Stuart Hall and Cultural Identities

Stuart Hall’s 1989 essay, “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation,” is a seminal piece on race and identity, situated on the crossroads between film studies and cultural theory. It has been particularly influential on my theoretical approach to Black independent cinema (specifically the L.A. Rebellion, as I wrote about last week), so I thought it only fitting to showcase some of the key points that have helped guide my thinking.

Connecting issues of representation alongside enunciation, or “the positions from which we speak or write,” he observes, “Though we speak, so to say, ‘in our own name,’ of ourselves and from our own experience, nevertheless who speaks, and the subject who is spoken of, are never exactly in the same place” (Hall 68). In other words, identity is much more complicated than we are often made to think.

Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps, instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished historical fact, which the new cinematic discourses then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation (Hall 68).

Hall outlines two different approaches to ‘cultural identity’:

The first approach to ‘cultural identity’ views it as a kind of shared culture. Here, there is the expectation that behind individual ‘selves’, there is an underlying, collective, ‘one true self’, whereby people are united by “common historical experiences and shared cultural codes” (Hall 69).

The second approach is different, but not completely oppositional to the first. It acknowledges that while our conception of ‘cultural identity’ seems to thrive on notions of similarity, elements of difference are also crucial to our construction of identity.

 We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity’, without acknowledging its other side – the differences and discontinuities which constitutes, precisely, the Caribbean’s ‘uniqueness’ (Hall 70).

This second approach views identity as something not fixed, but always in flux. As Hall puts it, “Cultural identity … is matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being,'” adding, “it belongs to the future as much as to the past” (70).

I like this way of thinking not only of histories, but of futures, too. Cultural identities are not ahistorical. They are not resistant to the changes that come with time, place and history (Hall 70). Cultural identity, therefore, “is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute Return” (Hall 72).

If we think about this interplay of time, perhaps we can better understand this notion of ‘becoming,’ not as something linear, but rather as a kind of web, weaving across time, place, history, and culture. A web where lines can be added, broken, mended, forgotten, remembered. And because it is always in process, a web is never really ‘complete’; conversely, no matter how many lines we add or mend, we can never really return to that original form. The web is positioned within a particular time, place, history, and culture.

 Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant trans-formation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past (Hall 70).

Reflecting on his childhood in Kingston, Hall explores the influence of ‘Africa’ on Afro-Caribbean identity. While the ‘discovery’ of African connections in the Caribbean lead to a new construction of “Jamaican-ness,” or an “indiginous cultural revolution” in the 1970s, Hall is still wary of how Africa might be viewed as ahistorical. He argues, “The original ‘Africa’ is no longer there. It too has been transformed. History is, in that sense, irreversible” (75).

What perpetuates this notion of an ‘old’ or ‘original’ Africa? Well, like many issues of representation, it has its roots in the ‘European Presense’ (Hall 76). In colonial fashion, Europe has a tendency to speak for ‘others,’ situating Afro-Caribbean identity (in this case) within the “dominant regimes of representation” (Hall 76). Think of typical Hollywood portrayals of Africa, for example, where self-representations are silenced and exotic misrepresentations run rampant.

Hall thus calls upon Caribbean cinema to reclaim representations from the ‘European Presense’. To return to Africa, but ‘by another route,’ and to re-tell how Africa has actually become, and how it continues its becoming (Hall 76).

As Hall argues, cinema is not a “second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exists,” it is a “form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover who we are” (Hall 80).

If identity is constructed within, not outside, representation, then we must reevaluate who is being represented, and who creating those representations (Hall 80).

Then, what kind of futures can our representations hold?

 

Sources:

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation.” Framework, vol. 0, no. 36, 1989, https://search-proquest-com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/docview/1311784516?accountid=12378.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

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Rebels With a Cause

Since beginning my research on Julie Dash’s films this past winter, I have become fascinated by a particular movement in US black independent cinema dubbed, the “L.A. Rebellion.”

Following the civil unrest of the late 1960s, marked by the Watts Uprising of 1965, as well as the ongoing Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, a group of young African and African American students entered the UCLA School of Film, Television, and Theatre as part of an “Ethno-Communications initiative” launched to address the concerns of communities of colour (“The Story of the L.A. Rebellion,” n.p.). Some notable students associated with this initiative include: Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woodberry, and of course, Julie Dash.

According to Ntongela Masilela, the cultural aims and artistic practices of this group were “inseparable from the political and social struggles and convulsions of the 1960s” (qtd. in Martin, 2). Unlike Hollywood, these filmmakers drew inspiration from Third world theorists, philosophies of black consciousness, the practices of the Black Arts Movement, and the politics of the New Latin American Cinema movement (Martin 2; Reid 10).

Essentially, this new generation of West Coast-based filmmakers rejected the imposed standards of Hollywood, viewing it as limiting to “their artistic and political vision of black life and experience” (Reid 10). By choosing to work within “the shadows of mainstream film,” the L.A. Rebellion created a “paradigm shift in the history of black independent filmmaking” (Reid 10).

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Still from Killer of Sheep. Directed by Charles Burnett. Milestone Films, 1978. Image source: UCLA Film & Television Archive (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/story-la-rebellion).

According to Toni Cade Bambara, members of the L.A. Rebellion, who she calls “Black insurgents,” lived by an alternative set of filmmaking philosophies, including their belief that: “accountability to the community takes precedence over training for an industry that maligns and exploits, trivializes, and invisibilizes Black people” (qtd. in Rocchio, 173). Ultimately, their goals were to interrogate the conventions of mainstream cinema, to screen socially conscious content, and to consider alternatives that challenge past (mis)representations of Black individuals and communities (Rocchio 173).

In the words of one UCLA rebel, Haile Gerima:

 … I couldn’t imagine how a white supremacist structure such as Hollywood, an industry of culture that has created havoc to all human beings, could be a base for me to peacefully tell my story and experiment. Hollywood didn’t have any obligation to tolerate my search in form. The only term that Hollywood accepts is the commercial mould. And once you cease to operate within that paradigm, the industry will reject all the reasons you have to tell a story (qtd. in Reid, 11).

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Still from Child of Resistance. Directed by Haile Gerima, 1972. Image Source: UCLA Film & Television Archive (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2015/12/18/la-rebellion-book).

In a previous blog post, I wrote about Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (1984), and contemplated how her argument might apply to filmmaking.

Lorde argues: “… the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change ” (Lorde 112). Even years later, Lorde’s words seem to reverberate through the philosophies and practices of the L.A. Rebellion. Recognizing the limitations of Hollywood standards – narratively, aesthetically, and politically – the Black insurgents refused to conform to the rules of the ‘master’s house’.

 What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable (Lorde 110-111).

Understanding that real change could not take place by using the very tools of a historically racist industry, the UCLA rebels opted films styles and narrative forms that were in line more with African, Latin American, Asian, and European filmmakers who similarly worked against the Hollywood grain (Reid 11). For example, using handheld cameras created a characteristic trembling movement, shooting in familiar, urban locations, favoring discontinuous editing and nonlinear narratives, and ‘bad’ lighting, are some of the distinctive characteristics of the black independent film movement (Reid 11). Like the Italian neorealists and the French New Wave auteurs, many of these style choices were brought about by financial restraints, but it was this gritty and experimental frugality that actually helped set the rebel’s films apart.

At the same time, it wasn’t just economics that influenced L.A. Rebellion filmmaking practices. Ultimately, every aesthetic and narrative choice had a political purpose. Even the traditional use of frame rates was contested. For example, as director of cinematography for Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Arthur Jafa not only questioned “most generic film conventions,” but he also questioned “whether the standard of twenty-four-frames-per-second rate is kinesthetically the best for rendering the black experience” (Bambara xv).

Toni Cade Bambara offers a wonderfully astute analysis of a specific scene in Daughters that captures Jafa’s unconventional use of frame rates:

 A particularly breathtaking moment begins with a deep focus shot of the beach. In the foreground are men in swallowtail coats and homburgs. Some are standing, others sitting. Two or three move across the picture plane, coattails buffeted by the breeze. They speak of the necessity of making right decisions for the sake of the children. Across a stretch of sand glinting in midground, the children play on the shore in the farground. Several men turn to look at the children. In turning, their shoulders, hips, arms, form an open ‘door’ through which the camera moves; maintaining a crisp focus as we approach the children. The frame rate changes just enough to underscore the children as the future. For a split second we seem to travel through time to a realm where children are eternally valid and are eternally the reason for right action. Then the camera pulls back, still maintaining crisp focus as we cross the sands again and reenter the present, the grownups’ conversation reclaiming our attention (Bambara xv).

With this, we see what kinds of stories can emerge if we actively challenge the conventions of filmmaking. By rejecting the ‘master’s tools,’ the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion helped conceive and create a cinematic landscape that worked to represent individuals and communities that existed beyond the borders of Hollywood.

 When we call ourselves film-makers it’s because we wrote, produced, knew how to do the sound, operate the camera, to light, and when we took it into post [production] we’d edit our films physically, as well as mix the sound. We were totally immersed in it. We weren’t making films to be paid, or to satisfy someone else’s needs. We were making films because they were an expression of ourselves: what we were challenged by, what we wanted to change or redefine, or just dive into and explore (Julie Dash qtd. in Clark, n.p.)

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Still from Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash, Kino International, 1991. Image Source: UCLA Film & Television Archive (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/films/daughters-dust).

Sources:

Bambara, Toni Cade. Preface. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash, The New Press, 1992, pp. xi-xvi.

Clark, Ashley. “The LA Rebellion: when black filmmakers took on the world – and won.” The Guardian, 9 April 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/apr/09/the-la-rebellion-when-black-film-makers-took-on-the-world-and-won.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

Martin, Michael T. “‘I Do Exist’: From ‘Black Insurgent’ to Negotiating the Hollywood Divide – A Conversation with Julie Dash. ” Cinema Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2010, https://search-proquest-com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/docview/222358084?accountid=12378.

Reid, Mark A. Black Lenses, Black Voices: African American Film Now. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Rocchio, Vincent F. Reel Racism: Confronting Hollywood’s Construction of Afro-American Culture. Westview, 2000.

“The Story of the L.A. Rebellion.” UCLA Film & Television Archive, n.d., http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/story-la-rebellion.

 

© Lesley Butler, 2017 (lvb717 @ mun.ca)

From absences to senses

A few weeks ago I had a visit with my eighty-nine year old grandmother. An outing that has a 90% chance of biscuits and a 100% chance of tea. In recent years, she has taken a liking to looking at pictures on my iPhone – whenever I go to her apartment she will say excitedly, “Any new pictures on your iPad?” (iPad referring to any kind of smart phone – she often takes this as an opportunity to crack jokes about ‘eye-pads’). Most of the time I just have fairly generic pictures of landscapes, screenshots of funny images, or pictures of cats wandering around my backyard – nothing particularly interesting. But what my grandmother likes best are pictures of people – and unfortunately, a series of 5 or more minimally different pictures of the same cat outside my window leave much to be desired for my ‘audience’ (I guess the phrase “quality not quantity” would apply to me here).

On this particular day, my grandmother added a twist to our usual picture sharing regime. She hobbled across the room with her walker and handed me a rather small, faded, orange and yellow photo album, saying: “Today I have pictures for you to look at!”

I opened the cover and scanned the pictures inside – most of them black and white, some of them yellowed and wrinkled with age. Faces from long ago look out from the frame – I search for familiar features, gestures, anything to help me name my ancestors.

I look back towards my grandmother, who is now having a cup of tea with my father across the living room. I bring one of the pictures over to her and ask, “Is this you when you were a little girl?”

Before even looking at the picture, she says, “My dear, it can’t be me!”

My dad chimes in as well, “There aren’t any pictures of your grandmother as a kid – they just didn’t take any.”

Somewhat perplexed, I carried on perusing the photo album. But I could not help but think about our family’s ‘archives’: What happens when there are pieces missing? And in turn, what counts as ‘missing’?

This would be difficult to answer – and I can only speculate at this point. But this blog series has taken up similar questions of photographic representation and absence in archives. What role does privilege play in the photographic? What about power in the archives? How do we navigate our contemporary understandings of gender, race, and class when we approach historical documents?

In Woman, Native, Other (1989), Trinh T. Minh-ha opens up and challenges our standard notion of archives. She claims: “The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women” (121).

We tend to privilege the tangible, the material, as our source for History and ‘truth.’ But if we look further, there is so much more we can learn. What histories can we tell if we look beyond the written word, beyond the preserved photograph?

The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women. Patiently transmitted from mouth to ear, body to body, hand to hand. In the process of storytelling, speaking and listening refer to realities that do not involve just the imagination. The speech is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. It destroyed, brings into life, nurtures (Trinh 121).

Perhaps this is why I did not completely feel my grandmother’s absence from the photo album. While I do wonder why she was so blatantly left out of these family pictures (was it gender related? A class issue? Or something completely innocent? A broken camera maybe?), I can’t help but think that she is not entirely ‘missing’ from these ‘archives’. When I see pictures of other family members, I think about the stories my grandmother has told about them over the years. I hear her thick accent reverberating in my ears. When I see pictures of the rugged landscape of her childhood home, I smell the salt fish laid out to dry in the summertime and I feel the dewy ocean breeze on my skin. I imagine what life was like for my grandmother as in that small, Newfoundland fishing community in the 1920s, the 1930s, and beyond.

Perhaps, searching for history takes more than looking to the past. Sometimes it takes listening, feeling, smelling, tasting … opening up our senses to a world of archives, or better yet, opening up our archives to a world of senses.

Sources:

Trinh T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other. Indiana University, 1989.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

Four Women (Part 2)

In my last post, I explored the controversy of Nina Simone’s song ‘Four Women,’ which was the inspiration for Julie Dash’s film of the same name. In ‘Part 2,’ I look more closely at Dash’s visual adaptation of the song.

