Sprite Step Off: A SKEErious Matter or Much Ado About Nothing?

Full disclosure: I am proud lady and active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.  However, I will try in earnest to not let that color my comments on the recent Sprite-Step Off Challenge Brouhaha. 

If you are unaware, a White sorority–Zeta Tau Alpha– recently won the¬†¬†competition over¬†second place finishers,¬†¬†Alpha Kappa Alpha.¬† After¬†viewing both¬†the AKA’s and Zeta’s performance, I can say that both presentations were creative, well-choreographed, precise, rhythmic,¬†and energetic.¬† However, the Zeta’s performance–my bias withstanding–lacked two things:¬† history and soul.

Stepping has its roots in several elements of the African-American story.¬† Many scholars suggest that the art form emerged from “Boot Dance”.¬† In her article, Stepping in the United States: A Stomping Craze of Historical Proportions, Sophia Russell describes the origins of boot dancing stating:¬†

‚ÄúBoot Dance‚ÄĚ developed in the pitch-black coalmines¬†where slaves were forced¬†to work. Work boots were issued to deal with the rocky terrain slaves were expected to work in. Forced to work in the darkness Monday through Saturday from sun up to sun down, the slaves‚Äô only time to see the light of day was on Sunday. On Sunday, they rejoiced, exercised and danced in their work boots. They would draw crowds from admiring people of all races as ‚Äúboot dancing‚ÄĚ gave them an opportunity to echo the African drums of their home lands by stomping and clapping in a percussive manner similar to the boot dancing still seen in parts of South Africa (Russell 2007).

The modern notion of stepping emerged in the mid 1900’s, during competitive singing and dancing rituals on college schoolyards (hence Stomp the Yard).¬† African-American fraternities and sororities started singing and dancing to mimic the styles of R & B groups like the Temptations and Four Tops.¬† Overtime stepping evolved to an important‚ÄĒbut not necessarily fundamental‚ÄĒpart of¬†crossing into and participating in¬†African-American Greek life.¬†¬† However, far more important than stepping, has been the Divine Nine’s legacy of advancing education, economic development, civil rights, and social justice within and beyond the African-American community.¬†

The decades and decades of barrier breaking struggle, loss, and victory of the African-American experience are largely embodied within the collective history of the Divine Nine.¬† Therefore, its member organizations are not simply social clubs.¬† Instead, they are organic, living, evolving organizations with networks spanning the globe.¬† They each share and hold a unique culture and narrative‚ÄĒnot always perfect or pretty‚ÄĒ that is played out with every precision signature step taken on yards across this country and beyond.¬†

According to the Sprite-Step Off website, it is the largest national step show in history. ¬†The program seeks to utilize¬†the entertainment elements of stepping to underlay a ‚Äúrobust charitable‚ÄĚ platform, comprised of¬†two major components: service and scholarships‚ÄĒgoals very much aligned to those of the National Pan-Hellenic member organizations.¬† What is not noted on the website is the obvious advertising and marketing ploy behind this program; Coca-Cola Sprite‚Äôs parent company is first and foremost¬†a profit driven organization. A Sprite branded stepping competition is a terrific opportunity to draw millions of black eyes and dollars to Sprite products.¬†¬†¬†¬†This year, like years past, the competition was serialized¬†in a MTV2 reality TV show‚ÄĒyou have to admit having a White sorority win makes for a tasty dramatic story arc, fairness aside.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the uproar around the Sprite Step Show has anything to do with discrimination, bias, or general hateration. I think the outrage it is more about a long history of white artist appropriating the cultural artifacts of the black experience for financial gain: from Jazz, to Rock-N-Roll, to Hip-Hop and Soul [See Little Richard].

