1. Film: Ruby Dee vs. Kerry Washington
Examining our history in the black literary arts and looking at where we are today versus fifty years ago is rather interesting. I was born in 1976 – thinking about that era when blackness was revered, Marvin Gaye penned a track entitled: What’s Going On. As an African American writer and art librarian, having been exposed to African American history and the African Diaspora through reading and traveling within the states and abroad, I find that each generation is to blame for the demise of its culture. Malcolm X proclaimed, “A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.” Generation X has taken on the role of pop-culture prostitutes in America – pimping out invisible post- blackness in a society that is consumed by self-indulgence, money, and fame. Looking at film, literature, journalism and the plight of black culture, I too ask the question: What’s going on?
Historically African Americans in film have been portrayed as an inferior people, mocked, and given subservient roles. There is a plethora of actors and actresses that made a conscious decision in previous generations not to defame their heritage and legacy, in hopes of paving a way and setting forth a working methodology of how to be in the world of Hollywood but not of the world. One woman that comes to mind that was the consummate example of how this was successfully implemented was Ruby Dee. The actress, activist, writer, journalist and poet was born in 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio. Most will remember her acting in the play, A Raisin in the Sun and the movie American Gangster, but when you carefully look at her body of work – she accepted roles that uplifted and highlighted the struggles of black women from all walks of life. In like manner, Ruby Dee was active during the civil rights movement alongside her husband the great Ossie Davis. So in essence, she understood the importance of dealing with the issues that plagued her people – they were the characters that she portrayed. When you look at the current generation it is a different story. I believe that Kerry Washington is a great actress and activist, but would Ruby Dee have played the role of Olivia Pope?
Black women in Hollywood in the 21st century have more leverage to choose a variety of roles on screen, via television, and on stage. Take for instance the film career of Kerry Washington. The actress was born in The Bronx, New York City, in 1977 and was introduced to the importance of her heritage at a very young age. Both of her parents were educated and she was raised in a middle class household. She graduated from college and acting school, and now in her thirties, she has amassed a status in American society that many can only dream about. Let’s be clear Kerry Washington is the second woman in African American history to portray a black woman in a leading role on a major television network. When I first watched Kerry Washington in Scandal, portraying Olivia Pope, an African American crisis intervention specialist in the White House, I thought her character was refreshing. Then it became all too clear that Olivia Pope was a set-up waiting to happen. The producer-creator of the show is Shonda Rhimes, a black woman that thought it was/is okay to glamorize and pimp out power, sex, and lies to seduce the minds of many into thinking that it’s okay for a black woman to be a mistress and utterly powerless to a man. Some might say, why criticize the television show because it’s all fiction? I respond back with the words of Ruby Dee from her poem, Calling All Women:
Calling All Women
Calling all sisters. Calling all
Calling all women. To steal away
To our secret place. Have a meeting
Face to face. Look at the facts
And determine our pace. Calling all
2. Literature: James Baldwin vs. Touré
As a black writer born and raised in the south (and still living in the south), I’ve been introduced to countless African American literary giants, but I had to search for them on my own. One writer in particular is James Baldwin. I have always been fascinated with his political prowess and dedication to the written word, always bearing a theme in his work about the black experience. Baldwin was quoted as saying, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I would like to add to that by saying that we too can criticize the very culture that we live in and hold our literary representatives in Black America accountable for turning their backs on what is true and right with regard to how we are depicted in the written word. Yes, African American writers have turned over a new leaf by creating stories that have no rhythm, dreams, historical compasses, themes or solutions that contribute to the betterment of our culture and race. It’s called pimping. What’s on going; I ask again?
James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York. Baldwin’s family was poor and their lives revolved around the church. The author became one of the most prolific African American writers of the 20th century as well as a social critic, civil rights activist, and poet. In a speech that he gave in 1963 at the Community Church in New York entitled: The Artists Struggle for Integrity, he talked about the responsibility of the writer not being ashamed of his or her gift and how it can change society – despite being ridiculed by the status quo. Baldwin not only wrote prolific essays he was one of the first writers to openly discuss his life as a black gay man in America. His work symbolized the struggles of black people, and the civil injustices that they faced on a daily basis and the human condition. Baldwin made it a point to stand out and let the world know that he had something to say with integrity. The author was invited to talk about the plight of black America during the late 60’s through the 80’s via the college circuit, in churches, and on news programs where he often stated that in this great republic that we built on our backs, has in turn taught us that we should despise ourselves. He often reiterated the sentiments of what black people are up against with regard to the system in which we live – a shadow. We were never meant to walk in the light. Somehow I just don’t believe that James Baldwin would allow Touré the opportunity to start discussing the myth of post-blackness because President Barack Obama won two terms.
Touré was born in 1971 in Boston, Massachusetts and is one of the most talented writers of the 21st century. He has produced two novels, a book of non-fiction, essays, and is a regular contributor on MSNBC’S The Cycle. I became infatuated with Touré’s first two novels: The Portable Promised Land and Soul City. He is a brilliant fiction writer. In 2011, Touré’s book entitled: Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means To Be Black Now was published, and I have a copy of it. When I began reading the first chapter, I started to understand his ideals as it pertains to post-blackness, and how blackness cannot be contained –it is infinite. What is troublesome is that none of the 100 interviews that he conducted in the book provides a perspective from an African American member of the working class. So what do scholars know about the black experience and those that have been chosen to represent us on a level that many of our own people are not able to reach or obtain? I will let you think about that and you can email me your response. I don’t believe that James Baldwin would ever use this platform to be characterized as a voice for those with high-profiles in the community. He would go to the core, the root, the real to the real – the plight of everyday working people. I respond in this observation with the following article that I believe everyone in the world should read: The Case for Reparations: Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole. –By Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I could have written a lot more, but I have to stop. I want to make sure that these brief concepts that I have presented to create dialogue within our communities about the leaders that we have lost, and the training that Generation X never received to take on their positions in society are looked at closely with regard to the following: What happened to our parents: The Baby Boomers? What happened to the urgency for change, better education for our children, businesses, and economic development? What happened to our parents teaching us what we needed to be able to acquire and fight for these things. I tend to always walk away with more questions than answers these days. I will be honest, I love hip hop. I love writing. I love black films. I love black art. However, that does not mean that I love how we are going about producing it, packaging it up and delivering it to the next generation. I really believe that some people need to sit down and learn how to just be average. Yep, its okay if you are not going to be an instrument for change in which we need in the black community as it pertains to leadership, loyalty, and service to the people. This is not to say that the individuals in this essay from my generation should transition into what I’ve suggested, but at least acknowledge that you have a responsibility to think about what you are portraying in society – which in turns defines us by the mass population. I end with this, we are being pimped out for our talents and cultural greatness for dollars that make no sense in a society that has been invisible to blackness since we arrived as slaves in this country. I ask again: What’s going on?
Coates, T. (2014, May 21). The Case for Reparations – The Atlantic. Retrieved July 16, 2014, from http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
Dee, R. (2010, January 30). Calling All Women by Ruby Dee « CRUSH PROOF BOX. Retrieved July 16, 2014, from http://tinkerteacher.wordpress.com/2010/01/30/calling-all-women-by-ruby-dee
T. (2011). Four Million Ways to Be Black. Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now (p. 17). Retrieved from http://whosafraidofpostblackness.voices.wooster.edu/files/2013/09/Whos-Afraid-of-PostBlackness.-Toure_Ch.1.pdf
This essay was presented at the State of Black America Conference, inside the Carver Branch Library in San Antonio, Texas, Sponsored by Prosperity Publications.