March 17, 2014

How to Know When a Skirt is Not a Skirt

The recent bangarang over Omar Epps wearing a skirt on 'The View' resulted in heated debate about whether a man should wear legless lower-garments. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) faced similar criticism for donning a Kente wrap at a South African conference. Pharrell Williams was thrown shade for sporting a kilt-like garment in a GQ photo shoot. The debate is particularly interesting as it seems to be concerned with American men Black American men specifically. White men, on the other hand, get a complete pass as metrosexuals; free to explore fashion and exhibit refined tastes without injury to their masculinity or suspicion about their sexuality.

Yasiin Bey, Getty Images
Pharrell Williams, GQ Magazine
No small amount of weight is placed on the shoulders of Black men who color outside the fashion lines. Critics hold them responsible for bringing down the Black race, oppressing a group of people who are in much need of uplifting. Frankly, that's quite a bit of power to endow upon individuals who are simply responding the question in their head: "What will I wear today?" Further, misplacement of this responsibility on the part of critics assumes that the Black population at large is void of its own values, mores, and ability to make decisions based on those factors. 

Legless Garment ≠ Drag

Historically, wearing pants is a recent development in men's clothing. Up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, men, in many parts of the world, wore legless garments. That's right, playas, Spartans, according to your definition of style, wore dresses! As did many of the most might men known in military history.

Today, men continue to wear traditional garments in public settings in many parts of the world. African countries are the most often cited locations for this practice by Black Americans, but they are by no means alone in this. Omar Epps credits the Maasai with his fashion choice, but his outfit seems Roman inspired to me. You be the judge!

A skirt or dress in America fashion does not share the shame history, cultural concept, or signification as legless garments from different parts of the world. And when foreign styles are imported into America by Black men (often through sampling, no different than music) they should not be dropped into a melting pot in an attempt to morph them into something distinctly American. To do so is a mark of ethnocentrism and cultural blindness. 

A man dressed in a legless garment is not always a man in drag. Knowing the difference requires that one denounce stylistic laziness and, instead, acquire knowledge about clothing outside their limited universe.

Emasculation of Black Men or Just Another Realm of Restricted Freedom?

While researching this piece, several theories surfaced. They are used to explain what's behind the "skirt gang," an emotionally charged phrase defining Black American men in what are thought to be female clothes. The thinking is that the Illuminati are intent on demeaning Black life and culture by hinging the wealth and stardom of Black entertainers on how well they perpetuate the gay agenda, contributing to the emasculation of the Black male. Critics of the "skirt gang" attribute this foggy plan to the Devil.

No attempt is made here to unravel this notion or to dismiss it, whole cloth, as a crazy conspiracy theory. What is argued here is that if there is sincerity concerning the moral aptitude of the African diaspora in America, it must be coupled with knowledge of and an respect for men's clothing and apparel of other cultures. 

Morally, critics need to be careful that they are not promoting a dictatorial stance that perpetuates irrational oppression and robs men of their freedom to make choices for themselves. They must be careful to not diminish Black culture by prohibiting the importation of African culture by Black American males. They must be careful not to suppress the freedoms of the Black male by attempting to employ the types of "moral decency" and "proper role" strategies that have crippled women for too many centuries. They must be careful to not be participants in that foggy impoverishing force intent on emasculating the Black American male.

March 10, 2014

[Book Review] Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image

Is the study of visual culture a legitimate field of interdisciplinary inquiry or a trendy movement? It is a question sharply debated by educators, curators, researchers, and others today. Among other things, opponents of visual culture are concerned that there is a blatant disregard for the essential differences between works of visual art, “fine art,” and other types of cultural artifacts. Some take the position that visual art is the sole province of art history and that visual culture studies wrongly includes every kind of visual artifact in their purview—including fine art. Proponents argue that visual culture is a valid research and curricular area, which takes the visual image as a focal point in the cultural context of meaning-making. The debate is complex; with many nuances, but essentially, it boils down to aesthetics verses utility.
The Crying Boy,' painted by Bruno Amadio,
was popular in Turkey during the 1970 and '80s.
Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image ("Visual Culture") situates itself squarely within this debate. By drawing upon theoretical insights from such fields as communication, global studies, history, Islamic studies, sociology, and art history, the text unfolds as a model of how visual culture may serve as an entry point among the disciplines that treat visuality. The thirteen essays address four topics — “moving” images, Islamic iconographies, satirical contestations, and authenticity and reality in trans-national broadcasting — wherein researchers explore the constructed nature and fluidity of Islamic and secular ideologies in public visual culture after the colonial period.

