Conscious Glamour: On Black Female Defiance

She does not know her beauty, she thinks her brown body has no glory.
No Images
Waring Cuney

You are terrifying, strange and beautiful something not everyone knows how to love
For Women Who Are Difficult to Love
Warsan Shire

Who’s Afraid of Michele Obama?

It was The Eye That Rolled All Over the World during the 2013 inauguration dinner, Michelle Obama’s disgusted, contemptuous reaction to John Boehner, the man who had spent four years leading the Republican Party’s obstructionist tactics against every piece of legislation proposed by the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. Like everything that Michelle does this was gracefully performed. No head roll; just one pert, subtle batting of the eyes, her mouth pursed in disapproval. It was perhaps the most eloquent statement on John Boehner ever made with nary a sound uttered from the First Lady’s mouth. One cannot imagine a similar exchange involving Jackie Kennedy because this ain’t your mama’s First Lady. Except that she was.

Watching that exchange of non-verbal rebellion by the most visible black woman in the world a frisson of glee rippled throughout my whole body for the rest of the day. More elegant than a raised third finger and less vulgar than a Fuck You and unmistakably Black, she communicated merely through side-eye needing no other action necessary for the obvious interpretation which was clearest of all to a nation of black women, the secret army lying in wait to come to her defense if called. Millions of us. As black women we are an indomitable force in our collective love and pride for the former First Lady.

I sat at home (unemployed) watching on television (NBC – cable is too expensive); I was about to reach for the phone (unpaid – disconnected) to call my girlfriends but luckily Mom was there next to me and we laughed and laughed.

THE GLAMOROUS LIFE

Boys with small talk and small minds really don’t impress me in bed.
She said “I need a man’s man, diamonds and furs. Love would only conquer my head.”
She wants the glamorous life She don’t need a man’s touch She wants to lead the glamorous life without love it ain’t much
The Glamorous Life  – Sheila E.

Olivia Pope is marching to President Fitzgerald’s hospital room as she removes her three-quarter length kid skin gloves one finger at a time. She catches her breath bravely, preparing herself to see the tragic inert body of her secret lover as he lays connected to the many tubes of the life support. She pauses and enters. Mellie, the First Lady is sitting dutifully at his bedside. The two women take a moment to size-up one another like the rivals and sisters-in-mourning that they are…

I developed a mild addiction to Scandal despite it being a travesty of American history and politics. With its internecine and ridiculous romance Kerry Washington’s portrayal of the sorrowful,  wise-eyed yet amoral Oliva Pope is riveting. And her wardrobe is absolutely divine. She often has as many as six or seven wardrobe changes per episode. I was never able to afford clothes of Olivia Pope’s caliber during my time as a Congressional staffer. But I never made the big bucks that Oliva Pope does; believe me, couture is a stretch on a government paycheck.

I became an occasional Scandal watcher because of the beautiful costume confections but also because I had been a staffer on Capitol Hill directly out of college. It was the final year of President Clinton’s tenure and Washington DC was full of byzantine complexities, outrageous egos and the reek of every staffers’ hungry desire to become part of it all. It was a heady time and certainly the aura of sex with which Bill Clinton imbued DC life became a part of all our DNA as politicos. It’s called the Ugly Man’s Hollywood for a very good reason: you didn’t have to be fair of face or even beautiful because what counts in DC is brains, nerve and influence. Certainly the sex had always been apart of the DC appeal but Bill Clinton revolutionized the way politicos behaved, publicly and privately.

I was excited and eager; I was also in love. Right in the heart of Chocolate City my lover was white. Scandal does an excellent job of conveying that old world pulse racing forbidden nature of loving across racial lines, as well as portraying the sheer heart pumping eroticism of power, the ultimate aphrodisiac.

The chemistry between Tony Goldwyn and Kerry Washington is always electric. In one episode, he has his Presidential aides kidnap Olivia to a hunting lodge so that he can see her one-last-time-again where he angrily, resentfully, lustfully removes her designer heels. Hardly an episode went by in the beginning where they didn’t have an argument filled with fireworks so fierce that they need to find a desk or tree to get it on. Shonda Rimes being Shonda Rimes she can’t not mention make allusions to the Thomas Jeffersonian-overtones of the relationship.

