[30 April 2009]
Feet don’t fail me now: Theme songs for breaking stereotypes in America
Here’s your chance to make your way out of your constriction
One of the most interesting aspects of being Black in America is dealing with strongly visible, widely circulated racial stereotypes. Retired bad-ass baller Charles Barkley recently said it best with a book Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?, whose title says quite a bit. I know of a six-foot-plus middle school Black boy whose school administrators unconscious minds are so thoroughly steeped in stereotypes as to feel so terrorized by him that they escort the child between classes separating him during lunch and other activities. This all further ostracizes the kid and teaches him—albeit fearfully flawed pedagogically—that we live in a society that fears big Black men, despite, and obviously in spite of that particular child’s talents and circumstances. In America, we live in a society that bred richly fertile black wenches and black bucks, but no sooner did we win our liberation did our image of virility turn heavily towards that of social pariah. Death, destruction, dark, violent, the scary-looking Hindu goddess Kali is the “ultimate reality” in some Tantric beliefs, despite the only global incarnation of Tantra is reduced to its sexual connotations—again mirroring the view of the big, sexualized, poverty stricken, scary Black Man.
Interesting that many cultures view the power of creation and destruction as one in the same—both aspects of life that must be respected. For Hindus, for example, the goddess Kali (literally and figuratively Black) and Brahma (figuratively, favorably very fair skinned) represents these forces, and devotees admire and adorn the two. Polarized, in this sense, neither implies a detachment, nor demonization of one over the other. For contemporary Hindus, Kali connotes ‘time and change’. Nonetheless, we Americans live in a culture that demonizes power in one way—the Devil—while idolizing the other—God—vastly polarizing and detaching the two. Neither is really real to us, both ethereal—as surreal as a middle school kid representing any real threat to some old, white, middle class, liberal white school administrators. Everybody is in some race, gender and class-constricting box of who we must be. Moreover, this is the ultimate reality for Black boys and men in America, so neatly fixed and reinforced is our box, and perhaps that of many; I can only speak from personal experience and encourage others to witness and testify, too. That kid needs to know ways to find himself out of that constriction of other people’s hang-ups about him. He needs much, much more guidance than what his school is funking for, and so luckily he inherits, fortunately we are able to bequeath him:
Gonna be freakin’! /Up and down /Hang-up alley way /With the groove our /Only guide /We shall all be moved
The groove behind Funkadelic’s September 1978 One Nation Under a Groove jam is deliciously catchy. Dave Chappelle used the tune as the theme to an early stand-up comedy special that he performed in Washington D.C. Dave laughed at crack-heads and white flight in our nation’s capital—all chains of oppression, people doing what their race, gender and class stereotypes instruct them to do. Years later, the city has been cleaned out (white-washed), and my white middle class friends stumble over their words when reporting their recent visits to our nation’s capital; many seem to admire the gentrification that has taken place. Black folks notice our absence in the original chocolate city. Michelle brings classes of kids into her majestic home—made majestic by its present occupants not its lineage—and tells these young Americans and reminding onlooking journalists, that slave labor built the White House; this is how she painted it Black. The beat to that song takes anybody right down and straight on through hang-up alley way, so you’d better promise to funk, the whole funk, and nothin’ but the funk, if you wanna be free from these earthly, desirous chains.
One of two memories I have of my father before he left my mother and I when I was five-years-old is of him making me carry on dancing when he walked into the room and caught me catching a groove. He planted a seed that grew lushly despite the harsh, arid conditions of its cultivation. After he left, there were few other spaces for me to carry on my groove outside of African dance classes and performances, or my cousins and I dancing at home. Still, there was little to account for this big fat West African ass standing right off the small of my back, and even less in my environment to explain why I needed to move and shake it in order to make sense of the world. All I saw was Ugly on big and small screens in anything that looked like me. Kids teased and taunted me for my ass moving back and forth like a pendulum when I walk. I can’t help it, I’d say to myself, even though I tried my level best to walk like other boys and men. That tune has since changed to, I wouldn’t help it, even if I could, so far has my journey towards self-love taken me. And the crowd sang: Do a little dance/Make a little love/Get down tonight. These words are really about making a little more love in the world—Holla if you hear me!
Feet don’t fail me now (ha ha) /Here’s a chance to dance /Our way out of our constrictions
Young Black bucks all around this globe face challenges too sadistic for children’s eyes. It’s pornographic how people can sexualize our bodies, and sadistic how the public gaze peers, presents and represents Black male pain on large and small screens. Before the emergence of Obama, I am under the sincere oppression/impression that few outside of this particular racialized, gender and classed group of people are critical of how we are portrayed in the public imagination. Yet few can ignore the fields of orange overalls over brown skin behind the high prison fences nearby. Even fewer are willing to acknowledge that system’s direct lineage, born out of the death of the plantation, providing slave labor and reproducing slave conditions all the while. Each family carries on like this, passing on intergenerational pain (and hopefully pleasure).
We reproduce these fantasies in our narratives of imagination. Imagine X-Men’s Jean Grey as the all-powerful creative/destructive Phoenix—the only way for her to live is for her to die, sleighed by her own love interest. This is all that love and abandon that we Americans, and particularly the descendents of cotton-pickers, know oh so well. This is the love of shopping and the abandonment of insurmountable debt. And Black women have their Saffire. That “bitch” will beat up anybody!
People talk about Obama, and seemingly more easily about Michelle. During the campaign, folks saw her strong arms and taut buttock and could only see Saffire; yet Kali doesn’t exist in a vacuum—nor does Brahma, nor even Shiva—the cunning linguist. And if the Obama’s had a public themes song, it’d most certainly be this one:
One nation under a groove/ Gettin’ down just for the funk of it (Here’s my way to dance my way out) /Gettin’ down just for the funk of it/ One nation /And we’re on the move /Nothin’ can stop us now
Nothing can stop us should we choose to release ourselves of these chains, which bind and bond us as a nation, fixed in our torrid past. There is no forgiveness in forgetting, so lewd the suggestion that Black people just get over it! This is not a one-sided debate, any more that an A-side comes with a B-side hit, any more than Black people own our collective history of slavery. In a sense, we were all victims, and even those immigrants today arrive in a messy household, struggling to make sense of where it all went wrong. Mahalia sings—shouts, actually—about how she got over. Mahalia faces creation and death, love and happiness, death and pain, with the same courage and fervor, making each indistinguishable—whole and sane. No stereotype of how we should be burst her bubble and capacity to heal. Mahalia was the real John Coffey, that fictional character from the 1999 film The Green Mile, with a pornographic portrayal of a Black man with the God-like power to heal others and take away pain, yet choosing his own death, i.e. suicide, rather than fleeing or altering the Jim and Jane Crow, Apartheid South that served as his box. Quite contrary to Coffey, and many fictionalized skin flics (indeed, flesh on trial) with Magic Negroes, Mahalia chose life and got over many, any tribulations.
Even on the interpersonal level, there is no forgiveness in forgetting, and there is no progress in regret. When we promise to funk, to face truth unheard, and trust evidence unseen but known, we commit ourselves to a broader path of liberation, and therein resides our potential for progress. Just as any one child seeks, needs and deserves encouragement to reach tier potential, so, too, do we as adults seek, need and feel our potential squashed by fear of the other, fear of change. Change is inevitable, so let us make it sweet, let’s forgive one another and ourselves for past atrocities, for past transgression into being weak. When we acknowledge our weakness, we simultaneously accept our potential for strength; ignoring one effaces the other. Hence, in facing the two can we be really, really strong as one nation under a groove, getting down and doing the best we can. Oh yes we can get down on the good foot, together, powerful, whole and sane.