a sexual tourist vacation), France is a country that purports to not see race. In it’s “colorblindness”, France has created a system by which cultural colloquialisms and beliefs are de-facto yet unstable statements of Frenchness that serve as proxies as Whiteness, given one’s proximity to Whiteness. Thus, one is French by how close one is to White ideals and embodiments.

“…job applicants with obviously North African or African names are far less likely to get called in for interviews than those with traditionally French names. A study funded by the Open Society Institute showed that black and North African youths were much more likely to be stopped by police in France’s equivalent of stop-and-frisk.”

Race functions as a silent truth in Parisian society because Paris is a part of a country which was a colonial power, a brutal colonial power and subjugated people on the basis of race, religion and origin. Anyone, (especially people of color), that have spent considerable time in France or lives there knows that the French are anything but colorblind. I don’t know many people in France or Paris of color that actually believe this.  Yet, the denial of the lived experiences of Asian, African and North Africans in France as facts and thus, a social reality, only makes the presence of race in French society all the more there. In a democracy, where the individual right to express oneself is one of the most treasured rights and very much the anchor for the supporters of Charlie Hebdo, that right is only extended and protected for those that show that they are sufficiently French. And France has a particular history of infringing upon this right when it infringes upon ideals of (White) Frenchness. The burqa, a full veil that many Muslim women wear as a religious obligation, is banned, as well as headscarves in schools. Violators of this law are subjected to fines and “citizenship instruction”, as to remind them of what being French is and what it looks like. And the particular ire between the Islam and Charlie Hebdo is rooted in a strong anti-Muslim sentiment that is also rooted in the colonial history of North Africa, particularly Algeria. French colonization in Algeria was so brutal and unsuccessful that Tocqueville described the process of colonizing the country as having “made Muslim society more barbaric than before the French arrived.” (below is one of the most famous clips from the very famous film, “The Battle of Algiers”, which neo-realistically told the story of Algerian independence.)

It was in the simplest of terms, a wholesale subjugation of people to make them French via the annihilation and denial of their Berber heritage. It was one of the most violent forms of French assimilation. And when Algeria finally won its freedom in 1962, it marked the third time that the French had lost a colonial war,  a wound made deeper by the fact that Algeria was France’s oldest major colony and the colony which characterized much its colonial identity. The French could barely tolerate the occupation from a fellow European power; they were downright belligerent at being felled by the bon sauvage. (pour mes amis français, un retourné, bon sauvage en français.) The French have never forgotten it, nor as Charlie Hebdo’s most recent article cover says, was all ever fully forgiven.

“In France, the Algerian is the nigger. That’s because of the relationship of France to Algeria for 130 years: A very complex relationship in which Algeria simply belonged to France and when an Algerian came to France, he was treated and is treated as a mule…” -conversations with James Baldwin 

To repeat, the French state(s) keep no official racial or ethnic statistics (or religious demographics), the populace and the government alike reasoning that there is no such reason to do this when all citizens of France are French, irrespective of their histories and colors. Many French people feel that to do so would encourage people to see differences and focus on them. You see, Americans, in their race obsessed society, have so many problems because they are encouraged to see race, the French say. The banlieues in Paris don’t burn like the projects in Detroit. And they don’t burn like Detroit because the French are civilized, they are a fully integrated country which does not see Algerians, the Cameroonians as being the survivors of a brutal colonial regime and agents of their own freedom from this, but as French. A vision of Frenchness imagined in a colorblind image. The Vietnamese are not political refugees from a country that is still recovering from the Indochina War (which led to the Vietnam War) and French colonialism – they are “just French” and should consider themselves such. Muslim and Arab identity in colonial North Africa wasn’t suppressed by the French banning Islamic law and practices – they’re are “just French” now and should act as such. Nevermind all that stuff that happened so long ago. More or less. Comme ci, comme ça.

 banlieues outside of Paris in 2005

banlieues outside of Paris in 2005

But the banlieues do burn and sometimes, quite literally. And they burn because many people of color feel cut out of the French process and French society. Jokes about being welfare queens aren’t funny when you are North African and Black and you can’t get a job, because your name does not sound French enough, because applicants are required to put their photographs on their employment applications, because you live in the outer métro zones and it is more expensive to get into the city and because the métro closes between 12:30AM and 1AM, the menial jobs that you might be hired for, are difficult to transport to and fro. Jokes about the Koran being shit aren’t quite as funny when you fully expressing your religion is illegal. Many supporters of Charlie Hebdo in the comments section of this site claim that the humor of the publication is to “take the piss out of someone”, which is true. But the power dynamics of French society  for those that don’t have agency and the recognition of their lived experiences with racism is such that taking the piss out of them also amounts to having it thrown into their face.

