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bell hooks, race & representation, essentialism and “authenticity”

My first post in AGES is a final presentation I gave in my Critical Race Theory course.  Enjoy?

My presentation is on race and representation in three books by bell hooks.  I am particularly interested in essentialism and how essentialist thinking creates notions of “authentic” black experience.  I began by reading “Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics,” published in 1990, then “Black Looks: Race and Representation,” published in 1992, and finished with “Outlaw Culture,” which was published in 1994.

Essentialism posits that for any specific kind of concept, there is a set of characteristics or features that that thing must possess; that must belong to that thing’s essence.  My first introduction to essentialism, without knowing that was the correct term to use, was in my freshman year of college, for the entire span of which I read Plato’s dialogues.  In the Meno, Meno, a young man from an aristocratic family, famously asks Socrates whether virtue can be taught.  In typical Socratic dialogue/law professor fashion, Socrates asks Meno what he thinks virtue is in the first place.  Meno answers by saying that there is one virtue for a man, one for a woman, one for a child, an elderly man, a slave, and so on.

Essentialism comes out when Socrates asks Meno what it is that enables him to call all of these separates and seeming distinct acts virtue?  What is it that makes all these particularly different things the same?  The answer to that would ultimately be the “Form of Virtue” in the world of ideas.  Plato’s philosophy is founded upon his theory of “forms.”  There is a Form of virtue, a Form of justice, etc.  These are “universals” that manifest themselves in the particulars of everyday life that we experience.  Thus, if Socrates and Plato were alive today, they might assert that there is a form of “blackness” and of “whiteness.”  But, this idea of essentialism, as we shall see, is a potential problem when it comes to race.

In the Introduction to “Outlaw Culture,” bell hooks says that studying popular culture to develop a critical consciousness can decolonize minds and imaginations, and “can be and is a powerful site for intervention, challenge, and change.”  In the Introduction to “Black Looks,” however, hooks describes the mass media and representation of race not only as pedagogical tools for the development of a counter-hegemonic consciousness, but as tools that “maintain oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of black people.”  Mass media and representation in popular culture propagate white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values that contribute to the oppression and devaluation of blackness.  hooks roots this claim in history by noting that  white supremacists since the time of slavery “have recognized that control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination.”

Although hooks does not discuss minstrel shows in these books of hers that I read, I thought of them to help me understand the history of oppression through images.  In the 19th Century, “blackface” makeup was used on white and black actors portraying black people in minstrel shows, which included comedy skits, dancing, and music.  “Blackface” makeup consisted of either a layer of burnt cork or black grease paint on the face.  Exaggerated bright red lips were painted around the mouths. The actors were white, and after the Civil War, increasingly black, but a black person could not get on stage and perform unless in blackface makeup.  Some stereotypical characters included the Mammy, which was pictured as a wise, good-natured, heavyset woman; or the Coon, a “lazy, inarticulate buffoon.”  The images of the minstrel show were used by white people to maintain a system of racial domination by portraying black people as inferior through a few stereotypical characters.  Such a device serves a dual function: 1) to reinforce in white peoples’ minds that they are superior, and 2) to convince black people that they are inferior.  It is also important to note for purposes of our discussion that these minstrel shows exhibited black people and black experience in America according to white people.

Today, metaphorically speaking, black people are still not allowed on stage unless they are in blackface makeup.  In her essay, “Postmodern Blackness,” in “Yearning,” bell hooks says, “It is rarely acknowledged that there is a far greater censorship and restriction of other forms of cultural production by black folks—literary, critical writing, etc.  Attempts on the part of editors and publishing houses to control and manipulate the representation of black culture, as well as the desire to promote the creation of products that will attract the widest audience, limit in a crippling and stifling way the kind of work many black folks feel we can do and still receive recognition.”  Thus, representations of black people and black experience in mass media are still controlled and dictated by whiteness.

As an example of these modern-day limitations on representations of black experience, we can compare and contrast two films: Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold, and Precious, directed by Lee Daniels.  I went to see both of these films at the Philadelphia Film Festival in the fall of 2009.  Just before Fish Tank came on, a film critic spoke to us in the audience, and gave us some background.  He described that both films fall into a genre called, “Kitchen Sink Realism,” which emerged as a British artistic movement in the 1950s and 60s that graphically and unapologetically depicted the lives of the working class.  Usually, the main character of a Kitchen Sink Realist work was an “angry young man.”  The film critic at the festival made a point that Fish Tank and Precious are somewhat revolutionary for the genre because they actually feature “angry young women.”

