White Scripts and Black Supermen: A Review | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

White Scripts and Black Supermen: A Review

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Recent weeks have seen endless debates – critical celebration and critical opposition galore – of Django Unchained within social media circles. While a myriad of issues and themes have manifested within these conversations, one of the most striking elements has centered around the black male hero. In fact, the recognition and power of the black male hero, amid a cultural landscape where black heroes remain a dream deferred, is one thing that has unified a myriad of voices and perspectives.

Having recently watched Jonathan Gayles’ White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books (California Newsreel), a film that documents the history of black comic books and the obstacles in the production of black heroes, it is clear that the ample debate over Django (and even Red Tails) has a larger history; it has larger meaning, implications, and context

From the history demanded within the comic book industry and from fans demanding white masculine heroes, to the contemporary yearning and nostalgia for white male comic book narratives, race has been at the center of this history. White Scripts and Black Superman highlights the structural obstacles and systemic racism that resulted in a Jim Crowed comic world.

Yet, the film simultaneously brings to the life the many ways that artists and fans negotiated and challenged white hegemony within comic worlds. In providing primarily black youth with the opportunity to see themselves in a world of super heroes, resistance, and galaxatical battles, the history of comic books is a one where race and gender are constantly being contested. Whether with the Black Panther or Tyroc, John Stewart, or Luke Cage, the history of black comic books is one of exclusion and visibility; it is one defined by fights over positivity, authorship, respectability, and politics. For example, whereas superman fights universal evil, saving the universe one day at a time, the likes of Luke Cage is a “hero for hire,” battling costly rents and police abuse. While admirable, heroism operates on a different scale. The meaning and significance within the larger history of social movements, identity formation (race, gender, class), comic books, and youth culture is on full display here.

White Scripts and Black Supermen also explores the perpetuation of stereotypes within the often-cited empowering masculine spaces of comic books. For example, Tyroc replicates longstanding representations of the hypersexual, entertaining black body. However, the film highlights how the history of comic book is also a cultural space where some black comic book characters happen to be black as opposed to being a black super hero. From the hyper racial to the post-racial, from the black radical to the freedom fighter, the film highlights the range of subjectivities available within the world of comic books.

The many important conversations about cultural resistance, commodification, anti-black racism, identity formation, and those struggles waged by artists, comic book heroes and fans against the forces of evil inside and outside the fantastical realm of comic book culture is at the core of interface between White Scripts and Black Supermen. Bringing into conversation of Jelani Cobb, Reginald Hudlin, John Jennings, Dwayne McDuffie, and Mark Anthony Neal, White Scripts and Black Supermen offers viewers much to think about.

Continue reading at White Scripts and Black Supermen: A Review | NewBlackMan (in Exile).

NewBlackMan: The NFL or The Hunger Games? Some Thoughts on the Death of Junior Seau

The NFL or The Hunger Games? Some Thoughts on the Death of Junior Seau

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Last weekend I saw The Hunger Games. When I walked into the theater, I could not have told you one thing about the film, and if not for the uber publicity, I likely would have thought it was a show on the Food Network. While there is much to say about the film, I was left thinking about how it merely recycled the common Hollywood Gladiator trope. Mirroring films like The Running Man and The Gladiator, The Hunger Games highlights the ways that elite members of society make sport and find pleasure out of the pain and suffering of others. That is, they find arousal and visceral excitement in watching people battle until death. Within such a narrative trope is always a class (and at times racial) dimension where those with power and wealth (the tenets of civilization?) enjoy the spectacle of those literally and symbolically beneath them fighting until death. The cinematic representation of the panopticon, whether within the past or in futuristic terms, allows for commentary about the lack of civility, morals, and respect for humanity amongst the elite outside of our present reality. As these morality tales take place in the past (and or future), they exists a commentary about our present condition, statements about how far we have evolved and/or the danger of the future.

