Y’all Want Beyonce To Be Harriet Tubman So Bad

beyonce-formation-music-video

The clan of pseudo intellectual digital “Black power” referendumists, referred to widely as “Hoteps,” say she’s a capitalist puppet controlled by the illuminati. They can’t tell you exactly who or what the illumanati is, but according to them she’s part of it. And unless she humbles herself adorned in natural hair, head scarves and ankh pieces (I just described myself freshman year of college), she is not to be trusted. She can do no right.

She has to be Harriet Tubman. She must retire her career in entertainment to be an emancipator of slaves in order to redeem herself before their “overstood” consciousness. – Because “blonde hair.”

On the other far end of the spectrum, the religious sect that worships the edges and finger nail clippings of Beyonce Holy Mother of “Slayage,” known widely as the BeyHive, say she’s a revolutionary leading us to the light of Black liberation. There are discrepancies as to how Black liberation is defined, what it looks like and how it operates, but according to them she is definitely the leader of our time. And unless you humble yourself before King Bey, exclaiming in repetition “slay” or “yasssssss” or “she snatched my edges,” you are not to be trusted. You can do no right.

She has to be Harriet Tubman. She must be our leader of Black freedom, the epitome of Black feminism, the reincarnation of African goddesses here to restore your dignity in Blackness. – Because “hot sauce.”

Reaching-Gif

If you’re not inclined to believe she’s a CIA agent but you’re also not inclined to believe she’s the savior of performed Black identity, you’re going to be silenced. This silencing will be led by the usual “Bill Cosby was about to buy NBC” suspects but also by the very people who crusade against silencing on social media every other day. Yet, it doesn’t matter because it appears the people have come to a decision. If you’re not critiquing how and what we tell you to critique, you’re the enemy and shall not be tolerated. Still, when it comes to racists declaring that she is somehow “anti-police” because she wore a black leotard vaguely reminiscent of Michael Jackson and the Black Panther Party, we all call b.s. That in at least one way, is comforting.

We have not completely shamed our ancestors.

Whatever you’re inclined to believe, please remember that Beyonce can be an entertainer you loathe or love but she does not have to be Harriet Tubman. She is not beneath critical acclaim simply because she doesn’t meet your ideal image of Black political consciousness. And she is not above critical analysis simply for being your fabulously talented fave.

Take that for however you interpret it to mean and get in your own formation.

BeyoncéVevo / via Zahra Barnes

BeyoncéVevo / via Zahra Barnes

 

Jessica Ann Mitchell-Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com. Rant or rave to JAMAiwuyor@gmail.com.

@TweetingJAM – Facebook.com/JAMAiwuyor

Advertisements

Breaking Down Privilege, Light Skin and Beyond

Precious-2
Precious wasn’t a 110-pound light skinned girl for a reason.

As NPR described, “the writer known simply as Sapphire, tells the story of a dark-skinned, heavy-set, illiterate African-American girl who has survived multiple pregnancies by her father.” In other words, the character Precious was created by Sapphire to depict one of the most rejected, unprotected, less privileged demographics.

In an interview, Sapphire explained,

I wanted to show that this girl is locked out through literacy. She’s locked out by her physical appearance. She’s locked out by her class, and she’s locked out by her color.

There were similar reasons behind the creation of  characters Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Because of denied privileges to women fitting their characteristics, Black women writers felt a need to share these stories. Three things these legendary characters all had in common: poverty, dark skin and sexual abuse. This was not an accident.

It has been known for a very long time that people with dark skin have often been treated with the utmost disdain and abuse. This is not a new discovery. Yet still, a few of my readers had a digital meltdown when I discussed light skin privilege.

Dave-Chapelle-Rick-James

At first I was surprised but then I remembered how difficult recognizing privilege can be. After all, a huge component of privilege is not realizing it exists.

So I’m going to rewind and thoroughly explain what privilege is, how it works and who has it.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I had privilege. Even as a little girl, when a white class mate (afraid of my Blackness) refused to come near me, I had privilege. Even in middle school when a group of Black girls compared me to a gorilla, I had privilege. Even in the 9th grade, when I was bullied to the point of crying in class by other Black kids because of my permed but still nappy hair, I had privilege.

