One of the salt-of-the-earth lessons provided by our elders is that “there are times when you shouldn’t talk”: exercise silence, wait for the conversation to detour in another direction, pretend not to be concerned, practice the lost art of avoidance. They preached – “oft-times you talk when you shouldn’t”: unintentionally confessing, not shutting, closing, zipping, securing or cloistering the words spoken. I pretended I heard. I pretended I understood.
Years ago, when traveling from Houston with a friend (Bruce V. Griffiths), I failed to follow the truism, the advice, failing woefully. I failed to pretend I didn’t hear his question; failed to gracefully detour the conversation, running through the obvious stop signs along the way. Running, running, running, my mouth; confessing I earned extra money writing papers for nursing students. Mine was not a created market, in that nursing students generally hated writing, and I didn’t mind writing. I also believed researching the different subject matters would expand my knowledge base – “a willing buyer and meets willing seller” – the American way. I ventured to the medical school’s library two to three nights a week. The staff was always helpful, answering questions, helping to locate documents, papers, pulling master’s theses and doctoral dissertations when needed.
Bruce and I made the trip from Galveston to Houston – Houston to Galveston – daily. Ours was the “Debating Society Held in a Honda Civic Automobile,” discussing, solving, arguing over every imaginable societal issue – followed by laughter, then scorn, before reverting back to laughter. Bruce was a new lawyer, a graduate of University of Texas Law School, at the time forging a new law practice in the Houston legal community, while his wife attended the University of Texas’ Medical School. I was in law school, while my wife attended the University of Texas’ School of Nursing. After spending four and a half years sitting atop a motorcycle, Bruce’s offer to share the commute seemed attractive – so we did, so we did.
On the day of my violation of the truism, I was consumed, no, troubled, with the results of the last group of papers I had written. A pattern was starting to develop, a life pattern I had seen before. My turning inward was obvious, not wanting to participate in the last debate subject. Glancing out and beyond, repelling Bruce’s attempts to scale the wall dividing us.
“Why are you so quiet? What is wrong?”
His questions printed out, before my eyes, ticker tape fashion, rolling by slowly, not at all like the credits at the end of a movie, allowing sufficient time to read the question, more than adequate time to feign sleepiness, illness, even die. I did neither, instead I straightened my posture, and told, flat-out told – ignored the blinking lights, the cries and screams, driving around the pedestrians screaming for me to stop. I told on myself.
“My customer base is one-third white, one-third Hispanic, one-third black. I have created a chart reflecting the white students are receiving across the board “A’s”, no lower than a B. The Hispanic students, “B’s” and “C’s”, and the Black students, “C’s” and “D’s”, same author, me! Same time spent on each paper!! On the second set of papers, I spent more time on the Hispanic and black students than I did on the white student papers – same results! Now tell me the difference, if it isn’t racism Bruce, what is? Bias in the professional schools, Bruce! Not mathematically possible to justify, not by accident, not by chance, not a mistake!”
So I did. Yes, I did. Barreling ahead, letting the floodgate of words escape. Confessing, confessing, confessing … moi … me …. Yes, I did.
“I want to sue. I think I have standing. I then want to call a press conference. This is racism!” – Proclaiming, unwittingly confessing my own malfeasance, somewhat akin to the criminally accused complaining of not receiving his Miranda rights (right to remain silent), while holding the bloody knife (over the body), a picture perfect pose for the kind police officers as they enter the crime scene, with camera in hand. When defending, you can only tell the client, “You took a good picture.” But I digress.
Bruce nibbled on his lip, suppressing laughter, pulling on his beard, as if comforting himself, the conflicting emotions dancing on the head of life’s pin. I continued my confession. He continued to drive. The more I confess, the more he stroked and nibbled. The flat landscape of the Gulf Coast inched slowly across the landscape; the sun continued to bid her adieu, lazily dancing over the horizon, the ticker tape playing out in my head, then before my eyes, now slowed. Bruce’s words followed, imploring me to “think about what you’re saying.” Not disagreeing, laughing still, a muted laugh, causing me to laugh, causing me to realize the insaneness of my rant. A well-intentioned rant, coupled with misplaced righteous, existing and stand side-by-side with my ethically challenged business model. Please be sure, my confessions are not the reason I muse. No, no, I confess my sins in order to provide an appropriate metaphor to discuss the strange and bewildering tentacles of racism, an oft-times hostile subject, which reaches and touches us all, far more than we realize.
* * *
In 1964, Nina Simone, the renowned singer, songwriter, and civil rights activists, released Mississippi Goddam. Albeit, the song was banned in much of the South, this did not mute Simone’s voice. Mississippi Goddam was Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. A product of the segregated South, Simone explained her work best:
Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like “Mississippi Goddam” just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with “Mississippi Goddam,” I realized there was no turning back.
Thereafter Eunice Kathleen Waymon continued to challenge, publish and perform, leaving behind a trove of musical genius, spanning generations, before passing from this earth on April 23, 2003. And again, Nina Simone is also not why I muse. Please be patient while I detour slightly, before making sense out my madness.
Recently, controversy has arisen surrounding the selection of Zoe Saldaña as the lead in one of the films about Nina Simone’s life. Saldaña is a native of Passaic, New Jersey, the daughter of a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother. She also claims her Haitian and Lebanese roots. Born Zoe Yadira Saldaña Nazario, an accomplished practitioner of her craft, suddenly finds herself in the middle of a historically constant and persistent racist debate normally conveyed in subtle code, asking, whether she is black enough. The argument is a simple one, representing a continual play on the color line. It goes something like this: Saldaña skin is lighter than Simone’s. The application of makeup is the same as playing the role in blackface. Saldaña’s nose and lips are not as broad, not as full as Simone – so they, the producers, should have picked someone else.
