five documentaries on black issues

I enjoy watching documentaries because it offers all the information of a book without the labor of reading. Of course, reader, you may be saying “reading is not laborious” but for some people, like me when I was younger, reading was a source of stress. I struggled to read at the paces of my peers, which deterred me from reading altogether. Yet, I was inquisitive and sought to find information through other media, including documentaries. Considering my somewhat heavy course load at Swarthmore, I’ve been watching documentaries in order to augment my readings. In my spare time, instead of watching a tv show on Netflix — which I also do — I’ll put on a documentary which is relevant to my coursework and continue the learning process without straining myself by reading.

Below are five documentaries for students of Africana studies that I’ve watched through online platforms like California Newsreel, a site for which most colleges and universities hold a subscription.

1. Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (1994)

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Director: Anne-Laure Folly

Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (Women with Open Eyes) is a Togolese documentary which discusses contemporary issues facing West African women. Topics include the traditional roles of African women and the construction of the masculine and feminine identities within Senegalese, Beninese, Burkinabé and Malian contexts. The film discusses, above all else, the issue of excision or female circumcision, the process of removing the “unpure” clitoris from young women, and its ramifications on the psychological development of West African women. The film is a must-watch for people interested in gender & sexuality in West Africa as well anyone seeking to study African society and culture.

The film can be watched through Films on Demand, a video streaming service which offers subscriptions to hundreds of colleges and universities.

2. Color Adjustment (1992)

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Director: Marlon Riggs

Marlon Riggs is a titan African-American documentarist whose works cover an array of topics, from sexuality to Blacks in media. Color Adjustment highlights the presence of Black actors in television, progressing from the early representations of Black people by whites in radio and film and the consequent addition of Black actors for television adaptations, such as in Amos and Andy. It then progresses through shifting audiences and representations as television progressed into the 1960s, 70s and 80s, stopping at the Cosby Show, a show which sought, among many things, to dramatically address the representation of African-Americans in television. Color Adjustment is a must-watch for anyone studying the presence and representation of African-Americans in media, as well as the construction of racial identities.

Color Adjustment is also available through Films on Demand.

3. God Loves Uganda (2013)

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Director: Roger Ross Williams

A more recent documentary, God Loves Uganda discusses the role that Christian evangelism has played in the cultural, legal and social development of Uganda. The relationship between (North) American evangelism and Uganda’s anti-homophobia laws is explored, along with the pervasive strain of Islamophobia at the heart of many Christian missionary agendas in Africa. Definitely a fascinating watch for anyone interested in gender, sexuality & legality in Africa, religion & African society and the role of Christian mission in African history.

The documentary is available on Netflix.

4. 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets (2015)

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Director: Marc Silver

Covering the story of the murder of Jordan Davis, a seventeen year-old African-American high school student by Michael Dunn, a white man, 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is a harrowing documentary which combines excellent storytelling with the misery of an ongoing, unresolved and nearby issue of violence against the Black body. The documentary was the impetus for two pieces on this blog, titled Armed & Dangerous, and opened by eyes to the ambiguities of stand-your-ground laws and the pervasive notion of Black criminality within the American conscience. I definitely recommend this film for anyone interested in African-Americans in the American justice system, racial violence, and cultural imaginations.

The documentary is available on HBO Go.

5. The Language You Cry In (1998)

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Directors: Alvaro Toepke, Angel Serano

The Gullah are a unique group of African-Americans living on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Renowned for their sweetgrass basket-weaving and tradition of storytelling, the Gullah also are distinguished by their unique creole language. The presence of African retentions in the Gullah tradition were essential towards rewriting the popular narratives of “the Negro past” or the lack thereof. The Language You Cry In tells the story of a funeral dirge retained by Gullahs that was traced back to a tribe in Sierra Leone, effectively drawing a tangible connection between contemporary African-Americans and the African continent from which they hailed. The documentary is touching in its desire to undo accepted ideas of African-American culture as “ahistorical” and is imperative for students interested in studying African-American or Gullah history, African cultural retention and music & culture.

