Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Chris Rock's Docusploitation: Let Black Women "Do" Our Own Hair! (GUEST POST)

By Tikia K. Hamilton

Admittedly, a friend had prepared me in advance for some of the inadequacies to be found in Chris Rock's film Good Hair, and I am probably a bit behind the rest of the world (and I do mean rest of the world, see problems with film below) in viewing it. Still, it left me with a few thoughts...The very first problem with the movie is that it is told through the eyes of a person who can never truly experience what it means to be a black woman living amidst a world of images that reinforce the notion that, while black can sometimes be trendy, it can never truly represent the highest attainment of beauty. 

While Rock might be able to sympathize with his daughters and perhaps even a wife addicted to "creamy crack," he is in some ways like the whites and Asians (and Indians) whom he criticizes for their “blacksploitation” in profiting from black women’s hair obsessions.  Of course, that he is a comedian makes the film at times comical, but, in truth, the conflicting messages that he promotes about black women's obsessive compulsive behavior sure ain't funny.

Perhaps Rock thought he was doing something by interviewing the likes of Nia Long, Salt N Pepa, Ms. Video Vixen herself, and even Maya Angelou (who currently sports what she says is her very first perm), and pimpomatic Ice-T (goodness!).  For a moment, I thought there was a glimmer of hope when Pepa tells of how she actually burned her hair to the scalp (and then tried to hide it by coloring in the bald spot with brown makeup and the asymmetrical hairstyle that wound up becoming popular as a result, she says). But then, when she goes on to state how she must have the “very finest human hair” for her one-piece (i.e. wig vs. weave), I knew that the film could go nowhere but down from that point. 

With perhaps one or two exceptions, all of the other women seem to affirm Pep’s perceptions of what makes good hair, or should we say, a good weave…I must say that I was even surprised by Maya Angelou’s final words of wisdom for the film—“a woman’s hair is her crown and glory.” Not her mind, not her unwavering confidence, not even the proud hat that the church lady dons on Sunday, but her hair. (Ironically, Maya Angelou offers the forward to Michael Cunningham’s Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, Doubleday, 2000.) hmmm…

The most compelling part of the film (for me) comes when Rock visits India to find the true source of all of this “good hair.” But for the white companies that have usurped all but four (we’re told) black hair product manufacturing companies; but for some Korean and Chinese shops who tell us, unlike the shiny, luxurious Indian hair, it would be nigh impossible for them to vend nappy, “unhygienic” hair to their customers; and but for the black hair designer, himself sporting a perm, and who pimps weave to black women on the regular, we truly see the problem with the hair “care” market from start to finish. It’s like California grapes all over again, except this time, it’s a black market where women can literally lose their hair if they but blink in the theatre or in their own beds. Rock’s message: BLACK WOMEN YOU ARE CONTRIBUTING TO THE EXPLOITATION of impoverished Indians who believe their sacrifice of hair (whether stolen or voluntarily offered as a religious gesture) exalts them to a higher plain of spirituality. BLACK WOMEN, WHY YOU LITTLE DEVILS!

Now, I didn’t readily see the connection between Rock’s focus on the annual Bronner Brothers hair show, which, from where I stand, is pure performance. But I did see the somber look on one girl’s face when she was told by her fellow beauty school cohort that they would never hire her because her afro made her look “not put together,” or for Rock’s purposes, “not relaxed,” perhaps scary even (like Angela Davis, maybe…) Speaking of proud black women proudly sporting unpermed hair (for, the term "natural" makes nonpermed hair seem so exotic, “unnactural” even…isn’t it all just hair, anyway? Dead at that?)—where the hell they? Or don’t they make it to the cover of magazines, films, or past the first interview? Oh, there was one in the film: She was a darker-skinned black woman with a closely cropped croif. She stood right behind Rock and other black men in the barber shop as they mutually agreed that a woman gotta come correct with her hair or she ain’t getting’ it. (Ok, maybe I’m paraphrasing, but the point is, what must that woman have felt as her brothers basically or literally vanquished her beauty to the background? Absent perms, maybe the same way Rock’s young daughters feel in school? I’m just sayin!)

So, let me get this straight (no pun intended). Not only are Black women to blame for Indian exploitation (as if that’s not enough), but we’re damned if we pursue ends that we think and most evidence seems to prove will make us more appealing to black men and society at large, and we’re damned if we don’t. Well, hell, it seems we can’t win…but what else is new?

