A Better Village

The truth will set you free.

Why I #SupportSororitySisters

Mona Scott-Young and Forest Whitaker are under attack for their upcoming respective film projects, “Sorority Sisters” and “Undergrad.” According to some, both of these projects threaten to tarnish the otherwise good image of Black Greek Letter organizations (BGLO). Outrage over the projects have sparked at least one petition, and many online and social media discussions. I, a Black woman in her 30’s—and the member of a BGLO—am not offended, and am hoping that “Sorority Sisters” and “Undergrad” make it to television and the silver screen respectively, if for no other reason than on principle alone.

Here is why I #SupportSororitySisters.

Reality television and silver screen depictions “didn’t start the fire.”  Triflery and pettiness have permeated Black female relationships ever since we were taught to compete with one another during the Enslavement Process. The piety that belies much (not all) of the criticism of reality shows and media that show Blacks at their worst is not constructive because it is shame-based and aimed at covering up—not solving—the problem. During their discussion of the outrage over “Sorority Sisters” and “Undergrad,” and the petition during a Huffington Post Live broadcast, Drs. Marc Lamont Hill and Ricky Jones suggested that naysayers’ efforts to quell these projects are simply attempts to police the image of middle and upper class Blacks, and more specifically, organizations like BGLOs and historically Black colleges (HBC), which have long been symbols of the ability of Blacks to achieve middle and upper class strata. Drs. Hill and Jones seemed to further suggest that at least some of the criticism is the product of some people’s notion that Black elite organizations should somehow be exempt from stereotyping.

I agree with Drs. Hill and Jones’ assessment, and I disagree with the exemption. One of the biggest problems we have in the “Black” community is our psychotic tendency to “other” each other, and to not speak up about an issue until we are personally affected. We learned this during Slavery when we were taught to live in survival mode—and when we were taught to mimic our enslavers’ philosophy that in order for there to be winners there have to be losers. Further, the term “stereotyping” in the petition is being used loosely. We have to break away from the habit of excusing ourselves from addressing real problems by pointing to our hurt feelings. Every time someone presents an inconvenient truth—one that is contrary to what we want to believe about ourselves—we claim the defense of “offense.” Blacks aren’t the only ones who do this. Whites and others do this, too.

This is not to say that the depictions in “Sorority Sisters,” “Undergrad,” and other “reality” shows and media depictions are true. There are some BGLO members that only live up to the ideals their founders envisioned—whose hard work and professional and personal conduct set a standard for us all. But this is not the case for all, and nobody is, or should be, surprised by this. This is just like the many Blacks who claim to be “saved,” and claim to be Christians, but their behavior is the direct antithesis of what everybody knows about how Christians are supposed to live. Certainly, there are some Christians (very, very few) who talk the talk and walk the walk, but they can’t oppose others’ observations that some Christians are hypocrites. Emotional responses keep us from addressing real problems and perpetuate the idea that we lack the ability to analyze.

And about middle and upper class Blacks being exempt:  Aren’t many of the cast members on Real Housewives of Atlanta and Basketball Wives upper class? Many of them are college—and beyond—educated, and many own their own businesses. What exactly is middle and upper class anyway?

We need this mirror.  Maybe people seeing behavior they engage in acted out by others will be an impetus for change. Even reality “stars” have commented that seeing themselves act the way they have on television has provoked a desire to change. Further, I would bet a lot of things that many of the same people who are rallying against “Sorority Sisters” and “Undergrad” regularly indulge in other reality shows that “depict” Black females in a negative way. This sentiment was expressed by some of those who posted comments to the Huffington Post Live broadcast.

And if the opposition to “Sorority Sisters” is really about the image of the African-American (I prefer to say “Black”), then anyone who expressed opposition to “Sorority Sisters” ought not to be indulgers of any other reality shows that show us at our worst—which include but are not limited to: any of the “Real Housewives” franchise shows, the “Basketball Wives” shows; and opponents ought to have expressed dissatisfaction with the “change” petition concerning Blue Ivy’s hair—because nothing makes us looks worse than earnestly taking the time to create and circulate a petition about something as frivolous as a child’s hair. (I started not to even include a link to that petition, but that would have been the type of emotional response I argue against.)