But, the French persist, Charlie Hebdo isn’t racist – it’s equal opportunity slander. The slander is all the same, because they are all French. Everyone is equally taken a part, skewed, given their fair share turn at the gaulois (Gallic) humor which is known for it’s love of humiliation. The comparison for most Americans would work like this: if British humor is known for “taking the piss” out of someone, French humor might make you drink it. And that’s the égalité of French humor and Frenchness – everyone’s made to drink their own piss. And this is what Charlie Hebdo does, the French say; a round of piss for everybody! Here’s an excellent guide, in English, written by a Frenchman, as to why Charlie Hebdo isn’t racist, allegedly.

black person on a leash

In this drawing of a Black person on a leash being walked by two White people, the author of the post says:

“Oh my god, two white people have a black person on a leech pictured as a dog!!!!”

Yep, how much more racist can it be huh?

Context maybe? I mean that could help right? Last year, the strong conservative right wing side of France was on the streets to protest against same-sex mariage [sic]. At the same time, a few modern slavery stories made the front pages as some rich traditionalist families got arrested actually having modern-days slaves, usually immigrants with their passeport[sic] confiscated, that they did not pay and had work 20 hours a day at their home, with no possiblities [sic] to go out.

So Charlie Hebdo drew this, saying that in order to be accepted as “normal” by those traditionalists, gay people had to AT LEAST be like them: a family has to be made of two parents and one slave, like they were doing.”

It is not (French) context that is needed; it is for the French to understand the context of how humor which is defacing can not be divorced from the power dynamics at work in an unequal society. It is a myth to believe that people struggling for the basic dignities in a democracy and those that are not, are equally humiliated by the display of their culture, religion or likeness being defiled. Those that represent and maintain the dominant powers must understand and consider how humiliating people that have historically been held to be inferior and discriminated against, is not actually satire. And when it is perpetuated by people that have been historically responsible for such delineations of inferiority, it’s not funny, because it is cheap and it is cheap because it trades on inhumanity – and a perpetuation of the histories which White French citizens claim to have happened “a long time ago.” When Black youth are rioting because they can not get jobs, it is not funny that a group of White men and women should decide that they will fight racism by more tropes and images of racism. Nor is it equal when the children of said White men and women can get the jobs that the children of Asian, African and North African immigrants or third generation citizens can’t get. Making fun of Jews in a country so hostile to them that many consider leaving for Israel, is irresponsible. As one Frenchwoman of African descent told me, “I am not Charlie and even if I wanted to be, France wouldn’t allow me to be Charlie.” (A personal remark: I felt unsafe bringing a small menorah to France to finish the observation of Chanukah, because of the casual anti-Semitism that I have personally witnessed during my time in Paris. And I am not even Jewish, though part of my family once was.)

A photo of the Charlie Hebdo staff working on the edition.

this is a photo instead of the Charlie Hebdo staff working on the edition

 

I understand that it is offensive to portray the Prophet Muhammad, and do so not in disrespect, but because of the event and the story.

I understand that it is offensive to portray the Prophet Muhammad, and do so not in disrespect, but because of the event and the story.

I don’t agree with the cover and find it in poor taste, still. Those however, are my personal opinions on the matter. What should be a fact in a democracy and a press running in such society is that making fun of, or troping the most vulnerable members of a society by exploiting what makes them vulnerable to the most ignorant and least tolerant members of your society is stupid and it is dangerous. The cover, a persistent “fuck you” to the sensibilities and laws of Muslims worldwide, persists in the (White) French right to, as a lawyer for Charlie Hebdo said, “blaspheme.” The American press, most of whom have decided that they are not Charlie, has been lukewarm to the cover.

As one Facebook commenter put it, “…The North Korean government recently called Obama a monkey. That’s not a good enough reason to draw him like a monkey on a magazine cover and say you are making fun of the North Koreans.”  The French entitlement to believe that this is fair, or even substantive political commentary worth defending is a part of  the colonial French laws of assimilation, which were and still pedal notions of equality based on one’s French language and Frenchness – and leave no space to discourse the real realities of living in a society which has bias, inequalities, disadvantages, misunderstandings and exploitation that race-based.

