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Harvard University Press

V Books: Toni Morrison’s ‘The Origin Of Others’ Encourages Minorities To Control Their Narrative

Toni Morrison explores black identity and literature. 

As of late, I've been pondering, and carrying troubling thoughts, on whether or not my identity, and how white America sees me as a black man, is permanent. If it is, racism will never end. My identity, in the eyes of white people is imperative to moving forward with race relations in the U.S. Other questions have lingered as well: other than me, who shapes my identity? How much control do I have over my identity? As possible answers to these questions circulated within my mind, esteemed author, thinker, and former professor, Toni Morrison provided a springboard for me to further explore this issue with the publication of her new work,  The Origin of Others (Harvard University Press).

As Ta-Nehisi Coates states in the book's forward, this brief read -- only 111 pages -- tackles questions that are based on Morrison's Norton lectures at Harvard University titled, “The Literature of Belonging.” Thanks to hip-hop and literature penned by black authors, and my insatiable love of academically researched books on the black experience, I’ve always marveled at the astounding feats that black men and women across the U.S. have accomplished in the face of insurmountable oppression. Whether it was my experiences with drug addiction, my grandmother's ignorance toward the meaning of me getting accepted into graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in U.S. history, or my personal ties to the streets, all of the former are enmeshed into and can be connected to the history of black America. From slavery, the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow and the civil rights era -- my view on life stems from black history. Yes, my definition of what it means to be black may differ from my next door neighbor's definition, or the black families in the Hamptons, but one thing that connects black people is our identity to white America.

“The Origin of Others” isn't about the race -- Morrison states her position by saying that there's only the human race. But Morrison also questions the role literature plays in shaping our identities. She starts by unearthing supposed findings from the “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” (1851). Here, Dr. Samuel Cartwright outlined two illnesses in a long chain of "research" that helped shape black identity: Drapetomania -- which caused slaves to run away, and Dysaesthesia Aethiopica, "a kind of mental lethargy that caused the negro to be like a person half-asleep.” With this, Morrison shows how the idea of race or "otherness" became embedded into the psyche of working class whites.

Morrison begins The Origins of Others by recounting her first encounter with racial impurity. As a child, in 1932 or 1933, Morrison's great-grandmother visited the family. Morrison said her great-grandmother looked at "my sister and me, she frowned, pointed her cane, and said, 'These children have been tampered with.'” Not old enough to put all of the pieces together as to what her great-grandmother meant by singling her out, Morrison knew that she and her sister were polluted with otherness. Something outside of what it meant to be human. When Morrison's otherness was addressed, it came with a frown, which also denotes that her otherness was something negative.

Morrison continues to analyze the position of otherness within literature like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Here, Morrison says that Stowe's esteemed work romances slavery by humanizing it. Morrison also suggests that Stowe paints slaves as docile, and happy to serve. As an example, she describes the relationship between Eva and Topsy -- the Other child. Topsy is an unruly young girl who learns how to act civilized by the white and respectable young girl, Eva. Morrison also points out that “Uncle Tom's Cabin” was written for white people. Additionally, Morrison recognizes works by Flannery O'Connor and Ernest Hemingway and how their descriptions of black characters assisted in creating white America's definition of the identities of blacks.

This realization makes Morrison's publications that much more important, especially to black readers. In the chapter titled “Narrating the Other,” Morrison recalls working for Random House publishing company as a senior editor. There, she was responsible for the autobiographies of historic figures like the Black Panther Party's co-founder, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, and others. During a regional sales conference, a salesman announced that only a few black consumers purchased books. This conference inspired the award-winning author to go on a trailblazing path to create literature that black people would want to read.

"I imagined a reverse dystopia -- a deepening of the definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white...,’" Morrison writes of her decision to pen novels.

Her first novel, “Beloved,” was based on the life of Margaret Garner, a slave mother who killed her children to save them from suffocating the pangs of slavery. By loosely telling Garner's story, Morrison shows the extreme consequences of what happens when power is abused, countering the narratives that slaves are docile and submissive, and the need for the white man's paternalism. Morrison also recounts how literature has identified Africa as a dark, corrupt continent filled with savagery.

The autobiographical moments in The Origin of Others are the most interesting paragraphs within this book. Peeking into the life of this Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s personal life to understand her concerns for black America, provides a logical solution in shaping black identity -- control our narrative. But honestly, how many white supremacists or KKK members are actually paying attention to our stories, with the hopes of bridging the gap between black and white relations? And I'm guilty, too. I don't buy white supremacist literature, although it would help my understanding of their thought process.

