Friday, April 11, 2014

Disney and Diversity Part II: What We Owe to Oprah

[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

 What are we to do with Disneyfication? It's here to stay. I may be succumbing to the mass media hype, but I am no longer ashamed to admit that I have hope in Oprah. 

Admittedly, Oprah caught my attention when she reassessed the impact of her book club and brought it back after a one-year hiatus in 2002. As a teacher of literature, I continued to be pleasantly surprised by her selections. While publishers maintain the separation between "literary" and "popular" fiction, which traditional English departments have reinforced over the years, Oprah ignored the distinction. Instead, she let us know that she was a reader, and her selections followed the reader's ecumenical taste and logic. Thus, forgotten classics appeared alongside contemporary works that she "discovered," turning them into overnight sensations. 

The "Oprah's Book Club" gold seal became a marker of association and status; it symbolized a brand. Oprah had learned from Disney. She became a household name as she built an empire.

Much has been said about the Oprah effect, and we have to thank her for encouraging America to read across the color line, turning her faithful followers into passionate readers. Her reach was broad, intentionally diverse, her appeal always personal. The year she discontinued the club, the reason she gave resonated with all of us in the academy. She couldn't keep up with reading itself and stay on top of everything that was coming out. Alas, Oprah was like us: she was human.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Studying Black Yin

[By: Bro. Yao (Hoke S. Glover III) and Dr. Valerie Prince]

Blackness as we know it today cannot escape the white vs. black/ good vs. bad/ righteousness vs. evil dichotomy that upholds the idea of white supremacy. The snare is even more labyrinthine for language and intellectual brokers who confront the colonial history  of the language we write and speak as an obstacle in communication. What "black" means is not simply what we intend; rather, the idea has a legacy which establishes a trajectory that leads us to dead-ends or pathways that are not our desired course. Though we have tried to change the definition of black within the English language, the task may be impossible. In effect, the connotations inherent in the language cannot be overcome by systematic rebuttals and an exertion of will.

Instead, if we are to articulate notions of blackness that are not trapped in the good vs. bad dichotomy we must move outside of English to find an alternative system of codifying our experiences. Consider as an alternative the paradigm of "black" and "white" found in the Yin and Yang symbol. The connection between polarities implied by the diagram is worthy of he Black writer's study. The Yin and Yang symbol is a circle comprised of black and white in equal measure, separated by a complex border, with a smaller circle of each within the heart of the other. Here, the binary opposites are inextricably linked and swirling around each other in balance

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Disney and Diversity in the 21st Century: Part 1

[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

Diversity has become a vexed issue in the 21st century.  Once it was a priority in our corporate and education sectors, with accountability for its implementation built in. Today, it has become that carefully crafted phrase one sees on websites, usually so watered down we pay scarce attention. Even when we were not guided by a principle but by underlying marketing needs, diversity forced us to have many honest, if difficult dialogues.  Now it seems that only members of  “diverse populations” talk about or show concern for diversity.   And we know what that means.  In the last three years, I have been to too many strategy sessions —even at my own university—with the absence of any discussion of diversity.  It seems to bother no one. If we ask questions about it, we are strangely inappropriate. If answers come, they serve to redirect the conversation. So we are often silent or vow to show our protest with our future absence.

If diversity is everybody’s concern, where did it go? When did we start letting the university, our administrators, our CEO’s off the hook?  Was it only the intimidating presence of affirmative action legislation that “made” people do the right thing? Now that the pressure is off, it’s back to business as usual.  While the concept is still with us, there’s no power behind it.

Can we blame social media for this shift, the place where everybody has a voice?  After all, nobody is legally denied access anymore. The catchword “equal” is everywhere; we all expect jobs to say “equal opportunity employer.” Surely this suggests that a major goal of the civil rights movement has been accomplished.
But there’s a downside to the social media. To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell here, the voices that seem to be the loudest are not those that offer constructive or balanced critique in good faith. Gladwell is correct: those who want to sway public opinion, present a biased point of view, and show disregard for facts, may have more to gain by social media than those who are more fact-driven. Social media can make us feel connected to each other, at the same time it can divide, exclude, and distort the truth.  Our heavy reliance on it confuses us.  We think we see what is not there; we think we know more than we do. We connect with like-minded people, and we assume this to be “most” people. We are, all of us, living in a world of illusions.

No one was better at creating illusions than Walt Disney.  He had the unique ability to appropriate and collapse centuries of historical knowledge from ancient and modern cultures.  He helped to turn entertainment and marketing into the institutions that are the fabric of our lives today.  As he turned his own dreams into reality, creating newly imagined identities for us all to share, he ushered in an era that diminishes the need for any real knowledge while simultaneously clouding our vision of diversity. While Disney is not wholly responsible for the illusions of wealth accumulation that are pervasive, disneyfication is synonymous with the post modernization of America and the world.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Black Poetry Bears Witness

[By: Dr. Shauna Morgan Kirlew]

The students in my "Literature as History" freshman writing seminar recently read and analyzed Audre Lorde's "Power". The story of a young black boy gunned down in the streets resonated powerfully with the students, even though none of them had heard of Clifford Glover, whose life inspired Lorde's poem. They found the subject matter so relevant to their 21st-century reality that it opened the door to further analysis of the metaphors and imagery in the text.

"I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds" begins the second stanza. One student noted that the desert, and the "whiteness/of the desert" represented the United States social and political landscape where there is no justice for murdered black children. I was struck by the sense of powerlessness that emerged from, what seemed to be, a new cognizance of their vulnerability to violence and injustice. However, it was the long, sustained history of brutality against black children that troubled them. The reality that their society resembled that of their parents and grandparents in its disregard for their bodies and lives left them feeling defeated. 

I offered a short list of additional poets and titles that bear witness to this history of white brutalization of black children, including work from Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman, Nikki Giovanni, Jerry Ward, Sonia Sanchez, and Frank X Walker. Shortly after, issue ten of Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture arrived, and this deeply moving tribute to Trayvon Martin, which opens with "Autopsy" by Patricia Smith, was received with immediacy as a literary and historical marker.

One student, noting Smith's signifying and references to slavery, suggested that the poem also functioned as an autopsy of the white-washed history of white violence and the criminal justice system that would have society believe that "Black boys fold their bodies around bullets."

Black poetry paints and writes our stories-- records our histories and reveals truths. This art, even when it turns around stories of loss and brutality, is the evidence of black life in America. With good cause, and with brilliant clarity, it continues to resonate between and within generations of our people.