And these same opponents ought to have expressed discontent over the issue that was made over Olympic gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas’ hair when she made history a few summers ago. Black Greeks and non-Greeks indulge in reality television and participate in frivolity.

Triflery and pettiness is not class-based. I know plenty of well-pedigreed professionals who get upset because someone walked in the room without “speaking,” for instance, and who talk about others’ choice of outfit, and other frivolous topics that will not make or break anybody’s existence.

I don’t know what Ms. Scott-Young’s motive was for creating “Sorority Sisters,” but I don’t agree with knocking someone’s hustle because you want to police an image that may or may not be far from an inconvenient truth.

We’re not fooling anybody. Even people outside of the Black Greek Life culture, who are aware of the intentions of BGLO founders, know that all Black Greeks do not live up to the ideals they pledged to uphold. Many BGLOs are said to be founded on Christian principles, yet there are many members who conduct themselves in opposition to such principles—in ways that include, but are not limited to: engaging in (lots of) casual sex; gossiping; allowing feelings of jealousy and envy to impact how they treat others; displaying prejudice against others based on ethnic, physical, and other differences; and gluttony (obesity). (Blacks’ confusion about what Christianity is and means accounts for a lot of this hypocrisy, but that’s another topic, for another blog.) Do you know any Black Greeks that have borne children out of wedlock? Do you know any that have multiple children with different parents? Do you know any that gossip? Any overweight? Have you ever heard a Black Greek comment that another didn’t pledge “properly?” Are any of your answers to the previous questions different than what they would have been had you not seen the trailer for “Sorority Sisters?” Nobody’s reality is shaken by what they see about us on television.

This display of consciousness to cover up an obvious demonstration of unconsciousness is taking our focus away from the real issue—the fact that we have more serious problems than what people think about us. We should have a problem with who we are and what we have become. We are those females (I use the word “woman” and “women” carefully) in that trailer. When I see my counterparts depicted in reality shows, I sadly—with all of my education and professional experiences—have flashbacks of being mistreated by my Greek and non-Greek “sisters.” And it’s not because I’m hanging out with the wrong people. It’s because Blacks as a mass have not recovered from the psychological impact of the Enslavement Process, and most of us are still operating like the self-hating slaves we were taught to be. This dysfunctional psychology is not particular to any class or socio-economic status. Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome has no respect of Black persons. Because it is so pervasive, I am not able to control when I will encounter a “sister”—Greek or not—that is going to judge my speech pattern, dress, other physical characteristic, or something she has heard about me, and accuse me of thinking that I’m better than she is, or worse—mistreat me because of her inferiority complex.

The “united front” we—Greeks and non-Greeks—try to show is killing us, because it prevents us from solving the root cause of problems. Hugging and kissing each other “on the yard” so on-lookers think an unbreakable bond exists that in reality doesn’t, is a waste of everybody’s time—which is not to say that sometimes such a bond doesn’t exist.

Reality shows don’t trash our image. We’ve done that already, by not recovering from the psychological impact of the Enslavement Process, and allowing the dysfunction we were taught to live under during that time to continually be perpetuated. Some people have just been smart enough to pick up a camera and make money off it. And if our BGLOs are so untouchable and filled with the talented tenth of us—how come any members are even signing up to be a part of Ms. Scott-Young’s projects and “performing” for them? Folks would have been better off skipping the petitions, and simply convening regional meetings to discuss how Black Greek life got so far away from what BGLO founders intended.

When we change who we are, our conduct and subsequent image will naturally change with it. We won’t have to worry about being embarrassed by desperate wanna-be celebrities who think that their path out of poverty is performing in ways that reflect the worst of us. We won’t have to worry about any of “us” taking to social media with frivolous petitions about individual characteristics, like hair, that speak nothing about a person’s potential or worth. But this mass change has not happened yet, partly because we have concerned ourselves more with image than with substance.

And let’s be honest:  a lot of the concern about our image is directly related to what we want Whites to think about us. If “Sorority Sisters” were just a show that Blacks could access, I can almost guarantee you that the present backlash would be non-existent. We might be a little bit concerned about what Black non-Greeks would think. But with Whites being able to access any channel on television, just as Blacks, there’s a chance they might think that our elite organizations aren’t what we’ve been saying they are. Newsflash though: When Whites see us convening our bourgeoisie conventions at local hotels and convention centers, and producing elaborate award shows, they don’t think that those of us attending are any better than those of us that can’t afford to attend—they think its funny that we spend all of this money to convince them that we can shine just like them when we get all dressed up when: A) they already know this to be the case, so we’re wasting our time trying to impress them; B) there are so many more Blacks that are suffering; and C) as soon as the lights go out and the right song comes on, we can be just as ratchet as “the others.” Don’t worry:  Whites already know that “all Blacks aren’t like that.”