While I have yet to come up with answers on whether or not my identity as a black man is permanent, however, The Origins of Others moved me to be more conscious of what type of language and behavior I, a hip-hop journalist and aspiring historian, put into the world.

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Tyler Perry, Popeye’s Chicken, And Who We Call ‘Coon’

Black shame has been something of an online talking point in recent weeks. From a chicken sandwich’s bemusing popularity, to a movie mogul opening a major studio on the back of a controversial cinematic legacy, big headlines have led to heated conversations about who or what embarasses us as Black folks. This is an ongoing discussion – about “coonery” and how it affects Black America and Black Americans’ perception of themselves. Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s successes, a stabbing at a Popeye’s chicken, and the resurrection of a blaxploitation cult classic have all offered interesting peeks into how we see the more polarizing aspects of Black popular culture.

But there’s still no clear answer to the question: who, or what, exactly, is a “coon?”

The opening of Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta has been hailed as a major event for Black Hollywood; a moment where Black ambition and individuality broke new ground for Black storytelling and ownership of that storytelling. But no Tyler Perry success is an easy thumbs-up; from the moment the writer/director/actor broke through with Diary Of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005, Perry has been a polarizing figure for Black critics and audiences. While beloved by his fanbase, Perry, with his broad folksy comedy characters and church fan messaging, has been blasted as a purveyor of “coonery” for years. Notables like Oprah Winfrey have remained staunchly pro-Perry, while fellow filmmaker Spike Lee was once one of his harshest detractors.

"Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said in an interview with Black Enterprise in 2009. “But I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is 'coonery buffoonery'."

Perry responded to Lee in a 2009 60 Minutes interview. "I would love to read that [criticism] to my fanbase. ... That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."

The idea that what Perry does is “coonery” is complicated and has always raised questions. Perry’s brand of screwball humor (particular in his Madea films and former sitcoms) isn’t all that different from slapstick and over-the-top characters that we’ve seen from the likes of Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans. Lawrence’s beloved 90s sitcom Martin had its detractors during its heyday (and now), but there doesn’t appear to be the same level of contempt as compared to Perry; judging from how popular his old show has remained, its fair to suggest that Lawrence is beloved by many of the same people who have seen Perry’s Madea movies as embarrassing. As Perry himself mentioned in his rebuttal to Spike Lee, he speaks to his fanbase—a base that largely goes ignored by many of the more critically-acclaimed Black storytellers in cinema. While auteurs like Lee or Barry Jenkins may speak to a specific type of urban experience, Perry has always been most connected to a sensibility that’s more southern, rural and Black Christian-leaning. The fact that his brand of more countrified broad humor is so unsettling for some Black folks indicates an ever-present sense of shame for country Black-isms--particularly when they’re presented in slapstick comedy. Perry has built his empire on Black audiences, yet certain Black critics have always acted as though that audience doesn’t matter. Who gets the final say on Blackness in entertainment?

There are other reasons people criticize aTyler Perry: a penchant for heavy-handed moralizing in his movies, a tendency towards colorism, questionable labor policies – that’s all valid. It’s just as valid as calling out Spike for the choices he’s made regarding female characters in his films, or addressing the colorism of Martin’s Pam jokes. But those specific criticisms aren’t inherently connected to “coonery” and what that uniquely damning insult signifies.

Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix in October to widespread acclaim, with the Rudy Ray Moore biopic earning Murphy his best reviews in a decade. The film focuses on Moore’s determination to make his Dolemite comedy character a movie star, independently using family, friends and associates to get his movie off the ground. Hustling his way up from standup through hit comedy records to actually seeing his movie on the big screen, Moore is portrayed as a symbol of Black individuality and self-actualization. As I was watching his story unfold, I was reminded of the parallels to Perry. Like Perry, Moore and his team wouldn’t really be considered great filmmakers, but also like Perry, Dolemite’s appeal doesn’t really lie in craft or execution—Moore simply told stories that resonated with his particular audience. In one scene in ...My Name, when Moore watches an Indianapolis crowd guffawing at his low-budget blaxploitation spectacle, the sense of pride he feels isn’t just in what he’s accomplished, its in who he’s doing it for: an audience that wanted Dolemite humor and camp—an audience that existed even within the broader blaxploitation fanbase.

With so many raving about Dolemite Is My Name and Murphy, there’s a question of hindsight being 20/20 and how Black art is often policed through a sense of shame. How many of those applauding this 2019 biopic would have cringed seeing Dolemite in 1975, a jive-talking, pudgy quasi-pimp at the center of a shoddily made flick? Now, that story is being told with reverence and heart, and it speaks to how, once you can put some distance between time and place, it’s easy to see a bigger picture and celebrate the spirit--even when the end result may not be to your taste.

