define: alterity

alterity [n.] the state of being “other” within a collective imagination.

I didn’t realize I was other until I got to high school, and even then, the otherness I experienced was somewhat unorthodox. Blackness, as it is often constructed within the homogenizing gaze of whiteness, is synonymous with poverty. The black experience, as we see it on television, is the experience of rags-to-riches drug dealers, elite athletes from Compton and exceptional intellectuals cradled by violence. These are not fallacies – these are archetypes which exist, which are real and hold legitimacy, but they are also the authentic images. These are the images which are believed to be the truth of Blackness – Blackness as poverty, Blackness as economic dilapidation. Authenticity is a strange phenomenon, for no one really gets to say what is and is not authentic. Yet still, there seems to be this notion that one image – that of the Wire, for example – is real, while other images – those of the Cosby Show or Blackish – are not. Within this framework, I became aware of the fact that I was not as I appeared. I was exceptional because I hailed from a two-parent household in a suburban upper-middle class neighborhood in New Jersey. I carried with me throughout high school a bitterness which I could not describe or understand, for in that bitterness was a constant sense of conflict whose roots lie in my own ambivalence, in my own irreconcilability.

It wasn’t until I got to college when I realized that the metrics used to determine what Blackness is and should be are entirely hegemonic, entirely constructed and entirely dangerous. It was also in college – perhaps the furthest away I was from everyday contact with working-class Blacks, to be quite honest – that I realized that the perception of the Black experience was not a racist presumption with stereotypes, although the American imagination is often riddled with false and base interpretations of the realities of the subaltern. Millions of Black people lived in poverty, a reality I did not experience until I got to college, a reality I did not have to experience because it was so removed. But I have talked about this already, and talking about it more is only stroking a patchy beard.

The source of otherness comes from an established understanding of normality in the public imagination. The phrase “imagination” is important here, for we are all part of a collective imagination through which ideas and images are constructed, encoded, decoded and deconstructed as a community effort. This effort transcends race, gender, ethnicity and religion. We all play our part in the collective imagination of the United States, whether we consider ourselves Americans or not.

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five documentaries on black issues

I enjoy watching documentaries because it offers all the information of a book without the labor of reading. Of course, reader, you may be saying “reading is not laborious” but for some people, like me when I was younger, reading was a source of stress. I struggled to read at the paces of my peers, which deterred me from reading altogether. Yet, I was inquisitive and sought to find information through other media, including documentaries. Considering my somewhat heavy course load at Swarthmore, I’ve been watching documentaries in order to augment my readings. In my spare time, instead of watching a tv show on Netflix — which I also do — I’ll put on a documentary which is relevant to my coursework and continue the learning process without straining myself by reading.

Below are five documentaries for students of Africana studies that I’ve watched through online platforms like California Newsreel, a site for which most colleges and universities hold a subscription.

1. Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (1994)

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Director: Anne-Laure Folly

Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (Women with Open Eyes) is a Togolese documentary which discusses contemporary issues facing West African women. Topics include the traditional roles of African women and the construction of the masculine and feminine identities within Senegalese, Beninese, Burkinabé and Malian contexts. The film discusses, above all else, the issue of excision or female circumcision, the process of removing the “unpure” clitoris from young women, and its ramifications on the psychological development of West African women. The film is a must-watch for people interested in gender & sexuality in West Africa as well anyone seeking to study African society and culture.

The film can be watched through Films on Demand, a video streaming service which offers subscriptions to hundreds of colleges and universities.

2. Color Adjustment (1992)

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Director: Marlon Riggs

Marlon Riggs is a titan African-American documentarist whose works cover an array of topics, from sexuality to Blacks in media. Color Adjustment highlights the presence of Black actors in television, progressing from the early representations of Black people by whites in radio and film and the consequent addition of Black actors for television adaptations, such as in Amos and Andy. It then progresses through shifting audiences and representations as television progressed into the 1960s, 70s and 80s, stopping at the Cosby Show, a show which sought, among many things, to dramatically address the representation of African-Americans in television. Color Adjustment is a must-watch for anyone studying the presence and representation of African-Americans in media, as well as the construction of racial identities.

Color Adjustment is also available through Films on Demand.

3. God Loves Uganda (2013)

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Director: Roger Ross Williams

A more recent documentary, God Loves Uganda discusses the role that Christian evangelism has played in the cultural, legal and social development of Uganda. The relationship between (North) American evangelism and Uganda’s anti-homophobia laws is explored, along with the pervasive strain of Islamophobia at the heart of many Christian missionary agendas in Africa. Definitely a fascinating watch for anyone interested in gender, sexuality & legality in Africa, religion & African society and the role of Christian mission in African history.

The documentary is available on Netflix.

4. 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets (2015)

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Director: Marc Silver

Covering the story of the murder of Jordan Davis, a seventeen year-old African-American high school student by Michael Dunn, a white man, 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is a harrowing documentary which combines excellent storytelling with the misery of an ongoing, unresolved and nearby issue of violence against the Black body. The documentary was the impetus for two pieces on this blog, titled Armed & Dangerous, and opened by eyes to the ambiguities of stand-your-ground laws and the pervasive notion of Black criminality within the American conscience. I definitely recommend this film for anyone interested in African-Americans in the American justice system, racial violence, and cultural imaginations.

The documentary is available on HBO Go.

5. The Language You Cry In (1998)

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Directors: Alvaro Toepke, Angel Serano

The Gullah are a unique group of African-Americans living on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Renowned for their sweetgrass basket-weaving and tradition of storytelling, the Gullah also are distinguished by their unique creole language. The presence of African retentions in the Gullah tradition were essential towards rewriting the popular narratives of “the Negro past” or the lack thereof. The Language You Cry In tells the story of a funeral dirge retained by Gullahs that was traced back to a tribe in Sierra Leone, effectively drawing a tangible connection between contemporary African-Americans and the African continent from which they hailed. The documentary is touching in its desire to undo accepted ideas of African-American culture as “ahistorical” and is imperative for students interested in studying African-American or Gullah history, African cultural retention and music & culture.

The documentary is available on Films on Demand.


I plan on watching more documentaries during my winter break, so I’ll probably add a follow-up to this post. Stay tuned!

armed & dangerous

Response

tw: racial violence; On the necessary use of violence in regard to one’s self-defense and the inherent social issues which comes with the perception of danger and the Black male.

At night at Swarthmore, where the campus is relatively poorly lit, it’s rare for people to say hello to me. As we are approaching one another, my face shrouded by a hoodie or hidden in the darkness, students look at me, squinting their eyes in order to attempt to identify me, but in finding that it is too dark – and that I am too dark to be seen – they look away. There is a certain terror I see in their expressions, for they cannot recognize me as Xavier, as fellow student. They see in me a black male figure, and all the roles similar figures play in the American imagination.

Black men have become symbols of violence in our culture. We are seen as dangerous in our very existence, and must bear the weight of the burden of the epidermalization of contempt which is the immediate response of those whose paths we cross. This fact incensed me to no end during my first year at Swarthmore, having never experienced this form of fear before. I did not see myself as scary because I knew that I was a good one. The clothes I wore, the way I walked and the words I used revealed immediately that I posed no threat, although the assumptions that someone’s hostility can be boiled down to outward appearances is obviously dubious. Yet still, it continues to be a menace to the lives of several million, for it is has been the justification for countless murders, all in the name of self-defense.

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define: token

token – [n] a person – typically belonging to a subaltern group — whose perfunctory inclusion into a social group or organization is meant to create the illusion of inclusivity and social progress.

I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort. My purpose in life is not to teach White Americans the ills of their barren culture, to present in a respectable, palpable way the values of my own. As easy as it is for me to draw a neat line between these two worlds, I do not walk the earth in order to dispel or embolden that line of color, to make my racial existence into a neat presentation for white ears and eyes. When you look at me, you see an amalgamation of what White America expects of Black America. You see education, you see sophistication, you see around me a shell of whiteness into which all of my kind can and should crawl, even if that shell has the potential and the desire to crush us all therein. I do not exist to tell you this, but I am doing it because I have given up on the idea of the residents of the Other side figuring it out for themselves.

A professor of history at Swarthmore once told me that it was not my duty as a Black person to explain my marginalization to White people. Of course I rejected the idea, because I understood, somehow, that white people did not know that they were guilty of marginalization. In my heart it was apparent that the average White person was morally good, yet was nonetheless taught, like me, both explicitly and implicitly, to equate everything about life in the Other’s skin with inferiority. As we progress through the 20th century, the dominant narrative which proclaims Black inferiority seems to transition from being about genetics to being about choice. Black people have chosen to hate themselves, have chosen violence instead of progress, drugs and criminality instead of peace and the American dream. The rhetoric of the choice of Black marginalization, and conversely of bootstrap resuscitation, became the dominant narrative in the mind of millions of Americans, post-Civil Rights Movement, and so began the process of alleviating the wounded white conscience, racked and bewildered by guilt, by shifting the blame of racism completely onto the Other.

“It is not your duty as a Black person to teach White people about their oppression of your people.”

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