Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Stories that Are Told about Us: Seizing Control of Our Narratives

Human beings are essentially beings made of words, created through language. From the cradle to the grave, from our birth certificate to our death certificate, a narrative account testifying to our very existence is constructed; without these documents, without some narrative account of our being, then we do not and cannot exist and never did.

And who possesses the knowledge and ability to tell my own narrative other than me? Who is better able to describe my experience, my thoughts, my emotions, my being in relation to the world than I?

And we can extend this to groups of people as well. Who is better able to describe the experience of being black than blacks? Who is better able to describe the experience of being a woman than women? Who is better able to describe the experience of being gay and lesbian than gays and lesbians? Who is better able to describe that experience of being persecuted, of being mistreated, of being maligned, than those who have been persecuted, mistreated, and maligned?

Those who are able to seize control of their narrative, those who are able to communicate their narrative unfettered and uncompromised are empowered; all others are, well, simply pitiable.

I bring this up now because lately I have engaged with a number of narratives representing various mediums—literature, movies, television, music—that purport to be black, that purport to be authentic representations of the black experience; however, once you dig below the surface, once you look further than the text, or the screen, or the CD, once you look past the black faces and the black dialect, you find a narrative that is black in conception only. Those varied cultural artifacts should come with the disclaimer, “Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and any depiction of actual persons or events is purely coincidental.”

Take for instance the recent release of the movie Precious based on Sapphire’s novel Push. It received perhaps just as much praise as it did criticism. However, a movie of this type, confronting the subject matter that it does, is bound to engender such passionate and heartfelt reactions from either side.

And I did see the movie, and thought it to be a very well-told narrative. In fact, as a person who works with young inner city children, I found most of the movie to be unsettling. In the case files and cumulative folders of many of the young women within my purview, I have found similar narratives; watching these narratives come alive on screen tugged at my heartstrings a bit. The faces of many of the young women I know and have known periodically replaced that of the main character, Clareece “Precious” Jones.

Precious is an important and timely narrative despite its gross dependence on stereotypes. So, the actual film itself does not incite my ire; however, the process through which the film came to the big screen does. Novelist and essayist Ishmael Reed penned a very informative critique of the film for counterpunch magazine entitled “The Selling of ‘Precious’” which details that process. I do not subscribe to everything Reed writes in this article, but the article is a worthwhile read nonetheless.

But before most movies deemed “black films” or “black-themed films” come to the screen, they must pass the crucial test of how will mainstream audiences receive them. Will mainstream audiences see the film as an authentic depiction of black life and the black experience? Will mainstream audiences be able to relate to the film?

In other words, the mainstream audience becomes the final arbiter as to the authenticity of the work, and you can probably guess who makes up the mainstream audience. And of course, the bottom line is the deciding line. To receive the green light and backing from the major studios, the film must evince the ability to make money.

This means that someone other than the subject defines that experience. Thus the narrative you see on the screen cannot be thought of as the actual narrative, but someone's interpretation of that narrative. But it sometimes seems as if we are so anxious to see a black face on the screen, we are so excited about the "progress" we are making in the various arts that we except that interpretation without protest.

This extends to other mediums as well. I recently spoke with a friend of mine who is in the process of publishing another book. However, on the day I spoke with her, she was distraught because her editor wanted her make changes to the book to make it more marketable, more “believable.” The editor wanted to change one of the lead characters, a love interest, from a black doctor to a corn-rowed night janitor at the hospital replete with a record and a string of illegitimate children.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with being a night janitor. However, there is something wrong with the notion that a wider mainstream audience would not find a black chief of surgery believable. Though I sometimes believe that mainstream America has not gotten the message, but we can be found in all career fields and at all points within the socio-economic spectrum.

But there is a need and a place for narratives like Precious. We cannot confront rid ourselves of the problems and pathologies within our community unless we are willing to acknowledge these problems and pathologies and confront them head on.

However, pathology is not inherent in the black experience; we have not cornered the market on pathology. Our narrative is much broader and deeper. It is much more varied and multi-faceted. And this should be reflected in the range of our narratives; the profane should be able to exist alongside the secular, and the powerful alongside the pitiful, and the beautiful alongside the grotesque.

But until we seize control of our narratives, until we are able to speak honestly to ourselves and the world about ourselves, about our experience, our thoughts, our emotions, our being in relation to the world without that experience and those thoughts, emotions, and our being in relation to the world, without our utterances and artifacts being filtered through and judged by a third party with only the bottom line in mind, our narrative will continue to be told from the point of view of slaves.