Yet, what about The Hunger Games in our midst? What about the NFL, a billionaire enterprise that profits off the brutality, physical degradation, and pain of other people? What about a sport that celebrates the spectacle of violence? Unlike The Hunger Games or Gladiator, films that depict a world where people bear witness to death, hungrily waiting the next kill, football and hockey fans sit on the edge of their seat waiting for the knock out hit, the fight, and bone crushing collision. The game doesn’t end with death but death results from the game. Out of sight, out of mind, yet our hunger for games that kill are no different.

Junior Seau committed suicide today; he shot himself in chest. While his death certificate will surely say “self inflicted gun shot wound,” it might as well say death by football. He, like so many former NFL players, have fallen victim to football-induced death. The links between suicides and concussions, between obesity and heart disease, and between drug abuse and post-NFL physical pain, are quite clear. The NFL Games are killing men before our eyes; yes, death is not taking place on-the-field with fans screaming from the rafters or the comfort of their couches, but make no mistake about, death is knocking on every player’s door. “Suicide, drugs, alcohol, obesity—are ailments the National Football League is getting to know all too well,” writes Dave Zirin. To him, Seau is yet another reminder of the brutality of the NFL and the callousness to this epidemic. He continues:

These are issues NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the various team owners are loathe to discuss, but with Seau, they won’t have a choice. In Seau, a larger than life Hall of Fame player, we have someone with friends throughout the ranks of the league and especially in the media. It will be incredibly difficult to keep this under wraps. People will want answers. Over the summer, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson took his own life with a gunshot to the chest so his brain could be studied for the effects of concussive injuries. Junior Seau now joins him, a gunshot to the chest. There is a discussion that the NFL is going to have to have with a team of doctors, players and the public. Right now, this is not a league safe for human involvement. I have no idea how to make it safer. But I do know that the status quo is absolutely unacceptable.

Lester Spence also pushes us to think about suicide as a potential consequence of NFL/NHL careers.

The first thing we should do is think about Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard. They were three NHL enforcers (people who made their hockey careers through their fists rather than through their sticks), who committed suicide over the past year. Each of them had a history of concussions. Boogaard made the courageous decision to offer up his brain to science. The results suggest his suicide may have been the result of brain damage.

It is only after thinking about Belak, Rypien, and Boogaard, that we have the medical context to understand Seau. Not so much to understand why he committed suicide–if there were a simple relationship between concussions and suicides the suicide rate of former NFL/NHL players would be far higher than it is. BUT to understand how his suicide may be at least a partial function of his NFL career.

It is hard not to think about the consequences of sporting violence. It is hard to deny the implications here when NFL players commit suicide at a rate six times the national average; it is hard not to think about a rotten system when 65 percent of NFL players retire with permanent and debilitating injuries. It is hard not to think of the NFL and NHL as a modern-day gladiator ring where our out-of-sight childhood heroes are dying because of the game, because of sport, because we cheered and celebrated brutality and violence. It is hard not to think of the NFL as nothing more than the real-life hunger games, our version of death as sport, when we look at reports following suicide of Dave Duerson:

Continue reading NewBlackMan: The NFL or The Hunger Games? Some Thoughts on the Death of Junior Seau.

A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé | The Feminist Wire

A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé

January 23, 2012

By David J. Leonard and Kristal Moore Clemons

A newly discovered horse fly by Australian scientist Bryan Lessard has become global media fodder. While usually not a source of news, Lessard’s entry into the public square has little to do with the scientific importance of his “discovery,” but rather the chosen name he’s given this new species: Beyoncé. Describing this new species as “bootylicious” because of its “golden-haired bum,” Lessard, a 24-year-old researcher at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization writes, Beyoncé would be “in the nature history books forever…[the fly now bearing her name is] pretty bootylicious [with its] golden backside.” He further explained that his name choice came about because the fly was the “all time diva of flies.”

Why would Lessard hope Beyoncé would take this particular scientific discovery as a kind gesture? Does he really think this is a compliment? While we cannot talk about intent, nor are we interested in the reasons behind the naming, we do think it is important to reflect on the larger history at work.

