talkin’ back: gender by the sea

#sembythesea  Just back from Old Orchard Beach, Maine where I facilitated a session on gender and hip-hop at a seminar-by-the-sea gender studies course. I talked about black feminism and the politics of wreck in hip-hop culture. Queen Latifah’s line, “I bring wreck to those who disrespect me like a dame” from her 1993 U.N.I.T.Y. is used by hip-hop scholar Gwendolyn D. Pough* in her wonderful analysis of the whys and ways black women talk back to black men and society at large through rap and hip-hop. Hip-hop culture was/is male dominated and this breaking of silence for black women was/is revolutionary gender analysis stuff.

The gender course was filled with women (although men are invited, they don’t show up) making the space psychologically and emotionally safe for the women to say and/or write what was really on their minds. Ages 19 through early 20s, young American women and a few international representatives hailing from Ghana, South Africa, and Russia shared the space. Exciting.

However, in a space which is majority white female other things can arise for me. I often tell the peculiar story of the one time I was asked by a very grown white woman in a workshop on race, if it was more important for me to be a woman or to be black. Wow. I’m always both at the same time and one informs the other. I only understand my racial designation (a social construct) as a black woman and only understand my gender designation (another social construct) as a black woman. In other words, I have no real idea what it’s like to be a white woman or a black man. And that’s ok… not a critique, just a fact.

However, Pough’s history lesson, particularly her discussion of black women of the civil rights movement who apparently chose race as most important …for the sake of the black community, U.N.I.T.Y., women stayed in the background and let black men shine as movement leaders and spokespersons. Pough suggests early hip-hop possessed similar cultural learning by women. Let the men shine, stay in the background, let black male voices be heard as representations of the whole community. But this was problematic, especially as the rap game began spewing misogynist lyrics.

In 2004 Pough wrote “women of the hip-hop generation, like the black women who went before them, find themselves in a similar position of trying to navigate a space for themselves in a black-male-dominated public discourse. While we cannot say women of the hip-hop generation hold the same spaces in the public sphere as their foremothers, we can say with some degree of certainty that the way black women of the past navigated the public sphere has had a direct effect on the way black women of the hip-hop generation feel they can move within this sphere. Quite frankly, by the time we reach the hip-hop era, black women have had generations of conditioning to stay in the background while black men claim the limelight. We also have a history of seldom speaking out against black manhood even when it poses a direct threat to black womanhood. We also have, however, glimmers of black female outspokenness that grabs public attention and disrupts the black male dominance of the black public sphere. Examples of these instances surfaced when Michele Wallace wrote Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman and had the nerve to go on TV and defend her ideas; when Ntozake Shange wrote For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide and the play made it all the way to Broadway; when Alice Walker wrote the novel The Color Purple and it was adapted as a feature film; when Terry McMilan wrote the novel Waiting to Exhale and it too was adapted as a feature film. Each of these instances of black female outspokenness was met with tremendous outcry from the black public sphere. They were lambasted by black men and even some black women for portraying negative images of black manhood or showing black men in a negative light. Some people even accused them of the classic ‘airing dirty laundry’ ” (pg. 75 ff).

Sometimes dirty laundry has to be aired if it is to become clean and good smelling again.  Early Hip-hop’s fixation on identity, community, and place is ideally the locale for truth-telling, love and healing to occur. So as a woman who happens to be black or a black person who happens to be a woman, I’m down with bringing wreck wherever and whenever necessary, if it’s done to bring U.N.I.T.Y. to an otherwise fragmented scene.

*Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It: Black womanhood, hip-hop, and the public sphere (2004)

 

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About Calenthia Dowdy

Calenthia Dowdy (PhD, American University) is a cultural anthropologist and youth ministry educator who focuses on urban youth and culture in the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alongside teaching, speaking and writing on youth, cities, race, gender, and faith, she serves as the director of faith initiatives at a comprehensive community health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS care