In light of the excitement about Black Panther’s Oscar nominations, Screen Actor’s Guild Award wins, and theatrical re-release for Black History Month, it’s time to revisit Black Panther as an example of the problems of the academic “hot take,” particularly when those takes promote discourse about male characters and elide a focus on Black women as film subjects or as scholarly voices. Public intellectuals must be more mindful of the ways that their work can unwittingly reinforce the marginalization of Black women’s perspectives and overshadow the celebration of Black heroines onscreen.
The day after Black Panther’s North American premiere, Christopher Lebron published “Black Panther Is Not the Movie We Deserve”in the Boston Review. Lebron’s essay focused extensively on the figure of Killmonger. “You will have noticed I have not said much about the movie’s women,” he admitted near the end of his essay. Lebron’s take on Black Pantherwas deeply influential turning early critiques of the film into a referendum about Killmonger. By March 8, 2018, the L.A. Times published "Pantherpedia: A Guide to the Cottage Industry of Essays about Ryan Coogler's 'Black Panther'". Lebron’s essay headed the “Killmonger” section, and women were far down on the list. Meanwhile, early examinations of the female characters, such as Arica L. Coleman’s examination of the True Story Behind Black Panther's Strong Womenin Time on February 22, 2018, went largely overlooked in the rush to discuss Killmonger. To that end, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post, complainedabout the “category-4 flood of man-takes, with mostly male critics responding to each other about Black Panther And What It All Means For Black People” rather than focusing on “the collective power of Wakanda’s women who offer the real vision of what black, radical internationalism could look like.” Feminist critiques became framed only as a backlash to the focus on Killmonger typified by Lebron’s hot take.
We need to slow down. We need to examine whether the rush to produce public intellectualism replicates a default interest in male perspectives. Along those lines, I noticed that Salamishah Tillet’s first Black Panther article, published a week before the film’s release, began by quoting T'Challaand included a comparison to nostalgia for President Obama. Then, a week after the film’s release, she penned "Black Panther: Why Not Queen Shuri?"and celebrated the diverse representation of Black womanhood in all of director Ryan Coogler’s films.
What if we slowed our roll until we could imagine beginning the public discourse with Shuri instead?
I am firmly in favor of public intellectual work that topples the stereotypes of disengaged Ivory Tower snobbery, and I champion practices that challenge traditional scholarly publication models. But while the glacial pace of many academic journals risks irrelevance in cultural commentary, hot takes risk inaccurate scholarship and a narrow focus that then dominates the trending responses to a work.
A call for a moratorium on Black Panther critiques—which is, essentially, a call to slow down the production of hot takes—brings to mind the arguments promoted in Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.Berg and Seeber express concern that “the fast models of mechanization have taken over how we think about scholarship and ourselves. Slowing down is a matter of ethical import” (58). An ethics of slowing down results in stronger work: work that notices more nuance, particularly where the Black heroines are concerned. Slowing down creates room to celebrate Black cinematic achievement before turning to a more surgical approach for public intellectualism.
Susana M. Morris of the Crunk Feminist Collective spoke outagainst the early oversaturation of Black Panther reactions, especially about Killmonger, and urged readers to pause for simple enjoyment or celebration: “Seeing my Blackness represented on screen has been a powerful healer. It was nothing short of glorious.” As Morris so poignantly wrote, “Black Joy Matters.” Experiencing this film as a celebration of Blackness—particularly in the current political climate—seems more urgent than any critique, no matter how intellectually generative.
With watershed films like Black Panther, I, too, worry about the diminishment of joy; of failing to celebrate films as revolutionary and inspirational for audiences that have so often been marginalized or stereotyped by Hollywood. We should pause to create space for joy. Then we should use that space to make sure we amplify and center Black women’s perspectives.
Berg, Maggie and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, University of Toronto Press, 2016.
by Odette Casamayor-Cisneros
we must establish authority over our own definition (…) It means that I affirm my own worth by committing myself to my own survival, in my own self and in the self of other Black women. (…)
Claiming some power over who we choose to be, and knowing that such power is relative within the realities of our lives. Yet knowing that only through the use of that power can we effectively change those realities.
Entertainment is the conditio sine qua non of telenovelas; and this is all that accomplishes Always a Witch (Siempre bruja), the Colombian production on Netflix since February 1st.
What is the trouble with the series, then?