Let’s watch previews for Fish Tank and for Precious so that you have a taste of what I’m talking about.

First, we’ll watch a preview of Fish Tank, in which we have Mia, who is a white, teenage girl growing up in a housing project in England with her alcoholic/drug-addicted single mom who treats Mia like dirt.  Mia’s mother gets a boyfriend who rapes Mia, and with whom Mia becomes infatuated.

Next, we’ll watch a preview of Precious, in which we have a black, teenage girl growing up in a housing project in Harlem, New York with her alcoholic/drug-addicted single mother who treats Precious like dirt.  Precious is raped by her father more than once and has two children by him.  She later discovers that she is HIV positive.

Although I have noted many similarities between the two films, there is a stark difference in the way the two “angry young women” are portrayed: while Mia displays resistance, Precious displays passivity.

Mia is visibly angry and defiant.  We see her acting out her rage in the way she walks, and speaks, the way she picks fights with neighbors and strangers.  She has outlets, however.  She finds some peace in regularly taking care of a horse that she finds chained to a tree.  She also finds a way to express her anger by practicing her break dancing, a traditionally male-dominated artform, in an abandoned apartment building.  The film does not have a happy ending by any means, but we are left with the image of a girl who has enough passion in her to resist her oppressive surroundings through dancing and through connections with nature.

On the other hand, Precious, as Slate Magazine’s Dana Stevens said, “is supposed to be about the heroine lifting herself out of abjection, yet the film itself wallows in abjection . . . .”  The preview we just watched opens with Precious declaring her determination to achieve capitalist materialist success by becoming a television star, and her desire to have a light-skinned boyfriend.  These valuations are not critiqued in the film; they are presented as worthy goals.  Unlike Mia in Fish Tank who is able to transcend a capitalist value system by finding freedom and beauty in things she can have regardless of her socioeconomic status, namely, dance and nature, Precious is unable to do this.  Although it could be argued that Precious does find friendship and education once she transfers to an alternative school, it is not clear, first of all, that these are things Precious wants and loves, rather than what the world wants and loves for her, and second, it is not clear that she finds a resistance to her oppressive surroundings in her friendships and education, or if they are things that merely help her get by.

In the essay, “Revolutionary Black Women” in “Black Looks,” bell hooks talks about her own experiences being accused of not having an “authentic” black voice when she talks about how she had a positive experience of blackness growing up in the rural South.  She recounts how, since she had shared a narrative of resistance, as opposed to victimization, she was deemed inauthentic by her listeners.  It seems to me that this a danger that films like Precious seem to ignore.  By continually representing black females as victims, any voice of resistance runs the risk of being deemed “inauthentic.”  This assigning of victimization as the “’authentic” black female experience is a problem of essentialization.

Precious does not challenge the racist system of domination that creates oppressive economic circumstances.  Indeed, in many ways, it conforms to white stereotypes of black experience by showing a passive victim living in poverty who longs for capitalist success, lacking a critical consciousness or voice of resistance.  Precious, and other more mainstream films representing race are no different from a minstrel show insofar as they feature black people and experience conforming to white stereotypes of black people and experience.

Again, like the minstrel show, defining black experience so narrowly and representing it that way accomplishes a dual function: 1) since “authentic” black life is portrayed as taking place in segregated inner city neighborhoods—white people find reassurance that black people will not “infringe on their turf,” as hooks says.  Also, much worse, it gives white people something to feel superior about.  Dana Stevens, of Slate, described it as a type of voyeurism.  She writes: “[I]t’s as if the audience is being encouraged at once to recoil from Precious’ world and to congratulate ourselves for being brave enough to confront it: a combination that I find complexly icky.”  The other function of defining “authentic” black experience so narrowly is the continued oppression of black people.  Instead of allowing individual black people to shape and determine their own “authentic” experiences, it encourages them conform to what white people’s essentialist notions of what black experience is or should be.  These essentialist idea of “authentic” black experience also gives publishing houses, production companies, etc. reasons to reject diverse portrayals of black experience by claiming that it is not “authentic,” thus making less black people represented in the media overall.

I do not exactly know what this critique of essentialism means for Plato’s theory of the Forms.  I’m sure many people much smarter than me have written about it.  I just thought it was interesting to note that a Platonic Theory, which many take to be Gospel, is not infallible.  It reminds me of something Karl Marx says in The German Ideology: “Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology . . . have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.   Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”

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