Cultural Voyuerism: or Why We Love to Facebook Stalk

This weekend I was lucky enough to be able to experience Fourth of July weekend in New York City. I was even luckier to be able to stay with a friend who lives in Harlem, just blocks away from the Apollo Theater.

There I was, in this legendary place that creative greats like Zora Neal Hurston and Ralph Ellison had waxed poetic about. I couldn’t wait to see the Apollo Theater first hand and maybe even try out the infamous Sylvia’s Restaurant.

But suddenly, as I’m walking down the street, I feel 50 curious eyes on the back of my neck. As I turn around to figure out where that creepy feeling could possibly be coming from, I found myself face to face with a double-decker bus filled with white tourists. I was like a deer-caught in the headlights… literally. They were leaning out the windows and over the railings, taking pictures of me and every other black person on the street.

It was like I was at the zoo… except I was the animal.

And in that moment, I became aware of the multiciplicity of not only these tour buses, but the “walking-tour groups.” Promising tourists an exotic taste of the “real Harlem.” Of course the irony being that the tours rarely ventured past the gentrified Lennox Ave.

I found myself angry, “how dare they,” I thought, “I’m not animal!”

But I couldn’t help but be struck with the reality that this type of voyeurism has been an American intoxicant for decades (at least). The most obvious being 1920’s Harlem, eloquently described by the aforementioned Ellison, as a haven for white’s to participate in debauchery deemed to inappropriate to be engaged in, in white company. White’s would travel to Harlem to absorb and appropriate the cultural energy of the inhabitants, as well as to assuage whatever addiction they may have had.

Although this behavior is deeply disturbing, particularly in the way it continues to go unchecked in today’s Harlem. It occurs to me that facebook may serve similar purposes across populations.

All of us “know somebody,” who has spent hours perusing through the photo album’s of others, on some level or another, living vicariously through the life presented on the web. Even more strikingly, it seems that functions like “honesty boxes” (a facebook application that allows you to leave anonymous messages to the user who installs the program on his or her page), facilitate the type of “anonymous” debauchery that characterized the behavior of white’s in 1920’s Harlem.

Even newer social networking sites like twitter, that allow instant updates of every step an individual takes throughout the day (that can now include photos and video), seem to encourage a type of anonymous voyeurism that in some ways can be problematic. In the same way that the tour buses that run through Harlem allow the tourists an anonymous distance that gives them the freedom to treat its residents like animals. I can’t help but wonder if the anonymity of facebook, twitter, myspace, etc (at least anonymous in the sense that you can’t know if somebody is watching you), provide a type of emotional and psychological space from those being viewed that can encourage socially aberrant behavior.

It seems at least worth thinking about.



I Don’t Won’t to Be No Disney Princess!

Like most little black girls growing up in abusive  homes, I dreamed and sometimes daydreamed of being rescued from my reality. I wished I had a fairy godmother who would flick her magical wand singing, Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Put ’em together and what have you got bibbidi-bobbidi-boo,” changing my alcoholic father into benevolent king, transforming my wandering mother into a nurturing queen, and turning me into a princess who by design would have a happy ending. Yes, I was as my young mentees proclaim “thirsty” for Prince Charming to save me.

In retrospect what I needed growing up was not a prince to save me or magic to transform my reality, I needed to know that there were “liberating” realities for women of color a type of understanding and I would even use the word “magic” that I now find in feminist science fiction and feminist fantasy books. But before diving into why these genres are better suited for helping girls to think critically about gender and power, I want to spend sometime talking about Disney and its lascivious desire to make girls into naïve, gullible, desiring the “male gaze,” and always waiting to be saved—princesses.