Popular media has covered the story as cute, as an odd story–one that “honors her”–and as evidence of the global popularity of Beyoncé. For example, Jennifer Walsh, a science writer on MSNBC, discussed naming as a common practice within the science world, noting “Beyoncé’s” arrival with a pantheon of other famous people:

Beyoncé isn’t the first celebrity to be honored with her own species. Traditionally named after scientists involved in their discovery, organisms have also been linked to the likes of Harrison Ford, Matt Groening (creator of “The Simpsons”), Mick Jagger and other celebrities, including a beetle named after Roy Orbison.

Considering the lack of media attention to these other named organisms, the comparison is limited at best. More importantly, the very situations and very different histories behind each further highlights the problematic comparison. Did the names of the other organisms reinforce, reduce or play upon longstanding racial fantasies and stereotypes that have been used to dehumanize, mock and ‘color’ black women? Worse yet, did the stories about those other celebrities come with pictures that further reduced their namesakes to a singular body part as a source of juxtaposition?

Several websites paired the story with a picture of Beyoncé that fixated the gaze on to her body, thus further sexualizing her through the juxtaposition of her body and that of the fly. Did these other “celebrity names” elicit racist and sexist commentary that included conversations about their breasts and backside; that compare Beyoncé to Michelle Obama through troubling language? Did any of them offer anything close to the the following:

Probably the most accurate animal named description. A feces eating horsefly thats golden abdomen (lower part or the A$$end) reflects on the nature of Beyonce’s true trademark..the golden arse! Someone give that scientist a grant!

These comments point to an embedded history and a multiplicity of signified meanings, which are in operation here. Thus, while others may say this is innocuous or a celebration of Beyoncé, we don’t view this as complementary or something playful. Rather, it is little more than a continuation of the larger historical narrative. It is the embodiment of Imani Perry’s insightful discussion of the simultaneity of racism and commodification: “The love of black culture with the simultaneous suspicion and punishment of black bodies is not unusual” (Perry, p.28).

And whether or not Lessard is a fan, loves Beyoncé or black culture, is irrelevant considering the larger context. Read against history, and read through a prism of the persistent demonization of black women’s bodies, this is yet another instance where representations of black female bodies are under attack. Lessard’s inclination to name this “golden-haired bum” insect after Beyoncé is a throwback or a longing for a racist past when bodies of black women were commodities; available to anyone white who could afford to pay the price. It reminds us of the perverse reality of our society’s obsession with black women’s buttocks and makes us wonder, “is this a perpetuation or reenactment of Sarah Bartmann’s troubling story in the twenty-first century?”

Bartmann, know as “Hottentot Venus,” was a South African woman whose body was put on display in London and Paris in 1816. While in Europe, she was locked in a cage and forced to rock back and forth to emphasize her “wild and dangerous nature”–and “big” black behind (Collins 2004). To onlookers, Bartmann’s body was a sign of racial differences, which supported ideas of black inferiority. While “performing,” she was forced to endure prodding and poking as people tried to understand for themselves, up close and personally, whether or not her buttocks was “normal” or a freak of nature. From Bartmann to Josephine Baker to contemporary video women, it is important to read the scientific hearing (and cultural production) within a larger history. None of this is innocent. Think about the recent comments about Michelle Obama, the fixation on Serena Williams’ body, the national panic over Janet Jackson breast, and the racist demonization of black women in Psychology Today.

Continue reading @ A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé | The Feminist Wire.

Red Tails, Not the Silver Bullet of Racism

Red Tails, Not the Silver Bullet of Racism

by Marc Arsell Robinson

Many people who concern themselves with race in America apparently think of racism, or racial inequality, as a sort of werewolf.  And the silver bullet to kill this werewolf is the positive portrayal of African Americans in popular culture.  At times, this investment in Black representations also manifest in discourses around “role models.”  This problematic line of reasoning, that positive images are what is most needed to address racial inequality, has motivated much of the attention given to Red Tails, and even the film itself.  In his interview on The Daily Show, producer George Lucas said he wanted to make Red Tails to show Black teenage boys that “they have heroes” who were “real American heroes.”

