A Lament for Black Girls

Black girls
Don’t get the chance to be girls
To be protected, to be cherished, to be nurtured
To be the damsel in distress.

Black girls
Don’t get to grieve
To mourn their mama and grandmama dying in the same year
To lament being placed in foster care.

Black girls
Don’t get to have a bad day
To have an attitude
To get overwhelmed by the sheer weight of it all.

Black girls
Have to suck it up, hold it in
To pretend that everything’s okay
To make everyone else feel okay.

Black girls
Have to be stoic
To be compliant
To be strong
Because if we don’t…

Advertisements

For Colored Girls: Tyler Perry’s Invitation to Lament

No bad news
No bad news
Don’t you ever bring me no bad news
‘Cause I’ll make you an offer, child
That you cannot refuse
So don’t nobody bring me no bad news

Those are the lyrics sung by Mabel King in her role as Evillene in The Wiz, the all-Black adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The irony, of course, is that Evillene (the wicked witch of whom kids were actually afraid) was the epitome of bad news. So is it strange, then, that this song leaped into my head when I thought about the resistance of some Black men, particularly Black male pastors, toward seeing Tyler Perry’s latest film, For Colored Girls?

Just to avoid misunderstanding, I am not labeling Black men or Black male pastors as the epitome of bad news for Black women (although some folks might, in the case of the latter). And I confess that I have leveled a fair share of criticism at Tyler Perry for his portrayals of African American women and African American romantic relationships. Earlier this year, in a post about Why Did I Get Married Too?, I wrote:

The essence of both Why Did I Get Married? films remains the same: Black romantic relationships are screwed up because: (1) there are a lot of no-count black men out there (i.e., the abusers, cheaters, etc.); and (2) black women are ball-busting bitches who don’t know how to appreciate a good thing when they find it.

Of course, I’m not alone in my criticism. Tyler Perry is to the blogosphere what George W. Bush was to late-night comedians. He provides plenty of fuel for the self-righteous indignation of…well, just about everybody.

As a teenager, I cut my womanist/feminist teeth on Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf. I’ve never seen the Broadway production, but the PBS film adaptation starring Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard (as well as Shange herself) occupies a prominent place in my DVD collection. So I was more than skeptical when I learned that Perry had acquired the rights to Shange’s work and would be writing, directing, and producing it. Yet I also remained hopeful that he would somehow avoid butchering Shange’s elegant and heart-wrenching treatise on the lives and loves, struggles and triumphs of African American women. I wanted and needed Perry to do well with this film. And as the film’s release date neared and some positive reviews came pouring in, I became even more hopeful.

Since the film’s release, the feminist blogosphere has been afire with the criticisms of Perry’s adaptation, which has been labeled as a weak and undeserving imitation of Shange’s masterpiece. Other critics (read “probably White critics unfamiliar with Shange’s work”) have excoriated the film for its jumpy quality and lack of a cohesive storyline. Quite frankly, I disagree with all of them. Shange’s work is a highly artistic, complex piece that defies easy categorization. Perry took a feminist choreopoem aimed at a 1970s theater audience and produced a 2010 film that was relevant, accessible, and profitable. That’s not an easy undertaking. But he did it. And in my opinion, he did it well.

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed the film. I went to see it with my colleague and fellow womanist theologian, Dr. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. And I expected that we’d leave the film with a listful of complaints. Instead, we both walked out saying, “That was great!” But my delight met with another source of resistance: the individual boycotts of African American men who refused to see the film because of its assumed depictions of African American men as predators.

I heard the protests most frequently among male students and colleagues at the historically Black Baptist seminary at which I teach. At some level, I understand. After all, I am an African American woman, member of a racial-gender group whose images are routinely assassinated on the large and small screens. These days, a Black actress can hardly buy a job. But I digress…

I found a few ironies in the refusal of Black men who were leaders in the Christian church to watch the film. First, I doubt that many (any?) of them were basing their protest upon a careful reading of the original work. They were objecting to what they had “heard” about the film, not upon any concrete data. Second, it was the same stance which was articulated against The Color Purple in the 1980s and Waiting to Exhale in the 1990s. It seems that whenever a Black female writer’s narrative of Black women’s pain is adapted for film, some brothers turn into Evillene, mad at the possibility that someone might bring them some bad news. And as a consequence, the struggles of Black women’s lives are silenced behind a wall of Black male denial. “Don’t make brothers look bad” becomes a weapon of silence waged against African American women by Black patriarchy.

In the case of For Colored Girls, this is especially disheartening. For Colored Girls is an invitation into lament. It shatters the myth that Black women have transcended the burden of racism and provides a glimpse of the gendered forms of oppression that uniquely and/or disproportionately impact Black women in America: rape, incest, domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, lack of social support, and problems in relationships of all kinds. In contrast to his prior work, Perry makes no attempt to wrap everything up in a nice, neat little bow at the end. The characters’ lives and pain are unresolved. There is no prince in shining armor coming to save the day. There is no quick fix. As an audience, we are simply invited to sit alongside these women (as well as the men) and to hear their stories for two hours. To cry with them, to hold them in our hearts, to see ourselves in them, and to see them in ourselves and in the women we know.

The church could learn a valuable lesson from that. Perry’s characters may be imagined, but they are also real. And they are in the church, sitting in the pews every Sunday morning, outfit tight and hair and makeup just right. They go to church, at least in part, hoping to receive a balm for their wounds, but also terrified of letting anyone see just how wounded they are. Perhaps they think that no one cares. Or maybe they don’t want to be the ones to bring their pastors “no bad news.”

Brothers – get your heads out of the sand. Go see the film. And if you’re a pastor or minister, take a few women with you. And after the film, sit with them for a while. Hear their stories. Cry with them. Hold them in your hearts. See yourself in them and see them in the women that you love. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t let your black male ego raise its defenses. Just lament.