Tuesday, January 19, 2010
ART: A Reflection of Ourselves
Part I: Art as a Reflection of Ourselves by Guest Blogger Kethia Clairvoyant
Upon donating to the founding of Princeton University’s Forbes College, Forbes Magazine’s late publisher Malcolm Forbes stated that "The purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one." Education (learning and learning how to learn) provides exposure to different ideologies and experiences, forming a person who continuously thirsts for knowledge and hungers for intellectual discourse. Not only do I concur, but I believe that every form of art also provides an education, thus combating ignorance and intolerance with knowledge and inclusion.
Through all art media, we are further enlightened as to who we are: who we are as individuals; who we are as a family unit; who we are as a community; who we are as a society, a nation; and who we are as a human race. Art exposes an opened door into our souls, encapsulating a fleeting emotion, a moment in time. We can then see, read, hear, touch, and sometimes even taste how our lives are woven together and interconnected. Art is so powerful a teaching mechanism that it allows us to incorporate all of our senses in the process of uncovering our truths.
Coonery VS. Art
In the last month I’ve seen countless postings and commentaries debating whether or not what Tyler Perry does is art, and whether his films help the African-American community or function more as a “new minstrel show”. A year ago Spike Lee had written a scathing letter denouncing Perry's body of work as "coonish and buffoonery." That depiction has also been applied to television programs like Martin, In Living Color, and Good Times with their tendencies to pander to a low-level of entertainment, imposing white-bred stereotypes upon us once again with a parade of demeaning and unflattering characters.
In years both recent and far back, there have been major controversies over topics tackled in films such as: overt, deep-rooted societal racism; the alarmingly high occurrences of black men incarcerated; the perception of black women as hyper-sexed objects for the use of white men; interracial coupling and the desire that many (particularly black men) have to elevate one’s status by dating someone who is white; racism within the black community with our complexes and preferences towards lighter complexions, long, straightened hair, and European features; the accepted dominance and degradation of black men over women; and the child-like complacency of blacks in being subservient to whites. These major themes are explored in the films Monster’s Ball (2001), Jungle Fever (1991), The Color Purple (1985) and Gone With the Wind (1939). Though they broach a vast array of different subject matters, they all share one common theme: difficult and painful problems that are pervasive in the African-American community. Prominently featuring each one as though it were a living, breathing cast member places the issue on a pedestal for the entire world to view.
Since we as black people have been portrayed in mainstream artistic media,--film and television in particular--at the true heart of these criticisms is that these artists could boldly air our dirty laundry. But can we not stand up and applaud those visionaries that are daring enough to explore, reflect upon, and bring to light our “secrets”--even our insecurities and fallibilities--in vivid, graphic, and soul-stirring portrayals of every facet of life as it exists?
Though we have been major (but silenced) contributors to all components of American society since our ancestors set foot on this land, as black Americans we continue to feel oppressed and underappreciated as we still are not always recognized as an integral part of American society. It’s understandable that after centuries of being denied our accomplishments and having been made to feel invisible that we now do all we can to bring forth our contributions and positive aspects of whom we truly are as people. We crave for all people to become aware (finally!) of the great minds and the culture that have been bred within the black community. But we do that sometimes while trying to cloak the more negative aspects of who we also are (or can be) as black people. And to deny ourselves our history and truth is to deny who we really are just as people -- and a people who need to continue to progress and not simply become complacent and shuffle along. We must always be challenged (challenging each other and our detractors) into looking deep within ourselves in order to move forward. What’s worse than regressing and moving backwards is remaining inert and not attempting to move forward.
Homosexuality in Black Film
One pressing issue that has finally made its way to the forefront of our psyche and discourse is homosexuality, particularly among black men. Before E. Lynn Harris passed away in July of this year, he had helped to usher in the first-ever prominence of gay literature in the African-American community. He was the first renowned writer to expose the down-low phenomenon among black athletes, entertainers and everyday men.
I feel that many men who are critical of Tyler Perry espouse a touch of homophobia when they complain that they oppose his choice to be in drag in order to get his point across in his films. In The Color Purple there are lesbian overtones, and even a mouth-to-mouth kiss and sexual relationship shared between Celie and Shug Avery.
Today in 2009, we are being pounded with a barrage of newly reported HIV/AIDS infections that is so rampant within the African-American community that it claims black women among the highest newly reported rates within the country. Closeted gay men (or down-low brothers) are not too far behind in those statistics. At the onset of the disease in the ‘80s and then throughout the 90s and earlier part of this new millennium, HIV/AIDS used to be perceived as a white or gay person’s disease and most of the predominantly black churches wouldn’t acknowledge its force and potential destruction within our communities. But faced with indisputable, tangible data, what will we do now? Will we willingly depict this current truth and allow it to find its way into our art? In this instance, artists share with the community the burden of health, safety, and education. We hold the power to be outspoken with our voices and through our art.
COMING UP: Part II: Art as a Reflection of Ourselves by Kethia Clairvoyant