hidden fences and tripped syllables

Awards season is here–whether you foam at the mouth at the mention of “Oscar” or start to yawn instead. Regardless, now is the time when critics and audiences sum up the highlights of the cinematic year. We start hearing more and more about “Oscar bait,” a reference to the period films and historical biopics and somber dramas that usually garner the acclaim of the Academy. This is when we reap the so-called best of the harvest–the films that enter the pantheon of essential films introduced to later generations. For Americans, these films are meant to reflect the peaks of our cultural and creative endeavor.

So I was irked when a reporter interviewed Pharrell Williams at the Golden Globes for his work on “Hidden Fences.” The ire flared again when Michael Keaton later announced Octavia Spencer (a notable black actress) for her nomination in…again “Hidden Fences.” There is no “Hidden Fences.” There is the movie Hidden Figures and the movie Fences, both of which:

a) came out recently

b) contain predominantly black casts

c) have received much praise from audiences and critics alike

But it’s a simple flub right? Shouldn’t I let it go and simply move on–after all, people make mistakes when on-air all the time. However, to simply dismiss it would be to forget #OscarsSoWhite. Last year’s awards season controversy centered on the startling dearth of people of color featured in film and critical attention…at least startling to many white Americans. When the gap finally become too wide to miss, suddenly you saw this outpouring of indignant articles and tweets confronting the Academy.

Black Twitter and other spaces where POC congregate have been tackling this subject for years.

I find myself less trusting of mainstream awards shows when it comes to representation of minority groups–and for good reason. When an actor or actress of color becomes a media darling, the result can be a double-edged sword: while their performance or film receives deserved recognition, the awareness of their race also heightens with it, and it can lead to some painful “flubs.” I still remember how people cooed over child actress Quvenzhané Wallis a few years ago for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and yet few took the time to pronounce her name correctly. Her otherness took form in the syllables of her name, which became unwieldy steps tripped over by white announcers and reporters and late-night hosts.

She was not the only person of color to have her non-whiteness pointed at by Hollywood, and she was not the last. White Americans do not have a great track record when it comes to celebrating people of color in cinema. The African-American blog MadameNoire has a great tongue-in-cheek article that highlights just how many black celebrities have been mistaken for each other over the years. The gaffes turn into a joke on SNL and then the public moves on–but we haven’t moved forward. That two major films like Hidden Figures and Fences can be confused for each other when this doesn’t happen to the La La Lands and Allieds underlines the need for more media spaces opened to people of color. It also underlines just how desperately America needs re-education on how white privilege functions both on the screen and off.

If two black films getting popular is such an anomaly that they can be treated as interchangeable, even though they focus on different subject matter, how indistinguishable are black people in everyday life?

I’m not talking about friends and neighbors–I’m talking about what happens when the rich diversity of darker-skinned peoples becomes subsumed into Black (for more on the history of racial labeling, check out The History of White People). There is so much awkwardness and tension surrounding the use of the labels “White” or “white people,” and weirdly enough, a nonwhite person could be written off as a “reverse racist” for using them. No one bats an eye when you start talking about black people. The facile use of “Black” implies that those connected to that category as normalized as part of a collective while “White” is associated with the individual. Black can be collectivized, blended and stereotyped on that level while White has the option of remaining safely unique and independent (no, those jokes about “white people can’t dance” are not equivalent in this conversation). White people don’t actually have to be white or a people, but black people will still ping on the radar in relation to their racial group first.

This isn’t even a phenomenon exclusive to black people–I’ve observed many times when a Korean and Chinese person are confused for one another, when blanket statements about “those Hispanics” pop up in conversation, when a Indian friend is asked if their “English name” can be used instead because their actual name twists the tongue. It stings. Not only are people of color defined first by a group status, reducing our singularities, our identity is implied as “forever foreign” (as Mia Tuan points out in her book Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian Ethnic Experience Todayor, simply, alternative to the norm–not white. When you are not the implicit norm, less time and space is allocated by the mainstream to examine those nuances that craft the complexity of your personhood.

Lack of exposure to diversity and a lack of effort to make those differences matter in personal practice cultivates this kind of latent indifference that slips into daily interactions. It may not be intentional, but it casts people of color in the role of the perpetual Other, and the reality is reinforced when our varied cultural ways of being, even down to the way we worship, can be construed as a deviation from standard–or worse, superfluous enough that it’s optional to learn our histories. That is why I took African-American Literature only as an elective in college–because we didn’t read black stories in the required core English classes. That is what it looks like to be on the margins: even your stories aren’t easily accessible.

