Invisible Men of Color at Obama’s Chicago Speech

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

President Obama just gave a really bland, boring speech in Chicago which some optimistic folks among us thought might directly address the problem of inner-city gun violence, in the wake of shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton. It quickly became clear, however, that Obama was in stump mode–this speech was almost identical to his State of the Union address, except this time he didn’t smile, and I assume the audience was more diverse than that of our assembled legislators.

I had already been interested in the gender politics of Obama’s (and our whole country’s) response to the death of female non-gang member Hadiya Pendleton. We are outraged over Hadiya; we are outraged over Sandy Hook; but we still aren’t outraged over the thousands of young men killed by gang violence each year. We don’t seem able to take responsibility for young men in gangs, wielding weapons, being killed, as also our children, as also a tragedy, as also victims, victims of larger structural problems perhaps, but deserving of political sight nonetheless. Our compassion stops there. So I was surprised-not-surprised to see Obama standing in front of an array of only female high school students. I didn’t think he was speaking at an all-female school.

Of course, the speech contained ample messages about “encouraging fatherhood,” which if this was at the RNC convention we’d call a “dog whistle,” and plenty took to Twitter to bemoan Obama’s selective amnesia about mass incarceration. Then, this amazing moment happened where Obama hollered at some young men in the audience he’d spoken to–he asks them to stand so that “we can all see them.” The President looks off-stage, tensely, as though trying to mind-jedi communicate he wants them to be on TV. But the cameras stay on him. We don’t see them. Obama says “these guys are no different from me,” only he had a stronger safety net–but what these young men look like, whether they look like Obama or not, I don’t know. We don’t see them.

Only then, at the end of his speech, as Obama physically moves to reach out to the young men in the audience, do I realize there is a tall African-American teenage boy standing directly behind the President, surrounded by about a dozen girls. You can see him in the screenshot above. Could he tell the President was directly between himself and the camera? Did he wonder why he was surrounded by a moat of females? I sure did. This image speaks to the huge oversights in Obama’s speech. Even when President Obama tried to be compassionate and inclusive toward young men of color, they were still off screen, hidden from our sight just as they will be when they are incarcerated, or disenfranchised, or criminalized.

In his last few huge speeches – DNC, SOTU — Obama has begun crafting a theoretical framework around the value of citizenship, a vision that values participatory democracy through individual works and cooperation. Mr. President, are these young men not also citizens? Are drug users citizens? Is Anwar Al-Awlaki’s son? While I appreciate your vision of citizenship, as progressives it is our duty to expand the polity and the ranks of the enfranchised. Keeping young men of color off our TV screens isn’t the right way to start.

 

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Our S&M Relationship With Rihanna

at last night's Grammys, via popsugar.com

at last night’s Grammys, via popsugar.com

I was so surprised, last December, to read Sasha Frere-Jones’s scathing dismissal of Rihanna’s singing voice. “Rihanna’s voice isn’t big or compelling,” he wrote, “and it works mostly by sounding relaxed and drooping, with a hint of a West Indian accent, a descending twang that sounds a bit like moaning. Her voice has a distancing effect, and it conveys not emotion but, rather, a position of powerful detachment.”

To my ears, Rihanna’s voice is leaded with emotion. When she’s lazy, her stillness reads boredom, but when she’s working, and she was at the Grammy’s last night, all I hear is pain, her voice big and moving but its brilliance dulled by hurt, as though she can’t breathe deep enough or smile wide enough to let her vocals glimmer. She sounds contained, clipped.

Like millions of Americans, I find Rihanna incredibly compelling. In her performance of “Stay,” at the Grammy’s last night, she sings like a woman who means it: she really does want him to stay. We know who she means: Chris Brown. The Grammys producers help us out in this interpretation by cutting to him, clench-jawed in the audience,  whenever Ri performs.

Anne Helen Petersen explains that “[a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen…with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip)…. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.” Petersen offers examples like Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts to illuminate the creation of a star. Rihanna is a severe contrast to those to fun, wholesome white women, because Rihanna is creating an image of herself as a domestic abuse victim. This has been reinscribed most recently by “Stay,” but also very explicitly in her guest vocals on Emimen’s “Love the Way You Lie” and Drake’s “Take Care.” Suddenly, what Frere-Jones sees as “detached” suddenly reads “disassociated.”

The chorus of “Stay” tells of ambivalence trumped by physical desire.

