Monday, November 24, 2008

Parameters of Blackness (Part II: Electric Boogaloo)

Prior to the publication of After The Dance, I shared a portion of the manuscript with various friends and relatives. A comment from one of my cousins took me by surprise. According to her, the names of my primary protagonists--Carl & Faye, weren't "Black enough." My initial reaction was--"Huh? Say what! Come again."

Yeah, according to Cuz, I should have named my characters something along the lines of "Shauneequah" and "Jondavious." OKAY . . . Now, had the remark come from someone other than this particular cousin, perhaps I might have understood it.

To give you a bit of background, even though I'm a few years older than my cousin, we spent a fair amount of time together as kids. Our grandmothers are sisters and our families have always been close. Just like I did, my cousin grew up in a two-parent household. Her parents and mine left the hood a LONG time ago. Just like I do, my cousin lives in the suburbs and like me, is in a marriage that has lasted longer than 10 years, and like me is the mother of one child, a son.

No one in either of our immediate families has a name like Shauneequah or Jondavious. Not that there's anything wrong with either of these two names, I'm just saying--why would my cousin or anyone else feel justified in implying that I'm being something other than Black if I opt NOT to go the Shauneequah and Jondavious route? Are names like those somehow more authentically Black than names like Carl & Faye or Lori & Al or Wendy & Brian? (Yeah Cuz, what? You thought I wasn't gonna call you out?! LOL)

My cousin's son and my own are both African American youths who have excelled academically since Kindergarten. Does that fact somehow make them less authentically Black? As the Black mother of a Black son and as someone who writes stories about Black people, am I somehow obligated , for the sake of "keeping it real" to churn out portraits of African American boys who make failing grades and flunk out of school? Who only dream of being sports figures and hip-hop artists? Who only look up to pimps, drug dealers and gang bangers? If so, for whom am I keeping this real? And why?

I think, like a lot of people, be they Black, White or Other, my cousin has bought into the lucrative fiction of what Black is and what it ain't--a fiction that's currently being cut and repackaged before being sold back to us, like so many nickel and dime bags. A fiction created by the image and identity hustlers who've set up shop in the publishing world, the music industry, Hollywood and the like. They get paid well feeding us a steady diet of the same old, tired stereotypical images and even when we know better, some of us have allowed ourselves to get hooked. Yeah, we're buying it, ingesting it and eventually, like addicts, finding ourselves somewhere (whether it be at the bookstore, the movie theatre or in front of the television) straight sprung, fiending, frothing at the mouth and wanting to beat-down the first somebody who dares suggest, "You know, maybe all of that sh!t ain't good for you . . ."

In the December 2008 issue of The Writer, there is an article entitled, "On writing against ethnic stereotypes," which mainly focuses on the media's distorted and one-dimensional view of Italian Americans. The author of the piece, Paola Corso, states that stereotypes aren't necessairly bad when used purposefully and I tend to agree. I'd love to see more African American artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, etc. attempting to flip the script by manipulating stereotypes via satire, parody and humor. I attempted to do some of that in my own debut novel. But these days, more often than not, the most serious offenders (pun fully intended) and eager perpetuators of some of the most vile, negative and derogatory things said about Black men and women are other Black men and women.

To be clear, I don't have an issue with names like Shauneequah and Jondavious. I have plenty of Shauns and Jons in my extended family and within my circle of friends, none of whom I consider more or less Black than my cousin or myself. My issue is with the mindset that suggests there is only one way of being authentically Black . . . an authenticity that is all too often narrowly defined and tied to a host of negative images and outright stereotypes.

You know, at some point I may write about a character named Shauneequah, but you'd best believe she won't live in the hood, have a crack habit, take licks upside the head from her gangbanging boyfriend, Jondavious, or work for a process-wearing pimp who dreams of being a rapper (smile). Nope, my Shauneequah will probably be an African American businesswoman who lives in Charleston, owns a seafood restaurant, a beachside home and a pilot's license. She'll probably be in a long-distance relationship with some well-to-do resort owner, a North African she met while vacationing in the south of France (I am so making this mess up off the top of my head, LOL). My Shauneequah will probably be in the process of legally adopting her deceased best friend's little girl, both of whom, the best friend and the little girl, just so happen to be White.

Yeah, I know, a story like that would never get published, at least, not by someone like me.

(If you're interested or you missed it--PARAMETERS OF BLACKNESS: PART I)


pjazzypar said...

That's what I like about your writing, it shuns the typical stereotypes and as a result the characters are three dimensional. I don't like reading works that are predictable, it is a waste of time. I like the element of surprise, something many African American writer lack the ability to deliver which is unfortunate.

Oh yeah, I know you hate this kind of thing, but I have something for you on my blog. Come and get it.

Sharon J said...

This is a great piece. Too often, we buy into stereotypes about ourselves. Then again all stereotypes aren't necessarily bad as you point out. For example, black people are stereotyped as loving greens. Greens are good for you, so is that a bad thing.

By the way, I had an aunt named Fay and a cousin named Carl.