Olivia: “I don’t have to drive you away. You’re married. You have children. You’re the leader of the free world. You are away. By definition, you’re away. You’re unavailable.”

Fitz: “So, this is about Mellie.”

Olivia: “No! This is, smile at her and I take off my clothes for you. I wait for you. I watch for you. My whole life is you. I can’t breathe because I’m waiting for you. You own me. You control me. I belong to you.”

Fitz: “You own me! You control me. I belong to you… I love you. I’m in love with you. You’re the love of my life. My every feeling is controlled by the look on your face. I can’t breathe without you. I can’t sleep without you. I wait for you. I watch for you. I exist for you. If I could escape all of this and run away with you…there’s no Sally or Thomas here. You’re nobody’s victim, Liv. I belong to you. We’re in this together.”

None of my white boyfriends ever said anything like that. None of black boyfriends said anything like that. The closest I came to a declaration of toxic addiction was one white lover’s climax punctuated with the words: “OH GOD!!I LOVE BEAUTIFUL BLACK PUSSY!!” before he crashed forward like a California redwood. The Samuel Jackson re-mix of Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is an exceptionally poignant and relevant here.

1384267_10151963100882464_614103681_nBut Scandal is Shonda Rimes at her most idiosyncratic, and she has once again created riveting television made for drinking games and Kleenex tax havens. She has also done something that will last into the future by creating a new mythical figure in a narrative where there are precious few heroines for black women to identify with. She may be an adulterer who fixes lies for bad rich people but she’s a smart and glamorous fixer. Olivia Pope is crafty and clever like the tricksters of folklore, the Signifying Monkey and Br’er Rabbit. She outsmarts the Man, makes him love her and goes home to her another man at the end of the story. Enter The Power Broker into the lexicon of American race narrative and mythology.

Even without considering the character’s backstory, the early episodes made it clear that it didn’t really matter whether she came from a bougie high-class home or whether she was a hard luck round the way girl because as Dave Chappelle says, “All black people are bilingual: we speak job interview and street.”

Race isn’t actually Scandal’s primary preoccupation beyond the mild eyebrow raising tremor caused by the inter-racial love affairs which, really, is barely worth an eyebrow raise anymore; after all this is Shonda Rimes. But the Glamorous Power Broker trope allows us to add to the limited scope of fictional narrative concerning black women.  Olivia Pope is morally flawed and that flaw informs both her professional choices and her love affairs, but it doesn’t take anything away from her other distinguishing characteristics. She’s an extraordinarily capable and talented woman for whom, we are told many times, other talented people would kill for the chance to be one of her “gladiators in a suit.” For once, a black woman in fiction can possess flaws and talent without one diminishing her as an individual. Indeed, her emotional vulnerability is part of her attractiveness, a point which Kerry Washington plays skillfully tantalizing the viewer by her quivering full lips and soft brown eyes. Her portrayal has all the memorable elements of a signature role.

While there is a rich literary tradition that expresses the struggle of the black man from W.E.B DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk to The Invisible Man there is little that imagines black women and their struggle. Or, perhaps, there is little imagination of what she could be without the struggle. Even the fictional stories told about black women rarely stray outside the established parables of struggle. For once, in a country that spins fairy tales endlessly, fiction has failed to provide a figure to foretell the class and elegance of Michelle Obama or Olivia Pope. It is not that figures of style, grace, charm and poise are absent in real life, they exist prominently – Oprah, Michelle Obama, Condeleezza Rice, Beyonce, Serena Williams. Nevertheless, it seems that Americans have difficulty in accepting a positive heroine if she does not first exist as a fictional creation or at least as an entertainer.

Warsan Shire’s poetic image in the poem For Women Who Are Difficult to Love best expreses this tendency of black female complexity: “You are terrifying and strange and beautiful. Something not everyone knows how to love.

For Women Who Are Difficult to Love

Black female stereotypes are rarely positive. Miss Thang is finger snapping, head-rolling, loud and vulgar. Baby Mama has multiple children by multiple men none of whom has she married. Brown Sugar is loose and infinitely capable of satisfying men’s lust. The Crack Ho and the Welfare Mother round out the American pre-occupation with black women’s sexuality and motherhood. After all, it is through black women’s labor, literally speaking, that the slave population made its increase. She was a prime mover behind a whole nation’s economy for hundreds of years.