The ladies of AKA were stepping with over 100 years of history behind them, with signature steps that go back decades.¬† In contrast, Zeta Tau Alpha–while a¬†century¬†old organization-created only faint facsimile ¬†of what they had viewed and absorbed black sororities and fraternities do.¬† As a result, their steps had no story, no soul.¬† ¬†¬†¬†

In an event post script, supposedly due scoring discrepancy, Sprite named both Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Tau Chapter and Zeta Tau Alpha, Epsilon Chapter, co-first place winners of the step off. ¬†¬†Accordingly, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Tau Chapter’s scholarship prize¬† was raised to $100,000.

So ladies and gentleman is this a good news story? Is the fact that two organizations grounded in academic high achievement, sisterhood, and service among women is now each $100,000 richer the important thing?

Are You Down For the Swirl?: New Book Urges Single Sistahs To Date Outside Race

I first encountered the term “swirl” when my ex and I were invited¬†by a¬†co-worker to accompany her and her friends to Busch Gardens.¬† Said co-worker and presumably the rest of the attending party were¬†Asian.¬† My ex and I are African-American.¬†¬† Somehow the question emerged on the group email chain, “Were we [my ex and I] down for the swirl?¬† Completely dumbfounded to what this new fangled terminology referred, I¬†stood up from cubicle with eyebrows¬†raised inquisitively, “The Swirl?”¬†She¬† stood, staring at me blankely–as if I had landed two minutes ago¬†from the planet Zargon–and stated “You know The Swirl?”¬†As I was beginning to catch on, my cheeks flushed with warmth, as confusion turned to embarrassment.¬† At first she scrambled and then blew the comment off stating¬†“you know how people are…..[blah, blah, blah]…its cool if you come; don’t worry about it”.¬† Needless to say we did not join the excursion.¬† Knowing that race was even an issue made me uncomfortable and thus I decided it was best to stay at¬†home.¬† I chop this up to one of the awkward situations that sometimes happen, as we negotiate racial identities and interact in the workplace.¬†¬†

The one good thing about this incident was I had a new term: The Swirl.

¬†I love learning new words–and new slang is even better.¬† The bottom up, en masse adoption of a particular term or the reuse of a current term in a new way is fascinating to me.¬†¬†¬† According, to Urbandictionary.com¬† ¬†the term Swirl¬†refers to either “jungle fever…black people and white people having sex” or “people of different ethnicities hooking up”.¬† I would argue that¬†unlike the term jungle fever the term swirl¬†feels¬†almost¬†¬†innocuous–at least upon first glance.¬†¬†Absent are the¬†negative¬†connotations¬†associated with¬†the warped¬†conception of¬†African exocticism.¬†¬† For me–¬†it connotes less of a sense of interacting with the mysterious or forbidden other.¬† I hear Swirl; I think ice cream–and we all scream for ice cream.¬† Nevertheless, the term makes me uncomfortable and here is why.

Since the election of President Obama, the experts and pundits are all about the promise of post-racial America.¬† Its concept being¬†touted all over the blogosphere, academic circles, and talk radio.¬† There is something very post-racial and post-modern about this whole swirl¬†idea because it is a pleasant-sounding word, but the fact that the concept of¬†people dating outside their race still requires unique nomenclature, suggest that we aren’t so post-racial after all.¬†

That said, I encourage¬†you to check out¬† an article in today’s¬†Washington Post by DeNeen L. Brown entitled, “Single Black women being urged to date outside their race“.¬† In the article,¬†Brown discusses Karyn Langhorne Folan’s new book Don’t Bring Home a White Boy: And Other Notions That Keep Black Women From Dating Out.¬†

The author suggests that the pool of black men available for high accomplished black women to date and marry[assuming that they are looking for someone of equal education and financial security] is so limited that it is in their best interest to also look for partners outside their race.  She suggests we stop worrying about the opinions of girlfriends, family members, and jealous brothas calling us sellouts and date whoever comes to the yard, regardless of race or ethnicity.

So Sistahs, I ask the question, are you still hoping that your Black Ken Doll comes to sweep you off your feet or are you open to seeing and/or marrying whoever treats you right?   Brothas how do you feel about the sistahs swirling?  Do you think black women should start dating outside of their race? 