It wasn’t until I was older, when I saw some of these same people and their lives, that I realized the privilege I had. I grew up in a two parent household. Both of my parents were college graduates. The concept of college was never a question. Never had I ever been asked, “Are you going to college?” It was a given. Not only was I going, I had already begun writing, playing instruments, learning modern dance, and performing in theater productions. When I wanted to do something, my mother wrote a check.

Black-ish-money

We were not rich, but she was able to pay for every school activity I wanted to do.

My mother was very busy, but still had time to go over my school work. During the summer, I would get mad at her for forcing me to complete workbooks before I could go out and play. I didn’t know that any of this was a privilege. It was always assumed that everybody was able to do all of these things. In my mind, everybody’s mom read them stories, gave them books, made home-cooked dinners every night, and helped them apply for financial aid to attend college.

I later learned that some of those same people that bullied me so badly, were living in abject poverty. Baldwin County, Ga has a poverty rate double the national average. Many of their mothers were working overtime in service and fast food industries trying to make ends meet. I realized that those playground wars, where I had been called such horrible names, were their own attempts to feel better about their status in the world. If they could succeed in making someone else feel the way they felt, then they could feel powerful (even if it only lasted for a few hours.)

If you had told me at the time I was being called a gorilla, that I had privilege, it would have been hard for me to believe you. I would have said, “But my feelings are hurt, what privilege?”

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when so many Black kids failed to pass the Georgia High School Graduation Test, that I started to realize the disparities. It wasn’t until I saw members of my senior class receiving a certificate instead of a diploma that I realized what happened. Their lives were cheated, opportunities had been denied and it was systematic. I recalled how certain students were automatically put on the technical track while others were put on the college track. The state of Georgia had predetermined who was going to college and who wasn’t.

But not me. I was going to college. I was going to leave and study whatever I wanted to. In high school I worked at McDonald’s, Sonic and Papa John’s. Quitting these jobs was never a make or break situation for me.

half-baked-job-quit

I had no problem saying, “I quit,” because, I was college bound. Fast food or retail wasn’t going to be my future. Hence my confusion when I saw other students dropping out of high school once they finally got their highly coveted job at Walmart.

Later in college, I saw how girls that were darker than me in skin tone were treated by men. I saw first hand how their deep brown skin was used a prerequisite for excessive abuse or utter disregard. I’ve seen their love interests dodge them and pursue me or other girls. I’ve also seen how they were treated by faculty members and staff. They were under constant attack. My lighter skinned friends also faced hardships, being not considered Black enough or having to deal with people’s assumptions about them. But what our other friends were going through was undeniable.

We were also treated differently according to body type.

Coming-To-America

Dark skin plus thicker body equaled additional problems. It was during this time that I also realized thin privilege. And yes, that’s a real thing. I had never thought of this before either, but it existed and I benefited from it.

Later I learned about abelism and the privilege I have as a person with no physical or developmental disabilities.

So here I am a Black middle class, 2nd generation college graduate, with two educated parents, with no known disabilities, that wears a size medium. I have a lot of privilege that other people don’t have. That doesn’t mean I’ve never experienced racism or bullying.

So when I wrote about the documentary Light Girls, referencing its avoidance of privilege, the commentary was out of a real need to address historical facts that affect the Black community. Light skin privilege is real. It has been studied and documented throughout history. It is a subsidiary of White privilege, where people of hues closer to white on the racial hierarchy are afforded with certain advantages. Over the past 300 years, it has become a part of the fabric of Western society.

Here are the 6 most common responses when discussing Light Skin Privilege:

draya-bye-felicia

1. But I’ve experienced racism. I don’t have privilege.

2. But other Black people picked on me because I’m light skinned. I don’t have privilege.

1-2: Your concerns are valid. However, it needs to be remembered that this issue isn’t about individual situations or circumstances. Light skinned privilege isn’t about anybody’s assumptions or hurt feelings. Race is a social construct that was created to sustain a hierarchy. In the Western world “whiteness” has been used as a measuring stick for human value. People of lighter hues have been treated with less “disdain” than other Black people. This is a historical fact, not an idea or assumption. It doesn’t mean that light skinned people never face racism or colorism. 

