Fugitive manhood in Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

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.

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the black americans

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.

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idle

In “threshold” I talked a bit about this issue with “inhabiting the now” that I’ve been having. I didn’t talk enough about it, so I’m writing this addendum to go into greater detail about what I’ve been feeling over the past three weeks at home.

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For one, being home is annoying. I have a very distinct rhythm at school because I have the illusion of autonomy to corroborate that rhythm. I can move freely from my room to class to the dining hall to the gym without having to check-in with anyone or state that this is where I’m going. I can perfectly avoid human contact on days when I don’t want to be talked to or seen, and can surround myself with people on the few nights every full moon when I want to be inundated with the presence, opinions, voices of others. At home, I am in a perpetual state of in-betweenness. I have to interact with my parents, even when I don’t want to talk to anyone, and the idea of me not wanting to talk to them, or avoiding them, raises suspicions in ways which reflect more or less their perceptions of me than my own reality. This has been an issue my entire life – having constantly to maintain an image of myself in front of others which reflects their own self-interests and not my own. And that’s not at all to say that I don’t do this; I, however, acknowledge that I have constructed an image of you, a vehicle which coaches our engagement, and that I leave this image as fluid as possible so as to allow you to demonstrate your character as opposed to allowing me to corroborate that image. My family doesn’t do this, and I’m not sure they know how to do it. It’s hard, and I’m not very good at it myself.

While the past semester was stressful, I thrive in stressful, high-octane situations. How else could you explain me projecting myself into these situations, in spite the admonishment of my friends? I was told by so many people not to apply to grad school as a senior, not to be president of my black student union, not to have two (really three) jobs on campus, and each time I ignored them because naturally I know better than anyone else (duh.) Nonetheless, I did this because I knew that that more I had on my plate, the more precise and productive I could be. If I piled everything on, I knew that I would work as efficiently as possible because there’s always something else to do. Now there’s not. This break has been stressful because I haven’t had anything to stress me out.

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define: alterity

alterity [n.] the state of being “other” within a collective imagination.

I didn’t realize I was other until I got to high school, and even then, the otherness I experienced was somewhat unorthodox. Blackness, as it is often constructed within the homogenizing gaze of whiteness, is synonymous with poverty. The black experience, as we see it on television, is the experience of rags-to-riches drug dealers, elite athletes from Compton and exceptional intellectuals cradled by violence. These are not fallacies – these are archetypes which exist, which are real and hold legitimacy, but they are also the authentic images. These are the images which are believed to be the truth of Blackness – Blackness as poverty, Blackness as economic dilapidation. Authenticity is a strange phenomenon, for no one really gets to say what is and is not authentic. Yet still, there seems to be this notion that one image – that of the Wire, for example – is real, while other images – those of the Cosby Show or Blackish – are not. Within this framework, I became aware of the fact that I was not as I appeared. I was exceptional because I hailed from a two-parent household in a suburban upper-middle class neighborhood in New Jersey. I carried with me throughout high school a bitterness which I could not describe or understand, for in that bitterness was a constant sense of conflict whose roots lie in my own ambivalence, in my own irreconcilability.

It wasn’t until I got to college when I realized that the metrics used to determine what Blackness is and should be are entirely hegemonic, entirely constructed and entirely dangerous. It was also in college – perhaps the furthest away I was from everyday contact with working-class Blacks, to be quite honest – that I realized that the perception of the Black experience was not a racist presumption with stereotypes, although the American imagination is often riddled with false and base interpretations of the realities of the subaltern. Millions of Black people lived in poverty, a reality I did not experience until I got to college, a reality I did not have to experience because it was so removed. But I have talked about this already, and talking about it more is only stroking a patchy beard.

The source of otherness comes from an established understanding of normality in the public imagination. The phrase “imagination” is important here, for we are all part of a collective imagination through which ideas and images are constructed, encoded, decoded and deconstructed as a community effort. This effort transcends race, gender, ethnicity and religion. We all play our part in the collective imagination of the United States, whether we consider ourselves Americans or not.

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