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“Star Trek: Discovery”: How Michael Burnham speaks to my perfectionist, highly sensitive struggles

As I’ve stated in my SlashFilm review, I’ve always been a Star Trek fan ever since I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad about 20 years ago. But while Jean-Luc Picard will always be my favorite Star Trek captain ever (who can say no to Patrick Stewart and the way he commanded with calm authority?), Picard has to battle Spock for the title of favorite Star Trek character ever.

The reason? Because as a half human, half Vulcan, Spock has had to battle his reason with his human emotions, emotions that had the potential to get (and, in the reboot films, has gotten) the best of him. The battle between raging emotions and cold reason is a battle I face constantly. Never did I think Star Trek would continue to crystallize this struggle in such a poignant way, but the franchise succeeded again with Star Trek: Discovery‘s Michael Burnham and her relationship to her father figure (and Spock’s future father) Sarek.

I’ve stated many times on this site and in other publications about how much of my love for Star Trek stems from its ability to showcase varying struggles that exist under the umbrella of “diversity.” Thankfully, the franchise also includes psychological diversity as well, as is the case with the Vulcan race. The Vulcans have stood for many things to many viewers. Some see the Vulcans and their occasional misunderstandings as a way to thoughtfully approach the autism spectrum. Others see the Vulcans as simply uppity living cardboard figures. Speaking personally, the Vulcans have always shown a light on two of my big personal struggles–perfectionism and the highly sensitive (or even empathic) mind.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham. Photo credit: CBS

The running joke my sister and I have is that I’m a Vulcan. In fact, when I said it as self-deprication a few years ago, my sister replied thoughtfully, “You know what? I agree with that.”

I’ve always been a deep thinker, and too many times, that thinking has either gotten me in some type of mental trouble or made me appear as unable to connect with the “normal” outside world. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t connect with the outside world, because I’m so wrapped up in how other people feel, how I feel, and how to best convey those feelings to people who might not have emotions that run as deeply as mine do. As psychiatrist and Emotional Freedom author Judith Orloff accurately described, “It’s like feeling something with 50 fingers as opposed to 10. You have more receptors to feel things.”

Believe it or not, it’s not easy being a feeler, and our Western society makes sure it’s tougher than it has to be. As a society,we value loudness over softness, action over reflection, and doing over being. The stereotypes of a highly sensitive person make us out to be gooey bundles of mush that can’t defend ourselves because we’re supposedly so much weaker than the “average” person. That’s not the case–we aren’t weak. We’re actually quite strong. But you wouldn’t know it from how much emphasis people put on having an extroverted outlook and put down those of us who are reserved within ourselves.

All this leads to is, aside from a smattering of depression, a bad case of perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” now, but for a long time, I’ve been investigating where my perfectionism came from. I’d have to say that there are a lot of reasons for it, but one of them is because I’ve used perfectionism as a bad coping mechanism for the harsh world who can’t handle tears. I grew up comparing myself to others who I thought were better than me simply because they could they naturally handled emotions in a different way than I did. I didn’t realize that the way I handled my emotions was simply my nature–it’s as much an integral part of me as my black skin is. After growing into adulthood I’ve realized that there’s no reason to try to change myself, since my emotions work just like how they’re supposed to work. They are part of the inner strength that help make me a better version of myself each day.

Arista Arhin in Star Trek: Discovery (Photo credit: CBS)

Michael Burnham seems tailor made for this type of exploration of inner strength. I see in her what I’ve seen in me all the time. I see her struggle to adapt to her Vulcan upbringing and tamp down her human (i.e. emotional) self. I see her struggle to fit in with her Vulcan peers, possibly feeling a lack of self-esteem at not being like the others. I see the shadow of perfectionism that showed itself as cockiness when she first enters the U.S.S. Shenzhou–you can tell she thinks she knows everything about everything because she’s been the first human to graduate from the Vulcan academies and excel amid intense pressure and a stacked deck. I also see her struggle to understand that her humanness–her emotions–is what makes her great.

Her struggle against emotions is also apparent in Sarek and other Vulcans. Big fans of Star Trek know that Vulcans do, in fact, feel. As Memory-Alpha states:

“Contrary to stereotype, Vulcans did possess emotions; indeed, Vulcan emotions were far more intense, violent, and passionate than those of many other species, including even Humans. It was this passionate, explosive emotionality that Vulcans blamed for the vicious cycle of wars which nearly devastated their planet. As such, they focused their mental energies on mastering them.”

Vulcans, including human-born/Vulcan-raised members like Michael and Vulcan-human hybrids like Spock, always suffered with deep-running emotions. Here on planet Earth, there are tons of folks like me who always seem to be drowning in their own emotions, even as we attempt to tamp them down. The actual suffering doesn’t come from the emotions themselves, but from the attempt to control them. But if you unleash those emotions, then what? The fear of being out of control in any fashion is what, sadly, keeps the suffering going. It’s the Vulcans’ own fear of a lack of self-control that keeps them perpetuating what is essentially a culture of emotional abuse and intense perfectionism over and over. The aspiration to be the ultimate Vulcan, as it were, is what causes Vulcans to stay at war with themselves.

The Vulcan brain can also be a scary place to be due to their intense emotions. Again, to quote Memory-Alpha:

“The Vulcan brain was described as ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium.’ This had some basis in fact, as the Vulcan brain was composed of many layers…Unlike most humanoid species, traumatic memories were not only psychologically disturbing to Vulcans, but had physical consequences as well. The Vulcan brain, in reordering neural pathways, could literally lobotomize itself.”

The human brain can’t lobotomize itself (although it can block highly traumatic memories from ever reaching the surface), but his description of the Vulcan brain, especially the part about how much of a puzzle it is, fits the highly emotional mind as well. A mind that is constantly drenched in deep emotion is a mind that is mystery even to itself. The fact that there’s science spearheaded by the leading HSP expert, Dr. Elaine Aron, that show that the highly sensitive person has a hypersensitive wired nervous system and empathy-targeted brain is evidence that the highly sensitive mind is an overactive (and sometimes over-reactive) place. Also, like Vulcans, those who consider themselves highly sensitive or even empathic have extremely strong reactions to events as well as the mundane, due to the fact that–like Vulcans–we can usually sense the emotions of others.

James Frain and Sonequa Martin-Green as Sarek and Michael. (Photo credit: CBS)

However, with all of this going on, it’s fascinating that Sarek still saw the value in human emotions, so much so that he entrusted his ward to Capt. Georgiou in an attempt to give her the human experiences she never had. It’s also poignant to note that he only shows his true emotions to those closest to him, like when he does his best to hold back a proud smile as he introduces Michael to Georgiou for the first time. Or when he reveals to Michael through their mental connection his regret at not showing her the emotional support she needed throughout her life. His statements are made simply, but you can see the depth of feeling there. You can tell how much he loves Michael and does truly believe in her, like any good father would. Like any parent, he’s made mistakes in raising his child, and he’s emotionally intelligent enough to be able to admit that–and his emotional state surrounding this fact–to Michael. As we already know from Star Trek, Sarek sees a lot of admirable qualities in humans, so much so that he married one and had a child. Perhaps it was raising Michael that helped him open his eyes to the importance of having a balance between emotion and reason.

Showing Sarek reveal his emotional side to Michael, and Michael revealing her emotions to Georgiou, brings up another point about highly sensitive people, or at least, someone like me–it’s difficult showing your full self to the public. It’s much easier–and much more intimate–to show the full extent of your emotions to those closest to you, to those who understand you. Not everyone realizes that emotions aren’t there to be played with or used against the person; we highly sensitive people only feel safest revealing ourselves to those who mean the most to us in our lives. Those people have earned the right to know us as we are, and that is a coveted position to hold. In Star Trek terms, it is a coveted position to have a Vulcan as a friend, because they will probably be extremely loyal to you because of the position you hold in their life.

James Frain as Sarek. (Photo credit: CBS)

The scene between Sarek and Michael in the mind meld was extremely special for me. It hit home in a way I didn’t expect that scene to do. It made me feel like I finally have someone who understands my personal struggle on television, and she’s also a black woman. It showcases a different side to blackness that is rarely seen on television (so much so that tons of Star Trek fanbros are up in arms over Michael leading the series). She’s not loud or brash. She’s not sexually promiscuous. She’s not even funny, really. She’s a no-nonsense, yet naive woman who is still trying to find herself amid her place between two cultures. She’s ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium,’ and it’s good to see someone like her exist in our pop culture. She lets other black women like me, women with Vulcan brains, know that not only are they just fine, but they can–yes, I’m saying it–live long and prosper. 🖖🏾

“Riverdale” recap: Now, a warning

Pictured (Front L-R): Tiera Skovbye as Polly Cooper, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, (Back L-): Nathalie Boltt as Penelope Blossom, Hayley Law as Valerie, Asha Bromfield as Melody, Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, and Madelaine Petsch as Cheryl Blossom — (Dean Buscher/The CW)

Riverdale Season 1 | Episode 8 | “The Outsiders” | Aired March 30, 2017

AAAAAUUUUGGGHHH!!!!

