If you’ve noticed I write a lot about race, you’re right. That is to say I do revisit the subject in various ways in assorted stories, though truthfully race makes up a very small percentage of what I write about. But there are reasons why I keep returning to the topic and some of them are very personal to me. The following cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about interracial relationships will appear in that newspaper’s Valentine’s issue. Why interracial relationships? Well, I’ve been in three in a 14-year period. Each with an African-American woman. The first of these was of long duration, 12-plus years. She died in October 2012. The next was of very short duration. The most recent is with my girlfriend of six months. We intend to get married one day. My interest in dating interracially can be traced in part to my growing up experience. I was raised in a northeast Omaha neighborhood that was almost entirely white until I was 10 or 12. I was born in 1958 and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that blacks could get homes as far “west” as 42nd Street in North Omaha because of restrictive covenants and red lining tactics. We lived at 42nd and Maple. As the landmark TV series All in the Family became a sensation in the very early 1970s my older brothers and I used to joke that our father was our family’s own Archie Bunker. It was an exaggeration to call him that but he definitely had some bigoted attitudes. For proof that God has a sense of humor the first black family on the block moved on one side of us, the second black family on the block moved on the other side of us, and for good measure a single black woman moved across the street. My father and mother got along famously with our black neighbors. My brothers were too old to be playmates or friends with the black neighbor kids but I wasn’t and so I spent a fair amount of time over their homes as they did over my home playing Army Man, ping pong, pool, and just exploring the neighborhood. My folks and the black adults next door to us and the black woman across from us enjoyed amiable, cordial, even warm relationships. While this was playing out on my home turf I had a very different experience when visiting my Italian-American and Polish-American relatives in South Omaha. Many of them said racist things, freely using the “n” word and criticizing my parents for staying put as our neighborhood became increasingly integrated and within a few years predominantly black. My uncles and aunts said things like, “How can you live with those people? Why don’t you move?” But my folks didn’t feel right joining the white flight bandwagon. My mom actually worried about the message that would send to our black neighbors, who by the late ’70s were all around us.
By the time I became a journalist in the mid to late 1980s I had personally observed the transformation of my neighborhood from virtually all-white to nearly all-black. I would remain in that neighborhood, in the house I grew up in, until 2005, my parents having long since moved out. I saw a lot of things play out in The Hood that gave me a certain appreciation for and understanding of African-American life from a social justice, sociological, cultural, anthropological perspective. By the mid 1990s I had begun interviewing and profiling African-Americans and reporting on black subjects, past and present, and that work began giving me additional perspective. I’ve filed a few hundred stories by now related to various aspects of black culture. It doesn’t make me an expert, but I am an interested and careful observer and I hope my work synthesises some of the complex history, issues, and context that inform these subjects. My work in this area led me to develop many sources, acquaintances, and friends among blacks, male and female, young and old, from all walks of life. I’ve long admired black women and I’ve found many attractive but I never acted on that interest or impulse until I was 42. My first interracial dating experience ended up being a long-term committed relationship with a wonderful woman named Joslen whom I met at the same American Red Cross job we worked. Twelve-plus years with her afforded me my most intimate window yet into Black America. She passed away far too young at age 53. I’m still very close with her family. The next relationship only lasted four months but it gave me an intense immersion into the life of a talented singer, devout Christian, and outstanding mother. Her name was Carole. My current relationship, though only six months old, is quite serious and shows every indication of being for keeps. Pam is a writer, photographer, mixed media artist, and community activist-advocate with a strong faith life. She’s the mother of two adult children. Through her I’m obviously getting a whole new exposure to the journey of a woman who happens to be black and it’s only enriching me even more. Of course, in the vast majority of my time spent with these partners race didn’t-doesn’t enter the picture. We engaged-engage as a couple, as man and woman, as distinct personalities with both shared and divergent interests, not as racial tokens or archetypes.
Though the following story is not about me or my interracial datiing history, my background with regards to intermixing inevitably, inescapably infuses what I write and how I write about it. I did quite intentionally choose to make black-white couples the focus of my piece because that has been my own lived experience in relationships these past 14 years. Besides, the black-white dynamic is the core racial dynamic in America and I feel at least that any examination of racial relations, and in this case racial mixing, needs to begin and end there, even though I fully recognize there are many other interracial pairings beyond this that could very well and should be examined. But I’m just one writer and this is just one story. I chose to write this article because it’s closest to my heart and head. Someone else will have to write that other story.
Color-blind love: Five interracial couples share their stories
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Two bodies in the mirror:
one’s me, the other’s you,
with two far different cultures
some say will bring just strife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.
Valentine’s Day is a reminder that though love comes naturally, it’s not without obstacles.
Given America’s apartheid legacy, interracial romance has historically been taboo, scandalous or confined to back-door liaisons. As recently as 1967 Southern anti-miscegenation laws criminalized having intimate relations with or marrying someone of another race.
If you think America’s beyond all this, consider that a Louisiana justice of the peace denied an interracial couple a marriage license in 2009. A Cheerios commercial depicting a black-white couple and their biracial child elicited complaints in 2013. Interracial love portrayals are still rare enough to make news. Hollywood treatments range from treacly (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) to melodramatic (Monster’s Ball) to sophomoric (Guess Who?) to banal (Something New).