The documentary is available on Films on Demand.


I plan on watching more documentaries during my winter break, so I’ll probably add a follow-up to this post. Stay tuned!

armed & dangerous

Response

tw: racial violence; On the necessary use of violence in regard to one’s self-defense and the inherent social issues which comes with the perception of danger and the Black male.

At night at Swarthmore, where the campus is relatively poorly lit, it’s rare for people to say hello to me. As we are approaching one another, my face shrouded by a hoodie or hidden in the darkness, students look at me, squinting their eyes in order to attempt to identify me, but in finding that it is too dark – and that I am too dark to be seen – they look away. There is a certain terror I see in their expressions, for they cannot recognize me as Xavier, as fellow student. They see in me a black male figure, and all the roles similar figures play in the American imagination.

Black men have become symbols of violence in our culture. We are seen as dangerous in our very existence, and must bear the weight of the burden of the epidermalization of contempt which is the immediate response of those whose paths we cross. This fact incensed me to no end during my first year at Swarthmore, having never experienced this form of fear before. I did not see myself as scary because I knew that I was a good one. The clothes I wore, the way I walked and the words I used revealed immediately that I posed no threat, although the assumptions that someone’s hostility can be boiled down to outward appearances is obviously dubious. Yet still, it continues to be a menace to the lives of several million, for it is has been the justification for countless murders, all in the name of self-defense.

Continue reading armed & dangerous

define: token

token – [n] a person – typically belonging to a subaltern group — whose perfunctory inclusion into a social group or organization is meant to create the illusion of inclusivity and social progress.

I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort. My purpose in life is not to teach White Americans the ills of their barren culture, to present in a respectable, palpable way the values of my own. As easy as it is for me to draw a neat line between these two worlds, I do not walk the earth in order to dispel or embolden that line of color, to make my racial existence into a neat presentation for white ears and eyes. When you look at me, you see an amalgamation of what White America expects of Black America. You see education, you see sophistication, you see around me a shell of whiteness into which all of my kind can and should crawl, even if that shell has the potential and the desire to crush us all therein. I do not exist to tell you this, but I am doing it because I have given up on the idea of the residents of the Other side figuring it out for themselves.

A professor of history at Swarthmore once told me that it was not my duty as a Black person to explain my marginalization to White people. Of course I rejected the idea, because I understood, somehow, that white people did not know that they were guilty of marginalization. In my heart it was apparent that the average White person was morally good, yet was nonetheless taught, like me, both explicitly and implicitly, to equate everything about life in the Other’s skin with inferiority. As we progress through the 20th century, the dominant narrative which proclaims Black inferiority seems to transition from being about genetics to being about choice. Black people have chosen to hate themselves, have chosen violence instead of progress, drugs and criminality instead of peace and the American dream. The rhetoric of the choice of Black marginalization, and conversely of bootstrap resuscitation, became the dominant narrative in the mind of millions of Americans, post-Civil Rights Movement, and so began the process of alleviating the wounded white conscience, racked and bewildered by guilt, by shifting the blame of racism completely onto the Other.

“It is not your duty as a Black person to teach White people about their oppression of your people.”

Continue reading define: token

define: down

 

down –  (adj.) not identifying directly with a particular struggle because of a perceived difference in identity yet still possessing an interest in a community or in the issues which this community must address.

 

What does it mean to be down? Downness can be understood as a rendition on allyship, although I don’t really think allyship is a very helpful term, considering that everyone has an opinion of what an ally should and should not do. For one, there is a pervasive notion that allies should not speak unless spoken to, which is inherently false, for many of the people who have been the strongest advocates for the liberation of other peoples had to speak up, for the people who required emancipation either were too marginalized to do it themselves or too fooled by the hegemonic structures that be to care. Downness is a consciousness of one’s own space and the space which is afforded to and denied to others. Let’s use an example: a Korean-American teacher who chooses to instruct a unit on Black History in her predominately black, working-class ninth-grade American history class is potentially helping a group of students better understand their historical relationship to their community and to their country. Her allyship appears in the form of her willingness to educate her students on materials which are relevant to their own understanding of themselves.

