Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 4, Scene 1

A Semester in Review: My Favorite Films From Cinema and Modernization of U.S. Culture

Friday afternoon at 11:50 AM marked the end of my first semester of TA’ing. It had its ups and downs, but ultimately I learned a lot, I bonded with my students, and most importantly, I survived. (I do have to help proctor and grade the exams, but that’s just one day, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m done.)

In the aftermath of the semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about the films we watched and the conversations we had because of them. Thus, here is a list of a few films that stuck with me over the course of the semester:

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Imitation of Life (1959).

This was my favorite film of the semester, hands down. Early in my graduate training, I took a class called “Interracialism,” which dealt in large part with passing literature. Though the film is filtered through Lora’s eyes, I found myself most aligned with Sarah Jane and her struggle to make sense of her “mix-matched” outward appearance and racial identity. I found the mother-daughter relationships deep and rich; the friendships complex and nuanced; and the social commentary important. Though most critics of the time referred to it dismissively as a “woman’s film,” I chose to reclaim the term. The female and interracial narratives are beautifully done, in a way that I wouldn’t have expected from a 1950s films. It was particularly thought-provoking and I believe it will stay with me for a long time to come.

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Within Our Gates (1920).  

Oscar Micheaux was one of the only Black filmmakers we studied over the course of the semester, so naturally his 1920 silent film, Within Our Gates, gets a place on my list. We watched it in comparison to the (notorious) D. W. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation, and while that is an important way to conceptualize the film, I was also particularly interested in the way Micheaux depicts Black mobility. There’s the literal conception of mobility as Sylvia, the protagonists, makes moves from the North to the South and back again over the cover of the film; but also within lies an interesting depiction of upward mobility for the Black characters. Yes, Micheaux does include some stereotypical images of Black rural and uneducated characters, which are supposed to be a juxtaposition of the doctors and teachers shown in the film. I found it disconcerting that Micheaux’s interest in and depiction of Black upward mobility relied on classist stereotypes of Black folks unable to access education.

WOG is not excluded from critique. But it’s also a struggle when you are only presented with one film by a Black filmmaker, because then that film, by virtue of being the only example, becomes the representative of an entire body of works. It’s unfortunate to say the least. Nevertheless, I did enjoy WOG and thinking critically about it’s position in early American cinema.

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She Done Him Wrong (1933)

I hated the ending of this film, and much of the plot, if we’re being honest, but I really enjoyed learning about Mae West. The film was based on an earlier play that she wrote herself. She’s an older, more mature film star, despite the emphasis on young ingenues. She’s witty (yes, it’s scripted), but she delivers with confidence that is mesmerizing to me. I love an independent woman in media (though, again, the ending ruins that for me), but Mae West is an intriguing figure in cinema and I would love to continue learning more about her.

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Sidney Poitier. Do I need to say more? No, but I will. As an active reader about Black history, I knew a fair amount about Sidney Poitier’s body of work, but had never seen more than a few clips of him acting. I was excited to see him in action. Again, this is a film where the context and learning about Poitier was more exciting than watching the actual film (it’s a gritty mystery– though a poorly plotted one…I figured out who the murderer was half way through). I thought this film was nicely supplemented by writing by James Baldwin, who was a friend of Poitier, and I enjoyed leading discussion section on this one, because most of my students had never encountered Baldwin before.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Blood of Jesus (1941)
  2. I am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang! (1932)
  3. It (1927)

I’m now much more knowledgeable about early American cinema up until about 1970, which is an interesting thing, but something I’ve been sitting with recently. Many of the films were troubling and uncomfortable, something that one of my students picked up on and wrote about during our last class together. Having to sit through some films, like Birth of A Nation (1915) and Easy Rider (1969), and try to cobble something coherent and intellectual to say about them was actually very difficult. But as a different student pointed out, film is a representation of American history, and American history is uncomfortable and troubling, so it only makes sense that this is the sense we get from watching “representative” films. (They troubled that term and I didn’t even have to lead them to do so.)

Nevertheless, I’m always willing to engage with new modes of thinking, and this experience expanded my ability to grapple with some of my dissertation texts. I’m grateful for my students, who challenged me on a weekly basis, and the intellectual community that we built together over the course of the semester (even when it frequently involved minor rabbit holes into the plot of Paddington 2 and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

Things don’t always happen when you want them to, but they happen when they need to, and this semester’s work has taught me that– if nothing else.

