Soul Scissors: The Black Barbershop (Cuttin’, Groomin’ & Conversation)!!


 

Grooming hair, and the use of hairstyles, as cultural, social and political expression, and even social status – dates back to various regions and peoples of, and on, the African continent.

 

However, the Barbershop, as a distinct institution in the African American community, has its roots in Antebellum America where the coiffeuring services and skills of the Black barber could only be enjoyed by White customers. That’s right – the first barbershops in the United States, Black barbershops, weren’t in business to service Black customers – neither down South nor up North. And the decisions by Black barbers, as business owners – not to service their own, were based solely on financial considerations.

A crowd gathers outside a store and barbershop in Union Point, Georgia, circa 1941. (Photo by Jack Delano, via the Library of Congress.)

Over the passage of time and owing to social, political, cultural and economic factors and forces – Black barbershops changed their practices and, in the twentieth century, the barbershop became an important establishment in the Black community. Ironically, the Black- owned barbershops, with Black barbers, that once barred Black men as customers, eventually became their sanctuary and refuge. The Black “tonsorial parlor” became a place and space where Black males could go and be themselves, among themselves, with themselves and by themselves. Along with the church, the school and the fraternal lodge – the barbershop became one of the essential and valued institutions in the African American community.

All across the United States, the Black barbershop became a distinctive breathing “room” where African American men gathered not just to get groomed to look their best for work five to six days a week; play on the weekends or pray and worship Saturday or Sunday – but to also socialize, share, learn, teach, laugh, truth – telling, truth – stretching, boasting and bragging. People got together to kick- back, relax and have a good time away from others. No matter the state, city, town or community – the barbershop is like unto a village where men folk arrive to congregate, connect, conversate, communicate, cajole, criticize and “cut the fool.”

In the barbershop, everyone’s point of view was welcomed and valued. No subjects or topics were taboo. Whether you were a doctor, janitor, student, teacher, attorney, writer, truck driver, librarian, construction worker, self – employed or unemployed, you could step in, step up and express your position – as long as you were able to substantiate and defend your views if challenged by anyone else in the barbershop— but, especially, a barber who might be facilitating or leading group dialogue. Particularly concerning such important matters as politics and history.  Such is the tradition of the Black barbershop, and some of its kinship rituals, passed down over the centuries and decades.

 

Outside a store and barbershop in Union Point, Georgia, circa 1941. (Photo by Jack Delano, via the Library of Congress.)

“The Black barbershop is a town square in our community…where you get up to the minute news and provocative discussions about politics, entertainment and sports,” shares Kevin Harewood, CEO of EDclectic Entertainment located in Brooklyn, New York.

Universally, no matter in what city, state or neighborhood – the African American barbershop is like a film or theatre set with a cast of similar characters gathered together for the sharing of information and knowledge; to impart or receive counseling and to participate in some young man’s rites of passage with his first haircut and with his initiation into the fraternity that is the barbershop society and its traditions and rituals.

Young Black men learn to sit and patiently wait for their turn. They learn to pay attention when grown folks talk, pontificate, debate and elaborate. Youngsters learn not to talk when adults are running their mouths, especially not when the barbers, as Griots or facilitators, have the floor.  Barbershops are institutions where older Black males, like grandmasters, safely and openly, share and impart their perspectives and experiences about living to younger Black males, as apprentices – hoping and intending to raise their youthful minds into a higher state of social, political and historical awakening, while they are getting their heads groomed and images perfected.

An old shop that still stands but is not operating in Eatonton, Georgia (c2017 Timothy Aaron – Styles)

 

Old clippers used by Emerson Gresham in Greene County, Georgia (c2017 Timothy Aaron – Styles)

 

Robert Scott Adams has worked in radio in Georgia and New York and currently works at a recording studio in Washington, D.C.  He remembers his adolescent barbershop experiences. “I used to marvel at the older guys who came into the shop – their hairstyles, how they dressed, the cars they drove and the stories they told,” he recalls. Laughingly he adds, “Some of the most memorable stories were the ones about women. A lot of those tales influenced my life …how I would and would not relate to women as an adult.” The barbershop was where boys could be boys; men could be men and boys could aspire to manhood.

Well – known Atlanta jazz artist and music educator, Joe Jennings remembers his experiences growing up in Natchez, Mississippi. “The Barber Shop…a community institution where on Saturday afternoons, men – young and old – prepare for a night out or Sunday Church meetings,” Jennings recalls. “The owners are, in most cases, well – versed in many subjects and ready to debate at the drop of a hat. They’re astute philosophers and entrepreneurs.”

 

Another thing that the barbershop served as was an opportunity for economic ambition and financial stability. It was a vehicle and opportunity for Black men to become business owners and, after they opened the door and chairs to Black clientele – work on their own terms and according to their own rules.

Alonzo Herndon, the first African American millionaire and Georgia’s wealthiest Black man during his lifetime, started out as a barber.  Born in 1878, the Social Circle, Walton County – native moved away from his family to Jonesboro, Georgia where, at the age of 20,  he opened his first barbershop. After migrating to Atlanta, Herndon would come to own three barbershops by 1904. Earnings garnered from those three shops would allow him to establish an empire that would include various real estate properties and holdings including a plantation in Florida. In 1905, Herndon would enter into the insurance business and in twenty years, establish and grow the multi-million dollar, Atlanta Life Insurance Company with branches all over the country.  By 1920, it was one of the most successful Black businesses in the United States.

Another African American businessman who parlayed barbering and ownership of barbershops into a multi-million dollar business empire was North Carolina native John Merrick.

In 1880, Merrick and a friend relocated from Clinton to Durham to start a new barbershop business. It took six months before Merrick actually bought shares in the shop to become co-owner. Twelve years later, after acquisitioning the remaining shares in the company from his friend, Merrick became sole proprietor. Eventually John Merrick would become owner of eight barbershops in Durham – some exclusively catering to white customers and others to African Americans. He would go on to accomplish a very impressive and major level of success in publishing, real estate, banking and insurance.

Black men viewed barbering and barbershop ownership as an entrepreneurial endeavor that provided opportunity to achieve financial security, middle class status, wealth, and social standing.

March, 25, 2017. It’s Friday mid – afternoon, at KMP Barbershop in historic downtown Greensboro, and Johnny Lewis, Jr. is grooming the head of the much disciplined nine – year – old Elijah Williams who, accompanied by his mother, Latrice Williams, is clearly accustomed to the barber chair.

There are two sections of the entire barbershop owned by Lewis: the smaller, more intimate “Upstairs” and the more spacious, frenetic “Valley of the Kings.” Downstairs, in “the Valley of the Kings” there is much more space and there are two barbers, two chairs – and where the more “traditional” activities occur. This is where the younger crowd congregates in larger numbers waiting for their cuts. Lewis works in and from the VIP section where he, personally offers more than just barbering services to his clients.

“Here is where I offer an experience for my more “mature” clients and those who want a more family feel and environment, utters Lewis who is also an ordained minister. “Counseling, life – coaching and deeper, more confidential kinds of dialogue happens here.”

On the walls and on top of shelves, surrounding the one barber chair –  are all kinds of items like sports paraphernalia, the obligatory grooming price list, a photograph of former POTUS Barack Obama and Lewis’ “Master Barber” plaque. Lewis remembers the elder African American men who were the barbers throughout Greene County, he approximates – from the 1950s through the 1990s.

Gus Terrell in the railroad community; Cosby Brown in Canaan; Emerson Gresham in the Bush Street community; Willie Chester and Eugene Scott on Main Street In Greensboro and, his great – great grandfather, who was his first teacher, Roosevelt Champion, in Siloam.

 “My grandfather used to cut hair for twenty – five cents.”