"Visual Culture" contributes to filling a gap in knowledge and understanding concerning how images are articulated locally, statewide, and regionally, as well as imported and re-articulated in the modern Middle East. This work moves the study of Islamic art forward from the twentieth to the twenty-first century by engaging the role of visual culture through the framework of formations of secular and Islamist registers in public culture.
Poor Christians and Muslims united in suffering during Lebanese Civil War.
Rich Christians and Muslims are united in ignoring them, Handhala observes.
Unpublished drawing, Naji al-Ali, 1978.

The aestheticization and politicization of suffering in the Turkish Islamic imagination as portrayed in the widely circulated and re-imagined image of the ‘Crying Boy’; the mural of Muhammad’s ascension on the exterior wall of a five-story building in Tehran; the iconography of Arab secularism in the powerful imagery of Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali: each invites methodological investigation to understand the roles of visual metaphors, icons, and other devices that construct meaning.

There is widespread use of imagery in the modern Middle East and there is a need to explore the role of imagery in that context. "Visual Culture" explicates how imagery functions rhetorically in speaking to individuals within those societies, for architects of social conventions, and about Middle East societies to the rest of the world. Communication scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, art history and Islamic art scholars, as well as educators and researchers interested in the modern Middle East will find this work useful to their research, teaching, and their students.

Gruber, C., & Haugbolle, S. (Eds.). (2013).Visual culture in the modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the image. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press

March 3, 2014

The Oscar for 'Best Picture' Goes to ...!

I am compelled to wonder if Solomon Northrup had not written 'Twelve Years a Slave' whether there would have been a different Oscar-winning slave narrative last night, whether director Steve McQueen would have cast Lupita Nyong’o in a romantic comedy instead, whether confirmation of the beauty that is dark skin would be circulating at viral-pitch and celebrated by the mainstream fashion industry in the person of some other actor. I wonder.

'Best Picture' acceptance speech

Thank you, Solomon Northrop, for sitting down and recording your experience for the world to consider at a time when it needs it most.

'Actress in a Supporting Role' acceptance speech

How do we know that our story will not inspire readers, artists, movie-goers—humanity—more than a century beyond our existence?

Make a record.


March 2, 2014

[DVD Review] The Butler

I am trying to work up my courage to watch ‘Twelve Years a Slave.’ I plan to watch 'Roots' one day too.

Eugene Allen - Image:
Last night, I nervously put 'The Butler' into the DVD player. Watching, I experienced those anticipated moments of sadness, pain, and anger. Nevertheless, overall, I feel that Lee Daniels captured a number of larger-than-life emotions, which laugh at words that attempt to express them. In the film, the black family, which as matter of institutionalized racial-hatred routine, endured and continues to endure a multiplicity of tragedies, is portrayed as dignified, complicated, intelligently funny, loving, and resourceful—not unlike my and other black families that I know.

It may be correct to direct some of the credit for the film’s authentic depiction of the black family toward Will Haygood the author of the book “The Butler: A Witness to History.” I am putting it on my summer reading list in order to investigate further. And, certainly, we are grateful to Eugene Allen, the butler, for a life lived with steadfastness and, indeed, courage—quite as it was. 

The successful approach toward depicting authenticity in this film is evidence of the need for a people to tell their story. Daniels does not share the legacy of American slavery or Jim Crow, but blacks everywhere have experience with unequal treatment and racism with which they can relate to the nuances of a particular experience.  

A Balanced View of the Oscars

We live in a visual culture—one that relies on and celebrates film. Films that we love and ones we love to hate. Each year, we look forward to seeing which films will be recognized by the Academy.

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Today, on 'Sunday Morning,'  David Edelstein provided the most balanced view of the Oscars that I have heard anyone state.

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Yes, he gives us his predictions. He even suggests what losers should do if they want to steal the spotlight from the victors. Hilarious!

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Edelstein cautions: "To those of you placing large bets based on which movies you like, play cards with me. Please! There's a world of hidden Oscar campaigning that determines these things. Nominees go to parties, weddings, brises ... they're a game, a sport—and if you watch in the right spirit, they're Olympian in their power to make you cheer . . . and gasp in horror."

The Oscars as sport; I can live with that!

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