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TW: mentions of rape, child rape, racism, and misogynoir.
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is a story loved around the world. So, when I saw that it was adapted to stage and touring the UK, my interest was peaked just enough to consider a visit to my local theatre the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. A Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production, it came to Northampton in the first week of October. Largely, audiences that frequent my local theatre are overwhelmingly white – thus, watching The Color Purple it was a joy to my heart to hear Black people in my community engaging with the arts, because the last time I heard so many Black people attended, was for Our Lady of Kibeho as part of the R&D’s Made in Northampton season. This dates back to 2019, a production I reviewed for The Nenequirer showing that Northampton(shire) arts has work to do.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram showed me the pretty unanimous positive praise for the Leicester-Birmingham co-production, while local critics also enjoyed it – including reviews from The Chronicle & Echo and The Nenequirer as well as further reviews by The Real Chris Sparkle and Northampton Town Centre BID. However, there were elements of the show that caused me great distress, no less than the perpetuation of misogynoir and racist stereotypes against Black men. It was deeply triggering, showing how historical trauma and vicarious trauma are ever present, including when white organisations have not done the work of protecting Black mental health when producing “Black-centred media.”
At the head of this cast, Me’sha Bryan gives a knockout performance as Celie (previous played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film) accompanied by Aaliya Zhané as Nettie, with Bree Smith as Shug Avery, and brilliant musical numbers grounded in the traditions of blues music that finds its origins in the trauma of enslaved Africans in the American South. They sang when “they got the blues” … and as far as performance and the commitment from the cast, I couldn’t ask for better.
However, whilst I have praised the musical numbers above, I did not believe it fitted with the tones of The Color Purple curating a rift between what the actors were saying and doing on stage, and the intonations of the music – as well as the lighting design. And despite the directorial position deciding the rape of a child wasn’t musical material (rightly so), the choice to have it as a passing detail with no further discussion, I found particularly off-key. This is one of the moments that highlights that The Color Purple may not have been musical material and better considered as a serious drama. I did not walk away feeling that bleak, much ado with contradictory lighting choices to character moods. The characters were feeling one away and lights did something else. By the by, rather than skip over the rape to maintain “the musicalness”, it may have been more effective to have done this story as a stage drama (with musical elements, if at all). The horrors depicted at the beginning of the novel are pretty nonexistent in musical.
So, this recent adaptation was a disappointment. Not from an acting point of view but behind-the-scenes pre-production elements like direction. The start of story includes a fourteen year-old who births two children after being raped by her father. So, the amount of trauma that exists around child sexual abuse and rape appear unconsidered when they glossed over these parts of the story. Furthermore, I do question if they consulted with any survivors when doing research for this adaptation. A ‘sensitivity consultant’ would not have gone amiss either, further to considerations of intersectionality and how cultural nuances in global, but still different Black communities, will be interpreted by white people, especially in provincial Little England.
Blown away by the musical abilities of the cast, stage productions (like much art) are often labelled as “escapist” so is not afforded the same criticality as for example – policing, education, sport and so on – we are all guilty of this and we can do better. This may be art; there were no redeeming Black characters, and Black men calling Black women “ugly” (written into the script) in full face of a white audience is cultural violence. In Northampton, the large white audience laughed at this example of ableist misogynoir, and in many ways this production felt to be played up for white audiences. Lots of white people are not used to seeing Black people as full human beings, and I do feel the play draws out our humanity. And by proxy centres white comfort with a Black aesthetic reinforced by white supremacy in media.
Disability justice activist Talia Lewis has released definitions of ableism every year since 2019. In January 2022, she discussed ableism as a violent social discourse that values people’s bodies and minds according to societally constructed ideas of “normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence and fitness …” Lewis (2022) states that these ideas are embedded in other violent discourses such as eugenics, capitalism, misogyny and white supremacy. The adaptation of these characters is only part of this debate, where another part may want to consider how this play has informed everpresent white superemacism pervasive across Northamptonnshire. It may impact how local white audiences may view Black people when they perceive that in this cultural text – ‘this is how Black people talk and act around each other.’