If, as a black man, Chris Rock wanted to make a movie about “good hair,” maybe he should have simply focused on the men in the barber shop, while interrogating and scrutinizing comments like that of D.L. Hughley, a fellow comic, such as when he once said that he had to be able to run a comb through his woman’s head…none of that nappy stuff. (Or maybe he could have asked some of them about those wave caps.) Ok, so we get it that, just as any and every black woman will go broke trying to afford a thousand dollar weave, a black man can also broke in trying to keep his lady looking good. But, he could also save a helluva lot of money if, in mixed and unmixed company, he contained his drool over the likes of Beyonce, Tyra, Nia who, to hear many tell it, are the “trufe” when it comes to flawless beauty.

What’s more, if he really wanted to instruct his daughters on lessons in blackness, he should have first studied a bit of history (can we say Madame CJ Walker?); next he should have further interrogated Mr. Diggs (the exceptionally talented, botoxed white man who was a favorite to win in the BB hairshow, even as he had nearly nude black women prancing around him), or Revlon, or Clairol for the “wages of their whiteness” when it comes to exploiting the black dollar and an unattainable standard they created for most any woman. If that’s asking too much, it’s ok. Chris has his career in buffoonery, I mean comedy safely protected by the white world… So why not let black women do our own hair (stories) and leave the social criticisms to the professionals? For contrary to belief there are among us educated folk who do this—and do this well—for a living.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Thankful 31st...

I thought I would take the opportunity to write something briefly about my day of birth.  This is, however, not an attempt and at promotion or some weird intellectual vanity, but a young man taking an honest inventory of himself (hopefully briefly as I have the tendency to be long winded sometimes).

On this day at 4:06pm at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, Norma and Vernon Mitchell welcomed their first child into the world--Me!  Now thirty-one years later, here I am. So where is "here" and "Who Am I"?

This birthday has been quite a reflective one as I have looked back over my brief life and thought about "What have I done?"(especially since I am now on the other side of thirty).  Was Jay-Z right? is this the new twenty?  I'm not so sure.  I would like to think so since my generation is doing thing much later than my parents' generation did. 

My sister left me a voice mail message this morning where she mentioned, "Brother it is time to start looking back ain't it? It's time for some reflection."  She is so right.

As a thinker and an academic in training my mind is constantly engaged with ideas and concepts even when I don't necessary want to.  Sometimes I wish I could turn my brain off to sit back and "do nothing." However, I don't think that is in my blood to holistically "do nothing."

I will say that I am especially thankful for life on this day...because I realize more and more that life is a beautiful, ugly, fragile and equally precious thing. As I woke up this morning I thought about the number of people like my paternal grandmother Rosie Mae Mitchell and one of my best friends, Brian Barton, who have transcended this existence. Both of them, and a host of others who have passed on, had a profound impact on my life.  Of the two I mentioned, Brian did not see his 31st birthday as I have.

I thought about what each of them might say to me today. My grandmother would offer some sage wisdom and the love that only a grandma can give and Brian would no doubt say something that was funny as hell. I miss them both.

A friend posed the question to me today in an email, "Vernon what do you want to do this year that you didn't do last year?  What do you want accomplish?"

My quick response to that question is that my goal is still the same. I hope to have challenged folk to think outside themselves and their situations to impact positive change in someone's life other than their own. While history is part of my profession, it also is an important part of my life and the circuitous path I have taken to get to where I am today. I am solely a result of previous sacrifices made by so many, and I am thankful.

I only hope that as I live my life through my own mistakes and successes, I have done their collective memory justice. Fame and fortune have not been part of my life and may never be, but if I have helped at least one person along my own short life's journey then my living will not have been in vain.

Lord willing this time next year, I'll be talking about graduation and a job...and I'll be that much more thankful as I celebrate another trip around the sun.

Peace and Respect.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Peace Mandate for Each of Us--Not Just the President

This past Friday not just Americans, but likely the world was shocked by the announcement that the 44th President of the United States, Mr. Barack Hussien Obama was selected as the 2009 Awadee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Obama himself mentioned in his comments at the White House Rose Garden that he was, "surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee." Of course this has not been enough for both many of supporters and all of his detractors and socio-political enemies. He seems live in a world where he is damned if he does or damned if he doesn' matter what it is.

I read and re-read several blogs and op-ed pieces before writing this post today.  Once such post by NYTimes columnist Thomas L. Friedman entitled, "Peace (Keepers) Prize." He makes the argument that "The Nobel committee did President Obama no favors by prematurely awarding him its peace prize." He goes on to say "...and it dismays me that the most important prize in the world has been devalued in this way."  Devalued?  I was floored at that assertion.  Very harsh words to say the least.  The rest of his column is a speech that Friedman feels Obama should give, where he thanks all of the soldiers who have been "keeping the world safe." Thus, the thought is, there is no peace without peace keepers.  However "peacekeepers" don't have to be the military. I thought the article was more than arrogant and extremely dismissive, but I wanted again to see what was being said.