Cinderella like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel the Mermaid, Belle of Beauty and the Beast, and Princess Jasmine are all creations of the Walt Disney Corporation. Just recently they have added Pocahontas and Mulan to the official Princess Collection (Multiculturalism and Kummbaya sales in Barack Obama’s land, but that’s another blog). In general, Disney has poured millions of dollars into marketing The Disney Princess Line. From television movies to Disney on Ice, the golden seven are prominently featured. Some are even fortunate to have Mattel dolls which as the years pass show more womanly physical features than the original prototypes.

The Princess Collection

Recently, Disney has decided to add yet another princess to its arsenal to keep all girls including little black girls thinking they need to be saved by a prince, Princess Tiana. Princess Tiana is the first and only African-American princess. She debuts in The Frog and the Princess which originally was called The Frog Princess. The story takes place in the French Quarter in New Orleans where Tiana is transformed into a Frog after kissing a charming Frog who wants to be human again. To put it lightly, the movie has sparked much controversy in blogsphere. Monique Fields writes in Enough with the Princess while Gina McCauley reports on how Disney consults African-American leaders on how to make sure their conception and marketing of Princess Tiana is “politically correct” meaning they hope their marketing is not racist.

Given all the controversy surrounding the new Disney Princess, Princess Tiana, and Disney’s long track record of undercutting feminist strides to empower girls, I think we should introduce our daughters, little sisters, transgendered girls, and little nieces to feminist science fiction and feminist fantasy books where their imaginations are not limited by the mechanics of physical reality or bound by our society’s patriarchal social norms. Trilogies like The Saga of the Renunciates, The Seven Water’s Trilogy, The Gate to Women’s Country, The Patternist Series, The Mist of Avalon, and The Godspeaker Series paint women as heroes not simply heroines. Magic is a way of life not something to behold on Las Vegas stages. Gender and sexuality become contested sites. Race takes on alien forms. Women stories take center stage. And there is always a journey to undertake with “risks” and lessons to be learned. I know many of you reading this blog may not be familiar with the books listed above, but you are familiar with blockbuster films like Harry Potter and Star Wars which feature male heroes saving the world with the “occasional” female sidekick.

The point is that feminist science fiction and fantasy provide a space for girls to see women and girls as warriors, sorcerers, emperors, heroes, fearless risk takers, god chosen speakers, women with boundaries, women as lovers of other women, and most importantly girls seeking out their own destinies. Can you imagine how empowering it would be if every girl chucked their plastic tiaras in the trash to lead a perilous, dangerous, and risky quest to save the world and in the process of doing this they learn who they are, their boundaries, their strengths, their weakness, and the importance of women relationships? I could not ask for better feminist consciousness raising activity where our daughters know the names of Octavia Butler, Sherri Tepper, Marion Zimmerman Bradley, Tananarive Due, and Juliet Marillier all who have labored to write books that foreground women as critical thinkers and as captains of their destinies.

Alice Walker once said that she writes books that she wanted to read growing up and perhaps my desire to get girls and African American girls in particular to read these genres is an outgrowth of my knowledge that traditional fairytales are limited and untrue for poor working class black girls like me. Prince Charming does not come. Mice do not become charioteers and happy endings are not promised especially when there is an intersection of various devalued social identities. So, given all of this and the liberating potential of feminist science fiction and fantasy stories, who wants to be a Disney Princess anyway?

Black Man in the Mirror

Any of the following jargon can essentially be boiled down to this: I love Michael Joseph Jackson.  Always have.  Always will.  I don’t dance, but I know how to moonwalk.  (Don’t ask.  I won’t do it for you.  You’ll just have to ask my mama or one of the homies if you don’t believe me.)  My favorite song of all time is “Human Nature.”  Off the Wall is better than Thriller. “Smooth Criminal”—the 9-minute version with the orgy in the middle, not the radio edit—is the greatest music video ever made.  I’ve watched Moonwalker more times than I’ve seen Back to the Future, Please, Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, and Coming to America (80’s babies stand up!), which is to say a lot—I’m talking bailout money numbers.  I love the Gloved One so much that this post was supposed to be up Tuesday, but his death made me feel like I had, indeed, been struck by a smooth criminal.  Forget Annie.  Summer, are you ok?  These are my mourning pages.  I’ll try not to bloviate.