But what do black women look like when the struggle narrative is taken away? Why are we always devoid of depictions of glamour and wellness.

10620408_10153347998023345_760954157058870824_oConscious Glamour is the black woman’s search for success in her professional life as well as balance in her personal wellbeing. It is realizing and implementing the goal of spiritual fulfillment, health in body and peace of mind in a racist and sexist society. It is freedom from the belief that saving the world, her family and everyone but herself is merely a form of multi-tasking. It is emancipation from the attitudes and habits that kill black women through HIV/AIDS, strokes, heart disease and obesity. It is owning beauty, hope, happiness and light filled joy. It is collecting and enjoying all those emotions and joys that black women are forbidden, that we are told are frivolous. It is full scale rejection of self denial and the the embrace of the freedom to choose how you live and love. Conscious glamour is opening up, like a flower, to beauty, truth, art and peace.

Dr. Mark Naison co-founder of the Urban Studies and African-American Studies Department of Fordham University is the author of White Boy: A Memoir comments that, “Being black in America is paradoxical, ironic, and absurd. And [for blacks] dealing with this weirdness is going to be unpredictable. You can’t control black glamour, that insurgent creativity because you don’t know what form it will take.”

Much of Dr. Naison’s memoir White Boy discusses his love affair with a black woman during the turbulent Sixties, an affair that moved him to seek out the Communist Party which was the only political party that provided a race critique that made sense to him at the time. But the memoir is also very powerful in its treatment of the strange dynamics of love between white men and black women and the heavy weight of history attached.

As we discussed Michelle Obama and Scandal’s Olivia Pope he mused that “Glamour gives black women power. People looking through the lens of the white gaze look at black women, that can fuck you up. Which is why black art and creativity in America is always so powerful and unpredictable. Black creativity is designed to create something that they can’t touch. You’ll never see a hair out of place on Michelle Obama.”

The book Vintage Black Glamour and tumblr site of the same name run by writer Nichelle Gainer is one glimpse into a world of black glamour that is all the more mesmerizing for its deviation from the standard black narrative of suffering. The historical background behind each image illustrates and enlightens a world of depth that has been often overlooked. If the story of the black odyssey in America has primarily been told as one of tragedy, then Vintage Black Glamour challenges the singularity of that narrative and complicates it by showing imagery that is indeed glamorous but which has a backstory that reminds one that even the highest echelon of well livers were subject the racist laws and barriers. These are startling glimpses of the lives of writers, actors, socialites, intellectuals, philosophers, politicians and activists, people whose wealth opened them up to extraordinary privilege yet who were just as subject to Jim Crow as the average black person.

Ms. Gainer is celebrates all these myriad experiences in her book that offers nearly a century of hidden treasures within. I asked Ms. Gainer about her site’s focus on glamour and what it meant to the more traditional narrative of black history. “This is absolutely outside the narrative and I’m changing the narrative,” she said. “It’s not that this stuff isn’t out there but [as black people] there’s so much we don’t know about our own history.
“I’m showing people what they don’t know. So often I get comments on my page where people say “I never saw this before” or “I never knew this before”. Because this stuff was not shown to us. There was no value placed on it. Glamour exists in fictional narrative. We understand and appreciate the contributions [that we didn’t know about it before]. I’m thinking of Diahnn Caroll and her beauty, syle and class.”

Once one begins to truly study Vintage Black Glamour then it becomes clear that many performers, though unknown today, inspired greater acts of the Silver Screen. Gladys Bentley, the openly gay, singer-cabaret performer sported the tux, top hot and cane look that pre-dated Marlene Dietrich. The life and times of “celebutantes” like Blanche Dunne show that the errant, lavish living we attribute to Paris Hilton and the Kardashian existed in its own form in its own day for blacks as well. Richard Bruce Nugent, an openly gay pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, is chronicled along with many enthralling images of Langston Hughes.

“I love the white divas. I’m wild about Jean Harlowe, Marlene Dietrich. They show that there’s something of value to tell the story behind the picture” says Ms. Gainer.

“Do you feel that you have a responsibility to show the dark side of glamour?” I asked.