An inherently racist attack, directed at the actress’ skin tone, as if disqualifying – not black enough. I muse to say attack Saldaña for her acting, I am sure she has been criticized before. Criticize the script, writers, or producers; there are few great scripts, writers, or producers in the industry. Constructive criticism is as much a part of the art, as praise, helping an artist grow and develop.
The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism is a ready source for understanding my frustration. The slave trade deposited Africans throughout this hemisphere. The majority of the slaves were deposited in places other than the United States. Brazil received 40.6 percent (land colonized by the Portuguese), the British receiving 29 percent, the Spaniards, 14.3 percent, the French, 12.0 percent, and the Dutch, 2.7 percent. By way of example: “[t]he local population of the territory now known as Mexico estimated to be at least 4.5 million by the time of the Spanish Conquest. African slaves arrived with the first Spaniards. … Between 1500 and 1600, it is estimated that the number of blacks was double the number of whites in Mexico.” This type of dichotomy played out in other locales: Jamaica (British colony), Cuba (Spanish colony), Barbados (British colony), Panama (Spanish colony), Puerto Rico (Spanish colony), Danish West Indies (St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix), Trinidad and Tobago (changed hands between the British, French, Dutch, then back to the British), Turks and Caicos Islands (British colonies) and La Isla Espanola (later known as the Saint Dominique, then Haiti and Dominican Republic).
“La Isla Espanola … was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean. It was considered the ‘Pearl of the Antilles,’ by the French. By the end of the eighteenth century, more than 450,000 black slaves on the island produced half of the world’s sugar and coffee, plus indigo and cotton.” This diaspora involved a diverse group of people subjected to enslavement, encompassing and including persons from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Congo, Angola, Mozambique and Madagascar, enslaving 10.24 million people between 1650 and 1900.
So, with this understanding and background, criticism is being lodged against a person (Saldaña) of mixed heritage (as an aside, most of us are), because she is not black enough. I muse to say the position taken represents the personification of racism.
One of those critics is the songstress/artist, India Arie. Arie complained Saldaña’s casting is a missed opportunity, explaining that – the way the filmmakers made Saldaña look betrayed the late singer’s true beauty. Arie then seems to caveat her remark, appearing to step back away from the bridge, clarifying – that arguing Saldaña isn’t “black enough” for the role is a “messy” way to frame a bigger issue. I don’t know what her caveat means and whether it makes a difference. I do know the more she talked, she confessed, failed to zip, secure, and cloister her words. “When you look a certain way you get certain privileges; when you look another way you’re denied access to certain things, especially in her era,” Arie said. “So in the context of the politics of race in America and the politics of race in the entertainment industry in America, to make a movie about a person like that and cast an actress that has to wear blackface and a prosthetic nose is tone-deaf. To propagate that institutionalized racism that is historical in Hollywood in a movie about her is ironic in the worst possible way.”
* * *
In college I vividly remember a debate waging in the classroom posing the question whether blacks could be racist. I readily answered yes, most of the others students answered no. Those in opposition were probably right if the classic dictionary definition of racism is use: “usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others, or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.” The opposition posed their answer from the standpoint of looking outward, never looking inward. I didn’t cloister my words, complaining loudly, protesting the question, inherently self-fulfilling – myth making.
Barrack Obama wasn’t black enough (when he ran for the Senate in Illinois). Do we forget that during slavery there was a practice of bestowing greater privileges to slaves who were “blessed”/ “cursed” / “is what it is” – with lighter hues and tones? When segregation was the law of the land, I remember sitting in classrooms divided along color lines, with the lighter-skin kids being accorded greater privileges, assigned to the advanced classes, deemed prettier; clearly behavior mimicking the dominant society. The behavior was reinforced once integration occurred, whites stepping above, around, and over the lighter skin blacks in the privilege line, with the other of us, falling in place, based on skin color. Maybe my complaint is not about racism. Maybe I am using the wrong word, or phrase. Maybe the proper description is misguided self-hate.
Actors and actresses have been known to put on weight to play a particular role. The art form, if done right, allows us to see the best and worst, reveal traditions and customs, pimples and warts, love and hate. Voice and cultural nuisances mastered, pleasing and stark images presented, a world in which we grow younger, older, darker, yellower, browner, … beiger … whiter, … peering into others’ worlds, crying, laughing, rejoicing – an art form practiced around the world. The beauty can co-exist with the beast.
I muse to say the criticism of Zoe Saldaña playing Nina Simone is misplaced. Of all the children of the Africa diaspora, the descendants claiming birth in the sovereign state of Dominican Republic, situated on the island of Hispaniola, as speakers of two, three, four tongues, the original subjects of the slavery holocaust, long before it was exported our shores, cannot ever be considered – “not black enough.” Saldaña’s skin being lighter shouldn’t matter, unless we want to continue placing ourselves in the same box built years ago to justify a shameful institution which cannot and should never be justified. Saldaña’s placement in the role is not a stretch; the criticism lodged is very much so, a continuation of the same standards imposed upon us to exclude, and differentiate … Mississippi Goddam!