In his speech on racial separatism, Malcolm X critiqued some contingents within the Civil Rights movement for over-emphasizing assimilation into American society as the ultimate goal of the movement. He stressed that the push for integration had not benefited black people–it just gave a new shape to their marginalization. He pointed to the white flight that occurred after neighborhoods were integrated, the economic disparities black people faced even as the color line by law appeared to dissolve. His words challenged listeners to think critically about whether assimilation signified true equality or a buttressing of whiteness as the ultimate aspiration for all Americans. I wonder if he feared what would be lost if black people were assimilated but not embraced on their own terms.

While I disagree with his conclusion that racial separation is the answer, I resonate with his frustration. Sometimes it feels like for all the self-congratulating speeches our nation gives itself on our progress, the otherness of our communities has been sharpened in the process. For instance, Black and Asian and Latinx persons shouldn’t be treated as exceptional only when they represent the exception for “their people,” framed in a triumphalist narrative that is palatable enough to be celebrated. When that happens, they are still being defined by their otherness and how well they negotiate it in white-dominated spheres of influence like Hollywood.

We shouldn’t need to be reframed or renamed to be welcomed as equals. We are allowed to be individuals, God-created persons who embody a mosaic of taste and talent and experience. And yet we should also avoid diluting our ethnic differences away to replace them with an antiseptic type of colorblindness that misses the richness of our individual and collective histories and cultures. There is a way to honor that variety without crystallizing it as atypical. Unity emerges from differences valued rather than tolerated.

We celebrate MLK’s birthday today, and it’s vital that we don’t romanticize the man and the injustices he noticed and challenged during his lifetime. MLK was a controversial figure who didn’t just speak of dreams–he spoke about the alienation of black people in a society not designed for our flourishing. He was the man who preached:

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

MLK framed inequality as not only the result of these silences, but also as a reflection of our estrangement as a greater American community. We are still not one people when some members are accepted as American without a second thought while others clamber over the -dash.

When even the names of people of color cannot be pronounced correctly, the American story contracts a little more, and the walls press against the backs of those who rarely enter the center of the action. We (people of color) are here. Our stories already indent this land. So maybe it is not the belonging associated with assimilation that we seek. I don’t want to be melted away into a pot of progress, my blackness, my Latinxness ceasing to matter. Neither do I want that diversity casually stumbled over, glanced at, treated as alternative and alien instead of beautiful and right and utterly normal.

Maybe we simply want the freedom of visibility, to be acknowledged, not as beacons of racial progress to indulge or emblems of the exotic and unpronounceable to tease, but as equals. What is hidden and held back can be hurt; when those hidden step into the light, they are human, bodied, and lovable. MLK was one such person who mirrored Christ in the way his actions clothed once-invisible bodies so they would no longer be ignored or diminished. He helped dignify marginalized peoples and champion the worth already inherent in their creation. So now when our names are spoken, when our stories are shared, when we join with our brothers and sisters of all colors and take up more space in the fabric of America, we honor that legacy and carry it forward.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

letter to my own

Dear Black and Latinx family,

I write this for you because I rarely do. This reality sunk in a few months ago during lunch with a former supervisor. We were discussing Tal Nehisi-Coates’ Between the World and Me, pointing out how striking and vital it was that he so unapolegetically directs his thoughts to black people. In contrast, I realized that much of what I write has another audience waiting beyond the curtain. My subconscious has been molded by expectation and pressure to write for this audience, to teach and challenge, to elucidate and defend, to appease. Yes, appease because I fear being barred from the parties of discourse where I am viewed as exceptional–not one of “Those People.” The unfettered desire races around the mind room where I hide it: I want to belong there–fully.

In the white-hot, hard-knuckled moments, I intentionally write for this audience. In the chilled and tremoring, anxious moments, I unintentionally write for them. Only later does it hit me that I can hardly comprehend doing otherwise.

I have been taught and encouraged to write for White People. The sources are many, the voices subtle, but there it is. The responsibility of educating them into race, crossing color borders and building equitable communities burdens me, some of it helpful and good, much of it unbalanced and overwhelming. So much thought is consumed in anticipating their reactions and screening any idea that resembles a spark. Calm, measured, all the while I grit my teeth and worry. What if I burn bridges? What if I become one? The self-consciousness is deafening. In the ether, I sense only the strains of righteous rage and fathomless grief entombed in my stomach, the words I catch through a net of teeth before they can be uttered.