Yes, this is how I feel right now about Riverdale, and all of that got bottled up and compacted into this particular episode. Yes, Polly had her baby shower, she’s moved in with the Blossoms, Archie and Betty found out that Jughead’s dad is a Serpent, Kevin’s Serpent boyfriend Joaquin is having second thoughts about deceiving him, etc., etc. Now, let’s get to what really needs to be discussed: JUST WHERE IS THIS SHOW HEADING?! 

I feel like this show is treating us like how Lisle Von Rhuman treated Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes HerRiverdale is teasing us with a show beyond our wildest imaginations–inclusion, diversity, a fresh take on Archie and the gang, etc.–and it gives us what we think we want. But then, it comes back to us and says, “Now, a warning.” To which we say, like Madeline, “NOW a warning?!” For us, that warning would have been that the show would begin to lose its way and forget what made its characters great and, indeed, avatars for those who didn’t feel included in their everyday lives.

First of all, I feel like, and have always felt like, Riverdale has the potential to be amazing. There’s so much raw stuff inherent in the Archie Comics canon and it’s so frustrating to see how little the show is using what it could use. Instead, it’s pulling from every kind of pop culture reference from the past 30 years to show it’s “smart” and “edgy” and “hip.” And yet, it still comes off as dated and try-hard.

I think Emily Nussbaum hit the nail on the head in her review of the show for The New Yorker, “Archie’s and Veronica’s Misconceived Return to Riverdale,” in which she eviscerates the show for the reasons presented above. To quote her:

“…[S]even episodes in, it’s devolved into dull cosplay bracketed by bogus profundity. Betty and Veronica don kink-wear and roofie Chuck Clayton, a slut-shaming football player. The girls’ tart-tongued gay bestie, Kevin (a character from the new version of the comic strip), seduces a bi-curious Moose. Archie, when not working out shirtless, pursues a songwriting career. “Your songs,” a critical music professor sneers at him. “They’re juvenile. They’re repetitive.” That’s true of ‘Riverdale,’ too, but the show clearly knows it and doesn’t care. Every time a plot feels corny or prurient or preachy, there’s an acknowledgment in the dialogue. It gets exhausting, like hanging out with someone who keeps saying, ‘God, I’m such a nightmare!'”

It’s like the show desperately wants to prove that it’s new and fresh. “This isn’t your mom’s Archie!” is what it wants to say. But it’s consistently showing that it’s a a show that doesn’t realize that teenagers, in general, don’t talk in decades-old references, which makes it seem like this is a show actually for older Archie fans who recognize all of these references from their own childhoods. As Nussbaum said, the show brings up Lolita, Rebel without a Cause, Wild Things, Gossip Girl, Beverly Hills 90210, Pretty in Pink, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill, and plenty of others they off-handedly mention in snarky asides. Like, what do you actually want to be, show! Are you for the young kids or are you for 30-year-olds? Make up your mind!

I have been growing frustrated by the plot becoming a spinning-of-the-wheels type situation. Jason’s killer is no closer to being found, and clues seem to keep simultaneously popping up and disappearing at the same doggone time. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll even be shocked when I find out who the killer is because I’m just so bored with the whole procedural element. Again with the references, with the murder mystery itself, the show is trying to be Twin Peaks, another reference for someone much older than the target audience. But, if the show is trying to pull a Twin Peaks-ian surrealist-fest, then when are we actually going to get into the surrealism? Again, Archie Comics has tons of surrealist moments, and that’s not even counting the amount of side-universes they have. Surrealism could come in the form of simply introducing Sabrina, a teen witch who often wants to use her powers for good, but usually ends up messing things up and has to right everything back to how it was. Sabrina could come into town, learn about the murder mystery and, after becoming friends with Cheryl and learning of her sadness, reverse time so that Jason is still alive. That could also be a good opportunity to introduce Afterlife with Archie at this moment, since Jason would be, in a way, undead. There’s your second season.

Or, the show could become a true deconstruction of the idea of classic Americana, something it was billed as being but hasn’t truly delivered on yet. Instead of having Jughead tell us that’s what the show is every week in his voice overs, we could actually see some depth of character and real explorations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and anything else that could use a thorough prodding. I’d say that if Riverdale wanted to take notes from a show doing that right now, it’d be Atlanta. This show, like Riverdale, uses the backdrop of a well-known city to explore the underpinnings of American society and culture, and it does so in a specific, tailored way. It doesn’t have to prove to the audience that it’s “edgy”–it shows its edginess in each episode by delivering on its synopsis each week.

If any place needed a deconstruction, it would be a fictional town like Riverdale, which has stood as a the center for clean-cut “American” life, which usually means white life. With much of the cast race-bent, this would have been a great opportunity to see just how destructive and soul-wrenching it can be to live in a town in which you’re the minority (which, in turn, provides context for the larger conversation about living in a country which still harbors racism against you). We could see how some folks in the football stands might be surprised to see Reggie as the captain of the team. Or, there could be some townspeople who resent that Mayor McCoy won over the white candidate (something the character actually brings up in an episode). Or, we could get more insight into the life of Moose, who doesn’t yet have the courage to live his life as an out gay young man due to fear, pressure to be “manly” or what have you. We definitely could have used Chuck, Josie, and Trev to explore life for black kids in a majority-white town.

Pictured (L-R): Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, KJ Apa as Archie Andrews, and Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge (Dean Buscher/The CW)

I write about this in my piece for Ebony, “Riverdale’s Woke Report Card: Does the Drama Get Its Black Characters Right?”. I give the show a passing grade, ultimately, but I still write about how the show really needs to do better by its black characters.

“Out of the Pussycats, Josie is the one who has been given the most screen time; Valerie has only just now started coming up the ranks, but only because of her relationship with Archie. Meanwhile, Melody still hasn’t spoken more than two words during the run of the series and Pop Tate and Mr. Weatherbee may have been racebent, but they also don’t say much either—and in the case of Pop Tate specifically, nothing at all. Pop Tate is a conundrum; even though it’s great to see more representation on screen, it’s also puzzling as to why he has to be characterized as a silent, kindly butler of sorts, even though he’s the owner of the teen hangout, The Chocklit Shoppe. Basically, Riverdale’s Pop Tate reminds me too much of Uncle Ben, and I don’t like it.”

The show proved my point once again by making Valerie merely a sounding board for Archie this episode. She had three lines, and not one of them was about her point of view or her opinion on the matter of Archie’s dad being driven to near bankruptcy. Instead, her lines were there just so Archie could say he was going to go after the Serpents, as well as to give the appearance that they’re in a loving, stable relationship (which we see in the previews for next week that that might not be the case after all). The next time we see Valerie, she and Melody are at Polly’s baby shower, saying nothing.

If the show wants to be actually inclusive, the least it could do is not make its brown and black characters set dressing or talking props. The most it could do is not create a problematic plotpoint of a black boy in handcuffs at the mercy of a white girl who is acting out a revenge fantasy. 

Also for diversity, the show could do well to actually eliminate Bughead and reinstate Jughead as an aromatic, asexual boy, since that’s what he actually is.

Comics Alliance’s Andrew Wheeler wrote “Jughead, Bughead, and the Need for Asexual & Aromantic Heroes in Comics” to point out just how demoralizing Riverdale‘s asexual erasure is (and how it flies in the face of their “inclusion” standpoint).

Wheeler interviewed colorist Sigi Ironmonger  (a grey-asexual nonbinary trans-man); webcomic creator Sarah “Neila” Elkins, (romantic asexual), webcomic creator Jayelle Anderson (demisexual) and literature student LuciAce (aroace) about their opinions on Jughead in the comics and in Riverdale. They mentioned how important it is to have asexual representation in the media, especially for young kids still figuring out who they are. As Elkins said:

“To me it’s important because, growing up, I didn’t know it was a possibility to be asexual. I thought there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t interested in the idea of having sex like other girls my age. Friends called me a ‘prude.’ These were good friends of mine, friends who were also queer, that didn’t know that asexuality is a queer identity. Even among the ‘weird kids’ I was the odd one out.

