Response to ‘The Role of the Black Scholar’

In response to an article written by Nuyol Tong on “The Role of the Black Scholar’ for the Duke Chronicle, I wrote the following:

In my academic experience, it is often young people who think that being black is a burden which is why many are always trying to distance themselves from it. I keep meeting young black college students that identify as anything but black and want to ensure that everyone around them knows every detail of their racial composition. Some actually have to be convinced that it is their responsibility, even as scholars, to represent blackness and to confront dominant systems of oppression that impact all marginalized communities, including those in the academy and their lives.

Black academics have a tradition of being scholar activists, which goes beyond skin color and speaks to a way of being and thinking that is inherently black. In my world being black is not an option, and I find the discussion about how black one should be, fruitless. Yes, black scholars have a responsibility that scholars of other races, particularly the white race, do not have based on how racial privilege and racism work in the real world. If we don’t do the work that needs to be done in our communities, who will?

As someone that lives in the real world, I don’t have the leisure of deciding when and to what extent I am black. As my parents told me and as the world consistently reminds me, I am black everyday. In my world, being black is not an option, so being a black scholar whose approach to intellectual endeavors is reflective of black cultural ways of being, requires no further discussion and much more action.That action is being a scholar activist, which should be desired by black scholars, not seen as a burden.

What are your thoughts?

Follow me on Twitter @ntellectual. Read my work at TheRoot.com when you have some time.

Where is the Mother? Where is the Justice?


The gruesome gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas, that made national headlines last March is back in the news again, reigniting debates about the role of sexism in sex crimes against girls and women.

You may recall the case in which 18 black men between the ages of 14 and 27 were arrested for allegedly gang-raping an 11-year-old Hispanic girl in November of 2010, right after Thanksgiving. The incident, which devastated the small town, went national when 16 men were arrested for the crime. Subsequently, two additional men were arrested.

The Liberty County District Attorney’s Office alleges that 19-year-old Timothy Ellis lured the girl out of her home by asking if she wanted to go “riding around.” Instead, Ellis is accused of taking her to an empty trailer, where he forced her to strip under threat of violence and several men allegedly raped her. Local authorities became aware of the horrific crime when cellphone video of the attack surfaced at a local school.

A pretrial hearing was held on March 5, 2012, and on March 15, a judge issued a a gag order barring investigators, attorneys and witnesses from discussing any information about the case with news organizations to prevent publicity that could influence the jury.

James C. McKinley Jr. of the New York Times was lambasted for publishing an account of the story on March 8, 2011, in which he quoted neighbors who said that the girl “appeared older than her age” and wore makeup and clothing inappropriate for her age. One of the neighbors asked, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?”

Interestingly enough, Anita Ellis Hancock, the mother of alleged ringleader Timothy Ellis, said the same thing in an interview with Fox 26. Hancock stated, “I’m not defending no child because if it were my child, I would feel the same way. My point is, where was her mother?”

How ironic is it that a mother whose child is being charged as the alleged ringleader of this horrendous crime is asking about the mother of the girl? It is clear that Hancock did not have the same expectation for herself that she had for the proverbial “mother” who should have been protecting the 11-year-old girl. Just who was supposed to be protecting or teaching Hancock’s son? I suppose “the father,” who somehow manages to escape blame or responsibility when sex crimes happen to women.

This type of gendered response is not unusual but is often the status quo, as is the need to figure out what the girl was doing or wearing to cause herself to be put in harm’s way. It is infuriating that deliberate measures like gag orders are put in place to protect the right of the accused from being prejudged, while an 11-year-old is prejudged based on her gender without protection from anyone, including Hancock, who is not only a woman but also a mother.

Questions like “Where was the mother?” — as if the father or lack of a male parental figure has no bearing on the behavioral outcomes of children — serve as a cultural shorthand that revictimizes girls and women who dare to speak about crimes of this nature.

Sexism functions in society in the same perverted way as does racism: Blaming the victim is a mechanism to shift the focus away from the actual issue, which is the rape of a child. Further, suggesting that this event might have been avoided had a good mother been around again codes women as incompetent and unable to care for themselves or their children when something terrible happens to their children — especially female children.

