Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Precious, my Precious: Black Female Citizenship, Complexity, and the Politics of Unrelenting Survival

I saw the film Precious some weeks ago and afterwards, I had every intention of writing strong words to explain exactly why it moved me the way that it did. Because for whatever reason -- with the exception of Armand White's review Pride & Precious, of course -- no one was touching on certain things about the movie that were glaringly obvious to me. After reading this note that was passed to me on facebook (thanks Tanya), I realized that someone else -- a black woman! -- had already said it for me.

This reblog is with the author's permission. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Precious, my Precious: Black Female Citizenship, Complexity, and the Politics of Unrelenting Survival by Malkia A. Cyril

Share/Yesterday at 2:53pm

As I sit against the florescence of the television screen, watching the conservative Fox News pundit Glen Beck drive political nails into progressive leaders using the fear of U.S. blacks and immigrants of color as his hammer, my memory harkens back to the year in which the book Push was set, 1987. During that time, eugenics theories about the inherent laziness and criminality of black teenagers was rampantly resurgent in the news. Conservative research was cementing stereotypes of the black welfare queen, the crack baby, the HIV infected black woman as the truth that justified the destruction of the safety net as we knew it. Since then, health care has become increasingly privatized. Welfare has turned horrifically to an indentured servitude of workfare. The numbers of black women with HIV have skyrocketed. And the movie Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire, was released.

Caricatures or Complex Characters?

Clarice “Precious” Jones is an extreme character, meant to shock the senses and unveil the underbelly of the brutality of racism and capitalism in the patriarchal land of the free. In the film and in the book, Precious is a dark-skinned teenaged girl who experiences multiple forms of oppression and violence at the hands of multiple perpetrators. In the movie, her sexually brutal father is an invisible or blurry character at best, while her mother, whose victimization as a woman was only alluded to, is cast as the primary perpetrator. It is only through the extreme telling of an extreme story that this dichotomy of inequity is revealed. There are no men in the story as told in the movie, and the welfare and education systems which oppress black womanhood and subvert black female resistance are cast as saviors. Questions have been necessarily raised by black audiences –is this story the best way to reveal these contradictions? Is the mother the real villain? Does the story reflect reality or is it more of a caricature? And if a caricature how does that shape the impact of the film on the representations of black women in media and in the public psyche?

I have known many black girls afflicted by multiple forms of abuse, compounded by addiction and illness. I have watched black women beat their children to bloody pulps in the street, cursing them the whole time. I have heard black mothers threaten to cut their daughter’s pussy out to prevent them from having sex. I have witnessed black women trade their daughters for crack. I have heard and seen so many things. And I have also seen those same exact women place themselves in front of a fist to save their daughters. I have watched those black mothers walk the hoe stroll for hours to make enough money to feed and house and clothe their babies, as they struggled to overcome addiction. I have watched, in my own home, my own beautiful black mother struggle with the decision to keep her man and have an adult life or protect her daughters and live for her children. Eventually, she chose the latter, though not soon enough. My mother was alone from the time I was about 14 to her death in 2005. That’s almost 20 years of intimate solitude in an effort to stand between her black daughters and the world of violence that waited for us in and beyond our home because she did not know how to manage both the safety of her children and her needs as a woman. These characters, Precious and her mother, are not simple caricatures, and yet the film chose some truths over others, and must be interrogated. This is by no means an exhaustive review, or a review of any kind. It’s what came for me after watching the film.

Black Womanhood and Complexity

Can you imagine that patriarchal colonialism and a generational experience of slavery can result in an experience of powerlessness and shame that can twist the mind and give rise to the belief that your three-year-old child has stolen your man? Can you imagine that there are black and brown girls, and boys, all over this world, that have HIV, have been raped by their father, sexually and physically abused by their mother, failed by the school system and exploited by the welfare system. And that these girls are brilliant and beautiful and full of unrealized promise- as are their mothers. These women are two sides of one coin, mother and daughter. Both trapped in different ways, both villainized by “culture of poverty” research, and exploited by the economic system and the civil institutions that touch and shape the daily texture of their lives.