The average price for the basic cut, nowadays, is around fifteen dollars. Lewis exclaims, “These men were the master barbers and business role models in the community. Mr. Willie Chester owned ‘Chester and Sons’ on Main Street…right where Wahl’s law firm is now.”

Although Lewis graduated from Ogeechee Technical School’s barbering program decades ago, he was nine years old when he first learned the fundamentals of barbering from his great, great grandfather Roosevelt Champion and the elder barber’s twin grandson’s – Donald and Ronald, who helped pass the skills down. “Barbering is part of the family history and legacy,” Lewis affirms.  “I became a barber at nine years old at the feet of my great, great grandfather”, he proudly adds. It wasn’t until he was in his early twenties, however, that he actually established his very own first barbershop.

From the approach that Willie Chester took in operating his barbershop; a sixteen year old Lewis learned that cutting hair wasn’t the only service you could offer in a shop. “Chester and Sons” was a barbershop, music shop and snack shop. “During the course of a Saturday, we were there for so many hours…he had a captivated audience…” Lewis reminisces. “So, he offered his customers additional services to make their wait a little more enjoyable.”Having been influenced by the forward – thinking of Willie Chester, Lewis offers various business services at KMP such as tax preparation, print services, obituary production and graphic design. The craft of barbering, and the barbershop as a business, has proven to be financially lucrative for Lewis and his family.

“I have been able to, not only provide for my family but to help others, as well,” he testifies. “My own barbershop allows me to manage my own time and be in control of my own economic destiny.”

Saturday, March 25th. Eleven – thirty in the morning.  Ruff Cuts Barbershop: historic downtown Greensboro. Barbershop’s motto: “Your Solution To A Rough Day.”

Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Paynes” sets the ambience for the several customers in the shop – especially the eight-year old sitting next to me who is cracking up at the slap stick comedy. Although I don’t normally watch the show – I must admit that I, too, am quite amused. Something about the collective barbershop experience that really is contagious.

On the walls and around the shop there is the obligatory hair cut price list; UGA paraphernalia; refreshments for sale and the signs: “WE ARE BLESSED” and “NO CREDIT PLEASE DON’T ASK.”

There isn’t any conversation or discussion going on. Instead, Master barber Dennis Ruff, and his apprentice barber, Marcus Mallory, are working on the heads of respective clients like sculptor Augusta Savage approached her craft and created her masterpieces: with exactitude, deliberation and meticulousness – each barber intent on fashioning a magnum opus worthy of acceptance and praise by the customer after they peer into the mirror handed them by the barber after the cut is deemed finis!

“I opened my shop to help others apprentice and learn…” Ruff shares. “…so that they could move from apprenticing, get licensed and go into business for themselves.”

Dennis Ruff trims hair of female customer in historic downtown Greensboro, Georgia (c2017 Timothy Aaron – Styles)

For the last eleven years, barbershop proprietor Dennis Ruff has been offering his grooming services at this Broad Street locale. Although his client – base is predominately African American, he has an occasional Hispanic customer and white customer. From the age of fifteen, the fortyish Ruff has been cutting hair. His mother had barber skills and he has a brother in Savannah that has a shop. “I couldn’t clock in for anyone else,” he declares. “My independence was important for me…still is. “

Having recently “retired” after being in the barbering and grooming business for over fifty years, Eatonton native Ezekiel “Zeke” Dennis, owns Zeke’s Beauty and Barber Shop. “My children wanted me to retire completely, “he chuckles.” ”But I just cut back my hours so I’m semi-retired. I’m part-time now. Some time”  The undisputed grandmaster of barbers and barbering in Eatonton, Dennis began cutting hair when he was a young lad because he and his brother, Eddie, “just liked to cut hair” and used to coiffeur each other.

After marrying Betty Freeman in 1962, he and his wife gave birth to a son who would face a slight predicament when he reached the pre -adolescent age to begin his barbershop experience by entering the doors of the Black barbershop and being initiated into the African American barbershop experience. “My son had curly hair and nobody could cut it, so I had to cut it,” Dennis gleefully shares. In 1964, after receiving his barber’s license — he worked in his first “barbershop”, “The Combo” which was located in a night club of the same name.

During Dennis’ half – century barbering and styling career, his clients have been male, female and the occasional white male customer. This Saturday after Good Friday and before Easter Sunday, as we sit in the spacious shop along with about seven of his grandsons or great grandsons– he shares his vast knowledge and recollections about such hairstyles as the Afro, the Gheri curl, the S curl and the T Hound.

“Zeke” Dennis, Eatonton, GA. (c2017 Timothy Aaron – Styles)

“Barbering was good business – wise,” he proudly states. “I was able to raise all my children.” Passing on a legacy that he could be proud of, his daughter, Alicia Waller – and his grand-daughter, Shalon Watkins – are also his partners in the business. Waller is a stylist and Watkins is a master barber and stylist.

The long tradition and legacy that is Black barbershop is being preserved and perpetuated by Johnny Lewis and Dennis Ruff, in their respective businesses, in small town Greene County, Georgia.

The barbershop is a cornerstone and like unto an ancient landmark in, of and for the African American community.

#   #   #

Note: This essay is the original version of a revised article that appears in the Summer 2017 version of Lakelife magazine which covers the wonderfully beautiful Lake Oconee area of Georgia.

Advertisements

Why Reconciliation With Cuba Is Necessary at THIS Time…

Not that I agree or disagree with the POTUS’ “Cuban Reconciliation Initiative” (that’s what I am calling it) but I do understand why it is necessary – especially in this the Age of Globalization.

There is one major reason why President Obama HAD to seek to reconcile with Cuba: China and its continued global expansion and global influence.

Imagine, if you would an “unfriendly” or non – allied Cuba in economic and political relationship with China – who is growing and expanding globally by leaps and bounds every other day. A country that is using money.resources and labor to assist “under – developed” and “developing” nations to grow their own respective economies and infrastructures.

Imagine Cuba as a “Chinese satellite” right off the coast of Florida. Sound familiar?

Seems that President Obama is a wise student of history.

Re-examining, Rethinking and Reinventing What Political (Em)power(ment) Maybe Should Look Like (In the age of Globalization and the Millennial Generation)

politics4

   c2014 Timothy Aaron – Styles

There are two common notions assumed to be, and heralded as, evidence of a group’s attainment of political empowerment and/or the actual exercise and demonstration of both an individual’s and group’s political power.

One: “Casting the vote.”  The notion that vote, in and of itself, is a magical empowering act equivalent to power. Well, in spite of what most people think – real political power is not achieved or attained simply by the individual casting of a vote….nor by the exercise of casting plural votes during an election.  Is voting important? Yes? Are large numbers of votes important? Of course they are.

Two: “Let’s do a voter registration drive!” Neither is political empowerment realized or achieved through the “mere” act of voter registration or aggressively engaging in “voter registration drives.”

No matter how many voters are successfully registered, the number of registered voters does not supersede how registered voters actually vote.  Sadly, not all registered voters actually participate in the electoral process whether municipal (city), county, state or national.

Based on numbers alone the “successful registration of 3000 voters” looks more promising and sounds more impressive  than “500 people who voted” in an election just based on comparing the numbers “3000” to “”500.” However, that lower number could very well be more influential on the outcome of an election than the larger number. The “500” actually could prove more “powerful” and “significant” than the “3000.” Remember this when Bloc voting comes up.

Now, while these two activities (“Voter Registration” and “Casting the Ballot”) are extremely important and significant, there is a common notion – among some communities more than others – that the “political power buck” begins and ceases with registering large numbers of voters and/or “getting out the voters” on election day.

That is: strongly encouraging voters to get out to actually cast their ballots or transporting voters to the polls, to actually cast their votes, on Election Day or during early voting.