It is possibly to mourn the deaths of innocent lives and renounce what their work and their institution stood for. It is possible to not identify with “Je Suis Charlie” because it represents a cheap laughs that encourage a society with deeply undiscussed racial issues to continue in blindness, not because you support fundamentalists. The French have every right to continue to print and support Charlie Hebdo. But that comes with a responsibility and a price. And part of that, is that some people might not think drinking piss is actually very funny or an acquired taste. They might just think you’re drinking piss.

 

“Anna Mae”, not “Anime”: Beyoncé and A Tale of Two Twitters

(originally published March 26, 2014, but updated to include the May 4th SNL skit, “The Beygency”.)

It’s been nearly half of a year since Beyonce released her  Beyhive Holy Scriptures “Drunk In Love.”

There have been memes, impersonations, sacrifices at the altar Bey, analysis about domestic abuse and a whole storm of news that has everybody much pretty much forgetting the other 16 songs on the album. There has no greater platform for the discussion of all of this than (Black) Twitter, the most segregated neighborhood on the Internet. Twitter drives a great deal of what becomes a part of the pop cultural lexicon for the Millennial crowd and you don’t have to be on Twitter to be influenced by its influence. The Beyhive, hashtags, memes – it wasn’t created on Twitter, but it found in Twitter an audience willing to create and share at a much faster and interactive rate than on any other social media platform. And when you’re talking about metrics, there’s almost no sub-Twitter group that does that better or more than Black Twitter. Though Twitter, as a company, has rarely mentioned 18% of its users are Black, it would be hard to deny that most of its ability to share and disseminate important news is because of the Blacks on Twitter.

But back to Beyoncé. We’ll circle back around. Beyoncé is beloved. Beyoncé is revered by presidents and hoodrats alike. That’s really a feat. And it helps that Beyoncé has become a part of the lexicon in popular culture. She’s become a verb, adjective, symbol, aspirational figure, untouchable figure, an icon for the 3D printing era, etc.  She’s admired and imitated by all Americas, all classes and all women, who are important but underestimated facilitators of the social media conversation. You really can’t go wrong with her and as SNL proved in their hilarious sketch, there’s a helluva price to pay when you run counter of the Beyhive.

but, alas, the Bey Hive can’t fix everything:

Image

Image

That’s right. “anime”, as in:

Image

lemon or german chocolate cake?

And this is where the path in the Twitter woods diverge.

We’ve already gone over some of the politics of code here, but “Drunk in Love” goes a little deeper, a little harder than that. “Drunk in Love” is an inside joke wrapped into a clever code. A visual analogy might be bacon wrapped dates. Not everyone’s going to get the flavor of a date on it’s own, but most people like bacon (except for me, can’t stand them) and it’s universal enough that unless you’re in San Francisco or any other vegan/vegetarian capital, everyone will eat it. Where it gets tricky is the date. Dates are supposed to be a little erudite, a treat for trained palates. For a lot of Black Americana, Beyoncé’s use of “Anna Mae” was kind of like that. Follow me for a second.  There’s no better master of mass appeal than Beyoncé and for many a Black artist, part of of the deal has been giving up a little bit of their Black card, as it were, for the sake of appearing less threatening. The Western world has been gawking at the waist, asses and breasts of Black women since Sarah Baartman. Black superstardom is littered with wasted bodies and minds of talents that were just too Black and/or too uncompromising to crossover; Florence Ballard, Phyllis Hyman and David Ruffin to name only a few. For those that did, the repressed public sexuality of Michael Jackson is a reminder of many lessons and magnitudes. Black superstardom rarely is allowed to explore Black sexuality openly and surely not explicitly. Black (pop) superstardom rarely allows its queens to be sexual; they’re too busy just trying to be whole people. And while Black superstars filter and translate Black soul for popular and mass consumption, their success is largely a direct correlation as to how raceless they can be for White Suburban America.

Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike
In ’97 I bite, I’m Ike, Turner, turn up
Baby no I don’t play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae
Said, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae!”