Why are black women questioning the girl and the mother? When you occupy two marginal positions, one identity typically trumps the other. Instead of raging against their sons for participating in such a vile act, they rage against a young girl and in turn become complicit in the very behavior that victimizes women.

For black women, by virtue of being black and female, the necessity of battling racism means that sexism will often be overlooked or tabled, even when it is to their detriment. This type of sexist behavior is completely unacceptable, even when coming from women.

Because we have a justice system that can be overzealous in its pursuit of black boys and men as criminals, some are championing the rights of the boys and men over the rights of this little girl, who deserves at least the same level of protection and support. While the Cleveland community is screaming bloody murder over the arrest of so many black boys and men at one time, a young girl’s life has also been destroyed, and there have been no rallies or press conferences to address that fact.

Unfortunately, what happened to this little girl is not exceptional. On March 23, nine suspected gang members (True Blood 22) were charged in a sexual attack on a 14-year-old girl who was lured to an abandoned house in St. Paul, Minn. The attack occurred last November, but arrests were just made. Four of the alleged assailants range in age from 15 to 37.

On Thursday an 18-year-old Ukrainian woman died after being gang-raped, strangled, burned alive and left for dead by three men in Kiev.

Both cases in the U.S. are eerily similar: Crimes occurred during the same time of year, involved luring an underage girl to an abandoned property, repeated rape by minority males (Asian boys and men in the St. Paul case) and nearly four months from the date of the crime to the first arrest…

Read the entire article on TheRoot.com.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is a pop cultural critic and blogger. She serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com. Follow her on Twitter @ntellectual.

Racism: Realer Than Fiction

Is this Heimdall 2.0? Remember when white supremacists boycotted the casting of Idris Alba as a Norse god in the film Thor? Elba’s selection as comic book character Heimdall was met by opposition from so-called purists — who can manage to wrap their tiny minds around a hammer-wielding god that moves between planet Earth and fictional planet Asgard in a bid to protect humanity from evil but who cannot fathom a black man playing the role of a guardian sentry (i.e., a glorified butler, albeit in a fierce uniform).

This time around, The Hunger Games, based on the wildly popular young-adult novel written by Suzanne Collins, is at the center of the conflict. Fans of the novel-turned-Hollywood blockbuster set Twitter on fire upon learning that black people were playing three characters — Rue, Thresh and Cinna — in the film.

In the novel, Rue is clearly described as having “dark brown skin and eyes” and “thick, dark hair.” Thresh is described as having the same “dark skin as Rue.” The characters of Rue and Thresh are portrayed by 13-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg, who is black and Jewish, and Nigerian-born actor Day Okeniyi. Cinna, the other black character in the film, was not described racially in the novel but is played by rocker-turned-actor Lenny Kravitz, who is also black and Jewish.

Racist tweets included everything from “Eww Rue is black” to the use of the “N” word to “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad #ihatemyself.”

At least the last commenter has the good sense to hate himself. For those who don’t have the good sense to hate themselves when making stupid comments about 13-year-olds, then how about not saying anything? It’s pretty scary to think that even in a supposedly creative space like filmmaking, which stuck pretty closely to the character descriptions in the novel, that the filmmaker’s casting choices are being met with such racist banter. Rue was described as “dark brown” — shouldn’t they be saying that Stenberg is too light? Kravitz’s character was not even described in terms of skin color in the novel, so what does it matter?

In my mind, the actors are appropriate for the descriptions given for the characters in the novel. I think it’s great that they represent the diverse range of beauty found in the Diaspora. Aside from that fact, exactly how much of a jerk and a racist do you have to be to make such tweets about a 13-year-old? That’s what is ridiculous, not the casting of blacks in roles for characters with “dark skin” and “thick black hair.” I won’t even mention how creepy it is that “fans” are unwilling to suspend disbelief in a medium predicated on the suspension of disbelief. Can you say “insanity”?

I suppose only an insane person would attack a 13-year-old or a Web series that they had not seen, which is what happened to rising star Issa Rae of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. While Rae’s series isn’t science fiction, the show is on the Web, the new frontier in media.

