L.S.B. That’s what my crew called themselves. Light Skinned Bitches. I refused to say it. The light-skinned part. I’d spent too much time anguishing over the term “good-hair” and that all my friends and cousins had to sit with tilted necks in the kitchen subject to a hot comb while I didn’t. Every now and again they’d jump and yelp, “Ouch!” and the comb left a skinny purple mark beside their ear.
1991. It was the year of the Rodney King riots. Some of my contemporaries call it an ‘Uprising.’ I call it bullshit. My white Jewish aunt clutching her steering wheel on Vermont with tense knuckles watching people get dragged out of their cars and beaten. She had to spend the night at the First AME church to ensure her safety. She was born and raised in South L.A.
It was also the year of Spike Lee’s film Jungle Fever. I mention this film because I do not believe the aftermath of any film has had such an adverse affect on me since. Suddenly my world was smaller. Suddenly if I dated a white guy-I was being objectified and he had jungle fever and if I dated a black guy than I was afflicted with jungle fever. And it wasn’t a good thing to have. It was like if I was walking down the hall holding some guy’s hand a group of kids would shake their heads back and forth disapprovingly and mutter, “Jungle Fever.”
Sometimes kids would just whistle the theme song, the worst scarlet letter sounds.
It was also the time that the loophole was invented. Niggah. Apparently it was okay for white people or anyone at all to say “niggah” ending in a soft “ah” sound, rather than nigger.
It was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. Why would people go around and find new ways to delight in using this word that clearly meant the same thing? That clearly symbolized ignorance and slavery and had the worst kind of rape and whips and burns embedded deep in its core?
My school lunch area began to get segregated into quadrants by the names of continents. Africa, Europe, Asia, and Mexico. Each student went to their designated eating area. My foster brother and I parted as soon as we got to school. He hung out in Europe, me in Africa and we could only acknowledge one another after the final bell rang.
And today the illustrious maker of that film that caused me so much anguish in high school, Spike Lee, states he refuses to see Django Unchained. I very much enjoyed the opening scene of Django, echoing the idea that one of the ways I survived my own captivity was this belief that I was different. That some day someone would come for me. It’s how I spent my group home days in measured fragments beside an egg-timer. Every move a tick-tock. Every act, good or bad, was measured on a level system. Someday I was gonna get picked and get out of there. I carried this Daddy Warbucks fantasy into my adulthood. In San Francisco there’s this store, called the Christmas store, where it is Christmas all year long. When I was feeling down I’d go to the store all crumpled over looking and sit beside these giant mall-sized nutcracker soldiers and I would hope and hope that someone would come along and take pity on me and maybe take me shopping or pay off my student loans or something. I don’t know— just take me home.
So to me this opening scene where there are five men in chains being transported in the woods and suddenly the dentist Dr. King Schultz, (Christoph Waltz), appears and frees Jamie Foxx and hands the other slaves the keys to their shackles, well to me that was aligned with my fantasy. My heart swelled with victory and splendor. I really enjoyed that hell yea muthafuckin’ feeling I got when Jamie Foxx pulled out two guns and started blasting in slow motion from the hip with 2-Pac and James Brown’s Unchained playing in the background.
Then of course there’s the N word controversy. I don’t think like some that Quentin Tarantino or any white person cannot write a film about slavery. I mean then what is fiction if people cannot write the Other? Even if I wrote a story about a young blackapino girl that grew up in foster care that story would be imagined. It would be fiction because it would not be limited by the perspective of my own experiences. So to me it is not a question of political correctness when it comes to the N word. Like yes I can technically use the N word in my work but I choose not to and it’s for a much more snobbish reason than you think. Duty.
When I think of my duty as a writer I’m reminded of Toni Morrison’s Nobel lecture, she tells a story of an older blind woman who was said to be a clairvoyant. Some kids come up and challenge her. They have a bird in their hands. They ask the woman if the bird is dead or alive. It is a trick. If she says the bird is alive they will kill it. If she says it’s dead they will keep it alive. After a long pause she simply says, “I don’t know but it’s in your hands.” Morrison made an analogy between this story and what she believed her responsibility is to language. Essentially as we sit here today we sit here with the power of language in our hands. Morrison speaks further of the writer she became, “In her country children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidance, or expressive love. But she knows tongue suicide is not only the choice of children.” I love the term “tongue suicide” because that’s really what we were doing all those years when we weren’t honoring ourselves, when we weren’t sharpening our weapons. When we said niggah with an “ah,” and L.S.B., and all that. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language-all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
In the spirit of a mutual exchange of ideas I believe then that maybe I possess a bias that doesn’t make me fully capable of reviewing this film. I reached out to a colleague for a different perspective. I wanted to be able to provide you with a full picture. I noticed on twitter one of my friends stated that he saw the film twice, so I asked him to give me his reaction. On twitter he is known as King Leisure and his twitter handle is @JuliusTLeisure. His given name is Ty Hardaway. Here’s what he had to say:
I was born in the famed General Hospital in Los Angeles in 1965 to a Jewish white mother and a Texas-black father. They were hip and progressive for their time. Post-racial, remember? My father understood it would be impolitic to attend my birth. He was black. My birth certificate still indicates I am offspring to white mother, white father. They used to put that on birth certificates.
