Rhetorics and Ambiguity

Fictional book titles
Johan Deckmann (graphic artist)

As a black woman I rarely have the privilege of perceiving nakedness and lack of direction as “freeing”—quite the opposite. The point is not to evoke an essentialist stance, but to caution against the potential for a type of solipsism born of white heteronormative neoliberal paradigms. There’s good reason as to why black churchgoing women’s unique testimony involves being “clothed and in our right minds.”

Directionless-ness

Compelled to respond in the mode of cyberflâneus—as opposed to the flâneur, her masculine counterpart—the creative and critical endeavors I pursue seek and receive pleasure from visual, spatial, and tactile sensations, as the deliberate fashioning of online and real world personas across the darker parts of the rainbow. The constraints of respectability politics, of course, compel the performance of citizenship of the industrious and productive variety—in other words, that of a crafty black woman whose labor constantly threatens cooptation. Dwelling in this space as a woman otherwise, risks the designation of “digital streetwalker.” Feminine bodies, we’re told, must caution against following blind wanderlust, whether virtual or real.

Smart ways to use poetry in a street fight
Johan Deckmann (graphic artist)

Rhetoric is the battleground of ideas and budding composition teachers should be encouraged to recognize the stakes in such battles. Intradisciplinary contests between cultural studies and technical writing, now being fought over critical approaches to highly politicized issues, are actually a strong sign of the intellectual vitality of rhetoric and composition education. On either end of the spectrum, digital humanities needs to be applied creatively, as foundational to academic inquiry. 

I guess this is why I insist on playing with elements of rhetoric to resist, even antagonize, systemic instances of neoliberal misogynoir at times. At the same time I acknowledge my habits/impulses to respond productively in online spaces. A digital libertine, I am not for being rotten with the Protestant work ethic… and so I think of haiku headlines as another digital composing strategy.

Doodling To Keep From Crying

While Ben Carson rambled about Hillary Clinton being a disciple of Lucifer, I decided to make some digital art that focuses on bridging a progressive Democratic coalition that will defeat Donald Trump in November. I call her Viva Negrita Rosita. It’s a remix from the  NORML Women’s Alliance Foundation web page.

And since weed advocacy isn’t exactly my ministry, I added a top portion to her ‘fro and replaced a #BLM logo instead of the original cannabis leaf… Decriminalization of marijuana will be part of the DNC platform this election cycle. I’m looking forward to seeing how partisan Democrats will present their case next week. Anything has got to be better than this #RNCinCLE sh!tshow.

Whatevs. To each their own. In the meantime, I’m just doing what I can to keep up morale for the cause.

You’re welcome!

si se puede afro chicana rosie

Teddy Bears in Bear Country: Tamir, Trayvon, Eric, Michael, Jonathan, Sam, Nate…

Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland
Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland

The “teddy bear effect” is something I’ve touched on before in this blog and is now, more than ever, the topic of exigency. The slayings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among many others whose names are yet fully known bring to mind the work of one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Award winners: Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Deathworthy” study about how the dark skin and African looking facial characteristics of black defendants are highly correlated to the likelihood of their being sentenced to the death penalty.

The spontaneous memorials, such as the one pictured above, have popped up at sites where police (or wannabe cops) have murdered unarmed, often adolescent black males all speak to teddy bears as a visual and spatial phenomenon of race. Alongside the realities uncovered in the Deathworthy study, is another study by Robert Livingston. Coined the “teddy bear effect,” researchers demonstrated how and why our society can enact the “postracial” iteration of Jim Crow in the form of mass incarceration and all these brutal police killings directly alongside the amazing success of the Barack Obama presidency.

It seems, according to the evidence, that successful African American leadership —beyond impressive credentials, competence, and diligence — is accompanied by certain “disarming mechanisms” such as physical and behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of black threat held by the dominant culture. It appears that some black men have developed an extraordinary psychological capacity to affect the feelings of comfort engendered by persceptions of cuteness in order to assuage white racial anxieties about black men’s purported criminality. Among these disarming mechanisms is that of “babyfaceness,” which some African American men physically possess (and may intentionally play up) because they realize how whites experience their “cuteness” as helpful in reducing the perception of black aggression. White experiences of fear or intimidation may actually be a cultural form of subconscious projection due to the realistic threat suffered by blacks because whites’ possess such inordinately higher levels of social power vis-à-vis their black counterparts in most cases.

Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).
Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).

Deathworthiness versus babyfaceness serves as empirical evidence of the quantifiably predictable quality of “cuteness” as a racial construct that too often means life or death for our black brothers, partners, and sons. It’s interesting that both studies, particularly in the case of Livingston, make clever nods towards the heavily anthologized Brent Staples essay, Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space,” in which the essayist refers to his habit of coping with whites’ perception of black male threat as a “tension-reducing” tactic meant to assuage white fears and and offer a sense of racial comfort in the public sphere. The kicker comes when Staples admits how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country” and speaks most eloquently to the strange dilemma of masculine empowerment and racial entrapment experienced by black men when moving through public space.  

Teddy bears in bear country, sadly, is the perfect trope for the beastly outcomes derived from the unchecked racist policies and legal processes of white American culture and jurisprudence.   #BlackLivesMatter

#Grateful for the Life of Maya Angelou

Last week we lost another great one: Maya Angelou. Or, rather, Dr. Angelou, as she preferred to be called. When it came to addressing her by her honorific/title, nobody got a pass — not even Oprah.

Maya Angelou was awarded an honorary doctorate from Wake Forest University where she was Professor Emeritus and resided in Winston-Salem, North Carolina from her latter years up until her final passing. As a longtime North Carolinian, it seemed I was never more than one degree of separation from the artist-activist and attended several of her lectures and guest appearances over the years.As a public figure, Angelou was a towering presence — a descriptor that goes far beyond her once elegant frame. In her role as private citizen, apart form her public persona, I had a few occasions to partake of her charm and wit, though I also gleaned how Angelou could pose a rather intimidating — and at times downright disagreeable — presence.

It didn’t take much to note that Dr. Angelou would have no truck with any type of behavior she viewed as disrespectful or inappropriate. She had no problem whatsoever with instructing those around her in the correct manner by which they should conduct themselves in her company if they ever found themselves in the unfavorable position of not living up to her exceedingly high standards. Like all of us, she was a work in progress and maintained her strong ideals as something she expected herself and those around her to be continuously striving toward. Angelou was perfectly transparent regarding her own struggles to become a good Christian and decent human being.

The rhetorician in me is the part that will miss her most. As a scholar interested in the power of public address, it is her voice and the historical moment it represents that fascinates. Hearing the sonorous tones in her speech will always recall for me memories of the elderly church mothers I grew up listening to and imitating. The first row of churchgoing women took a special liking to me because of my ability to emulate their speaking when it was my turn to read the Sunday School card-class lessons, making me the happy recipient of whatever butterscotch or peppermint hard candies their patent-leather clutch handbags held. The way these white-gloved church mothers pronounced their words with such precision sharply contrasted with the staccato short-hand of my hip-hop contemporaries. Their earnestly delivered announcements of the weekly “sick and shut-in” list and hyper-proper recitations of Sunday scripture were uttered as if each syllable was deserving of its own special pew.

Maya Angelou’s high African American rhetoric, I believe, held audiences with rapt attention in a similar way. The expressivity of Angelou’s speech embodied sonic vestiges of late-Victorian epistolary inflections no longer found in most African American communities. The radical eloquence demonstrated by Maya Angelou’s speaking style effectively operated to appropriate the “master’s language” and audibly articulate black agency in order to subvert de jure segregation and race-based educational discrimination. Her manner of speaking was meant to celebrate the tenacity of African Americans’ collective will not to merely survive, but indeed thrive — and with a flair for the erudite, to boot. With Maya Angelou’s passing this covertly political style of black speech will be missed in mainstream American media. Regretfully, for many, a pithy soundbite and a Hallmark card aphorism is all that is left.

picture of Mahogany greeting card with Maya Angelou quote: "Do not reject. Do not demand. You can have life in the palm of your hand."
Maya Angelou’s “Mahogany” line of Hallmark greeting cards.

Though in my mind — as an African American mother, and a scholar of writing and rhetoric — Maya Angelou posed much too significant a figure for the occasion of her death to be marked with nothing more than a social media hashtag or image file of her glamorous, youthful heyday, accompanied by little else beyond one of her many well-turned phrases. Whereas she was most popularly known for her short poems, I don’t think a cut-paste of “Phenomenal Woman” will do her justice. As Angelou herself often noted, she was clever with words. The subject of her attention to craft was at times a topic of great debate among other African American poets. Whether this is fair to Angelou’s literary contributions, I cannot say. Although I have studied and thought about poetry slightly more than the average American reader, I don’t fancy myself an expert on what constitutes “serious poetry,” nor do I necessarily assume expertise about assessing one poem as “good” and another as “bad.”