I think if there was more representation (or any) of asexual and aromantic characters in comics as well as other books aimed at young readers, and other media, that my friends, and myself, would have known I wasn’t broken or weird. I didn’t learn about asexuality as an orientation until I was out of college. I stumbled across it online and thought, “Oh, wow! That’s what I am! This makes so much sense!” I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that, so I write asexual characters in my stuff. I hope to write something in the future, be it a comic or a novel, that’s aimed at younger readers.”

They also discussed how disheartening it was to see Jughead and Betty actually become an item, erasing the canonical asexuality the character had before (and, as far as I’m concerned, has always had). To quote Ironmonger, Elkins, Anderson and LuciAce:

Ironmonger: “Honestly, as soon as I heard about the erasure, I’ve steered clear of the show, so I can’t speak of the storyline at all. I don’t watch a lot of TV as it is and I don’t feel like prioritizing something like that, you know? I don’t really understand a decision like that and I can’t stand shoe-horned relationships of any kind but especially at the expense of LGBTQ+ ones.”

Elkins: “I really had my hopes up about that show before it came out. I was so hopeful I know I dismissed friends who said “you know they’re just gonna screw it up, right?” My friends were right. They announced online that Jughead in Riverdale “wouldn’t be asexual” and that he’d “totally want sex” or something like that. It deflated the big hope balloon I had clung onto that we’d finally have some representation on TV in a show aimed at younger viewers. It was crushing. I can’t even bring myself to look at the commercials for the show. Each time I hear the music for them I mute the TV or change the channel.”

Anderson: “Getting rid of this trait in Jughead for the television show just perpetuates the cycle of normalizing often hypersexual behavior that doesn’t fit everyone’s life. Sometimes young people’s only role model are the characters they see on television, so it is important to show that asexuality is a thing, too.”

LuciAce: “I’m really angry about the way they’re handling things. Having aroace representation on TV would have been huge, and instead, they… made him straight? Because apparently there aren’t enough allo straight characters on TV yet. I’ve never seen a character like myself on TV, and I would have been a die-hard fan of the show if they’d kept Jughead aroace and touch-averse like he is in the comics. As it is, the show just makes me furious and sad.”

The show seems to have an understanding of just how offensive Betty and Jughead as an item are, which seems evident in how they are doubling-down on shoving it down our throats (or so it seems, since the episodes have been filmed months before now). Having Jughead and Betty kiss in almost every scene seems and feels unnatural, just like how it felt unnatural when writers would try to give Jughead an interest in girls in certain comic book issues. Jughead’s characterization just isn’t one in which he’s a guy who is interested in the opposite or same sex like that, and that’s perfectly fine and normal. However, the show’s insistence on making him straight and sexual feels like a very 20th century thing to do. If we’re in an age where Kevin Keller can be proudly out as a gay teen, then we should also be in the age where Jughead can be proudly out an asexual aromantic teen. Teens in general, regardless of sexuality, shouldn’t be made to feel like they have to be in a relationship to be normal.

Pictured (L-R): Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper and Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones (Dean Buscher/The CW)

The last grievance I have is about that twist of a plotpoint with Hal Cooper, who apparently forced Alice Cooper to have an abortion. ¿¿Qué??

Why, what when and where did this plotpoint have to come up? Why have we had such little to show for Hal’s characterization until now? I know we had that part where he told Betty that Polly was with the Sisters for whatever dire reason they have, but I wish we had gotten the sense that Hal was a total abusive husband way before now. If that had been built up from the very beginning, that would have been really interesting and it would have given us more reason to try to understand Alice until this very episode. We would already know why she acted like someone driven to desperation–it’s because she’s been brainwashed by her husband’s fruitless demand for perfection from his family.

I guess what I’m getting at ultimately with this point is that for this to be a dramatic show about a murder, there are literally no dramatic stakes coming out of these characters. Yeah, we get it every once and a while, like with Jughead confronting his father and still trying to find some hope in his heart for him, and Cheryl coming to grips with her brother’s death. But the show is quickly losing the plot of both what it wants to say and who these characters are. The reason we have connected with these characters for 50+ years is because of their relatable cores. We all know some hapless goof like Archie, who is a great friend, but is endearingly clumsy (and sometimes emotionally tacky) all other areas of his life. We know someone like Jughead, who is so cool and interesting, yet they’re so enigmatic, you feel you know nothing about them. Veronica is definitely that person that many of us wish we could be–cool, rich, and a boy magnet–while Betty is who we feel we are at the present moment–the girl or boy next door, nice, loyal, but just “regular.” Their strengths and flaws are what make them so much fun, and either you see yourself or you see your best version of yourself in these characters. Right now, I’m not seeing anyone I relate to anymore. I was seeing it at the beginning of Riverdale, but now, as Nussbaum points out, all we’re getting is some great cosplay without the real commitment.

I’ll say that the only person in the main cast who feels like they are with their character in spirit is Cole Sprouse. Not too many of the main cast have read the comic books back to front, but Sprouse has said in many interviews how he studied his source material and, in so many words, came in with a gameplan as to how to approach Jughead from a position that would remain true to the character. However, the show itself is limiting him from actually playing Jughead the way he truly wants to play Jughead, I feel. While the powers that be want Jughead to be a sexual being, Sprouse has been advocating for Jughead to be canonically asexual, as he is in the comics. However, the powers that be aren’t hearing him, and it’s a shame, since not listening to the actor who knows the character is what could actually make this show a whole lot better and definitely a whole lot more interesting.

In short, I hope the show quits trying to prove that “It Goes There” like Degrassi and actually goes there. If this is going to be a teen murder mystery, then by all means, up the murder, up the mystery, and definitely up the characterizations, plots, and respect for the differences in others.

The night when straight white males tried to kill disco

DJ Steve Dahl during Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park, Chicago, Illinois, 12 July 1979. Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

‘This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night.’
Richard Wortham, White Sox pitcher

It was a muggy summer night in South Side, Chicago in 1979. In and around Comiskey Park, home to the long-struggling White Sox baseball team, the scene was one of total chaos. Thousands of working- and middle-class young men, predominately white, predominately angry, went riot. Seats were ripped out of the stadium, urinals were kicked from the walls, and the opposing baseball teams were shut in the locker rooms for their own protection. Through it all, the rioters shouted a mantra. It wasn’t about inequality, lingering recession woes or the high-paying industrial jobs slowly seeping out of the Midwest. The slogan they chanted over and over, until their voices were raw, was: ‘Disco sucks!’

That summer, disco music was everywhere, saturating pop culture at the expense of almost all other genres of music. With its pulsing ‘four-on-the-floor’ beat, big vocals and affirming lyrics, disco was a shiny, upbeat escape for Americans living through the smoggy, cynical late-1970s. By the end of the decade, it had become as common as good old American apple pie – there were discotheques in most decently sized towns. Midwestern teenagers skated to Stayin’ Alive in roller discos, and many mainstream radio stations changed their programing to all-disco, all the time.

Disco hadn’t always been so mainstream. It evolved in the clubs and bars of communities that were historically marginalised by the straight, white majority. ‘Disco music was black music, basically,’ John-Manuel Andriote, author of Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco/Dance Music (2001), told me. ‘It was mostly recorded by black artists until the mid- to late-1970s, when white artists realised how popular the music had become. Back then, people heard new dance music in the clubs – not on the radio (at first) – so club DJs played a big role in introducing these black and Latino sounds to a bigger public.’

The gay community, its nightlife flourishing after the liberating Stonewall riots in 1969, embraced disco music and its pioneering DJs. ‘The group most responsible for keeping discos alive was the homosexual community,’ the sound engineer Alex Rosner told Newsweek in 1976. ‘The pioneering done in the disco field has been done by gays, with blacks and Puerto Ricans following … The common denominator there is oppression.’

By the mid-1970s, disco was catching on, and creating its own mainstream stars, such as Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer. But it was Saturday Night Fever (1977), the movie featuring a glamorous, dancing, ladies’ man played by John Travolta – and its accompanying disco soundtrack by the high-pitched Bee Gees – that made disco a nationwide phenomenon. ‘The Bee Gees put a white face on what was basically black and Latin music, and it exploded in popularity,’ Andriote says.

One of the victims of the disco explosion was Steve Dahl, then a 24-year-old Chicago radio DJ who pioneered the ‘shock-jock’ persona most identified with Howard Stern. In December 1978, he was fired from WDAI, ‘Chicago’s best rock’ station, when it switched to an all-disco format. Dahl soon found a home at the rock station the Loop 97.9, but he carried a grudge.