This concern about what Whites think about us is probably what drove the petition about Blue Ivy’s hair. We know that Jay-Z and Beyonce’s family is popular amongst Whites and Blacks, and we don’t want Whites seeing us with our hair “all messed up.”

The pretention that belies the motivation to petition against something like “Sorority Sisters” and “images that depict Blacks in a negative way” is a waste of time. Blacks and Whites alike already know that all BGLO members aren’t ridiculous.

If the concept behind “Sorority Sisters” were a complete distortion, and that distortion had the potential to impact people’s view of an otherwise unblemished institution, there would possibly be cause for alarm. But Black Greeks and Non-Greeks alike have witnessed Black Greeks engaging in injurious conduct long before the “Sorority Sisters” trailer came out. For instance, Greeks and Non-Greeks have witnessed dissatisfied members ripping “letters” from other members because one doesn’t approve of the other’s membership. Dr. Marc Lamont Hill mentioned this while discussing the outrage over “Sorority Sisters” during the Huffington Post Live broadcast. (I don’t think any BGLO founder would be happy about the arrogance that drives these sorts of attacks among members.)

Pretention wasn’t a part of our founders’ plans, problem resolution was. The founders of BGLOs intended to encourage those of us who are able, to cooperate to solve problems affecting all of us. They had very specific plans in mind for determining who was worthy of engaging in such struggles. Again, as some folks started to concern themselves more with image than with substance, even those plans changed. (But I highly doubt that any BGLO founders would be satisfied with members ripping “letters” off of other members when becoming a member means working cooperatively with all other members. Where is the sisterhood or brotherhood in alerting others—Greek and non-Greek—of another member’s route to membership, and your humble disapproval of it?)

Further, and most strikingly, this whole situation is an example of “us” (Blacks) not all being on the same page. If we were all (Greek and non-Greek) as sophisticated as we’d like to believe we are—and as sophisticated as we want each other and others to believe—none of us would sign up to “perform” in any reality shows, we wouldn’t have to worry about anybody petitioning through social media about frivolous topics, and we wouldn’t have to worry about that one inarticulate, toothless witness news reporters always seem to find to describe what happened—because he or she wouldn’t exist.

Shutting down projects that publish “somebody’s” truth does more harm than good. It perpetuates dysfunctional unified fronts, encourages dishonesty, and prevents problems from being solved—and problem solving was exactly what our predecessors intended.

Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave

I generally wonder two things before sitting down to watch any movie that will cover, or allude to, the Enslavement Process—better known as “Slavery:” 1) How true will the depiction be to what actually occurred, and 2) How many rape scenes will there be? Having extensively studied the Enslavement Process—hence my reference to it most of the time as a “process” and not just an event—I know that it was horrific beyond what anyone who did not experience it first-hand can imagine, and that most depictions of it do not do it any justice. So, when I sat down to watch “12 Years,” in the year 2013 when many Whites—and Blacks—would like to believe that race is no longer an issue in this country, and when these same ostrich-imitators would like to believe that Slavery was not as bad as it really was, I was expecting to see a watered-down version of the Enslavement Process with few allusions to the amount of rape that occurred, and the quintessential White hero characters.

I was expecting to see mildly-mannered White slave-owners teaching slaves to read and write, and the typical depiction of at least one White slave owner who grapples so much with his involvement in Slavery that you end up feeling sorry for him, and consequently—and subliminally—thinking Slavery was not that bad after all.

Surprisingly, and refreshingly, “12 Years” offers a rather balanced view of some of the events surrounding the Enslavement Process. The courage of the director, and anyone else who had anything to do with this story being shared on the mainstream silver screen in such an honest way is to be commended.

Very seldom do depictions of the Enslavement Process show the actual tools that were used to physically subdue slaves, other than chains and shackles. I’ve only seen one other movie that showed the masks slaves were forced to wear during transport. Research reveals that these masks were used to prevent slaves from committing suicide.