Whether your interracial poster couple is Kim and Kanye or newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio with his black wife and their biracial children high profile images such as these reinforce the emerging mosaic. The phenomenon is real, not hype. In 2012 the Pew Research Center found interracial marriages in the U.S. reached a record 4.8 million or an all-time high of 8.4 percent of all U.S. marriages. More recent Pew studies find broad acceptance of interracial coupling among all major racial-ethnic groups and the increase of biracial children blurring color lines as never before.
This organic movement is a result of individuals pairing off according to the law of attraction, not social constraints.
Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and family
Even when mixing risked not just gossip or indignation but danger and imprisonment, it still went on. Some couples openly defied convention and ostracism. Some challenged race laws in court. It seems human heart desires trump artificial efforts to keep different persuasions apart.
There’s also the intrigue of exploring the other side. Online adult sites promote interracial hookups that range from romantic dates to one-night-stands to paid sexual encounters.
When it comes to amour, anecdotal currents say race is not a driving factor for mixed couples though it can be for those around them.
Interracial marriage was and still is a civil rights issue
Five metro couples, all variations of black-white twosomes, recently shared their stories. None of the individuals involved went looking for a partner of another race, it just happened. While their relationships are not racialized, race is an undeniable factor in their lived experience.
Emily Pearce and Travis Mountain are 30-somethings who each dated interracially before getting together. He has two children from previous relationships, including a son whose mother is white. Emily, a fitness instructor and elementary school vocal instructor and Travis, a U.S. Marine veteran, personal trainer and rapper, are parents of a girl, Rebel Mountain.
They’re keenly aware being interracial matters to some.
“I do think it makes a difference to people,” Emily says. “I don’t think we’ll ever live in a post-racial world, honestly. Neither of us thinks of us as being in an interracial relationship but other people do, and it does bother me.”
“As far as interracial couples, like it or not it’s something popular now,” says Travis, aka Aso. “It’s just more accepted. If people do have a problem with it it’s more just kept to themselves.”
“It does get thrown in your face ,” Emily says. “If you go somewhere without a lot of diversity you do get looks.”
She says at some schools she’s taught at black women staffers became unfriendly when they discovered she was dating Travis.
“They treated me differently. They were nasty to me.”
“Her dating me has opened her eyes about how differently she’s treated by dating somebody that’s black,” Travis says. “Black women hate to see ‘a good black man’ date a white woman because they look at it like you’re taking that black man away from our community but I don’t look at it that way.
“People want to put you in a category and it’s so stupid.”
The two hail from widely divergent backgrounds. She’s from an intact middle class family in Enid, Oklahoma. He was the only male in a single mother-headed home in North Omaha projects. She says her educator parents brought her up to be color-blind and never had an issue with her dating outside her race. He says the matriarchs of his family disapproved of interracial dating but didn’t have a problem when he did it. Each feels accepted by the other’s family.
“It’s like homosexuality – you can have a problem with it if you want to but what happens if it’s your brother or your kid? So be careful what you’re really hating because it might just happen to you,” says Travis.
“Neither of us set out to be in an interracial relationship, we just liked each other and we really balance each other out and I think it is because of the totally different experiences we have,” says Emily.
Dell and Lena Gines are another 30-something couple. They too faced little family resistance. She’s white and he’s the product of interracial parents. Together 23 years, Dell and Lena have five children. They feel America’s moved forward on race but has far to go.
Lena, a fitness instructor, says Dell’s parents have “shared some of their struggles and we definitely didn’t have to go through the same struggles. I think their generation kind of paved the way a little bit. It’s come so much further from even when we were dating. Seeing that progress is encouraging but it’s very slow.”
“It’s going to take more time,” says Dell, senior community development director with the Omaha Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. “I’ve never met somebody that’s past the race thing but I know people who are comfortable with interracial relationships while acknowledging the race thing. I do think we’re more aware of race and are more willing to recognize people can get together and function in relationships regardless of race.”
Dell grew up in multicultural northeast Omaha, where he says he came up with “tons of mixed kids.” Self-identifyng as black, he and his biracial friends dated both black and white girls.
“It was a normal thing.”
Lena didn’t grow up around people of color. Her first interracial dating experience was with Dell, whom she took for Middle Eastern. When she discovered he was black, she says, “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”
For them, it’s never been about race. “We fit and that was it,” she says.
Dell says, “I think it’s very important to note our similarities outweigh our differences.”
“I didn’t even think about the racial thing until he came to my family’s Christmas party, where everybody else was white and I was like, ‘Oh, this looks different.’ Then he took me to an African-American church and it was like reversed,” says Lena.
The couple intentionally reside in North O for the diversity it exposes their biracial children to.
One of the few times someone confronted her about being with a black man was when a woman at a hair salon called Lena a n_____-lover.
“It took me by surprise,” she says. “That’s when it kind of became real. I didn’t have any friends, black or white, who had any issues with it, but I had other black women say things to me like, ‘You’re taking one of ours’ and ‘Why don’t you leave him to us?’”