The overemphasis on giving Black youth positive images and role models is problematic for several reasons.  For one, it plays into assumptions that pathologize Black parents, families and communities.  This overemphasis elides structural inequalities, privileges patriarchal thinking, and contains an ambiguous notion of what a positive image is.

Does Red Tails have any value?  Yes absolutely, a film that features a variety of capable, skilled, educated Black male heroes is certainly a need respite from the endless stream of White heroes in American popular culture.  When talking to my son about the film (who like me is African American), he expressed great pleasure in having a Black hero movie because such films are so rare.  Undoubtedly, many other movie goers had similar reactions to the film, which should not be discounted.

And, despite my critical lens, I too enjoyed the film—even with its predictable plot, poor dialogue, and inconsistent acting.  I also appreciate how Red Tails has sparked interest in Tuskegee Airmen history, inspiring such articles as Henry Louis Gates’ piece about important women who the film left out like Mary McLeod Bethune and Willa Beatrice Brown.  We even got a touching story about a romance between two Tuskegee Airmen, Herbert and Mildred Hemmons, who feel in love while flying airplanes together.  The excavation of such history is another laudable result of Red Tail’s release, even though it is not the first film to cover this topic.

However, I am troubled by the deep investment in positive images I see surrounding the making a reception of the film for three main reasons.  First off, it elides the structural realities that contribute to Black youth unemployment, drop-out rate, incarceration, and others ills.  Leaving structural barriers out of the conversation easily slides into the conservative sentiment in favor of cutting anti-poverty and social welfare programs, claiming poor communities need role models rather than resources.  This perspective was recently advocated by Rick Tyler, former aid and current campaign supporter of Newt Gingrich, on MSNBC.  Role models and positive images do have a value, but focusing of them is all too easy because it facilitates the avoidance of more difficult issues of employer discrimination, school funding disparities, biased drug enforcement, and other types of institutionalized racism.

Secondly, this discourse around the need for positive images is problematic because it often harbors an underlying sexist, male bias.  Lacking any Black female characters, Red Tails obviously reflects male-centered priorities.  Lucas’ interview on The Daily Show where he said, “I wanted to make an inspirational [movie] for teenage boys,” further verifies this point.  Efforts to specifically address young Black males can be a good thing, as long as they are balanced against American patterns of androcentrism.  Regrettably, Red Tails fails in that regard.

Thinking about reception the film received, even getting a private screening hosted by President Obama, we must consider Charing Ball’s provocative question, “Why Are We Expected to Line Up for Red Tails But Not Pariah?”  One major reason is because Red Tails plays into patriarchal patterns wherein the lives, deeds, and experiences of Black men are valued and celebrated over those of Black women.  This focus on male achievement supports oppressive, Moynihan Report-type narratives that link African American social betterment to Black male domination.

Finally, the never ending search for positive Black images is problematic because of the ambiguity of what constitutes a “positive” image.  Do to the heterogeneity and ideological diversity of Black Americas, Black folks inevitably will differ on whether an image is positive or not.  Some will see the heroic, fighter pilots of Red Tails as obviously positive.  Others, like Courtland Milloy of The Washington Post, will see the film as negative.  Milloy described the pilots as “disheveled, undisciplined, crude and uncouth, they are the exact opposite of the real men who served in the all-black fighter group” and admonished the film as a “happy-go-lucky hip-hop war movie.”   I have heard similar criticism of the film from others, such as an African American student of mine who wrote the Southern drawl of Neyo’s character sounded ignorant.