Not really sure how to feel about it

Something in the way you move

Makes me feel like I can’t live without you

It takes me all the way

I want you to stay.

As on Eminem’s track, Rihanna is performing the role of a woman stuck in acycle of a violent love. These lines are all about physicality trumping, and ultimately melding with, emotional truth. A man who can “take me all the way” colors what she wants, not needs: “I want you to stay,” whether or not that’s good for her. “Stay” doesn’t have to allude to violence for us to fill in the blanks. A quick mention of “dare” and “around we go” and we know this is about her addiction to Chris. She loves him even though he’s bad for her.

On “Take Care,” Drake promises to “take care” of a girl with some baggage. No one mentions domestic abuse, but again, we read it in. Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” is more explicit, with talk of burning and hurting. Again and again, Rihanna reifies our image of her as a woman pulled into abusive relationships, needing to be saved. And we keep watching, because the Rihanna in pain is increasingly the Rihanna we know and love.

In her performance of “Stay” on SNL, emotions move across Rihanna’s mannequin face in suggestions: the suggestion of fear, of anger, of lust. Her vowels are closed off and her lips are full and red. As a viewer invested in Rihanna’s image, I get the sense that summoning this genuine pain from inside herself, which I do hear playing across the timber of her voice, takes whatever energy another performer might devote to reaching the audience. But instead of complaining that she doesn’t dance enough, we should shut up and feel lucky to get to watch this sexy, masochistic performance. We’re perverts, voyeurs, watching this beautiful woman squirm.

By comparison, Rihanna’s Grammys performance last night was more emotional. She seemed to have a hard time looking at the audience, where Chris Brown sat waiting to be shown on camera. When she sang, “All along it was a fever,” she looked sick, in pain, and we knew it was for him.  “I put my hands in the air, and said, ‘Show me something.'” This is a woman dying for the thrill of experience, and we’re living vicariously, buying into every flinch.  We want her to want it. We want her to fall. We are the sadists to Rihanna’s masochist. When she mimes her lover’s words, scrunching her perfect nose in pain, “If you dare, come a little closer,” she could be speaking to us.

Someone behind Rihanna, maybe herself, is very smart, and very sick. Who keeps picking these autobiographical songs for her to sing? Who keeps her recording with and appearing with Chris Brown? Is this really love, or a brilliant publicist who understands how stars work, and that as consumers of Rihanna we want to see her struggle and lose?

At the end of his article, Frere-Jones wonders whether “appreciating Rihanna’s work may demand that we accept the idea that her disregard of herself is a source of freedom, or of power.” Frere-Jones’s “power,” I think, refers to some kind of feminine self-assurance, that is, empowerment. He is wondering whether Rihanna’s blasé, as a kind of self-expression of her own boredom, represents empowerment in the same way that Beyonce’s self-objectification as Stripper Queen of the Superbowl does. I don’t know whether Rihanna’s ennui means she’s empowered to not give a shit or whether, as her handlers might have us believe, she’s seriously hurting. But her inaccesibility is certainly central to her star power, because her stillness leaves blanks we color in with pain. Someone is inventing Rihanna as a tragic woman, the kind of sad sex kitten Marilyn Monroe turned into when the light was wrong. Rihanna’s songs are for us, and about us, about this fucked up relationship we’ve found ourselves in with her. “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn?” she asks us, then answers herself, “That’s all right, because I like the way it hurts.” Rihanna’s not the only one who loves her pain: we do, too. We’re watching every moan. Rihanna wants us to stay, and we will.

Review of a Review: An Opportunistic, Back-Door Entrance to a Subject I’ve Been Avoiding (That Is, Black-Jewish Relations)

freedom seder

via emory.edu

Cord Jefferson begins his Bookforum review of Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr.’s new book on the Black Panthers, Black Against Empire, with a seemingly off-topic invocation of American Jewry. “For years it’s been said in circles both polite and impolite,” Jefferson begins the piece, “and in ways both delicate and indelicate, that America’s blacks should learn to live more like America’s Jews.” Three paragraphs later, this observation’s relation to the Black Panthers, and to Bloom and Martin’s new book, finally becomes clear. “The book reminds us of how close we came to a world in which America’s blacks were, in fact, acting like the Jews. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Panthers tried very hard to build a nation in which black people were sectarian, autonomous, and prosperous in much the same way Jewish communities throughout the United States had been for decades. And for their efforts, the Panthers were sabotaged, prosecuted, and murdered.”