Built like the proverbial Pillsbury doughboy, Dahl brought with him a legion of young, alienated male listeners he named ‘The Insane Coho Lips’. Dahl and his posse greeted each other on-air with the salutation: ‘Disco sucks!’

‘If anything, the pushback from disco saturation was an act of self-preservation,’ Dahl would later write in Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died (2016). ‘No kid, just figuring out who he was and where he was going, would be prepared to have his assimilated rock-and-roll identity stripped from him. If the resistance was furious, it was because they were not prepared to shuck the rock and roll, which had sheltered them in their transition from kid to adult.’

Dahl saw disco as slick and inauthentic, and he took to playing popular disco tunes, only to ‘blow ’em up real good’ with sound-effects live on-air. These targeted antics were not isolated to the radio booth. At promotions, Dahl took to performing in a helmet and military jacket, destroying albums on stage. For this complicated, insecure performer, the adulation he received made him feel that he was building a movement – and advancing his career. ‘[My fans] were passionate about their music and their lifestyles,’ Dahl wrote in Disco Demolition. ‘I tapped into it, both as a response to being canned to make room for the disco format, and to build a community so I could keep my job.’

Dahl’s wife Janet took a more nuanced view of her husband’s motivations. ‘He looked goofy and chubby, his hair was bad, and he was breaking records on his head,’ she remembered. ‘But to be embraced was validating for someone like him.’ His fans, often from struggling, working-class Chicago families, lost in a new culture of women’s liberation, black rights, sexual liberation and Studio 54-inspired androgyny and materialism, felt validated right back. ‘I was a chubby kid,’ Kevin Hickey, a fan, recalled. ‘I remember Steve saying the reason he hated disco so much was because he couldn’t buy a three-piece white suit off the rack. That stuck with me because I couldn’t either.’

On 12 July 1979, Dahl would come face-to-face with the community he had created, on a night that became known as ‘Disco Demolition Night’.

That night, the White Sox were scheduled to play a doubleheader against the equally middling Detroit Tigers. As part of a ‘teen night’ promotion with the Loop radio station, fans were told that if they donated one of their disco records, they would be admitted into Comiskey Park for only 98 cents. Between games, Dahl and his cohorts promised to put the records in a giant dumpster at centre field and blow it up, the physical realisation of the audio stunts that Dahl had been pulling for weeks.

Fans flooded the stadium, as ushers struggled to keep up with the number of disco albums being shoved in their faces. One young African-American usher, Vincent Lawrence (who later became a pioneer of house music, disco’s direct descendant), noticed a disturbing trend as he took the albums. ‘A lot of the records were not disco records but BLACK records – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder.’

The first game passed relatively uneventfully, the Tigers winning 4-1. Comiskey Park, often half-empty on game days, was filled past capacity. More than 47,000 people packed into a stadium whose capacity was 44,492. So far, the promotion had been a startling success.

But as soon as Dahl, clad in military fatigues, emerged in a convertible Jeep, the night took a sinister turn. Fans began throwing beers at the Jeep. Even Dahl was momentarily stunned. ‘When the door opened and I saw all those people,’ he remembered, ‘it was: “What the fuck? They are throwing beers and cherry bombs at us. And they’re the people who like us!”’

To chants of ‘Disco sucks!’, Dahl stepped out of the Jeep into centre field and led the crowd in a countdown to the demolition of the albums. But too much dynamite caused album fragments to shoot into the sky, and a crater was formed from the explosion’s impact. The crowd roared, as players continued warming up on the field.

‘The place went bonkers … People started jumping out of the stands,’ D J Michaels, a witness, remembered. ‘It was like the rats leaving a ship. A few, then more, then total chaos.’

Dahl and his team were whisked to safety. Bonfires were started. The White Sox player Steve Trout remembered the scene:

I walked out to look at centre field, and I heard something go by me. It was an album from the upper deck and landed next to my right foot. It was stuck in the ground. I said: ‘Holy shit, I could have been killed by the Village People.’

The White Sox player Ed Farmer got in a fist fight in the parking lot. The Chicago Police Department, including mounted policemen, appeared at the scene. A little more than an hour after it was scheduled to begin, the second game was postponed due to unsafe conditions.

By the time the riot had dissipated, 39 people had been arrested, and the field was smouldering and gutted. For many of the participants, it was an exhilarating experience. ‘We didn’t take over the dean’s office but we took over our ballpark,’ Bob Chicoine, a vendor, remembered.

Almost immediately, the local media latched on to the story and ran with it. Joe Shanahan, a bar owner and native Chicagoan, recalled watching reports of the scene:

I could see the South Side kids I grew up with on the television running over their field. Those were the douchebags I ran away from in high school. And they were burning records. I thought: ‘Didn’t you all read Bradbury? Burning books? Burning records? This has the feeling of a really bad cloud. And why is it coming out of Chicago? And why is music of any kind, whether I like it or not, being destroyed for some radio promotion or some baseball promotion? It gave licence for people to not be in the modern world.

The story soon became nationwide news. Disco was again labelled ‘other’ – foreign and not tough enough for real, heartland American males. Dahl and his cohorts strongly denied (and continue to deny) that the ‘Disco Sucks!’ movement had anything to do with racism or homophobia. ‘I’m worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe for fronting Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park,’ he wrote in his book. ‘This event was just a moment in time. Not racist, not anti-gay … It is important to me to have this viewed in the 1979 lens … That evening was a declaration of independence from the tyranny of sophistication.’

Disco did not worship at the altar of the rock god. It was the Village People versus Pink Floyd. Andriote agrees: ‘My take on what happened [at Comiskey Park] was that it was a boiling-over of testosterone from white straight men who saw disco – and the whole club scene – as threatening to their masculinity.’

By the early 1980s, disco was beyond passé, and so were all the fanciful accoutrements that went with it – glitter balls, dance lessons and belting divas. Some people point to the events at Comiskey Park as ‘the night disco died’, although over-saturation and mediocre products also helped lead to its rapid downfall. Yet, despite the best efforts of men such as Dahl, disco’s influence lives on. The marginalised groups who loved the music – blacks, women, Hispanics, Latinos and gays – have increasingly claimed their rightful place in society. Disco informs the work of many of today’s superstars, from Bruno Mars to Lady Gaga, and popular music from house to EDM. As the Village People sang: ‘You can’t stop the music, nobody can stop the music.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Hadley Meares

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Riverdale react: So…let’s talk about Chuck Clayton

Riverdale’s interpretation of Chuck Clayton might have done actor Jordan Calloway (pictured in character) a disservice. Chuck deserved better than this characterization. (CW/screengrab)

Riverdale Episode 3| “Body Double”| Aired Feb. 9, 2017

Chuck Clayton has gone down as the first character Riverdale‘s penchant for reinvention has revamped in the worst way possible. This is not the way for the show to enter its first Black History Month.

Before I get deep into why this is, I hate that the first article I’m writing for Riverdale is something that’s about a disappointing plot point. Up until this particular intro of Chuck, I was with the show. Technically, I’m still with the show, since Jughead is coming through for me. (Seems like Jughead is going to turn out to be one of the standouts from this show, like I’d hoped he would be.)

Also, I’ll have a bit of a refresher on the past three episodes in the foreseeable future. Work has kept me away from having time to write.

Thirdly, I’d like to apologize to actor Jordan Calloway, who is a fine actor and played the role he was given expertly well. Jordan, if you happen to read this, I commend you for the role you played and I agree with your tweet about this episode; it highlighted a big issue concerning women’s rights that should be addressed more often in the media. If you happen to find this post, I hope you’ll be able to see where my complex feelings about the character you portrayed are coming from and I hope you don’t begrudge me for it (because if I’m still in the entertainment journalism business, I’m sure I’ll be interviewing you at some point and I want us to start off on the right foot. I’m one of the most agreeable and nicest people ever, if may toot my own horn). This is not personal and I sincerely hope you’ll get more high profile roles in the future. (You’d be great as a leading man in a romantic comedy, for sure!)

In any event, though, we’ve got to talk about Chuck. Or at least, I have to talk about Chuck.

I have several points that need to be addressed during this particular episode, “Body Double.” In fact, I think the writers’ interpretation of Chuck might have done Calloway a disservice. Not because his character was a bad guy, but because the writers saddled his character with unnecessary layers of racial stereotyping, despite the fact that this version of Chuck truly deserves no favors nor sympathy. However, he could have been a cad without that hot tub + handcuffs + “Good boy” scene. Let’s get into it.