Some of my initial questions when coming across this film were: Why, about a decade after it’s initial release, did Dash decide to resurrect Simone’s song? Why did she dedicate one of her first filmmaking projects to this re-presentation of ‘Four Women’?

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Colourful cinematography and kinetic editing.

In “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” bell hooks (1992) explores the issues of race in cinematic representations and looking relations. hooks discusses the problematic depictions of Black individuals in American cinema, saying “When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy” (hooks 117).

Because Black communities were either underrepresented, or misrepresented, in the media, the “oppositional black gaze” responded by developing a black independent cinema that worked to redirect the images on screens (hooks 117). In the 1970s, Julie Dash emerged as one of these independent filmmakers.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Linda Martina Young dancing within the confines of a veil.

In Four Women, Dash uses Simone’s controversial song as the driving force behind her short film (it can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/74869216). As her own creative contribution to Simone’s musical narrative, Dash’s opens the film with a sequence in which dancer Linda Martina Young is wrapped in fabric, body nearly indiscernible as she twists and turns to the sounds of chanting, whips lashing, and waves crashing. The soundscape is subtle, but incredibly poignant, alluding to America’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and ultimately situating the performance within that haunting historical context.

This filmic prologue to Simone’s searing ballad effectively prompts viewers to see how legacies of slavery are reflected in contemporary Black identities.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: dancer Linda Martina Young evokes the constraints of, and resistance to, legacies of slavery.

This opening scene explicitly situates Simone’s song within the historical context of America’s racial past – it let’s the audience know that Simone’s music is not just about ‘Four Women’. It is actually for women. For the African American women, like Simone, and like Dash, who recognize the racism present in America’s past, and present. The women who persevere, and pave the way for a future that reflects their individual, and collective, wants and needs.

“Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future” (hooks 131).

In a way, Dash’s depiction of Simone’s four women through one body (the dancer, Linda Martina Young) may be interpreted as a reclamation of the stereotype that has overshadowed representations of Black female subjectivity throughout mass media.

Much like the effect of Simone singing all four verses, Dash’s film represents Black female subjectivity through the performance of the individual, allowing her to simultaneously critique the synecdochal operation of stereotypes. By re-presenting the images of Black femininity that have persisted over the years, Dash challenges the “burden of representation” by drawing attention to the political implications and the ontological limits of racial stereotyping.

In a similar sense, by pairing dance with Simone’s music, Dash’s experimental film also offers us new ways to think about black female subjectivity and black female spectatorship.

When thinking of films, it is all too easy to think of looking relations as one-directional: the subject is looked at by the spectator. However, when we speak of an oppositional gaze, hooks’ encourages us to explore the relationship between image and spectator even more closely (131). While the Black female spectator looks to the screen, how does the screen then look back upon the viewer? What kinds of representations exist for the Black female spectator?

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: offering new ways to approach critical ‘looking’.

In the case of Dash’s Four Women, we take these looking relations one step further. By having a dancer as the sole performer, Dash draws attention to the constructedness of the screen; in classic narrative film, it is all too easy to get swept away by the stories of other characters – for example, with Hollywood’s ‘seamless’ editing style – but through this experimental performance, we become more aware of the relationship between viewer and subject. The dancer performs on a stage, a place that exists for the purpose of performance. While there is no illusion of reality in Dash’s film, this, in a way, allows us to more effectively critique reality (in this case, the reality and politics of racial representation).

We as viewers are forced to recognize that we are watching a performance; we are forced to consider more closely our role as spectator and thus, interpreter of images of Black femininity.

As the four women ponder at the end of their respective verses, “What do they call me?” we, as spectators/listeners, are asked to consider our own relationship to Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Though each woman speaks for herself, we see how their perceptions of self are intertwined with how other people see them. In a way, the viewer/spectator becomes implicated in the process of stereotyping, and are called to question their own role in racial representation through critical looking relations.

Dash, like Simone, does not wish to ignore stereotypes, nor does she expect to easily eliminate them. Rather, she directly approaches them, interrogates them and re-presents them in a way that can help us to further understand the historical roots of these persistent, and indeed problematic, racial stereotypes.

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: challenging the cinematic gaze.

I think it only fitting to leave this post with Thulani Davis’s (2003) beautiful reflection on Nina Simone’s music:

“But it was “Four Women,” an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become. For African American women it became an anthem affirming our existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine. It acknowledged the loss of childhoods among African American women, our invisibility, exploitation, defiance, and even subtly reminded that in slavery and patriarchy, your name is what they call you. Simone’s final defiant scream of the name Peaches was our invitation to get over color and class difference and step with the sister who said:

My skin is brown/My manner is tough/I’ll kill the first mother I see/ My life has been rough/I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves (‘Four Women’)” (Davis n.p.).

