What It Feels Like for a Girl: Poem and Polemic in For Colored Girls

Tyler Perry’s film adaption of Ntozake Shange’s theatrical masterpiece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf is a commentary on the boundlessness of black genius, as much as it is a polemic against patriarchy.  The genius is found in the performances of the all-star cast and Shange’s poetry.  A self-proclaimed Black Feminist, the polemic is Shange’s—yes—but as retold here becomes largely Perry’s.

Last weekend I had the privilege of seeing the film with a group of sister friends and it is an experience that I will not soon forget.  The film is Perry’s best work yet and this is a testament to the genius of Shange’s material and the film’s brilliant cast, as much as it is to Perry’s artistic vision. For Colored Girls is examines how black female identity is negotiated, subjugated, represented, co-opted, and often times negated. Told through the interwoven narratives of nine women, the film uses the plays poetic voice to its advantage. Shange’s words drip of the tongues of Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, and Phylicia Rashad, with as much potency and relevancy today as when the stage play debuted in 1975.  Look for Oscar nominations  Newton and Elise.

Based on the narrative thread of his films thus far, Perry is clearly negotiating some issues around black male identity, as much as he is black female identity.  The narrative arc of Perry’s films usually finds a female protagonist bound by an addiction to a man, to a drug, to a lifestyle that finds her losing herself.  The films usually end with the Black woman finding redemption through an act of spiritual transformation—a divine intervention.  With this transformation, she is fully formed and in touch with the God with her.  She is then able to access worldly love with a deserving man.  Tyler has a prototype for his ideal man, he is hard working—and often blue-collar,  he is spiritually in touch, and essentially neutered—void of any overt sexual aggression.

Tyler’s critique of Black men is perhaps even more powerful than his edification of Black women. In this film, they are misogynist, rapist, philanderers, liars, cheats, and decidedly weak.  There is no growth for the men and  no redemption  Accordingly, the films powerful performances are at times subjugated to Perry’s penchant for melodrama—at times it’s not clear if this is Perry’s moment of artistic maturity or a dressed up version of his usual wound picking.  For Colored Girls continues a narrative thread in black dramatic works like “The Color Purple” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” that explore the strange dyad that is black men and black women—a relationship historically plagued by forced separation, gender role reversal, and plainly said pain.

This is not Madea.  It is a film with an artistic voice and cultural merit; it is well-positioned  among other classics in its exploration of the black women’s relationship with each other and the men in their lives. Perry is not Spike Lee (the one who makes good films), Spielberg, or Scorsese. Yet with this film, he addresses issues and concerns that will resonate with colored girls everywhere: a need to find their voice in a world that so often seeks to negate it; the desire to love and be love; and the innate resiliency that makes Black women the survivors we are.

Now Run Tell Dat ….Home Boy: Antoine Dodson and the Ghettoization of Black Online Identity

Antoine Dodson is a digital Ghetto Superstar. For those living under a rock, video of a news broadcast featuring an interview with the Alabama native went viral over the last week and is now the most downloaded video on YouTube.  In the instantly infamous footage, Dodson gives a rather colorful interview on the attempted assault of his sister.  In recounting the confrontation with the intruder, he does not emote an ounce of fear or intimidation standard for such evening broadcast news fare.  In contrast, Dodson is confrontational.

Donning a red bandanna, he threatens to go after his sister’s attacker and subsequently dares the intruder to ” now run and tell dat… homeboy”, in the video’s most quotable line.  The video and that particular gem of black vernacular has been remixed, mashed-up, auto-tuned, chopped and screwed and composed into song.   However, as a cultural phenomenon, there is something much more signficant about this video than its platform for comedic improvisation.  It reveals some particular conflicts about how Black people negotiate identity in the broadcast media, online, and within larger society.

The Dodson video is culturally relevant because it adds to a larger narrative about Black identity that is being negotiated right now, particularly in the digital sphere.  Just the previous week, we saw former Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod being taken to tasks for being a racist, after doctored video of a speech she gave to the NAACP was posted to the Internet.  The power of this story was the speed in which it took hold in the public consciousness and the equal speed in which the story shifted course.  Similar to the Sherrod video, the Dodson video has taken on a life of its own, but to what consequence?

I could not help but find the video comedic but at the same time I wondered, who in the news room edited this segment and was there at least one Black person involved in its production?  Many Black people will argue that the portrayals of Dodson’s family and there  living conditions was unflattering and not reflective of   the overall experience of the Black family in America.  The accuracy or honesty of the narrative that this video puts forth is arguable because it is a mediated cultural artifact.  Moreover, your sphere of experience in the world is going influence how you view and understand this video. So for instance, while I can see the humor in this video, I can also understand the real frustration Dodson and his sister have with their living conditions and really the overall social stratification in American society.    Denoting the suspect as “some idiot from out here in the projects”, Dodson’s sister hints at the liabilities that come with inner city living, public housing, and general urban blight.

The problems extend beyond simply lacking that invaluable feeling of being safe in one’s own home, though the importance of this cannot be underestimated.  The  problems run the gambit and extend to any number of socio-economic limitations: from access to healthy foods, good education, safe housing, medical resources, and employment to access to high-speed digital Internet.  The irony of the digital divide is particularly felt when viewed in the context of the Dodson story. While he is an internet superstar, I cannot help but wonder if him and his neighbors have access to the Web.  While fiber may be  laid in many urban areas, unlike many rural environments, inner city Blacks still lack access to high-speed web connectivity, outside of their mobile devices, due to cost and other barriers to entry.

And yet we are still left with Antoine Dodson and what has become a national lampoon of a certain representation of Black identity.  His construction of the English language, his use of Black vernacular, body language, and cultural references are something that a Black person is going to view differently than an outsider.  To be the number one downloaded video on YouTube, it is clear that this video is being viewed, interpreted, and reinterpreted now by persons outside of the Black experience.  This can be dangerous ground because while many of us may be able to laugh at this video, we can still commiserate with Dodson and his sister’s experience.  Because race remains such shaky ground in this nation, it often feels that in these kinds of situation the outsider is not laughing with us but as us. Leading me to wonder to what extent a video like this confirms widely held stereotypes about the entirety of Black identity, and furthermore affirms the exceptionalism that many outside our race assign to President Obama and other articulate, intelligent, and successful Black people.  We cannot simply reduce Black identity to the haves and have nots among us, and we should not let this happen in the larger culture. Moreover, the importance of the attempted rape of a Black woman is seemingly marginalized in this narrative.  It’s almost as if we forgot that a crime against a woman happened.  Where are the feminist on this one or are they laughing, as well?

The Dodson narrative is still unfolding.  Apparently, a T-shirt line and any number of other commercial opportunities are emerging from this cultural moment, leaving me to wonder how Dodson may capitalize on his instant fame.  It would be a shame for his likeness and what amounts to his intellectual capital be appropriated and him not benefit.   This moment remains complex and difficult to negotiate in my mind.  What about you? Is Dodson’s interview simply a humorous cultural moment or does it say something larger about Black identity in the United States?  If so, does what it say reflect positively or negatively on the wider Black community? In an online sphere that has largely been the bastion of the elite and intellectual among Black thought leaders is there any benefit to the ghettoization of Black online identity?

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