Chuck has always been one of my favorite characters from the Archie Comics series. In the comicsverse, Chuck is an artist, a sensitive soul, and an all-around good kid. And he’s the loyal boyfriend to Nancy, who seems to support his artistic dreams, but also seems mildly annoyed by her boyfriend’s flights of comic book fancy. In short, Chuck is Riverdale’s Favorite Black Guy. We can get into how his being one of the only black characters in Archie Comics reflects the inherent tokenism black people in white spaces feel all the time in another post, since Chuck and Nancy both resonate to me on that level, too, having been one of the few black kids at my arts high school. It’s tough having to be the only black person in a white space. #SeatAtTheTable.

Chuck Clayton, as drawn by Archie Comics artist/writer Dan Parent.

Now, I get that Riverdale is all about reinventing these characters—I mean, Dilton is now a hardcore survivalist who shoots guns underage—so I get that Chuck was going to be a little different than what we’ve read before. However, did he have to be that different? And so problematically different?

Why is Chuck problematic now? Because it seems like low hanging fruit (strange fruit, perhaps) that Chuck, the first black teen boy we’ve seen thus far, is introduced as a sex-crazed maniac with no remorse for the girls he’s hurt. To be honest, the appearance of Chuck as a black man who only thinks with his dick and kept a book of how many girls’ lives he ruined smacked of stereotypes of the past, of the black “Mandingo” who lusted after so-called “saintly” white women. Not a good look for what is supposed to be a progressive show.

With all of the inventive portrayals we’ve seen of the main characters thus far, portrayals that still retain the core of the characters from the comic books, it seems like there could have been a lot more done with Chuck than just give him a complete 180 with now seeming justification for it. If Veronica is still a rich girl (despite turning over a new leaf) and Betty is still The Girl Next Door (despite having some clear mental instability) and Archie is still America’s Favorite Teenager (despite being jailbait for “Ms. Grundy,”who we’ve learned from next week’s promos isn’t Ms. Grundy at all), how come Chuck still couldn’t be a comic book artist? Even Dilton, who is probably the most altered of the core group, is still a dweeb; now, he’s just a dweeb who wants to prove his masculinity to the world.

Maybe in the Riverdaleverse, Chuck could have been a comic book artist who has angst over his career choices (something both comicverse Chuck and many artists, including the artists who drew Chuck and artists in other fields like me have all the time). Maybe Chuck could have channeled his depression about his future (or any home issues the writers could have come up with) into his art. His dad’s Coach Clayton—maybe, like Archie and his father, Chuck and his dad don’t see eye to eye when it comes to the arts; his father might want him to go into football as a career, while all Chuck wants to do is draw on his drafting table in the garage and buy oil pastels from the art store. (This could have also made for great friendship drama between Archie and Jughead; Chuck is one of Archie’s supposed “best friends” in the comic book; in the Riverdaleverse, Chuck could have been friendship competition for Jughead, who might want his “Best Friend” spot back after he knows there’s competition.)  For the ultimate in dramatic effect, maybe Chuck’s dad could have even found Chuck’s artistic pursuits too “fey” to handle (this gets into more stereotypical territory when it comes to the black community’s overly-generalized view on LGBT individuals, of course, but at least it would have been something to work with that would make Chuck a human being instead of a caricature). What I’m getting is that a number of things could have been done with Chuck, a character ripe with severely untapped potential. But instead, Chuck is one step from being a rapist. Okay.

The show seems to know that they were doing something dangerous with Chuck, because in this episode, we also met another black guy, the foil to Chuck’s badness, Trev. Trev’s character is angelic to a fault almost. He’s shy, meek, and wants to bring Chuck to justice. In many ways, he’s what Chuck was in the comic books. It’s interesting that the show decided that this was the time to introduce more than one black guy on the series, and it’s a calculated move; they want to give the sense to the audience that 1) they know Chuck would appear even worse if he were the only black guy we saw and 2) we know they’re in on “the joke,” as it were. They want us to be like, “Oh, they’re aware of the stereotypes, so they’re actively combating them. This is cool.” It’s not that cool, actually.

Trev (Adain Bradley) and Ethel (Shannon Purser) speak to Betty about the elusive slut-shaming book circling around the Riverdale High football team. (CW/Screengrab)

I know one argument against disliking Chuck’s reinvention is that making Chuck a “good guy” character could also be seen as a “One Size Fits All” black guy stereotype. Too often, we as black people are portrayed as either being absolutely bad or the Most Perfect, Inoffensive, Special Black Person (as shown in this exact episode with Chuck and Trev). It’s like we as a race deal with the saint/whore dynamic on a daily basis, especially in the media. It is great when a show portrays black characters (and characters of color in general) as complex human beings, capable of both bad and good. There will be some bad guys who are black, just like there will be some good guys who are black, and all of that is welcome. However, there’s a line that can be easily crossed, the line that separates “complex bad guy” from “bad black guy stereotype”. Seems like Riverdale crossed that line.

However, the show also put Betty in a bad light as well. I’m not sure how aware the writers were of what they were making Betty do, but putting a black male youth in chains (in order to punish him and taunt him sexually), having a her, a white girl and therefore in racial power over Chuck, say “Good boy” and then abusing him is not a good look either. Someone should have reread that scene, particularly the part with the handcuffs, and said, “Hey guys, I don’t know about this part. Can he at least not be chained up and can she just say ‘good,’ not ‘good boy’?”

Betty goes dark(haired) for her revenge on Chuck. (CW/Screengrab)

Look, I know Riverdale was exercising its campiness in that scene; I mean, saying “Good boy” to a dude while wearing a wig and some cliché lingerie is, in any other situation, one of the heights of sexual camp. It’s also supposed to be the juicy, soap-operatic version of “I am woman, hear me roar.” But, the optics of this particular scene were just wrong. Did Chuck deserve some comeuppance? Sure. No one’s disputing that. Did we really have to invoke some slave/master’s wife stuff though, however indirectly? In the words of Randy Jackson, “That’s a no from me, dawg.”

The final question I’m sure your asking is this: Do I think Riverdale is racist? Surprise (maybe), but no, I don’t think it’s actively trying to be racist, however that particular episode had an f-ed up scenario with Chuck and the entire Chuck concept.

The show still did some interesting things with race this episode, such as have Josie give Archie the white privilege primer we as POC wish we didn’t have to recite or think about most days of our lives. The writers are at least aware of some of the aspects of being black in America. (In some ways, that particular scene of Josie telling Archie how he can waltz into a room and get the respect and breaks she and her Pussycats can’t get is also meta commentary on K.J. Apa himself, who has Samoan heritage, but can easily pass for white.)

But there seems to be a hyper-awareness of how white privilege affects black women on this show, whereas the plight of black men still seems to escape the show’s themes, which was made apparent by this episode in particular. Do not misunderstand me—it is great that this entire episode was about women’s rights. The plot of this show was timely, seeing how we have a President who has said that he grabs women “by the pussy.” We need our television to keep reminding those who either don’t know or somehow forget that yes, a woman has a right to choose everything that goes with her body and she should never be objectified and psychologically abused by male chauvinist pigs. But the decision to cast Chuck, the very first black teen boy we see on this show, as that dude we all hate seemed to be too easy of a decision to make. Yes, there are black men who need to be schooled on male privilege, but the first black male kid we’ve seen on this show has to be the one that has to learn that lesson?

The only other images of black manhood we’ve seen on Riverdale are men who are tertiary characters at best, like Chuck’s dad Coach Clayton and race-bent Mr. Weatherbee and Pop. These guys as characters are sparse, to be kind; they don’t really say much, and, like some of the other adults in the show, are only there as set dressing. The most vocal has been Weatherbee, and even then, he’s saying stuff a stock principal character would say. With so little of black male diversity on the show, it would have behooved the writers to at least make Trev the first black male teen we saw in this episode, or make Chuck more complex as a character. Or, even better, they could have made sure we saw black male teens from the beginning, as well as more black girls other than the Pussycats. They can’t be the only black girls in town, right? Where’s Nancy??

In short, I think the show’s writers had an inkling that what they were doing was “pushing boundaries,” and while it is problematic, I don’t think the show, at its core, meant true harm. However, that doesn’t mean a lesson can’t be learned here. In the future, I hope the writers think about how black men—and black people as a whole—are portrayed. That same sensitivity shown in the scene in which Josie is giving Archie a white privilege primer should be used on all black characters, as well as characters of color in general. It is time that stereotypes such as the black Mandingo be put to rest once and for all.

