Monday, January 08, 2007

Sean Bell Vigil + Scott Poulson-Bryant + Astaire & Kelly's fear of the dark

Last week I realized I was way overdue for at least a day trip from my provincial corner of the mid-Atlantic, and decided to go to the Studio Museum in Harlem to check out the African comics exhibition and filmmaker Stan Douglas' installation Inconsolable Memories and exhibit of production stills. On Saturday, before I left, I read an announcement from writer Kevin Powell detailing the 50-day vigil initiated by Sean Bell's family to keep attention on the shooting of Bell by members of the Jamaica New York police department. The 50 days reference the 50 bullets that were fired into Sean Elijah Bell's body. For a more thoughtful and pointed rumination on the significance of 50 bullets entering a black man's body, see poet Dawn Lundy Martin's blog entry on How to Kill a Gorilla.

The vigil is being held 24/7 across from the 103rd Precinct, 16802 91st Ave, Jamaica, 11432 in Queens at 168th Street between 90th and 91st avenue. I went to the vigil for a brief period, dropping off some bottled water for the folks who were staying for the long haul. It was a peaceable gathering of about 20 people of different genders, ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds. I was reminded of the commitment of Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till's mother, to telling her murdered son's story until he received justice, when I read the last line of the Bell vigil flyers that were being handed out to passersby:


I thought about Till again as I read Scott Poulson-Bryant's short but perspicacious tome on one of the controlling mythoi placed on black men's bodies, Hung. That's right, Poulson-Bryant just left it out there, no pun intended, with no subtitle in sight. He begins and ends his layered ruminations with letters to Till. Poulson-Bryant takes his entertainment reporter eye and sports contacts and combines them with his conversations with friends and acquaintences to explore the impact of the myth of black male endowment. His subjects include pro sport locker rooms, getting "White-girled", black male porn stars, Eldridge Cleaver, James Baldwin, Richard Roundtree's Shaft vs. Ken Norton's Mandingo, plus, for good measure, a thoughtful discussion of the HBO movie, Good Fences, Toni Morrison's Sula, Robert Mapplethorpe and Ntozake Shange, homoerotic desire, thug love, and B-Boy Realness versus Banjy Realness. Poulson-Bryant make the point that the authorship of the endowment myth by white slaveholding males, their white (or soon to be "white") male non-slaveholding associates, and the descendants of both groups, and the way in which that myth has come to haunt authors, subjects and supporting cast--which basically means everyone: the white men who fear and desire the subject of their myth, the men whose self-worth is caught up in their ability to measure up to it, the white women who fear and desire, and sometimes chase the myth, the black women whose worth is defined by their ability to accomodate the myth (don't forget the Asian men who don't fare well under current member rating systems either anecdotal or scientific). Lest you think I'm being purient or recklessly employing a double-entendre I'll point out that Poulson-Bryant includes a quote from Morrison's Sula, from the novel's title character, regarding the particular experience of having the enmity and envy of the world:

I don't know what the fuss is about. I mean everything in the world love you. White men love you. They spend so much time worrying about your penis they forget their own. The only thing they want to do is cut off a nigger's privates. And if that ain't love and respect I don't know what is. And white women? They chase you all to every corner of the Earth, feel for you under every bed. I knew a white woman who wouldn't leave the house after 6 o'clock for fear one of you would snatch her. Now ain't that love? They think rape soon's thye see you, and if they don't get the rape they looking for, they scream it anyway just so the search won't be in vain. Colored women worry themselves into bad health just trying to hand on to your cuffs. Even little children--white and black, boys and girls--spend all their childhood eating their hearts out 'cause they think you don't love them. And if that ain't enough, you love yourselves. Nothing in this world love a black man more than another black man. You hear of solitary white men, but niggers? Can't stay away from one another a whole day. So. It looks to me like you the envy of the world.

This was brought home to me when I was watching a number of classic Hollywood films for a sound project with tap dancing. In each of the Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire films there was dance number in which the stars literally stomped/tapped their black demons into the ground. How strange it must be to be famous for one's performance of an art form originated by African Americans, that are in turn excluded from the very films that have made you a household name. Clearly Astaire and Kelly felt this tension as well, because in each of these films as I mentioned there is a scene when they dress up as the other, the primitive, the n****r, as a way to circumvent the anxiety that perhaps their audiences were feeling as well. The worst instance, or at least the most surreal, is what the DVD back cover calls "a tribute to Bojangles of Harlem" (presumably Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson) in which a larger than life set of lips adorn an equally outsized pair of shiny black shoe bottoms which are parted by a host of dancing girls to reveal two stage-length legs clothed in black and white striped pants. The latter are parted by the huddle of dancers who move apart to show a seated, smiling Fred Astaire in blackface, arms extended. I believe this was in Swing Time (1936). These offensive instances of simultaneous engagement and distancing kept appearing in each of the films rendering them unusable for my project. Nevertheless, they convinced me that this "colored anxiety" had prompted the inclusion of dance numbers that would invoke blackness or alterity with the intention of reinscribing and reaffirming whiteness, its distinction, and that of the dance art of its white practicioners, from the shadow of the dark. More specifically Charles 'Honi' Coles, Howard 'Sandman' Sims, The Nicolas Brothers, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, and others.