Rae’s series won the top Shorty Award for best Web series and was immediately blasted with racist Tweets. Rae posted a snarky commentary on xoJane in response to the critics, who called her a “Niggerette” and said, “Of course the black one wins.” Rae fought back during the attack by tweeting, “Losers be triiiiiiipppppppiiiiiiiiiin,” reminding us of the beauty of her show’s character J, who speaks to the awkward black girl in all of us.

In the xoJane post, Rae highlighted the need for her show in a world where people cannot even imagine your presence in it. She wrote, “This mindset is exactly why creative shows of color don’t get to exist on television anymore. There’s an overbearing sense of entitlement that refuses to allow shows of color to thrive. How dare we even try?”

Like Stenberg, Okeniyi, Elba, the filmmakers behind Thor and Hunger Games and novelist Suzanne Collins, Rae is trying to create a world where awkward black girls exist.

The resistance of so-called fans to include people of color, even when the description of a character calls for one, shows just how much of a disease racism is in our society. It is oozing out of our pores when dynamic black folks like Rae, Stenberg and Kravitz are being attacked for playing a role or creating a role that challenges popular notions of who we are, even in genres like science fiction and mediums like the Web.

Racism in science fiction is not new, but the willingness to publicly assail actors on social networks for not reinscribing a world where people of color are welcome only by invitation is pretty pathetic.

Rae said it best. It’s too bad that the haters haven’t figured out that their ignorance and extremism make it possible for folks like Rae to succeed by motivating them to create change, even in popular culture.

In the words of Awkward Black Girl’s’ J, “losers be triiiiiiippppppiiiiiiiiing, winners be wiiiiiiiiinnnnniiiiiing.” Until the haters are able to wrap their tiny minds around that factor, Rae, Stenberg, Okeniyi and Kravitz will prevail in fantasy and reality.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is a pop cultural critic and blogger. She serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com. Follow her on Twitter @ntellectual.

VIDEO: Nsenga K. Burton Discusses Trayvon Martin Killing on CCTV

The Assassination of Trayvon’s Character

Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida.

Last month I wrote an article about the demonization of black men and was called everything but a child of God for my observation that our society is all too willing to demonize and vilify black men in a way that satisfies the dominant narrative of no-good black men circulating throughout our society. Perhaps folks wanted to shoot the messenger? Or perhaps they didn’t like the examples that I used: Chris Brown and Bobby Brown?

Since that article ran, the demonization of black men has continued: the smearing of the late professor Derrick Bell’s reputation (and from Andrew Breitbart’s grave, no less) and the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose reputation is clearly being sullied by his shooter’s defenders in order to take the focus off the real issue, which is why there has been no arrest in a case where it is known that the shooter, George Zimmerman, continued pursuing Martin, even after a police dispatcher had advised him to stop.

At any rate, the country is in an uproar over a case that could have been prevented, if only common sense had prevailed over preconceived notions of who and what someone is based on symbols (hoodies) and social constructions (race). Even though race is a social construction, racism is real, as evidenced by many incidents in our society, not just Martin’s killing. (Oscar Grant, anyone?) As subterfuge, the same authorities who appear to have been negligent at best and callous at worst in protecting Trayvon as the incident was unfolding, and investigating his death after Zimmerman shot him, are now releasing information about Trayvon’s prior bad behavior in school.

Surprise, surprise — Trayvon is now being described as a troublemaker, in tandem with Zimmerman’s account of the incident, in which Trayvon is painted as the aggressor and Zimmerman as a scared man who acted in self-defense. I don’t know how scared you can be when you’re packing a Kel-Tec 9mm handgun, but that’s another article.

The narrative of the bad black boy who had it coming seems to be the status quo when young black males are the victims of crime. When white teens in trench coats massacre fellow high school students or murder a man like James Craig Anderson for being black, folks want to understand what went wrong with what should have been benevolent white boys by virtue of — what exactly, I don’t know.

Young white males are rarely inherently bad — just “troubled.” Even when a black teen like Trayvon is killed under the most precarious of circumstances, too many assume that he had to have done something to contribute to his death because, after all, black boys are inherently bad. (Gasp and swoon.)

