As you may know, I'm a little sensitive about tributes to the irreplaceable Nina Simone. When I heard that Hollywood executives cast Zoe Saldana to play her in a movie, for example, I had to join the chorus of voices
pointing out the trouble with having a petite, light-skinned actress represent Nina, who had to fight to claim the beauty in her dark skin. I'm drawn to Nina's strength, her struggle, and her damn good music, and I like to honor her as a personal hero of mine, so maybe that's why I feel so protective over her legacy.
Well, now musician Meshell Ndegeocello has released a new tribute to Nina Simone with her album Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone. And this time, I can't find a bad word to say about it. In fact, the album leaves me speechless, in silent awe, much like the music of Nina Simone. Since I can't find the words for it, I recommend this excellent write-up on NPR, which says,
"Ndegeocello's has always been Simone's heir apparent. Ndegeocello, like Simone, has dared to cross musical boundaries, express bold politics and be a steadfast presence as an African American woman instrumentalist in a male-dominated music scene."I still believe, of course, that
nobody could possibly take Nina's place. But it's good to know that she didn't just leave behind shoes too big and too bold for anyone else to fill. She also left her footsteps behind, and when we follow her path with the best intentions, we can continue to walk the road to revolution.
You might've already seen the video for Lupe Fiasco's single "Bitch Bad," since it's been out for about a week now (if you haven't yet, take a look below). That's enough time for the video to get over half a million views and counting on Youtube, and for plenty of viewers to chime in on a complex conversation about the kind of message Lupe's sending. It seems that the question comes down to this: should the artist be hailed as some kind of hero for speaking up against hip-hop culture's tradition of disrespecting women? Or is he out of line in his approach, actually demeaning women
as he claims to honor them? Full disclosure: I enter this conversation as a longtime fan of Lupe Fiasco's
work, particularly because of the way he challenges the status quo, breaking away from the misogynistic attitudes found in so many mainstream hip-hop songs.
But I'm also not one to give somebody a pass simply because they have good intentions. Addressing misogyny is a complicated matter, and it's possible for Lupe to make mistakes. It can be hard to discuss the issue in hip-hop without falling to one extreme or the other – how can we criticize the objectification of women's bodies without contributing to ideas based in shame around black women's sexuality? Is it possible to have this conversation while thinking outside of the virgin/whore dichotomy?Some argue that with "Bitch Bad," a song that sets up a hierarchy of women (
“bitch bad/woman good/lady better"), Lupe speaks against misogyny from the wrong angle, by slut-shaming, and by honoring only a certain type of woman – the chaste, mother-figure type. I'm following my usual habit of seeing this conversation as more complex than just one conclusion or the other. Sure, Lupe's video misses a few parts of the complicated issue. But he also does a few things right
, starting with the fact that he's willing to create this concept and contribute to a conversation about the issue in the first place. I agree with Akiba Solomon
and Rahiel Tesfamariam
on this one (and I link to their articles because I believe they've said it all already, and better than I can say it myself). It's not enough to have good intentions alone, but it's a good start, better than starting from a place of maintaining the problematic status quo. Here's the video, so you can take a look and decide for yourself where the message lands. What do you think?
This is a strange edition of Friday Friends. Usually, I use these posts to highlight a blog I like, or a literary hero of mine, or an organization doing important work. Today's Friday Friend is Nina Simone - not a particular interpretation or recreation of Nina Simone's work, but Nina Simone herself. Because some stories just need to speak for themselves. As a singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist,
Nina Simone made an unforgettable impact on the world. Personally, I have her to thank for helping me feel permission to love me for me. Her incredible sense of self-respect was nothing less than a fiercely radical act of courage, when she faced racism that said she wasn't good enough, and colorism that would call her anything but beautiful. Like me, Nina Simone looked in the mirror to see dark skin and big features, so like me, she had to see past the messages that attach the word "ugly"
to such features. Hers is a story that can teach us about true beauty, the kind that emanates from a spirit of self-love.
Now, Nina Simone's life is being adapted into a story as told by Hollywood, the source of so many of our messages about beauty. In Hollywood, beauty means lighter skin and smaller features, so in order for our Nina to be a Hollywood hero, she will be played by Zoe Saldana. She will be a romantic lead, because no leading lady is complete without the company of a leading man - never mind that the man in this story, her assistant Clifford Henderson, was, in fact, gay. And she will give us hope, with an altered happy ending - isn't it inspiring to know that every dark-skinned woman could someday be immortalized onscreen as a light-skinned woman? Perhaps there's hope for beauty after all.
