Considering the dynamics and representations of oversexualized black women

In this blog entry, Trimiko Melancon, author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation, discusses contemporary dynamics regarding race, gender, and sexuality.

A week ago I served as an invited moderator for a college student forum, “Freakum: The Hypersexuality of Black Women.” What the event and the students organizing it sought to explore, in part, were representations of black women. More specifically, how today’s portrayals of black women are images of them as the event flyer and prompt indicated, “oversexualized to the point where a black woman cannot just be portrayed as a woman, but as a sexual being.”

Questions from students ranged from inquiries attempting to ascertain the history of such images and if black women and blacks generally are in control of media representations of their sexuality. There were also discussions of black female pop cultural icons, including mega superstar Beyoncé Knowles and leading televisual personas Olivia Pope (ABC’s Scandal) and Mary Jane (BET’s Being Mary Jane). While the forum was stimulating, and the students were very intellectually engaged, I was struck by how, even in the twenty-first century, their understandings of these dynamics and representations of black women were punctuated by, and articulated through, binaries. Either they expected black women to uphold respectable representations always, or to do the diametrical opposite: be both carefree and, indeed, free to not at all worry about or contend with how they carry themselves or are perceived and, ultimately, portrayed.

Unbought_smIn these very notions of black womanhood and representations—and the still, at times, limiting or narrow roles or characterizations confronting them—reverberates the precise motivation and premise behind my book, Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation. My book idea actually started during my very own matriculation as an undergraduate English major struck by and grappling with representations of black women in literature. These interests became the groundwork of my college senior honors thesis, doctoral dissertation, and now this first book—a reflection, of course, of the evolution and intellectual maturity of those formative ideas over the course of more than a decade of research, critical thinking, and writing.

In Unbought and Unbossed, I examine post-civil rights representations of black women in literary and cultural texts of the 1970s and 1980s, informed by and produced during consequential political movements: civil rights, feminism, black nationalism, gay liberation, and the sexual revolution. This is a particularly significant era precisely, in part, because of the ways in which black women’s texts of the era embody and embrace a shift in terms of representations. Unbought and Unbossed explores how these moments create a space, cultural and political, for “the transgressive:” representations of black women who transgress and challenge racial, gender, and sexual circumscriptions or mandates that impose particular roles and circumscriptions of female identity on black women. Ultimately, I argue for far greater complexity (and complex understandings) when it comes to black women, representation, and sexuality—especially in terms of what constitutes “woman” and “normativity.” But I also illuminate how certain behaviors/actions operate as strategies in these literary and cultural texts. Sexuality becomes representative of not simply intimacy but, more broadly, of a larger aspirational desire for more complex understandings, renderings, and notions of race, gender, and sexuality as it relates to black (female) bodies. These women exercise their rights to be full citizens, in the racial and sexual sense, reminding us not to falsely mark any, every, and all expressions of black sexuality as perverse, illicit, or pathological but, rather, to afford blacks the range both allowed their white counterparts and reflective of the human (sexual) condition.

Unbought and Unbossed explores various moments, literary and cultural, post-civil rights and contemporary—from Toni Morrison’s novel Sula and Nelly’s rap video Tip Drill and tons in between. It does so to illumine not only the racialization of sex and the ways race, gender, and sexuality intersect. But, it also enables us to better understand the black sexual revolution, representations in the age of First Lady Michelle Obama, and the complexities surrounding black sexuality. And so, just as I asked the students to consider what black sexuality might look like unencumbered by stereotypes and either/or binaries, so, too, does Unbought and Unbossed ask all of us to contemplate this notion, as well as transgress simplistic conclusions regarding black women and black sexuality. After all, it is the twenty-first century and time to allow blacks the full measure of their humanity, sexual and otherwise.

Trimiko Melancon is an Assistant Professor of English, African American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Loyola University New Orleans. Learn more about her work on her website www.trimikomelancon.com or connect with her on Facebook (Trimiko Melancon) or Twitter (@trimikomelancon).