What these criticisms indicate is the futility of searching for an image that all African Americans we see as positive.  The history of Black images in entertainment is full of debates over one image or another, illustrated in Marlon Riggs’ Color Adjustment.  As many scholars have argued, African Americans and their allies need to put aside the politics of respectability.  Like Herman Gray, we all should question “assumptions about African American investment in representation as a route to African American membership in national culture” (2).  And we should fully acknowledge that even the perfect image, with the ideal role model, will not be the silver bullet of racial inequality.

Marc Arsell Robinson is a PhD candidate in the American Studies Program and teaches in the Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies Department at Washington State University.  His dissertation is on the Black Student Union and Black Power in the late 1960’s.  Follow him @MarcARobinson1

Marc Robinson: Priceless Footage, but Limited as a Teaching Tool: Black Power Mixtape (2011)

Priceless Footage, but Limited as a Teaching Tool: Black Power Mixtape (2011) – Film Review

Marc Arsell Robinson

Special to No Tsuris

Black Power Mixtape (2011) is a documentary about the Black Power Movement that uses footage taken by Swedish filmmakers between 1967 and 1975.  It is the latest in a string of documentaries about the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements released in the past few years.  These include Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power (2005), Neshoba: The Price of Freedom (2008), Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968 (2009), and Soundtrack for a Revolution (2010).  The archival footage in Mixtape contributes priceless visual imagery of 1960’s and 1970’s Black politics, but the film itself lacks a coherent or engaging narrative.

The film does provide exceptional moments, such as when Stokely Carmichael interviews his mother about their family’s struggles during Stokely’s childhood.  Best of all is an impromptu speech given by Angela Davis about White repressive violence and Black self-defense.  As David Leonard wrote in another review of the film, “Humanizing the movement and focusing on the interpersonal dynamics in a core theme of the film.”

However, as a historical text, I found the film disappointing.  Undoubtedly, the movie was limited by the footage available; and it even opens with the following statement, “This film…does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.”  Thus, its creators deserve credit for recognizing Mixape’s shortcomings.  Yet, although the documentary’s weaknesses can be forgiven, they unfortunately limit the film’s use as a teaching tool.

At times Mixtape presents an inaccurate chronology, like when it introduces the Black Panthers in its 1969 section, even though the organization was formed in 1966.  In addition, the latter section of the film, on 1970-1975, becomes increasingly unfocused as the film shifts to concentrate on Black ghetto life and drug usage.  The narrative further breaks down when the War on Drugs is discussed, which did not begin in earnest until the 1980’s.  While the introduction and promotion of drugs like heroin, and later crack cocaine, certainly deserves a place in the story of Black Power, here it undermines the films coherence.

Moreover, the section on the 1970’s leaves out other notable developments such as the proliferation of Black cultural nationalism in the form of fashion, food, entertainment and culture.  Also left out is Black Power’s increasing presence in electoral politics such as the Black Panthers’ bid for offices in Oakland and the Black Political Conventions of the early 70’s.  Other topics that could have been address were the proliferation of Black Studies and Black Power’s impact in education, as well as the issues of masculinity and gender within the movement.  Unfortunately, Mixtape ends up perpetuating the erroneous notion that the Black Power Movement was effectively over by 1971, save the Angela Davis trial.

Therefore, Mixtape would not be best for 100 or 200 level students, or as an introductory source on the Black Power Movement.  Certain sections might be useful, but other films like Eyes on the Prize: Power!, Eyes on the Prize: A Nation of Law?, Negroes with Guns, and Scarred Justice are better suited for introductory purposes.  However, for advanced students and scholars of the period, the film provides invaluable imagery of the 1960’s and 70’s Black Freedom Struggle.

Marc A. Robinson is a PhD candidate in the American Studies Program and teaches in the Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies Department at Washington State University.  His dissertation is on the Black Student Union and Black Power in the late 1960’s.  Follow him @MarcARobinson1.