Martin wasn’t perfect; but is it OK for him to be killed because of that? There is a flaw in that line of reasoning.

I find it interesting that the same people in this country who are so willing to accept the image of young black boys as predators cannot wrap their minds around black boys as victims. Yes, black people can be victims, even when the perpetrator is of color. A scene depicting teenagers walking to the store to buy candy is as American as apple pie. Getting killed on the way home from the store isn’t exactly part of that script.

Call me an apologist for “bad” black men or whatever you like, but the public assassination of Trayvon Martin’s character after his suspicious death speaks volumes about how young black boys and men are perceived in our society. Because of this dynamic, among many others, events like this one will continue to occur. That is the real tragedy.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is a pop cultural critic and blogger. She serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com. Follow her on Twitter @ntellectual.

Nicki Minaj at Grammys: Contrived, Not Controversial

As a child, I used to live for the Grammy Awards, waiting for performances by some of my favorites, like Michael Jackson, the Police, Tears for Fears, Janet Jackson and, of course, Whitney Houston. I remember once getting into trouble with my parents, and my punishment was that I could not watch the Grammys. Michael Jackson was supposed to perform that night, so I lost it. In my young mind, my mother might as well have killed me, as opposed to forbidding me to watch Michael Jackson perform at the Grammys.

Honestly, I had not planned to watch this year’s Grammy Awards in real time until I learned of the death of Houston. When I heard that Jennifer Hudson would perform the tribute to the legendary singer, it became a must-see television show for me. Why? Because Hudson is a great singer.

While I particularly enjoyed performances by Glen Campbell, the Foo Fighters, Bruno Mars and Kelly Clarkson, I could not get into performances by Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. The low level of talent on display by both of them was in stark contrast to the tremendous amount of talent on display elsewhere during the broadcast.

I loved the all-star guitar jam session of “Golden Slumbers,” and Stevie Wonder’s singing is always infectious. In addition to hearing the references to Houston throughout the broadcast, I had her songs in heavy rotation on my iPod throughout the day, so Houston’s vocal prowess was at the forefront of my mind.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare Rihanna and Minaj (the latter of whom is billed as a rapper) with Houston, since they are very different types of musical artists. Still, it did not escape me that these two young women are around the same age Houston was when she broke through and helped change the landscape of the music industry. Houston’s talent was undeniable, and she challenged what it meant to be a black female singer through her music and performances, which were stellar for most of her career.

I am acutely aware that listening to Houston or other singers of her caliber (Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan, to name a few) and then listening to many of today’s singers leaves a lot to be desired. While I found Rihanna’s performance boring and uninspired, I was extremely disappointed in Minaj’s performance, which was god-awful, pun intended.

I’m not a complete Minaj hater (although each time I watch her perform, I think of Pootie Tang’s Biggie Shorty, played brilliantly by Wanda Sykes), but it appears that Minaj is building a legitimate music career that is patterned on an illegitimate caricature. The colorful hair, the focus on her protruding buttocks and the shenanigans add nothing to Minaj’s appeal and take away from her perceived talent.

As I watched Minaj’s performance, I thought, “She can’t be serious,” followed by, “What is she doing?” Minaj seems to be stuck between doing too much and doing herself in, because she’s not a big-enough star or talent to challenge Lady Gaga or Madonna, which is what it would take to pull off such a convoluted performance. Instead of making a statement, Minaj ended up making a mockery out of herself.

I don’t know if Minaj and Rihanna have any real talent, but watching them perform made me remember why I no longer watch awards shows. I’m sure I sound like an old fogy, but the awards shows have become less about the awards or even the artists and more about the spectacle.

Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters had it right when he urged artists to learn to play instruments, sing their songs and stop relying on technology to make music. While I agree with his sentiment, I believe that technology and music actually go hand in hand, so I don’t think it has to be an either-or proposition. However, I do believe that there should be some modicum of talent present in the artist.

For example, back in the funk era, iconic singer Roger Troutman used the “talk box” in his music productions. Instead of relying solely on the talk box, like many who can only perform using Auto-Tune, Troutman played numerous instruments and could actually sing without the talk box.