3. But I went to prison or had some other horrible experience in life. I don’t have privilege.

Light skin privilege does not mean that people labeled as light skinned never experience hardships or adversity. However, it does mean that at times, certain hardships will have less of a blow if your skin tone is lighter. For instance, a recent study showed that among Black people in prison, those perceived as light skinned received shorter sentences than those perceived as dark skinned.

4. Stop making assumptions about my character. I don’t have privilege.

Privilege isn’t about making assumptions on someone’s character. People need to understand the concept of light skin privilege is not an indictment on light skinned people, but instead an indictment on how racial hierarchies operate. Challenging this issue, is necessary in order challenge the false concept of white supremacy.

5. I don’t believe it. Show me the receipts! Where is this privilege?

Whitney-Receipts-1

For all naysayers, part of “privilege” is having the ability to not “see” the problem, because it has become so normalized.

Here are the requested receipts:

http://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2011/07/color_bias_do_lightskinned_blacks_get_shorter_sentences.html

http://www.multiculturaladvantage.com/recruit/diversity/bias/Skin-Tone-More-Important-Than-Educational-Background-African-Americans-Seeking-Jobs.asp

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/11/us/school-discipline-to-girls-differs-between-and-within-races.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/14/skin-tone-bias_n_4597924.html

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/study-people-associate-education-with-lighter-skin/283086/

http://thegrio.com/2014/01/16/study-light-skinned-black-men-perceived-as-better-educated/

http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/

http://jezebel.com/368746/study-men-are-more-attracted-to-women-with-lighter-skin

http://www.sentencingproject.org/detail/news.cfm?news_id=1136

6. Why are you talking about this? What good does it do? This is just divide and conquer.

Talking about Light Skinned Privilege does not promote “divide and conquer.” Ignoring it does.

Divide and conquer can only exist in a state of confusion. Right now, confusion exists because we haven’t learned how to effectively pin point and deconstruct the inner workings of racial oppression. By rejecting the privilege of light skin or at least calling it out, we are also rejecting the concept of white supremacy. We are saying that all Black lives are just as valuable as the others. This same thing can be said we we reject homophobia and sexism in our communities. We’re saying all Black lives matter the same, despite our perceived differences.

Last but not least

Part of the normalization of privilege is not being aware it exists. Even as a former landlord happily called me her “new pitch black friend,” I had privilege at various levels. In other words, this isn’t about your or my hurt feelings. Transforming society hinges upon our ability to proactively breakdown privilege: white, light skinned, class, economic and beyond.

In the case of racism and colorism, recognizing light skin privilege is a step towards understanding how to dismantle white privilege and Black oppression. The recognition of light skin privilege is not an indictment against light skinned people, it’s an indictment on the currently normalized role of false white supremacy and how it plays out in our lives.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & Culture The Web. To bring JAM to your school or show, email OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci

33 Brilliant Quotes From Legendary Black Women Writers

 

Ntozake-Shange-Black-Women-Writers

Ntozake Shange

Growing up as a Black girl writer, various books and writers sustained me. One such writer was Zora Neale Hurston. I lived by her. Her robust unveiling of Black human experiences were the literary nourishment to my young mind. I read over and over again her short story, The Gilded Six Bits.  It was like I was there. I could feel the spirited home of Missie May and Joe. I could taste the molasses kisses Joe bought for their new born baby boy. I was literally wrapped up in the entire story.

Yet what intrigued me the most about Zora as a writer was her free spirit. As a folklorist and anthropologist, she saw the world and soaked up its wonders. This captivated me.  As I grew older, the list of Black women writers that ruled my universe expanded. In college I was enamored with Ntozake Shange, then in graduate school mesmerized by June Jordan. They all knew a part of my soul, they all held pieces of me in their words. It was a long running connectedness. With each page turned, I saw myself.

When it seemed like the world had turned against me or had become lopsided, they turned it right side up again. Through their writings they let me know, that the things I’m seeing and experiencing are real. Most of all I learned that I had the right to tell my truth, no matter how often its existence may be denied and its fullness unsuccessfully subdued.