“This systemic oppression leads to people and society determining people’s value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, “health/wellness”, and/or their ability to satisfactory re/produce, “excel” and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”Talia Lewis (2022)
In Homegrown (hooks and Mesa-Bains, 2017), bell hooks tell us “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is so normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic. The products of mass media offer the tools of the new pedagogy.” Theatre is no different to films, literature or television programmes. Watching the musical, it struck me how the numbers of people who haven’t done the work of unlearning their own white supremacy would be impacted by such an adaptation (yes, as we know all humans can reproduce these isms but in a global western context, however, white supremacy has put white people on the top of that racial hierarchy).
One instance of misogynoir and ableism was underpinned by the three Black women singers (their character names escape me) who were written as Sassy Black Women inherently “comedifying” Black womanhood. Brilliant singers, but were written lazily reinforcing a damaging cultural media narrative that diminishes the three-dimensional personhoods of Black women. This was offered with no alternative. The Hypersexual Jezebel (named after the “sinful” Biblical character) appears in numbers of characters while Sofia was written as the Strong Black Woman. Black men were then written as violent, comedic relief, illiterate, and other harmful stereotypes, and domestic abuser Mr Albert is redeemed to the sound of musical harmonies and joyful lighting.
At a Northampton level, the critics from local media revisited a culture of uncritically discussing art. Stories aren’t just stories but a product of the society that created them, and we are a society that finds it easier to challenge the criminal justice system than it does liberal arts institutions, in spite of both having a say in how Black people are viewed and treated. Despite “Black theatre” not being genre, we need more shows at the Derngate that centre Blackness in Britain. And whilst commissioning and hosting shows about ‘Black issues’ is not evidence of an anti-racist commitment, it would be nice to see more shows locally about Black people in the UK by Black people.
When we do get “Black stories”, they so often centre the US, most recently The Color Purple (Oct, 2022) and Two Trains Running (Sept, 2019) – denying local audiences a context for Blackness within the United Kingdom, while recentring American Blacknesses is gaslighting through art. In November, Dreamgirls centring American Blackness is coming to the Derngate. A co-production between The Curve and the Birmingham Hippodrome, this adaptation of The Color Purple was deeply problematic on many levels that local white critics may not have picked up on because of their whiteness – drawn in by a spectacle of a “Black show”, viewed through a white gaze that is unused to talking about white supremacy as a political structure.
The white audience for these misogynoir tropes specifically – largely one of laughter – reminded me of the white gaze, with white laughter as eased white supremacy. Whiteness continues to pervade through ‘acceptable racism’ where serious digs made at Black people in-text laughed at by white people may show how white people may think about Black people in designated white spaces. A Black man seriously calling a Black woman ugly and a white audience laughing at that is incredibly revealing – a comfortableness in spaces coded as white … and how white people may act when thinking and talking about Black people in private (i.e in spaces coded as culturally white and desgined to their comfort).
“I grew up in a culture of bantering and, ngl, I love a caustic riposte. And while in certain ways I resent the current policing of language, there is a distinction. I hate to break it to you, but a “joke” in which the gag is that the person is black isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humor. A joke told to a white audience where the punch line is a racist stereotype isn’t a joke, again it’s just racism; if there is only one black person present, it’s also cowardly and it’s bullying. Jokes of this nature probably aren’t funny for black people.”Emma Dabiri (2021: 98)
Art imitating life is one thing, but when life imitates art is another. White laughter at Black people in cultural media texts goes back to the days when blackface was on the BBC (until 1978). To see this platformed by a local arts institution then profiting from it, is revealing of how whiteness is performed and profited from, when white people think they’re not being watched. Creatives have a responsibility and so do those institutions that platform them.