Down for the swirl ladies…gentlemen?¬† Discuss.

Ms. Fat Booty

The physicality¬†of the young women featured in¬†Hip-Hop music videos and magazine spreads¬†has evolved¬†over time.¬† For instance, the proportions of women featured in¬†the Wreck-X-N-Effect – Rump Shaker¬†video (1992) provide¬†striking contrast to the bodies of today’s modern video vixens:¬† Melyssa¬†Ford, Buffy “The Body’ Carruth, Angela “Lola” Love, and Esther Baxter.¬† The butt¬†to waist ratio has become¬†increasingly exaggerated over the last several years and I wonder what this phenomena means for the zeitgeist beyond the veneer of celluloid music videos and rap magazines.¬†

Booty and thickness has always been more valued in the Africa-American community than outside.¬† The valley girl intro to¬†¬† Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s booty loving anthem‚ÄĒBaby Got Back‚ÄĒsums this dichotomy up best:

Oh, my, god. Becky, look at her butt.
It is so big.  She looks like,
one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
But, you know, who understands those rap guys?
They only talk to her, because,
she looks like a total prostitute, ‘kay?
I mean, her butt, is just so big.
I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like,
out there, I mean – gross. Look!
She’s just so … black!

However, the anatomical exploitation of Black women¬†has had¬†a long and more often less humorous history in Western society.¬† Recall Saartjie¬†‚ÄúSarah‚ÄĚ Baartman— a Khoikhoi woman exoticized¬†¬†as the Hottentot Venus.¬† She was kidnapped¬†and exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th century Europe, largely based on the physical differences of her body compared to her white female counterparts.¬† ¬†In 1814, she was taken¬†to France, and became the object of scientific and medical research that formed the foundation of Western ideas about black female sexuality.¬† The image of the black woman as hyper-sexual was cultivated through this kind of exhibition in the past and I would say equally so now.¬†

The often surgically enhanced bodies that we are seeing in these music videos are influencing how black women perceive, negotiate, exhibit, and even market their sexuality.¬† However, unlike Saartjie¬†Baartman, the modern video vixens have a particular agency over her exploitation‚ÄĒshe chooses to¬†display and eroticize herself for sizable economic gain.¬†

The introduction of cultural objects likes the now ubiquitous butt pads and the ‚ÄúBody Magic‚ÄĚ girdle shaper suggest that we around the way girls are feeling the push ¬†to stack up the ‚Äúcakes‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒas a girlfriend recently put it‚ÄĒin order to imitate these images and¬†also too¬†attract the brothers.¬†¬† Black women are going under knife in increasing numbers (along with their Caucasian and Latina counterparts) to have silicone or fat removed from their stomachs, thighs, or waste put in their booty.¬† Yuck.

Aside from being dangerous, much of this behavior is a sad reflection on where we are as a culture.¬† The exploitation of Saartjie ‚ÄúSarah‚ÄĚ Baartman is¬†a national tragedy in her home country of South Africa and beyond.¬† Will the objectification and commodification of black female bodies today become a similarly sad story centuries from now?


I’m In it For the Love of….. Love or Money? Part I

Steve Harvey is the gift that keeps giving.¬† ¬†His relatively¬†recent foray into relationship gurudom has provided much fodder for sister circles nationwide.¬† I was gifted Act Like A Lady Think Like a Man last year.¬† I will admit to only having made it through the first few chapters and simply perusing¬†the rest.¬†¬†¬† Nevertheless, Mr. Harvey provides some valuable insight into the male psyche–paralyzing enigma that it is.

Having¬†parlayed his book success into a regular¬†advice column¬†for Essence Magazine, Harvey dispenses some interesting–if not depressing–tidbits to¬†Reisha¬†B., a 26-year old advice seeker, in this month’s issue.¬† Reisha writes:

“I don’t get approached by handsome professional Black men.¬† They always seem to go for promiscuous women. I smile and make eye contact, but they never come over. What am I doing wrong?”

