Monday, January 11, 2016

Media and Melanin --- Representation Matters

by Jaylin Paschal

As a kid, Disney Channel's Raven Baxter (played by Raven-Symone) on That's So Raven meant the world to me. A black girl who wasn't only popular, well-dressed, and academically successful--but magic. The idea that someone who looked liked me, with a family that looked liked mine, could excel in both the tangible and the supernatural made me fall in love with the television show. I could see myself in Raven, in a way I couldn't see myself in any other show on the channel. She was real. She was relatable. She was representative.

I've always--subconsciously and purposely--sought out the people of color in films and on television. I've watched an entire series from pilot to finale only to count the amount of token characters of color on the fingers of one hand. These characters are usually static and flat. Their role is not to add to or take from the plot. Their role is to "diversify" the cast. I encourage you to visit the blog linked here, EVERY SINGLE WORD, which puts together clips from movies featuring every single word spoken by a character of color in a movie or series. Many compilations last no longer than 20 seconds.

When black characters are not insignificant tokens, they often embody detrimental stereotypes of the "thug" or the "angry black woman." Often the character of color is either filling space or fulfilling harmful, negative images.

So let's get to the point. Why is representation important?

First, we should highlight the problem. A straightforward explanation was offered by Wake Magazine:

"The lack of racial diversity in media is rampant. According to the New York Film Academy, only 12.4 percent of speaking characters from the 2007-2012 top 500 grossing films were portrayed by black actors, while 75.8 percent of these roles were portrayed by white characters. In fact, 40 percent of the top 100 grossing films from 2012 showed black characters as less than 5 percent of the speaking cast."

Having characters we can relate to is important, as it often helps us grasp an understanding of ourselves. Media offers viewers a reflection of themselves, and a peek into the world of others. Having dynamic, round characters of color not only gives a diverse audience a chance to see themselves, but also gives the white audience a chance to see beyond stereotypes they've learned. The same is true vice versa.

Of course the lack of representation extends beyond race. An unsubstantial amount of representation of races, religions, sexes, genders, sexualities, body types, etc. leaves out the stories of millions.

"Without equal representation, there are people who are not feeling heard or seen. In a nation and world as diverse and complex as ours, the last thing we want is to lose the stories of a large portion of our people (Wake Magazine)."

This is why people were annoyed with the 2015 Oscars being the whitest since 1998. This is why Viola Davis's Emmy win meant so much. This is why magazines like Ebony and stations like BET have to exist. This is why having a black girl play the role of Annie mattered. This is why the black community made it a point to see a Star Wars with a black man as the leading actor. This is why women like Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay rule our world.

This representation is meaningful even outside of the realm of media. Barbie dolls of color are important as a beauty standard and message of validation. Black people like President Obama, in positions of power, are important as a symbols of success and possibility.

Under-representation is dangerous, as it leads to misunderstanding and isolation. It is time for media and melanin to finally merge.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Thank You, Hip Hop

by Jaylin Paschal

I'm going to try my best not to be cliché. I don't want this to be another stereotypical ode to Hip Hop. I don't want this to be the classic "Hip Hop saved my life" testimony. I don't want to tell you about our love story. I don't want to come off as some sort of music elitist or genre snob. However, Hip Hop--as an art, a culture, a lifestyle, an industry, and a statement--has managed to keep me me while simultaneously forcing me to change. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful, extensive, vibrant, and cultured art form I've ever encountered. A thank you is in order.

I spent hours of my childhood lying beside my dad on our living room floor listening to music. I've answered countless random rap trivia questions and have guessed a number of instruments at play during long family road trips. I've had to prove myself on the aux cord and I've watched more Hip Hop oriented documentaries than you'd believe. I've dug through crates of vinyls looking for hidden gems. It's safe to say that I'm not an enthusiast by choice but by default. Music, particularly Hip Hop, is a huge part of my family and my daily life.

Its manifestation in my life is reflected ten-fold in those of millions of others. Hip Hop has permeated social and societal barriers in a way that's connected people across the nation, and around the globe, since its birth. This connection has surpassed the trend phase. 

"People called rock & roll 'African music.' They called it 'voodoo music.' They said that it would drive the kids insane. They said that it was just a flash in the pan - the same thing that they always used to say about hip-hop."
- Little Richard

It reaches beyond the area deemed as "common interest." Hip Hop is not only by the people, for the people, but representative of the people.