Oftimes we hear, or see, many organizations sponsoring or engaging in “Voter’s Registration Drives” and then that’s all we see or hear. Or maybe we’ll hear, or see, them on Election Day engaging in their “getting out the vote” initiatives, strategies and activities.

While both courses of action (“Voter Registration” and “Getting out the Vote”) are commendable, well-meaning and sometimes productive – they, somehow, became the major goals and objectives in the quest for “political empowerment” or the primary measurements in/of assessing perceived acquisition of “political power” for historically dis-enfranchised and non –  represented communities. They became “the arrival” as opposed to essential steps along the journey toward realizing authentic political empowerment and flexing legitimate political clout.

Quite frankly, real political power exists even before the voter registration drive is ever even embarked upon, or the candidate’s election committee is formally organized. 

politics3

Genuine political power lives and breathes before and during political campaigning; long before and during the long contentious and multi – million dollar election season; and long before and during the nail-biting, name-calling electoral process.

Authentic political empowerment continues to function and operate after the polls are closed, the campaign and poll workers go home, the votes tabulated, the winners and losers announced, victory celebrations had and concession speeches orated.

The truly politically empowered are still grinding the wheels during the term of the winning candidate now turned “elected official”  even if that elected official wasn’t or isn’t the political candidate they supported or voted for.

Real, measurable political power exists before the casting of a single ballot.

Real political empowerment is everyday. Seven days a week. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Real political empowerment is consistent and perpetual. Actually, while real political power transcends party affiliation, political divisions and unwavering party loyalties – it equally influences and controls any and all parties.

So now what is “political empowerment”? How and when is a group, actually and measurably – politically empowered? What are the ways, means and methods of achieving and utilizing political power?

Bloc Voting is the strategy of a group of individuals, joined together, based on common interests, concerns, goals and/or objectives and each individually committed to vote for one candidate or candidates based on the benefits to, and advancement of, the collective group (i.e. the bloc).

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say there are five- hundred “Martian Americans”; age range 25-30; living in a small community in Rochester, New York where the total population is 12,000 with 6000 registered voters. In this small Upstate New York community research indicates that only 2000 registered voters actually have voted in the local city council race for the last five city council elections.

poltics5

These 500 “Martian Americans” throw their collective votes (bloc) behind the local city council candidate with whom they have collectively met and negotiated and who has committed to addressing the collective concerns and issues expressed by the five hundred bloc members.

This bloc vote consisting of 500 individual votes could significantly influence the outcome of a local election with two or more candidates – especially with low voter turnout.

The take-away: Registered voters must be educated and directed to treat their individually – registered and individually – cast votes as part of a unified and collective effort in order to achieve and wield real collective power. Individual registered voters should be educated and encouraged to actively seek out blocs to bond their vote with and commit their vote to.  

Political campaigns need funds to operate and compete effectively and, as much as I hate clichés – “S/he who has the gold makes the rules” is a political axiom. 

Bloc Campaign Contributions are financial campaign contributions made by a group of individuals joined together based on common interests, concerns, goals and/or objectives and to supporting one issue, position, candidate or candidates and committed to pooling their financial resources to support one candidate or candidates based on the benefits to, and advancement of, the collective group (bloc).  Whether the members actually vote in the election or not, the most important thing is the monetary contribution and financial support made by the group to the candidate, party, issue or cause. 

Let’s flashback to that hypothetical “500 Martian Americans” in Rochester, New York who each donates $50 to their bloc campaign contribution “account” which totals (to) $25,000. They collectively decided to contribute the total amount to a State Senatorial candidate whom they have met with and who has committed to addressing the concerns and issues expressed by the five hundred bloc members, or they will use the total amount for and towards the same candidate’s election efforts.

The take-away:  That “500 Martian American” group will have the ears of, and access to, that “once –candidate – now – successfully – elected – State – Senator” not just because of the monies the group contributed to the successful campaign – but because they have established and positioned themselves as a dependable financial resource for future political campaigns whether individual -, cause -, issue – or party – based or – centered.

There is an Italian expression I came across some decades ago that I always remembered: “Il denaro el fratello del denaro” which means “money is the brother of money” and which makes plain the significance and relevance of the “Bloc Campaign Contribution” as strategy for political empowerment.

For the record, “Il denaro è la sorella e il fratello di denaro” means “money is the sister and brother of money.”  Next…

Most(?) people seem to believe that once a candidate is elected and serving in office that  the way to remove them – should there be a just and legitimate cause  – is to “vote them out” in their next election. While it is possible to “vote them out” in that eventual “next election,” there are options to waiting that long: The Recall.

The “recall election” has two other names: “recall referendum” and “recall of a representative.” NO matter the name – it is a procedure and process by which voters can seek the removal of an elected official even after the person has begun serving in office. In theory, this mechanism exists, on behalf of the people, as a “check” and limits the sovereign powers of the elected official should the voters and constituency deem it necessary to take their votes back.

politics2

While federally or nationally elected politicians can not be re-called – depending upon State legislation and State law – local elected officials, such as mayors, governors, commissioners and even school board members can be recalled.

Rules regarding the recall process vary from state – to – state, yes. However the commonalities between each state process tend to be petitions, signatures, certifications and special elections.

The take-away: you don’t necessarily have to wait for the next election to seek removal of an elected official. The first prerequisite is a collective, unified group of people with the will and resources to initiate and manage the recall. Then they just have to be located in the right State.

The prerequisite foundational tools necessary for any group to effectuate political influence or achieve political power are organizational structure, collective will, commitment and courage. As cliché as it may sound: a group of people must be “loyal, unified and committed” to the same mission, goals and objectives – and courageous enough to act without fear of push-back, resistance or retribution in order to achieve and wield power.

With a strong organizational culture, loyal and committed people, financial resources and a sound plan – the formation of a special interest group can prove empowering.

Special interest groups consist of dedicated individuals who share common interests and common concerns – whether social, cultural, political, religious, financial or even historical (such as preservation organizations). Members work together, in unison and cooperation, to achieve and accomplish goals and objectives determined collectively by the group that will benefit the members of the groups and their constituency.

politicsglobe

For example, let’s suppose those fifty “Martian – Americans” were also parents of children with sickle cell anemia. All the parents decide to unite and organize – devoting their time and resources to creating a national movement called, “Families United Against Sickle Cell.”

Their mission would be the formation of a national organization consisting of all parents of children with sickle cell anemia. The objective of the national organization would be lobbying elected officials and legislators to create, implement and enforce governmental policies that would specifically benefit children with sickle cell anemia and their immediate families.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 90,000 and 100, 000 people have Sickle Cell in the United Sates. Imagine the number of potential members such a special interest group might have and the would-be advocacy or lobbying power such a group could wield – locally, state – wide, nationally and maybe even globally.

Lobby(ing) groups, which are one type of Special Interest Group, find protection in the First Amendment as “Congress shall make no law….abridging…the right of the people peaceably…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” So both lobbyists, and the process of lobbying are, theoretically, indispensable to the “proper” functioning of U.S. government.

Lobbyists offer and present to legislators and policymakers information, assessment, analysis and perspective on various issues and topics which influences and shapes their decision – and policy – making. Again, in theory – the lobbying process is supposed to create a “check and balance” mechanism for and in the political process – by allowing “the people” the opportunity to shape and influence how policies and legislation are created.

Now – is any of this new? Of course it isn’t.  It’s done all the time. The problem is – it’s not done by everyone at, and in, all levels of society. Not every individual, group or community is actually taught, guided or encouraged to engage in such a systematic and methodical manner to achieve real political power.