Javon Johnson @NewBlackMan: “Right Thru Me”: Authenticity, Performance, and the Nicki Minaj Hate



“Right Thru Me”: Authenticity, Performance, and the Nicki Minaj Hate

by Javon Johnson | special to NewBlackMan

I began teaching at the University of Southern California in fall 2010 as the Visions and Voices Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow. Among others, one of my duties as Postdoc is to teach African American Popular Culture. One of the biggest difficulties with teaching a course such as this is the seemingly impossible task of trying to get my students to move beyond simply labeling aspects of Black pop culture as good or bad – that is, getting them to unearth and critically discuss the political, social, economic, and historical stakes in Black film, music, theater, dance, literature and other forms of Black popular culture.

I struggled mightily with getting them to see how a Black artist or sports figure could simultaneously be good and bad and how those labels, even when collapsed, do little to explain how violent rap lyrics are used as justification for unfair policing practices in Black communities, how literature and music is often used as a means for many Black people to enter into a political arena that historically denied us access, or even how Black popular culture illustrates that the U.S., since pre-Civil War chattel slavery, has had, and will continue to have, a perverse preoccupation with Black bodies.

My class is not the only group of people who have trouble moving beyond the ever-limiting dualities of good and bad. Like my students who could not wait to tell me all of the reasons they feel Nicki Minaj is a bad artist, icon, and even person, many Black people that I speak with are quick to throw the Harajuku Barbie under the bus on account that, as one of my students put it, “She makes [Black women] look bad, like all we are good for is ass, hips, and partying.” Fellow rappers such as Lil Mama and Pepa have commented on Nicki’s over-the-top dress up and character voices, with Kid Sister asking, “do people take her seriously?” What is most troubling about comments such as these is how reductive they are, how readily they dismiss Black women’s identity possibilities, in that anyone who dresses and talks like Nicki must be selling out and doing a disservice to real hip-hop, real Black people, and real women.

The politics of selling out aside, I am deeply troubled with how we read Lady Gaga as a brilliant postmodern pop artist and Nicki as little more than a fake who plays dress up for cash. What does that say about our understandings of Black women as related to the politics of respectability? Nicki disserves applause for carving out a space in an overly male dominated rap world, and, as she did in a recent Vibe.com interview, she often uses that space to tell women and girls they “are beautiful…sexy…[and powerful because] they need to be told that.”

Mixing the zaniness of ODB and Busta Rhymes with lyrical prowess of Lil Wayne and the creativity of Lil Kim and Andre 3000, all wrapped in a Strangé Grace Jones bow, the fact that Nicki can tell all the men in rap, or perhaps the world for that matter, “you can be the king or watch the queen conquer,” that is – join me or be destroyed by me, highlights the strength and boldness she possesses.

More than her ability to dominate a male driven hip-hop community or the lines promoting women’s empowerment throughout her work, it is her playfulness, coupled with her perceived sexuality and gender identity that causes the most panic. It is our inability to define and pin down Nicki’s identities that scare us most. Her voices and dress up lead many to question not only if Nicki is “real,” that indefinable quality that permeates every fiber of hip-hop, but also for some to question her sexuality. In a hip-hop world where the most valuable currency is authenticity, the anxiety, or hate for that matter, Nicki causes stem mostly from the fact that she puts front stage all the things most rappers hide behind the curtains. Her entire persona, which relies on a healthy amount of theatricality, exposes how the real is as constructed as the reel, which makes her performance shattering because too many of us invest a lot in the idea that hip-hop is undeniable and unapologetic truth.

In this way, it is my larger contention that we are reading Nicki Minaj all wrong. Rather than figuring her characters, voices, and costumes as faking, I propose that we read it as making, as a performance of multiple reals that exist on the same body. And, it is quite precisely her Barbie like plasticity, her ability to mold herself into the woman she needs to be at any given moment, which is most amazing. Nicki’s malleability, her ability to be such a monster and such a lady in the same verse, complicates our understanding of identity performances to account for the ways in which people can be dynamic, complex, contradictory, and fractured beings all at once.

via NewBlackMan: “Right Thru Me”: Authenticity, Performance, and the Nicki Minaj Hate.