The Narrative of Black Female Citizenship

This set of contradictions, this opening of an unhealed national and international wound, is not a mere regurgitation of racist and sexist images. There is a real untold story here, and the voice of that child and the voice of her mother need to be heard. They need to be heard because it is our silence on issues of sexual abuse and systemic violence that allows the space for the empire’s story about us to be the only one told. We do not control our media and cultural systems or the institutions of civil society, and therefore the narrative of black female citizenship has been used in so many ways as the lynchpin to justify the most brutal democracy in the world. The lies that our citizenship is somehow a gift and not a right, that our mothers are responsible for the socialization of black children and therefore the cause of their incarceration, and that our daughters have drained and massacred the economy, have justified mass incarceration, war, the privatization of social services and health care, and the defunding of public education. The same has been done to black men, using different stereotypes. But this, right here, is about black women.

Let’s talk about education. It was a strong thread that bound this plot together through the realization of the unrelenting power of words. In the book Push, the transformation of Precious occurs over the course of more than a year. Her increasing sense of pride and self-worth is tied directly to her increasing ability to read. Literacy is a powerful thing. It increases one’s ability to navigate and transform the physical, political, and economic conditions we find ourselves subject to. The ability to express one’s story, to know that it will be witnessed, is as powerful a motivation for transformation as any. Why did the leaders of the Cuban revolution begin by increasing the literacy of the poor? For the same reason that Venezuela has placed so much import on democratizing their media system. Because the power of literacy, media or otherwise, is foundational for social change. The fact that the conductor of the orchestra in this case was a black lesbian added depth and complexity to the story of black women being told in the film. the depiction of black lesbians as allies to heterosexual black women was a blessing that brought tears to my eyes.

Hollywood vs. Our Stories

All this being said, the Hollywood version of the book absolutely invisibilized patriarchy, cast the system as a hero and not an actor responsible for the conditions of oppression in which precious lived and survived, and over-simplified Precious’ mother as an animal who fed her child to the wolves. The movie’s flaws are real, and knowing that the film was being viewed by white middle class audiences whose ability to discern the notes in this song was minimal, was painful to experience.

It doesn’t make the story less powerful, less revealing, or less necessary. But it does leave room for the next telling to make these contradictions less nuanced, the complexity more stark. For U.S. born blacks mitigated by a history of slavery and colonial violence, complexity is the name of the game. And though I am tired of our black mothers, whose internalized shame and experience of powerlessness sometimes results in extraordinary brutality, being cast in roles that are either victim or villain, and never as the complex intersection of both, never as victor- I was stunned to joyful silence by the numbers of young black girls and boys I saw in the theatre. This is a complicated conversation that is rarely had in our families or classrooms, and even more rarely had in public. And it needs to be had.

Unrelenting Survival

In 1987, I was 13, and the book Push changed my life. I identified in some ways with the experience of Precious. I remember the tenements, the crack houses, the emergence of AIDS and the way both devastated family connection. I recall the news, the myth of the teenaged super-predator, the labels of crack baby, welfare mother, the images of addiction and violence that shaped so many black children’s understanding of themselves. and then there are things I won’t talk about, that make me proud to watch Precious survive, and her mother repent, on the screen. Because I understand the untenable choices black girls and women feel, and are, forced to make.

Today I am 35, and I am grateful for those precious black and brown children, those daughters of this nation’s dust, those human queens subjected to -and the perpetrators of-inhuman cruelty. Because with each individual survival there is a greater chance of our collective survival and transformation. And that is a story, a historical legacy that is the journey in my feet, the ancestor at my back, and the bitter at the bottom of capitalism’s cup. We are our mothers’ daughters, more than the sum of empire’s history, and our mothers are no worse than human. That is the story that needs to be told. Sapphire is one of hundreds of writers who pull back the veil on black female citizenship to reveal the abject bullshit of this democracy’s contract, place humanity back into the narrative, and open the door for complexity. Tell the truth, in all its complexity, regardless of the dominant group’s watchful gaze. And even when Hollywood distorts the tale, we will, by our own honest hands, set ourselves free.

Cause we are watching too. And this, precious, is for you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Queen Esther and the Hot Five at Joe's Pub

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words would a video inspire?

This one comes to you courtesy of videographer Chris Carlone, who shot the show at Joe's Pub earlier this month. We did a short set of songs for aboriginal Aussie artist Richard Bell's party from the upcoming jazz CD, tentatively titled What Is Love? that should be available for purchase before the end of the year. Aussie artist Tracey Moffatt had a lot of fun hosting the event. (Yay!) This is song is called Stardust.

Oh, I almost forgot -- ultra super secret listening party at the speakeasy Dutch Kills coming up very, very soon. Like, right after I master the CD and get it manufactured. Gimmie a few weeks, I'll get right back to you. Especially if you sign my mailing list.

Until then, enjoy.