This edging out is a tradition of oppression, while the ability to rise even in its midst is a signature testament to the dynamic tradition of literary inspired liberation through Black women writers.

Here are some quotes from legendary Black women writers that can be used as continual tools for learning, growth, confidence and fearlessness.

 

1. “It’s no use of talking unless people understand what you say.” -Zora Neale Hurston

 

2. “No black woman writer in this culture can write “too much.” Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’…No woman has ever written enough.” – bell hooks

 

3. “I’m a firm believer that language and how we use language determines how we act, and how we act then determines our lives and other people’s lives.” -Ntozake Shange

 

4. “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” – Audre Lorde

 

5. “We write for the same reason that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans – because we can. We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings.” – Maya Angelou

 

6. “I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.” -Alice Walker

 

7. “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” -Toni Morrison

 

8.  “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” -Toni Morrison

 

9. “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

10.  “Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it.” – Toni Morrison

 

11.  “Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.” – Patricia Hill Collins

 

12. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

13. “Writing can be a lifeline, especially when your existence has been denied, especially when you have been left on the margins, especially when your life and process of growth have been subjected to attempts at strangulation.” ― Micere Githae Mugo

 

14. “Sure you can do anything when talking or writing, it’s not like living when you can only do what you doing.” ― Sapphire

 

15. “A writer should get as much education as possible, but just going to school is not enough; if it were, all owners of doctorates would be inspired writers.” – Gwendolyn Brooks

 

16. “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” ― Octavia E. Butler

 

17. “I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. I can only change how they live, not how they think.” -Ntozake Shange

 

18. “Let woman’s claim be as broad in the concrete as the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritism, whether of sex, race, country, or condition. If one link of the chain is broken, the chain is broken.” – Anna Julia Cooper

 

19. “I don’t want to be limited or ghettoized in any way.” -Sista Soulja

 

20. “Discomfort is always a necessary part of enlightenment.” ― Pearl Cleage

 

21. “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.” -Maya Angelou

 

22. “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler

 

23. “Many times, what people call ‘writer’s block’ is the confusion that happens when a writer has a great idea, but their writing skill is not up to the task of putting that idea down on paper. I think that learning the craft of writing is critical.” -Pearl Cleage

 

24. “Shakespeare wrote about love. I write about love. Shakespeare wrote about gang warfare, family feuds and revenge. I write about all the same things.” -Sister Souljah

 

25. “Putting words on paper regularly is part of the necessary discipline of writing.” -Pearl Cleage

 

26. “Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness.” -Alice Walker

 

27. “You must be unintimidated by your own thoughts because if you write with someone looking over you shoulder, you’ll never write.” ― Nikki Giovanni

 

28. “Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” ― Nikki Giovanni

 

29. “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.” -Lorraine Hansberry

 

30. “People who want to write either do it or they don’t. At last I began to say that my most important talent – or habit – was persistence. Without it, I would have given up writing long before I finished my first novel. It’s amazing what we can do if we simply refuse to give up.” ― Octavia E. Butler

 

31. “People wish to be poets more than they wish to write poetry, and that’s a mistake. One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated.” –Lucille Clifton

 

32. “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” ― June Jordan

 

33. “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” -Angela Davis

 

Spread The Word. Share This Post!

IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/JAMAiwuyor.

How Innocent People Are Wrongfully Convicted

Wrongfully-Convicted-Of-Murder

“There is nothing funny about a Black man going to prison for something he didn’t do.” My excitement about watching the movie Life was quickly shut down when my mother stated those words. As a 14-year-old, I hadn’t looked at it that way before. Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, was a hit comedy about the antics of two Black men in Mississippi serving life in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder. She refused to watch it.

The truthful sting of my mother’s response was fully warranted. Being wrongfully convicted of murder happens far more often than people think and can happen to anybody but especially to African Americans. And indeed, there is nothing funny about it.

Even as far back as 1996, the book “Convicted But Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and Public Policy” estimated that there was an output of at least 10,000 wrongful convictions a year. The abstract states, “Even if the American criminal justice system proved 99.5 percent accurate, it would still generate more than 10,000 wrongful convictions a year and these would reflect only serious index crimes.”

More recently the Innocence Project highlighted that studies find,”between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).”