“Voter education” initiatives and programs are sorely lacking and grossly inadequate in some communities and sectors of the public. And they have always been that way. Now, whether they have always been that way because of some grand design to limit or misdirect some communities or whether they have been that way due to the myopic vision of well – intentioned leaders and political saviors – the bottom line is this: now is the time for re-examination, re-thinking and re-inventing what true voter education is, as well as what real political power is, and .

Real political power – or real power achieved through political means – can only be realized through authentic and well – informed voter education. 

To paraphrase Einstein, “the problems humans face in the world today cannot be solved by the same level of human thinking that gave birth to them in the first place.” You know – it’s the same as the Biblical, “old wine in a new bottle” lesson. Old ways of doing things aren’t usually compatible with new constructs, new conditions or (the) new times.

politics

Sometimes the old way is the better way. Maybe most times it isn’t. Within the context of (the) political process, an awakening – a re-birth – is needed today and it starts with teaching and learning.  Re- teaching and re-learning – maybe even unlearning.

Real bona fide political empowerment – authentic political power – begins with real, bona fide and authentic political pedagogy.  Let the clubs, associations, lodges, temples, churches, mosques – even the living rooms and basements – become the hallowed spaces for initiating and instructing the citizenry into the new and improved “Politics 101” program of study needed in this new-fangled globalized cultural and political landscape.

If Lupita Had Only Said…

lupita.

INT. Hollywood Academy Awards Ceremony – Soon to be a historic Sunday, March 2nd – NIGHT.

What would have happened had Lupita Nyong’o spoken the following words as she graciously accepted her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her part as the economically and sexually exploited enslaved African woman, Patsey?

“I want to thank Hattie McDaniel for opening the door for me, a Black woman…A Kenyan…An African…To be able to realize my dream here in the United States of America…”

Imagine that. Stay with that thought for just a moment. Linger. Let it marinate. Stay. Contemplate. Stay. Ponder. Stay. Hmmm.

Consider the monumental impact had those unspoken words actually been delivered in Lupita’s sweet, delicate, distinguished Afro-Brit accent, issuing forth from her stunning natural beautiful African self. Imagine such a moment of beautiful Black bliss in Hollywood — never before on screen or on stage – that everyone there in the audience seemed to enjoy, applaud and appreciate.

Now, I’m not saying that she should have uttered those words, or that she was wrong for not expressing them– but just imagine the impression had the spirit of Patsey inspired, or instructed, the natural, deep chocolate – skinned Kenyan actress, to clearly, definitively and boldly pronounce them – release them – as the first words from her lips, her mind, her heart – her soul. Stay.

Real quick CUT AWAY – just in case you’re not aware, during her acceptance speech Lupita, being the well-grounded African woman that she is, recognized and honored the spirit and presence of Patsey “for her guidance.” Equally, when addressing the director Steve McQueen, Lupita also told him, “I am certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful.” Evoking, recognizing and honoring the ancestors is an African thing.

So it’s not far-fetched for me to consider the possibility that maybe – just maybe – the ancestors, including Hattie McDaniel herself, might have inspired Lupita to specifically evoke, and thank, Hattie Mae McDaniel.

Well – okay – it might have been too much for Hattie to ask or insist that her own name be mentioned and honored – but, then, how about the spirits of Madam Sul-Te-Wan, Ethel Waters, Juanita Moore or Beau Richards? They, too, are now among the ancestors living in the ancestral world.

So, now. What would have happened?

One. Connection and continuity. The important historical, cultural and political relationship would have been made between Lupita – a Kenyan actress, trained at the prestigious Yale School of Drama and who was receiving a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her film acting debut and Hattie McDaniel – an African American actress and performer on stage, TV, film and radio (the first Black woman to sing on radio) and the first African-American to receive an Academy Award, period, for her supporting role in “Gone With The Wind.” The Black presence and struggle in Hollywood includes and encompasses Black people throughout the Diaspora.

Second. Introduction and Exposure.

How many Continental Africans know about Hattie McDaniel or the history of African-Americans in North American cinema – Hollywood and/or Independent? How many Black people, globally, are aware? I think that the mere mention of Hattie McDaniel would have inspired many to “Google” her name, thereby starting a landslide process that would have introduced them to the historical presence and participation of Black folks in filmmaking (especially North America cinema) since the early 1900s.

Third, and lastly: A nod toward the global African village. Such a conjured statement would have contributed to the establishment, recognition, solidification or healing of broken, unacknowledged, or even denied, familial bonds between African-Americans and Africans, artistically, culturally, historically. Maybe even, politically. FLASH BACK ENDS.

Well, she didn’t say it. And here we are.

However, as Lupita did indicate, during her speech acceptance, that the golden Oscar statue (holy shades of Ptah!) serves as a reminder, to every child throughout the world, that their dreams, too, are valid…

I, too, can dream – can’t I?

WhAt R WoRdS 4…?

Image

c2001 Timothy Aaron-Styles

Words are powerful. Words can hurt, heal, inspire, discourage, soothe or provoke. Words, apparently, can bring into existence worlds and galaxies consisting of myriad places, laws, people and mysteries. 

It’s a shared notion among religions that The Creator, at the genesis of creation spoke and all things came into being. The (Creative) Word was simultaneously at, in, and the actual, beginning.

Ralph Ellison said, “If the word has the potency to revive and makes us free, it has also has the power to blind, imprison and destroy.”

Could it be that the power of media is not so much in (the) technology as much as it is in the simple fact that media communicates words, concepts, ideologies and beliefs?

“A word after a word after a word is power,” stated Margaret Atwood.

 Historically, slave masters did not want enslaved Africans to read English (it’s not that they couldn’t read–they just couldn’t read English!) because those books consisted of words that were factual and truth-filled. Words that had the potential to enLIGHTen, instruct and liberate. Words that could expand, transform and re-construct.

Even fictional books had the potential to inspire the minds, hearts and spirits of those former free men and women — who were once kings and queens, artisans, griots, legislators, traders, fishermen, warriors and healers — now mentally and physically enslaved within a new social, political, cultural and economic reality.

Joseph Conrad said, “Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.”

Words can alter apparent realities because words deconstruct and re-invent. Words provide options. For every word one knows, a new possibility exists. The more words one has under her linguistic belt, the more potential power she yields. The power to re-create and create new social, political and economic worlds.

“The more articulate one is, the more dangerous words become,” stated May Sarton.

 …….”I apologize” and “I was wrong” depending upon ones perspective, belief, and personal investment are, either the most powerfully healing and conciliatory phrases in the world, or the two most compromising, debilitating and powerless utterances. As conciliatory phrases they are spiritual and transcendental.

As expressions of weakness and compromise, they are earthly, worldly and ego-centered.

To say, “I’m sorry — I was wrong” according to the majority admits weakness. However, to some (a minority ?) such expressions indicate a higher standard for one’s humanness. They believe that admittance of wrongdoing and regret for ill deeds leads to spiritual redemption and, in some cases, social healing.

In her book “The Language War,” Robin Tolmach Lakoff states,

“An apology…it changes the world for participants, their relative status…their future relationship. In making an apology, the maker 1) acknowledges wrong doing; 2) acknowledges that the addressee is the wrong party; 3) admits needing something (forgiveness)…to make things right again. Apologies put their makers at a disadvantage in two ways: as transgressors and as people in need of something from those against whom they have transgressed…

Hence, a true apology is always painful and real apologies tend to occur either between equals or from lower to higher. Higher ups ‘never explain, never apologize,” first because they don’t have to, and second because it might threaten their status.”

…….So, why can’t African-Americans receive a slightest hint of an apology for the enslavement of their ancestors and the subsequent social and institutional mistreatment? Maybe the more appropriate question is, thanks to Lakoff: why won’t we?