Don't get me wrong - I do think Zoe Saldana is a beautiful woman, and for all I know, she could pull off the role very well, as far as the acting goes. And I'm not one to try to challenge someone's Black Card - her more mainstream features don't make her any less black than Nina Simone. So why does it matter if her skin is the right shade for the role? Because, unfortunately, choosing someone whose experience of blackness is so far from the challenges Nina faced follows a predictable Hollywood pattern
reinforcing hurtful messages about what it means to be beautiful. It's very rare to see this happen in reverse - a dark-skinned actress picked to portray someone who was much lighter. Instead, those who don't fit Hollywood standards of beauty must be replaced. And why? Will audiences relate more to someone who is thinner and more conventionally gorgeous
than the average woman? Will we learn not to let history repeat itself, to avoid underestimating the power of a dark-skinned woman, when we see her depicted as a light-skinned woman? Nina Simone's daughter has spoken up about the movie plans, sharing that the project is unauthorized, and giving clarification about her mother's platonic relationship with the film's "romantic" lead.
She also speaks about her mother's unseen beauty, her intelligence, and her revolutionary spirit. All of which could have an indelible impact if it were captured on the big screen. So I prefer to leave Nina's story as told by Nina, through her music, her soul, and her vision for justice. We don't need to rewrite lives, alter people's appearance and sexualities
, and ignore their truths in order to tell their stories. Nina Simone had no shame in who she was. We can respect her enough to know that she doesn't need to live up to Hollywood standards to be beautiful. I've posted this video a couple of times before, but it's always worth re-posting. Here's Nina Simone singing the words of William Waring Cuney's poem "No Images."
When you’re learning to write, they say it’s all about the senses. They say I shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not readers can understand what it’s like to be me, or to have my experiences, as long as they’re in touch with something they can sense through the body.
So I shouldn’t have to write about my feelings after this weekend. I shouldn’t have to explain what I’m thinking about family, illness, separation and change.
Instead, I can write about the echo. I can tell you that the house I grew up in didn’t always have an echo. I guess that’s because the chairs and beds and tables always absorbed my sound before. But I didn’t notice until now. Didn’t realize until yesterday that the house itself, when empty, just takes my voice and tosses it back to me.
I can tell you about a touch that feels familiar, though it’s been long forgotten. About the uneven surface of an old diary, now small in my hands. About opening the pages, running my hands over the grooves of the pen marks, just a child’s scrawl now, though I didn’t see it that way then. About the churning in my gut as I realized I was reading documentation of my early discoveries of the same forces shifting me now. Of change taking place more rapidly than I could grasp. Of what it meant to be recognized for my body and nothing else, and wondering, with doubt, if that, too, would someday change.
I can write about the emptiness of my open hand as I tossed the diary aside, into a pile of old books, as if it, too, was forgotten fiction, written by someone who isn’t me. I can tell you how the dust from the diary’s cover remained in the grooves of my skin, and how rubbing my fingertips together only deepened its resting place.
And maybe then I won’t have to worry that you’ve never been there, discarding the final remains of my childhood. Maybe I can just hope to offer a glimpse of how it feels.
QWOC Media Wire has a great article on The Lost Bois, a queer music duo that uses hip-hop beats, jazz styles and insightful lyrics to make some powerful music. In their own words, "We write, we sing, we speak for people like us: queers, dykes, black folks, brown folks, to dance, to fuck, to smile, laugh at and along with." Read more: The Lost Bois: Transforming Queer Hip Hop through Black Feminism
The Lost Bois have a dynamic style, so their songs range from fun to thoughtful to sensual, or all of the above. They work hard, so it can take a while to get the full range. I'll just leave these here to get you started. Enjoy.
This is part of a longer nonfiction piece I've been working on, about discovering the truth of my beauty through art, not the media.
There was a time when I thought beauty had nothing to do with me. I didn’t see any part of myself in the fashion magazines, in the movies, or on TV, not even in commercials advertising artificial ways to turn an ordinary face into a pretty one. In a way, this was a good thing. It helped me find my authentic self. When other girls my age tried to cover their true selves with the right clothes and makeup, I didn’t bother. There was no chance of beauty for me.
As a teenager, of course, it wasn’t as simple or positive as abandoning the quest for artificial beauty to embrace my authentic self. I was pretty miserable about the idea that I’d never be beautiful. I was mad, not at the beauty standards that excluded me, but at myself for failing to meet them. If I couldn’t be beautiful, it seemed, then I couldn’t be loved. At fourteen, I was missing that vital first step toward romantic love – I’d never been kissed, and for that I blamed my acne-marked skin, my widening hips, and most of all, my too dark, too big, unkissable lips.
Untitled by Myra Greene
from the series
Character Recognition, 2006
Though I avoided taking beauty products seriously, there was some fun in trying them out. I remember a day when a few of my closest friends, fair-skinned and beautiful in my eyes, were playing around with makeup. I saw no harm in joining in the fun, giggling and battling for the mirror, holding up photos of models and trying to match their poses.