Another NYTimes contributor Marueen Dowd, wrote a fictional and deeply satirical phone conversation between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Here I was given a bit more insight to another take on the issue that was creatively written but still I found troubling in some ways. The best line is from Bill Clinton where he says, "Any peace prize that goes to Henry Kissinger but not Gandhi ain’t worth a can of Alpo."  That got me thinking as well. However it was a conversation with my father, Vernon Mitchell, Sr., that really made me reflect.

"Pop what do you think about Obama and the Peace Prize?" I inquired. "Well, I think it is a great honor no matter what folks are saying. We have to look at President Obama's global impact, not just his impact on American soil." That made me think.  "Look back to the election," my father proclaimed. "Folks all over the world were rejoicing at what the election of Obama meant for them. We cannot underestimate that."  I couldn't agree more.

So the question still remains, "Was it too soon?"  Maybe. However, I am not inclined to give such arguments that much weight. The decision was made by the Nobel committee was one that I am certain they mulled over again and again, knowing full well the possible political implications for Mr. Obama. All we can do now it accept what is, in the hope that the award will continue the push toward progress and holistic freedom for those who lie on the fringes of economic opportunity and peace.

As a historian, I also began to think about context, which is what I believe my father was doing in his own way. When I think back to last November I distinctly remember the news coverage that showed people, and children in particular, all over the world cheering and crying tears of joy. I remember thinking what does this mean to them?

I knew what it meant to me as an African American, but what were the global implications?  For one Obama's election signaled the first time that anyone of African descent (or non-white) was elected the leader of a Western Nation. That is huge when you think about the legacy of colonialism and imperialism has ransacked the globe from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Europe's carving up of the African continent. Think too about Asia, Austrilia, and the lands in the Pacific.  All have been adversely effected by encrouchment from the West and many deivstating ways. Even now.

Ironically today is Columbus Day.  The day that has been set aside to honor the "discovery" of a new world that just happened to already have people living in it.  I think not of discovery, but of destruction of culture and a celebration of human tragedy via the so called free market.  Within the field of history we speak constantly of the "Columbian Exchange" which is a term used to discuss the "exchange of culture" between the Spaniards and native indigenous populations in the Western Hemisphere.  While we think pleasantly of corn(maize), horses, and potatoes, no one wants to discuss the impact of diseases like small pox or syphilis. So, Obama being in the White House is transformative in ways we, as Americans, can only begin to imagine.  He is the personification of hope, of dreams deferred for the global community.

Those who view the 2009 Peace Prize as a mockery I'm sure had nothing to say when Al Gore recieved for his efforts to inform the world about the climate change.  Then again maybe they likely did.  I take heart in the fact that President Obama is keenly aware of his position in time and takes everything in stride. Obama accepted the award as a "call to action" to confront the global challenges of the 21st century. Furthermore he stated, "I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments but rather an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations."

Obama's remarks about his prize sound very similar to another American who won the same prize. On December 10, 1964, Martin Luther King remarked during his acceptance speech, "I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history."

Premature or not, this is just another chance for this nation to show itself to be what it says on paper.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Those coveted words were penned on July 4, 1776 and have been the bedrock of our so called democracy. More Americans need to wash off the dirt of pessimism and the filth of ignorance and arrogance and cleanse themselves in the waters of justice and peace that we affirm in the words of our Declaration of Independence.

I've said this before and I'll say it again, President Obama cannot do this alone. It will take the work of each of us in our own way to see the transformation we want in this troubled republic. For now, let us each accept the Peace Prize with our president and roll up our sleeves to do the real work nation building at home and abroad.  Violent action can only secure peace for a limited time--if you want to call that "peace" at all.  Respect, tolerance, and education can do much more than any weapon ever could to establish a true communion of global brotherhood.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Sacred and Secular Homecoming: Maxwell's Blacksummers'night Tour Rolls Through St. Louis

Hanging out in the studio...reppin' the STL with Maxwell
(l to r, Me, Shedrick, Keyon (in front), Max, and Keyon's brother Emmanuel)

Maxwell not only has the hottest new album out, but his new tour might equal, if not eclipse the accolades that the studio production is receiving. After an eight year hiatus, Maxwell is back and this weekend his BLACKsummers'night Tour will hit St. Louis.