 

Sources:

Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina       Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/74869216.

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003,           http://www.villagevoice.com/music/nina-simone-1933-2003-6410700. Accessed 6 March 2017.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Between the Lines, 1992.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,   https://open.spotify.com/album/5gHvTZO4alH9wVcWgTjJat.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

Four Women (Part 1)

Over the course of Hollywood’s relatively short history, representations of minority groups have all too often been reduced to stereotypes. Black men and women in particular have had to watch Hollywood represent their own communities through such stereotypes as: the “Tom;” the “Coon;” the “Tragic Mulatto;” the “Mammy;” and the “Buck” (Shohat 195).

These stereotypical roles not only draw attention to the skewed, one-dimensional view of race in Hollywood (and perhaps the United States more broadly), but they also draw attention to the complex relationships between representation, performance, and stereotypes (Shohat 195).

Filmmaker Julie Dash explored these issues in one of her earlier short films, Four Women, which sets dance to Nina Simone’s ballad of the same name.

four women2

The four women described in Simone’s song represent four common stereotypes of Black women in America: the strong “Aunt Sarah;” the ‘tragic mulatto,’ “Saffronia;” the sex worker, “Sweet Thing;” and the militant “Peaches” (UCLA Film and Television Archive). Through her performance, Nina Simone brings the voices of these four characters to life in a way that links both their similarities and differences as Black women in America.

My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is wooly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me?/My name is Aunt Sara (“Four Women”).

According to Mirielle Rosello, “the problem in thinking about stereotypes … is our stereotypes about them” (in Williams 82). Linda Williams explores this idea further:

“Rosello argues that stereotypes are important objects of study not because we can better learn eliminate them from our thinking, but rather because they cannot be eliminated. Stereotypes persist, and perhaps thrive upon, the protestations against them … ” (Williams 82).

What is required then, are analyses that shine a light on the changing historical contexts of stereotypes (William 82). In other words, we need to change how we approach the study of stereotypes if we wish to effectively understand how they exist and thrive over time.

For example, Richard Dyer (1984) critiques the stereotypical representations of homosexuality in films, but does so by looking at the roots of the representation, rather than attacking the stereotype itself. As he points out, “Righteous dismissal does not make stereotypes go away, and tends to prevent us from understanding just what stereotypes are, how they function, ideologically and aesthetically, and why they are so resilient in the face of our rejection of them” (Dyer 353).

Similarly, Ella Shohat argues that while “stereotypes and distortions” analyses do highlight the issues surrounding “social plausibility and mimetic accuracy” in media, their “obsession with ‘realism'” tends to paint the world in black and white – as “errors” and “distortions,” between “truths” and “lies” (178).

In other words, preoccupation with the accuracy and realism of stereotyping can be harmful because it ignores the ways in which the politics of representation actually operate within stereotypes. Shohat suggests that this is problematic because it assumes that the reality of a community is somehow “transparent” and “unproblematic,” while inaccurate representations are “easily unmasked” (178). Instead of focusing on the specific realism of certain stereotypes, it is more effective to problematize the social and historical context in which stereotypes are produced.

In the case of Nina Simone, “Four Women” faced ‘righteous dismissal’ upon its release in 1966. It was accused of being insulting to Black women by perpetuating stereotypes, and was subsequently banned by several radio stations.

Perhaps what these critics heard in Simone’s song were the ‘typical’ markers of Black femininity – skin colour, hair texture, social roles, names – the kinds of markers that have been at the root of problematic representations of Black women in the media. While these radio stations may have heard stereotypical representations of women, they did not look beyond the surface to really understand Simone’s message.

In Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and Media (1994), Ella Shohat describes “the burden of representation,” which refers to the synechdochal tendency of ethnic and racial representations (182). For example, colonized peoples tend to be perceived as “all the same,” meaning that any kind of negative behaviour by one member can come to represent the group as a whole, ultimately creating a stereotype (Shohat 183). As Shohat states, “representations become allegorical,” whereby “every subaltern performer/role is seen as synecdochically summing up a vast but putatively homogenous community” (183).

With this persistence of stereotypes, certain communities, such as Black Americans, come to face the “burden of representation” (182-3). Because these stereotypes are produced and projected from outside these communities, sensitivity arises “from the powerlessness of historically marginalized groups to control their own representation” (Shohat 184).

We see this sensitivity exhibited through the critique and censorship of Simone’s “Four Women.” After years of seeing Black American’s being represented in stereotypical roles, it is understandable that some people might not have wanted to hear those distorted utterances on the radio (considering that many of the radio stations that banned Simone’s song were primarily Black) (Virgin Island Daily News n.p.). But as Dyer and Williams warn, stereotypes cannot be eliminated that easily (Dyer 353; Williams 82).