Dell says racial baiting is “past the tipping point” now that interracial relationships are trending up, adding. “East of 72nd it’s such a common sight. Maybe if I lived out west I would have a different experience. You’re rarely going to hear it from black guys anyway. You’re much more likely to hear it from black girls. I’ve never had anybody actually come up to me and challenge or question me on that. I would dare anybody to say anything about it to my face.”
He believes intermixing will create a new racial narrative in America.
“You’re going to have kids like me or my children identifying along lines that aren’t so clear anymore. It’s going to change the way people look at race and ethnicity. It has to. Once you can get past identifying people as a class or a group and you identify them as individuals then it’s hard to keep gross intolerance in play.
“The rise of interracial relationships is going to force change because it means families that probably haven’t intermixed now have to. When you meet people on that basis then you begin to see things other than ethnicity or race.”
Ron and Twany Dotzler make their 33-year mixed marriage and large rainbow family – they’re parents to 14 – a living symbol of inclusion and tolerance through their Abide Network and Bridge Church.
The mid-50ish couple met at now defunct Tarkio (Mo.) College, where both played basketball. He came from insular all-white rural Iowa. He was naive about his own prejudice and the plight of Black Americans. She came from an almost exclusively black Washington D.C. neighborhood and the discrimination her family endured made them wary of whites. Twany says she once couldn’t conceive of being with a white man because “I just couldn’t see what two people from different backgrounds would have in common.”
The Dotzlers, Twany and Ron (holding baby), 5th and 6th from left, back row
When they got together in the early 1980s his family had no problem with his choice of mate but many residents of his hometown did.
“A lot of people were outraged. A big uproar.”
Twany’s family opposed their union. It took time, but acceptance came.
Each partner also had to work on their own racial hangups, especially when they began having children.
The family’s encountered welcome and disdain. The first few years the Dotzlers were married they lived in Broken Bow, Neb. They moved to the burbs, where Ron says, “Everybody seemed to accept us.” After entering the ministry the pair committed themselves to mission work. North Omaha became their calling. Racial incidents began happening.
“We were at a restaurant in Fort Calhoun and this guy at the bar yells, ‘Hey, you n––––r, yeah, you n––––r, get out of here.’ At a church picnic one of my kids goes to kick a ball and another kid kicks it and says, ‘Aw, go get it n––––r.”
When the couple applied to have their kids attend a small Washington County school local residents turned out en mass at a school board meeting to oppose their admission.
“Other families had been accepted. Our family had been rejected. We were denied access to the school,” Ron says.
“That was a real blow,” Twany says. “They didn’t want us to come.”
Overturning fear-based perceptions is what the Dotzlers do through Abide sponsored home renovation projects, neighborhood cleanups and justice journeys that bring diverse people together.
“I think that’s why I love what we do,” says Twany. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do, yet if you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.
“It’s all relational – seeing a person different from you and being able to value them right where they’re at. We’ve been getting people together to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls, for a long time. When you have to be together for a long period of time you learn some things about yourself and about others.”
Somehow some folks are threatened
by what we represent,
Although to make a statement
was never our intent.
Michael and Cassandra Beacom
When Michael and Cassandra Beacom began dating in the ’80s he was not only a newbie at interracial romance but to people of color having grown up in white-centric Keystone and attending white Catholic schools. Moving with her father’s Union Pacific job, she was exposed to both integrated and segregated environs. She dated mostly black guys in college, though a white boyfriend did propose marriage.
The Beacoms fell head over heels upon first meeting at a party. When they became a couple not everybody approved.
“The girl that introduced us was not thrilled with us being together,” Cassandra, says, “so you find out who your friends are or at least their viewpoints anyway.”
“Some friends said we support you, we’re behind you all the way,” Michael says, “and some others cut and ran or had their thing about it.”
He says her parents were cool but while his folks liked her as his friend they were “definitely not prepared” for him to have a black girlfriend.
“They said horrendous, horrible, evil, terrible things, to the point where I understood I would have to be saying goodbye to my family.”
Nothing negative was said to her, an administrative assistant with the Omaha Public Schools, only to Michael, a senior agent at PayPal.
“They gave him all the grief, they didn’t give me the grief,” says Cassandra, who adds she only found out much later the extent of his family’s unease.
Rather than cause a scene, the couple eloped and kept their marriage secret. Michael says, “I was terrified.” When Cassandra got pregnant with their first child, the family embraced her. The big wedding the couple put off was finally held. She and her late father-in-law became close and she’s tight today with her mother-in-law.
Their biggest hurdles with race have been with institutions. They say racist assumptions forced their son into foster care before a court intervened. That separation trauma still hurts. As do double standards that have seen her treated one way because she’s black and him another way because he’s white. Then there’s the times people assumed they couldn’t possibly be a couple.
Union for Contemporary Art founder-executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew upsets expectations in northeast Omaha. Not only is she a mix of African-American and Iranian-Chaldean, she’s married to a younger white man, chef Tim Shew.
“I have run-ins with people who say I’m not black enough to understand the African-American crisis. I do feel because of my work here, my advocacy for North Omaha and the fact I live in this community there’s an element of surprise when people realize my husband is not African-American. This is nonsense. Could we stop doing this to each other?”