This teacher is down in this example, for the teacher has not become lost to the effects of cultural blindness. She operates with the understanding that although her subject matter is at a distance from her – although that distance, ultimately, is up for further discussion – the material is still relevant to the way that a group of people of a different identity perceive their reality, and consequentially, how she perceives her own. She is in no way obligated to teach this information, but her choice to do so, understanding the importance and implications of her decisions, ultimately signals her devotion to the cause, existence and progress of her students.

It seems to be easier for persons of color to be down with other struggles. In the United States, the Black freedom struggle seems to be emblematic for the masses of colored people who similarly seek their liberation from the clutches of white racism. The integration of Black studies curricula into the academy at the end of the 1960s saw the birth of Latino/Chicano studies, Native American studies, Middle Eastern/Arab studies and Asian studies programs, and eventually, Queer/Sexuality studies programs. So often in the creation of POC coalitions, at least at Swarthmore, students of color turn to Black students, who supposedly have a history of organization, of community, of shared and open struggle.

Continue reading define: down

disquiet

My generation is angry.

We have a lot on our plates, and the true size of the mountain we must climb is heartbreaking. Perhaps what makes this obligation so exhausting is the perception of those around us that our conflict, our burden is but an amalgamation of non-issues. Coming from the outside and the inside, there is this notion which claims that our concerns aren’t significant and that we are fighting for nothing. In being told we have so little to worry about, what persists only grows in its immensity.

I had the opportunity of attending a demonstration to show Swarthmore’s solidarity with Black students at the University of Missouri. The past two weeks have made their Columbia, Missouri home into a hellhole as the secret racism which so many Americans bear surreptitiously and unknowingly exposed itself in social media, in terror-inducing comments and in gut-wrenching “expressions” of hatred. How poignant that this comes in the wake of tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, France and Beirut, Lebanon. White Americans are the first ones to decry the very brand of explicit fearmongering which has sustained this country for centuries when exercised by a different, browner people. I will not talk about Paris and Beirut, for those discussions deserve a far more intimate and detailed description of my feelings, the likes of which are evolving as the issue is further discussed. I will however talk about Mizzou, Yale and the incident which happened last week at Dartmouth.

Continue reading disquiet

vanity

In my dream home, there is a two-car garage, a sizable backyard with a magnolia tree which is always in bloom, a million and one channels on the TV, all of which are educational, a room with nothing in it but forty thousand books organized neatly on mahogany shelves, a grey armchair and a Persian rug I do not like, and zero mirrors.

I’ve been growing my hair for almost a year and a half now. I started with a taper cut in August 2014 and have been growing it ever since. I realized in October of that year that I didn’t know what I was doing for my hair had become dry and difficult to manage. There is a sort of culture behind the maintenance of Black hair which I had sort of ignored for a multitude of reasons. I hadn’t grown my hair since I was 8 years old, and then it was not actually me taking care of it. Now that I was *pseudo* on my own, I was responsible for making sure I didn’t look crazy.

So I bought all the ingredients to be truly “natural.” I rejected store-brand products for the organic stuff – yellow Shea butter, castor and jojoba oils, and more essential oils that I’ll ever use. And I suppose I took some sort of pride in finding a way to be avant-garde – c’est-a-dire annoyingly different – while also being, in my own head, different. Few other men at Swarthmore had grown their hair, and those who did were doing something different with it. Similarly, the way my hair blended with my aesthetic created a deep enough rift with other Black men rocking similar haircuts. I took pictures on my computer – too terrible to share – and watched my hair get longer and longer.

Continue reading vanity

race, class and “intellect”: a follow-up

I was graciously offered a free copy of De-Leveling the System, Cris Thorne’s documentary whose snippet served as the basis for my previous piece “The Elephant”. After watching the entire film, I’ve determined that there is something deeper to this question, other than an issue of merely race or class, which is the result of the dangerous and destructive mélange of the two in the American conscience in the form of something which seeks to posit itself as disinterested in both – intellect.