“Why do we have to “justify” the word glamour? I’m presenting these images and deliberately not showing the dirty, seedy under-side of glamour. We know that story. We’ve been inundated with that. People were scandalous and tacky back then [which isn’t changed because] they took a pretty picture. Vintage Black Glamour is not limited to one element; it is a diverse glamour. It’s not just about fashion, not limited to one element. But [a pretty picture] also doesn’t mean that morality was any better. But I’m not showing the poor and downtrodden. And I’m not placing a value judgement. There has to be a certain beauty to the picture.”

Vintage Black Glamour is a marriage of politics, history, entertainment, and artistic consciousness through still imagery. Its allure goes beyond pretty pictures however into a subversive tone that becomes clear with close study. Chronicling the glamorous from 1900 – 1980 one frequently finds images with disparate personalities politicians and actors and literary figures in one photo. These people are united by race, of course, but also in the struggle to be recognized as equal Americans.

A simple post from 2011 is a quote by actress Rosalind Cash who played Mary Mae Ward on the daytime soap opera General Hospital: “There are a lot of us who would like to assimilate all the glamour and fluff, but the hard truth is, we’re all out here trying to make a living.” The narrative of celebrity tells us that it is one big club of rich folks being happy and skinny and rich together. But the reality for black entertainers, politicians, and artists was complicated by the times in which they lived when freedom was qualified by one’s color. The Cause can be detected even in this enthralling catalogue of the glamorous; for blacks high and low the right to make a living freely and fairly is also applied to the glamorous ones. It turns out that a search to achieve consciousness in the cause of equality for every race, sexuality, religion is not trivialized by the prideful spice of glamour.

It is not merely their race that make Michelle and Barack Obama unique figures to black American women: it is the determined principles by which they raise their family, their mutual and unwavering support to seeing each other succeed in their careers, their commitment to living a healthy lifestyle and most prominently their romance. Michelle Obama is the First Lady in the hearts of so many black women because she has all the elements of the Total Package that so many women, black and white, aspire to. But that Total Package that is Michelle Obama is not as visible as the Total Packages of our white sisters. Michelle not has inherited from rich parents or acquired her success through any means other than hard work, unwavering courage and commitment

Against all the odds in a society that is still not post-racial, where black women compromise their own dreams due to economic and social inequalities, succumb to defeat that ultimately destroys bodies through hard, low paying work, where minds are blunted by depression and battered by despair until the spirit becomes accustomed to the darkness that always seems to be lurking just outside the door because there is no white knight to save them, so many black women’s dreams die hard while still deep in REM stage.

Yet here is Michelle, the most visible woman in the world, standing in the spotlight of news and reality TV with the support of her husband, her mother’s presence and wisdom guiding her  two daughters entering their womanhood.

Michelle is considered the Total Package because she has not lost her sanity; she has not lost her health; she has not lost herself.

Michelle is the epitome of Conscious Glamour

Olivia Pope is introducing the Black Power Broker into the tropes of Black American fictional characters. Led by the real life and powerful example of Michelle Obama, it is about time.

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A Violent Romance

nightborn-by-ophelia
Nightborn by Ophelia

What shall survive?
Your lack of love
your fists
or your lies?
Embrace me this once take this fear from my mouth and my eyes
the noose of this love(lessness) kills
sows doubt
and decays
we die together in myriad ways
So we stand before one another,
observe the destruction
and so pass our days
Could I ever cause you to understand
you would grieve in horror,
rend your garments by hand
we don’t speak
we don’t love
we don’t trust
and violent romance
is what you reap
when both sides
give up.

White Jesus

Rich white Jesus sat on a throne of war
looked into my eyes and called me a whore
cast me from the kingdom to force me to beg
judged me for sins in corrupt angels’ heads
I looked for peace there found only illusion
asked God for his love received chaos and confusion

Black Jesus loved me though in spirit I was poor
and she came amongst us lepers addicts and whores
upon Her blessing she made me realize my dreams
to find a home where what is is as it seems
She took me from inequity from perilous flight
and held up as holy love in the night
my flesh was a beauty holding my soul
while into my heart she sang and consoled

White Jesus condemned and cast me away
until in black Jesus’s skin I found a home though poor and astray
falsehoods delighted him, he stole the love of my dreams
til black Jesus held me whole and redeemed