Although apologies have the power to heal, transform and reconcile, what hinders some from bringing themselves to utter a simple phrase like, “I am sorry for what happened to your ancestors” or “I apologize what my ancestors did to your ancestors.”

Words have power. To heal or to divide. Let the words of our mouths be acceptable to a Higher calling.

 
 
 

Loretta Devine (“Gloria”) and Gregory Hines in Waiting To Exhale

“Then there is Gloria – The Hairdresser – who, while exactly like her BFF’s in their man/penis/relationship – centricism, is slightly dissimilar than her peers and is the one principal female character who has the most redeeming qualities and characteristics…”

Exhalin’: Myths and Rumors of Emancipated Female Utterances

Exhalin’: Myths and Rumors of Emancipated Female Utterances

Quite frankly, “Waiting To Exhale” (1995), Terry McMillian’s best-selling novel-turned-blockbuster movie was neither absolutely a “Black male bashing film” nor necessarily “pro-Black woman.” Actually, it was both pro-patriarchal and anti-womanist/feminist cinema at its best…..By Timothy Aaron-Styles c2009, 2011

Cast from Waiting To Exhale

Cast from Waiting To Exhale

Car/automobile as symbol for movement and progress? Or symbol for compartmentalization…”being stuck in the box” = containment or

Angela Bassett in Waiting To Exhale

Angela Bassett in Waiting To Exhale

Fire as liberating force……as symbol for purification and cleansing!

Exhalin’: Myths and Rumors of Emancipated Female Utterances (Waiting To Exhale)

By Timothy Aaron-Styles c2009, 2011

Quite frankly, “Waiting To Exhale” (1995), Terry McMillian’s best-selling novel-turned-blockbuster movie was neither absolutely a “Black male bashing film” nor necessarily “pro-Black woman.” Actually, it was both pro-patriarchal and anti-womanist/feminist cinema at its best.

Extra – narratively (i.e. the film as entity existing outside the story), the film was directed by Forest Whittaker, a male, thereby automatically establishing the male POV as the axis from which the cinematic narrative is created, interpreted, developed and projected. The male POV = the patriarchal gaze.

The selection of a male as director essentially does two things: 1) re-interprets and transposes/transforms the female-created script into a male constructed celluloid interpretation and 2) positions and re-frames the female characters as objects of the masculine gaze. Not that a “bio-physiological, heterosexual male” could not femininely gaze and interpret. On the contrary, he could and can. However, such was not the case with WTE.

While Mr. Whittaker is a more than proficient director – there is no intention here to critique his technical or aesthetic competency, aptitude or approach. Instead, we intend to explore WTE as a social, political and cultural cinema commodity: how this film, as unified phenomenon (extra-narrative, narrative and intra-narrative) subconsciously and consciously, reflects, while simultaneously influencing, not only African-American society, but Western and global society, as well.

The film, the screenplay and the novel are three separate and distinct entities with, in my opinion, the celluloid expression being the most deserving of examination and analysis because it is the all comprehensive tangible expression – the definitive manifestation – of the written word(s) of book and screenplay. The motion picture is “le point culminant du mot” (the culmination of the word) where individual folks – who may have each read the book, and who have single beliefs and distinct value systems based on individual experiences – collectively gather and spectate for one communal encounter and experience.

The film, as the communal cinematic experience, is the one that we all hold true because there it is, declared, right before our individual eyes and collective gaze, on the screen – and seeing is believing is the acceptable notion and principle according to most. The sense of sight is the fundamental and primary faculty in revealing and substantiating the latent, the intuitive, even the mystical. And herein lies the reason why the power of the film supersedes that of the screenplay or the novel.

The potency of the image surpasses the power of the word in the human world where humans believe what they see more readily and compellingly than what they read. WTE, the motion picture, became what it became and is what it is, because the director breathed his breath of life into it thereby making it his creation. His product. His manifesto. A film made in his patri-image.

In spite of Terry McMillian’s lexis that form and fashion the novel and the screenplay, Forest Whittaker’s film is nearer and closer to our individual and collective psyches—both as expressions of our subconscious and as influential factors on our conscious selves. Before moving on to the NARRATIVE aspects of the film, two more points about its extra-narrative characteristics.

One. If we were to quantitatively consider the gender composition of those responsible for the production of WTE (i.e. above-the-line and below-the-line staff and crew), which gender do you suppose would be in the majority? What if we were to discover that those responsible for the film’s production were more male in number than female? What if we found that, quantitatively, more men than women contributed their masculine energy and perspective(s) to the making of this “woman’s film?”

Two. If Euzan Palcy, Ayoka Chenzira, Neema Barnette, Julie Dash, Darnelle Martin or Leslie Harris had directed the film, how would it have been envisioned differently? Could Terry William’s screenplay have been interpreted and rendered more authentically or organically by a woman director?  Now – the film’s narrative…

The summation of my reading of WTE and its “message” is simply this: the happiness and wholeness of women depends upon having men in their lives.

From the very beginning of the film, the male gaze is established as primary and dominant while both the position of the woman, and her femininity, are established as subordinate, objectified and subjectified (i.e. she is defined as object of the male desire and, thereby, positioned as the subject of male domination). Her identity, and the process of defining her gender, are constructed upon and around masculine criteria.

The women see, define and comprehend themselves as “other” and not “self.”  They see, define and comprehend themselves how “others” see and define them. Their feminine self-definition is constructed upon the perception and power of the masculine gaze.

One of the cinematic devices used to introduce, solidify and re-enforce the presence, primacy and dominance of the patriarchy and gender containment is the Narrator’s Voice in the form of the Radio DJ, at the beginning of the film, who not only introduces the story, but provides running commentary. His is the voice of the omnipresent patriarch—always present and not having to necessarily be seen.

His auditory patriarchal presence is complementary, and balances Whittaker’s visual manifestation of the patriarchal perspective and dominance. In case we forget – in the event that seeing (through the eyes of Whittaker) isn’t believing, hearing (the DJ) will remind us: this is a man’s film. Men are the center, the focal point, of the lives of Savannah, Robin, Gloria and Bernadine. This is a man’s (cinematic) world!

The opening introductions to Savannah, Robin and Bernadine visually and symbolically parallel as they all gaze into mirrors, examining themselves – making themselves up. Transforming and changing themselves. Covering and masquerading their true identities. Not for themselves, mind you – but for their respective men. The Other(s). When we first see them (from the director’s POV), the characters are in the process of making themselves beautiful to appeal and be acceptable to the masculine, patriarchal “Other.”

What these women observe in the mirror is not what they, as women, really desire to see, but what men would and do like, and prefer, to regard. They do not behold themselves in their natural states of beauty because they gaze not upon themselves with their own eyes but with and through the eyes of men. Their self-definitions are, in fact, the definitions of the “other” and these women are willing participants in their own objectification, subjugation and containment. They see themselves as men view them – as beautiful objects of desire to be cosmetically made up because their natural beauty is nor sufficient.

The character of Bernadine (who is an academically trained professional with an  MBA) doesn’t really wish to attend the function that she and her husband are preparing for. Instead, she is attending only to please him. She is accompanying him as his trophy. Bernadine’s patriarchal containment, is as “devoted wife and self-sacrificing mother, “and the suppression of her own desires and her own happiness (which becomes apparent as the film progresses) are so deeply dysfunctional and so evidently counter – productive. So self-destructive.