When Popeye’s now-mythic Spicy Chicken sandwich made its return last week, the online jokes and customer enthusiasm was met with criticism and handwringing from those who obviously felt Black folks were falling into a stereotype over fried chicken. When a news report revealed that someone had died violently at a Popeye’s over an argument while in line, many bemoaned how embarrassing Black folks had supposedly gotten over this sandwich. Of course, there wasn’t a widespread epidemic of chicken sandwich-related violence, it was just an incident that happened at a restaurant. But because the shame was already boiling over in some Black folks, this became a chance to finger-wag the culture for everything from poor eating habits to not supporting Black business to voter apathy. In a society that teaches us racism from the moment we are aware of race, it’s imperative that Black folks un-learn Black shame. And it’s time to stop running to “coon” any time you believe someone fits a stereotype racism taught you to be embarrassed by.

Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.

Who “fits the stereotype” isn’t really what’s most damaging to Black people in America – it’s the fact that these stereotypes exist in the first place. Tyler Perry’s characters weren’t created by some outsider and foisted upon Black audiences from a place of derision; they’re affectionate parodies of his own family, written by and for someone who knows that churchy, southern voice and isn’t so ashamed by it that they can’t have a little fun with it. In the same spirit that we now applaud figures like Moore and southern rap impresarios like Master P (who built an empire with a No Limit Records label that catered to its audience while often being criticized for mediocrity by rap “purists” of the mid-90s). The shame in Popeye’s popularity, the shame in a Madea character, the shame in so much of what we see in Black people—is only there because racism put it there. Before deciding to speak against a Black creator as a “coon,” shouldn’t we be sure to not marginalize an audience? Black art is still Black art even when it doesn’t necessarily speak to your specific Black experience.

And beyond even art, maybe it’s past time that we just stop being so ashamed of Black people.

“Coon” has merit, no doubt. But when it’s tethered to a sense of embarrassment, it can become a weapon of respectability. Being who you are, telling your story, maintaining your voice—those things shouldn’t make you a “coon.” Even if your voice is loud and country, even if your voice is problematic in certain areas, even if your voice doesn’t match my own—you aren’t a “coon” until you begin shucking and jiving for the status quo; not just because you’re being you, regardless of whether they’re watching or not. That’s an important distinction that often gets lost in the haze of embarrassment. Using descriptors like “country” and “ghetto” as pejoratives is an indication that something taught us that these types of Black folks “make us look bad.” Believing that would mean that we’re buying into the lens of other folks. Do we really think Black experiences, Black voices should be shaped by how racism sees us? Because if so, that’s the real shame. 

Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer/editor/media producer based in New York City. An outspoken veteran entertainment journalist, his work has been featured in The Daily Beast, XXL, Ebony and The Undefeated. He's also an accomplished screenwriter and documentarian who's co-produced films such as Exubia and Beautiful Skin.

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Solange Uses Her Divine Spirit To Calm The Mind And Body For "Bridge-s" Performance Piece

There's a serene feeling over the bodies standing in the iconic architecture at the Getty Center Museum. Jazzy horns, peaceful keys, and crisp guitar riffs gently interrupt the soothing silence as dancers dripped in marigold threads swayed to "Counting," a composition created by Solange. A series of odd numbers like "5", "7" and "9" are recited on a loop by half of her dancers while the others chant "6", "4" and "2." It's just a preview of her latest creation Bridge-s but felt like a dynamic meditation.

Bridge-s brings yet another magnetic piece into her series of interdisciplinary works that spawned after the release of her magnum opus, A Seat At The Table. The world was introduced to Solange's artistic side thanks to performance art pieces at the Guggenheim in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Composed by Solange and choreographed by Gerard & Kelly, Bridge-s was created with the pillars, beams, and columns around the museum in mind. Dancers and the orchestra used the space to their advantage, with tuba players catching the peripheral of attendees from afar.

Four rollouts will take place November 16-17, curated with a selection of films that include Black to Techno by Jenn Nkiru, AFRONAUTS and Boneshaker by Nuotama Bodomo, The State of Things by singer-songwriter Kish Robinson (Kilo Kish) and more. In its entirety, Bridge-s was designed to explore "transitions through time."

This was felt throughout the performance piece as dancers move with the intent of love, internal struggle, and unity. In a stunning zine designed by Sablā Stays, Gerard & Kelly shared the emphasis behind their modernist and inclusive approach.

"Our work, like hers, is part of an interdisciplinary effort throughout the arts and humanities to redefine modernism by critically engaging its prevailing narratives. By accounting for differences of gender, sexuality, and race. By focusing on intimate and collective histories. By centering our work around the body, dance and movement," they said.