Censorship only prevents us from “exposing the reactionary political force” of stereotyping (Dyer 364).

If we look closer, we might see how Simone’s use of stereotypical depictions of Black femininity operates simultaneously as a critique of stereotyping. Instead of placing a cloak on the stereotypical roles for Black women, Nina Simone sings about them, projecting her voice in a way that works to reinscribe Black female subjectivity into the roles promoted by a white, patriarchal Hollywood (and America more broadly). Through the four women, Simone uses four common stereotypes to challenge the social and historical circumstances through which such stereotypes exist and thrive.

My skin is brown / my manner is tough / I’ll kill the first mother I see / my life has been too rough / I’m awfully bitter these days / because my parents were slaves / What do they call me / My name is PEACHES (“Four Women” ).

Through one voice, Nina Simone relays the many (and different) stories and struggles of Black, American women.

“If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger” (Pierpont n.p.).

Later, in ‘Part 2’ of this post, I will explore Julie Dash’s filmic interpretation and re-presentation of Nina Simone’s controversial “Four Women.”

Sources:

Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina   Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/74869216.

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003,           http://www.villagevoice.com/music/nina-simone-1933-2003-6410700.

Dyer, Richard. “Stereotyping.” Gays and Film, edited by Richard Dyer. New York         Zoetrope, 1984.

“Four Women.” UCLA Film and Television Archive, 2014, https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/films/four-women.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned music into a movement.” The New Yorker, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice.

Shohat, Ella. “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation.” Unthinking       Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam.     Routledge, 1994.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,   https://open.spotify.com/album/5gHvTZO4alH9wVcWgTjJat.

The Virgin Islands Daily News. “Protests continue to mount against the banning of a         recording by Nina Simone,” 1966, Google News, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=grdNAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wUQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3795,2693076 &dq=four-women+nina-simone+ban+radio&hl=en. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Williams, Linda. “Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation and             Interracial Lust.” Freiburger FrauenStudien, vol. 15, 2004.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

legibility and viability

We have a blogging schedule here on saltwaterstories, but I’m afraid that in the busy-ness of administration and end of term, I’ve dropped my part of the ball (can you drop part of a ball?) And so, the timing is all off.

But here I am, in Chester, UK, where the tulips and cherry trees are in full bloom, at the biennial international Talking Bodies conference.

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I can say with full authority that there are no tulips in full bloom in St.John’s right now.

I’ve come to this conference three times – every time, in fact, since its inception in 2013. It’s a highlight on my conference schedule and I’m so very happy that the fantastic creator and organizer of the conference, the incredible and seemingly indefatigable Emma Rees, has seen fit to accept my proposals each time.

There is nothing I like more than thinking and talking about bodies (yes, you can quote me on this). Especially when such conversations happen in a beautiful place like Chester, accompanied by great vegetarian food, and in the company of students, activists, independent researchers, and faculty members from 25 countries.

Sounds like bliss, doesn’t it? I can assure you, it is.

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St. John’s has a cool and colourful downtown, but it doesn’t look at all like this one.

It’s also, as a colleague put it, an endurance test. Emma has us all on a tight and very full schedule! Days begin early and end late. Yesterday was a 12-hour day, with a plenary at 9 pm. The day before was even longer, with a feminist pub quiz to round things out. Tonight we ended just after 9. But earlier today, I played hooky for a couple of sessions to a) pick up a birthday present for my soon-to-be-12-year-old-who-thinks-he’s-a-teenager-already, b) respond to work emails (the curse of being department head), and c) catch up with long-lost blogging.

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One of the things my find-a-birthday-present walk allowed me to do was to really figure out how it was that the different papers I’ve heard fit together. And I think that the comments of one delegate, Emma Hutson, who presented a paper on essentialism and anti-essentialism in cis and trans contexts this morning, summed it up. In response to someone’s commentary about Judith Butler, Hutson replied that it was important to think about the possible tensions between legibility, on the one hand, and viability, on the other. In other words, it is one thing to talk about how one might be properly read and understood in the world – how one is legible enough to be, in Butler’s understandings, grievable) – but the viability of such legibility is something else altogether. That is, sometimes the work of making oneself legible within and against dominant paradigms is just too much.

And here I think that Emma Hutson landed on exactly what I see emerging as a larger theme in the conference (at least in the context of the 24 papers I’ve listened to thus far): the limitations of dominant language and thought systems to articulate the diversity of human experience.

