23 September 2005

If love is not present in our imaginations, it will not be present in our lives: Black Love and the Hip-Hop Generation- Intro


This thesis will examine how loving black relationships are being portrayed in film, and will analyze the possible social effects of those portrayals on the marital/ committed relationship practices of the hip-hop generation . Loving relations will be defined as a sexual relationship where emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability, and communicative intimacy are apparent and motivated independently of the sexual stigmas and stereotypes of, what cultural critic bell hooks commonly describes as, America’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” . Being a member of the hip-hop generation, I experience the daily assault not just on my black womanhood, but also my humanity. The images of male-female relationships that have been normalized are so pathological and hateful, creating such unloving environments, that I wanted to know where these ideas were formed. Though this thesis focuses mostly on film, the convergence of film and television (through cable, VCR’s and DVD’s) makes it necessary to mention the interrelated qualities of music videos and contemporary films. This thesis investigates how the hip-hop generation’s imaginations are fed.
This paper hypothesizes that the lack of visual representations of blacks loving each other (as opposed to simply being sexual objects), given that the media operates as powerful social educator, adds to the risk of a lack of loving in everyday life. Stories of courtship, romance and love have been storytelling fodder in some form since antiquity. The powerful yet seemingly invisible role of film and television as social educator has been greatly chronicled. Yet influence of film and television specifically on the hip-hop generation’s black sexual relationships is only recently being researched . There is still a gap in the body of research regarding black loving relations as an indicator of emotional well-being. Violence, HIV prevention and teen pregnancy are the general research catalysts to study media’s relationship to this particular age group as opposed to marriage or current interpersonal relations. This paper contributes to current studies using discursive methods regarding loving representations in order to analyze black film images. The visuals being analyzed have been chosen because of both their relevance to the body of black media images and their mainstream appeal. More obscure images, while interesting for scholarship, were omitted because of an assumptive lack of influence on the relationship practices of the hip-hop generation. I will analyze the selected films based on the romantic theme and plot in instances, as well as the driving forces of the film. The way we, the hip-hop generation, have been taught to love has such an important influence on how we will teach to love. As such, I will focus on intra-racial heterosexual, intimate/sexual romantic screen relationships, from the post-civil rights and feminist movements of the early 1970’s through the end of the century, and I will argue that they serve as a microcosm of community. I looked for some of the ways hip-hoppers have been taught to love.
Black representational media readings have historically been based in the reading of stereotypes. Stereotyping defines a way of seeing a visualized “other” outside of the flow of experience. Sexuality in relation to stereotyping blacks shall be important to this discussion.
Sexuality, particularly after the dissolution of the Hayes Code , is a major part of American film’s visual and thematic landscape. Black sexuality is peculiar because of its schizophrenic political and social history in reality and in the American imagination. D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation not only seared the American imagination with the use of innovative and groundbreaking film techniques (such as the introduction of the long narrative, the close-up, and the wide angle shot ); but also promulgated a set of Americanized racist stereotypes to a global audience, stereotypes which are still actively perpetuated and must be considered when discussing blacks in film. Descriptions of the stereotypical mammy and exotic primitive characters for black women and the brute Negro (who evolved into the thug) for black men are the most sexually charged of these still perpetuated visual images . Historically most stereotypical black portrayals evolved from literature to the stage to film and television screen. I am interested in exploring new images created by a people thinking of themselves in new ways.
Currently, loving relationships in the black community are fractured. According to M. Belinda Tucker and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan:
Between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of Black women who had married by age 24 decreased by half from 56% to 23%; while the proportion who had ever married declined from 83% to 63% …. Although there was a similar decline in early marriage in the general population (from 64% to 37%), the proportion of women in the general population who had ever married stayed the same (77%). Over the same period, Black divorce rates, as well as that of U.S. women as a whole, nearly quadrupled. However, since divorce was much higher among Blacks even in 1970, the 1990 differential is quite striking—358 divorces per 1000 women among Blacks, compared to 166 among women overall. African American women are also less likely than other groups of women to remarry after divorce or widowhood. The explosion in divorce rates is one factor in the greatly changed living arrangements of children. In 1970, just under one-third of Black children were being raised in single parent homes. By 1990, that figure had increased to 55% (compared to 25% in the general population) (“Understanding Marital Decline”).

As a result of economic, social, and political disenfranchisement, the images seen of blacks loving each other do not inspire romantic expectations and can subsequently lead to a lack of love in everyday life. I will present some examples of how fictional media images both emulate and propagate the lack of positive loving images of blacks.