Listen, people be askin me all the time
"Yo Mos, what's gettin ready to happen with Hip-Hop?"
(Where do you think Hip-Hop is goin?)
I tell em, "You know what's gonna happen with Hip-Hop?
Whatever's happening with us"
If we smoked out, Hip-Hop is gonna be smoked out
If we doin alright, Hip-Hop is gonna be doin alright
People talk about Hip-Hop like it's some giant livin in the hillside
Comin down to visit the townspeople
We are Hip-Hop
Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop
So Hip-Hop is going where we going
So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is going
Ask yourself: 'where am I going? How am I doing?'
'til you get a clear idea
- Fear Not of Man by Mos Def

And because it's a representation of the people, Hip Hop is often personified and given human characteristics or abilities. This is why describing something as "Hip Hop" means so much more than category or style. Hip Hop has implications, connotations, and history that it carries on its shoulders. It extends beyond beats and rhymes; rhythm and poetry. Hip Hop is not just a genre--it'd be naive to think so.

Hip Hop is a culture. Hip Hop is graffiti. Hip Hop is street style--oversized clothes, customized denim, gold grills, tilted snapbacks. Hip Hop is beat-boxing, break-dancing. Hip Hop is a boombox over the shoulder. Hip Hop is "greatest emcee" debates. Hip Hop is in fact, more than a culture. It's a lifestyle choice. The shoes you wear, the way you speak, the style of your hair. Kids live by it, kids die by it. It impacts individuals, just as it impacts the masses.

"Is Hip Hop just a euphemism for a new religion?"
- Gorgeous by Kanye West

Hip Hop is an industry in many of the same ways. It impacts sales beyond the musical world, affecting profit margins in the arenas of theater, fashion (clothes and shoes), cosmetology, etc. Looking at the executive success of men like Jay Z and Dr. Dre strengthens this belief.

Most importantly, Hip Hop is a statement. From songs like N.W.A.'s "Fuck the Police" to Kanye West's "Facts," Hip Hop has been away to challenge systems. Questioning the status quo and voicing truths, Hip Hop has managed to give a distinct sound to the struggles and stories its members have experienced. Hip Hop is censored beyond belief and often thought of as less than because of its tendency to unapologetically discuss whatever it is that needs to be handled--pleasant or otherwise. You don't have to like what's being said, but you definitely have to listen. Hip Hop as a statement is abrasive, uncensored, and candid in the most beautiful way imaginable. It's not meek or mild, but gracious still. It's all of the power, with none of the prestige.

"I think hip-hop could help rebuild America, once hip-hoppers own hip-hop... We are our own politicians, our own government, we have something to say. We're warriors. Soldiers."
- Nas
It manages to manifest in one race, and still transcend racial boundaries. It manages to appeal to people of all socioeconomic statuses. It manages to travel the globe by way of radio waves. It manages to appeal from underground to mainstream. It manages to gain recognition from barbershop panels, to XXL covers, to the Grammy's.

And even more significantly, it manages to maintain a healthy resting heartbeat when so many claim its death.

"I know Hip Hop is alive and well,
If it died, you other crews wouldn't survive the smell."

- Shady 2.0 BET Cypher, Joe Budden

If Hip  Hop dies, so many and so much die with it. It has infiltrated not only black, but American culture as a whole, too deeply to go down without taking the rest of us with it. Which is why, even when enduring what seems to be its deterioration, it could quite literally never die. I hate to be this corny, but it lives as long as we do. And we're fairly resilient. And just like we have, "Hip Hop's passed all your tall social hurtles (Mathematics by Mos Def)." But then again, in the words of Common, "maybe I'm a hopeless, Hip Hop romantic."

As I said in the beginning, a thank you is in order. Thank you for giving a voice to the voiceless. Thank you for the community. Thank you for changing the definition of "art." Thank you for all of the beats that make us nod our heads and lines that make us rewind the track. Thank you for all of the dances. Thank you for all of the moments spent obnoxiously rapping along to songs with loved ones. Thank you for making white people so uncomfortable.Thank you for both the platform and the forum.Thank you, Hip Hop.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 Reflection

2015 has come and gone more quickly than I'd like to think about. As ready as I am to move on from it, I have to admit, it was a good year.