Twelve Years is a winner because, despite its rawness, nothing is overdone, and besides telling the story it sets out to tell, it accurately describes what I think are the three R’s that made the Enslavement Process so impactful, and what any epic about Slavery has to address in order to achieve any level of accuracy—rape, religion, and relationships.

The slave masters did a job on Africans where sex was concerned. They raped girls and boys, women and men. In fact, I’m convinced that the prevalence of sexual abuse in Black communities is a direct result of behaviors we learned during Slavery. I hypothesize that we learned to treat each other the way the slave masters treated us. After generations of conditioning, events like rape and other forms of sexual abuse became commonplace—hence the silence when singer R.Kelly interacted inappropriately with an under-aged girl. Not only were Blacks silent as a community, but some adults spoke out against the little girl.

Director McQueen seems to emphasize the role that religion played in subduing the slaves, a lesson to which I hope Black movie-goers were paying particular attention. This is not to suggest that Blacks should forgo their Judeo-Christian practice, but it is to caution that we tend to practice Christianity in a way that hurts us more than it helps. Most Blacks still abide by the superficial, abstract form of Christianity we were introduced to during colonization, without any analysis. The ambiguity with which we were left continues to confound many of us, subsequently making it useless.

I wonder too, if McQueen’s intention was to expose the psychological impact of the Enslavement Process on the enslaved. For instance, there is a scene where the main character is left hanging on a tree for many, many hours. The audience experiences the length of time that passes with what seems to be an extension of the scene. While he is left hanging, slaves are seen walking past going about their business. Slaves were conditioned to believe that assisting each other could result in their own death. Slaves were forbidden from showing affection to one another. For instance, a mother showing affection to her child could result in that child being sold. Why? Because love is powerful. People tend to fight for the people they love. A whole lot of slaves fighting for the people they loved would have resulted in more uprisings than a little bit. How else, other than psychological submission, could a few White slave owners man a whole plantation full of people?

This conditioning occurred over many generations, so that after a while, slave owners could expect that slaves would interact with each other the way they had been taught to, without command. This pattern of relationships was so embedded that it continued after the Enslavement Process, and still continues today. Can you think of some examples?

One of the most powerful scenes occurs when the main character, now named “Platt,” is forced to beat another slave—a commonplace occurrence during the Enslavement Process, and one intended to weaken the slaves’ relationships with one another. I couldn’t help but think about how today, we, Blacks hurt each other. The scene is powerful because it, like many of the other scenes that demand particular attention, seem to be extended, and because the viewer eventually sees blood splashing off of the slave’s back as she is being beaten. I thought about how we hurt each other with gossip and other forms of deceit—and I hoped that Black females in particular will get that image in their head every time they open their lips to gossip about another female.

To appease those that might be embarrassed by the truth, who will counter-argue that Blacks owned slaves too, we do see Alfre Woodard’s character, a Black slave owner, and a couple of Black overseers.  But “12 Years” courageously reveals that these circumstances did not come about as the result of desire, as much as it did as the result of survival. Twelve Years brilliantly and concisely interweaves the backstory of pertinent characters. Nothing is overdone, even the hero White character (Brad Pitt)—who was played so well that I even feel guilty calling him that.

The only thing I ended up being able to predict was that the person that helped free the main slave character, Solomon Northup, would be a White person. And it makes sense that the hero would have to be a White person because of the time period and events. But, as is usual with White hero characters, you don’t end up feeling sorry for this person, because he makes it clear that his act is out of “duty,” and he is not shown fawning over Platt, so the movie-goer does not get caught up in a “Kumbaya-Ebony and Ivory” fantasy.

To be sure, Blacks did help create the Enslavement of their own people—and not just as over-seers recruited here in the Americas. I mean, at some point, we HELPED—like showed the colonists where they could find Africans, and helped lead Africans to slave ships. This is probably what keeps me from dodging at White people after I’ve watched a slave epic.

If you’re expecting to see smiling slaves, and slaves dancing the “do-si-do” on their down-time, this is not the slave epic you want to see. But if you’re ready to view a rare, raw depiction of a part of history that most would like to forget, and you feel like critically thinking—go see this movie. You will be sad, but enlightened.