One of my friends, a girl who often heard compliments on her beauty, handed me her lip gloss, telling me to try it on. Now, I didn’t know much about makeup, but I could tell just by looking at the pale pink bottle that it was meant for girls with lips of a similar color, not for me. I tried to say so, but the other girls encouraged me to give it a chance. I wouldn’t know how it would look until I tried, they said. Then they all waited. The giggling had stopped. I was ruining the fun.
So I sighed, said “fine,” agreed to try the lip gloss on so I could prove them wrong and we could move on. I touched the pink brush to my lips, sure this was a bad idea, but somewhere in the back of my mind was a quiet hope that perhaps they were right, after all. This was makeup I’d avoided, but maybe spreading it on my lips would be the key to unlocking my beauty.
But when I turned to show my face to my friends, I knew I’d been right after all. They shrieked with laughter, and when I turned to the mirror, I could see why. I looked ridiculous. The glittery pink goo looked hopelessly out of place, as if there was nothing it could do for someone like me, with the dark of my lips persisting through, rather than fading to the shimmer meant to make them beautiful.
The laughter burned, and I wiped the gloss away, as urgently as if it was burning me, too. They tried to insist that I join in the laughter, that I stop being so serious and accept the hilarity of the situation.
My friends didn’t know that, while they were surprised and amused by the absurdity on my face, this situation wasn’t new to me. I’d been there before, looking into the mirror with disappointment, sure that nothing I put on my face could possibly make me beautiful. All I wanted now was to leave, and let them continue without me. I was ruining the fun. My lips were destroying the dream of beauty.
She does not know
she thinks her brown body
has no glory.
If she could dance
under palm trees
and see her image in the river,
she would know.
But there are no palm trees
on the street,
and dish water gives back
-William Waring Cuney
I'm trying not to feel like a crotchety old woman, getting more and more embittered about certain holidays
as each year goes by. But it can be hard sometimes, when you get to realize what really goes on to maintain some traditions.
Take Valentine's Day. I'm not against celebrating love, of course. No, I'm far from it. The problem I find in Valentine's Day is that it can feel like a cheapening of the true value of love
, reducing it to expectations of material things and the kind of love that fits into a particular picture, one that leaves out many of the bonds that keep us strong, including love for family, for friends, and perhaps the greatest love of all
, love for ourselves. No wonder so many people end up hating this day. So I'm on the lookout this year, for more holistic celebrations. Some fun examples of folks who are celebrating love in their own way are posted on the Occupy Valentine's Day tumblr.
My focus for today is self-love, because I can always use a reminder to love myself, so I might as well turn Valentine's Day into exactly that.
How can art support self-love? Here's a great example - Jackie O'Nappy's written a lovely blog post
about the potential influence of photography. She writes about being photographed by Saddi Khali
, whose photographs of black folks take my breath away, and says, "I fell in love with a woman last week...my reflection in the mirror." It sounds like a transformative experience. Read her post, "Let's see ourselves beautiful again,"
and check out Saddi Khali's photos
. In his own words, Saddi Khali writes:
"Black people need 2 see images of ourselves w/ humanity. women beautiful regardless of size, shape or complexion. men strong, sensitive & loving. parents & children caring & happy. couples in love in warm intimate moments. us as lovers, sensual & sexy but not nasty even when we’re nasty. this is not 2 say that other folks don’t need 2 see themselves in certain ways. but, i don’t know those ways. i DO know how my folks r being fooled by & misrepresented in arts & media. & i DO know how its affecting us. so, all the work i do is in the intention of combating that."
"Praying Mantis" by Saddi Khali
I notice something when I see photos like the ones Saddi Kahli takes - photos of black people, natural and alight with pride. Perhaps it's simply because I'm not used to seeing such images, as they are usually absent from the media, or perhaps it's because some part of me still believes in the message that absence conveys - that my black body isn't beautiful, not if I don't try harder to be thinner, lighter, or whatever else it would take to fit the right image. When I see such photos, I remember that I don't have to look to a figure who's glamorous and perfected to find beauty. I can gaze as far s Jackie O'Nappy can, and simply look in the mirror.
And this beauty isn't purely a physical manifestation - it's the beauty found in strength and spirit, that which sometimes goes beyond words, found only when art speaks.