Now, I just sat down to eat a bagel and read my new Bookforum, and then I read this piece, and then I ran up here to write to you. For some time now I’ve been avoiding opening this very door, this door onto the world of comparative history and literature and cultural studies between Black and Jewish culture. I went to see Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary on the drug war, The House I Live In, and was surprised and excited to see it begin with Jarecki’s personal reflection’s on his family’s escape from the Holocaust. But then the movie was disappointing, so I didn’t write about it, and I didn’t do then what I’m going to do now, which is slide my own self into the frame and explain that my identity as a Jewish woman has so much to do with what I’m doing here, in this world of African-American Studies.

And then last week I bought Emily Raboteau’s book Searching for Zion, which I believe compares the African and Jewish diaspora experiences, through travels to Israel, Africa, the Carribbean, the Deep South. But I’m not sure, because I haven’t read it yet, though I wondered if, when I read it, I would feel compelled to tell you some true things about my identity.

You see, approaching this subject is hard for me because I’m in it. On this blog I have been honest and transparent insofar as I am a woman or a rap fan or a teacher or a writer but I have never really come out as a Jew. If you know me you already know, and if you don’t it hasn’t mattered. I could write with some privacy about Cornel West and James Baldwin and Philip Roth and Exodus and slavery and diaspora and freedom and stay as impartial as a squirrel in a distant tree but I’m not, I’m right here, and I’m Jewish.

Yesterday I read this piece on Tablet about the inscription on Ed Koch’s gravestone of slain journalist Daniel Pearl’s last words: “My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am Jewish.” A perfectly fine declaration of Jewish identity which I also could make. And then Koch’s headstone attributes these words thus: “(Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.)”

How disgusting.

For all those concerned with the whitewashing of Ed Koch’s obituaries regarding his soiled reputations on AIDS and race relations in New York, don’t worry: of his own volition he has immortalized his intolerance on his own tombstone. “Muslim terrorist.” As though one thing had anything to do with another. As though Judaism is still defined by its existential threat, by the history of axes hanging over our scrawny, pious necks. As though being a Jew is permission to do that thing which has been done to us for millenia, that thing which had the Roman geto created for us, that is: to profile.

time blacks v jews

1969 cover via Time.com

Unlike the late Mr. Koch, I prefer to define my culture in positive terms, as a collection of books, stories, people, places, beautiful objects, historical documents, songs, melodies, language. I am not afraid to quarrel with another Jew’s picture of Judaism because argument and interpretation are part and parcel of my proud tradition. You see, I am one of those Jews: the social-justice oriented, ecumenical, liberal, egalitarian, concerned with the human rights of Palestinians and the freedom and dignity of all Americans of all colors and creeds, the progressive, the pro-birth control and anti-war, the pro-honest criticism of Israel, the anti-AIPAC, the anti-checkpoints, the anti-hate Jews. There is too much irony to cover. There is Lupe Fiasco and Jesse Jackson and Coleman Silk. There’s Israel’s Black Panther Party and the schisming of Black-Jewish solidarity and stories of slavery and freedom and community and song. To do so I will need to be present and honest and proud.

Cord Jefferson writes about the Black Panthers by pointing out to us that they tried to act like Jews. They tried to keep the money in the tribe. They started charities and schools and institutions dedicated to uplifting the members of their community.  The problem was, the Black Panthers didn’t look like Jews, because Jews look like white people. Despite  not celebrating Christmas or believing in Jesus or having any heritage from Germany or England or Sweden or France, despite my connection to a broad diaspora of Jews who speak all the world’s languages and are themselves the world’s colors and shapes, despite feeling in my heart that I am not white the way white people are white, when I walk out of my house in America every morning, I am white. (Maybe not fifty or a hundred years ago, but today, yes.) And so the J. Edgar Hoovers of the world do not see me as a threat.

There is so much to say. I won’t rush. Think of this as me opening a door, to let the breeze in. Passover is coming next month, the most important holiday for a social-justice Judaism, the holiday in which we tell the story of our exodus from Egypt, that story which is not ours alone. In the ritual of the Seder, the Passover meal, we build Jewish theology and practice out of a simple fact: we were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us. Is that cause to rest on our laurels or extend the same hand to others?

I won’t answer. I’ll just make my new category and post this thing. Thanks for listening – and don’t worry, my next post is on Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar. -T