The couple’s experience differs from that of her parents, whose extended families wanted nothing to do with Brigitte and her siblings.
“We were the yellow kids with funny hair. We were different and were always treated as such.”
She says she’s glad things have progressed to where she and Tim don’t have to go through what her interracial parents “went through in the ’60s,” adding, “It’s interesting how much of a non-issue that factor is in our relationship.”
Brigitte, who grew up in Detroit, dated interracially from the jump.
“Race is not a criteria. It’s not something I think about, it’s more about personality and who the person is than what color they might be,” she says. “With my mom it never mattered. I had moments with my siblings where it was like, ‘Why is it you always seem to be dating white guys?’
It wasn’t an issue, it was more of an observation. I don’t think anybody would say that if you were dating someone who was blonde or brunette. I realize not everybody has that sort of blindness to it.”
Tim, who grew up in west Omaha, was curious about brown girls but never did anything about it until Brigitte. Their families have always been fine about their relationship. She says the only time her race has come up with them was at a birthday party for one of his nephews.
“I made a chocolate cake. We were all at the table and I was sitting across from this sweet little boy who said, ‘Why are you the same color as the cake?’ Some people were really embarrassed and Tim’s brother totally defused things with, ‘I’m glad somebody finally asked that question, I’ve been wondering that since you started coming around.’ It was just this perfect moment.”
The Shews plan to have children one day. Though aware biracial kids can have a tough time they take solace in the fact their families and friends don’t hold the prejudices earlier generations did.
“I’m excited for our child to be part of the family we’ve created,” she says. “It’s a brilliant thing.”
We sense their eyes upon us:
the glance, the stare, the gaze.
Some puzzled, some condemning,
some burn with inner rage.
With but a few accepting,
some hurl the jagged knife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.
Lyrics are from “A Different Shade of Loving” by Mick Terry.
Omaha has lost one of its most respected and exibited artists, Wanda Ewing. As a memoriam to her, I am posting for the first on this blog a story I did about an exhibition of hers some years ago. When the assignment came I already knew her work and like most folks who experienced it I was quite impressed. I very much wanted to do a full-blown profile of her but I only got the go-ahead to focus on the exhibit. She was very gracious with her time in helping me understand where she was coming from in her work. Her untimely death has taken most of us, even though who knew her far better than me, by complete surprise. Facebook posts about her are filled with shock and admiration.
You can appreciate her work at http://www.wandaewing.com. The Omaha World-Herald should have a notice in the next day or so.
Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Wanda Ewing is at it again. The Omaha printmaker known for her provocative spin on African-American images has created a sardonic collection of reductive linocuts and acrylic paintings that considers aspects of beauty, race and social status. The work has been organized in the solo exhibition, Bougie, at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, where it continues through December 2.
The title comes from a slang term, derived from the French word bourgeois, used in the black community as a put down for anyone acting “uppity,” said Ewing, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It speaks to the level of acceptance due to your social and economic background, your physical appearance, all of it.”
She explores bougie through the template of popular magazine culture and its vacuous lifestyle advice. The heart of the show is 12 faux glossy covers, each a reductive linocut with vinyl lettering on acetate, depicting a slick monthly women’s mag of her imagination called Bougie. The garish covers are inspired by Essence and other Cosmo knockoffs whose content places style over substance.
Among the “bougie markers,” as Ewing calls them, are black cover girls with straight or long hair and “story tags” that embody those things compelling to bougie women — shopping, how to lose weight, money and getting a man. Some of the teasers get right to the point: “Not Hood enough? 25 ways to get ghetto fabulous.” Another reads, “It’s what’s on the outside that counts.” Among the many double entendres are, “Tom Tom Club, back on the scene” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
“I wanted to achieve something that was funny to read, but had some grit to it,” she said.
Each “issue” is adorned by a head and shoulders illustration of a black glamazoid female, the features made just monstrous enough that it’s hard to recognize the real-life celebs Ewing based them on. One vixen is based on home girl Gabrielle Union. Other iconic models include Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Tyra Banks, Janet Jackson, Eve, Star Jones and Queen Latifah.
Ewing “distorted” the images, in part, she said, as “I didn’t want them to be necessarily commentary on the celebrity, because it’s not about that,”
These cover girls represent impossible beauty standards and thus, in Ewing’s hands, become primping, leering creatures for the fashionista industry. Like the figures in her popular Pinup suite, she said, bougie women “are not shrinking violets.”
Contrasted with the plastic mag images are big, bold, beautiful head portraits of more realistically rendered black women and their different hair styles — bald, straight, permed, afroed, cornrowed — executed in intense acrylic and latex on canvas. These are celebratory tributes of black womanhood. The figures-colors jump out in the manner of comic book or billboard art. “I’m still holding onto being influenced by Pop Art,” Ewing said. “I love color. I’m not afraid of color.” The Hair Dresser Dummy works, as she calls them, are a reaction to the stamped-out glam look of the old Barbie Dress Doll series. Ewing’s “dolls” embody the inner and outer beauty of black
women, distinct features and all. We’re talking serious soul, here.
