I will be in a panelist for this event in NYC, on April 8. Dr. Philip Kadish will be moderating, and fellow panelists include Jennifer Marie Brissett (author of Elysium), and Dr. Andre Carrington (author of Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction). It will be held at the CUNY Graduate Center at 6pm.
A panel discussion with science fiction scholar Dr. André Carrington (Drexel Univ.) and science fiction/ fantasy authors Jennifer Marie Brissett and Craig Laurance Gidney, moderated by Dr. Philip Kadish (Hunter College) to celebrate diversity and dissect racism, homophobia, and sexism in the world of sci-fi publishing and fandom. Special attention will be paid to the highly-publicized hate campaign at the 2015 Hugo Awards. A group calling itself the “Sad Puppies” gamed the voting system to assure that most award nominees were white, male, and straight, voicing public statements about gay, black, and women’s themes and authors ruining the genre. This episode mirrors “gamer-gate,” where rape and death threats were made against women in the video game industry who have complained about sexism.
I just submitted a cleaned-up manuscript of my forthcoming collection of dark magical realist fiction that deals with the matter of Race to my publisher. There’s horror, humor, and history in these tales.
I have created some Pinterest boards that sort of point toward some of the inspirations. The Skin Deep Magic board features images of some of the characters I’m writing about–women from the Victoria era and up to the 40s who feature prominently in some of the tales. The Vintage Racism board shows images of black used in advertising. There are Golliwogs, Aunt Jemimas, and mammy jars.
I loved American Horror Story: Asylum. It was an excessive mess of Grand Guignol horror and over the top campyness. The new season, subtitled Coven, debuted last night. True to form,It was luridly disturbing. Race and rape and gendered tropes abounded; it is unclear whether the story is subversive or not. Catfights, and scenery-chewing competed with some really dark material. I had more than a touch of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome watching the Madame LaLaurie sequence, where the black male body was tortured. Nightmare fuel = the grindhouse horror of seeing flayed, punctured and surgically modified black flesh. Slave torture combined with high camp gave this opening gambit some serious mood whiplash. I hope that the story does give the enslaved a voice. At its best, horror can be cathartic. I hope that the subversive elements comes in soon. Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau and the rest of the excellent cast is not enough to erase the bitter afterimages of black suffering.
I admit-it often takes me a while to absorb certain concepts and critiques.
I was first made aware of the ways of describing skin tone as food (spices and coffee and chocolate) in a writing workshop. A fellow workshopped found an instance of it in my story. I filed the critique away for future examination. (There was a lot wrong with my story, so there was much to take on-board). The idea that describing people of color using food imagery didn’t bother me before. But since I was alerted to it, I began noticing it all the time.
• My niece and nephew are biracial; they are often called “Cafe Au Lait” or cinnamon.
• Personal ads often use various these descriptors. Mocha skin. Chocolate Princess. Honey.
• And Urban Fiction and Blacksplotation Films are full of titles using those conventions: Chocolate Revenge. Coffee. etc.
Because it’s so ingrained, it doesn’t bother me enough to throw me out of the story. For instance, how many white protagonists are described as being rosy-cheeked, or apple-cheeked or with skin as white as cream/milk? Tales of Snow White (and her occasional pal, Rose Red) depend on these surface descriptors.
Years after that critique, I began to see the point. Describing skin tone as food is kind of lazy. It belongs in the purple prose hall of shame, right along with “russet-maned,” and “chestnut tresses.” (Or “man root” and “secret flower” in describing genitalia). And it does bother me now in erotica (or porn).
Since objectification is one of the purposes of erotica/porn, it strips away all the obfuscation in other texts. It is clear that you are meant to (sexually) consume the Chocolate Mandigo; the Onyx Thug is supposed to dominate you, and his very blackness is part of what is supposed to make you feel dominated.
Food as skin-tone serves as a euphemism for othering.
Some texts are “grandfathered” in such uses. (E.G., If an author is being deliberately archaic or in some cases, viewing a character through the lens of another character). But from now on, there will be no more Cocoa-Mocha-Coffee-Tea-Milk-Cinnamon beauties or hunks in my fiction. (Exceptions made for parodies and satires).
I have a complicated relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. And I don’t mean his flowers and fruit pictures. The way he fetishizes the black male body disturbs me; he makes me a partner in their objectification. I mean, these men and the light with which they are cast and their poses are undeniably beautiful. But they are just icons, and in a way, no different than the glossy eggplant photo or the calla lilies he captured.
These men are captured in black and white, on film, in the camera’s eye, and in my own. Is the baggage that I bring to these images my own or is it deeper than that?
Back in the early 90s, my then-partner created a video, a mediation on interracial relationships. The video was eventually picked up by the Festival Circuit. The video had showings internationally, including places like Italy and South Africa. I narrated portions of the video, which included a poem by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, called The Snow Fairy, which could be interpreted as an ode to an interracial encounter. I went to a showing of the video in New York. One of the scenes in the video has me kneading the flesh of my then-partner. When the video finished, the floor opened up for a discussion about what we had seen. One man thought the video was racist. He highlighted the scene where my hands were on the the white flesh of my partner. He thought that scene showed that I was like a slave, pleasing his master.
This incident, for me, encompasses all of the issues I have with this section of Mapplethorpe’s work. The black men on display in his work are ciphers, upon which a viewer’s thoughts/agendas may be placed. Like the men in those photographs, I was a willing participant in an act that could be seen as racist, regardless of intent. The fact that I don’t think so is immaterial; in the video, I was just a symbol, an image. I’ve learned that many of the men that Mapplethorpe photographed were friends, and indeed, lovers with the photographer. Does that change the meaning or doesn’t it?
I identify with the photographer and the photographed.
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