Maxwell's new album boasts a sound that blends love with laughter, pain with perseverance. BLACKsummers'night is the marriage of Maxwell's soulful, intimate, and inspiring vocals to the superb musicianship of an outstanding band. Two of those band members, Shedrick Mitchell and Keyon Harrold, are St. Louis natives that are excited about their homecoming this Friday.

For both Shedrick and Keyon the black church was an integral part of their musical and personal coming of age. Shedrick began playing the piano and organ for his grandfather's congregation and later for his father's church, (both located in Kinloch, MO). Keyon played the trumpet in much the same way. Family and faith were one in the same. "The church is the basis of my is that soul that other cats can't learn," Keyon mentions. Elaborating further, Shedrick suggests that there is an invaluable asset to growing up in the church as he and Keyon did. For Shedrick, the church, "prepared me for everything that I've encountered to maintain and stay on the have longevity and musically stay alert with my onstage surroundings."

Being alert is an important part of playing with Maxwell it seems. Shedrick calls Maxwell a "spontaneous entertainer" referencing the fact that working with him whether in the studio or especially live, the singer "keeps you on your toes. " Likewise, Keyon finds that Maxwell's ability to allow each band member freedom that does not compromise their own sound, while still contributing to something innovative and new is important as well. Keyon admits, "I feel like I'm playing my music every night--that's a blessing."

This is not that hard to believe. Keyon says that working with Maxwell has been a "musically stimulating experience, " from the standpoint that they "have created incredible music together...and there's still more levels of creativity to be dealt with."

Generally speaking, that very "creativity" emerges from both sacred and secular forms of music. Those musical roots have been equally significant in the musical maturation of Shedrick and Keyon. Both musicians cite gospel and jazz as their biggest musical influences. In Shedrick's case in particular it was Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" (1959) and Chick Corea's Akoustic Band's "Alive" (1991) album that really began to expand his musical horizons.

In much the same way, Keyon found his inspiration through the work of Davis too. "The album I fell in love with was the "Birth of the Cool","(1949) mentions Keyon. The sound and tone of Miles' trumpet on the tune "Boplicity" reaffirmed his love for the instrument and jazz music when he first heard it around age twelve.

Aside from a shared experience of family and faith, Shedrick and Keyon are products of the same high school in St. Louis (McCluer Senior High) and also attended Mannes College The New School for Music in New York City. These master musicians have played with the best artists in almost every genre of music: jazz, gospel, rock, R&B, country, and rap. Shedrick and Keyon last played together with iconic rapper Jay-Z on his American Gangster Tour.

Now together again, playing for Maxwell, Shedrick and Keyon bring their extraordinary talents into a volatile cauldron of creativity that will both grab at your heart and enliven your spirit. Specifically, you can hear the spontaneous, smooth, effortless, and yet robust sound of Keyon's trumpet on full display when Maxwell performs "Playing Possum". Shedrick personifies the sacred and secular mastery of the Hammond B3 organ as he commands the instrument like no other. His solos ring out like a divine messenger calling us to serve in "Help Somebody" while his chords are enchanting in the sultry, intoxicating "Bad habits".

Both musicians are able to accomplish such musical feats, along with their bandmates, without ever overpowering the vocal stylings of Maxwell. Shedrick and Keyon remain students of their craft. Shedrick maintains, "it's very important for me to always be a student of the music because I never want to become complacent with where I is always evolving and it's very important that I keep my ears to the ground to stay fresh and current."

BLACKsummers'night is more than "fresh and current". When I first heard this album in November of last year, in its earliest incarnations, I knew it would change and revitalize an industry starving for creativity, purpose, and passion.

Maxwell has done it again, and Shedrick and Keyon are valuable assets to the continued growth of Maxwell's artistry, while staying true to their own sound.

To say that both musicians are excited about their homecoming is truly an understatement. "St. Louis is going to have an unforgettable night of music...Maxwell is going to croon and I'm going to keep it soulful and sexy," Keyon comments. Shedrick is assured that his hometown is in for a unique experience. "They can expect a night of musical romance, " he professes. As far as his own contribution to the concert Shedrick declares " will be a great night for everyone...for my family...for the fans as well because everyone will be family that night. People won't know if they are in a store front baptist church or an Alabama juke joint!" "PIANOMAN",(Shedrick's musical alias), promises "the concert will give you the sacred and secular in no particular order."

Ironically enough Shedrick's forthcoming solo project is called "The Sacred and the Secular". His first album "Introducing Shedrick Mitchell" was released independently in 1996. Keyon just recently released his own solo project, "Introducing Keyon" in September on the Criss Cross Jazz label while also producing a remix of Maxwell's "Pretty Wings" with his brother Jason.

St. Louis prepare for a helluva show!
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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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