We are introduced to Savannah (a television producer) as she relocates to Phoenix – not as a career move, but because her choices of men in Denver are nil. This intelligent, educated, beautiful, and financially self-sufficient Black woman’s crucial career decisions are based on a patriarchal motivated super objective: the quest for a man. Savannah’s gender containment Is as “the professional woman who has it all but who needs a man to make her whole and complete.” Crudely expressed, her search really is about the better penis

Then there is Robin (an Insurance Broker?) whose gender containment is as “gullible sex object who knows only how to express her feelings with her body.” Her sexuality – her very womaness – is defined by men and her interaction and intercourse (while socially so, primarily sexually) with them. As she looks into her mirror, she contemplates the kind of man she likes wondering why she picks the wrong man to “FALL IN LOVE WITH.” She delights in the fact that she doesn’t actually “fall in love with them” but their “pretty” looks and “big sticks.” Alas, the common and constant dilemma for men and women alike: the continual equating of sex and love.

Then there is Gloria – The Hairdresser – who, while exactly like her BFF’s in their man/penis/relationship – centricism, is slightly dissimilar than her peers and is the one principal female character who has the most redeeming qualities and characteristics.

In our introduction to Gloria, she gazes not at a muddled self-reflection in the mirror but instead she peers out through a window and sees clearly. There is no reflected image but, instead, there is the natural sky. Gloria views endless possibility.      We first meet Gloria as she exists in a/her natural state resembling the iconic Aunt Jemima Black female stereotype. And while this resemblance to the historically negative cultural icon is apparent, we will discover that the basis of Gloria’s transformation and “redemption” actually exists within, and as part of, the stereotypical characteristics of this African-American mammy representation.   

However distinct she might be in other personal aspects, Gloria’s similarity to, and her common bond with, the other female characters – in addition to her being a Black woman – is in the fact that she, too, is preoccupied with her gender opposite. Her happiness is equally contingent upon (both the present and the absent) man in her life.

Gloria’s immediate male concern is her young son, Tariq, whom she feels should be physically there with her – in her presence – at that exact moment. Her maternal instincts, while admirable, cause her to also desire a masculine presence for immediate satisfaction and contentment. Additionally, Gloria eagerly looks forward to the visit of her son’s father, hoping that she might be able to recapture at least one moment of happiness based on past memories and bygone experiences.

Or is it just good sex that she really desires? Alas, once again – the quest for the better and perfect penis! If not in another city then in the annals of relations of yesteryear. Like her peers, she is yet another woman in quest of a surreal Black man that exists in the innermost corridors of her own imaginings.

Her son Tariq represents both himself, and his biological father, as Gloria desires and yearns for her other – defined, gendered – contained role as wife – mother -homemaker expressed and symbolized by her physical preparation of the dinner plates. Her relationship with Tariq is metaphorically incestuous as she yearns for the love and attention of Tariq and his father. She craves her ex-husband’s love through his son. She seeks her place in the world – her validity – in her desire to fulfill their masculine/male needs.

There are some interesting Freudian/psycho – analytical implications within and behind Gloria’s story. Acts of social, gender and familial betrayal and castration are dealt with when Gloria walks in on Tariq as oral sex is being performed on him by a young white girl. This, of course, upsets Gloria causing her moments after to indiscriminately blurt out the “same sex” preference of Tariq’s dad to Tariq.

The first act of betrayal and castration is in that specific sexual act being performed by the white girl. This sexual act, based on the exercise of power (as executed by the white girl) and the relinquishing of power (Tariq’s submission to the white girl which represents the acts of both socio-political castration and the possibility of genetic castration) betrays Gloria in two ways: the fact that it is a white girl, (much like Bernadine’s situation), and the fact that it “threatens” to severe the relationship between Gloria and her son (matri-castration).

The second act of betrayal and castration is committed when the declaration of Tariq’s father’s sexual preference causes Tariq to feel betrayed, by both his mother and father, which causes the severance of his paternal relationship (i.e. familial and social castration). An historical, political and cultural aside that is quite relevant: within the African-American experience, the father’s homosexual choice has long been perceived as an act of sexual, socio-political and genetic castration in, and of, itself.  This is why the mother and son, although engaged in a strained relationship themselves, can share in their disappointment and “condemnation” of the patriarch – his act subverts and betrays the Black family and his traditional role that maintains the institution – no matter that he is absent father. His absence is an accepted dysfunctional norm while his homosexuality is historically not.

His sexual preference further causes Gloria to lose her feminine identity and compass. And, in a strange way, enlarges the power of the patriarchy over Gloria’s life. Now, the man whom determines her happiness, contentment and gratification, as a woman, is now her competitor for the “big stick.” What is a woman to do?

The character of Gloria provides both an interesting interpretation, and re-interpretation, of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Where she is both Jocasta (the mother-wife) and Oedipus (the man/king slayer).

As the former, she is the woman in waiting whose own fate is out of control. Her fate is determined by the actions of men. As the latter, she is the slayer of a man. – the “king” of the family, Tariq’s father. It is she that has slain and emasculated the “man-king” through non-fulfillment. It is she who shatters the image of “the king,” in the eyes of his son, the inheritor of his patriarchal power and patrilineal status, when she reveals the “man-king’s” sexual penchant which is, within the African-American social context both a perversion and subversion. Here it can be read that Gloria also fulfills the role of the psychoanalytical castrator of man.

Now back to Savannah. It seems that no matter how beautiful, no matter how successful, a woman’s “wholeness” can only BE confirmed and validated through the presence or actions of a man. Savannah is actually relocating in search of a man. She is going so because of her desire to both, find a new man in the new place where she is traveling and because of her desire to escape a former male lover in the old place from which she flees: “From whence she escapes her sadness/There was a man/To whence she flees for prospective happiness/ There awaits a man…” Why?

This question is answered by Savannah’s mother who signifies the (dysfunctional?) socio-cultural tradition, and the perpetuation of such traditions that sexually objectify and contain the woman. Traditions that promulgate female submission to patriarchy, patrifocality and patrilinealism. Not necessarily female subjugation in the strictest political or economic sense, mind you (Savannah doesn’t need a man for financial reasons as she is quite successful, recognized and influential), but moreso in the social, spiritual, ethical, psychological and emotional sense(s).

Her well-meaning mother actually encourages her to indulge in adultery – to disrespect another woman, a “sister” and her family, by having an affair with that woman’s/sister’s husband.  Her well-meaning mother not only advocates that her daughter an unethical and immoral act, but she also encourages Savannah to subjugate herself to the whims and desires of a man by being his mistress. His concubine. His “thing” on the side. His object of carnal desire and sexual fulfillment. Her well-intentioned mother, who wants “happiness” and “fulfillment” for her daughter, suggests that Savannah accept the patriarchal-determined status as the “other woman” that has been established and historically continued for her and those like her for centuries.

Some would say that according to Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions and mythologies, since the supposed dawning of humanity. According to common and popular religious exoteric interpretations, woman’s purpose is to serve man and man alone.             Apparently, Savannah’s mother is one of those proponents – a participant in her own gender subjugation and oppression.

And the beautiful, successful, ambitious Savannah – this Black woman of the 90s – has learned her lessons well. She has become the bearer and carrier of the same old dysfunctional pathological shit as evidenced in the club scene where she enters and sits at the table where her “sistahs” (and their men) are congregated, positioning herself as a piece of meat on the market. Flirting. More than willing to “take” some sistah’s man if she has to. A perfect piece of meat in search of the perfect piece of meat. Well, if not perfect then – just a piece. Deep.

Now, back to Robin the sexpot, in quest of her deeper or higher self through sexual intercourse. Or is she, like Savannah, simply and merely hunting for some good old-fashioned decent, satisfying sex?

Personally I read Robin as a loving, decent, caring sensitive Black woman searching for real, true and meaningful love – in all the places where she cant and wont find it.

Poor, mislead woman – representing most of the human species (?) – iin quest of true love, affection and acceptance believing that sex is the golden road leading to personal wholeness and fulfillment. Whether she represents most human beings or not, Robin is definitely representative of all those loving, decent, caring sensitive women who are misunderstood and/or exploited by insensitive and self-satisfying men who aren’t perceptive or caring enough to feel her longing for something deeper than just penis penetration.

