Reconstruction panic/Django and Sean Price: representations of black masculinity

There is a particular part of the press conversations about the new film Django Unchained that bothers me.  I guess it feels like the indignation about the portrayal of the so-called racism of the film.  In this particular time, marked by the re-election of Barack Obama, it seems like people with white privilege have taken notice of the actual reality of racism but only because of the perceived loss of power.  We could note the famous Bill O’Reilly Fox News white privilege breakdown AKA “the white establishment is now the minority” rant:

I actually think O’Reilly’s speech is pretty transparent, in that it communicates the loss of explicit — assumed solidarity between white women and a white candidate.  O’Reilly makes clear the idea of white privilege as a club — a team of support of care and compassion extended, in his view, between members of the same race.  This absurd idea of compassion and solidarity is at the heart of racism and exactly how people can simultaneously be incredibly violent and exclusionary to people and still imagine themselves as caring people.

We might think about the time period known as Reconstruction — after the Civil War.  James Loewen, a professor of History at UVM who wrote the wonderful book Lies my teacher taught me which gathers up the worst distortions of US History text books.  Here he talks about the fundamental flaws about our understandings of Reconstruction and the implications on self-consciousness:

LOEWEN: I taught for many years at Tougaloo College, a college in Mississippi that is predominantly African-American. Then I moved to the University of Vermont, so I went from the blackest to the whitest college in America. When I was at Tougaloo, I was distraught by the fact that my students believed the following myth about Reconstruction. They believed that Reconstruction was that time period when blacks took over the government of the Southern states right after the Civil War, but they were too soon out of slavery, and so they messed up and whites had to take control again. Now, that’s a terrible misstatement of what happened in Reconstruction. For one thing, the Southern states were governed by a black-white coalition led by whites; they did not go under black control. For another thing, many of the Southern states, particularly Mississippi, had good government during Reconstruction. In Mississippi the state government during that time period started the public schools for both races, whites as well as blacks, wrote a terrific new constitution and did other things.

I thought, what must it do to people to believe erroneously that the one time that they were on the center stage of history in the American past they messed up? What does that do to your self-concept? So I looked into how had my students learned this. Why did they believe it? And Tougaloo was a good college, is a good college. They had learned what was in their high school state history books, so I put together a coalition of students and faculty, and we wrote a new history of Mississippi called “Mississippi: Conflict and Change.” The state rejected it for public school use, and it’s another story but we actually took them to court about that and won a First Amendment victory.

via Booknotes :: Watch.

I listened to the NPR audio interview with the director of the film, Quentin Tarantino, and the questions posed to Tarantino about the racism of the use of the N-word seemed so similar to the arguments about reconstruction.  It seems like the simplistic portrayal of racism — the idea that the offensive part about racism is the expression of the word rather than the systematic exploitation and oppression of a group of people for 500 years.  I can’t find the interview, but this gives you some taste of the NPR take on things.

“Django Unchained” not only plunges Tarantino back into the racially sensitive territory that has brought him criticism in the past, it essentially explodes it. The n-word is used more than 100 times in the film. Two especially violent scenes of slavery — one a Mandingo brawl, the other involving a dog — even Tarantino calls “traumatizing.”

It’s a revenge fantasy that, depending on your perspective, makes this either the rare film to honestly present the ugliness of slavery, or one that treats atrocity as a backdrop for genre movie irreverence. It’s probably both.

“If the only purpose of this movie was to make a shocking expose about slavery … that would be well and good. You could definitely do that,” says Tarantino. “But this movie wants to be a little more than just that.”

via Tarantino Unchained: Quentin Unleashes ‘Django’ : NPR.

It seems to me that this time period of heightened white anxiety over the displacement of power, so clearly represented in the racist O’Reilly rant, one modern thread is the bogus fear that a rising tide of revenge-prone people of color will come to presumably kick white people’s ass and take their stuff.  What I’m calling reconstruction panic.

I guess the NPR tsk-tsk of Quentin Tarantino seems similar.  I feel like they are suggesting that it isn’t acceptable to represent aggressive black violence against white racists, and it is certainly not okay to make a fictional film about it that uses the N-word.

Both the NPR response to Django and the O’Reilly segment present a kind of problem with the representation of threatening men of color.  Which brings us to Sean Price.

For those who don’t know, Sean Price is one of the best rappers in the United States.  At various points he raps with his partner Rock as Heltah Skeltah, sometimes he raps with a larger crew of emcees as the Boot Camp Clik.  Any verse you hear from him will be talented and probably contain something offensive.

His newest album Mic Tyson — exemplifies the double entendre word play and aggressive tough-guy rhymes that makes Sean Price so appreciated.  It goes without saying that the rhymes are so strong that I don’t tend to share my appreciation with Sean with anyone else other than with rap fans.  I like that Sean Price has rhymed with the same genuinely clever anti-social style since he was a teenager.  I buy everything he releases simply because he is that good. I don’t need him to get with the hottest beat makers.  And I don’t need him to have a collaboration with a current emcee.  All I need is that he continues to make really good rhymes and I’ll keep buying the records.

So if one is, lets say, like Sean Price a large black man — is there any way to soften one’s image to make the incredibly talented rhymes that you write be appreciated and for you to get paid?

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Filed under art, colonialism, communication, cultural appropriation, juxtaposition, learning, race, representation, slavery

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