Myself and fellow blogger @haleysread discuss this further in our prior entries about the scandal surrounding Jimmy Carr and Netflix. On that October evening, being one of the few Black people in the audience, it was incredibly uncomfortable. To consider art uncritically is to be entertained from a vantage point of privilege (or ignorance). Attending with my friend, to see unanimous positive feedback from the public made us feel a way, no less than from many Black people. We must always be critical; being critical is not the same as criticising, and those who are critical only take the time to be so because we care.
It is not about individual actors but about the lack of critique of institutional platforming in producing “art” that goes on to cause harm. Another fellow blogger Stephanie @svr2727 talked about misogynoir and the media in her recent webinar with the Criminology Team and Black Criminology Network. Violent mistakes in arts productions show a need not for more historical consultants, but sensitivity readers and empathy viewers. One cannot teach empathy, you either have it or you do not. Extending this gaze to screen media texts as well like Bridgerton and others, it is a further reminder that social scientists are needed at the very top of media … especially those of us that research about race, racism, and other forms of violence.
These cultural texts are rehearsed, edited, and considered by multiple hands before any public audience sees them. So, why are we still having to challenge? Simple: misogynoir, ableism, and whiteness are institutionalised and normalised socially and culturally into our day-to-day practice. No less than in “liberal” arts institutions.
“Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.” – Malcolm X
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In America, and most certainly in the land of Dixie and cotillions, at the end of junior high school year we have a tradition of getting our senior class rings. By “getting,” I mean individually buying a ring from the same one or two companies in our city who cash in on this ritual annually. We knew that many of us had to foot the bill with our own after-school jobs, while others’ parents could virtually write a blank check! (Hopefully, at least, or perhaps most assuredly, somebody in the school system gets a kickback from all this cash flow.)
While class rings appeared personalized, the rings – and the ritual – were effectively mass manufactured, complete with standardized shapes and design features: school’s name and mascot – in our case a bear – class year (1993!), and maybe our initials inscribed inside. Oh, and a heteronormative adolescent sexualized ritual to which I shall return shortly.
Rings are generally presented at a school ceremony. Until graduation, class rings are worn facing the wearer as motivation towards the ultimate achievement, after which it is worn outward as a badge of pride and honor. A graduating class could all agree to the same design – usually the school colors – which I believe the majority of my class did. While I prefer the look of silver against my dark skin, our school colors were royal blue and gold, so classes at our school often got blue sapphire set in the lowest Karat gold available that didn’t look cheap. For such a notoriously liberal school (i.e., gender and racially/geographically* integrated by design), this was one of the few explicit acts of conformity.
The next part of the tradition is having 100 different people turn the ring, as sort of an acknowledgement of becoming a senior. The first 99 turn it in one direction, while the final person reverses the order. This clockwise/counter-clockwise turn seals the deal. Yet get this, you’re supposed to kiss the hundredth person who turns the ring. You say the word “kiss” in front of most any group of adolescents and they’ll giggle. We knew what kind of kiss was meant. FRENCH like fries! Somehow becoming a senior in high school had been coopted by this hetero-ritual, a hetero-rite of passage (het-or-no-rites!).
I am troubled that this academic milestone is linked to gender. Worse, the ritual is predictably a performance act that fixes gender to normative sexual roles; yes, heteropatriarchy. Worse still, this binary gender performance is discrete, couched in achieving a basic education.
The ring dealer comes to school and makes a sales pitch to the class, and sets up a booth in the lobby after school. In his pitch, he promises a ‘free’ glossy little form to collect all the signatures. It was a bait and switch. These dealers sold us the rings but gave us the forms, the evidence we needed to prove we’d passed another stage towards adulthood. And what were we supposed to do with the blank glossy forms? Come back to school and boast?
The first 50 or so signatures were just us. Our own schoolmates turning each other’s rings, filling in each other’s forms on the very day the rings arrived. Family filled in a lot, too. I distinctly remember a teacher or two requesting to be excluded from the tradition, or take part in the ring ritual of becoming a senior, else we whittle their fingers away.
