Saturday, January 31, 2009

Only Half the Picture

We have wonderful guests here this weekend. All are artists and all are well worth paying attention to. Thursday afternoon, our dear friend, Clarissa Sligh, came by to stay until Sunday. She’s based in Philadelphia and North Carolina and has had quite a distinguished career as an art photographer. She’s done so many different kinds of projects, from documenting Jake in transition, to the Masculinity Project to an exposé on incest, Reframing the Past. She has a great website here. Note that the opening photo was taken by my girl, Ellen Eisenman [ ].

Second on the scene was Zanele Muholi, a new friend and a fantastic young photographer from South Africa. Google her and check her out here. We have had very intense discussions about being a black lesbian in South Africa and the recent history of black feminism here in the US. Her book, Only Half the Picture, published by Michael Stevenson in 2006, can be found on

In the book, Pumia Dineo Gqola writes a moving essay, “Through Zanele Muholi’s eyes: Re/imagining ways of seeing Black lesbians.”

Paying attention to Muholi’s images requires grappling with the competing and nuanced meanings highlighted in the represented subjects. They underline the importance of seeing the agency—life choices, decisions, failures, confusions, discoveries, rejections—of the Black lesbian in the picture…. These images are shaped by, respond to, and sometimes start off from circulating ideas about Black South African lesbians. Muholi’s vision holds challenges for all of us who claim to see (Black) lesbian sexuality regardless of whether we do so in the interest of transformation or oppression…. Muholi’s work contains new insights for all audiences who respond to her invitation to think about lesbian lives seriously” [p. 84].

The series [“Period”] normalizes Black lesbians as women. It positions the most reviled women through images of the most abhorrent—albeit normal—aspect of women’s lives. It shows Black lesbians bleeding uncontrollably, messily and stickily, like the rest of ‘us’. Muholi’s normalizing of Black lesbian sexuality positions it as part of the continuum of women’s sexuality at the same time that she plays with notions of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ [p. 86].

I find myself looking at only bits and pieces of the book at a time because nearly every photo causes me to think and feel so much.

Finally, Gabi Ngcobo showed up after 12AM.  Our weekend guests had all arrived.  More on her in the next entry.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Andrew Wyeth and James 'Dick' White

Learning that Andrew Wyeth died this week made me nostalgic for my father. In one of his many extra jobs, my father was a deliveryman for a pharmacy near where Wyeth lived and Dad used to make deliveries to him. Wyeth said he wanted to paint him. I remember first being very disappointed that my father didn’t want to follow up on this. He’d have a kind of fame.

Later, I was glad Dad didn’t pursue this. I came to think that he would look like some generic old black man. I didn’t think that Wyeth could capture the Dick White I knew. I’d like to put in a picture here from Wyeth for comparison. But here are just three photos of my father the way I like to think about him and here's a link to some Wyeth portraits. [Scroll down about 2/3rds] 

Dick at 18 in his Howard High School Class of 1929 photo

Dick with his roses in the backyard

Dick with his young brother

Saturday, January 10, 2009

There They Go Again!

I just laughed when I saw the Times headline Trying to Change Its Face, G.O.P. Weighs a Black Chairman []. It seems the Republicans are playing the Race Card again. 

But it also got me thinking as I often have about the meaning of the Race Card in this society. I had similar thoughts when I saw that Illinois’ disgraced Gov. Blagojevich appoint Roland W. Burris to replace Obama in the Senate. That was a pretty cynical use of the card; but Burris was right in there playing his own version of the card, too.

Here are just a few of my questions:
  • Who gets to play the race card most often—blacks or whites? Let’s admit it, we all use the race card at some point. Sometimes it’s appropriate, isn’t it? For example, if we see someone being excluded from a position because people don’t understand their own blind racism, shouldn’t we play the race card to intervene in such a racially prejudiced situation? 
  • Of course, one can use the Race Card for racist ends. The RC was played to get on the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, a man who is willing to cover up the negative impact of racism by showing his black face as a supporter of racism and the enemy of justice. Don’t we have to ask who is playing the race card and why?
  • Is charging someone with playing the RC sometimes a way to actually play the card? 

If I’m right that we all play the race card sometime and that it can be used for good or evil, shouldn’t we question the context in which the RC is played? It is not the playing of the Race Card that is in and of itself bad; perhaps it is how we use that it that matters.  

Friday, January 02, 2009

Eartha Kitt

I’ve been in discussion with my younger family members, Ashley and Burgess, about Eartha Kitt (1927-2008). I think she is a fascinating person and deserves serious study. Her life spanned important decades and her career, the rise of TV and the crumbling of segregation. The New York Times obituary called her “among the first widely known African-American sex symbols” []. The Times compares her to Lena Horne; but she was a very different kind of persona. There’s much to learn about black poverty, gender, and complexion. My quick search of electronic sources has not revealed any major studies. Someone should go for it!

New Course

I think I’ve finally come up with a course to teach next spring: Independence! The Transition from High Colonial Rule to the Post Colonial World in Africa. Through film, literature and historical documents and theory, we explore the evolution of post colonial societies in Africa. This is primarily a history course but we will use a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to this history. Works we explore may include the films and writings of Ousmane Semebene, the literature of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah, and the theories of Mahmood Mamdani.

Now all I have to do it learn the history. ;-)