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Celebrating Filipino Heritage Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight eight Temple University Press titles that explore the identity, cultural diversity and community formation of Filipino Americans.

Locating Filipino Americans by Rick Bonus

BONUS 1439_regLocating Filipino Americans, an ethnographic study of Filipino American communities in Los Angeles and San Diego, presents a multi-disciplinary cultural analysis of the relationship between ethnic identity and social space. Author Rick Bonus argues that alternative community spaces enable Filipino Americans to respond to and resist the ways in which the larger society has historically and institutionally rendered them invisible, silenced, and racialized. Bonus focuses on the “Oriental” stores, the social halls and community centers, and the community newspapers to demonstrate how ethnic identities are publicly constituted and communities are transformed. Delineating the spaces formed by diasporic consciousness, Bonus shows how community members appropriate elements from their former homeland and from their new settlements in ways defined by their critical stances against racism, homogenization, complete assimilation, and exclusionary citizenship. Locating Filipino Americans is one of the few books that offers a grounded approach to theoretical analyses of ethnicity and contemporary culture in the U.S.

On Becoming Filipino by Carlos Bulosan

Bulosan 1184_regA companion volume to The Cry and the Dedication, this is the first extensive collection of Carlos Bulosan’s short stories, essays, poetry, and correspondence. Bulosan’s writings expound his mission to redefine the Filipino American experience and mark his growth as a writer. The pieces included here reveal how his sensibility, largely shaped by the political circumstances of the 1930s up to the 1950s, articulates the struggles and hopes for equality and justice for Filipinos. He projects a “new world order” liberated from materialist greed, bigoted nativism, racist oppression, and capitalist exploitation. As E. San Juan explains in his Introduction, Bulosan’s writings “help us to understand the powerlessness and invisibility of being labeled a Filipino in post Cold War America.”

Filipino American Lives by Yen Le Espiritu

Espiritu 1157_regMen and women, old and young, middle and working class, first and second generation, all openly discuss their changing sense of identity, the effects of generational and cultural differences on their families, and the role of community involvement in their lives. Pre- and post-1965 immigrants share their experiences, from the working students who came before WWII, to the manongs in the field, to the stewards and officers in the U.S. Navy, to the “brain drain” professionals, to the Filipinos born and raised in the United States.

As Yen Le Espiritu writes in the Introduction, “each of the narratives reveals ways in which Filipino American identity has been and continues to be shaped by a colonial history and a white-dominated culture. It is through recognizing how profoundly race has affected their lives that Filipino Americans forge their ethnic identities—identities that challenge stereotypes and undermine practices of cultural domination.”

The Day the Dancers Stayed by Theo Gonzalves

Gonzalves 1947_regPilipino Cultural Nights at American campuses have been a rite of passage for youth culture and a source of local community pride since the 1980s. Through performances—and parodies of them—these celebrations of national identity through music, dance, and theatrical narratives reemphasize what it means to be Filipino American. In The Day the Dancers Stayed, scholar and performer Theodore Gonzalves uses interviews and participant observer techniques to consider the relationship between the invention of performance repertoire and the development of diasporic identification.

Gonzalves traces a genealogy of performance repertoire from the 1930s to the present. Culture nights serve several functions: as exercises in nostalgia, celebrations of rigid community entertainment, and occasionally forums for political intervention. Taking up more recent parodies of Pilipino Cultural Nights, Gonzalves discusses how the rebellious spirit that enlivened the original seditious performances has been stifled.

San Francisco’s International Hotel by Estella Habal

Habal 1820_regThe struggle to save the International Hotel, in the San Francisco neighborhood known as Manilatown, culminated in 1977 with the eviction of elderly tenant activists. Many of them were Filipino bachelors who had emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s for menial labor. Each evicted tenant was accompanied by at least one young activist who had come to find their roots in the lives of the “manongs” (respected elders).