Solange also opened up about the importance the museum and the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg played in the performance piece. "Both Elbphilharmonie Hamburg and the Getty Museum have sure strong distinctive voices spatially, and so the intention is that all of the work, the movement, the language, the songs all align with those principles," she said. "Working with Gerard and Kelly, who share many of the same philosophies on their approach to interpreting time and space through performance has really built the foundation [for] the spirit of this collaboration."

Like the rest of us, the artist watched closely the dancers glide across the floor, while bandmembers release enchanting sonnets with vocalists dropping a few high notes in between. Guests like Thundercat (and his Pikachu backpack), Kilo Kish, Dev Hynes of Blood Orange and Tyler, The Creator were also left speechless after the performance.

“I just want to thank you guys for allowing me the space to evolve, experiment and express new frontiers,” Solange said to the crowd after the assembly provided endless cheers.

Learn more about Bridge-s and get free tickets here.

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Meet D Smoke, Inglewood And Hip-Hop's Next Hometown Hero

D Smoke is humble. The Inglewood native exudes an aura of maturation, needed for his quick ascension into popular culture as the first winner of Rhythm + Flow, Netflix’s hip-hop reality competition centered on the discovery of hip-hop’s next star. His signature authenticity shone throughout the 10-episode series and international audiences were drawn to his charisma as he proudly rapped about his lived experiences as a young black man in Inglewood.

“There’s such a rich history,” he says about his hometown, the inspiration for his forthcoming EP, over the phone. “I feel like it’s a beautiful but brief journey through my mind, my lived experiences, and the place that I’m extremely fond of.”

His musical confidence was displayed on the three-week series as he incorporated Spanish and live instrumentation to uplift the community-centered messaging embedded within his raps. Inspired by his childhood friends in Inglewood’s Latinx community, Smoke found music as unifier and way to remove barriers between Latinx and Black communities in his hometown. Demographics reflected in his students as a bilingual and music teacher at Inglewood High where he invests in the next generation of leaders.

He’s won an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) award with his older brother, Sir Darryl Farris aka SiR, for “Never,” a Billboard-charting song from Jaheim in 2007, and received songwriting credits for Ginuwine and The Pussy Cat Dolls projects.

As the show’s first winner, there’s an added level of pressure for the rapper who has completed three music videos and started work on a 15-track mixtape since the show’s release. In the midst of press runs, D Smoke opened up about his experience on Rhythm + Flow, his Inglewood High EP, and his next steps as an independent artist.

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VIBE: Tell me about Inglewood High, your latest EP.

D Smoke: Inglewood High is an EP about my experience coming up on Inglewood, going to Inglewood High, and teaching at the high school after I graduated from UCLA. It’s an important project for me because Inglewood High School holds stories for me as a student and teacher. There are so many youngsters that I had the privilege of teaching that still walk those hallways and are walking the same path I did. I thought it was only right to start with this project first; some of the songs are about my experience, while others are about trends or stories that I often heard growing up in Inglewood. I took a third person approach to tell these stories; some bright, some dark, but they really capture what’s going on in the city.

In a Time interview, you stated Rhythm + Flow’s authenticity around cyphers and battles undid your skepticism. Could you speak about your transition process from being a bilingual teacher into a contestant on the show?

As a teacher, you’re performing every single day, right? Your students are your harshest critics, so performing wasn’t nerve-wracking for me. It was more that I didn’t want to subject myself to the critique of another artist. In the later rounds, I was unsure that their biases would either serve in my favor or to my detriment. So it wasn’t the nerves of performing, but how would they receive and understand my art? Because I believe the audience...before I went on the show, I knew that there’s a large audience for what I do. Submitting to three judges is very different, but by the time we had gotten into the later rounds, I felt like they appreciated what I was doing artistically and creatively. By the end of it, they thought of me as a peer.

Towards the later episodes, you incorporated live instrumentation into your performances which won over Cardi, T.I., and Chance. Is the next direction for your artistry going to implement live band performances?

Going into the show, my goal was to do that before I left. [With] the last round’s challenge of making a live performance, I was like, “Okay, this is the time where we’re going to pull that rabbit out of the hat, so to speak, and show them my musicianship side.” To be honest, I’m a musician first. My first love was playing piano. My mom is a music instructor and minister of music. Since the age of six, I’ve been playing the piano. That’s going to be a huge part of my artistry; to the same extent that playing the drums, singing, and rapping. It speaks to me authenticity as an artist, creative, and musician.