Make sure check out my #Riverdale livetweets at The Choklit Shoppe (@ChoklitShoppe), the unofficial Riverdale aftershow and podcast! We’re also on Tumblr!

How “Star Wars” forgot about black women

I love the new direction Star Wars is taking with The Force Awakens and now Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I even support the fact that Rogue One is rumored to be the first Star Wars film to not begin with the classic Star Wars preamble crawl. Rogue One is also running with the diverse platform The Force Awakens started, featuring a woman as the main character (Felicity Jones) and a main ensemble cast featuring Forrest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Fares Fares, Jimmy Smits, James Earl Jones (as the voice of Darth Vader, of course), and Genevieve O’Reilly.

But for the most part, Star Wars has only been killing it when it comes to white women and men of color. Once again, it’s time to ask the age-old question: What about the black women?

In the latest Rogue One trailer, this lovely lady makes an appearance:

star-wars-rogue-one-black-woman
Lucasfilm/screengrab

But do we get to learn more about her? I’m already wanting to know the rest of her story and who she is in the resistance.

What’s the worst part of this erasure is that it’s not like Star Wars hasn’t prominently featured black women before. It’s just that the women are usually in the written tales of the franchise. For instance, Imperial naval officer Rae Sloane, who appears in various Star Wars books, her first appearance being A New Dawn.

Lucasfilm
Lucasfilm

And Sana Starros, Han Solo’s self-proclaimed former wife, is featured in the Marvel’s Star Wars comics, first appearing in Star Wars 4: Skywalker Strikes, Part IV.

But Disney and Lucasfilm might have not taken a prime opportunity to actually cast Sana or any other woman of color as Han Solo’s opposite in the upcoming Han Solo spinoff film. Emilia Clarke is set to play a prominent role in the Han Solo film, a role that Tessa Thompson, Zoe Kravitz, and Adria Arjona (Guatemalan/Puerto Rican) might have auditioned for. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it’s currently unclear if Clarke’s role is the same role the other actresses tried out for, if the film will feature multiple women. As it stands right now, though, Clarke’s is the only name we’ve heard since the news of Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover landing the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian roles, respectively. That doesn’t bode well for black female Star Wars fans who have been waiting to see themselves represented in a big way in what’s supposed to be a highly diverse intergalactic universe.

Also something that’s annoyed many a black woman fan—the fact that the one black woman we do have in the new Star Wars universe, Lupita Nyong’o, is playing Maz Kanata, a character that is completely CGI. (A similar annoyance with black men in sci-fi can be read about in this companion article concerning Idris Elba’s role in Star Trek Beyond.)

lupita-nyongo-maz-kanata
A.M.P.A.S./Lucasfilm

Another strike against Lucasfilm and the Star Wars universe is how often black women and other women of color are often cast as Twi’leks, whose women are often enslaved as sex objects. To quote Wookipedia:

“Since female Twi’leks were regarded as graceful and beautiful beings, many of them were forced into a life of slavery at the hands of the galaxy’s wealthy and powerful.”

It’s more than a little disturbing that while women of color are all but absent in the Star Wars universe, they are readily cast as women who are sold into a sexual slavery.

twileks-lyn-me-oola
Lucasfilm

It’s even more disturbing that Oola, the only sex slave coded as a black woman due to the actress, gets killed moments after we see her on screen in Return of the Jedi. There could have been a better outcome for her instead of just being used as disposable eye-candy.

oola-main-image
Lucasfilm

Meanwhile, the Star Wars universe is proliferated with brunette white female protagonists:

star-wars-brunettes
Lucasfilm

This isn’t to disparage against these actresses, since I like all of them. But I’m trying to prove a point. Star Wars has a predilection, a tradition, in fact, of casting brunettes, when brunettes don’t signify all of woman-kind. If Star Wars is really going to be the franchise that puts women first, it’s got to put all women first. Black women and women of color in general have been historically forced to identify with women who do not look like us or experience life like us. You’d think that in a galaxy far far away, it’d be all too easy to find women of color, and not just women of color who happen to be sex slaves. In a way, Star Wars reiterates a fact of life that has been apparent to many women of color; we’re usually more palatable heard and not seen, and if we are seen, then we have to be as vampy and erotic as possible in order to matter. That’s not the kind of message Star Wars needs to bring into something as uplifting and inspiring as a sci-fi space opera that preaches equality for all people.

Am I still going to see Rogue One? Of course. Supporting it means I’m supporting the actors of color who are prominently featured. But my dollars will hopefully act as a means for Star Wars to increase their focus on diversity. Hopefully, this will mean that someday soon, we’ll finally have a sistah in space.

These photos of upper-class black Victorians show history isn’t just white

Image from the Thomas E. Askew/Daniel Murray Collection/Library of Congress
Image from the Thomas E. Askew/Daniel Murray Collection/Library of Congress

For all of those who think that black people, and non-white people in general, were doing nothing in the past except being poor servants or street beggars, this post is for you. You are the prime people who need to view these amazing photos of black Victorians living and thriving in 1800s America and beyond.

Upworthy has posted 17 images of black Victorians that should leave everyone viewing them filled with a bunch of good emotions. One of my favorite images is this one:

Image from Thomas E. Askew/Daniel Murray Collection/Library of Congress.
Image from the Thomas E. Askew/Daniel Murray Collection/Library of Congress.

I have a kinship with this girl, simply because we both have the same kind of hair. If her experience has been anything like my experience, she’s suffered the “Exotic” card a lot. I understand why you’re looking off into the distance with a long-suffering look on your face, girl. I get it.

There are two major takeaways to glean from these photos:

1. Nearly everyone, if not all subjects photographed, are of the upper-middle and upper-upper set.

Taking photography during the 1800s was still a luxury activity. When you did go take a photo, you went in all of your finery, to show off your wealth (or, if you were of the lower class, you were showing off that you had saved up enough money to splurge). Most of the people in these photographs have titles—Rev. Hiram R. Revels, the first black person to serve in the U.S. Senate, humanitarian and activist Eartha Mary Magdalene White, debutante Nellie Franklin, soprano opera singer Marie Selkia Williams, who became the first black performer at the White House, Blanche Kelso Bruce, the first black man to serve a full term in Senate, Yoruban princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who was raised as Queen Elizabeth’s goddaughter and future wife of rich Nigerian businessman Capt. James Pinson Labulo Davies, etc.

Also of note; some of the subjects in the photos are from northern Florida (one woman is from Tallahassee). Florida, specifically northern and north-central Florida, is home to several historically black towns, in which black wealth and status could flourish. That’s not to say that there weren’t rich black people in other parts of America, because there were. But there’s a history lesson within the pictures that is worth learning about.

Related article: ‘Black Wall Street’ Being Brought to Life by John Legend and Tika Sumpter | Ebony.com

2. History doesn’t just revolve around white people. 

The thing that’s most annoying about historical dramas or even high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones is when people say, “black people weren’t in these areas during this time.” First, fantasy isn’t real, so anyone can be anywhere. Secondly, history has always included other people apart from white people. It’s just that the tellers of history have often skewed the conversation to only focus on white, Western accomplishments.

These pictures show that there’s a larger story about America and the world that too few people know about. We should all know about Sarah Forbes Bonetta. We should all know about Eartha Mary Magdalene White, Marie Selkia Williams, Blanche Kelso Bruce, and many more. The fact that these photos are as revolutionary as they are only goes to show just how startlingly rare it is to see black stories outside of a very controlled, slavery-centric context. Everyone should get to know what life really looked like throughout history; not every moment revolved around what a white person is doing.

Visit Upworthy and check out the article; you’ll be glad you did.

Gospel singers take Neon Genesis Evangelion to holy heights

YouTube/screengrab
YouTube/screengrab

As a long time anime fan, I’ve heard and watched Neon Genesis Evangelion. But a confession that must be made is that while I appreciate the show, I never really got into Evangelion. But, I love the theme song almost as much as Oprah loves bread. It’s easily one of the most iconic theme songs in anime history. Now, the song has become even more iconic after a gospel group takes it to yet another awesome level.

The group, Glory Gospel Singers, appeared on an episode of Japanese singing show NHK Nodo Jiman (NHK Amateur Singing Contest), and they blew the audience away by combining their traditional gospel roots with classic anime. Check it out for yourself.

I love when I see videos featuring beautiful cross-cultural moments, and this video is certainly no exception. What did you think about this video? And if you’re a Neon Genesis Evangelion fan, what do you love about the show? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Luke Cage: The Black Disabled Superhero We Need

 

 

 

Courtesy of Mike Mort
Courtesy of Mike Mort

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Originally posted on Ramp Your Voice!