San Francisco’s International Hotel is part history and part memoir. In telling this compelling story, Estella Habal features her own memories of the Anti-Eviction Movement, focusing on the roles of Filipino Americans and their participation in both the anti-eviction protests and the nascent Asian American movement. She rounds out the narrative with a variety of sources, including interviews with other participants, the notes of insiders, and official reports.

The Philippine Temptation by E. San Juan

San Juan 1193_regIn this incisive and polemical book, E. San Juan, Jr., the leading authority on Philippines-U.S. literary studies, goes beyond fashionable post-colonial theory to bring to our attention the complex history of Philippines-U.S. literary interactions. In sharp contrast to other works on the subject, the author presents Filipino literary production within the context of a long and sustained tradition of anti-imperialist insurgency, and foregrounds the strong presence of oppositional writing in the Philippines.

San Juan goes beyond literary studies and contemporary debates about nationalism and politics to point the way to a new direction in radical transformative writing. He uncovers hidden agendas in many previous accounts of U.S.-Philippine relations, and this book exemplifies how best to combine activist scholarship with historically grounded cultural commentary.

Tiongson 1763_regPositively No Filipinos Allowed edited by Antonio T. Tiongson, Jr., Edgardo V. Gutierrez and Ricardo V. Gutierrez

From the perspectives of ethnic studies, history, literary criticism, and legal studies, the original essays in this volume examine the ways in which the colonial history of the Philippines has shaped Filipino American identity, culture, and community formation. The contributors address the dearth of scholarship in the field as well as show how an understanding of this complex history provides a foundation for new theoretical frameworks for Filipino American studies.

Pinoy Capital by Benito Vergara, Jr.

Vergara 1920_regHome to 33,000 Filipino American residents, Daly City, California, located just outside of San Francisco, has been dubbed “the Pinoy Capital of the United States.” In this fascinating ethnographic study of the lives of Daly City residents, Benito Vergara shows how Daly City has become a magnet for the growing Filipino American community.

Vergara challenges rooted notions of colonialism here, addressing the immigrants’ identities, connections and loyalties. Using the lens of transnationalism, he looks at the “double lives” of both recent and established Filipino Americans. Vergara explores how first-generation Pinoys experience homesickness precisely because Daly City is filled with reminders of their homeland’s culture, like newspapers, shops and festivals. Vergara probes into the complicated, ambivalent feelings these immigrants have—toward the Philippines and the United States—and the conflicting obligations they have presented by belonging to a thriving community and yet possessing nostalgia for the homeland and people they left behind.

So Yesterday

In this blog entry, Allan Johnson, author of The Gender Knot and The Forest and the Trees writes about how things have changed—or have not—since the last editions of his classic Temple University Press books.

Awhile back I received an email from a college teacher using one of my books, The Gender Knot, in her class. She mentioned a disagreement among her students about whether my account of male privilege still holds true. One of the students settled the argument by flipping to the front of the book where the copyright date is found and pointing out that, well, there it is, the thing is eight years old.

That was easy.

Gender Knot 3e_smApparently, there is a ‘believe until’ date on descriptions of reality, or at least ones we’d like to see go away. And social systems can change almost as fast as Apple puts out a new iPhone, except, unlike Apple, no one has to actually do anything to make it happen. I don’t know exactly how many years it takes for a book to lose its credibility, but for some readers it is shorter than the average length of time that people own a car.

Sometimes I hear from a student who wants me to know that however bad things may have been for my generation, things are different now. That was then and the new generation has left all that behind.

There is of course change, and there is good research showing that most of it happens between generations, but the idea that we can go from up-to-your-necks to past-all-that in the space of a few decades, not to mention years, is something else.

What might account for such sudden and dramatic change they do not say, as if it somehow explains itself. It’s not that I don’t get it. When I think back to being nineteen or so, I don’t think it occurred to me that my generation might have been a continuation of anything remotely connected to that of our parents. We didn’t have to do anything to be unlike them, to break from the past, to start all over, because something new is what we were in spite of all those years of going to school and reading books and watching tv and everything else that goes with being socialized to fit the world into which we are born.