We all know everybody only wanted to see who signed the final line – a prompt to incite heteronormalizing speech-acts. Well, a few folks weren’t single and already had that 100th spot reserved and filled by sundown. Needless to say, kisses from granny don’t count! I’m pretty sure this wasn’t written on the dealer’s well-crafted sheet. Our market dominated, heteronormative introduction to adulthood for all to see.
I’d attended the same school since second grade so I’d seen people celebrate this class ring ritual for years, and even attended several graduations. I’d watched the “Senior run” year after year – a day at the end of school, when the graduating class runs through all the halls, cheering, banging on lockers as all the kids in all the classes rush out to line the hallways and egg them on. I loved school, adored our school, adored my classmates, and even looked forward to our turn, though parting so bittersweet.
At 16, I was only starting to be able to fully disidentify with the barrage of heterosexualized norms that engulfed me. I had to disentangle heterosexuality from virtually every facet of life – even finishing high school, a normal step we’re all expected to take. It’s as if to gain access to what bell hooks calls ‘the good life’ one had to signify alignment with compulsory heterosexuality.
I knew that I could not even turn my ring 100 times without kissing a girl. No way I’d risk putting a guy’s name at the end of that glossy list – someone I’d actually dreamt of French-kissing. Not like I knew any guy who’d be game. Damn. This was a lot of pressure. This junior prom was forcing me to make all kinds of adult decisions.
“The more I get of you, the stranger it feels…”
I was 16, and wasn’t out yet. Unlike at twelve when these feelings first bubbled over, by 16 I was on the cusp of self-acceptance, and preparing to face this possibility that I was gay. Perhaps it was pure timing. By the 11thgrade I knew for sure I’d be leaving home months after graduation, which was suddenly within reach. I could chart my own homo path. But still, at that age, I had doubts. I tried seriously dating a young woman as my last-ditch effort to see if I was straight or (at least) bisexual.
Kaye wasn’t a classmate, which wouldn’t have worked anyway because in retrospect all my classmates already knew, and had decided to accept me without question. Kaye attended an all-girls’ school, so we’d met through an extracurricular, Black youth empowerment program. Kaye was clearly college bound. She had her own dreams and ambitions, and pursued them – an ideal mate for me. She was the most attractive woman I knew, both inside and out, both to me and others. Yes, THAT sister who is not invulnerable, but has it all together. If she didn’t do, then dammit I was gay!
Fortunately, my girl was smart. And by smart, I mean that she was intelligent, real smart as in NOT clueless at all. We agreed to a kiss on the cheek, and she’d sign the last line on my glossy form. And by ‘agreed to’, I mean that this is what Kaye put on the table as her firm and final offer. She also had the good sense to let me turn her ring, too, but she reserved the 100th signature for someone special. I respected that. This clarified our plutonic status – no Facebook updates needed: I’m gay.
“Gotta find out what I meant to you…You were sweet as cheery pie/ Wild as Friday night”
As we come to the end of Black History Month it is important to shine a light on the Black Lives Matters Movement and highlight the historical significance to the problematic discourse of racialisation.
Black history month is an opportunity for people from the various pockets of the Black community to learn about our own history and educate those who are not from the Black community, in order to decolonise our institutions and our society. As Black people we have our own history formed by systemic oppressions and great triumphs. While it is easy (and lazy) for institutions to use terms such as BAME and People of Colour (POC) these problematic uses of language oppress blackness. We are not a monolith of coloured people. Different racialised groups have and will experience, and uphold difference, harms and achievements within society. Furthermore, it would be naïve to ignore the narrative of anti-blackness that people from racialised groups uphold. Therefore, it is important for us and people that look like us, to continue to have the space to talk about our history and our experiences.