When the reality of all of this manifests itself in vivid high definition, I breathe out, wet, ragged, and I know then I am compensating for years of unacknowledged constraint. The knowing of it hurts, knowing that the message you have internalized from the world around you is that you must monitor your speech and behavior in ways that your white friends don’t have to. Whether it’s logical or not, right or not, I feel like I have to be careful about how often and how candidly I talk about race with white people because I don’t want to hurt their feelings. When I say “race,” I imagine thought bubbles blooming above their heads with “i’m not racist” or then “how do I prove i’m not racist,” and the pangs of sympathy prevent my progress into further conversation–even when it’s needed. My words are filtered to accommodate to their comfort.

It’s not only in talking about race where I run into walls. I’m conscious of my Otherness in too many spaces that I enter, fixated on how my opinions and ideas will be absorbed, how many people I see in the virtual and real-world landscape who look like me, how people talk about the communities I identify with. I think about whether I should step in to defend them from hasty or ignorant remarks; the words burn but don’t leave my lips.

I wrestle most with the questions of boundaries. What is the difference between honesty and antagonism, especially when it comes to sharing struggles as someone with marginalized identities? What is the difference between grace and accommodation when you are usually the person doing the accommodating? When am I allowed the privilege of vulnerability so I can simply tell you that I am wrapped up in this anxiety of what White People think of me, and I fear their rejection. When am I allowed to say that, for once, I want to wade in my penned pool of raw emotions and unlock the gates? Then I can be allowed to cry out that it’s hard being a Christian and a woman of color when too many books and conferences and sermons prescribe the gentling and swaddling of my anger when racism is bloody and wretched and real, and I want its strongholds wrecked apart wherever I see them, even if others can’t.

I am wearied by the knowledge that I am freed by Christ yet still restrained from fully participating in and inhabiting the world He redeems daily. The gaps present feel like canyons, yet I hesitate in asking for more, for something else that can belong to me.

There are few things created for us. Movies and television are branded for us when we become a desirable target audience–grouped as Black (just like we’re grouped as “the Black vote” and “the Latino vote.”). When Brown floods a screen, complaints about political correctness draw it back. We are always political, even by just loosening breath to say we matter.

There are few things allocated for us. Classes on race in universities are oriented to help white people understand it. Students of color endure the reiteration of what our world has denied them with little effort to support their presence in the room. Even conferences on racial division all too often contain a token minority speaker (2 if it’s especially progressive) directing their challenges to white people. The way we experience racial division and the efforts to address it are different, but where are the resources to guide us if we want to be part of the reconciling embrace? Where is our toolbox when the nails holding us together run out?

There are few things given to us. We are expected to work hard like other Americans, though no number is given to how many generations we must toil before we too have the accumulated wealth to make such demands. We must create our own Barbies with curly hair, our own movies to achieve complexity in our stories, our own TV channels because we don’t belong to the mainstream (the hyphen is too wide a divide), our own award ceremonies and scholarships because who else is willing to sacrifice more to dignify us?

I grew up with this scarcity I did not fully understand. I didn’t understand why I reveled in seeing Susie Carmichael and Lando Calrissian or the Jamaican sprinters each Summer Olympics. I read Kindred and poetry by Maya Angelou and Tia Lola Comes to Stay, and through that my peoples had stories that filled in the lines and extended beyond. At one point in elementary school, I could count my friends of color with one hand, but Sister, Sister offered another reality I could settle into, one where Black was normal and beautiful and fun.

Coates’ work, Julia Alvarez’ work, Lemonade even, reminded me of the necessity of art, work, ideas, and space crafted for Black and Latinx communities. They should not stand as the only opportunities for people of color (especially black and brown women) to recieve encouragement and comfort through vessels constructed for their use. We need more.

I write many blog posts, poems, essays for White People, and I’m making peace with those works and their purpose. They have a place in the movement towards mutual understanding and reconciliation, especially within the Church. But that cannot be the axis of my artistic livelihood, nor the threshold I reach for.

I want to write for YOU, to lift you up and remind you of how precious you are. I don’t have the same struggles as all of you, but I respect your shouting and shade. I honor your tears when no one will. I give space on the shelf of my consciousness for your beauty and resilience and vulnerability.

Forgive me for relegating you to the leftovers of my thought and action. I get tired and stretched, and when I see more racism and estrangement, all I want to do is end it, and writing to White People sometimes feels like the only way. But there you are, hurting, fighting, learning, loving, and pushing for the miraculous. You are marvelous in that way. Thank you for your fortitude. Thank you for welcoming me when I feel like I don’t belong.Thank you for your bravery in writing the books and making the movies and composing the music that have re-conditioned me to love the differences the world has designated “minority.”

This is for you, with much more to come.

Love,

Joanna

the flesh to my bones

I’m tired of seeing the suffering black body.

The TV screen blinks off, taking with it the image of yet another poor African child staring at me with wide, hollowed eyes. The melancholic instrumental in the background fades, and I am left counting how many infomercials, news stories, and movie trailers I’d seen that week featuring black people in pain. I lose count and give up.

Growing up, I perked up whenever I saw a black or brown person on my screen. With hungry eyes, I tracked their presence, noting their gestures and shifts in expression like a good budding media critic (I used to read movie reviews for fun). I internally harvested each word from their lips and reaped a satisfied feeling of affirmation with each full line. My carefully maintained stores held the Lando Calrissians, the Storms, the Ravens and Tia and Tamera Mowrys on Disney Channel, the Keesha Franklins and Susie Carmichaels on Saturday morning cartoons, and every Will Smith character of the late 90s and early 2000s.

From a young age, I taught myself to find those who looked like me because, for some reason I didn’t understand, we were missing. I saw my Caribbean family, and the black and brown people at my church, and the residents of my abuela’s South Bronx neighborhood….and I saw that all these people were missing from my screen. The movies reigning at the box office and the TV shows garnering acclaim felt empty of their particular wit and wisdom. Later I would question why each major comedy or drama seemed to adhere to an invisible quota of one person of color per ensemble (two if they were especially progressive). When I was eight, I just saw the empty spaces and wondered.

The years have brought change, no doubt about that. When we have shows like black-ish and Empire and How to Get Away With Murder that have become must-see TV and rising stars like the remarkable Lupita Nyong’o and John Boyega and Michael B. Jordan, it’s easy to believe the leaps in representation and celebrate that. Independent producers such as Netflix and Hulu now produce their own content with increasingly diverse casts, extricated from the expectations of cable networks, and there is a new generation of social media-savvy youth keeping media producers accountable by pointing out problematic racial tropes and portrayals. The soil for equity is richer for these changes.

Outwardly, the conventional skin of our screens has darkened. However, beneath it perpetuate other disturbing trends and deeper gaps lying unacknowledged. While there have been increases in the number of characters of color in media, according to a 2015 UCLA diversity report:

73.1% of the actors in the 100 top-grossing films of 2014 were white

Film studio heads were 94% white and 100% male in 2013

Television studio heads were 86% white and 55% male in 2013

Minority film writers were underrepresented by 3 to 1 in 2013

More than half (51%) of moviegoers were minorities in 2013

2016 has seen only incremental changes. With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that brewed this year, highlighting the industry-wide racial disparities in media, and more articles pointing out the high volume of minority ticket-buyers as well as the predominantly white nature of film and TV agencies, “diversity” in media is once more a hot topic. When minorities comprise roughly 40% of the U.S. population, with numbers steadily increasingly, these statistics point to a stagnation at odds with the demographic trends of the country. Where you are seeing minorities, particularly black peoples: “ethnic-targeted” films produced by directors of color, independent films, and sitcoms. Where you see black people recognized in mainstream spaces: when they are suffering.

Out of the 88 years of its existence, the Academy Awards has awarded 14 black men and women for their film roles. That number rises to 32 when you include awards for producing, best picture, writing, music, and sound mixing (the latter two of which actually represent 37% of the awards). 95% of nominations up to this point have gone to white actors and actresses. Black individuals were nominated for roles spanning from historical figures such as Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, musicians (Dreamgirls and Ray), soldiers (Glory), and slaves or servants (Gone With the Wind, The Help, 12 Years a Slave). More disheartening was the overwhelming number of nominations given for roles that fit into what has become an all-too-familiar narrative of black people fighting against adversity or mired in destitute and violent situations (Hotel Rwanda, Monster’s Ball, Precious, The Color Purple, Captain Philips, Blood Diamond).