Mr. Harvey’s response is typical.¬†“Men are attracted to aesthetics and attitude.¬† He’s eyeing your figure and hair and wondering how he’ll feel introducing you to his buddies.” He continues derailing this poor young women’s dream¬†that she is deserving of a “handsome professional black man”, by suggesting that her expectations of who might be attracted to her were too high and stating she should start giving the “blue-collar fellas” a chance.¬† In Mr. Harvey’s world, without¬†5 star chick¬†good looks,¬†Reisha B.¬†may be ¬†S.O.L. when it comes to landing her prototype.

In the meantime, I cruised over to¬†A¬†Bell in Brooklyn, which featured a post aptly titled “I’m Sayin¬†She’s a Gold Digger”.¬† The post discussed an episode of the Tyra Banks show, where several little girl’s of¬†various social, ethnic, and economic strata were interviewed¬†about their¬†attitudes on money and marriage.¬† Clearly reflecting their mother’s attitudes, the little girls overwhelmingly expressed a desire to marry for money and security above love.¬† There were, however,¬†exceptions and I urge you to check out the video for yourself—peep¬†the¬†little girl with the fierce afro-puffs; she was dropping the actual¬†factuals.

Tyra guest Orencia—fully weaved, cleaveaged,¬†and¬†painted to look like¬†a typical¬†trashbox¬†video vixen–displayed new levels of indignity and ignorance, when advocating marriage for money over love.¬† She went on to suggest that her 7-year-old daughter should not talk to—no excuse me¬†“conversate with”— a male classmate until having first¬†received a cookie from him.¬†¬† Some might argue,¬†its not¬†trickin if you got it.¬† Start them off early with Oreos and tomorrow its the gallardo. I am not one of these people.

Barely articulate Orencia¬†is making it difficult for girls like Reisha¬†B.¬†¬† If Mr. Harvey is right–having no idea what¬†Reisha¬†B.¬†looks like but assuming she’s averagely¬†pretty without the bells and whistles of Orencia—we¬†can make some educated guesses on who the professional Black men of Mr.¬†Harvey’s imagination¬†are going to choose for their arm candy.¬†¬†¬† Unfortunately,¬† I am suspecting ¬†“cavernous echo chamber for a brain” Orencia¬†will win¬†over non-promiscous¬†Reisha B.”

In world, so saturated with materialism and instant gratification, there is something to be¬†said for¬† finding pure love based on the content of a person’s character.¬† Finding a life partner that is equally yoked with you in terms of education, finances, morality, and faith is a Herculean task for many black women.¬† So ladies what do we do if we aren’t attracting the ballers¬†and the shotcallers or the educated and so-called successful¬†Black men? Do we take Steve’s advice and give the blue collar fellas a chance? Is this settling?


Reggie Bush Essence Magazine Cover Debacle

Okay ladies, so 99.9% of us will acknowledge that Reggie Bush is a sexy specimen of a human-being.¬† The February issue of Essence Magazine bore that fact out in all its bare-chested glory.¬† However, Essence apparently pressed a sensitive button with the sistahs¬†by featuring Mr. Bush as their cover model.¬† Apparently, his relationship with¬†the¬†famed reality star/sex-tape queen/walking-spectacle that is¬†Kim Kardashian caused a great deal of acrimony with a segment of the Essence audience.¬† The March issue ironically features our President,¬†the progeny¬†of an interracial romance, along with his¬†phenomenal bride–our first lady (Michelle Rocks!).¬†¬†¬†It also includes an article addressing the Bush cover uproar.

Now the crux of the issue revolves around the now ageless question of why brothers, particularly those at a certain income levels  choose to date outside out their race.  An article penned by blogger Jemilah Lemieux recounts the seemingly endless list of black male celebs known for their interracial proclivities, including: John Legend, Kobe Bryant, Quincy Jones, and Keenen Ivory Wayans.  I would add to that list P. Diddy (J. Lo and Cassy), Pharrell ( Any Peruvian Model of the Moment), and apparently now Hill Harper (more about this one later).  