There are also fetching portraits of women that play with the images of Aunt Jemima and Mammy and that refer to German half-doll figures Ewing ran across. Another painting, Cornucopia, is of a reposed woman’s opened legs amid a cascade of flowers — an ode to the source of life that a woman’s loins represent.
All these variations on the female form also comment on how “the art world likes to celebrate women,” she said, “especially if they’re naked and in pieces.”
Bougie examines women as objects and the whole “black is-black ain’t” debate that Ewing’s work often engages. Glam mags help inform the discussion. Ewing said black models were once shades darker and displayed kinkier hair than today, when they have a decidedly more European appearance. “I grew up looking at these images and felt bad because as hard as I tried, I couldn’t achieve what was being shown,” she said. At least before, she said, publications offered “a variety of the ways black women looked. Now, these magazines idealize the same type of woman with the same kind of features. I find that interesting and damaging on so many levels.”
Like the figures in her Pinup series, Bougie’s women are too self-possessed or confident to care what anyone thinks of them.
Leave it to a master satirist, Omaha author Timothy Schaffert, to put Ewing’s new work in relief. In an essay accompanying the show, he comments:
“The women…demonstrate a giddy indifference to their objectification, defying any interpretations other than the ones they choose to convey. See what you want to see, the women seem to be saying. You can’t change who I am, they taunt. Ewing portrays women in the act of posing, women possibly conscious of their degradation yet nonetheless seducing us with their self confidence. For Ewing’s women, the beauty myth becomes just another beauty mark…
“And yet the politics of fashion are what give Ewing’s work its sinister and satirical bent. Just beyond the coy winks and the toothpaste-peddling smiles and curve-hugging skirts of these fine black women is the sense that the images aren’t just about them” but about “the various co-conspirators in the invention of glamour. In Ewing’s work, black women assert themselves into the commercial, white-centric iconography of prettiness, and the result is at times funny, at times sad, at times grotesque, but often charming. Her women rise above the didactic, each one becoming a character in her own right, in full control of her lovely image.”
In the final analysis, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“Although this work is coming from an artist who is black, it is not limited to just the black community,” Ewing said. “Ultimately, the work is about beauty. That’s a conversation everyone can contribute to.”
A conversation is exactly what her work will provoke.
The Sheldon Gallery is located at 12th & R Streets. Admission is free. For gallery hours, call 402.472.2461 or visit www.sheldonartgallery.org.
- Bougie… Insult or Badge of Honour? (crazyramblingsofaconversatingadult.wordpress.com)
- Black women need more self esteem. (blacksforabetterlife.wordpress.com)
The best art is provocative in that it engages you to think outside your comfort zone and to consider new truths. That’s certainly the case with the work of Francoise Duresse, who makes you think about race and personal identity in semi-autobiographical series that explore the implications of skin color for herself as a dark-toned black woman in a world of lighter shades. I wrote this story a few years ago when an exhibition of her work ran at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha.
Color Me Black, Artist Francoise Duresse Explores Racial Implications
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As any person of color will tell you, the politics of race brands racial minorities with stereotypes that serve to isolate, diminish and exclude them.
In America perceptions of what it means to be black or to be a particular shade of black, for instance, carry the baggage of history and popular culture. Distortions abound. Media portrayals reinforce certain stereotypes.
Artist and University of Colorado art instructor Francoise Duresse, a native Haitian who’s lived and worked all over the world, has navigated societies that use skin color as a basis for stratifying, classifying people in caste systems. Her experience of “differentness” and her search for “personal identity” as a stranger in strange lands is something she often explores in her art. She looks at how “colorism” has and still does act as a litmus test for inclusion-exclusion, acceptance-denial.
That’s the case with her mixed media works on view now through July 24 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center. “Feeling separate” amid a majority population that doesn’t look like you is a powerful vantage point for any artist. Selections on display from two Duresse series, Queen Nappy, the Place from which I Come and The Paper Bag Test, examine the issue of black identity and image within the context of society, media, peers, heritage and ethnicity.
As her work illustrates, what’s bound up in one’s blackness is a complex question. Implicit in her pieces is an acknowledgement that certain assumptions made about blacks and certain attributes ascribed to them are not just race specific but hue specific. Her proposition is that Eurocentric, whiteness models make light skin more acceptable than dark skin across the racial spectrum.
These perceptions cut both ways, affecting not only how others see blacks but how blacks see themselves. Anecdotally, it’s well-known light-skinned people of color traditionally fare better than their dark-skinned counterparts when it comes to jobs, promotions, grades, appointments, memberships, invitations, customer service, et cetera. Duresse takes into account the burden of such realities.
Her Paper Bag Test refers to a once prevalent and still “hush-hush” practice of allowing or denying entry to public places based on skin color. Persons lighter than a grocer’s brown paper bag, she notes, “pass,” while darker hued individuals “fail.” Her point is vestiges of this color coding extend to all kinds of situations or settings and remain fixed in people’s minds. It informs societal, cultural, institutional racism.