Luke Cage was one of Netflix’s original series I had waited all summer to watch.  Being a blerd and someone who enjoys comics, I was proudly a part of the #Cagetember fandom seen on Twitter.  What excited me was not just Luke’s amazing abilities, but the fact that he was a Black disabled character, an existence that does not receive enough attention or respect within comic spaces.  Luke represents so much to disabled blerds like myself, and I felt that it would only be justly to share why Luke’s existence matters, and the need for more Black disabled characters.

Luke’s Disabled Body:  A Man-Made Creation

Luke Cage’s body is invincible against bullets, and he has supernatural strength.  This is a man who can bend guns like they are made of Play-Doh, throw vehicles across the street without breaking a sweat, and can take a full clip of bullets without blinking.  Luke Cage, in a time where Black bodies are brutally victimized at the hands of the police, is the superhero Black America needs.  He wears a hoodie in homage to Trayvon Martin and those targeted in our community, and has taken on the “Harlem protector” role that he fought internally against.  Luke does not see himself as a hero, but to Harlem, and fans of the series, he IS our hero against crime and police brutality.  It has been quite humorous to see discomfort displayed towards a character who is unapologetically Black.  Luke Cage embodies the kind of Blackness that many of the majority fear – a Black man who cannot be harmed and a Black man who uses his superhuman powers for good.

Luke’s body, as amazing as it is with its seemingly endless capabilities, was man-made – he was a part of a scientific experiment that was unethically conducted while he served time at Seagate prison.  It was due to an accident when he was under experimentation that caused him to become powerful; he is the only known person with his abilities.  Due to this, Luke has remained low-key about his strengths, and was reluctant to be casted into the spotlight when his abilities gained attention in the community.  Luke knew that his powers, if he was not careful, could attract the attention of those who would want to use him for their own personal interests and possibly do harm.  One of the many things I love about this character is how humble and self-reflective Luke is.  He understands fully how his strength can be used for good and evil, and when it comes time to do the right thing, he does not hesitate to do so.

Though Luke’s physical capacities causes him to be perceived as either friend or foe to others in the series, we must not overlook Luke’s hidden disabilities – the trauma he endured while in prison that has had lasting effects on his psyche.  While at Seagate, Luke was forced by beatings and manipulation to be a part of a corrupt prison fighting scheme.  To ensure he would participate, the livelihoods of those Luke befriended were put at risk if he did not do what the prison guards wanted of him.  The emotional and mental traumatization Luke endured can be seen early on when he has flashbacks of his imprisonment, and the pacing he does in attempt to calm himself.  The mental anguish of being dehumanized while incarcerated is not uncommon; though Luke is a fictional character, the trauma he lives with is the reality for many in our criminal system.

Luke’s body is disabled due to the encounters he has had at the hands of people – those of authority and those who sought to make him submit for their own gains.  This realization stood out to me profoundly as I watch the series unfold; the causations of Luke’s body to be disabled cannot be ignored by lovers of the series, or comic book enthusiasts.

The Portrayal of Black Masculinity in Luke Cage

What pleasantly surprised me while watching the series was the many facets of Black masculinity depicted that goes against typical media representation.  Every male character – Luke, Pop, and Cottonmouth especially – were deeply complicated and sides of their humanness, no matter how grotesque or gentle, were equally shown in order for us to see the full person.  As I described earlier with Luke, we got to understand why he was so guarded about his abilities, and yet saw his tender spots when it came to those he loved.  Cottonmouth, the villain we love to hate, was not a hard-hearted individual by nature; his environment helped to shape him into who he became as a man.  Seeing Cottonmouth’s “evolution” sadden me because he embodied how nurture (in this case, familial makeup) can drastically influence how a person becomes.  He had so much potential with his musical abilities that were not fully supported, and we learned how that was a regret he had towards his family.  Pop displayed a different type of evolution – he was a “big man/hustler” in his community who turned into the father figure many desperately needed and relied on.  Pop represented the “we can all change and become a better person” character; Pop’s barbershop was considered Switzerland, a safe space against the harshness of Harlem.

The complexities of these three characters specifically showed that Black men are more than the stereotypes the media and society attempts to box them into.  The depth of their humanity and flaws were significant for a series where Black and Brown characters dominated.  Luke Cage is a prime example as to why we need better representation of people of color; this accurate portrayal should not be considered an anomaly to viewers like myself.

Black Disabled Comic Book Characters Matter

As one can easily gauged by this piece, Black disabled characters matter to me, and good representation matters more.  Though Luke is the center focus of this piece, I would be remiss if I did not shine a light on the other Black disabled character in the series, Mercedes “Misty” Knight.  Though Misty is not disabled in this particular series (Misty becomes disabled when she loses her arm in a bomb explosion while on the job for the NYPD; Iron Man makes her a bionic arm), she is one of the few Black disabled female characters in comic books.

Excuse my language, but Misty is one badass woman, and we see that badassery in Luke Cage from her hard-nosed approach in handling the bad guys.  Though Misty is perceived as no-nonsense when it comes to doing her job for the NYPD, her vulnerability, sensuality, and softness as a Black woman were also captured fully in the story.  Seeing the complexity of Black female characters is just as important as it is for Black male characters.  Black people are not incapable of experiencing emotions beyond anger and aggression; Luke Cage does an excellent job of debunking those myths with characters like Misty.  Misty is hands-down my favorite comic book character of all time, and to see her have such a resonating role in Luke Cage made me fangirl hard.

Though there are not many Black disabled characters in comics, their absence is definitely apparent when the publicity and fandom of white disabled characters in comics are the visible faces of disability.  Yes, this is a good example of #DisabilityTooWhite in literature, and must be recognized and corrected.  Disabled people of color need comics with characters that look and live like them; the limited visibility is not lost on us who desire for more Lukes and Mistys in these fantasy universes.  For me, characters like Luke and Misty displays a different type of Blackness that goes unseen; my Black experience matters just as much as anyone else’s, and disabled characters drives that truth deeply home.

Final Thoughts

It has almost been a month since #Cagetember took place, and I still cannot get over the awesomeness of Luke Cage.  My excitement for season two cannot be contained; I want to see Luke and Claire together, #ShadyMariah got my goat (the “so bad it’s good” ship you cannot help to root for), and to see some of the new players we will be introduced to.  Though I am still geeking over the show, the soundtrack deserves equal appreciation because the performances were too fire for words.  (The song that had my head bobbing was “Bulletproof Love” by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad featuring Method Man.)  It will be interesting to see what transpires next season (and if Netflix will experience another shut down again – be ready, ‘Flix), and I know my heart will feel as if it will jump out of my chest with every battle Luke faces.  He is indeed the superhero I need.

Thank you for existing, Luke Cage, from the bottom of my disabled blerd heart.

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant “tire track mark” on the world.

Melissa Villaseñor and the Importance of Latinx Intersectionality

FIRST IMPRESSIONS -- Season:1 -- Pictured: Melissa Villasenor -- (Photo by: Joseph Viles/USA Network)
FIRST IMPRESSIONS — Season:1 — Pictured: Melissa Villasenor — (Photo by: Joseph Viles/USA Network)

We just got finished praising Melissa Villaseñor for breaking the glass ceiling for Latinas on Saturday Night Live, and not nearly a week later, we’re already going onto the next with Villaseñor in our rear-view mirrors because of some tweets she made on her now-private Twitter page.

I had just written about Villaseñor exactly eight days ago as of the time of this post. And before my post could even become old news, Buzzfeed along with other outlets, had broken the news that Villaseñor has had a long history of tweeting insensitive, racist statements. Not even real jokes per se; there was literally no way to find what she wrote amusing in any form.

What am I talking about, you might ask? Here you go:

Villaseñor’s tweets make me reflect on something we should stay cognizant of at all times; that there’s more than just one type of Latinx identity and that Afro-Latinx face a multi-layered form of discrimination and racism, some of which us Americans, black white or otherwise, don’t even know about.

America typically denies the multi-layered experiences of Afro-Latinx people, opting for the idea America usually adopts when thinking of Latinx and/or Hispanic people; a person who is either European-looking or tan-skinned. This denial is clearly an undercurrent in Villaseñor’s tweets, but it’s also an undercurrent in other Latin-American and South American countries as well. In many ways, the discrimination black diasporic people face in these countries are linked to America’s own issues with race-based colonialism.