These performances deserve praise. The men and women populating them are exceptional. What bothers me is that stories with black people in them receive praise often within the particular bounds of a narrative of suffering. Our streets are presented as crumbling, our children as sullen and silent, our women as beleaguered and broken. We are framed amidst a context of waning, either necessitating a coded white savior or some other inspirational means of fighting the Villainous Ensemble of Slavery, Racism, Poverty, and Prejudice, often represented by white characters meant to be the blatantly immoral antagonists (only mean people are racist after all). We are the ones positioned as lower from the outset, requiring deliverance and the audience’s tears.

In many ways, this reflects a reality where black Americans are still underrepresented among professionals and over-represented among the incarcerated. Racism and the pervasive impact of past imperialism and current corporate exploitation continue to foment poverty and division on a global scale. We are still positioned as lower, and the media we watch reminds us of that everyday.

I hesitantly scroll past the slavery documentaries on Netflix and leave a powerful performance of the play Eclipsed with a heart anchored in grief and guilt. I know these stories matter, that people are suffering, and I must wake up daily to that reality…but I am also in a thwarted position as a black American. My American privilege may protect me from the unrestricted rape and grisly warfare of other places, but my black marginalization carves paths that signify fewer opportunities for me-despite my status as a college-educated woman-and it reminds me that I am susceptible to racial violence and discrimination. My body in the the land of the free awakens in confinement. 

I am weary of these realities being outlined as the crux of my story and the stories of black people. I read about them and write about them and learn more about them because there are lives at stake besides my own, but that is a hovering cognizance that will not leave me. I don’t need Academy Awards to remind me that racism is evil, and my veins contain more than just the assurance of marginalization. I thrift shop at Goodwill, spin poetry while bouncing to Motown tunes in Central Park, screw up a final paper in procrastinated glory, sway to bachata on crowded streets, binge on Netflix, memorize Star Wars facts and elven genealogies, rant for hours with friends about singleness, pinch my extending curves with sighs, practice curly hair conditioning after consulting YouTube, blubber when I watch The Sound of Music.

The vibrancy of these details, these nuances, collected in a life not solely defined by a trampled experience needs to be inhaled to refresh our visions of black people of all socioeconomic classes and countries and colors. These details transform a stereotype into a breathing person with a distinct story. They offer the complexity of being thoroughly seen rather than pitied. They give flesh to the bones of our tropesWhy doesn’t mainstream media allow black people to be organic beings rather than skeletal frames. Our scripts run with suffering or slapstick, sorrow or sass. 

As British blogger Nikesh Shukla puts it: “I realized that white people think that people of color only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences.” His declaration suggests that people of color are asked to resonate with white superhero gangs like the Avengers, with freedom-fighter Katniss, with the countless interchangeable leads in Nicholas Sparks love stories, but when stories of people of color emerge, they are relegated to the niche market. Our superheroes and freedom-fighters and romantics are apparently not relatable. Our stories are drenched in our otherness and therefore reserved only for people who inhabit our skins.

While there should always be a space for media oriented towards people of color, that is not mutually exclusive from white people taking the time to seek out, watch, and affirm black people in media. Just because it’s a story I can relate to better as a black woman doesn’t excuse a white media consumer to avoid films that feature predominantly black casts, dismissing them as “black films” and thus unnecessary to include in their personal canon. Though our specific experiences of race and color inevitably shape us, we are not built of archetypes like LEGO blocks. We are human and resonant yet unique and diverse in our laughter and weeping–and we should all be seen. I’m thankful for the good black films nourished in the niche market, for the black writers and producers fighting to bring our stories to the screen. But we shouldn’t settle for nesting in the niche; we should take wing to the heights.

The state of blackness in media represents a stringent tension because I need to know of black suffering, especially the types I have never experienced. I need media like Eclipsed to remind me of what goes on outside of my neighborhood, and my heart needs to be broken over what God already grieves for. I may be tired of the suffering black body, but I can never afford to avoid suffering black people, not because “they’re my age” or any resonating feature that brings them close to my experience, but simply because they are human beings that demand my acknowledgment and merit dignity in accordance to the ways their Creator formed them.

At the same time, we can acknowledge black suffering without romanticizing it or conferring it as the only definition of black life. Black stories transcend the impetus to white guilt and the assumption of progessivism. We can put my father on the screen. My friends. My church members. My co-workers. Not to be mocked, not to be side-kicks or servants, but to display the complicated, detailed brilliance of themselves. To afford the privilege of being realized as dimensional beings with mistakes, wounds, quirks, and little triumphs rather than quotas to fill or tokens to appease audiences of color.

I need to see what wanes, but when I wax like the moon and cradle shadows in my craters, I want you to see all of it.