My Top Favorite Books of 2019

December is a time to reflect on the year past and plan for the year ahead. My favorite thing to do, at least twice a year, is do a quick write up on my favorite books of the year. Though I’ve previously written about a few texts I loved during my comps process, this is more a list of things I’ve read for fun recently. They are in no particular order:

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Image result for thick tressie mcmillan cottom

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Dear Martin

Image result for riri williams ironheart eve ewing

  1. With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
  2. Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
  3. Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña
  4. Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo by Ntozake Shange
  5. Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno
  6. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
  7. Dear Martin by Nic Stone
  8. Riri Williams: Ironheart by Eve Ewing

“When we see water, we see death” | Wash Day, 1955 Recap

In lieu of a traditional blog post, this week’s episode of Black Enough, “Wash Day, 1955,” necessitated a break down. The spoken word poem, performed by Micah Ariel Watson herself, includes deep currents of history that bridge to the present and beyond. So in the spirit of weaving, I have annotated a piece of the spoken word, complete with links and as always, further reading:

When we see water, we see death.

400 years of life flashing before your eyes.

400 reasons to stay on the shore:

We are currently commemorating the 400 year anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to America. As a graduate student living in Williamsburg, Virginia, I know the anniversary is heavy on everyone’s mind: from student work commemorating the occasion to the Association for the Study of Worldwide African Diasporas conference which was recently held in the city, we are actively looking for ways to pay proper tribute. One of the most compelling lectures I’ve heard about the difficulty acknowledging Black people in the Historical Triangle is Mark Summer’s, of Jamestown Rediscovery, talk, “The American Heartbreak.”

Reason number one too many bones dissolved into dust on the ocean floor

Reason number no one ever asked us to climb aboard–

They took is in droves too tragic to count into waters

In the “Further Reading” section of this post, I have listed several monographs, particularly those by Black women, whose histories of enslavement have been critical to my understanding of the Middle Passage and beyond. These readings include: Scenes of Subjection (Hartman), Saltwater Slavery (Smallwood), and The Price for Their Pound of Flesh (Berry).

Reason number $5.59 for a box of Dark and Lovely

I worked too hard for my respectability to get it wet

As Tanisha C. Ford discusses at length in the chapter, “Jheri Curl,” from her book Dressed in Dreams, hair has been used as a vehicle to communicate one’s politics, as well as communicate one’s identity.

Reason number twelve million stolen dreams

“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?”

 

Langston Hughes, “Harlem”

Reason number 1619, the beginning of being drowned by the land of the free

Reason number 1896 brings us to reason number 2 separate but equal fountains that said my water was inferior

 

Watson calls back to the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, which established “separate but equal,” legalizing segregation. Despite the order to have equal facilities, Black facilities were poorer and lacked support from the government.

Plessy vs. 6 shots fired in Ferguson

Vs. “I don’t even let my son play with water guns.” for fear that it might kill him

This smart line references both the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 and the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12 year old Black boy, whose crime was to be holding a water gun, later that very same year.

Reason number this ain’t old news

Reason number 1955

We found Emmett Till’s body in the Tallahatchie

Emmett Till was a 14 year old Chicagoan visiting family in Mississippi the summer of 1955 when he made the mistake of “offending” a white woman. Shortly thereafter, he was found horribly mutilated in the Tallahatchie River. His mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket funeral so that the world could see what white men had done to her child.

So you can miss me with that Mississippi Wade In The Water

It’s already been troubled

The Negro spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” includes the line: “God’s gonna trouble the water.” I’ve included a link to an Alvin Ailey dance performance to the song because something about the movement and the song together pierces my soul, and I think it might be impactful for you.

So why on earth would we surround ourselves in something that we can’t even taste?

I mean if Flint was the only water you H2knew, wouldn’t you be afraid to drink, too?

Let alone immerse your whole body into a lead poisoned pool.

 

Flint, Michigan has been without clean water since April 2014 and has birthed the rise of young activists such as Mari Copeny, whose childhood was disrupted by water crisis.

When we see water, we see death.

*

Further Reading:

*The 1619 Project in the New York Times, August 2019

*American Heartbreak, Langston Hughes

*Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, Stephanie E. Smallwood

*The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in Building a Nation, Daina Ramey Berry

*Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Saidiya Hartman