And don’t adults give graduation speeches exhorting young people to go out and be the hope of the future by being different from them?

It speaks to the power of both individualism and wishful thinking that we can sustain what amounts to a myth of self-invention by which each generation starts out fresh and decides who they are without having to deal with any historical or emotional baggage that they didn’t pack themselves. If everything is all about my experience and I don’t experience the thing myself, then it must not be there. “I have never been discriminated against as a woman,” she says. “I don’t see color,” says he. “If I can do what I want then so can anyone else.”

The myth of self-invention is connected, in turn, to the idea that everyone is different from everyone else. I’ve never really known what that means, or, more precisely, why it matters so much. Why should we care that no one out there is an exact match for us when the thing that makes our lives possible is all the ways in which we are alike—presenting ourselves and behaving in ways that other people will understand and accept as familiar. So what if there are dead ringers for me somewhere in the world?

And if everyone is supposedly unique, then it follows that everyone must have their own opinions and perceptions. I suppose that’s true in the sense that everyone has their own underwear, but, again, what does that mean when those same opinions and perceptions (not to mention underwear) show up in millions of other people, there being only so many possibilities?

And yet, we persist in the idea that our experience and what we know are somehow both unique to us and independent of the world through which we come into being and exist. I think, therefore I am—not I belong, connect, relate, share, participate, or continue some form of what came before.

Which brings me back to expiration dates on reality and how easily unpleasant things get relegated to a ‘past’ where they no longer apply, as if we can give them up as we would a habit or a fashion. And if problems like race or gender or poverty persist, it must be because there are individuals who, for whatever reason, have decided to be different from the rest of ‘us.’

The thing is, though, that social systems, and systems of privilege in particular, do not continue from force of habit, inertia, or individual choice. They are more than a collection of self-conscious attitudes or beliefs or styles that come and go on their own or through individual self-improvement.

Systems continue because of powerful forces exerted across generations, including adaptations to new circumstances so as to preserve the underlying structure and effect while seeming to have changed. “Power does not yield except by demand,” wrote Frederick Douglass more than 100 years ago, and as far as I can tell, recent history records precious little of that.

Layout 1The illusion of change is on my mind because a new edition of The Gender Knot, along with another of my books, The Forest and the Trees, has just been published. I spent months digging into the latest data, reviewing what’s been published in books and journals. And has anything changed? Well, of course. We have a black president, for one, and same-sex marriage is gaining support, and words like ‘transgender’ have entered our vocabulary.

But the evidence is also overwhelming that the basic structures of male privilege and white privilege and class privilege and even heterosexual privilege remain solidly intact. The epidemic of rape everywhere from the military to college campuses, the almost complete lack of progress toward gender equity for more than 20 years, the devastation of people of color in the most recent economic collapse, racial segregation and discrimination in hiring and the criminal justice system, the dramatic surge of economic inequality, the almost complete dominance of state and national politics by corporations and the wealthy, the patriarchal capitalist juggernaut that continues its systematic destruction of the Earth . . . you get the idea.

This is not to say that we don’t have the potential to reinvent ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. After all, that is what my work, both public and private, is all about. But such invention comes only from our active engagement with the reality of what has been and how it continues into the present, however much it may shape-shift into forms that give the appearance of change. And however much we might wish it otherwise.

“The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What we know about gender, race, and STEM – African American women

Sandra Hanson, author of Swimming Against the Tide explains that African American women are interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

A recent publication (in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology) by a group of psychologists found that race and gender intersect in understanding Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) attitudes and participation. The research team was headed by Laurie T. O’Brien and focused especially on African American women. The researchers and subsequent media reports on the findings (e.g. in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education) expressed surprise at the high interest and participation in STEM among African American women. Several decades ago I began doing research on African American women in STEM funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Although some researchers have not focused on the way that race/ethnicity and gender interact to affect STEM experiences we have known for some time that we can expect the unexpected when it comes to African American girls and women in STEM. Some have argued that because women do less well in STEM and minorities do less well in STEM, there will be a double disadvantage for African American women.

