At the end of this semester, I was given the assignment to read a recent book of film scholarship and write about its applicability in a course called “Foundations of Film and Media.” Some background information is warranted: I was “suggested” to take these class by the instructor, with whom I had met when visiting Yale, and with whom I had hoped to work on Francophone African cinema. The course read to me as the title suggested: the “foundations” of studying film as an object of study. Yet, I did not know that I was signing up for a class which would be so profoundly focused on theories of cinema, a theoretical canon I would learn to somewhat despise before the semester’s end. This is not at all to the discredit of Professor Andrew, who taught the class, or film theorists in general, so much as it was me becoming aware of what it is that film scholars do and what it was that I believed that they did. My work with film is markedly literary and thematic. I am more concerned with the content of film than I am with its shape and texture; I want to know what film says and how we make sense of what it says within larger epistemologies of meaning-making, society and stigma. As I discovered that the class was, in fact, not on these ideas, I became somewhat disenchanted. This “review” responds to the given assignment, focusing on Jared Sexton’s latest book, Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing. Part of the prompt was the question whether the chosen book would figure appropriately on the syllabus for that class. I am sharing this review primarily because of the questions it poses not only about Sexton’s text, but also because of broader conceptual issues in film theory as an academic discipline at times ambivalent or perhaps even hostile to questions of race and representation. Yet, Sexton’s book, as I argue, is unaware of how to integrate film theory into a broader reading of cultural and social ideas in films, for form, it seems, does little to isolate these ideas for the cultural studies scholar. This only outlines the opposite of this fact, that social criticism and exegesis remain domains outside of the purview of the film theorist who deals with film as an allegedly “universal” language which, weirdly enough, contains no social significance.
The opening sequence of Melvin Van Peebles’ cinematic classic sets the tone for one of the rare films in American history to treat the social (non)role of Black men from so comprehensive a light. The entire film could be considered from one perspective a spectacular representation of the plight of African-American men as a perpetual object of desire and disdain. Sweetback’s very name is the product of his first encounter with non-being; rape enacted on his young body, the name Sweetback clinging to him as an ironic reminder of his objectification. That name Sweetback, is itself a codename for other ghastly icons which haunt the American imagination, such as the mandingo, and its significance as a moniker is only emboldened by the role it plays at dissembling Sweetback’s robbed identity. Later in the film, we are introduced to “Sweetback’s Mother,” and her soliloquy attaches a name to him, “Leroy,” although her memory of her children has faded due to their constant dispossession. This leads her to repeat the same phrases over and over again, “I may have had a Leroy once, but I don’t right remember.” Her testimony is similar to the testimonies of many enslaved women whose children had been sold far away; unable to really attach to their children because of their impending dispossession, the women dissociate from motherhood in general, thus continuing the mechanical and economical process of reproducing slaves. The imagery of slavery in the film in many ways circle around these very notions of dispossession and flight, both of which are fundamentally related to the notion of fugitivity.
My family used to celebrate Kwanzaa. There’s no reason why we stopped, other than sheer laziness and a feeling of inappropriateness. Each day, we would light a candle and gather around the kinara, reading over a little pamphlet outlining the principles of the day, butchering the Swahili in the process (I pronounced Kujichagulia as Coochikajalia for the first ten years of my life, I shit you not) in ways which depicted our essential Americanness. We never bothered to celebrate Kwanzaa as a distinct holiday with its own composite traditions, did not do the individual activities which were called for for each corresponding day, and NEVER celebrate Kwanzaa in place of the good, wholesome day of our Lord and Savior’s birth. As the years went by, the kinara remained on the windowsill in the dining-room where it stood complicit while my mother killed pothos after pothos plant in its environs, gathering dust, the green and red candles losing their color with each year of neglect until everything was a sort of gray. One year it fell while we were cleaning, shattering on the ground, only to be replaced by a new one, its novelty sparking us to celebrate half-assedly once again. We haven’t celebrated Kwanzaa since.
About a year ago, I was invited to be on my sister’s show the Grapevine. They were filming an episode about the relationships and tensions between Africans and African-Americans, and, knowing that I research contemporary (West) African literature, my sister invited me on the show for what was, in my opinion, a nice and informative conversation about the complexities of life in the United States for people whose bodies are read as Black, yet who experience Blackness in different, nuanced ways particular to their ethnic and national identities. The episode I was on was never aired, mostly because my sister and the showrunner, Ashley Akunna, were worried that it would start a war in the comments, but a recent reshoot of this segment, split across three episodes in order to include West Indian experiences, incurred such great vitriol among Black people from all walks that Ashley turned off the comments on the videos. I will provide links below, but I wanted to take the time to reprise a post I wrote in April of last year which defined African-American as an socio-ethnic marker in order to explore some of the pitfalls of this classification, as well as the great necessity for increased conversation on the merits and complexities of ethnicity in discussions of race in the United States.
African-American [n/adj] – an ethnic group of Americans (citizens or residents of the United States) who are the descendants of enslaved Africans.
This will likely be the most controversial post in the define series, likely because there is no real consensus as to how the term African-American should be used. Depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, the term is either readily used as an umbrella for Black people in the New World, which I will attempt to prove prejudicial, or that the term is a politically correct way of referring to Black people, which is also, in a way, incorrect. A search on Wiktionary will reveal that the word African-American is typically used to refer to people who are 1) American and black 2) Black 3) Black American, all of which ignore the history which slavery has played in creating our experience and solidifying our unique ethnic identity.
I was against the term African-American when I was younger because I saw something in that word to which I could not connect — Africa. To me, Africa was a mythical place, like Aztlan, from which my ancestors were pulled by the millions in order to cross the edge of the world to work on plantations in North and South Carolina. Africa, like most Americans believed, was a continent of wilderness and alleged savagery and I was pushed away from the concept, seeing my Americanness somehow as being a more reformed — perhaps even evolved — form of that which my ancestors once were. I used the word Black because of the political implications of such a word. It means ugly, hated, sickly and rotten; how apt a word to describe our condition as what seems to be the world’s most detested, mocked, and imitated people?