According to a 2012 report by the National Registry of Exonerations about 2,000 people have been exonerated for wrongful convictions since 1989. Still, this number is in the least bit comforting. As the report notes:

…even 2,000 exonerations over 23 years is a tiny number in a country with 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers. But it’s not. These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about.

So how does this happen?

The Innocence Project lists the leading causes of false convictions as eye-witness misidentification, false confessions, improper forensic evidence and informants. One would think that these components would only lead to rightful convictions but each is severely flawed. For example, in 73% of convictions overturned with DNA, prosecutors used eye-witness accounts. But in many of these accounts there was “cross racial identification,” a known issue because studies show that it’s harder for witnesses to remember the facial details of people from other races.

False confessions are flawed due to pressures to accept plea deals and other coercion tactics. Informants are problematic sources because they are often offered plea deals and dropped charges in exchange for their testimony.

Dateline NBC recently featured a story about Eric Glisson, a man that was wrongfully convicted of murder and served over 17 years in prison. There was no physical evidence, only the words of one “eye-witness” and two other allegedly coerced witnesses. One of these witnesses recanted her testimony stating that she only testified due to police pressure of being threatened with jail time. It took 17 years, but Glisson and his co-defendants were finally freed. A total of five Black and Latino people (four men and one woman) had been in prison for almost two decades for a crime they didn’t commit.

Then there’s the story of The Central Park Five, who were recently awarded $40 million dollars after enduring 7-13 years in prison for a 1989 rape. In 2002, they were exonerated after a confession from the real perpetrator and DNA evidence proved their innocence. In another case, Jonathan Fleming was recently released after spending 24 years in prison for a Brooklyn, NY murder that was committed while he was in Florida.

There are many more stories like these that have yet to be concluded.

I recently learned of a case that hits closer to home. Jean Pierre DeVaughn is the older brother of a friend that I attended college with. Accused of murder-for-hire in the 2005 death of his cousin’s husband, Devaughn has maintained his innocence. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison with an additional 25 years. Having no prior record, he was offered a plea deal but refused to take it, wanting to fully clear his name.

His case is fraught with a series of issues. Devaughn endured an intense interrogation by police, during which a chair was thrown at him, he was taunted and his requests for a lawyer were denied. Additionally, there is no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

According to his defense attorney, a key witness in the first trial testified under the false pretense that Devaughn had accused him of being the murderer. Additionally, racial bias may have tainted jury selection leading to three African Americans being excluded from the jury.

In 2009, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. endorsed a letter written to the Fulton County District Attorney Office on Devaughn’s behalf. He is now represented by Janice L. Mathis, lawyer, activist and Vice President of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Atlanta chapter.

Some may think it a bit presumptuous to believe that Devaughn is innocent, but history has shown us not to ignore pleas for a second look at trials that were once proclaimed to be “open and shut” cases. For now Devaughn waits in a Georgia prison for another chance to prove his freedom. The Supreme Court of Georgia will soon review his case.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact about these cases is this could happen to anyone and exonerations are rare occurrences. Many wrongful convictions include death row prisoners, which is all the more reason to support efforts to end the death penalty.

As an article from Scientific American highlighted, “Since 1973 144 death-sentenced defendants have been exonerated in the U.S. But Gross says that the analysis indicates that at least 340 people would have been put to death unjustly in that same time period.”

According to the Innocence Project, there have been only 316 post-conviction DNA exonorees, with 198 being African Americans. This is a daunting number considering African Americans only make up 13% of the US population. The numbers indicate that there is an overwhelming rate of bias concerning death sentencing for African Americans. Additionally, it’s hard to have many cases reviewed due to destroyed or lost evidence.

Something is devastatingly wrong here in the land of the “free,” especially considering the influence of corporate profits from the prison industrial complex. This is a real life horror story.

There is a perception that criminal convictions among African American youth are inherently just. But the fact is, many convictions stem from not having proper representation, not knowing the full scope of their rights when questioned by the police, being denied their rights and racially biased sentencing. An overwhelming amount of exonorees are Black men and women because an overwhelming amount of this demographic are wrongfully convicted or given harsher sentencing than their counterparts (sometimes even according to skin tone).