An image of herself as a child and another as an adult literally adorn a string of paper bags, the portraits colored from lily white to jet black and all the gradations in between. Each time her face darkens it grows less distinct, a reference to how people of color are perceived and can become invisible before our eyes. The final adult portrait is abstracted beyond human recognition, into what appears a heavy garment — perhaps a comment on the weight of perception one‘s subjected to.
Several Duresse works use motifs to comment on the minimalization, fragmentation and objectification that attend moving through life as a person of color. For example, she variously underlays and overlays a silhouette of her adult self or a painted image of her “audacious surrogate,” Queen Nappy, with minstrel, blaxploitation images culled from advertisements. In a series of these paintings her alter ego is ever more distorted and diminished by these intruding forces of myth and propaganda, until finally her portrait is utterly obscured. It’s a powerful rumination on the danger of losing one’s sense of self amid all the misinformation.
In other pieces she repeats a Polaroid of herself as a little girl, the skin tone varying from nearly white to pitch black, with every variation in between. These images are juxtaposed with a large foreground portrait of sober womanhood. The contrast of youth’s innocence and idealism with the hard bitten lessons of adult life offers an indictment of the colorized socialization process.
Some works echo each other. One presents a sea of diverse yet distinctly African-American faces. Another pictures the same faces, only now commingled, perhaps diffused through enculturation. In another, a collage of these faces surround and underlay the portrait of an adult female — a comment perhaps on how a woman of color is an assemblage of many fragments, strains, features, hues. A stunning work entitled Blue Eyes pictures the artist as a fully bloomed woman — her face comprised of different hued images of herself as a girl, an evocation of how she embodies a lifetime of perceptions, influences, experiences.
- Being Dark Skinned (socyberty.com)
- Can a Sista Get Some Love?: Dark-Skinned Women in the Media (ayannanahmias.com)
- True Life: I’m a White Girl Stuck in a Black Girl’s Body (thislifeinphotos.wordpress.com)
Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice
Over the past 20 years I have had the opportunity of stumbling upon some filmmakers from my native Nebraska whose work has inspired me and many others. I first became aware of Alexander Payne back when I was programming art films in the late 1980s-early 1990s. This was before he’d directed his first feature. I read something about him somewhere and I ended up booking his UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin, for screenings by the nonprofit New Cinema Cooperative. Hardly anyone came, but his work was unusually mature for someone just out of college. That lead to my interviewing him in the afterglow of his feature debut, Citizen Ruth, and his making Election. I’ve gone on to interview him dozens of times and to write extensively about his work. I even spent a week on the set of Sideways. I almost made it to Hawaii for a couple days on the set of his film, The Descendants. I may be spending weeks on the set of his next film, Nebraska. It’s been an interesting ride to chart the career of someone who has become one of the world’s preeminent filmmakers.
More recently, I was fortunate enough to get in on the evolving young career of Nik Fackler, whose feature debut, Lovely, Still, shows him to be an artist of great promise.
More recently still I discovered Charles Fairbanks, a true original whose short works, including Irma and Wrestling with My Father, defy easy categorization. He is someone who will be heard from in a major way one day.
In between Fackler and Fairbanks I was introduced to Omowale Akintunde, an academic and artist whose short film Wigger became the basis for his feature of the same name. Akintunde and Wigger are the subjects of the following story, which appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com). The small indie film, made entirely in Omaha, is getting some theater exposure around the country.
This blog contains numerous stories about these filmmakers and others I’ve had the pleasure to interview and profile.
Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ’Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
After premiering here last year, and in limited theatrical release around the country, the dynamic looking and sounding film returns for a 7 p.m., July 28 red carpet screening at the Twin Creek Cinema. It’s back just in time for Native Omaha Days (July 27-August 1), the biennial African-American heritage celebration.
The film, definitively set in North Omaha, plays off a young white man, Brandon (David Oakes), so enamored with African-American culture he’s adopted its trappings. He pursues a R & B career amid skeptics, users and haters. His interracial relationships, both platonic and romantic, are tinged with undercurrents.
“He feels he has transcended whiteness,” says Akintunde, chair of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Black Studies. “On the other hand, his father is a very overt racist who calls people nigger, talks about fags and Jews. He’s very open about his biases. So Brandon sees himself as disconnected from his father.”
Brandon’s best friend, Antoine, is black. As pressures build, the two have a falling out, each accusing the other of racism, unintentionally setting in motion a tragedy.
“There’s just some things you learn in a black household you don’t get in a white household, and vice versa,” says Eric Harvey, who plays Antoine and co-produced the film, “so that line between them keeps them from being as close as they really want to be. They’re both in denial of self-conscious racism.
“It’s not a bad thing, it’s a reality. We do things without thinking about it. Seriously, it’s been embedded for so long it’s just the norm.”
This is the prism through which Akintunde, who produced, wrote and directed the film, examines polarizing attitudes. Nearly everyone in the film exhibits some prejudice or engages in some profiling. Race and privilege cards abound.
“I thought this story…was the perfect premise to get into some real deep stuff,” says Akintunde. “It’s about these two characters with this improbable dream. This white boy who loves black culture and wants to be accepted comes from a background that says, why would you want to be like THEM? And then them telling him you’re not one of US. And how does one make that fit?”