That is one of many differences between the late Troutman and an artist like T-Pain or even Katy Perry. Throughout the evening, Grohl’s words resonated with performance after performance (only nine awards were given out during the broadcast, which ran more than three hours): Those who could sing sang, and those who couldn’t were achingly exposed as pretenders relying on technology and shock performances that came off more as contrived than as controversial.

If Minaj plans on having any longevity in the music business, she might want to focus less on theatrics and more on levitating her artistic standards.*

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is a pop cultural critic and blogger. She serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com. Follow her on Twitter @ntellectual. *This article was originally published on 2.14.12.


Remembering B.I.G.: Would Today’s Hip-Hop Be Different?

 

March 9, 2012, marks the 15th anniversary of the death of one of rap’s most heralded figures, Christopher “the Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, who was gunned down in Los Angeles at the age of 24. Each year around this time, people honor the man who many agree changed the face of hip-hop.

Wallace’s magic was his keen ability to weave the day-to-day drama and emotion of hustling on the streets with hard-core beats laced with smooth R&B samples and constant pop-cultural references. Wallace was able to humanize the streets through his lyricism and storytelling.

His debut single “Juicy,” off his debut album, Ready to Die, opened up with Biggie talking directly to his critics, including teachers and neighbors who called the police on him when he was “just trying to feed his daughter.” The rhymes were layered over Mtume’s classic song “Juicy” and invoked Salt-n-Pepa, Heavy D, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl and Word Up! magazine. His lyrics demonstrated that he was a child of hip-hop culture, had respect for those who came before him in rap and R&B and was down for the “people in the struggle.”

The man who referred to himself as the black Frank White — the iconic crime lord played by Christopher Walken in the cult-movie classic King of New York — kept it real, describing important family events like Christmas and birthdays as the “worst days” and exposing the reality of living in extreme poverty — which might prompt one to deal drugs. Despite the dark and brooding tone of this classic album, the music made you want to nod your head at the very least and party hard at most.

It is the loss of Wallace’s tremendous storytelling and his ability to mix meaningful lyrics with spirited beats and R&B classics that leaves much to be desired in today’s hip-hop music. Each year, the anniversary of his death makes one wonder what hip-hop would be like had Biggie Smalls lived.

I don’t know if Jay-Z would be the reigning King of Hip-Hop, if T.I. would be the King of the South or if Lil Wayne would be the superstar that he is, but I do know that the standard for hip-hop would be higher. Rappers could not get away with using ghostwriters or Auto-Tune and making the same song over and over. Today’s rappers could learn a lot from Biggie, like increasing their vocabulary, painting pictures through words, having complex lyrics that actually make sense and experimenting with R&B in a way that isn’t uninspired.

The loss of B.I.G. led to the rise of rappers Jay-Z, Eminem and 50 Cent, who might have had a harder road to the top had Wallace been here to keep the proverbial bar high. It is still hard to imagine that Wallace has been gone for 15 years, since his music and legacy live on in the hearts and minds of the hip-hop community.

This is a man who lived long enough to produce only two albums. Imagine what could have been if he’d had the opportunity to truly hone his craft, like Jay-Z, for instance. One thing is for sure: With the loss of Wallace, the hip-hop community was dealt a blow from which it has never truly recovered.*

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is a pop cultural critic and blogger. She serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com. Follow her on Twitter @ntellectual. *This article was originally published on 3.9.12.

 

Beyoncé: Why Are We Hung Up on Our Mixed Roots?

 

The latest controversy in Beyoncé Knowles news may be her breast-feeding Blue Ivy in public, but I’m still shaking my head about the recent fuss over her True Match commercial for L’Oréal, which highlights the singer’s mixed-race heritage. In the ad the star says, “There’s a story behind my skin. It’s a mosaic of all the faces before it.” Apparently this is controversial to some, who suggest that the singer is trying to distance herself from African Americans. Come again?

News flash: As revealed by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who is also The Roots editor-in-chief), the majority of blacks in this country are of mixed-race heritage, as are many throughout the Diaspora. I find it interesting when critics try to erase history in an attempt to promote the idea that we’re 100 percent black. The truth is that the history of African Americans is a history of mixed-race ancestry — some of it by choice, and much of it by force. Many blacks in America and throughout the Diaspora are no more 100 percent black than those who identify as white people are 100 percent white. Just because you say it doesn’t make it so.