Within this in mind, however, it doesn’t change the fact that Robin is a one dimensional character/person who seems only to be in search of a good, hard screw. She seems too gullible – too ditzy. Air headed. She symbolizes the quintessential patriarchal representation of the woman (as sex object) who has nothing else to offer but her body and her vagina.

In the first lovemaking scene between her and Michael, she has the added responsibility of empowering him by instructing him on what to do, how to do it and ultimately how to please her. He has no clue how to do it otherwise. She is sexualizing him, initiating “man-as-Virgin” as if she was his mother and it is her responsibility. Here she is fulfilling the patriarchal role as female nurturer and teacher.

Although she is bestower of power, self-consciousness and masculinity, Robin is still subordinated – still the object of penetration. The object of desire and submission. The object to be conquested. Behold the missionary position as physical and sexual validation of the patriarchy. And to further strengthen and validate this physical containment of Robin/woman as sex object to be desired, subjugated and enjoyed – she verbally expresses it to herself.

When Michael first asks her what she wants, she has no answer. Then her asks her what she needs. Still no response, Then he inquire of her fantasies. No reply from Robin. Then comes (no pun intended) THE patriarchal – loaded question: WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM A MAN?  And from Robin’s mouth, and Biblically proceeding from her heart, she utters the P.C. (i.e. patriarchally correct) rejoinder: “Everything.” The things she lists afterwards position her (again, no pun intended) perfectly as the housewife.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, African – American historian and author, said:

“If you control a person’s thinking, you do not have to worry about their reaction. When you determine what a person shall think, you do not have to concern yourself about what the person will do. If you make a person feel inferior, you do not have to compel that person to accept an inferior status, they will seek it.

If you make a person think that he/she is a justly outcast, you do not have to order that person to the back door, that person will go without being told, and if there is no back door, the very nature of that person will demand that they build one.”

Robin’s very own thoughts – her very own consciousness – and actions contribute to the subjugation and containment of her very own self, based on her gender identity and her womaness – within the patriarchy.

Later, in another scene, another lover Troy, teases Robin and asks whether it will become necessary for him to take out his penis in order to “tame her”? Although in jest, there is a mammoth shred of truth in his wit. What better way for a man to subdue a woman than with his almighty penis? What better way for a man to get a woman to cooperate than with/through a “good screw”? What better way to assert his superiority  and her inferiority than the reminder of the innate inadequacies of not having “one of these?”

Isn’t it the common male notion that no matter how educated or successful a woman is – a man can “screw” here into submission and second-class citizenship? Into her place? Isn’t it the common male notion that any lesbian can be “properly screwed” back into proper womaness and femininity? Into her “rightful” sense of identity according to patriarchal definitions and order?

But, instead, Troy psychologically conquests Robin by using his mother (analogous to Savannah’s mother as symbol of the woman’s own historical and cultural participation in, and propagation of, sexual/gender subjugation and containment of her own self) and hands her the phone (as phallic symbol). She acquiesces, declaring: “No man has ever asked me to meet his mother before.”

In Robin’s conclusion, her pregnancy is either symbol of liberation or of her being put into her patriarchal place.

Her having a baby, and expelling all the men from her life, especially the “father” of the child could represent her as a self-realized woman – one who now knows that the source of her power for happiness and fulfillment is innately within. In her natural “womanness.” Something that no man can experience – a personal “woman space” where every man springs forth from but can never return to no matter how hard he tries. No matter how many of those spaces he tries to conquest.

Or maybe her pregnancy serves as reminder that even in her apparent act of liberation by expulsion – her sexuality, the basis of her identity – is still defined by the other. Even though she expels men from her life, she must still accept and contend with the ultimate evidence of a man’s presences and existence i.e. his child. The baby will probably look like the daddy. The daddy will probably demand to be in the baby’s life.

And, more than likely, child support will come into play because of the mother’s instigation – or maybe even the father’s. All extra – narrative speculation however very valid. Although heroic and admirable, Robin’s act of e(WO)mancipation (the male expulsion) is negated by her pregnancy. 

In the final analysis, it appears that the newly liberated and independent Robin becomes a “mother” within patriarchal context and confines. The patriarchal status quo remains intact. It seems that women just can’t escape the tentacles of patriarchy – not in WTE, anyway.

Speaking of the omnipresent presence of patriarchy and its ubiquitous tentacles, in the church scene, the camera tilts down the church steeple (phallic symbol) and the fathers (pastors, deacons) of the church stand outside greeting everyone as they walk by – even our four heroines. Then, in the next scene, we see Bernadine awaiting her ex-husband, as the gospel song plays in the background serving as the thread between the two seemingly distinct scenes. But they are not distinct as both scenes/shots state the obvious: the role of the church in the preservation and perpetuation of the patriarchy.

So the mothers are representations of the histo-cultural representations of the patriarchy and the church in all its institutional icons are pro-patriarchy. Is there anything else? Yes – there is…

Bernadine’s ultimate freedom and liberation is based on the judicial outcome of her divorce proceedings and settlement. At first it appears that her ability to move her life forward will be determined by her soon to be ex-hubby. Although she rightfully deserves most, if not all, of his possessions, her level of comfort and future quality of life will be determined by what the court (as symbol of society) considers his.

The presiding judge is an elderly white man (the epitome of American-Western patriarchy) who serves as symbol of the judicial/legal supporter of patriarchy. His final decision is the one that will either validate or negate Bernadine’s economic and social status.

In the end, we see that regardless of the divorce settlement, Bernadine never quite recovers emotionally or psychologically from the lost of her man – her family, her self-esteem, to a white woman, nonetheless. The other “Other.” She never achieves wholeness nor was she ever whole in the first place as her participation and presence in her marriage was always one of self-subjugation, self-negation and self–suppression. She always put her husband and children before herself. The patriarchal roles as wife and mother were her raison d’etre as the song sung by Mary J. Blige as score and soundtrack attests:

“I was your lover and your secretary/Working everyday of the week…

I would stop breathing if you told me too/But you busy lovin’ someone else…Eleven years of sacrifice /And you could leave me the drop of dime…

For the sake of maintaining her patriarchal position as supporter and caretaker, Bernadine negated and/or self- sacrificed her wholeness – her own being, probably thinking – as most women socialized within the dominant and pervasive patriarchal milieu, that sacrifice and commitment are synonymous with self-negation and self-subjugation.

Believing that she was doing what a devoted woman and loving wife is supposed to do – love her man even at her own expense. Bernadine represents the patriarchally – socialized woman who believes that self-negation is identical to marital and religious fidelity.

The soul piercing, omnipresent patriarchal gaze, and its power to position and control are so profoundly potent that, much like Robin’s pregnancy, when Bernadine performs her most liberating act, she, too, does so still based on patriarchal definitions and contexts. Internally motivated to act as an object of desire, Bernadine reminds all women that no matter how invisible, the all-seeing male eye is universal and continually gazes from a position of power and authority.

Whether “he” actually governs and determines every move and decision, however, is actually I the hands of the woman – the liberated one that is. The fact that the all-seeing eyes is deemed “male” supports his gender superiority therefore the patriarchally – socialized woman is not going to subvert the system but will re-enforce and substantiate it – even at her own degradation, exploitation and containment.

The women are all gathered in a club where most – with the exception of Bernadine – are in melancholy moods. Of all the subjects the three intelligent women could be discussing, what else would they be conversing about? Men, of course.

Surely it is no coincidence that the music playing in the club is “Head” by The-artist-formerly-known-as-Prince.