The film suggests a post-racial world is a fallacy short of some deep reckoning or ongoing discussion. It’s message is that not confronting or deconstructing our racial hangups has real consequences. Akintunde can spout rhetoric with the best, but his film never devolves into preaching.
He does something else in offering a raw, authentic slice of black inner city life here with glimpses of Native Omaha Days, the club scene, neighborhoods, church. He avoids the misrepresentations of another urban drama set here, Belly (1998).
“This is the first film that really deals with North Omaha and attempts to make icons of the things that have become emblematic of it,” says Akintunde. “I really did want to show this city and that community some big love. It was very intentional I made the location a character in this film.”
Rare for any small independent, even more so for a locally produced one, Wigger is managing theatrical bookings at commercial houses, albeit mostly one-night engagements, coast to coast. In classic roadshow fashion, the filmmaker is brokering screenings through his own Akintunde Productions. He pitches exhibitors and when he sells a theater or chain on the flick he often appears, film in hand, to help promote it. He often does a post-show Q & A.
The success is the latest affirmation for Akintunde, who has a solid reputation as a serious artist and scholar. His 2009 nonfiction film, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom, which charts the bus trek a group of Omahans made to the Obama presidential inauguration, won a regional Emmy as Best Cultural Documentary.
The Alabama native has heeded his creative and academic sides for as long as he can remember. “I always wanted to be a university professor and I always wanted to make films,” he says. “I wanted to make films because there are so many people who will never attend a university, who will never be involved in a high level ivory tower discussion, and movies reach everybody. What I always wanted to do is to meld those two worlds — to use film to teach academics.”
In a career that’s seen him widely published on issues like white privilege and diversity, he’s penned academic texts, short stories, a novel and a children’s book. He says he always conceives his stories cinematically. Well into his professional career though, the cinephile still hadn’t realized his dream of filmmaking.
“It was one of those things you always wanted to do but everyone discouraged you from because they felt you needed a real job,” he says. “No one ever thought that was a credible goal. I finally reached a point where I realized credibility was determined by me, and if I had a passion for filmmaking I needed to do what…makes me happy. That was one of the missing things in my life.”
During a sabbatical he attended the New York Film Academy‘s Conservatory Filmmaking Program. His thesis project was a short version of Wigger. Another of his shorts, Mama ‘n ‘Em, was selected for the Hollywood Black Film Festival.
An expanded Wigger script became his feature debut. He and producer Michael Murphy financed the film themselves. Akintunde imported principal cast and crew from outside Nebraska, including film-television actors Meshach Taylor (who was in the short) and Anna Maria Horsford, cinematographer Jean-Paul Bonneau and composers Andre Mieux and Chris Julian.
“I didn’t follow any of the traditional methodologies in terms of even making Wigger, much less how I promote it and get it out there.”
Kim de Patri (Kim Patrick), who plays Antoine’s girlfriend Shondra, says the script’s unvarnished truth grabbed her.
“It said every single thing most people think (about race) but would never actually say. It was the way it was said and the voice it was speaking from, these characters. It was so real and so honest and it came from a very genuine place.”
Taylor, a big advocate of Akintunde’s, says he likes how the film “challenges people’s concepts of what racism really is” by dealing with “the reality of institutionalization racism,” adding, “It’s not an overt thing, it’s really built into the system.” He says he and Akiintunde just click. “I like what he’s trying to do. It’s really wonderful to have someone who has an intellectual approach to filmmaking but still has the artistic sensibility to make it fun and interesting to watch.”
To date, Akintunde has arranged limited bookings in mid and major markets, ranging from Minneapolis and Birmingham to Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It’s one continuous run was at the Edge 12 in Birmingham, the home of Tim Jennings, who has a supporting role. Akintunde says an Edge Theaters official “became a big fan and supporter” of the film and offered a one-week run.
Future screenings are scheduled in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and New York City. He’s negotiating with Edge for new, multi-date runs.
Kim de Patri (Kim Patrick)
With Wigger, he’s taken a subject and set of conventions rife with stereotype and exploitation possibilities and dramatized them as an extension of his scholarship. His goal is as much to frame a dialogue as to make a profit.
“My biggest objective here was to really put a story out there that would compel people to talk about institutionalized bias in a way that I don’t think we’ve had. I really wanted to have a national conversation about this.”
In the tradition of Do the Right Thing and A Time for Burning, which was shot in Omaha 45 years ago, Wigger makes a full-frontal assault on our expectations.
“Obviously, I chose a very provocative and incendiary title because I want it to evoke a very strong, visceral response. I want to incite people. I want to grab America by the collar and just shake them,” he says. “The title itself is very problematic for people because we live in a society where we won’t even pronounce the word nigger. It becomes the “n word” in any context in which we use it.
“In many of the (Q & A) discussions we talk about why I gave the film such a provocative title — it’s because I want people to stop and think. Certain words are simple, symbolic representations of a much deeper social problem that we tend to mask by using silly euphemisms, as if we do not know what they mean, instead of looking at why the actual word bothers us.”
The film deftly handles topics usually glossed over or overdone without becoming pedantic or sensationalistic, though it does get melodramatic. As an “ethnic” genre pic, it draws largely black audiences, but enough of a mix that Akintunde is able to gauge how it plays to black and white viewers.