It's this kind of beauty that's on my mind when I think of Whitney Houston, gone now from our world, leaving behind, as Jamilah King said in this Colorlines article
, twin legacies of beauty and pain. I feel that I don't have the words to honor Whitney, at least not yet, so I've been looking to others. It's hard, though, to get through those pictures painted with a filter of judgment, and misconceptions about addiction, and our human need to illuminate the flaws of others in order to cast a shadow over our own. Stacia L. Brown conveys how I've felt about it, in this hauntingly beautiful post on her blog
When art is unafraid to embrace us in our wholeness, we know that we don't need to erase our scars to be beautiful. Everything about us, from our shadows to our light, creates the spirit that gives us true beauty. For each of us, the one close enough to see all of our darkness and light is the self. So that's where love begins. With compassionate care for one's whole self, inside and out. Looking for a place to celebrate love on Valentine's Day? Join us at CUAV, where all are welcome to attend our monthly membership meeting. We'll talk about what the media says about love, and how we can tell our own stories. Dinner is included! Whose Story? My Story! Our Stories! Tuesday, February 14, 6:30-8:30 pm at CUAV, 427 South Van Ness Ave, in San Francisco. Also, check out CUAV's website for some loving reminders on staying safe on your Valentine's Day date.
One video that was especially popular during holiday time was this one of a little girl complaining about the way toys are marketed by gender
. Sure, I can grow up and complain about Barbie's role in my life when I was a kid, but it's so much more refreshing to see this child speak up about it now, telling us that she deserves more as she lives through girlhood. When young people find the courage to say for themselves
that they need something more, they deserve at least for us to take a moment to listen.
And here’s a girl who says that all of us deserve better – this thirteen year old talks about slut shaming
, what it is and why it’s hurtful. Her insightfulness blows me away.
And, of course, I gotta love little girls raising their voices
through music. “My First Hardcore Song”
is by Juliet, also known as the 8 year old who’s way more badass than I’ll ever be.
In a more disappointing example of a video gone viral, a Girl Scout named Taylor
is using her voice to ask people to boycott Girl Scout cookies, in order to show opposition to the Girl Scouts’ decision to include a transgender child in their organization
. I’m glad to see girls finding their voices, but it makes me cringe to hear such a voice putting down others. So instead, in this example I’m applauding Bobby Montoya, the transgender child brave enough to speak up for the chance to be where she feels she belongs. She’s opened the doors for a delicious way to make a difference – all we have to do is eat more cookies
to show our support for an inclusive Girl Scouts organization. Sign me up!
Also, check out Girl Scouts’ new Year of the Girl campaign
Overall, I’m loving the presence of girl voices in viral videos these days. They’re not listening to any messages that tell them to grow up before they speak up, or to stay silent their whole lives. Sure, imagine a world full of women who raised these voices in girlhood. But before we fast forward, let’s stop and listen. The girls are speaking to us. Right now.
The online videos making their way around the networks these days show an encouraging trend. Girls who aren't yet old enough to outgrow playing with toys are outgrowing silence and shame. They're speaking up and being heard. They are, as they say, going viral. People are listening.
Has it really already been a month since Safetyfest? My, how time flies. And I've had time to reflect not only on the fantastic weekend that was Safetyfest, but also on the transformative power it's shown since. So, though I usually look elsewhere for my Friday Friends posts, this week I need to look no further than
you and me to find inspirational stories of what we can do, using only our bodies, our hearts and our minds. Safetyfest is CUAV's annual festival celebrating queer and trans power to respond to and heal from violence. Here are some of the ways I witnessed the
transformative power of art during Safetyfest:
- Performance pieces by everyone from the luscious ladies of GlitterAction, the Radical Queerlesque Cabaret, to the youth of Ourspace, Hayward's LGBTQ youth community center. These fierce performers showed how they love themselves and create change by inspiring others to love themselves, too.
Celeste Chan's beautiful
return to ballet
- On a related note, the energizing power of dance was present throughout the festival. I was truly moved watching Sheena Johnson move across the stage, and of course it's always lovely to watch Celeste Chan perform. And everyone got a chance to show off their moves at the Ferocity closing party, coming together to dance to the jams of DJ Bootyklap, Micah Tron, Tru Bloo and more.
- I have no words for the power of film demonstrated by Kyisha Williams' Red Lips [Cages for Black Girls]. Approaching the issue of violence against women from the perspective of an unabashedly honest queer femme black woman. Just. Incredible.
- We saw plenty of visual art as well, including a mural that allowed everyone to come together to share their own vision of what queer and trans safety looks like.
- I'm so grateful for the photography that captured it all. Check out the photos here, by photography genius Kelly Puleio (the photos on this post were taken by yours truly, not quite so genius).
- And finally, of course, there was the power of written words. Participants blew me away with their strength and generosity in the writing workshops I co-facilitated with Jen Cross and Sam Sax. Other folks, including Yosimar Reyes and Joshua Merchant, laid it down onstage with their amazing poems.
And I had the unbelievable experience of closing out the incredible Queer Rebellion show, which meant I was not just on stage with my own words, but riding the tide of the performers who came before me, including Fayza Bundalli and Redwolf Painter
, Urban Prodigy
and the El/La Program Para Trans Latinas
It. Was. Powerful. And all of this power came from within our own bodies. Isn't that amazing?
What kind of power lies within you?