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Hutson’s paper brought me to Delia Steverson’s work on the intersection of disability studies and Black literary studies. In her paper, she examined slave narratives by Moses Roper and William Grimes and observed, during the Q&A, that such slave narratives are always heavily mediated texts, constructed and created with the express purpose of supporting abolitionist causes. To what extent, then, were these texts about making the enslaved legible – as subjects – to a white audience, and what role did the articulation of pain and impairment serve in supporting that move towards legibility? There is, indeed, very little room to manoeuvre in slave narratives; there are accepted stories that can be told, and silences that must be maintained. But what did this mean for those who were not able to work within those parameters?

So, too, was the limitation of language a key element in a trio of papers by Jonathan Hay, Krystina Osborne, and Hanna Etholén that focused on autofiction, a genre that necessarily blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction. Even the term itself is contested. One could argue about the need for a term at all – why not just write and then publish the damn thing, after all? But if there’s anything that’s become clear in this conference (if it wasn’t clear before), it’s that we’ve been organized into needing categories in order to understand our world. There’s a fiction section. There’s an autobiography section. And things get messy in the spaces between. As readers, we tend to fret when we don’t know if something is true of false. We start to fuss about questions of authenticity. What’s real, and what’s not. And here again, the spectre of legibility rears its head: what we think and feel about authenticity lies at the heart of questions of legibility.

But as the author Chris Kraus, referenced by one panelist, indicated:

“It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer ‘true,’ because there are always 100 other things that are equally ‘true.’ And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.” 

And while one could argue that this relationship between fact and fiction doesn’t matter so much because it’s fiction, or rather, autofiction, the tensions inherent in this terminology are actually symptomatic of much larger issues. What happens if the categories that exist aren’t enough? And what happens to those who do not fit into the categories? Or those who want to escape those categories? What do we do with their stories? What does it mean to be legible? And what kind of work is involved in that process?

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Chester Cathedral – only visible here because the leaves haven’t quite come out yet.

Garjan Sterk discussed the current status of race and racism in The Netherlands. A people that prides itself on being tolerant and open, the Dutch do not have a real word for ‘race.’ The closest approximation – ras – is thought to be too closely aligned with Nazi discourses. But the end result of not having a word is that the Dutch can very easily – and do very easily – argue that ‘We do not have any racism,’ which is patently untrue. Sterk took us through the various twists and turns of ever-shifting government policies and practices around the naming of various groups of ‘others’ through the also shifting parameters of the ‘allochtoon’ and how this shifting language has also affected political organizing among various social justice groups in The Netherlands. And it’s affected Sterk’s own work: as she has personally navigated the muddy waters of race and politics, she’s also started to discover that the traditional model for thesis writing, as she’s been taught it, may not be suitable for the work she’s trying to do, for the story she’s trying to tell. But are there alternatives available for her? How will she navigate that relationship between legibility – within the mainstream academic context – and viability?

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The limitations of current knowledge systems was also front and centre in Katie Myerscough’s paper on the (now infamous) case of Rachel Dolezal, the white American woman who created a Black identity for herself. This is a tough topic to take on at a conference about talking bodies (actually, at any conference) but Katie’s approach, which located Dolezal and the furor surrounding the case within a much longer historical context, was probably one of the more nuanced reading of the situation that I’ve heard or read to date. What was abundantly clear in Myerscough’s argument was that the whole situation (for lack of better way of putting it) – Dolezal’s actions and the responses to it – are the result of centuries of racist policies.

If Rachel Dolezal’s actions have been productive at all, it is because they have shone a blinding light on the messy political, structural, and activist histories around the politics of naming. I don’t think she necessarily intended to do this; her most recent interview, in The Stranger, shows a remarkable level of narcissism and corresponding lack of awareness of the larger context in which her story plays itself out But here we are. As Myercough pointed out, “How we see race might be something we want to think about.” But do we actually have the language to have this conversation?

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And all of this also takes me to my own paper (an expansion and reworking of ideas I explored here). I, too, have hit walls along the way. Walls that point to the failure of the colonial imagination to articulate the humanity of the indentured and the enslaved. Methodological walls that make it challenging to read between, through, behind, and around the archival material that remains. And walls that limit the possible ways for me to tell these stories within the context of academic audiences.

I am increasingly convinced, as my paper for July’s Creative Histories conference  (yaye! Another trip across the pond!) will argue, that the work I have done in this particular research project cannot be adequately captured in a conventional academic format. To make these stories legible in this context, requires some contortions that I am not certain I am fully prepared to make.

I’ll produce some academic articles as a result of this project (I already have), but really, these stories should emerge in another venue. But academia, as it is currently constructed, doesn’t have the language necessary to tell these stories. And as someone trained in this space, I’m not entirely sure I fully have the language yet, either. And so, I muddle along, working it out as I go.

I write.
I rewrite.

I think.
I rethink.

I story.
I re-story.

And in the end, I hope I will find the language to allow the story to tell itself, to emerge the way it wants – and needs – to emerge.