Layout 1The argument of double jeopardy sees race and gender as additive. My findings from a representative sample of young African American women (published in a number of journal articles and in my book, Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education) suggested otherwise. Quantitative data from my sample and larger NSF surveys as well as open-ended questions and responses to vignettes were critical in measuring the young women’s experiences. They loved science. The young African American women signed up for science classes, loved doing experiments, went to science camp, and had posters of scientists on their walls. One young woman said that “science was like opening up a present from your favorite aunt.” My findings provided considerable evidence for the African American family and community as key in understanding this love of science. African American families have always made considerable investment in and had high educational and occupational expectations for their daughters.

African American women have historically combined work and family roles. The answer to young African American women’s high level of interest and participation in STEM does not come from schools and teachers. In fact, the young women in my sample experienced considerable difficulty in the STEM classroom. One young girl reflected the opinion of many when she described the attitude of science teachers –“They looked at us like we weren’t supposed to be scientists.” The young women reported not being called on in the classroom and not being chosen as lab partners. Somehow, in spite of the chilly classroom climate, a disproportionate number of African American women manage to “swim against the tide” and persevere in STEM education and occupations.

Data from NSF show that African American women persist in many areas of STEM at a higher rate than do white women. My recent research on the male dominated area of engineering shows that even here African American women earn the largest share of doctorates relative to men (when looking within race/ethnic groups). In my testimony to the U.S Congress (Subcommittee on Girls in Science) I suggested that we need better teachers, science classrooms, and science textbooks. When young African American women look around them and see white teachers and white scientists in the science textbooks, they do not feel welcome. The considerable agency that African American women show in the context of a white, male STEM culture is encouraging. One can only imagine the increased number of talented African American women who would participate in STEM education and occupations in a more welcoming climate. The major science organization in the U.S. – the National Science Foundation – has recognized the problem and is funding a good number of programs to encourage minorities and minority women in STEM. After all, diversity in science makes for better science.

Celebrating October as Mural Arts Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Philadelphia Mural Arts with events all month long.

Each October brings Mural Arts Month, a celebration of public art from the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. This year the festivities include a diverse array of events including a photo exhibition, mural dedications, tours and artist talks centered on the theme of Art Ignites Change. Highlights include a TED-inspired event headlined by artists and activists, a block party with Philadelphia’s hottest DJ’s and a concert series featuring original music inspired by murals.
Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis Mural Arts Month is the capstone to the program’s 30th anniversary year, which also included the publication of a new book about the Mural Arts Program, Jane Golden and David Updike’s Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30. The new book traces the program’s history and evolution, acknowledging the challenges and rewards of growth and change while maintaining a core commitment to social, personal, and community transformation. It’s a celebration of and guide to the program’s success, and includes essays by policy makers, curators, scholars, and educators.

Here are just a few of the ways you can join us in celebrating Mural Arts Month this year:

Photo Exhibition Reception: The border is an invitation
02 October 2014, 06:00 PM – 08:00 PM
The Lincoln Financial Mural Arts Center at the Thomas Eakins House
1727-29 Mt. Vernon Street (19130)
Mural Arts hosts an exhibition of renowned photojournalist Martha Cooper’s photographic preservation of graffiti and Steve Weinik’s documentation of psychylustro by Katharina Grosse. psychylustro is an episodic painting of massive abstract fields of color installed along passages of the Northeast Rail Corridor between Philadelphia’s 30th Street and North Philadelphia Stations, the same passages where Cooper documented graffiti before psychylustro was installed.