For many people in the UK and indeed around the world BLM became a mainstream topic for discussion and debate following the murder of George Floyd. While the term BLACK LIVES MATTER is provocative and creates a need for debate, it signifies the historical ideology that black lives haven’t mattered in historical and in many ways, contemporary terms.
While it is easy to fall into the trap of describing the Black experience as an experience of victimhood, Black history months allows us to look deep at all our history and understand why and where we are as a society.
The UK is one of the most diverse places in the world, yet we continue to fall prey to the Eurocentric ideology of history. And while it is important to always remember our history, the negativity of only understanding black history from the perspective of enslavement needs to be questioned. Furthermore, the history of enslavement is not just about the history of Black people, we need to acknowledge that this was the history of the most affluent within our society. Of course, to glaze over the triangle trade is problematic as it allows us to understand how and why our institutions are problematic, but it is redundant to only look at Black history from a place of oppression. There are many great Black historical figures that have contributed to the rich history of Britain, we should be introducing our youth to John Edmonstone, Stuart Hall, Mary Prince and Olive Morris (to name a few). We should also be celebrating prominent Black figures that still grace this earth to encourage the youth of today to embrace positive Black role models.
Black history for us, is not just about the 1st-31st of October. We are all here because of history we need to start integrating all our history into our institutions, to empower, educate and to essentially make sense of our society.
What must September 30th have felt like?
“Being conscious of the injustice and impropriety of holding my fellow creature in state of slavery, I do hereby emancipate and set free one Negro woman named Jug, who is about 28 years old, to be immediate free after this day, October 1st, 1792. -Mary Old” (slave-owner).
“No way,” Latifah sighs, and repeats this twice after she recites the words “set free.”
“OMG, I’m tingling right now,” she whispers.
‘The Queen L-A-T-I-F-A-H in command’ spent her entire rap career rapping about freedom.
Indeed, what did it feel like to hold your own emancipation piece of paper for the first time?
Or, to receive this piece of paper in your (embondaged) hands?
Or, pen a document liberating another who you believe to be a fellow human being?
What must September 30th have felt like for this slave…
The day before one’s own manumission, the eve of one’s freedom?
What ever did Ms. Jug do?
How can I…
How can I claim any linkages to, or even feign knowing anything about –
Let alone understand – anyone who’s lived in bondage?
However, I can see that
We’re all disconnected from each other today, without seeking to know all our own pasts.
The 1870 Federal census was the first time Africans in America were identified by name, Meaning:
Most of us can never know our direct lineage …no paper trail back to Africa.
So, what must it feel like to find the first record of your ancestors – from the first census –
Only to discover a record of your earliest ancestor’s birthplace: Africa!?!
Though rare, it’s written before you that they’d survived capture and permanent separation,
The drudgery of trans-Atlantic transport, and
A life-till-death of cruel and brutal servitude, and
Somehow, miraculously, here you are.
Slavery shattered Black families.
This was designed to cut us off at the roots, stunt our growth – explicit daily degradation:
You’z just a slave! No more no less.
For whites hearing this, it may evoke images of their ancestors who committed such acts. How exactly did they become capable of such every day cruelty…and live with it?
All must understand our roots in order to grow.
For slave descendants, we see survivors of a tremendously horrible system.
This includes both white and Black people.
Those who perpetrated, witnessed, resisted or fell victim to slavery’s atrocities.
We’re all descended from ‘slavery survivors’ too – our shared culture its remnants.
Of the myriad of emotions one feels in learning such facts, one is certainly pride.
Another is compassion.
We survived. And we now know better.
Suggesting that we forget about slavery,
Or saying “Oh, but slavery was so long ago,”
Demands that we ignore our own people’s resilience, and will to live.
It’s akin to encouraging mass suicide.
For, to forget is to sever your own roots.
And like any tree without roots, we’d wither and die, be crushed under our own weight.
Or, get chopped up and made useful.
Or, just left “for the sun to rot, for the tree to drop.”