Take for instance Mexico. Americans typically don’t think of “black people” when they think of Mexico, but they are there. Black Mexicans have never fully been integrated; you don’t see many (or any) black Mexican actors and actresses in the telenovelas that make it to American shores. We also don’t hear of black Mexican singers or painters or leaders. Mexico itself hasn’t come to terms with its own history, in many cases refusing to believe black Mexican citizens about their own heritage. Clemente Jesus Lopez, head of the Oaxaca state office for black Mexicans, told the BBC that he can remember two instances in which the Mexican government didn’t believe black people were a part of Mexico, both instances involving women.

“One was deported to Honduras and the other to Haiti because the police insisted that in Mexico there are no black people. Despite having Mexican ID, they were deported.” Lopez said that Mexican consulates were able to bring the women back, but the Mexican government itself offered no apology or compensation. However, for the first time in 2015, citizens were able to check “black” on the Mexican interim census, so Mexico is showing some subtle movement of the needle, but that’s only the starting point.

Related: #DifferenceMakers: Janel Martinez’s “Ain’t I Latina” Reps for Afro-Latinas Left Out of the Conversation

It’s also worth pointing out that there are also Asian Latinx and Asian South Americans as well. Asian Mexicans make up a small percentage of Mexico’s population, for example. And Brazil has the largest percentage of Japanese citizens outside of Japan itself; many of whom we saw during this past Olympics winning for Brazil. There are also quite a few Asian-Hispanic/Asian Latinx American actors in Hollywood, including Kirk Acevedo, Harry Shum, Jr., Tatyana Ali, Tyson Beckford (both of whom are also Afro-Latinx as well), Enrique Iglesias, Bruno Mars (who is also Ashkenazi Jewish), Kelis (who also has African American heritage), and many more. 

While Latin America and South America have their own work to do, America has some things it needs to suss out for itself, and Villaseñor’s mistakes can be used a learning point for most of us.

The fact that we, as a melting pot nation, don’t generally recognize part of the black diaspora as part of the Latinx identity, is something that speaks directly to our ideas about race, ideas that are reflected squarely in Villaseñor’s now-deleted tweets. We, and I guess Mexico and other countries as well, expect for blackness to be a self-contained, monolithic identity. Blackness doesn’t just equal one thing; blackness can be multilayered. You can be Afro-Latinx, just as much as you can be a black Native American, blasian, and of white and black heritage. So when we (and Villaseñor) label “black” as just being one thing, we’re erasing entire groups of people. The erasure is doubly so when blackness is equated with being ugly and subhuman.

Thankfully, there are people out there doing the hard work of providing a space for Afro-Latinx to feel included, such as Janel Martinez’ Ain’t I Latina?, which focuses on news and entertainment centered around the African diaspora throughout Latin and South America. But each of us can do our part to end this discrimination. First, we can start with addressing our own ideas about what constitutes blackness. Second, we can demand those who are figures in society to think outside of themselves and think of those they’ll impact the most with their words. For some like Villaseñor, if you’re going to become a role model for other Latinx coming up after you, shouldn’t you make sure you’re inclusive and represent all Latinx?

Third, With those of us who are championing diversity or getting more diversity on the screen, we need to ask ourselves if we are inviting all voices to the table, and not just the voices we think represent the whole of a people. When we fight for diversity, we need to make sure all racial and cultural experiences are accounted for. When those of us in power to cast actors in an inclusive way, we need to make sure that our idea of “Latinx character” includes all races and ethnicities, since Latin America is multicultural as well. Those of us who are media creators need to make sure that we think outside of what we’ve been told a Latinx character should look like.

Ultimately, though, while we can all learn lessons from Villaseñor’s transgressions, the biggest lesson should be for Villaseñor herself; now that she’s in the public eye, she’d better what she says as well as what she tweets.

What do you think about Villaseñor? Give your opinions in the comments section below.

“Moonlight” Shines a Light on Black Masculinity and Sexual Identity

"Moonlight" poster. A24
“Moonlight” poster. (A24)

The buzz right now is for a film named Moonlight. The film, the second for writer-director Barry Jenkins, tells a haunting tale of a boy named Chiron whose battle throughout life is coming to terms with his identity as a gay black man. That identity is complicated by merciless taunts at school and a home life surrounded by drugs and hard drug dealers.

The film looks like it’ll become one of the most important films of the latter half of 2016 and into 2017, and rightfully so. When popular culture thinks of black men, they often think of them as how they are presented in Moonlight; as gangbangers and drug dealers. But in Moonlight, even those characters—including the main character, who later becomes a drug dealer himself in Atlanta because that’s all he’s known and that’s probably how he feels he can best hide himself and fit in—have a tenderness and humanity that is often denied them by society and, consequently, by other forms of media.

Collider’s Brian Formo touches on this topic in his review, writing in part:

Yes, Moonlight is important for its message of not just acceptance of homosexuality within black communities, but also an embracing of boys and who exist outside of that hardened world, and how masculinity has many different expressions, sexually and otherwise. But Jenkins’ script casually drops many lines about how a character’s time in juvenile detention or jail—or even a funeral—to show how constant incarceration is in their community. ‘When I was in jail’ is said as casually as ‘when I was in middle school’ like it’s just a natural progression of growing up. This is not something that is hammered home but it’s an important and sad portrait that runs parallel to our race conversations today of the over-imprisonment of black Americans and a lack of inroads to leave communities through better opportunities.

The constant denial of black male homosexuality is constantly regurgitated in TV, movies, music, and even magazines; OUT Magazine is featuring the film’s lead, Trevante Rhodes, in its feature spread about Moonlight, but this also is one of the few times OUT Magazine has even featured a black man as a feature story. Just taking a look at their main page, you won’t find much intersectionality; Frank Ocean and Pres. Barack Obama are the only black men that has been prominently featured recently on the site; the rest are articles about black women and white gay men. Even then, one has to wonder if the black women being touted are being celebrated for their catchphrases and antics and for some readers to pull “YAAS QUEEN”-esque appropriation tactics, and not for the sake of true intersectionality.

However, black American culture as a whole has a lot of work to do when it comes to accepting our LGBTQ men. Individually, we all have our different ideas about accepting the sexual spectrum. But on the whole, there is still the stigma that black LGBTQ men face when it comes to being accepted by certain members of the family or by society itself. The idea that the black man is only supposed to be a “workhorse,” a racialized Übermensch and hypersexual fetish, is something that Americans have got to exorcise from their thinking.

From where I’m sitting, black Americans seem to carry that fetishized idea of the black man as a deep wound that we’ve now grown attached to without realizing it. In many ways, black Americans have held onto things we shouldn’t because we know that the things we hate are something the only ways we’ll be accepted by society. Colorism, for example, is wrong, but many still hold onto colorism because of the leverage they can gain from it. Masculinity, something that had been both denied from black men and exaggerated in others’ perceptions of black men, is a thorny subject, and the ability to finally live in masculinity as freely as they possibly can is something many black men take very seriously. But for some, they believe that freedom is at risk due to other types of masculinity, including the masculinity of gay black men. The gay black man is thought of as a threat, as being something that will once again deny other men their right to be men in their own image. That’s completely illogical thinking, though. Moonlight is showing us the loss, confusion, and lack of identity many gay black men feel, and the film wants to ask if the cost of invisibility is too high (answer: it is).

It is comforting to see that Rhodes felt this part was his to play. Rhodes, being a straight man, never hesitated from the role and, in fact, found a lot of his past self in it. As he told The Hollywood Reporter:

“…[W]hat resonated with me is that at a younger age I struggled with identity because I didn’t know myself. I knew who I wanted to be, and I knew what I wanted the world to think I was, but I didn’t know who I was. I think everybody at some point goes through that…The fact that [Chiron] was homosexual just added to the beauty of the story for me.”

And, as he said to OUT:

“Our country is shit right now. Being a black person in America right now is shit, being a homosexual in America right now is shit, and being a black homosexual is the bottom for certain people. That’s why I’m so excited for people to see Moonlight. I don’t feel like there’s a solution for our problems, but this movie might change people. That’s why you do it–because you feel like you’re doing something that matters. This is someone’s story.”

He also told OUT about how he saw how much trouble his friend, who is gay, had when he was trying to find himself.

Rhodes certainly stands as a man other men, particularly some black men, should pay attention to and learn from.

In closing, here’s Rhodes in his own words as well as Moonlight’s trailer:

What do you think about Moonlight? Give your opinions in the comments section below.

Other reviews:

Moonlight is a Heartbreaking Portrait of Often Overlooked Lives | Vanity Fair

‘Moonlight’ Review: Barry Jenkins Delivers a Mesmerizing Look at Black Life in America | IndieWire