There is something organic that just burns in the belly of many of sistah¬†when we see our men choose women¬†unlike¬†their¬†mothers, sisters, nieces, and homegirls.¬† It just reeks of trying to attain¬†some kind of status symbol based on the complexion of your arm candy.¬† Lemieux is right when she states that “Black men are our brothers and our lovers. We share a history…”.¬† It is in fact this history and the shared¬†¬†consciousness that emerged¬†from it that is largely the reason why¬†many black men choose to date¬†and/or marry¬†interracially.

The beauty standards of America are based in an aesthetic of white or western supremacy.¬† The result is the what I have coined the The Brown Girl’s Dilemma:¬†the predicament I and all black women face, as we receive a¬†mediated messages of what is beautiful.¬† The message often directly contrasts what the mirror reflects, resulting in¬†a schism that has had an indelible impact on the African-American community.¬† We as women¬†internalized these¬†standards ¬†and have¬†negotiated are identities accordingly.¬† Our men have internalized them, as well.¬† Thus, we have TigerTiger¬†Woods y’all–a brother¬† (granted a multi-racial brother) whose has seemingly fetishsized¬†his desire¬†for the Barbiesque.¬†

Now, I am not one to judge a person’s love.¬† I truly believe that most interracial couples are legitimately together based on the purest and noblest forms of love.¬† Hence, this issue is intriguing to me because the reaction we as black women¬†have to this is sometimes so visceral that its hard to negotiate what it means.¬† Accordingly, my heart and head were on fire when I saw Hill Harper (actor, writer, public intellectual) arm and arm with Nicole (nobody can pronounce her last name)¬†¬†Scherzinger.¬† Harper, having just penned the book The Conversation: How Black Men and Women Can Build Loving, Trusting Relationships, has truly left me aghast.¬†

I, for one, am¬†confused¬†on what conversation Mr. Harper is having.¬†¬† In reality, affairs of the heart are too complicated to be reduced to race, but I¬†too am left¬†asking what Louise Meriwether asked almost 40 years ago , “Black Man, Do You Love Me? (May 1970 Essence Magazine).

Barbies, Preciouses, and Beauty Standards – Part I

Some ten years removed from high school¬†, I look to my younger family members to keep abreast of what’s hip and happening.¬† With a full-time job,¬†social activities, school,¬†and a business to run, its difficult for me to stay apprised of the latest fashion,¬† hip-hop songs, viral YouTube dances (Pants on the Ground) and¬† for that matter slang.¬† So we dish on everything from the ascendancy of Lady GaGa to the chicness¬†of painting your fingernails alternating colors.¬† However, one recent conversation with the girls left me disappointment.¬†¬†We discussed the film Precious and the conversation¬†somehow moved to up and coming rapper Nicki Manaj.¬†

Nicki Manaj , a talent valued for her womanly assets as much as she is her lyrical prowess, refers to her self as¬†a¬†¬†Harajuku Barbie.¬† She has the ice to¬†prove it.¬† Literally, a giant diamond necklace that reads Barbie.¬† Hip-Hop’s¬†exploitive consumerism aside, apparently it has become en vogue for so-called¬†attractive women to be¬†referred to has “Barbies” and there less aesthetic counterparts to be referred to as¬†“Preciouses”.¬† The later term refers to the main¬†character in the Daniel Lee film, who is morbidly obese, extremely dark-skinned, and perhaps a perfect physical¬†contrast to the Barbie Doll–America’s sweetheart.