Erasing history, turning away because of its discomfort, is a cult of death.
It moralizes its interest in decay.
To remember is to live, and celebrate life.
We must reckon with how our lives got here, to this day, to this very point.
Therefore, to learn is to know and continue to grow, for
A tree that’s not busy growing is busy dying.
The quest for roots is incredibly, powerfully, life-giving.
Call their names.
Knowledge further fertilizes freedom.
Know better. Do better.
Rise, like a breath of fresh air.
In the second grade, I started in a new school that was designed as a progressive environment where students, teachers and administrators were all on a first-name basis. Radical, even in ’82, our school was forward about gender, race and class diversity. Despite this, I only had one Black teacher in my elementary school years – the amazing music teacher. As kids, we could see few other Black adults: the assistant librarian, a handful of the lunchroom ladies, as well as the Black middle- and high-school teachers we saw in the same building. This meant that the Black adult we most consistently interacted with was Miss Saundra, the janitor.
Miss Saundra appeared around corners, could surprise you out of a closet you hadn’t even noticed was there. She was always on hand should there be any major mess or spill. Best of all, our school gleamed from top to bottom, every classroom, every hallway, every bookshelf, every restroom – every desk! It felt lovely to go to school every day, the floors shined, the windows sparkled, and even the banisters were pristine. I am certain this level of hygiene must have taken a team, but I remember Miss Saundra, probably because she was friendly to me. I can still see her, unbending her back to look at us, and speak face to face.
If I ever had to come to school early to play in the gym or have breakfast, or stay late for an after-school activity, Miss Saundra would likely be there, tidying up. She always took time to greet us. She was even there for school dances, and asked nothing in return, and we knew nothing of her outside the labor she devoted to us in the background. She was our school’s magic negro.
Other than the school guard who was not armed with anything but charm, Miss Saundra, might have been the first at school, followed by the ladies making breakfast. These were our essential workers – like the air we breathed in the heart of our city. I like to think because of their personalities we felt at home in our environment and therefore enjoyed school more fully.
Kids carry on.
When I was in the third grade, our teacher – a tall, grey-haired white man of grand stature who taught me I could master math even though it wasn’t easy for me – sent all the girls ahead to music class. He held the boys back for a chat. Apparently, someone had urinated in the second-floor boys’ bathroom, and they’d worked out that only our class had taken a break between cleanings. Since teachers had separate restrooms, I thought it must have been Miss Saundra who’d discovered the mess, and so I wondered what that conversation was like with our teacher, who was now accusing us! Though he didn’t demand we rat out the culprit, he called it “nasty,” and said we could get electrocuted, because “electricity travels through water,” wagging his index finger like it was on fire. With that, he sent us off to music!
This was probably the first time that I’d been explicitly asked to identify as a gender, and it was over THIS! I knew that whoever had done it would have needed an audience. So not only did some fool piss on the wall, some other fool(s) stood around and watched! I thought, what bastard did this! Didn’t they know Miss Saundra would have to clean it? Didn’t she greet them, and ask them how they’re doing like she does me? Did they ‘see’ Miss Saundra everyday like she saw us? Why would they piss on her parade? Why give Miss Saundra the blues for your pissing contest!
I stopped by the bathroom on the way back from music class. Sure enough, Miss Saundra had been done had it squeaky, bleachy clean! I could never have imagined girls’ doing something like that.
I knew that like me, Miss Saundra was an outsider in a space where I belonged. I knew people like Miss Saundra, so she was not a stranger to me. I had no ambitions of becoming a janitor, but I certainly knew women, in my family and in my community, who did this sort of work. And those women I knew who did that sort of work encouraged people like me to do well in school, so I could take advantage of the kinds of choices they didn’t have. I had no reason to think Ms. Saundra less of me. What’s more, even though I felt strange in my own body, she treated me as human, especially. The gratitude I feel for her sounds like a tambourine in my own theme song.