So, for the Black populace, “Drunk in Love” was a celebration of the evolution of a woman, a Black woman who has reached the top with a lot of light skin privilege and Photoshop lightening along the way. That’s not to diminish the issue of domestic abuse, but Black America is used to having to take ugly, broken things and re-work and re-claim them. In the same vein and spirit that “nigger” has for some (but certainly not all) been re-purposed to stand for solidarity and camaraderie, “Anna Mae” has been re-worked, re-purposed, re-claimed to be a statement of unabashed sexuality.

And that’s ultimately was “Drunk in Love” was about, what Black Twitter instinctively got in those trap beats. It’s a celebration of Black sexuality, Black aggression and Black charisma. It’s an unapologetic romp in the Blackness that is rough around the edges, tastes like pound cake, sounds like dominos slamming on cheap folding tables and feels like the third cup of warm E&J on a warm summer night. So while the rest of the world was up in arms, Black girls across America were surfborting. It’s in that, that specific Blackness that responds “not a damn thing” when asked What’s Love Got To Do With It and embraces the “IDGAF, I’m still fabulous” bravado that Tina Turner needed to survive and reinvent herself after years of abuse and neglect. Black women have had to be their own Svengalis and there’s almost no better example of that than Tina Turner. For many Black women, they embraced that part of the storyline as a lifeline.

But all of that was lost on Kitty Pryde (now, just “Kitty”). In case you missed it, Kitty Pryde was the young rapper hired by Vice to live tweet her reactions to the Beyoncé album.

Wait she’s going IN right now. My Jay Z senses are tingling, I’m pretty sure he’s about to rap and I really hope it’s EXACTLY like his verse in Suit & Tie. Yes, it definitely is. Is this the same exact verse? I’m pretty sure it is. WAAAAAIT HE JUST SAID “I EAT THE CAKE, ANIME”. JAY Z JUST FUCKING USED THE WORD ‘ANIME’ AS A PUNCHLINE. THIS IS THE BEST SONG I’VE EVER HEARD. Am I supposed to be like explaining what these songs are like? I don’t know what kind of music this is.

The breakdown of white privilege soaking Kitty’s HTML has already been brilliantly and beautifully broken down by Alexander Hardy, so, no need to repave Appian Way. But this isn’t about berating or crucifying Kitty (Pryde?) because she’s That White Girl. Black Twitter already took it’s 10 lbs of flesh.

grape or cherry?

grape or cherry?

black twitter on kitty

Simple ass (1)

Kitty later apologized in a thoughtful and surprisingly self- aware Tumblr post. It’s well worth the read, though I doubt most of Black Twitter has read it. And it’s contains, definitely unwittingly, one of the best summaries as to why Twitter as a platform has found such a following within the digital Black community. Kitty’s manager, who also happens to be a Black man explain the vitriol as such:

 “…Black people are used to having to know the first and last names of the cast of Friends just to keep their jobs. the fact that you will never have to know about their culture and can easily make a joke about something that holds importance to them is offensive.” 

And now, the circle back. Twitter is the digital water cooler where a great many people who like Friends and even see themselves embodied and reflected in Friends come together to discuss, lament, complain and/or humble brag about the various degrees and layers of Friends-ness that their life contains. Friends is also super white. Not just in cast, but in cultural references, humor and fan base. Black America is well-versed in the standards and procedures of cultivating a double consciousness. Black Twitter is a natural product of and conduit for that code switching. The same trending topics and events flow through the timelines identically, but the conversations that follow are entirely different. It’s a way of being a part of the conversation and the literal facilitation of dialogue without having to prove that you know Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica and Phoebe’s character bibles. As the topics of water cooler conversation begin to change to reflect and incorporate more of America, it will be fascinating to watch how the Twitters tell those stories.

What We’re Missing About Crimea, Putin and The Russian Soul

The secret to good politics? Make a good treaty with Russia.” – Otto von Bismark

I think it’s safe to say that, at this point, Putin and his people don’t really have any additional fucks to give about what the West, or at least, what the United States, thinks about his occupation/annexation of Crimea or the prescribed sanctions.

fuck you, the horse your rode in on and the calvary behind you brah.

fuck bitches, get countries.

If Putin won’t speak candidly in such terms, at least we have the sentiments of those in his inner circle. Putin’s top aide, Vladislav Surkov scoffed, “I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It’s a big honor for me… The only thing [sic] that interest[s] me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur… I don’t need a visa to access [his] work. I lose nothing.” Some might say that his sentiments are exceedingly difficult to argue, but for the sake of this article, that’s neither here nor there.

