In recent months, I have written extensively about Dr. Christina Sharpe and the wake work initiative ignited by her book In the Wake: Blackness and Being. The book epitomizes Afro-demia, where blackness is placed in the forefront of formal discourse. Although difficult to point to a single moment in the text as more significant than the rest, Sharpe’s discussion of black aspiration, or the black struggle to aspire, proved quite significant. Sharpe uses the term “aspire” in the most elementary sense–which simply means to breathe. To illustrate the concept, Sharpe references the physical and systemic suffacation of Eric Garner preceded by eleven exclamations of the clause that would become his last words– “I can’t breathe.”
Garner is the epitome of the figurative chokehold that encapsulates black life. Not all blacks will personally experience a physically fatal embrace. All blacks are however born into a system designed for their suffocation. One of the most persistent manifestations of a cholkhold is appropriation, namely, the metamorphosis of the black struggle into a white narrative.
In 2011, the world rejoiced in Katherine Stockett’s novel The Help’s film adaptation. Despite elevating black actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer from obscurity to center-stage—the film is an ode to white female supremacy—casting the white female outcast as the saving grace for black female oppression. To some, the film proved ground-breaking in featuring a white female gaze that scrutinized her own kind. The conscious gaze, on the other hand, sees the one-dimensional black female characters as the backs to which the black female castmates stand in their three-dimensional portrayals. This book and film, like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, function to humanize white evil at the expense of dehumanized images of blacks in moments of heightened oppression. The black female potential stifled in the domestic demands of the segregated 1940’s and 1950’s, forced many black women away from their own homes into the homes of whites to resume the mammy role established in slavery. As a domestic worker, the black women encountered unfair wages, emotional and sexual abuse and long hours. Similarly, Henrietta Lacks, a physically ill woman, would die while two of her children were still in diapers. Most problematically, Lacks would be robbed of the pearl-like cells that took her life, but in their abduction would save countless others. Telling these stories from a white gaze, compromises the integrity of the black narrative. These white productions function as an antiracist effort to some, but in execution perform the very racism they seemingly denounce. These abducted narratives, and others like them, suffocate the black narrative, resurrecting incidents essential to black advancement as appropriated stories of our oppressors.
Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming film Detroit, is no different.
The upcoming film has garnered abundant press from black and white media for its coverage of the the Twelfth street riots and the cold-blooded murders of teens Aubrey Pollard, Carl Cooper, and Fred Temple at the Algiers Motel in the summer of 1967. Lost in the media coverage of this upcoming film is the actual story. Instead, director Kathryn Bigelow basks in a media glory for her Oscar-nominated culturally appropriative film. The film does not function to provide context to contemporary murders that mirror a tragedy that seized the lives of these young men. Nor, does the film discount the contemporary murders of black youth as isolated incidents. No, this film exists to permeate American culture with yet another white savior image.
White abduction of black stories poses a conflict to the black narrative for many reasons—the most prevalent being that this appropriation epitomizes racism. In Black Power Kwame Ture states the following:
Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: Individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism (Ture 4).
Bigelow’s Detroit, like Katherine Stockett’s The Help, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and every other adducted page of the collective black narrative, illustrates institutionalized racism. A system existing solely to attack black esteem and control black action.
Institutional racism relies on the active and pervasive operation of antilock attitudes and practices. A sense of superior group position prevails: whites are ‘better” than blacks; therefore blacks should be subordinated to whites. (Ture 5)
Abducted black narratives appropriated by whites desperate to consummate their own journey to conventional success is an act of anti-blackness in its promotion of racist ideologies. This abduction and appropriation of black narratives suggests that because whites are “better” than blacks, only they are capable of accurately and appropriately rendering the black narrative.
Instances like these often prompt the query as to whether it would better if these books, and films were never made–the stories destined to obscurity. In response, I fail to see the difference between a black narrative appropriated by whites and an untold black story as both fail to reach the demographic to which this narrative is essential. “Untold” simply conceptualizes the relationship to mainstream media, or white access. A black narrative is essential to black consciousness. Thus, our stories need not be mainstream, but made available to those spiritually and physically elevated in acquiring knowledge of a shared experience.
The black experience is a compilation of stories shared by those across time and circumstance. Black stories are like air to a black people, providing a means and context to physically aspire. Moreover, the abducted black narrative is not only appropriative –it impedes black aspiration.
To see this film is to smother black aspiration, to toss dirt on top of the black body buried alive by a veiled anti blackness, better known as white supremacy.
As W.E.B. Dubois once said:
Through history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness.
Detroit is yet another means for the white female body to illuminate in the glow of white supremacy. It is yet another means for the white female body to aspire, and indulge white supremacy in the same manner as her male counterparts. In contrast, the light cast onto the black body has often blown out too quickly, if illuminated at all.
Rather than provide yet another platform for whites to shine in our glory, let us support our own art, written, produced, and brought to life by us. Let us breathe life into our collective identity. Let us aspire the only way we can, as Africans.
Black Power ❤