I find this to be¬†a very sad commentary on how black people¬†have been sold¬†a bill of goods when it comes to¬†internalizing¬†the value of dominant beauty narratives in the culture.¬† It is a sad day, when the remarkable talent of¬† Oscar-Nominanted actress Gabourey¬†Sidibe¬†has eschewed by some young people, who have instead refashioned an old narrative, replacing Hattie McDaniel’s Mammie¬†with the modern day¬†Precious.¬†¬† The caricatures, as received by those using these ugly terms is the same, a wholly desexualized¬†archetype of black womanhood in its least acceptable form.¬† However, I believe Daniel’s Precious is far more complex¬†character¬†than the one-dimensional Mammie. To reduce Precious to her physical appearance is to ignore her struggle, which is really symbolic of the struggle of all black women to one extent or another: learning how to love ourselves in a culture that has historically devalued our contributions, talents,¬†capability,¬†and–yes– physical beauty in its varied and unique forms.

The Superbowl Halftime Show, Baby Boomers, and Wardrobe Malfunctions

I decided to write this blog to¬†record my observations on¬†the culture of politics and the politics of culture.¬† What better reference¬†for such observations than yesterday’s clash of the¬† titans that was¬†Superbowl XLIV¬†(Geaux¬†Saints!)

The ¬†broadcast ¬†garnered more viewers than any other television show in history, beating the¬†1983¬†series¬†finale¬†of¬†M*A*S*H.¬†¬†I won’t speculate on¬†what the dethroning of the black comedy/medical drama¬† means during this time of endless war, but it certainly says something about the spirit of our times.¬† While¬† 106.5 million people tuned into the Superbowl festivities, a mere fraction¬† of that viewership, some¬†1.3 million people watched President Obama’s first State of the Union address this January.¬† Go figure or you do the math?

Nevertheless, I rarely watch the Superbowl for the actual sport. I am much more concerned about what these widely shared mediated experiences say about the American condition.  While the commercials provide much fuel for feminist critique, I think the halftime show was far more interesting than bathing beauty Megan Fox hawking Motorola phones. 

The Who?¬† headlined the Superbowl halftime show this year.¬† My immediate thought was “who thought it was a good idea to get¬† The Who?¬†to perform¬†for the Superbowl.¬† A quick disclaimer, I do not follow The Who?¬†¬†¬†I am sure they have a large and respectable fan base, however, to me they looked like aging engineers playing dress-up.¬† Unlike Bruce Springsteen’s performance last year, The Who? lacked energy, charisma, sex appeal, and the rugged populist grit that is Bruce and his band of brothers (see Superbowl XLIII halftime show).¬† I hope this does not come across as ageist, but the choice of The Who? seemed wrongheaded and was most likely¬†the choice of¬†some baby boomer, who could not risk the antics of a more culturally relevant artist like say a¬†Lady GaGa or I don’t know… Kanye West (clearly that will never happen).

Ever since Janet Jackson exposed her lovely lady¬†lump to a Superbowl audience in 2004, we have had to sit through an annual line-up¬†of baby boomer favorites.¬†Here is the list:¬† Paul McCartney,¬†The Rolling Stones, Prince,¬†Tom Petty¬†& the¬†Heartbreakers, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.¬†These are strange days¬†when Mr. Pink Cashmere is considered¬†safe.¬† MTV productions failure to reign in Justin and Janet’s strip tease (which I am¬†convinced¬†was planned) has meant young artist need apply for the halftime show.¬† You will not be hired.

Just like Gen-Exer¬†Conan O’Brien’s recent departure from NBC, having been pushed out by baby boomer Leno, the youth of America are feeling the pinch of the baby boom generation well beyond there entertainment choices.¬† In looking at the State of the Union, we see a fresh-faced, youthful President Obama addressing a room¬†dominated¬†by largely pauchy¬†old men.¬† The demographics of our leadership do not reflect¬†the cultural kaleidoscope¬†of the modern USA and perhaps explains why public policy is not lining up with majority¬†opinions.¬† Old people shouting at town halls and just being crotchety in general are dictating to other old people in Congress what they want and as we are more likely to agree with people who are like us – BAM the Kabosh¬†has been put on Healthcare.¬†

So on Sunday, I exercised¬†my right to rage against the machine. I watched Modern Family instead of the halftime show.¬† The Beastie¬†Boys said it best, “You gotta fight for your right to Partaay”.

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