But what is here and there is the point is that it’s not working – the attempts to shame Russia into doing the right thing and soft strong-arming. As the  first attempts to economically and diplomatically corner Russia roll out, could it be that the West, particularly America, is missing very crucial pieces of the Russian enigma by assuming that Russia’s on the same page about democracy, sovereign rights and a host of other moral and legal statures?  Did we in the West overestimate how much Putin thinks of the us and our opinions of him?  Does Putin even want acceptance and respect in tandem? This is an important distinction and though not mutually exclusive, things are different in Russia -Putin’s Russia, where scenes of heroism are staged B-movie versions of hunting bears, riding shirtless throughout Siberia on a horse  and Formula One racing. For Americans, it’s terribly bizarre and archaic; we haven’t seen that level of machismo and testosterone-laden vanity since Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider’d his way into the White House over 100 years ago.  Putin supporters see it differently. Evgeny Fadeev, writes on Quora, “He sets [a] good example about the importance of exercise for the people out there.” Perhaps Americans might be better to look at it as a Byzantine take on the White House’s Let’s Move campaign.

Perhaps there’s something about the Russian soul which has a high threshold for pain and embarrassment. The limits perplex and confound on an international level. Putin flying with cranes seems to not illicit much blushing. Yet, violating the territorial sovereignty of another nation and the reactions from the rest of the world has us all walking down the corridor of yet another Cold War. Though Putin has been ridiculed for years for his antiquated interpretation of masculinity and nationalism, it has for a great deal of Russians, evermore endeared him, the global peanut gallery be damned. In fact, Putin is enjoying a national approval rate of 75.4% – a 5 year high. And more than 90% of Russians approve of the Crimean invasion, feeling that it is a culturally, politically and ethnically a part of Rossiya. The annexation of Crimea, which has so often in Russian history been the canary in the cage for Russia’s political sense of self on the home front, has been called a “reclaiming” by many Russians and for many, stands as a sign that Russia’s dominance and might on the world stage are reemerging. “We have the revival of the national spirit now, and we began to relearn our own history,” answers Maxim Kurakulov to a question about Putin’s leadership. “I think very soon we will know that Stalin was unduly slandered…Putin has become a true national leader.”

Алты́нного во́ра ве́шают, а полти́нного че́ствуют.
(Little thieves are hanged, but great ones escape.)

Greatest Hits: Manifest Destiny and Mother Russia, Vol. !

The Greatest Hits: Manifest Destiny & Mother Russia, Vol. I

In a 2005 State of the Union Address, Putin called the break-up of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and has never been very shy about his intention to correct that deep source of shame within the Russian soul and psyche. In fact, Putin devoted a whole manifesto to it in 2012, detailing in not so un-certain terms just how he planned to address the unattached former Soviet states. It’s a fascinating read and rather candid insight into the mind and methodology of an aspiring founding father. Considering that the the real point and thesis of his argument is cleverly hidden in the fifth point, Putin maudlinly meanders through the touch points of Western social and national identity by paying lip service to the “stalling and smoking” stop-and-gos of the developed world to absorb their immigrants and minority citizens. It’s a noble quest, Putin posits, but has resulted in what he calls “the failure of the multicultural project” in which the “right of minorities to be different” has been recognized and considered to an extremely unhealthy level and the only thing that can save any nation – especially one composed of Asians, Eurasians, Tatars, Muslims and such –  is a cohesive national identity that is strong, central and on one monolithic accord. Let the Americans rearrange their identity with every immigrant wave, let them hang themselves with the ropes of ethnic discord and cultural ambiguity but Putin has a different destiny for his Russia – Putin’s Russia.

what’s different about this map?

“My …suggestion is to curb chaotic migration from  post-Soviet states by means of regional integration,” he quietly suggests.  Especially the regional integration of Russia’s “historical territories”, which is an all but explicit shout out to Georgia, Chechnya and of course, Crimea. “When we start talking about infringement of the rights of Russians in Russia, and especially on Russia’s historic territories, this indicates that the government structures are failing to perform their direct obligations – to protect the rights, life and safety of citizens,” Putin says, very deftly failing to clarify whose citizens he was referring to.  In other words, let’s reassemble the Soviet Union, bloc by block. Which is to say, Putin has been planning the annexation of Crimea for years and like any good dictator, he used Sochi the element of distraction to his advantage. It would make sense that Crimea is first check on the list. It is small, easily accessible and in the grand scheme of things of priorities, like fighting for Ukraine’s E.U. soul or Russian natural resources, the West will stomp off like someone stole their favorite bike. And Putin knows this. Putin knows that the West will meet him with the silent treatment, expulsion from their cool kids’s table and arguments about morality, but he and his Russia can live with that. Me Against The World, remember? In a Western world that has been overextended with wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and spiraling economies, Crimea is a bitter but small battle to swallow.