You are a youngish professional who has moved to the town of Maplewood, New Jersey because of a number of factors. The train station makes the commute into New York, where you inevitably work easier, for it seems, at least with eyes almost-open, that no one conducts their business in New Jersey. The neighborhood is quaint, a word which is often condescending, and you use it condescendingly at first, too, until you begin to love your new home and hate yourself for loving it. But most of all, the school district is progressive. You find it odd that it is so diverse, a word which means nothing in this situation, for diversity comes only with the realization that the school district is not all white or all black. As you tour the elementary school, you smile at the young black girls who play with the white boys in an image of racial progress which makes your liberal face break out into a capricious grin. America, the promised land, is finally ours. 

It is a lie, of course. Those children are playing together at that age because the institutions which are always at work, always invisible, have not yet triggered them into realizing who they are. Black boys and white girls and Latino girls and Asian boys play with one another in post-racial bliss because they are not yet aware. Like so many young mammals, children manage to function without opening their eyes.

Continue reading race, class and “intellect”: a follow-up

the elephant: a response

When I was in high school, a conversation gripped the entire school for a number of months. It concerned the issue of course leveling, which, more visibly, revealed itself to be an issue of race. Yet, as I delve further into my studies, I’m beginning to realize that very little in life has to do with solely race.

I have never experienced in the United States a place which is more simultaneously homogenous and heterogeneous as the land in which I was raised. New Jersey, that armpit of a state – how so little is known about the Garden State, the narrow strip of land between rivers which once cradled the young and ignorant youth of the American film industry, which has sustained the lives of two great American cities with its sweat and its anguish. How it reeks of both inequality and the promise of advancement, the city skyline – which is different depending on where you live – an image of all our dreams, of all our fantasies and all our fears. It is here that I found myself clutching towards a consciousness which is still underdeveloped and raw, and it is here, among the trees and the broken pavements, where my soul will likely be bound.

Because I am from New Jersey, I feel qualified to judge her, and to do so ruthlessly. For only a person from the armpit can truly know of the inner machinations therein, of the insidiousness of class conflict and the brutal visibility of race.

Continue reading the elephant: a response

x’s tips for learning languages

For those who enjoy reading Dostoevsky in the original Russian but trip over spoken Russian like a toddler.

  • First, understand that you will not reach fluency in strictly a collegiate environment. There are kinds of fluency which are more attainable in academic spaces, but speaking and listening are likely skills you will need to improve in the field, not in the classroom.
  • Take a moment to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. If you have trouble doing this, consult your professor. It is helpful to know where you need improvement when studying languages lest you focus on one particular section and flounder in another. Unless you only need that particular section… so if you are learning Igbo so you can speak back to your grandmother when she talks to you, you may not necessarily need to know how to write or even read Igbo.
  • Don’t be a prick – everyone has a reason to study a language and some people’s reason is that they simply want to explore a new culture. Just because you are studying Mandarin so you can be a better job candidate does not mean that your interests are more legitimate or deserve more esteem than the student studying Quechua or Icelandic or Chilean Sign Language.

Continue reading x’s tips for learning languages

why I can’t write an asian narrator

Du Boisian double-consciousness applied to writing narratives. 

I have been reading James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone for the past three days now. I’ve been absorbing such heavy doses of the stuff that my mind is spinning around literary questions. In this book, Baldwin is actually speaking from the perspective of a Black narrator, unlike Giovanni’s Room, where the narrator is a white man. Yet, I wonder if there are any Baldwin books – I have not read them all, sadly –  where the narrator is not a Black or White man. A Latina woman? A Black woman? An Asian man?

It is striking to me to think of the various first-person narrators throughout literary history and to see how closely their race reflects the race of their writers. Nick from The Great Gatsby, Yunior from The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jim from My Ántonia – all of these characters belong to a specific racial narrative, the likes of which is hardly crossed… and perhaps for good reason.

What does it mean for a white man to write from the experiences of a Black man? Of a Black woman?

Continue reading why I can’t write an asian narrator