Friday, November 13, 2009

guess what?

friday the 13th is working for me, apparently. or maybe it was that natural afro wig. who knows. all i know is, i got a callback for that PSA commercial. i go in again on monday afternoon. go figure.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

a thousand words

this photo is an outtake of me in the backroom at dutch kills last week, casually getting my picture taken for album cover art by the one and only cybel martin. i am framed by songwriter/band leader jc hopkins on the left and musician/composer j walter hawkes on the right. the shoot went very well. we did it on the fly and everything. there's only a few pictures that i'm deeply love with -- but thankfully, that's all i need.

and in other news: i've got a new year's eve eve gig and a new year's eve gig, both in the same place -- the player's club.

good times.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Another day, another (commercial) audition - PSA

i went in for this spot later in the afternoon, which meant that i was rested, relaxed and already thinking about stuff like guitar practice and what i'd make for dinner. it was in midtown, so it was easy and quick to access. i breezed in right on time. no tension, no nervousness. no packed room, either. there was a monitor, a sign in sheet, a comfortable brightly lit couchy space and only a few of us there. i dressed casually (in a t-shirt and boyfriend jeans that i purchased for such auditions) in very little makeup and i wore a wig -- a natural wig no less -- because my hair was literally in knots and i didn't feel like wrestling it into submission. (yeah, blackgirls -- it was one of those days...)

the audition was quite simple, really: the government wants to let everyone know that there's an earned income tax rebate if you make a certain amount a year. this public service announcement is especially nifty because it's paying sag rates. so it's two black women chatting on a bus. they've known each other for a million years so it's very casual and spontaneous and open. i went in with this lovely woman whose name escapes me. we were both wearing the same color - baby blue - which cracked us up, for some reason. we were so chatty and friendly, we left the audition together and rode the train all the way up the west side, fully immersed in conversation. she was really sweet.

i guess it was like we kept the audition going. weird, right?

what's cooler than cool is that ever since that on camera acting class i took, the camera doesn't freak me out the way it used to. i can trust my inner life and my intent and let myself feel things, knowing that those feelings will magically resurface on my face. because of this, i have a whole new level of confidence that is stronger than any amount of swagger i've ever brought to a situation like this. so there's no need for nervousness. or fear. i go in, i do my thing, and i leave.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Love from Poland

I did a really cool interview some months ago for an online Polish jazz magazine called Diapazon and then I totally spaced it. Just tripped over this link on last.fm and I'm really quite taken with it. So much love from so far away is a beautiful thing.

I'm going to find a nice Polish person to tell me exactly what this article says and then I'll wallpaper my world with the results. In the meantime, you can read the whole thing in Polish here and if you aren't that kind of bilingual, you can have a very rough translation from Polish to English here.

Monday, November 02, 2009

I did it!

i worked on the 20 pages of my submission for nyfa until noon and then i caved and ran out of the house to run errands in midtown. after that, i was too wound up about what i had written to go home so i went to the nysc on 14th street and made sure that somewhere in all the working out and whatnot that i ran a mile in less than 10 minutes -- which always makes me feel like i really accomplished something. i don't know why. probably because it feels like i'm half killing myself everytime i try to pull it off.

a hot shower with all my products was in order and then that steam room, that glorious steam room. and then there were more products that moisturize me all the way down to my soul. and then i hit the street, as fresh as a frackin' daisy. i delivered the jazz CD to cybel so she could prep for our shoot and we wandered into a french bistro on 9th avenue and noshed grandly. i left there feeling so good, i practically cakewalked all the way back uptown.

in a flash, i was wrestling with the nyfa application all over again and getting stuck over the printer and wondering if i was going to make it by midnight. but i kept going anyway, like i was nanook of the north, struggling through some blizzard. i bounced all over the place before i finally crash landed in the post office on 8th avenue. and then after i sent it, i wasn't sure i'd assembled everything properly, and i rode a slow train home in a wide open panic, and couldn't remember any of what i did.

except of course, that glorious steam room. in a perfect world, my day would always begin that way.

notification happens in april, i think. we'll see what happens. at least i got the application in.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Day One

No time to blog. I'm working my way through rewrites for a New York Foundation for the Arts 2010 Artist Fellowship submission in playwriting/screenwriting.

It's so easy to get lost in it. Time spills out in front of me in this really endless way when I am alone with my thoughts. The people on the page come alive and tell me things and the action starts to happen so fast, I can hardly write it down. I can only submit 20 pages. Let's hope they're good ones.

The postmark deadline is tomorrow at midnight. Let the games begin.