The future is assured. It’s the past that keeps changing.” – Russian proverb

But for Russia, this is war. The Crimean War 2.0 to be exact and what we’re forgetting in the West is just how much this means to Russia, for the West is forgetting how much Russians are defined by their history. If in America, we obsessively define ourselves by our future and promising selves, as befitting of the descendants of Europe’s displaced but hopeful second and third sons, Russia is just as characterized by  the ruin, glory and the gall of the Mongols, serfs and the czars. Moscow is how the world sees Russia; Crimea is how Russia sees Russia. Crimea is beyond mad important; it’s been the stage of countless pivotal moments in Russian and world history. Yalta. Russia’s link to antiquity. Khrushchev’s shame. Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The expulsion of the Tatars. The Cradle of Russian Christianity. Crimea has borne the brunt and shouldered some of Russia’s greatest triumphs and disasters and is part dacha and if not the heart of the Russian soul, a very strong candidate for the aorta.

If Putin manages to annex Crimea and the southeast of Ukraine peacefully I personally forgive him [for] everything: wild corruption, the lawlessness of officials, lack of any prospects in the economy, disorder in education and journalism and even the common stupefaction of the people….”- Facebook page of Artem Nekrasov, Moscow yuppie

The Crimean War of 1854 showed Russia – and the world – that for all of Russia’s Francophila and czarist decadence, she was painfully backwards and not au currant with the rest of the Western world that, at the time, it desperately wanted to belong to. Mark Twain, fresh from one of his tours of Russia wrote in 1872’s Flies and Russians: “We have the flies and the Russians, we cannot help it, let us not bemoan about it, but manfully accept the dispensation and do the best we can with it.” Russia, until Stalin, was little more than the drunk uncle, who so long as he didn’t fight anyone at the dinner table, was allowed to ruin himself into oblivion in the outhouse. The Crimean War was a defeat that set the stage for Russia’s resigned role on the world stage and in Rocky movies – the “Godless” country that fit neither in the West nor the Far East, a country of astounding beauty and profound ruthlessness. The psychological scars of the sidelines, Russia has never been able to forget, or more correctly, allowed to move on, depending on which end of the index finger you’re standing.

And, if history gives a context for the self -sacrifice and poetic brutality of Siberian winters, the crippling legacy of serfdom, centuries of Mongol rule and excessive Francophilia, then one might say history gives meaning to the Russian Soul.  And in the same flippancy that Americans categorically refused to be shamed by the history and legacy of our own peculiar institution, we forget or are blissfully unaware of how humiliating the defeat of the last Crimean war was for Russia, who has never been allowed to forget. Perhaps this is why the Crimean Situation of 2014 is so crucial. Russia’s tired of the humiliations, the disdain and disregard and like Freddo in The Godfather, wants some respect goddamn it – and will do just about anything to get it too. Even remind you that she can kill you.

To many Russians, the annexation of Crimea can be seen as the beginning of a return to Russia’s rightful role as a superpower. To the rest of the watching world, it’s another disturbing anschluss that has the world watching and asking – will Russia try to invade Ukraine too? The popularity of Artem Nekrasov’s Facebook post certainly seems it would have overwhelming support in Russia. The the embolden disrespect of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty has more than shades of 1938 than what anyone would like to revisit. Like the citizens of Hitler’s Germany, the illegal annexation of Austria enjoyed an insanely high approval rating  – both the Russians and the Germans approved of their respectively added territories by over 95%. Professional, academic and arm-chair historians alike have noted it was almost 76 years to the day of Crimea’s annexation to Russia that Hitler annexed Austria. Germany too was stumbling along the Walk of Shame of humiliating defeats and a weakened economy until a deeply charismatic leader from humble origins came to tie it all together. Time will reveal if that history will repeat itself or sing a new chorus, though it seems to have discovered the art of the remix.