As a casual reader of memoirs, however, I most value Angelou’s talent as a writer of the autobiographical form. Of course, her first autobiography is also her most celebrated work.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings powerfully conveys Angelou’s gift for personal narrative. Her socio-historical account of individual capacity for greatness and resilience in spite of childhood trauma is rightfully recognized as a well-crafted memoir. It is through this genre of her writing that Angelou’s prose emerges with a special resonance. She shows herself to be a foremost chronicler of the latter part of the Jim Crow era in her story of growing up in Arkansas. Her rich anecdotes beautifully capture the turbulent times that led toward her fulfilling her unique cultural niche, and prepared her for the space she would eventually find herself occupying in the singular role of vernacular dance performer, civil rights activist, political fundraiser, and occasional agent provacatuer.

Maya Angelou as vernacular artist or self-described "shake dancer"
Maya Angelou as vernacular artist or self-described “shake dancer”

Perhaps because of my own experience as an expat and having once been a young, single mother living in Accra, Ghana, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is by far my favorite of all her autobiographical works. In this book, she describes how she took on the role of personal host and special consort to the likes of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, among many other literary, political, and diplomatic luminaries of the Black Power and African Independence movements — all too numerous to name in this short reflection. Through this richly textured account of Angelou’s decade of wanderlust against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century Africa’s global decolonization movements, All God’s Children proved to be an indispensable companion during my sojourn year following the 9-11 attacks leading up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angleou’s writing helped me better contextualize what I was encountering in the social and political turmoil I personally experienced while toggling between West African airports, local guesthouses, and gated estate communities. Fed up with stateside jingoism and hawkishness, reading Angelou’s prose provided me with meaning and gave context to the social and historical forces I saw in play. Her writing gave me the much needed explanatory power I sought for a better understanding of the cultural dynamics that I was seeing and experiencing first-hand: the coup d’etat in Ivory Coast, Liberian living conditions at UN refugee camps, and Ghana’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, to name just a few of these life-changing events. Reading All God’s Children offers the perfect vantage point for understanding the ground that was laid by her generation of black woman cultural workers and gave me the strength to return home to North Carolina and assume my local share of the work required for bringing about a more expansive vision of global ethics as a black woman and as an American. Yes. This is what Angelou’s gift was to me, and to us all. She showed us how to strive to become better, more responsive Americans and citizens of the world.

Portrait d’une negresse: Artfully Remixed?

benoist-louboutin-obamaThe painting furthest to the left is called Portrait d’une négresse by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. The artist, a daughter born in 1768 to Parisian civil servants in 1768, created this painting in 1800 — only six years after the French ended their part in the African slave trade. Now housed in the Louvre, Portrait d’une négresse has since become a symbol of women’s rights and freedom for black people.

This iconic image has inspired countless imitations. A notable example is the Christian Louboutin 2011 Fall Lookbook based on several classic portraits photographed by Peter Lippmann. More recently there’s been the cover of Magazine Fuera de Serie (a lifestyle supplement to Spanish newspaper, Expansión) featuring a composite image of Benoist’s young slave girl, re-imagined as America’s first lady seated on the stars and stripes.

The reference is easily recognized by anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with the canon of fine art. Unfortunately, given the impoverished state of humanities education in America, the iconic meaning of this image has gone completely missed in the popular blogosphere.

The message, as Benoist originally intended it, represents the black woman as a figure of innocence and mercy. For the Hispanic world, deeply influenced by Catholicism, this representation of Michelle Obama inserts itself within the richly historical iconography of Our Lady of Guadalupe (or the Virgin Mary). The Spanish magazine article speaks of the first lady in glowing terms through the use of descriptive language like “intelligent, strong and classy” in order to convey the idea that Michelle functions as the president’s political backbone and social conscious.