Mixed-race blacks have existed long before we were allowed to check more than one racial category on U.S. census forms, so this outrage over the singer’s identification of her racial heritage because it’s some form of self-loathing is misplaced.

Many blacks (and whites, I might add), particularly with roots in Louisiana, are of Creole ancestry. The term “Creole” is used in other parts of the Diaspora (Haiti, St. Lucia, Trinidad, Suriname, Mauritius, Nigeria, Gambia, Trinidad, Sierra Leone) to describe mixed heritages, and news flash again: Not all Creoles are light skinned, which brings me back to my original point.

Identifying your full racial composition does not make you any less black than someone who identifies only as black. In my mind, at least, if you know African-American history, then you know that mixed-race heritage is a part of it.

As for the ad, it’s about time mainstream cosmetics companies started paying attention to the racial composition of women of color. Maybelline launched a cosmetics line for women of color in the early 1990s, when its ad campaigns literally portrayed black women as color palettes. Shortly thereafter, Revlon enlisted actress Halle Berry as a spokesmodel for its cosmetics line for women of color. I’m glad that cosmetics companies and advertising agencies are finally publicly acknowledging that they understand the complexity of black skin.

Perhaps folks are still reeling from L’Oréal’s 2008 print campaign, in which Beyoncé’s skin was significantly lightened. Maybe it is memories of the 2011 L’Officiel Paris cover and spread, in which the singer’s skin was painted dark with the theme of “African Queen,” which was far more problematic than this recent dustup could ever be. Or it could be a photo for Beyoncé’s album 4 — in which she appears to have been photoshopped to have pale skin – that has folks riled up. But questioning her blackness is going too far.

The woman is married to Jay-Z, her parents refer to themselves as black, and she refers to herself as black or African American even when discussing her Creole heritage. Just because you’re light skinned doesn’t automatically mean that you think you’re better than darker-skinned blacks, don’t want to be black or are dying to be white.

Clearly Beyoncé is trying to reach an international audience, and it’s working. Why might she want to attract a growing audience? Maybe it’s because her core audience of African Americans appears to be turning on her with a constant flow of criticism about pretty much everything, including her skin color. The hoopla and hateful comments about what Beyoncé’s baby with Jay-Z would look like before Blue Ivy’s birth speak more about black folks’ self-loathing than any L’Oréal ad ever could.

The obsession with all things Beyoncé, including her skin color, must stop. She is of mixed-race heritage and should be allowed to invoke it, even in a cosmetics ad.

If Bey isn’t black enough for you, then that’s your problem — not hers.*

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is a pop cultural critic and blogger. She serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com. Follow her on Twitter @ntellectual. *This article was originally published on 3.6.12.

Black Celebs: Plastic Surgery Gone Awry

 

A recent Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that black women are heavier and happier with their bodies than white women are. It is common knowledge in the Diaspora that women with a “little meat on their bones” are desirable and considered sexy. The findings of the survey aren’t that earth-shattering for black people.

I suppose it is a good thing that other communities know that we black women actually like ourselves despite the hell many of us catch for not naturally satisfying dominant standards of beauty that oppose pretty much everything we physically represent.

I do find it interesting that these results are coming out at the same time that Angelina Jolie is being celebrated for being the epitome of beauty at the 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony held this past weekend. Call me crazy, but she looked like a corpse, sticking out a leg that resembled an arm from her couture dress, which was all the rage.

Simultaneously, Kate Upton has been catching heat from fashion-industry divas for being too “chubby” to be a swimsuit model, despite her celebrated Sports Illustrated cover. Call me crazy again, but Upton looked great on that cover. Add the occasion of Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer being asked about her weight directly after her win for best supporting actress for The Help, and it’s clear that we have a body image problem.

Spencer has been outspoken about her weight, opening up to People magazine about it on numerous occasions. She admits that she could stand to lose 15 pounds and knows that she is less valuable in Hollywood at her current weight (and age, I would add). Just before the Academy Awards, Spencer announced that she would be getting a breast lift.