What can you do to prevent this from happening?

For now, it’s important to support initiatives like the Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions that are doing the work to assist as many wrongfully convicted prisoners as possible. Push for your local jurisdiction to include preventative measures like recorded interrogations, proper and long-term preservation of forensic evidence, and advocating for eye-witness identification reform. 

Please do not republish this article without specific, written permission from Jessica Ann Mitchell.

IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

The Subtleties of Mammy Honoring Ceremonies

 

The Subtlety Front

Kara Walker’s The Subtlety has attracted widespread acclaim but has serious conflicts that need to be discussed. 

Artist Kara Walker’s first large-scale public project is officially titled, “At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: The Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby 
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”

Having read interviews featuring Walker’s explanation of the piece, it appears to possess elements of both success and missed opportunities. The Subtlety is recognized by many as a sphinx built in the image of a “Mammy” like caricature. The sphinx is jarring. It makes people want to pay attention or at least ask questions. Her explanations are continuing a conversation about the horrors of the sugar industry’s past.

In a recent interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Walker provided further prospective about the massive “sugar baby” :

She is basically a New World sphinx. A New World thinking of the sugar plantations, the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that sort of Rolling Stones-y brown sugar dovetailing of sex and slavery as it reaches the American imagination.

Walker was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered as well:

She’s doing what she does best: drawing you in with something sweet, something almost charming, before you realize you’ve admired something disturbing. In this case, that’s the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade that helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries; a slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.

“Basically, it was blood sugar,” Walker says. “Like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands.”

She explains that to make the sugar, the cane had to be fed into large mills by hand. It was a dangerous process: Slaves lost hands, arms, limbs and lives.

“I’ve been kind of back and forth with my reverence for sugar,” Walker says. “Like, how we’re all kind of invested in its production without really realizing just what goes into it; how much chemistry goes into extracting whiteness from the sugar cane.”

The problem with Walker’s sphinx is that the acts of oppression during the slave trade were disturbing but the enslaved Africans were not themselves disturbing. So why continue the distortion of their image? She ends up reinforcing what she seeks to dismantle. How do we honor people who lost “hands, arms and limbs and lives” with further misrepresentations of their identities?

When critically looking at this work of art, we recognize Walker as an artistic genius. Yet even in this framework, when discussing the legacy and horrors of the sugar industry she chose to magnify the mythical overly used “Mammy” imagery. We keep coming back to something that was never truly us.

However, this issue is deeper than Kara Walker’s work. It’s been done before…this mammy honoring ceremony.  This issue speaks to the internalized limitations of imagination among artists and writers when it comes to the African descended lived experience. Lingering onto falsehoods, attempting to manipulate structures in its honor is counterproductive and often representative of an internalized glass ceiling of thought.

We can be something different because we are something different.

I’m not suggesting an attempt at ignoring the history of the “Mammy” caricature but instead I’m interested in what it would look like if Walker went beyond the restraints of this mythical being when it comes to examining the lives of enslaved African artisans.

Subtlety Back

To a certain degree, I understand the appeal of the exaggerated features of the half woman, half beast sphinx. The history of the extravagant sugar sculptures called subtleties, that were bolstered through slave labor is very important. Furthermore, featuring the genitalia of the sphinx can be viewed as taking a jab at the presumed asexuality of the “Mammy” caricature, while also perhaps conjuring images of both sexual abuse and desire. It’s crude and perhaps it’s meant to be.

Yet, the symbolism of this piece is stifled by it’s misplaced distortion and a missed opportunity to unearth what’s often hidden. In this case it would be the Black woman undistorted and unexaggerated. A jewel in her own right, without the need of leaning on identity stripping myths for significance or shock value. We can be both beautiful in our nakedness and whole in our humanity while also critiquing disturbing histories.

Showing Black women as full human beings in a holistic framework is more revolutionary than torturing old caricatures like “Mammy” ever could be…and far more valuable. When we unearth and magnify our ancestors’ true identities, outside of modes of mass societal miseducation, it will be a powerful day.

 

Please do not republish this article without specific, written permission from Jessica Ann Mitchell.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

 

The Subtlety display is available for public viewing until July 6th. Full details available here