Original Poetry…"I Don't Understand"

I dont understand…I want to understand…Help me understand

I want to understand why desperation of dreams differed are differed into crack, cocaine and heroin. Drug dealers desperate to sale desperation to desperate people, people selling people like African tribes before slavery, but the oppressor now is a needle and this needle is the offspring of God and the devil, So I want to know how it feels to have my veins infiltrated with oppression and desperation, so I can appreciate freedom from addiction.

I want to understand while eating cupcakes with a fifth generation KLU-Klux-Klan member, inside a diner with my elbows on the confederate flag placemats…placed before me by a white woman named Dotty, who quite obviously spit in my coffee and called me nigger not even five minutes beforehand, I gonna sip that coffee, So I can truly taste prejudice, I need real racism, not the diluted version of merely being followed in a store, I need hatred to run through my veins, so I can appreciate love.

I want to understand what the gun and knife were feeling as you picked out your next victim, inflicting cold-icy death on dozens of people, because murder is just a game played by those who dont care if they die. Genocide, massacres, serial killings. Stabbed him 96 times, placed 29 bullets in her head, butchered my cat 9 times, so I want to trade places with nine of your dead victims, so I can cherish the gift of life.

I want to understand, I want to lay my head on the chest of a child molester let him stroke my hair as he replays his fantasies of five year old adolescent Hannah Montana fans In my ear, as he speaks of mangled bodies bathed in blood and glitter with no shame, feel him cough twice and swallow his virus, repulsion causing me to vomit, I want to feel true sickness, So I can praise god for my health.

I want to understand a women’s torture, why she goes to sleep in a jail-cell bedroom, husbands protruding veins representing tyranny, where domestic and violence are never together in the dictionary and she doesn’t want the world to see, so she covers her life with dark glasses and her vision becomes impaired, so for the next hour I want to see through her husbands eyes, so I know what it means to be blind.

I want to understand, Merging my flesh Into the body of an ex ballerina as her knees smack the cold bathroom floor I want my throat to burn, as she hurls her pain into a porcelain bowl, fell the utter agony of her bowels bleeding from the 7th laxative, as she sits in prayer position In front of a mirror staring at a fat pulpy demon, swearing it’s her reflection, as she chases perfection. I want undergo this self hatred, So I can value my self esteem.

I want to understand…but no one has the answers, some stories have no happy endings…

On Michael

My weekend was amazing and bittersweet. Everywhere I went, people were celebrating Michael Jackson. Friday night, my 21 year old cousin and I went to the Lupe Fiasco concert at the Chicago Theatre. Lupe is one of the most high energy rappers. He danced, jumped, and preened onstage – a couple of times jumping so high that his feet were at the same height as the cymbals the drummer behind him was using to keep time. In the middle of his set, while the dj was spinning his current hit – his verse on the Ain’t I song – and the crowd was really into it, Lupe stopped performing. He had been asking if the crowd knew who he was and as if he realized that he was nobody next to the King of Pop, he stopped the music and whispered something to the DJ. The crowd’s boos turned to cheers when it became clear that Lupe was going to lead us in a tribute to Michael – the greatest who ever did it. He welcomed a woman from the crowd onstage and they danced and flirted until Thriller came on and she started doing the moves from the video. Lupe and everyone else followed her lead.

After the concert, we went to Red. No. 5 on Halsted and it was hot as hell. There were probably 300 black people in there and no air conditioning! The DJ played rap songs that came out when I was in middle school, Beyonce songs, current radio and mix tape hits, and Michael Jackson songs from “I Want You Back” to “You Rock My World.” When Michael’s songs came on, the guys mostly stood against the wall while the women gathered in circles and revived old school dance moves we had learned from his videos.

Public Service Announcement: If you are with a friend who has been over-served in the club, take them home or at least put them in a cab. Don’t let your friends make fools of themselves trying to grope or grab women to the point where they have to be physically restrained to keep them from catching a sexual battery charge.

Back to my weekend. Saturday night, my cousin and I met another cousin at a bar in Wrigleyville. We couldn’t hear the music over the crowd, so after several drinks, we decided to make our own . The four of us started singing every Michael song we could remember (whether we knew all the words or not), often punctuating our off key renditions with moves from the music videos. By the end of the night, we had migrated to a larger bar down the street that had a dance floor. One our friends wore a fedora and we kept egging him on to moonwalk or do a few pelvic thrusts for the crowd.

As a grad student, I am always looking for ways to procrastinate. Itunes provides me with a myriad of ways to do just that…I have amassed a collection of music videos on my computer -half Michael, half Beyonce.. At home, sometimes we have cable, sometimes we don’t. I often try to bring things home to entertain myself and my nieces. Two years ago, I introduced my nieces (who were not quite 1 and 2 years old at the time) to Michael Jackson via Beat It. Kamryn the younger of the two is an energetic dancer. Maya, the older of the two, plays it cool but will definitely dance if everyone else is doing it. From the moment they saw the Beat It video, they were in love. Especially Kamryn. They live in NC. I live in Chicago. They call me and request Michael…Can I see Beat It? When I step in the front door after having traveled thousands of miles to see them, the first thing they ask is – Where’s Michael? or Can I see Beat It?

My brother David was watching the Michael tributes on CNN with my 2 year old niece while we were on the phone. In the background, she questions her father, “Why she dead?”

My brother’s annoyed. “I’m not going to tell you again – That’s a man! That’s Michael.” He says.

Michael often left his fans confused. What happened to the beautiful man who starred in the Bad video? Did he do what they said he did? Why are his children white? Whatever our questions, the music moved us. His dancing left us in awe. Who among us hasn’t moonwalked? We’ve played his music during some of our most important moments and when we were just hanging out at the house.

When Michael died, he was in preparations for his Ozone tour. Was he about to do something great again? If anybody could pull out a show-stopping, path-breaking performance at 51, it would have been Michael. On the one hand, the Michael we all applauded and fell in love with was long gone. On the other hand, no one had risen to take his place on the world stage and many held out hope that he would come back and thrill us once again. To honor Michael, in addition to pulling out my Cds, and listening to tributes on the radio, I plucked a book about him from my bookshelf on Friday and started reading. In her tome On Michael Jackson, Margo Jefferson tries to figure out how he went from the spectacle who meticulously controlled what we saw to the man who lost control of his image so completely that he was branded a criminal and no longer smooth. She uses P.T. Barnum and a Barnum and Bailey circus analogy to describe Michael’s showmanship as well as his lifestyle. For Jefferson, whose book was written in the wake of the second child molestation trial, it was clear that the star’s best days were behind him.

But, I was much more hopeful. I had planned to scrounge together enough money to get to one of the concerts in London next summer. We had seen Michael in so many incarnations – including a ghost of his former self dangling “Blanket” from a terrace…why not resurrected King of Pop?

At least now he gets a rest from being in the public eye. Hopefully, he’ll find peace.

The Musician and the Music – Should We Separate the Two?

Last week, as the news of Michael Jackson’s death spread, I noticed that people’s reactions were very different.  I got word that he was in the hospital on my Facebook news feed and immediately flipped back and forth between CNN and ABC News, waiting for the rumors of his death to be confirmed.  I kept track of my Facebook friends’ comments – some were very empathetic, while others were much less so.  One friend accused the King of Pop of “getting what was coming to him” and another said she couldn’t stop crying.

I had never seen so many Facebook status updates at once (well, other than the night of last year’s November election).  I felt I had to say something but realized that I didn’t know where my allegiances lay relative to this strange dichotomy between utter devotion and condemnation.  So my confused self changed my Facebook status to “music will certainly miss Michael Jackson.”  I know, I know.  It was weak.