Great expectations preceded its première, arisen by the trailer shown months before, in which the mere appearance of its protagonist was a rare occurrence: the splendid Afro-Colombian Angely Gaviria would play the role of Carmen Eguiluz, a slave accused of witchcraft and burnt alive by the Inquisition in 1646, miraculously reappearing on the beach of Cartagena in 2019. Weary of the invisibility of blacks and blackness in most Latin American TV productions, we hoped that Always a Witch would at least start quenching the thirst to watch our stories receiving global recognition. We’ve been anxiously waiting for the series, which proves the capitalization of Gaviria’s dark body and face as a promotional lure to be an effective marketing strategy. However, the team behind this idea appears to be ignorant of one incontestable, basic truth: nowhere in the Americas it is possible to resort to a Black enslaved character while avoiding all discussion on race.
Through ten episodes, Carmen Eguiluz is taken back and forth from slavery to the present, without evoking her blackness. Watching her knocking at the doors of a colonial mansion where she easily finds a place to live and being received with openness and kindness everywhere she goes, one could assume that contemporary Colombia has become a post-racial paradise. Anti-black discrimination seems to be buried in the past, along with slavery. Yet, it is difficult to believe that anti-racist Colombian activists would actually agree with the series’ writers.
Equally suspicious is the absence of black characters in the spaces frequented by Carmen. Except for her friend Daniel (Dubán Andrés Prado), none of the university students and professors, neither the police inspectors or the owners of the colonial mansion are black. They haven’t been completely erased, however. Carmen encounters black Colombians when she visits the neighborhood where she was born. There, 21-century blacks remain confined; dancing, drinking and celebrating a dark-faced saint (Virgen de la Candelaria). Out of this enclave, the only black characters are magical Carmen and the always-smiling Daniel.
Immediately after being launched, Always a Witch has been slammed through social media for its failure to accurately depict the black experience in Latin America -a fact aggravated by the coincidence of the première with the beginning of the Black History Month. The most recurrent criticism was Carmen’s unconditional devotion for Cristóbal (Lenard Vanderaa), her master’s son. But we all know that love is the strangest thing... Besides, Always a Witch is a telenovela asking the audience to believe in such improbabilities. (Members of the production team previously worked on a famous telenovela whose awkwardness was already announced in its title, La esclava blanca (The White Slave). I then followed the odd romance between the master and the slave, wearing the sarcastic half-smile of someone accustomed to watch this sort of fantasies. In my opinion, the real problem with the series is that its creators never managed to fulfill the promise implied in their promotional campaign. This is not the tale of an Afro-Colombian woman but the story of the white characters dictating her actions. Always a Witch does nothing but follow a tradition, long before deconstructed by Toni Morrison, of the fabrication of black characters by white artists as a means to talk about themselves.
To save her white lover, Carmen Eguiluz travels to the future, sent by a white witch, Aldemar the Immortal (Luis Fernando Hoyos) -who made me jump from my seat when he started reciting a Yoruba prayer (“omi tutu, ana tutu, laroye ilé”) without referring to any African religion. Were the writers aware of their invocation of Elegguá, the orisha mischievously opening and closing our paths in Afro-Cuban santería?
As the story advances, the black girl is either escaping from or searching for one white witch or another, one white lover or the other. She appears to be perfectly happy of devoting her extraordinary powers to their service. In this sense, Carmen Eguiluz becomes the latest addition to the pool of "good" black servants, eager to solve the problems created by their masters.
Towards the end of the season, an array of explicit feminist speeches is voiced by the female characters, which could be related to the high female composition of the creative team. Inspired by the novel Yo, Bruja, by Costa-Rican writer Isidora Chacón and adapted by Ana María Parra, the series was produced by Dago García, María Cervera and Juliana Barrera and directed by Liliana Bocanegra and Mateo Stivelberg.
But Carmen Eguiluz is not only a woman. She is black. She was a slave. Though these conditions are never addressed in the series’ feminist claims. Intersectionality, for its creators, stops at the choice of an attractive black actress as the main character.
Always a Witch is a painful reminder of the media’s inability to recognize the work of Black female writers. That’s why, when struggling to reach the last episode, I couldn’t help but ask myself if the presence of an Afro-Latina writer, producer or director in the creative process would have made it possible for Carmen Eguiluz to shine as the self-determined, truly powerful heroine she was supposed to be.
Cuban born writer and scholar, Dr. Odette Casamayor-Cisneros is currently a professor at the University of Connecticut.
1/3/2019 0 Comments
2018 came to a close with the inevitable lists of scholars and books that had shed light on critical questions in the past year and had provided us with tools to look towards the future. End-of-year lists are a helpful way to take stock. But they also say a lot about the practice of citation as an act of recognition. They speak volumes about who academic and journalistic institutions consider to be contributors to the landscape of intellectual ideas. In that landscape, black women are rarely present. Or rather to be more precise, black women are erased even as their ideas and scholarship provide crucial linguistic and conceptual tools for understanding our world.