8 comments:

Toya said...

This was a very intriguing post. I do see your points very well. I didn't see Precious but I find it hard to understand the criticisms. If people were truly honest with themselves they would be honest about the fact that her story is the story of many. For years stories have been told about black people by non blacks. So who better is it to tell such a story than one who can authenticate the experience.

msladydeborah said...

Good food for thought Max.

One thing about tale spinning still rings true-we need to stop supporting the mediums that do not make the effort to tell our stories in ways that we know are true. I firmly believe this. A lot of people need to consider how we help to forward images that we are not necessarily that fond of.

Anna Renee said...

Hey there soulbrother! Here you go again! ;-) It's maddening that a film has to go through this "test" for "authenticity". I'm starting to have my doubts about this group called the "mainstream" and their lack of ability to hear real stories about other people. I think it's really the "Hollywood Machine" that forces the "mainstream" to accept these gross stereotypes about black folks in films. Example: The Cosby Show was highly rated for it's entire run, and there were no negative stereotypes of black folks at all. "Roots" This mini series was highly rated and was a very well rounded story of a black family from West Africa through the Middle Passage, through actual slavery. It depicted their lives and struggles and even triumphs in the time of slavery. I don't remember any stereotypes. I have a theory that its not the mainstream who is asking for these stupid stereotypes, but that they are being victimized and held in a state of ignorance about even the black people right in their midsts. We black folks have and will continue to fight to tell our own stories and as I read in another blog we have to create the vehicles that tell the stories. We have to own the publishing houses and the movie making houses and whatever other houses that give the green light on the stories! We have to seek out and support those small houses that struggle to tell our authentic stories. We have to search DILIGENTLY to find these little places struggling in obscurity, and help tell everybody about them! We need to know our history about the Oscar Micheauxs of the movie making world and learn how he made movies back in the 1920s I think? How in the world did he do it? Abagond has a blog that discuss these very issues very intelligently and he has a wide following of differing black ethnicities who comment frequently concerning Blackness! Even right now he's discussing how would black women be seen in a BLACK supremicist society! He really goes there! http://abagond.wordpress.com/
Thanks Soulbrother for another fantastic post! You are on point and on fiah!

udee said...

When it comes to telling the Black Narrative (when I say Black, I refer to the entire Black Diaspora), there needs to be more than the single story. It infuriates me constantly that stories like Precious are left to marinate in our culture, as if to say it's the only real narrative out there. Movies, books, TV shows, etc like Precious need to be released right alongside the stories that celebrate a rich Black culture.

I am often torn when I think about who is to tell these stories. Who has the clout (money, resources) to put out there the good, the bad and the ugly...but especially the good, because that's not what we get to see ever when it comes to the Black experience. We often say White people need to be comfortable with the image of the 'normal' Black family, for instance. Do we as Black people even know what that is? Are we even ok with the image of a Black family that's 'normal'? We label such 'normalcy' as being not Black enough...or (gasp!) White! I think we've often sold into the stereotypes on our TV screen to a large extent, so much so that when we see a successful, happy Black person, we NEED to find loopholes so that we feel better and more comfortable with his or her Blackness.

Blackness is not synonymous with oppression, suffering and the breaking of the human body, soul and spirit. For many years it was, but it is time to transcend. This takes a certain kind of wisdom and healing. We as a culture, perhaps, have not found it yet, hence why pop culture cannot yet find those voices to comfortably subscribe to.

We can blame Disney all we want...We can blame Hollywood...But what would a Black narrative look like if YOU were the one to tell it?

At the end of the day, we need more narratives out there...we need more stories told without fear or shame. Whether they are stories of African genocide or stories of Caribbean homophobia or stories a Western suburban life, they need to be told and shared and passed on without the pressure of conformity. WE need to be comfortable with those stories-all of them...perhaps it is then that others will see the 'normalcy' and be accepting.

Denisha said...

Did your friend alter her book or did she search for another editor?

Max Reddick said...

@Denisha

She said she was going to get back to her editor and fight for her narrative.

md20737 said...

I wont see precious because I see and know women who are precious all the time. I cant take seeing it on the big screen one more time, its hurtful. Although its true how many times do we have to see it.

But after reading your points made about precious it easier to deal with why ppl praise this movie. Great Post.

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