But what is the correct way to react to the death of a very complex person?  Like so many others, I adore Michael Jackson’s music, admire his philanthropy, and respect the way he revolutionized the music game.  However, while I want to ignore what one news station called “the idiosyncrasies” of his personal life—like it seems so many people have done—I cannot.

So the overarching question becomes: to what extent should we be able to separate the artist from his art?

I was listening to an R&B radio station yesterday that was asking listeners to call in and join the discussion of MJs death.   One caller said something that stuck with me: that with the expansion of the media, it is much harder for entertainers (and I guess this also includes governors, as we’ve seen in recent news reports) to distance their careers from their personal lives.  Michael Jackson was an extreme example of that.  The media suffocated him and anything and everything was told to the rest of the world.  While I am convinced that Michael Jackson was, at the very least, a little eccentric, it is probably unfair to say that his lifestyle as a successful artist is an anomaly.  Many musicians from much earlier decades had all kinds of serious personal issues.  But unlike the King of Pop, these musicians’ legacies benefited from much looser media scrutiny and these personal issues were backstaged.

This morning, Michael Jackson made history yet again.  He is the first artist to sell over 1 million song downloads in a week.  There is no question that his death has spiked a renewed interest in his music.  In fact, maybe the mass attention to Jackson’s music over his personal life is a testament to how powerful his artistry was and still is to the world.

We know that music was Michael Jackson’s escape from his personal life.  For the world, it seems to also be a way to avoid who he was a person.  It will be a challenge figuring out how to reconcile this complicated man with his amazing art.  I am not sure what is right, but I do know that his music was too good to give up and his massive contribution to our culture is too powerful to ignore.

The Value of the Values Debate

The saga of Mark Sanford has been given so much coverage that it could be turned into a soap opera. South Carolinians have every right to be upset. Their executive was derelict in his duties. He was awol, at taxpayer’s expense. But I think the underlying theme of this brouhaha is the continued dismantling of the Republican Party as the moralist party-even if they don’t see it.

By no means is mainstream media giving Sanford any leeway for his actions. However, there seems to be a much softer tone in their barrage of criticisms. Is it because of his poetic emails? Is it because he traveled to another continent? There should be no public empathy for Sanford because he was a “sweet romantic”.  Romanticism doesn’t mitigate the fact that he profligately spent taxpayer dollars to swoon his sweetheart. My 9th grade math teacher once said if it looks like a fish and smell like a fish then it’s a fish. Mark Sanford is a philanderer who forsook his state to be with his mistress.

The Feasting of Michael Jackson’s Flesh

I am deeply troubled by the buffoonery of the 2009 Black Entertainment Television Award Show where “blackness” guaranteed BET’s ownership of honoring Michael J. Jackson’s life. Of course, there is an endless laundry list of technical, sexist, homophobic, and simply tone death performances that I could blog about. However, the most compelling issue for me is that we witnessed consumption at “it’s finest” where Jamie Foxx unabashedly highlighted his many upcoming projects and the beauty of his voice, where every five seconds large digital placards of sponsorship appeared before our eyes beseeching us to buy their wares, where Joe Jackson plugs the revival of his singing career, where the infamous golden arches tell our children that they should dream of working at McDonald’s when they “become big kids,” and where we the viewing public further the cannibalization process of Michael Jackson by not turning our televisions off in righteous indignation because consciously or unconsciously we enjoy the thrill of consuming flesh . . . the gossip, the speculations, the betrayals, the “sins,” and yes “if it bleeds then it leads” or in the case of the BET Award Show if it stereotypes black people then it sales.

