I want badly to get this right. That, of course, means that there is no way humanly possible for me to get this right.
I want to get this right for the usual reasons. I want Twitchy and professional feminists and black nationalists and the identity police and FOX news ambassadors to stay out of my comment section. I also want to get this right because I spent a fair amount of time this week explaining to mostly non-black academic labor organizers why they are nowhere near adept or oppressed enough to use slavery metaphors.
Then, too, this is the week that Miley Cyrus called me old for publicly ruminating on her adoption of a specific kind of black female affect in a capitalist beauty structure where chicks like me stay losing, even when we’re paid to dance like we’re winning.
And, Miley’s is some of the nicest criticism of my analysis. Sisters have flat out got in my ass in comments, emails, and Q&As at public lectures about that essay. They are angry that I am not lifting up black beauty. I am guilty of not modeling self-esteem for young black girls. Some of the younger black women feel not unlike Miley. They think I’m too old to understand how they share culture with their white girlfriends who are down.
The white women do a different kind of haranguing. They need, desperately, for me to accept that I am beautiful…just in my own way. I think they want to make me tea and tell me how they like my hair “like that” and compare me to every halfway normatively attractive black women they can think of. Brothers smell low self-esteem blood in the water of a thick thighed girl and I get thinly-veiled offers to help me feel better about myself. I am almost positive that involves meeting their penis. White men are mostly above it all because they get to be on such issues of gender and mate competition. And that is how you write from the near-left corner of the matrix of intersecting oppressions, kiddos.
That’s why I do not want to have a single thought on Leslie Jones.
A cultural moment could not be more ill-timed or perfectly contrived to fuck up my inbox for ages to come.
Leslie Jones is a black woman. She is a comic. She is a comedy writer at Saturday Night Live. She commented on Lupita Nyong’o being named People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful Person” this year. Jones has the job at SNL, in part, because of a pretty public backlash this year about the dearth of black women in the show’s history. Her joke starts by proposing a counter-standard of beauty (“usefulness”) that assumes the audience knows that there is a normative beauty standard and that she clearly is not winning by its measure. That is an argument about beauty as a structure and a commodity and you need to assume everyone agrees on those points for the set-up to work. Then she transitions into tropes about the value of big, tall, black female bodies like hers as valuable during slavery. By a different beauty measure, i.e. utility, Jones is saying she can hold her own against white beauty norms and the equally unattainable black exceptions that are made about once every popular culture generation (Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Diahann Carol, Pam Grier, Beyonce, Lupita, etc.). The punchline is that with her big bodied utility to white slave-owners she would have been guaranteed to have a man back in the olden days.
It is painful as shit to watch.
Many have taken issue with Jones making light of the horrific sexualized violence of slavery…you know, like how I took labor movements to task for minimizing the horrific reality of slavery to further the cause of underpaid college adjuncts.
So, you see, I do not want to write this because there is no way I can get it right. I have to assume or explain too much of the set-up to even try. And, experience says that more than any other charged topic on which I have written, this one about gender, race, beauty and power is the single most contentious.
Someone should have told Jones. Because she tried to do no less in a 90 second comedy sketch, for a white audience, within a history of a show whose creative overlord proclaimed it is not and never would be an “urban” comedy show. We see how that turned out.
There are times when the task to which we aspire is simply beyond our abilities. Here, I am specifically talking about myself. I fear there is no way around it and yet here I am anyway. It is one of many reasons that Vivian tells me that I’m the smartest little dummy she’s ever reared (note: I’m also the only one she’s reared but she doesn’t like it when I appeal to procedurialism).
When Vivian was rearing me I ran away regularly. I ran away all the time. Like, easily once a week. I wrote long, torrid letters and taped them to bathroom mirrors and cabinet doors where she could find them. I ran away because she did not understand why I tried to paint an impressionistic crayola masterpiece of purple rain on my bedroom wall in a Prince homage. I ran away because I did not have the vocabulary or emotional capacity to explain why I simply could not, yet again, be the only short, squat, round, dark body in the dance classes she scrimped to pay for me to have because she had never had them. I ran away because I was born with a deeply ingrained sense that no one should ever be the boss of me. I ran away because it was Tuesday and I wanted it to be Friday. All kinds of reasons.
I never ran far. It seems that I have a serious Achilles heel for a revolutionary. I really, really, really like central heat and air conditioning. I spent the hottest summer of a human life with my elders in Eastern North Carolina. My great-grandmother believed in closing all the windows at night to keep Jesus in and the white man out. I almost expired. Every night I laid butt naked under two pounds of quilts in August promising myself that I would never be that hot again. Controlling the temperature of my environment seems to me as close to being a god as I will ever come and being on the run puts you at the mercy of hot Carolina summers.
But the desire to run away never really left me. When I got to be a bit older — say, in my 20s but before I became Miley Cyrus old — I clearly remember thinking that I wanted to find a place in the world where I could be a black woman. I had a bit more learning and experience by this time. “Running away” had become “finding”. It sounds much classier. But the motivation was the same. I remember sitting in a cafe at a corporate book store, slowly putting them out of business as I paid for coffee and read the books for free.
I was reading Randall Kennedy and Elaine Brown and Town & Country and I wanted to “find” a place in the world where I could be all those things — Kennedy’s fierce identity warrior, Brown’s bad ass leader, and Town & Country’s perpetual comfort. And I thought, “surely there’s a place in this world where I can be those things, all at the same time.” I had not yet realized the sheer magnitude and scope of colonialism that had exported a racial hierarchy, gendered capitalism, and anti-black beauty structure to every single corner of the world.
I couldn’t be that kind of black woman anywhere in the world.