I'm loving someone way more than I would usually allow myself to.
I developed my voice as a writer.
I had my first spoken word performance.
I went to New York City.
I was in a wedding.
I attended Black Lives Matter protests.
I cut my hair off.
I photographed an art show.
I went to Orange Beach.
I had the perfect, corny Valentine's date to an aquarium.
I saw someone I hadn't seen for five years and explored Chicago with them.
I went to DC.
I saw J. Cole perform live.
I had a surprise party thrown for my birthday.

I edited and published the first print magazine for my school's journalism program.
I met Nikki Giovanni.
I won first place in a poetry contest I forgot I entered.
I saw Basquiat pieces in person.
I saw Kendrick Lamar perform live.
I became a published poet.
I got my dream internship.
I got my dream internship turned into my dream job.
I went to Atlanta for a cancelled Afropunk festival.
I attended an art gallery opening.

I owe so much love, light, and life to 2015. This reflection was important, as it reminded me of blessings and prompted a positive close to the year. I have appreciation for the past and anticipate the future. Life is good.

See ya next year.

Your Respectability Politics Aren't Very Respectable

     1. regarded by society to be good, proper, or correct
     2. of some merit or importance

Respectable behavior changes each time you ask for its definition. What's respectable to me may be unacceptable to you, and vice versa. It is rare when society as a collective whole agrees on what and who deserves respect--this is true even in terms of leader of the free world,  President Obama. While many believe he deserves the utmost respect, some would spit on him if given the chance.

In short, "respectability" is in the eye of the beholder.

Therefore, it is unreasonable to assume that something as wavering and uncertain as a person's respectability may be the reason they were subjected to unfair treatment. This assertion suggests that something as subjective as respectability is solid enough to be the basis upon which we determine value. And this suggestion falls short, as it has proven time and time again to be irrelevant. If it did hold true, Martin Luther King,  Jr., Malcolm X, Clementa Pinckney, etc. would not have been murdered in cold blood. The black professors of Harvard University would not have had their pictures vandalized. Melissa Harris Perry wouldn't have endured the continuous online stream of racist slurs. Being educated, well-dressed, mild-mannered, articulate, church-going, etc. would have saved them. Yet, here they are on this list.

It seems obvious that respectability or the lack thereof does not matter to a bigot, so why does it matter so much to the victim? How do respectability politics still drive many of the narratives in the black community? "Respectability politics or the politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference." In the social arena of racism, the theory implies that racism will end where pants stop sagging and when we remove the apostrophes from our dialect. It implies that if we trade in our Eazy E for Beethoven and conform to what is "respectable," which tends to mean what is white, we'll be alright. As I've said before, it's a flawed theory. Offering respectability in an exchange for black life is an attempt to reason with the unreasonable. A bigot is a bigot whether you're in Coogi or Calvin Klein. Dressing our sons in suits, forbidding them from using slang, cutting off their afros, and sending them off to school won't protect them. It's their blackness that's hated, and that can't be folded away, tucked in, picked out, or diluted by education. "Respectable" or not, they will still be black.

Elitism within the black community, met with a determination to "uplift the race," ignores this fact though. This philosophy instead macro-manages black behavior in a way that is far more detrimental than helpful. The black community agrees to shaving our dreadlocks with promises of change, just to mourn the unjust deaths of our children. Our self-correction serves us no purpose, as new skin is the only true alteration that would make a difference. The klan killed black men in shirts and ties--stripped them down to their stark, black nakedness. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether those men were articulate when they begged for their lives.

The theory of respectability politics has failed will always fail. It's not trading in our culture and customs, because we're getting no respect in return. It's not sacrificial because there is no benefit. It's not adaptive, because you will never "fit in" where you are simply unwelcome. It's not dignified conformity, but done in vain. And that's not very respectable at all.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Disagree =/= Disrespect

As the world, and America in particular, diversifies by the second, it becomes more and more likely that we will cross paths with people who have opinions, customs, behaviors, and belief systems which we disagree with. With well over 7 billion humans and only one Earth, it's bound to happen. There is a certain beauty to coexisting with people who have conflicting or even contrasting ideals. It shows that humanity has a certain capacity for understanding and tolerance. However, unfortunately, a wave (or perhaps just an unveiling) of bigotry and xenophobia has shown people in the world, and Americans in particular, forgetting the principles of acceptance and tolerance. Instead of appreciating all of the differences that make mankind significant, understanding is abandoned in a pointless but frantic effort to defend and spread one's own ideals. Although this is often beneficial in terms of assimilation or cultural exchange, today more than ever this defense and projection of beliefs is done in way that is disrespectful, or in a manner that makes it apparent that these beliefs were bred in either hate or fear.