This only shows that we do not know how to honor our dead. We only know how to consume them and extract the last bit of value from their dead flesh. With Michael Jackson’s death, future record deals will be made from sampling his catalogue, cottage t-shirts industries on each street corner beckoning people to remember Michael through purchasing a t-shirt, increased Itunes downloads of Michael Jackson’s work, juicy gossip to make the workday bearable, legal rangles on CNN about the authenticity of Michael Jackson’s will, biased scholarly debates on Michael’s masculinity, psychological fragility, and his love of children. Of course, I too am guilty of participating in feasting upon his flesh, after hearing the official announcement that he was dead, I raced to Itunes and bought one of his greatest hits albums so that I could remember and honor him.

But does buying an album and then privately consuming the purchase constitute honoring the dead?

Of course, all of this is not to say that consumption in of itself is bad because we need to consume various things to live, however, when consumption becomes the end in of itself and when it is not intimately connected to the idea of mutual replenishment than it becomes capitalism where I take more from you and there is no guarantee that I will give you anything in return unless it too benefits me.

Michael Jackson singing "Earth Song"

Did anyone else notice that not one of Michael Jackson’s songs that deal with accountability (i.e. the Man in the Mirror), building a peaceful global community (i.e. We Are the World and Heal the World), environmental justice (i.e. Earth Song), critique of globalization/policing (i.e. They Don’t Care About Us), ending global racism (i.e. Black or White) justice and safety of children (i.e. Little Susie/Pie Jesu and Childhood), and the need to be connected to each other (i.e. Will You Be There and Stranger in Moscow) showed up on last night’s BET Awards show? Why not? Because these songs are Jackson’s kryptonite critiques on consumption behaviors.  And BET decided that that’s not what interests his fans, especially his young fans like those of us who are 20something like myself.  But I disagree. Yeah, there was Ciara’s song Heal the World, but my ears don’t allow me to count her rendition. (But that’s another story.)

Hey, I am not saying that Jackson’s pop and romantic tunes should not be celebrated because they should. But something is wrong when not one ballad about healing, community, connectedness, and environmental responsibility was featured in any public or pronounced manner.  That omission says something about where we are as a society. Certainly reminds us that the Black Entertainment Television channel  cares more about black consumption than black legacy.

Someone special told me recently that the way you honor your parents or mentors is not by submitting to their authority or legacy, but by choosing to live your life seeking your purpose so that if your parents or mentors had to choose to live their life over they would choose to live your life because your purpose is enriching the world.

Here’s how musical legend Michael Jackson would have been remembered last night if I were producer of the BET Award Show.  I would have ended the show featuring global cultural workers who enrich the world followed by a musical medley of Man in the Mirror, Heal the World, Will You Be There, and Earth Song set against the video depictions of current political events—political protests in Iran, rape in the Congo, foreclosed houses in the US, fighting in Israel, and Hurricane Katrina—and environmental concerns—erosion of beaches, global warming, pandemics and epidemics of all kinds. All of which was to remind the audience that Michael Jackson cared deeply about people and the current state of the world. Thus, we honor him not only by remembering his soulful music—Billie Jean, Thriller, and so forth—but by choosing to live our lives dedicated to the service of humanity, a life that if Michael Jackson had to live his life over he would choose our interpretation of his best vision. That’s what I think should have been done last night. Or something like that. Anything but how BET and last night’s performers chose to remember Michael last night.

I guess it gets down to this: Can we expect people who live in a consumeristic culture to know how to honor the dead when they don’t even know how to honor the living –without consuming them alive?

Michael Jackson’s Earth Song

Bow Wow vs B-Scott: HipHop homophobia


Black Men being Hard together
Black Men being Hard together

In mid-April 2009, Little Bow Wow told a “funny story”, which was over a live web-chat, about not wanting to get his haircut by a barber that he assumed was gay.   His comments sparked some controversy among gay media when his remarks were leaked.  One such critique came from video-blogger BScott who is this self-proclaimed “gay as hell”  “pretty man.”  In his original post, BScott, took Bow Wow to task over his homophobia and alleged closet status (funny as hell in a problematic way).