March 9, 2012

For whom does the Black artist make art?

This has been brewing for a while after watching this video and the responses to it. What's been disheartening about all this is what this reveals about the position of the Black artist. It seems that we can't win for losing. Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of what we create. Everyone, it seems, believes we should create for purposes other than our own. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about what we create. Ironically, these clamoring voices push us from the center of our own process, a process that requires us to be centered and in touch with our own voices.

Granted, many Black artists have decided that it's a sucker's game to pay too much attention to that. I'm one of them. But it still bothers me when I come across this attitude that because I am a Black artist, that I need to represent myself a certain way, represent my people a certain way, or represent my experience a certain way if I want my work to be seen as authentic, valuable, or meaningful. In effect, what is valued about an artist who is Black is not authentic self-expression or the capacity to imagine and create new things, but to put what is created to a specific purpose. It is the mindset that says that the reason why we should learn about Black history, Black culture, Black literature, Black art, Black music, and so on is not because Black people are human beings who have history and culture and create literature and art and music, but because the history, culture, art, and music of Black people are useful to others.

So, as much as I dislike what Tyler Perry does, I can understand him saying that Spike Lee needs to go to hell. As much as I don't like how The Help tells a story about Black women, I can understand why Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer pushed back against Tavis Smiley trying to hold them to a standard that no White artist is asked to uphold.

Don't get it twisted. If you thought I was only talking about Black folks doing this, I wasn't. White folks do it too. I have a post in me somewhere about the 5 types of stories Black folks are allowed to bring to mainstream audiences, but that's for another time.

Are you getting what I'm saying here?


  1. OMG... hearing what Miss Davis and Miss Spencer had to say was so passionate, so moving, it made my hair stand on end. All of the hairs on my body stood on end.

    I saw your Twitter post with a link to this -- *thank you* for posting it.

    (I'm PlaywrightsMuse on Twitter, BTW)

  2. Honestly, this was a great discussion (I just posted this video to my Facebook) but at the same time I think there were two discussions going on and a lot got lost in translation.

    On certain levels, I agree with them both.

    I'm mainly with Tavis on this in that I applaud VIola Davis and Octavia Spencer, these two beautiful talented and extraordinary black women, and wish them nothing but the best in their careers. However my beef isn't with them for taking the roles but with the industry in that the only time they want to celebrate blacks is if we're showing our breasts while fucking a white man, break stride and playing a crooked dirty cop, or being the noble Negress in a white woman's revisionist tale of Civil Rights.

    Why didn't Denzel get the nomination for Malcolm X which is a protagonist who was messy, or why didn't the Colored Purple win? Or hell did Halle get an Emmy for Their Eyes Were Watching God?

    That being said, I also understand where Davis and Spencer are coming from in being attacked for playing maids or not playing the "acceptable among black" roles. And that's not fair either. This is why I cut blacks and other POCs a lot of slack when it comes to the entertainment industry and when they pick questionable roles because I understand they're doing the best they can with what little they have to work with. That's also why I gave Tyler Perry a lot of slack for a long time because I knew what he was up against.

    I had situation a few months ago where I had a white writer try to insinuate that because I'm a black author I'm beholden to only write about black (and gay) characters and to write about other protagonists of other races from other experiences, I'm doing it wrong.

    I do agree with Davis that blacks can't be portrayed as perfect in all roles, we have to be flawed and human and complex. But to Tavis's point, if you're going to show us, show everything, the good, the bad, the ugly, the messy, the humanity. Don't just show our hardships as pain porn or as a jumpoff to feel good about yourself. But show our accomplishments and our triumphs as well as our hardships.

    And when George Lucas can't get a distribution deal featuring black heroes, then we seriously have a problem in our culture.

    but at least that's my take. and my brain is fried so apologies if something didn't translate clearly.

  3. I think the Black artists, like all artists, should be allowed to speak to whatever lies in their soul. No matter how ugly, inhuman, condescending, encouraging, uplifting, complicated, neat, etc. that it wants to be. It is the role of the Black producer to advocate for all of those stories evenly. It is the role of the Black producer to make sure they support all of the artists creating work. It is the role of the majority (read as white producers) to reflect the entirety of the human experience, which includes the multiplicity of the Black experience. Let's all continue to fight and push for such a day.