Recent viewings of the magazine’s cover image have been mis-recognized by the American media. This, I think, is related to America’s cultural puritanism, which assigns any display of black female nudity to the field of anthropological curiosity or places it strictly within the domain of the pornographic. This point is aroused (all puns intended) whenever the subject of the black female nude is raised. Most American media outlets have obscured the offending nipple with strategic pixel placement or otherwise subjected the chocolate-colored areola to some other arbitrary redaction method. (Coverage of Mrs. Obama’s breast with a huge red star is among the most curious editorial objects noticed.)

This latest media dust-up reminds me of Janet Jackson’s Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” controversy and demonstrates, by extension, America’s cultural fascination with the black breast — brown nipples, in particular — and highlights the racist American obsession with the sexual commodification of black women. Clearly, we can look at America’s antebellum exploitative labor practices of “employing” black women as wet-nurses for the children of white slave holders and understand this as a profound historical example. More generally, the cultural denial of breasts’ primary function for purposes of basic nutritional sustenance and the sexual fixation on this particular part of the human anatomy as an erotic object, when juxtaposed with the Eurocentric fixation on the gradient of colors from brown to black as signifying dirt or evil, might explain why this paradox still persists. Reactions to this Michelle Obama composite image easily call to mind a host of racist discourses surrounding black bodily hygiene.

What I find most interesting is related to the dismal state of visual literacy among Americans, which proves that critical approaches to reading images are so badly needed today. Alongside the nipple being perceived as indecent and improper, there is the problem of an overemphasis on appearance and form over contexts and content. (One gets the distinct sense that the same folk who can’t hold it together over a few misplaced commas and semicolons are the same individuals who are losing their minds over the sight of a little brown areola.)

As previously mentioned, so much ado surrounding the Spanish magazine’s supposed bad form has the unfortunate effect of overtaking the particular logos of the article and the collective ethos of Spanish religio-cultural aesthetic sense, in general. Moreover, and most egregiously, it seems to ignore the artistic pathos of Karine Percheron-Daniels who is known for her nude figure celebrity mash-ups. In fact, not only does the online version of the magazine article feature a nude likeness of Michelle Obama, but also featured are those of Princess Diana, Kate Middleton, and (yes!) Barack Obama too — all portrayed as classical nudes in repose.

Legacy: Alligator Bait, Civil Rights, and Art

For most African Americans – whether child or adult – not even the cuteness of a cherubic face and genuine innocence could provide refuge from the legal persecution or casual viciousness of white racism. The Florida Tourism Board’s practice of distributing these “alligator bait” postcards (well into the 20th century) speaks to this issue most profoundly. It is probably fair to argue that these images would have never been interrogated up until this point if it had not been for the intervention of African American visual rhetors who sought to reverse the inhumane effects of American US racism.

By the time the United States was founded, Africans enslaved in America were forced by physical and legal sanction to watch their every word and action for fear of punishment or death. This is important to contrast this with the fact that whites, on the other hand, had complete freedom – were actually encouraged – to reveal their vilest racial feelings. The need to express the slightest decorum for the expression of racist opinions was non-existent – least of all in the public square. During slavery and Jim Crow it was a commonplace assumption made by many whites that no black could be trusted – not even with the knowledge of the alphabet. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that anyone who was considered black, no matter what, was subject to being demonized and treated accordingly. As a matter of basic everyday existence, blacks were to be denied the fundamental virtue of innocence from the cradle to the grave. Any public injunction by American courts for the forthright expressions of racist behaviors and practices was not to occur for many decades. This issue continues to haunt black existence.

Fast forward to June 1964, when a group of black and white protesters sought to integrate a public recreational space by jumping into the swimming pool at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine, Florida. As difficult as it may be to imagine today, the owner responded by pouring muriatic acid into the pool, endangering the lives of peacefully frolicking demonstrators. Luckily, a photograph of this heinous incident was captured and broadcasted around the world.This photo has since become among the most famous images from the Civil Rights Movement.

A few years ago Brian Owens, an Orlando based sculptor, was commissioned to commemorate the historic event and pay homage to the brave citizens who risked their lives for equality and a refreshing swim on a hot Florida day. Entitled, “St. Augustine Foot Soldiers,” here is a picture of the memorial sculpture, which rests today in the heart of the town square.

Carrying on a proud legacy is something Owens knows a lot about, as he is the son of the late African American graphic illustrator and portraitist, Carl Owens.  Here is a link to Brian Owens’s flicker stream showing the process behind his painstaking craft.