I spent my first seven years living with my Texas-black grandmother on Hoover St. and Florence Ave. in south central LA. My grandmother picked cotton as a child. She was the youngest daughter of share-croppers. She was a hotel housekeeper. Her first husband was murdered in a bar. My college football loving uncle wouldn’t watch college football’s Cotton Bowl because he hated the history of that cotton. He called it Nigger Bowl.
When I was in second grade my choices were Crips or Bloods. We moved to the suburbs. I spent my formative years in Claremont, a college town. Undergraduate and graduate school training were at the University of California. I am a product of my genes; I am a product of my environment.
I know black. I know white. Tarantino always gets it right.
Nigger Nigger Nigger
The “N-Word” controversy, to me, has always been the very worst of word-based controversies. Somehow “nigger” has become scary and taboo. Mostly to educated whites. We’ve, as a society, given that word so much more power than it deserves.
During the enlightened black power ‘60s and ‘70s, it was plainly acceptable to use nigger in the affirmative. There was an ownership to the word like how gays took back “queer.” It was cool. It was hip. Richard Pryor in the car’s 8-track. Blazing Saddles, “The sheriff’s a nigger!” moment. “Nigger please!” was the front check of the era.
When I first heard Straight Outta Compton I was in graduate school (introduced to me by a very white Lutheran woman friend from Minnesota). I immediately got it. I respected it. I didn’t see why people were so shocked (and was sort of pleased that people were). It was around then that “nigger” became pejorative only. Gulf War I.
Now it’s forbidden. You can say “N-word” as substitute all you want, which I find much, much worse. I’ve been called the negative “nigger;” in Cincinnati, Ohio; Sevierville, Tennessee; Lynn, Massachusetts. I knew where I stood in those situations. Knowledge is power.
I also have been called “nigger” the positive. By family. By friends. By strangers. By old heads in Chicago and Cleveland barbershops. It’s affirming. It’s being a part of a community.
Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Django Unchained. I’m all for using and de-clawing the word nigger. I find that Tarantino understands and uses “nigger” appropriately. Sticks and stones. I fear no words.
The Exceptional Negro
As with the character, Django, I have been referred to as “intriguing” and “exceptional.” By blacks and by whites. And remember in 2007, how Joe Biden described the young Barack Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy, I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” The exceptional negro has always been an American storybook.
“Articulate.” Been there. Oof.
Exception carries so much responsibility but also much scrutiny. How quickly friends can become foe. I understand its intrigue, and exception’s nuances were well played in Unchained.
And, Obama. I may dislike many of his policy decisions, but he is Django and me to degrees. And for that reason alone I voted for Obama twice. Because Obama feels like me. And he’s not even a black-black, or, more specifically, a “slave-descendent black.” Obama’s a true “African-American” (which is a term I detest. I’m from California, not Africa. I’m just me).
Interestingly, there is a razor’s edge difference between the Exceptional Negro and the Uncle Tom. Nothing is more despised in the black, slave-descendent community than the Uncle Tom. The Uncle Tom is the ultimate turncoat, a sell-out. Modern examples include black Republicans and conservative Supreme Court justices. Sam Jackson’s Stephon portrayal serves as reminder of what slave-descendent blacks despise in Uncle Tom. They are self-loathing, selfish, and cruel.
On occasion, the exception is accused of indifference and callousness; too good for their people. Razor’s edge. Like Obama, too black and not black enough.
It’s Just A Movie
I saw Django Unchained twice. Once with my a white male friend, Richard, and once with my wife. Richard and I loved it together. We laughed together, we were disturbed together. All of us, the whole mixed demographic audience, celebrated. The black kid next to me was standing and fist-pumping during scenes. It was an amazing experience. Richard loved the cinematography.
With my wife, it didn’t go as well. The deliberately exaggerated western-style shooting, in particular, was much to close to the recent Newtown massacre for her tastes. She was disturbed at my laughter during some of the more violent scenes. But, I argue, 1) I probably under Tarantino’s stylistic intent more, and 2) That’s what makes the film so American.
We have different tastes. Different experiences. We live in the golden era of individuality. The Internet makes it so.
Django Unchained is only a movie. It’s fiction. Yet, it struck very close to home. I loved it, literally. Why? Because I know all the characters. I felt all the characters: my grandmother, my uncle, my father. The suburban whites, southerners, Americans. Me. I loved Django because it’s the first deep reflection on slavery since Roots. I loved Django because we can now, again, talk about race in America.
When we interact with art, we carry the baggage of our experience with us. Django is just a movie; Django is more than a movie. There is no one definitive voice of any group to explain Django Unchained, we only have our individual reflections.
I can’t argue with that, whether by boat or air or land we’re here and we’re provocative and complicated. It’s here that I’m a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. It’s here that I get to engage in discourse like this and we get to bubble over with tension and the thrill of redemption. In union organizing we often say that part of an organizer’s job is to create a crisis. Whether we like the film or not some credit has to be given to Tarantino for doing just that and creating such a thought-provoking piece. I say let’s get down in Lucky 13. Let’s pop the lid off taboo. Now that we’ve arrived, let’s come unchained.
The artist, Ty Hardaway, is a Californian who runs Middlespace Arts in Maryland. On the Internet at middlespace.net.