It is natural, and admiral even, to want to defend your own ideals. It is naive, and foolish even,  to expect others not to defend their own just as passionately. These conversations are valuable in the way that they allow us to articulate our beliefs and share ideas. Sometimes, we are even able to share our perspective in a way which causes one to change their mind. However, often this does not happen, and at a certain point we must agree to disagree. When this happens we sometimes leave the conversation with discomfort, denial, disbelief, or even disgust.  But what's important is that we never leave them with disrespectful comments or behaviors.

The truth is, you're not going to get through to everyone. It's impossible, and that's okay. But no one is any better or worse than you are for having a differing opinion. We must be careful to watch our words and mannerisms in an effort to not condemn or judge anyone for simply thinking differently than we do. What's important is that we do not hold anyone else to our own standards; that we understand that no one is obligated to abide by our own moral code.

And so instead of throwing around insults or labels or slurs or offense when we come across those who live differently than we do, we should begin to embrace differences. There is always something to be learned in these conversations, either about the other side or about ourselves. At the end of the day--or conversation, rather--it is important that we appreciate the social, socioeconomic, religious, political, cultural, etc. variety that composes humanity.

I am definitely guilty of disrespecting people who disagreed with something I was passionate about or believed deeply. It is an automatic, defensive mechanism that I have had to unlearn and constantly keep in check. I still have a lot of work to do, and I encourage all others to work as well. No one is ever obligated to agree, and no one is ever entitled to disrespect.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Webster Racism: How Much Can Definitions Actually Define?

"If I look up “carrot” in the dictionary, most people will acknowledge I do not know all there is to know about carrots and if I truly want to understand carrots, I should probably pick up a horticultural text book. We know that legal and medical terms are going to be, at best, simplistically represented and know we need to find a lawyer or a doctor if we want to know more. Anyone deciding to base their argument on, say, a philosophical concept or term using the dictionary is going to be laughed at at best, or automatically lose whatever argument they’re trying to make at least. Yet the minute we move into a social justice framework, the ultimate authority changes. We don’t need lived experience, we don’t need experts who have examined centuries of social disparities and discrimination, we don’t need societal context. We don’t need sociology or history – no, we have THE DICTIONARY! That ultimate tome of oracular insight, the last word on any debate!"

This excerpt from the social commentary blog, Womanist Musings, has beautifully articulated my frustrations with the dictionary. Too often, usually in discussions with uncomfortable white people, I have had the dictionary pulled out on me and some lofty definition of racism or sexism read to me. These definitions are usually correct, yes. But they offer no context. Racism and sexism and other -isms are reduced down from catastrophic, institutional principles to a general, euphemistic meaning which was intended to be used to simply define a word; not to explain it and not to apply it.  As the Womanist Musings post elaborated, "the dictionary is not an ultimate authority. It’s a brief answer, a vague idea, as concise as it can be to get the idea across."

There are certain things about words, racism in particular, the dictionary just can't tell you. It won't mention slavery, economic apartheid, Jim Crow, the Black Panther Party, colorism, segregation, assassinations, the KKK, lynchings, Adolf Hitler, church bombings, Trayvon Martin, mass incarceration, the Dred Scott case, COINTELPRO, gentrification, white supremacy, etc., etc., etc.

So if you want to talk to me about how racism doesn't exist anymore, or how reverse racism is real, or how racism exists only in the backwoods of Alabama and not in every American institution, please have a statement that does not  depend on the two sentences found beside the word.

Webster racism doesn't even scratch the surface, let alone hold any standing as a valid argument. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Moodboard (November 2015)

Another month, another moodboard. Crazy to think it's November already. At least now I can wear high-neck tops and drink hot beverages without people questioning my sanity. Happy Novembering.

Art enthusiasts will appreciate this. It may be my first tattoo.

Her skin. Her hair. Her demeanor.

To live by.

Two works of art.

My third favorite set of sisters. After only my sister and me, and Bey and Solange.

Design inspiration.

Black lives matter, in print.

Solange Knowles grieves the nine lives lost at the Charleston AME church shooting.

This man is brilliance unappreciated.

Her skin. Her hair. Her demeanor. Part II.

Cover/editorial art inspiration. Also, makes me want to do some investigative journalism.

Stripes and shadows.

The complexities of black artistry.

"Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps."

Drake on W Magazine's art issue cover.

All images found on Tumblr & Pinterest.