“Head” is analogous term/phrase for he actual act of a woman performing oral sex on a man and is considered to be the most authoritative sexual act that a woman can engage in with/on a man as it positions her in the most powerful and controlling of all postures. In this position, the man is totally submissive and at the mercy of the woman. In this posture, all power to please and bestow pleasure belongs to the woman.

Interestingly though, the song juxtaposes the powerlessness of these four women – castrated woman – and their inability to engage in any type of power play in their lives or in the club at that moment. While other women in the club are engaging in power plays through dance or socializing with men, these four are with themselves – outsides and observers – talking about men. The song reminds them that “they don’t have one” to carry or enjoy.

However, Bernadine is half-way there as she, at least, is shaking and moving her body, while gazing around in search of some type of action to assert her position as object of desire – as a recently divorced piece of meat, piece of meat now on the market for conquest.

The physically and attitudinally reinvented Bernadine – new hairstyle and attitude to match – decides to assertively pursue a man as she makes a move toward self-empowerment and rediscovery. The man she approaches happens to be taken already – married. Sound familiar? It’s Savannah’s same old story of self-gratification and adultery. At any cost. In this aggressive act of self-defining freedom, Bernadine is willing to become – does become – the patriarchal “other woman” whose only raison d’etre is as the object of sexual desire and pleasure for the man. The mistress meat.

It could be suggested, even asserted, that her aggressive and assertive act towards the married man as “object of desire” positions her as the holder of the gaze and thereby subverting the patriarchal code which defines and positions the woman as object to be desired and conquered. However, the man she pursues is hitched and Bernadine is the outsider. The intruder. She is the bewitching mythological Eve (or Lillith?), using her sexuality as weapon – her femininity as instrument – to tempt and seduce the chaste Adam to engage in an immoral and unethical act or two. Bernadine’s decision and course of action render her the willing sexualized object wanting to be (sexually) subjected.

Even in her quest for self-identity and wholeness  – at the point of potential independence in and with her life – Bernadine arrives back at the point of her martial self/subjugation: containment in a male interpreted and pre-determined world.  In the night club scene, not only does she render herself as sexualized objects but she becomes the purveyor of the self same act that her ex-husband perpetrated against her. She becomes the adulterer. She becomes the “other” in two ways: the “other” woman, yes – but more sadly– she becomes her husband or at least – just like him. She has become what she despises. The ultimate measure of a system’s power to socialize is the assimilation and/or acculturation of the “other.”  

And finally, there is Gloria who, paradoxically, while helping to perpetuate gender patriarchy’s existence and supremacy also serves a the heroine and symbol of the working class, down-to-earth, simplistic folk and their way of life.

As stated earlier, Gloria is also a participant in self-subjugation as evidenced is her relationship with her son and his physically absent father. The re-enforcement of her self- oppression is further witnessed and perpetuated when she comes into contact with the Gregory Hines character. From their initial interaction, she positions herself as object to be desired, pursued and, hopefully, captured.

When Gloria first approaches the brawny, handsome character portrayed by Hines the physical positioning of the two is quite representational and informative. He is up high on the back of the moving truck, which causes her to look up to him. During their introductory conversation, while her eyes constantly gaze at his groin area his constantly size her up.

She desires the phallus for pleasure and completion; he wishes her body for pleasure and conquest. Both sexual gazes, in addition to what Gloria says, implies and even thinks, as she walks away, reinforces her position as object of desire and sexual gratification. SIGH. Once again, the female gazing upon herself “patri-eyes” – defining her own feminine worth and womanly value based on the male “other.”

As Gloria strolls away, she wonders verbally to her self, if he is looking at her in an admiring manner. But not at her overall, mind you. She wonders if he is admiring her ass in particular. She glances back at him to confirm that he is, in fact, gazing at her ass.

And what does she do? She jiggles her Hottentot derriere even more – just for his delight – to entice him, to impress him, to taunt him. In that one act, which could arguably be read that she is actually utilizing her assets (no pun intended) as an instrument of power – Gloria, in fact, props the patriarchy in all its cultural, social and historical sexism.  

Gloria’s gaze becomes his gaze when she confirms that he sees her that way she sees herself—as a piece of meat being offered up for his admiration and taking.

Nonetheless, there is a redeeming quality of Gloria that is refreshing and hopeful for the masses of African men and women for while she is a handicap and impediment to the cause of female emancipation and liberation from the patriarchy and/or the system’s complete abolition or subversion, Gloria speaks to the importance of simplicity and old fashion ways as a means to a happy and successful relationship (with Hines’ character).

Of all four of the women, Gloria is the only one to achieve and realize a successful relationship with a man. She is the only one of three who was “working class” and not “professional.”  She was the only one of the four that, I presume, did not hold the coveted university degree. Gloria and the Hines character represents the unpretentious, working class folks – old fashioned and traditional.

Gloria’s twofold identity and DuBoisian double consciousness – her dual symbolism – is signified in her offering of food to the new neighbor and man on the block. What better way to a man’s heart than through his stomach? Also, isn’t the offering of food the cordial, hospitable and traditional act to commit when a new neighbor comes in? The offerings of provisions serve as both symbol of Gloria’s willingness to function within the patriarchal parameters (i.e. as homemaker) and as traditional act of hospitality and extended family.

 It is interesting and revealing that Gloria is the only on of the four to achieve and realize a successful relationship.  Equally interesting and illuminating is the fact that their relationship becomes arrested – immobile – around the issue of Gloria’s unwillingness and/or inability to let her son go, which almost causes her to lose her relationship with the Hines character.

Hines finally convinces Gloria that she needs to release her son Tariq so that she can begin to develop wholesome relationships with both Hines AND Tariq. Once she does let Tariq go, everything begins to work out fine. 

Her act of letting Tariq go is so emancipatory and healing. It is this act of letting go that allows the Gloria character to free herself from the patriarchal shackles of dependency and containment and into a relationship with based on equality, mutual respect and cooperation. Theirs becomes a relationship based – not on lust and sex, but on shared concern and sharing. Hines’ secure and self-confident character helps Gloria move into a state and space of wholeness for his sake – yes, but for hers, as well. His agenda is not motivated by dominance or subjugation, but instead love and respect.

The character of Gloria is the only female that grows, if not into then towards, feminine emancipation and gender wholeness – individually and dyadically (i.e. within a relationship).   She is the only one able to at least loosen the patriarchal bonds – finding happiness within and then find some semblance of contentment with a man – based on things mutual and reciprocal and not on his criteria and definitions. Things equally male and female.

While “Waiting To Exhale” was by no means a “voice” of or for woman’s liberation or the legitimate deconstruction of the patriarchal gaze, the redeeming qualities of Loretta Devine’s Gloria and her relationship with Hines, did ultimately prevail as a roadmap – not only for women on the quest for at least a semblance of liberation from/within the throes of patriarchy but equally so for those male and females desirous of happy and meaningful relationships.

The way to happiness and mutual fulfillment in a relationship lies beneath and within the iconic, oftimes culturally offensive, Aunt Jemima style bandanna worn by Gloria at the beginning of the film.

The way is in the Akan proverbial expression, “Sankofa” which means, “Return to the past and fetch it!” The phrase “Se wo were fi na wo sankofa a yenkyi” speaks to the importance of the wisdom one exhibits when they seek to learn from the past valuable lessons in order to positive build the future.

The means is in the old days and the old ways – those simplistic traditions based on uncomplicated definitions and expressions of love that helped a people to preserve and perpetuate their collective survival. A man and a woman willing and committed to be together based on mutual respect, mutual concern and the mutual surrendering of the self – all for the well being and survival of (the) kin especially those children born and yet to be born. In and from Gloria’s exhalation, there came life and freedom. 

                                                                        #   #   #