Presented in cooperation with Amtrak, psychylustro has been supported by: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, National Endowment for the Arts, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Fierce Advocacy Fund, PTS Foundation, AT&T, Philadelphia Zoo, Joe and Jane Goldblum, David and Helen Pudlin, halfGenius, and The Beneficial Foundation with support for the exhibition publication from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation. Media Partners: WHYY’s NewsWorks.org, Metro Newspaper.

DesignPhiladelphia 2014: Not My Outside World
10 October 2014, 06:00 PM – 07:30 PM
Caplan Recital Hall, Terra Hall, 17th Floor
University of the Arts, 211 S. Broad Street (19107)

A conversation on abstraction and social imagination with psychylustro curator Elizabeth Thomas and artist and writer Douglas Ashford, Associate Professor at Cooper Union and former member of Group Material.

How can a train ride become a voyage of the imagination? psychylustro, a collaboration between artist Katharina Grosse and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, is an episodic painting of abstract fields of color along the Northeast Rail Corridor’s natural and built environment that will transform over time as the elements gradually reclaim the space.

Presented as part of DesignPhiladelphia, a Center for Architecture Event. Presented in cooperation with Amtrak, psychylustro has been supported by: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, National Endowment for the Arts, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Fierce Advocacy Fund, PTS Foundation, AT&T, Philadelphia Zoo, Joe and Jane Goldblum, David and Helen Pudlin, halfGenius, and The Beneficial Foundation with support for the exhibition publication from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation. Media Partners: WHYY’s NewsWorks.org, Metro Newspaper.

DesignPhiladelphia 2014: Southeast by Southeast Walking Tour -and- American Composers Forum: If You Could Hear These Walls Concert Series
11 October 2014, 01:00 PM – 05:00 PM
1927 S. 7th Street (19148)

Celebrate Philadelphia’s diverse and creative voices in the Southeast by Southeast Project – a collaboration between the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, and the Refugee Mental Health Collaborative. First, enjoy a guided walking tour and book release to learn about the vibrant Burmese, Bhutanese, and Nepali communities and the community’s stunning public art. Then, enjoy a concert by the American Composers Forum featuring original music.
Presented as part of DesignPhiladelphia, a Center for Architecture Event. Project sponsors: Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, Hummingbird Foundation, Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative Event partner: American Composers Forum – Philadelphia Chapter Concert funded by: William Penn Foundation – Community Partners Program through a grant to American Composers Foundation

muraLAB: Live, a TED-inspired event
14 October 2014, 06:00 PM – 08:30 PM
WHYY, 150 N. 6th Street (19106)

Philadelphia is a fascinating place, with many assets, a variety of challenges and great ambitions. In order to meet the challenges facing our city, we need to connect with a diverse group of committed citizens and to nourish everything we do with imagination, creativity and collaboration. Together we can transform public spaces and community expectations, using art and design to improve Philadelphia. That is why we are expanding our muraLAB initiative with an exciting new annual event. On October 14th, please join us for muraLAB: Live, where we will hear from an inimate group of unique and creative people who understand, in their own way, the role art plays in improving the civic landscape of cities.

For thirty years, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program has cultivated the work of artists who undertake community-based public projects, developing our own unique blend of social practice art making. muraLAB is the Mural Arts Program’s creativity hub for investigating muralism in the twenty-first century – a think-tank for advancing Mural Arts’ vision for art igniting change in communities, city systems and artistic practice. Through muraLAB, we highlight how other artists and types of institutions – artist collaboratives, museums, city agencies, universities – are developing their own social practice projects and using art to ignite change in their communities, and we build on the last 5 years of redefining, broadening and deepening the scope of our own artistic and social practice. Event partner: WHYY

Philly DJ Mural Block Party
17 October 2014, 06:00 PM – 08:00 PM
13th & Chestnut Streets (19107)
It’s an all-ages block party with live entertainment, food and fun! A line-up of the city’s best DJ’s will provide sounds, alongside the best of Scratch DJ Academy.

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