“There has not been a huge disparity in response and I think that’s because Wigger takes on multiple kinds of institutionalized biases. What I find is people see in a sense the mirror being held up to themselves.”
If nothing else, he hopes the film encourages viewers to see past the taboo or race.
“In our society we’re taught the way you demonstrate you’re not racist is to pretend you don’t know race exists. Because of this color blind mentality we’re all supposed to be adopting, we have come to a point where we can’t discuss the 600 pound gorilla in the room, and what Wigger does is give people an opportunity to discuss the 600 pound gorilla.
“But it goes beyond that — to our gender, our class, our sexuality, our religious beliefs. These are so interwoven and so inextricably bound that it is impossible to construct yourself in any of those domains without taking into consideration the others.”
Wigger shows how racism, sexism and other isms thrive in both white and black culture. Everyone is guilty of some kind of bias.
“I try not to make a compelling argument of black versus white,” says Akintunde, “but about what it means to be either and how we can transcend these boundaries, these ridiculous social constructions, these radicalized expectations that keep us divided. I believe we have the ability to cross these boundaries and truly become a society resolute in its solidarity.
“I think the reason people don’t leave that film feeling as if they’re more divided is because of the way the film is structured. I think you cant help but see how really alike we are. It’s hard to walk away from this movie seeing the world in, no pun intended, black and white.”
Relegating someone to a narrow category or box, he says, diminishes that person and in the process only widens the gulf between individuals and groups.
“I don’t think they are things that exist on their own. I don’t think people are born heterosexist or are racist or Christian. We are taught these positions, we are taught these ideologies, and we reinforce them in our social context in such discreet ways that we’re formed and shaped into opinions and ideas long before we understand that’s what has happened to us.
“Nobody can be plugged comfortably into one of these slots. It ain’t that damn simple. It never has been that simple. It’s a very complex thing.”
The film unabashedly “goes there” by unearthing the fear and anger alternative lifestyles generate, from gay revelations to interracial affairs to wigger mainfestations.
“Society paints a picture of what it wants to see and some people just don’t want to see certain things,” says de Patri (Patrick).
Overcoming these barriers, in Akintunde’s view, starts with recognizing them for what they are and how complicit we are in maintaining them.
“The thing I want to get across to people is that it’s all of our problem. Even if you think you’re just a victim, you’re not, you are a participant. It’s not a white problem, and it’s not a black problem, and it’s not a gay problem. It is a human problem.”
Omowale Akintunde reviews script with cast
Akintunde enjoys the canvass film provides for expressing multi-layered themes.
“I’m very attracted to film as a way of telling that story because I think it allows you more complexity.”
Wigger marks the beginning for what he hopes is a string of films, but for now, he says, “it’s the fruition of my life’s work.” He’s justifiably proud the film’s getting seen.
“For an independent filmmaker to even get a film to run continuously anywhere for any length of time is an extraordinary achievement, and I got that to happen.”
The exhibition schedule is being revised as new screening opportunities surface.
“I had this carefully laid out plan, man, with absolute linearity, and instead things are happening in the moment.”
He says the film’s well received wherever it plays and is invited back in some cases for additional screenings, including Las Vegas and Birmingham.
“Obviously, I would love to see the movie in an even larger roll out and I think that that is happening,” he says. “I didn’t plan that Edge Theaters was going to pick up the movie. I didn’t plan these people in Vegas and Birmingham would want me to come back. I’m going to go with what happens in that moment and just enjoy it. I’m sort of like riding the wave.”
He says there’s been preliminary talk about Rave Theaters pickiing up Wigger. He’s also following up a lead about potential interest from BET in acquiring the film for network broadcast. Wigger will eventually go to Blu-Ray and DVD.
“I am still seeking a distribution deal.”
Considering its small marketing budget, he’s pleased with the film’s performance.
“We sell out the house wherever we play. I’m not making a killing, but certainly making back the money invested to bring the movie to these theaters. I have a real job, so for me it’s not so pressing my movie makes a lot of money, Of course, I want it to make money if for no other reason then to allow me to make more films.”
His unpublished novel, Waiting for the Sissy Killer, is the basis for a new feature he’s planning. The partly autobiographical story concerns a young black man trying to cope with identity issues in the 1960s South. Akintunde hopes to begin pre-production in the fall. He plans shooting the project in his native Alabama.
Omaha rapper ASO headlines the 6:30 p.m. Wigger pre-show at Twin Creek Cinema. Performing at the Blue Martini after-party is co-composer Andre Mieux.
Tickets are $20 for the screening, pre-show and party and available at http://www.WiggerThe Film.com, Youngblood’s Barber Shop, Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Twin Creek.
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Rich Music History Long Untold is Revealed and Celebrated at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Rev. Everett Reynolds Gave Voice to the Voiceless (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Get Crackin’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Film Dude, Nik Fackler, Goes His Own Way Again, this Time to Nepal and Gabon (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Vincent Alston’s Indie Film Debut, ‘For Love of Amy,’ is Black and White and Love All Over (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)