The politics of biting one’s own head off
David L. Horne, Ph.D ow oped | 11/14/2019, midnight
While I was briefly overseas, I see a few more fools showed their tails publicly. There has been a bit of serious kerfuffle by and about,essentially, ‘nattering nabobs of negativity.”
More than a whiff of uninformed stanchions decided to criticize, and try to deep six a recent biopic of the justifiably famous Araminta Ross, otherwise known as Miss Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her people. Some on social media did not like the choice of acclaimed Nigerian-British actress Cynthia Erivo to play Miss Tubman. Some didn’t like other aspects of the movie, including the comment that some Black men felt disrespected by seeing the depiction of a Black man as a dreaded and murderous Paddy Roller or slave catcher.
This article is not a comment on one’s individual likes and dislikes. Whether one likes salt or sugar is up to one’s own taste buds.
This column this week is, however, about the unreasonableness of too much of our Black dialogue on Black art. To be clear: “Harriet” is a movie about a sheroic Black woman, co-written and directed by a Black woman. As one of the very few Black women directors in Hollywood, nobody’s saying she should get a pass for shoddy work, but based on the amount of positive audience responses during the first two weeks of its screening, shoddy it is not.
Kasi Lemmons, the movie’s director, was in charge of the narrative and it was her vision realized on the screen. Now if that’s not cooking with grease, somebody done stole the biscuits.
Now to the heart of the matter. During the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, we, the Black community in general, were gifted a golden opportunity to develop our own standards for evaluating Black Art and other work by Black artists. It was called the Black Aesthetic,(B.A.) and as defined by its major articulators, Hoyt Fuller, Larry Neal and Sonja Sanchez, the Black Aesthetic was an evaluative process of looking at and judging the quality and significance of the art produced by questioning the authenticity of the art, the “community truth” it told, and whether the art had a place in the life lessons of the Black community’s continuing struggle against irrelevance and racism.
But we failed to continue its development, and just generally fell back into, ’ What do whites think about the art?’ If they like it, it must be real art.’
The Black Aesthetic would have told us that the movie “Harriet” was a very worthwhile and authentic piece of movie-making. It gave bigger-than-life distinctiveness to an awe-inspiring character in Black History who demonstrated the sort of iron will and ‘you can’t stop me’ personality that helped a hell of a lot of people. Harriet Tubman was big before the movie; she was gigantic in significance afterwards.
Trivialities like, ‘were there really vile Black people like Bigger Long, the slave catcher, living and operating during that time?’ (Yes, there were.) are not relevant to a B.A. evaluation. Neither is, ‘why didn’t Kasi Lemmons cast an African-American to play the lead role of Harriet?’
Were Black artists in charge of the messaging of the movie, and did the movie bring more historical truth to the fore about Black strides toward the future, are questions much more relevant. The huge and multidimensional role of Black women---mothers, daughters, kin—in helping Black people overcome and keep moving forward is expanded by the movie, and that can’t be bad.
The Black “woke” generation should spend more of its time building the tower of the Black Aesthetic, and less on idle gossip and on who likes whom.
“Harriet” is a teachable moment for us. Let’s not waste it.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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