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on the campus at University of Chester

What if?

A few weeks ago, I received Julie Dash’s book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (1992) in the mail. Like copies of the film itself, this book can run up to $500 (at least according to the website I was browsing), so I was very happy when I finally got my hands on a copy for a reasonable price.

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Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Now, I have written quite a bit already about the film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), but with this new (to me) text, I feel compelled to share some things that stood out to me so far.

Dash’s book is not only a reflection on the making of the film, but it also includes the full script, excerpts from the Gullah translation of the script, a dialogue between Julie Dash and bell hooks, as well as a selection of traditional Geechee recipes.

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Traditional Geechee recipes from Daughters of the Dust: The Making of African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Hopefully, if my mediocre cooking skills are up to the task, I will try my hand with some of these Geechee recipes, but for now I will dive into the dialogue between Dash and hooks.

Their conversation took place on April 26, 1992, in Atlanta, Georgia, and focused on the making of, and reception to, Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.

Considering my research thus far has focused on ideas of history, identity, and life writing, I was so excited to see Dash and hooks actually discuss these matters in a critical and reflective way.

 BELL: Part of the challenge of Daughters of the Dust is that it brings us what could be called ethnographic details, though in fact it’s set within a much more poetic, mythic universe. I would like you to talk some about your sense of myth and history (29).

Because Daughters‘ thrives on the portrayal of Gullah culture at the turn of the century – with particularl emphasis on dialect, dress, food, and more – it is easy to see the connection with certain ethnographic films.

However, while noting this connection, hooks’ describes this as a kind of “could-be” ethnography, or a subversive play on the ethnographic genre. Instead of committing to a more structured, prescriptive methodology to explore Gullah culture, Dash creates “a much more poetic, mythic universe” (29).

Commenting on this tension between history and myth, or what hooks calls a “mythobiography” and “mythopoetics,” Dash defines Daughters as speculative fiction (28-29). What she describes as a kind of “what if” approach to storytelling.

 DASH: It’s interesting that you say mythopoetic, because Daughters of the Dust is like speculative fiction, like a what if situation on so many different levels.

Like what if we could have an unborn child come and visit her family-to-be and help solve the family’s problems.

What if we had a great-grandmother who could not physically make the journey north but who could send her spirit with them.

What if we had a family that had such a fellowship with the ancestors that they helped guide them, and so on” (29).

In a way, this ‘what if’ approach to storytelling creates a kind of alternative history. Dash is not concerned with teaching history; rather she conveys it in a creative way. It is not necessarily what is historically true or untrue that is important for Dash, but instead how the story is told.

On this topic of truth in historical film, Dash has critiqued the tendency to approach films like Daughters from what she describes as a “teacher-learner” situation (28). She suggests that when audiences are presented with new information, especially when it is to do with minority groups, they treat these films as a documentary presentation – material on the screen is absorbed as fact, even if it is indeed dramatic fiction (28).

While Dash does present a lot of information on the Sea Islands and Gullah Culture, informed by extensive archival research, she does this by weaving history with myth; fact with fiction.

It is a ‘what if’ approach to how we remember, recall, and perhaps, rewrite history.

 BELL: It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audiences in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about Daughters of the Dust talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some sense of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of the Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction (30).

One example of this challenge to representing historical ‘truth’ is Dash’s creative use of indigo in the film.

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Screenshot of flashback scene to an indigo plantation on the Sea Islands. Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

On the Sea Islands, many slaves worked on indigo processing plantations. Indigo was toxic, and tended to stain the hands of those who worked with it. While Dash knew that this blue stain would not have remained on the elders hands all these years after enslavement, she chose to include this imagery as an atypical “symbol of slavery” (31).

DASH: I worked with Dr. Margaret Washington Creel, who is an expert on the Gullah. She was my historical advisor on the project, and she reminded me that, of course, indigo was very poisonous and all that, but that the indigo stain, the blue stain, would not have remained on the hands of the old folks who worked the indigo processing plant. And I explained to her, that yes, I did understand that fully but I was using this as a symbol of slavery, to create a new kind of icon around slavery rather than the traditional showing of the whip marks or the chains … I wanted to show it in a new way” (31).

When we see these elders with their hands stained blue, the question should not be “is this real?” But rather, “what if this was real.” What does this imagery represent, and how can it make us rethink or reimagine history and the legacy of slavery on contemporary bodies?

Dash offers viewers a “new way” of telling stories, of representing history, and of mythologizing memory. Daughters resists its classification and interpretation in terms of “reality” and “authenticity,” by shifting the discourse into the realm of the creative, the mythic, the imaginative … towards the what if.

With Dash’s creative approach to narrative, historical fiction, we see how “what if” can be a powerful, poetic proposition.

 

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017