There is a reason that one can buy chemical skin lighteners and hair straighteners in almost every economy in the global north and south.
There is nowhere to run, no place to find, and all I could do was write letters to the world about it and tape it to the door of my website.
I watched Leslie Jones’ skit and I had to stop the video five times to finish it. Her follow-up tweets to the criticism made it worse. I felt her desire to run. Surely, she seems to be saying, there’s a world where someone like her can be what she is while simultaneously being desirable (I think she missed the section on colonialism in the bookstore, too). Because there is no geography where that is true, Jones instead collapses time and ends at slavery. For the record, that’s the same way we end up valorizing the good old days of segregation when poor and affluent blacks shared the same neighborhoods. The truth is, looking for the good ol’ black days in U.S. history is a fool’s errand. There aren’t any.
Instead of a letter to a cabinet door, Jones posted her torrid Dear John letter to colonialism on the public wall of popular culture on a very white show in a culture where: there is no structure; there is no tolerance for examining beauty as a object of institutional demoralization; and there isn’t a feminist ethic of valuing the desire to be desirable.
I think that if there was anyplace where Jones went really wrong it is in misunderstanding her social location in all of this. Someone pointed out that Jones is not merely an actor at SNL, but a writer. The implication is that she had power over what she chose to play for a joke. Choosing to play any aspect of slavery was an abuse of power. The sociologist in me would like to point out that in no institution is a black woman’s power equal to that of her non-black, male peers.
Tanner Colby wrote an enlightening essay on race and SNL earlier this year as the show clamored to find a black woman to cast. Colby has also written a book on the subject (that I’ve only skimmed; grad school; sorry). I saved the essay because I thought it was one of those great moments when previously under-appreciated scholarship meets critical cultural moment. I love it when that happens.
In the essay, Colby classifies the few black SNL cast members as belonging to either the disgruntleds/wash-outs or the successes. The difference between the two groups? In Colby’s analysis of the successes he says:
They come, mostly, from fully integrated, majority-white backgrounds. Thompson spent his teens as a child star in the lily-white halls of Nickelodeon. Rudolph is the mixed-race daughter of singer Minnie Riperton and composer Richard Rudolph. Born into a show business family, she graduated from a tony high school near Hollywood and is friends with Gwyneth Paltrow. Meadows came up through the very white stages of Chicago’s Second City, where he was extremely close with cast mate Chris Farley, so close that Meadows named his son after his late friend.* (The two of them did a sketch about Farley not being OK with his black friend trying to date his white sister; it’s a Second City classic and a great riff on racial tension.)
I think of the sole woman in the group, Maya Rudolph. I love Maya. She is criminally under-appreciated and under-utilized in Hollywood.
She is also as close to white normative ideals of beauty as a black woman can probably be.
Nothing about her social location makes it likely that she has had to consider a place to run where someone who looks like her could be considered desirable. Or, if she has (because surely that may be common to all women in a patriarchal society) that she would have to travel to the darkest recesses of black history in the United States to unearth an alternative norm of utility that might give her a chance up to bat.
But these are the things we simply are not supposed to say. Beauty is how we feel. In capitalism, beauty is something we can buy. In the post-Oprah “Live Your Best Life” utopia, beauty is something we can affect. Which is all true if we think of beauty the way many white people think of race and racism — that it is a choice, a range of activities, a domain restricted to symbolic interactionism and situational discrimination.
But, if beauty is ascriptive, like race, then there is a different kind of conversation to be had. There is a conversation that says I can call myself beautiful (or cannablasian) but that in no way changes how systems, structures, institutions, and culture define me against my will.
Jones’ pain, so apparent to me as I paused and un-paused that video, is having that conversation. Jones is likely having it in the wrong place. It can be argued that she is even having the conversation without all the requisite tools or precision using them. I think of Richard Pryor’s adroitness when he slices the thin layer of fat from bone by excising his self from structure in one of SNL’s best sketches ever. Maybe Jones isn’t Pryor. Neither is she the powerful organizational actor that Tina Fey could be as a writer for the show. When you’re hired under social protest and, in part, for your identity as much as for anything else your power is greatly constrained. And being that kind of hire is compounded by being the last hired and easily first fired (common to black workers across labor contexts). Add to that situation the white bro peer culture that Garret Morris describes as essential to success at SNL:
“I was a loner, and that actually cost me. … [T]he social life is just as important as your talent. Particularly with writers, they have to hear you talk and get to know you.”
Jones seemed to be doing that thing comics do: mining personal pain to bleed for our amusement. Being who she is, in the system she is in, there is no way that cannot end at slavery. Doing it for the white gaze is unavoidable considering the context of her employment and the popular culture structure that’s signing her checks. It’s brutal to express the desire to be desirable when even the generational black beauty exception manages to still be different from you and there’s next to no feminist ethos to guide you or respect to be earned for risking it. And it takes superior skill to use slavery, even when it is a part of your inherited legacy, to move forward a critical comedic commentary. It maybe even requires a type of privileged irreverence that black men have in ways black women do not.
So, I probably got this wrong. But at least I am getting it wrong on a domain of my own and not on Lorne’s dime. It’s a small freedom in a world where there aren’t many.
I only know that I sometimes see and hear something slightly different about what constrains in ways that make us – me – uncomfortable.
Slavery isn’t a joke. That’s what I told the adjunct folks this week. I maintain that is true.
But I don’t think Jones was playing it as a joke. Her pain, so inextricably bound in the way enslavement shaped her social distance from desirability and beauty in the here and now, couldn’t let her make it a joke even if she intended to.
That’s the thing about social locations and constraints and structure. It’s always making absolutes relative.
And, as I found out long ago, there is nowhere in the world where some of us can run to get away from that.