Being on the show has developed your relationship with the audience, in addition to your original support system of Inglewood. How do you feel about having fans around the world who have fallen in love with your music during your time on Rhythm + Flow?

To keep it completely honest, the reception has been amazing. I’m getting messages from all over the world. People love what I did and represented on the show while being entertained by it at the same time. I think when you combine somebody believing in your message, but being thoroughly entertained by your presence, I feel like that’s a true impact on the audience. I’m really overwhelmed by how much love people are pouring out and the messages. I’m trying to read as many as possible, but I’m only one guy. My following grew from 7,000 followers prior to the show to 700,000 and counting, and that’s in less than a month.

 

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We climbing the Charts!!! Let’s push it to #1 #share #tellafriend #GodisGreat

A post shared by Supa Good (@dsmoke7) on Nov 9, 2019 at 12:31am PST

Some viewers waited until all episodes of Rhythm + Flow were on Netflix to binge-watch. Why do you think people should've watched and witnessed your evolution as an artist to step into confidence?

I think people should watch the entire journey; go back and do their detailed research because we aren’t necessarily doing different things than we were already doing. I speak in “we” because I have a strong team of people that were working with me to prepare for being on the show. When the audience watches my performance, it’s not like this is something that I haven’t already been doing. I look forward to seeing the growth in numbers of my previous works, whether it be Subtitles - the series that I did demonstrating my rapping ability in both languages and having fun over beats that I loved and influenced me. It’s super vital to go back and see the whole story because although I’m new to a lot of people, I’m not new to music by any means.

On Rhythm + Flow, Cardi referenced Kendrick Lamar in relation to your music. You have close affiliations with Top Dawg Entertainment, your brother SiR is Kendrick’s labelmate, and you’ve opened for the Pulitzer Prize winner in 2011 at the Whiskey A Go Go. Do you see yourself continuing your relationship with TDE?

 

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Today is my younger brother’s birthday. Same mom, same dad, same blood, same schools, same hair, same goals, but @InglewoodSiR is and will always be his OWN MAN. My younger bro opened doors for me that he may not even be aware of. He’s fearless and original. His music is DOPE as Fuck and he’s as real as they come. Go wish my lil bro @inglewoodsir of TDE a happy Birthday! LOVE YOU BRO! 7

A post shared by Supa Good (@dsmoke7) on Nov 5, 2019 at 7:42am PST

I like the way you put it..continuing that relationship. We’re neighbors; they’re less than 10 miles from me. I was my brother’s keyboard player and musical director while he went on tour with Miguel. For a couple of years, Top Dawg Entertainment has been somewhat of a home base in the sense that I’m supporting their works indirectly. What TDE is to my brother or was to my brothers in terms of the platform to allow his following to grow exponentially. It’ll be more of a partnership where there’s an open dialogue about best practices to collaborate with artists, how we can plan community events, and coordinating impactful things. It’s opening the door for me to collaborate with my brother, similar to how we started off, and have the full support of TDE. That’s something I’m excited about and look forward to sharing.

Are you hoping to bring the spotlight to Inglewood similar to TDE’s upliftment of Compton? On Rhythm + Flow, you rapped about the familiarity of victims of fatal police shootings, because everyone in Inglewood knows each other.

I’m certainly looking to put Inglewood on the map. A lot of things are happening on the business development side with the stadium being built and the rise in property values. I’m looking to make investments in property and building connections within the city to continue education and community development work. My background is in mentorship, so being a visible face in the public, championing youth-driven programs is something I look forward to doing.

Do you plan on using your cash prize to start educational programs at Inglewood High and give back to your students who inspired your performances in the competition?

I’m looking forward to doing the scholarship. I’ve initiated the conversations with the city of Inglewood and Inglewood High School. We’re going to have an event to celebrate. I want to see the marching band come out and play the same cadences they played when I was there. I want to drive the energy back towards competitive academics because that’s what Inglewood was for me. It may not have that reputation but I can go back and name all of the teachers who had that impact and pushed me into being an academically competitive student.

Since winning Rhythm + Flow, you’ve gained a greater following and secured a series of upcoming collaborations. Are you aiming to remain independent, reflective of your underground spirit?

I haven’t altered how I move through the world since winning Rhythm + Flow. I’m always seeing my family, eating healthy, getting my workouts in, and connecting with people that I love, admire or respect. Engaging in different texts and conversations that really keep me sharp. Those things aren’t going to change. We also got business endeavors that keep me sharp and very grounded in conversation. I’m not concerned with the about of new publicity, altering how I operate. It’s cool and flattering, but prior to this, I knew exactly what I’m here to do and those things are still in motion.

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