Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body

“I just want you to think critically about what we do with the Black female body; why we imagine some things and not others.”

– bell hooks, during her introduction to ‘Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.’

 

It seems appropriate to post this talk, to continue on a theme 😉 I recently re-watched this 2014 panel discussion hosted by The New School (NYU) titled ‘Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body’, and featuring bell hooks, author Marci Blackman (Tradition), film director Shola Lynch (Free Angela and All Political Prisoners), and author and activist Janet Mock (Redefining Realness). bell’s knowledge and provocations are great as always.

Some thoughts:

  • I understand Janet Mock’s perspective that there is power for her in using glamour to affirm herself in the world, particularly as a Black trans* woman. But I am completely skeptical about her assertion that this is not done for “the male gaze” (when so much about the aesthetics of heterosexual femininity is about that. If heterosexual men and women found some flamboyant body adornment truly off putting, for example, I am skeptical that Janet and other women into feminine glamour would embrace it; we should acknowledge this). It should also be noted that in the past before publicly coming out as trans*, Janet was rarely read as a trans* woman unless she disclosed that she is; so adhering to the “standards” of cisgender femininity was also about safety, comfort, “passing”.
  • I’d like to point out how stupid it is to not have a dark-skinned woman in this conversation; without it the conversation is skewed and incomplete.
  • The Beyoncé TIME ‘Most Influential’ cover discussion – wow. The first time I watched this, I admit my reaction to bell’s use of the term “terrorist” to describe the images Bey puts out into mass culture was to immediately dismiss the hyperbole. But the context here is important; bell was talking about the impact on young girls (and their relationship to their own bodies). There is no doubt, for example, that Beyoncé benefits from colourism and her cultivated physical proximity to whiteness. What impact does this have on Black girls, experiencing racism in the overall culture and colourism in their own communities?
  • bell’s point that the major assaults on feminism and women come from image making and visual media is TRUE. I appreciate her call for genuinely liberating image making (I am going to be hated for this, considering how problematic this person is, but Lena Dunham’s representation of her own body in HBO’s ‘Girls’ is liberating for a great many girls and young women because it is unheard of for a woman with her body type to be centred on a television show. She shows herself naked, she shows herself struggling to run, she shows herself compulsively snacking, she shows herself dancing, she shows herself having sex, she shows herself being loved by others… imperfect and real as she is. And she cops grief for it – see how much hateful and vitriolic abuse she gets for daring to be seen at all. She is a white woman and yet I find her representations 100 times more liberating than Beyoncé’s – even though I enjoy Beyoncé). 
  • I LOVE this from Shola Lynch, which I will just loosely transcribe, because it nails everything that I want to do:

“There’s a term that I discovered in college that is so relevant these days, it’s a feminist term for media studies, called ‘symbolic annihilation’. It is two things: one, not seeing yourself, and two, only seeing yourself denigrated, victimised, et cetera, and what that does to you. And I think that we can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze, and look for the images and the people and places that feed me. The more we create our culture – cultural images, the books you write, the films we make, the alternatives – these are artefacts that live, and they speak to people whether we are there or not. Bodies of work, that’s critical. [Shola tells a story of her young daughter, obsessed with blonde princesses and battling her naturally big hair, becoming proud of her “Angela Davis hair” after repeat viewings of her Angela Davis film]. So the more we create the alternative universe… which then creates the universe…” [end of comment]

  • bell hooks talks about how the journey to freedom is also the journey of imagination; the capacity to imagine yourself differently… counter-hegemonically. Creativity and the uses of the imagination is what led each of the panellists to freedom and a self-defined life path; I love that.
  • I love what Janet says about imagining she is worthy in a world that tells her she is unworthy; imagining that she deserves to have a book published, to be heard and seen, to take up as much space as she wants and to share a stage with bell hooks! Creating a foundation of self love and esteem in the face of adverse circumstances is both healing work AND a creative act. If you have to create a larger persona that you will eventually grow into, that is absolutely a creative act (I’m thinking of an interview I saw with Sampa the Great, an anti-hegemonic force if I ever saw one, who said her stage name was something she gave herself to grow into. She’s so dope.)

Last word from bell hooks:

“the incredible power of images. Image changes something. Little girls read ‘happy to be nappy’ and it changes something. We have to be about that work of creating the counter-hegemonic image in order for that transformation to take place.”

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2 Comments on “Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body”

  1. […] RELATED POST: Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body […]

  2. […] fave). I’ve only really become a true fan with the last two records she has put out. In a previous post I mentioned bell hook’s criticisms of Beyonce as a cultural influencer; as I said, many of […]


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