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.


At 7:48 PM, Blogger John K said...

A great post, Audiologo! Your comments about the tap dancing films remind me of all the films that attempt to exorcise the Negro out of the aesthetic logic being portrayed on film; all those movies with jazz, or rock and roll, or dances inspired by African American life and culture, that strive to work it right out of the text of the film itself, as if Blacks played no part whatsoever. What's also fascinating is how often the signifiers in the works betray this elision, and those moments when a Black person does turn up nevertheless....

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Mendi O. said...

Yeah, What John said. Thanks for narrating this experience again for me, audiologo. You stressed different parts. Also, thanks for telling us about the Sean Bell Vigil. I hope to go by if I can get to the NYC before it's over.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger ReggieH said...

I'm not sure which/what Kelly film you're refering to (I'm not that big a fan of his anyway) but I think Astaire meant the 'Bojangles' number as a tribute to Robinson -- although it doesn't really come off that way. I often think when watching these films how very different it would have been if Robinson and other black dancers had been able to make films in the studio era in the same way that Astaire and Kelly did. It takes the breath away to think about it -- then comes the pain and the tears.

BTW, for musical offensiveness, try 'Holiday Inn' with Astaire and Bing Crosby. The story is about an inn that is only open on holidays, presenting day-related musical fare (the hotel chain got its name from this movie, which also introduced the song "White Christmas") Bing Crosby does a number for Lincoln's Birthday "Father Abraham" -- in blackface, dressed like either Uncle Ben or the guy on the Cream of Wheat box. His female co-star is a pickaninnie (sp?). It's astonishing, and has to be seen to be belived...Some cable channels that show the film delete this scene entirely, but I think it's better that we know about the past, how we were viewed and talked about and 'imitated'.

At 5:29 PM, Blogger audiologo said...

Thanks for the comments Mendi & John. Reggie, the Kelly films were On the Town (1949), and Singin' in the Rain(1952), both co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen. The former includes a "savage" dance number in a natural history museum(!) while the latter features a number of mammy jokes supposedly at the expense of Al Jolsen, but in the anachronism that exists between the time the movie depicts (the advent of the talkies) and when it was actually made, manages to direct that belittement towards black women. Yes, the Astaire number was meant as a tribute. It even says so on the back of the DVD box! That was indeed part of my point, that the anxiety was such that even (or perhaps "especially") a tribute had to be structured in such a way to reinscribe the supposed distinctions between the two men. After all if Astaire had just imitated Robinson's dance style, reproducing a dance number without all the blackface and racist paraphernalia wouldn't it have begged the question of why such a distinction was being made between the two performers with regards to screentime and roles? And what would the southern audience say about Astaire's respectful portrayal: "Astaire is a n****r lover!" ? Discomforted as those audiences were by non-Slave in A Box portrayals of African Americans during that time. Like you, I'm grateful these performances haven't been "whitewashed" out of the historical record.

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