If the many misreadings of such critical theories such as intersectionality and misogynoir are now more the norm than the exception, it is because of citational practices that sever black women from the knowledge they create and deform that knowledge into words that come to mean whatever the user wants to project in a given moment. Severing is an act of violence. Resisting that violence therefore means something more robust than uniquely aiming for a quota of black women included in parenthetical citations or year-end lists. It demands a radical praxis of citation.
The Cite Black Women movement uses social media to show what that radical praxis of citation could look like. This is not to say that the movement imagines the digital sphere as the only viable space where black women can obtain citational recognition. Rather, the possibilities for building communities in the digital sphere—fraught as that medium may be—inform the movement’s vision of citation. How specifically, does Cite Black Women’s use of social media invite us to rethink what it would mean to recognize black women’s intellectual work? I will outline here two crucial ways.
First, although the Twitter account of the movement encourages followers to use #CiteBlackWomen, it also issues a special weekly invitation to #CiteBlackWomenSunday. The invitation is usually accompanied by the opening lines of Audre Lorde’s poem “Recreation”: “Coming together/It is easier to work/After our bodies meet/paper and pen.” Akin to black feminist practices of congregation and commemoration, #CiteBlackWomenSunday emphasizes community in the recognition of black women’s intellectual work. This highlighting of community is in turn crucial for putting forward a collective response to a collective problem. Community allows us to imagine what Jenn M. Jackson defines as the “structural inclusion” of black women rather than isolated efforts at citation that begin and end in the digital sphere.
Second, because one of the movement’s guiding principles is to “integrate black women into the CORE of your syllabus,” Cite Black Women provides a blueprint for this integration through its crowdsourced syllabi on Twitter. Here, scholars share the courses they are teaching, the readings by black women that they assign and, crucially, the ways that these texts fit into the overall structure of their courses. These syllabi often go beyond envisioning black women’s texts as an add-on to be taught separately in a small contained module, but rather weave their works throughout the course structure and offer students a sustained engagement with the range of black women’s ideas. Here too the effort is collective. The result is an array of courses that attests to the central presence and contributions of black women in history, economics, literature, politics, art and science, and that ask us to go beyond thinking about black women’s scholarship as token mentions in our research and pedagogical practice.
In 2019, as the conversation (ideally) moves beyond the question of the need to cite black women to a critical discussion of how doing so can disrupt the exclusionary politics of academic citation, the Cite Black Women movement’s use of digital media provides us with the tools to engage in this productive disruption.
Citation ethics and the politics of co-authorships in the academy have both gendered and racialized components. According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, For men and women, solo authored articles have the same likelihood of earning them tenure. But, for co-authored articles, women earn less credit toward tenure than men do. Not only is there a gender gap in credit given for group work, women with children are also less likely to earn tenure than men with children and, across social sciences and natural sciences alike, women are less likely to be cited by their peers. These data show that, from the most visible vantage points of the outside world, women remain under-acknowledged, underrepresented, and systematically overlooked in the Academy. These realities only worsen when one considers race, class, ability, and other personal characteristics.
As a Black woman academic, I believe that citing Black women is necessary not just to overcome the norms and obstacles I have outlined above but to also reorient our myriad disciplines toward structural inclusion. This is a form of inclusion that isn’t just performative, trendy, and taken up when convenient for institutions. Rather, structural inclusion requires that Black women’s work and contributions be considered as foundational to our various fields and formative to the scholarship in our ranks. It requires that all scholars, not just women of color, practice introspection and deliberateness in the creation of their syllabi, course content, articles, and book manuscripts to account for the generations of work that Black women have labored, pushing Academia forward. This is not just about being seeing and heard. It is about making space and holding it for the many Black women scholars who are coming after us.I decided to support this collective because I have a moral commitment to the ideals of supporting those most marginalized within the systems and institutions I encounter everyday.
Following in the theoretical and philosophical precepts of foremothers like the members of the Combahee River Collective, Kimberle Crenshaw, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Y. Davis, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Cathy J. Cohen, Barbara Ransby, and so many others, my work is animated by the belief that none of us are free until all of us are free. In my work, I seek to center the voices and experiences of Black women so as to move us toward freedom. In the end, each of us is but an archive of our experiences, our choices, and our chances. Through the Cite Black Women Collective, I hope to contribute to amplifying the archive of Black women’s experiences, highlighting how our scholarly choices have shaped our disciplines, and recognizing that this movement is a chance for us to disrupt the status quo which seeks to quiet us all.