Spencer’s desire for a breast lift is far from scandalous. It is a woman’s right to augment her body in any way she sees fit, even if she ends up looking like Jessica Rabbit. What is interesting, though, is that despite the recent findings of the Washington Post-Kaiser survey, black female celebrities like Spencer seem to be less than happy with their bodies.

Lil’ Kim, Vivica A. Fox and Tamar Braxton have all morphed into Muppet-like figures, looking like shells of their former selves rather than real people. All of the ladies were extremely attractive before undergoing and overdoing plastic surgery. If “civilian” black women are happy with themselves, then what’s going on with black celebrities?

Is being part of an industry where women who look hungry (Jolie), unnaturally thin (LeAnn Rimes), shredded (Madonna) and emaciated (Demi Moore) negatively affecting the high self-esteem that numerous studies show black women have even when heavier? Jada Pinkett Smith’s cheekbones appear to be implants, although some say they seem sharper because of severe weight loss. If they are implants, what is going on when someone as beautiful as Pinkett Smith would alter her looks and already fabulous cheekbones to such an extent? I won’t even mention the grinding down of broad noses to nostrils (Janet Jackson) or the butt implants (Nicki Minaj) that look as painful as they are ridiculous.

What is happening in Hollywood when black female celebrities are mutilating themselves and not getting any additional mileage out of their careers from the “tweaking”? How will their distorted bodies affect little black girls who are struggling to define themselves in an increasingly mediated society?

While it is a good thing that black women like themselves despite the way we are often demonized by mainstream media for being heavier or more voluptuous than some others, it doesn’t mean that all black women feel this way or that no black women suffer from body image issues. One has only to look toward Hollywood to see that constantly having to measure oneself against a standard of beauty you will never naturally meet can have major consequences. That challenge is just plain ugly.*

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is a pop cultural critic and blogger. She serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com. Follow her on Twitter @ntellectual. *This article was originally published on 3.2.12.

Oscars Forget Dick Anthony Williams

 

Each year during the Academy Awards televised show, there is a section of the broadcast where fellow members of the film community are remembered. Sunday night the event honored a myriad of talents, including Jane Russell, Whitney Houston, Elizabeth Taylor, Cliff Robertson and quite possibly my all-time favorite film director, Sidney Lumet.

Amid the remembrances, there was one glaring oversight: actor Dick Anthony Williams, who passed away on Feb. 16 at the age of 77.

Williams was a fixture in cinema during the blaxploitation era of filmmaking. He played the characters of Pretty Tony in The Mack (1973), Joe Creole in Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973) and Preston in Five on the Black Hand Side (1973). Williams worked steadily in television and film for five decades, appearing in The Jerk (1979), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Rapture (1991), The Gifted (1993) and The Players Club (1998).

Many cast stones at the blaxploitation era because of the focus on the underworld, urban settings and stereotypical representations of black characters. Yet it was this era that gave black actors an opportunity to work steadily, including legendary actors like Morgan Freeman, Juanita Moore, Richard Pryor, Moses Gunn, Paul Winfield, Diana Sands, Ossie Davis, Virginia Capers, Ron O’Neal and Julius Harris.

Like many other blaxploitation stars, Williams was a veteran of the stage, receiving Tony Award nominations in 1974 for his work in What the Wine-Sellers Buy and in 1975 for Black Picture Show. He also received critical acclaim for his performance in the 1978 NBC miniseries King, in which he played Malcolm X opposite Paul Winfield as Martin Luther King Jr.

The Chicago native co-founded the renowned New Federal Theatre, which was instrumental in showcasing the talent of black playwrights and actors including Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Samuel Jackson, Denzel Washington and Phylicia Rashad.

Williams was married to actress Gloria Edwards, a fixture in black film during the 1970s, who preceded him in death in 1988. He is survived by two daughters and a son.

While the academy neglected to remember Williams, he should be remembered for his dedication to his craft, his extensive body of work spanning five decades and his commitment to providing a platform to cultivate black talent in the theater. Williams is gone, but he will not be forgotten.*

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is a pop cultural critic and blogger. She serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com. Follow her on Twitter @ntellectual. *This article was originally published on 2.27.12.


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