Defining Black Loving Relations for the Hip-Hop Generation

I have defined loving relations as: a sexual relationship where emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability, and communicative intimacy are apparent and motivated independently of the sexual stigmas and stereotypes of America’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.
Three separate ideas have informed this definition. I looked to bell hooks, first and foremost, for insight into blacks in media but also for insight into loving relationships in the black community. She also provided strong theoretical critiques from a cultural studies and feminist perspective. In hooks’ book Salvation the statement “If love is not present in our imaginations, it will not be there in our lives,” gave a title to this thesis and led me to further want to look into the question of filmic representation within, “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (53). “When it comes to issues of love, the mass media basically represent black people as unloving. We may be portrayed as funny, angry, sexy, dashing, beautiful, sassy and fierce but we are rarely represented as loving” (51). She goes on to mention the failure for blacks in positions of power to create “new images of blackness” that do not depend on the caring for whites – and caring for each other. This view includes the historic and economic realities of black representation in film: Black economic power and authorship means nothing if the product created only perpetuates oppressive racial stereotypes for the turning of a profit.
Secondly, Cornell West’s Race Matters provided insight into the distortion of black sexuality in the American (specifically) and colonial (generally) imagination as a method of control and propaganda of oppressed people. Sexuality is not something commonly discussed among blacks and in its most recent commodification –again- provides an easy visual. Cornel West states:
Black sexuality is a taboo subject in America principally because it is a form of black power which whites have little control- yet its visible manifestations evoke the most visceral of white responses, be it one of seductive obsession or downright disgust. On the one hand, black sexuality among blacks simply does not include whites, nor does it make them a central point of reference. It proceeds as if whites do not exist, as if whites are invisible and simply don’t matter. This form of black sexuality puts black agency center stage with no white presence at all. (125)

The current creation of images of black people in intimate sexual situations perpetuates standard racist stereotypes under the auspices of black agency. Although black sexuality has more visual accessibility due to music videos, music video production is still produced and controlled by mainstream capitalist interests. Those interests maintain the black body’s position as the same marketable commodity that has defined it since the first arrival of black Africans on these shores.
I looked finally to Anthony Giddens’ The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies for insight into the changing nature of intimacy in modern society. Giddens examines “the potentialities of the ‘pure relationship’, a relationship of sexual and emotional equality, which is explosive in its connotations for pre-existing forms of gender power” (2). The construction of gender is challenged by egalitarian sexual relations which redefine gender roles. I wanted to see how this dynamic of “pure relationship” transferred to the black community. Images of intra-racial, romantic, heterosexual relationships which move toward “pure relationships” are rare. It is easier to show sexuality -- it is tactile and more visually dynamic; and showing blacks in sexual situations is part of racism’s current subtle double entendre.

The Hip-Hop Generation
The generation of adults now 20-35 is the one most heavily influenced by hip-hop culture . Hip-hop began in the late 1970’s as a burgeoning musical art form and evolved into a “fad” that has lasted almost thirty years. The beneficiaries of the progress made during the Civil Rights Movement’s progress helped propel this grassroots urban music form into a now multi-million dollar industry. In his book The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, Bakari Kitwana defines this demographic as:
…hip-hop generationers -- those young African Americans born between 1965 and 1984 who came of age in the eighties and nineties and who share a specific set of values and attitudes. At the core are our thoughts about family, relationships, child rearing, career, racial identity, race relations, and politics. Collectively, these views make up a complex worldview that has not been concretely defined.” (4)

The lives of hip-hop generationers (particularly those born between 1965- 1975) are not specifically marred by the same degree of racism the previous generations experienced. There are no social and legal Jim Crow laws, yet the racism they experience has more to do with class and its subtler social injustices and humiliations. At the same time, technological advances have created a mediated world driven by a global capitalism. “We live in an age where corporate mergers, particularly in media and entertainment, have redefined public space, the viewing public is constantly bombarded by visual images that have become central to the identity of an entire generation” (Kitwana 9).
Youth oriented means more television oriented. Movies are seen on television. Television remediates film, using Bolter and Gruskin’s adaptation of the word as “the way in which one medium is seen by our culture as reforming or improving upon another” (59). Coming of age with the VCR and the expansion of cable, watching films on television is normalized . It can be argued that this generation makes no real distinction between film and television. “Today, more and more Black youth are turning to rap music, music videos, designer clothing, popular Black films, and television programs for values and identity” (Kitwana 9). The batch of children born after 1965 entered a world their parents generation had created, and were learning themselves, leaving their children to either follow their parents’ baby boomer models of mating and courtship or learn it from the new media teacher- television.

Film as Social Teacher
The films discussed in this thesis present various ways that the media could be viewed as undermining black loving relations by creating black unloving images -- as well as images that can be read as loving. I believe it is not just that the same images have been recycled in newer clothes, but that the social contexts show men and women moving in such opposite directions that the space where they could express themselves lovingly is destroyed as well. In the chapter discussing relationships, the films chosen are an attempt to show sexual relationships that have shades of emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability, and communicative intimacy.
I argue there are four interrelated points that describe how black unloving images are portrayed. The first is the distortion of black sexuality into a commodifiable transaction (such as that between pimps and whores; or masters and slaves) further legitimizing colonial mythologies. When the human body is reduced to the basics of its physical existence absent any interiority, the humanity of that body is more easily devalued. “White supremacist ideology is based first and foremost on the degradation of black bodies in order to control them. One of the best ways to instill fear in people is to terrorize them. Yet this fear is best sustained by convincing them that their bodies are ugly, their intellect is inherently underdeveloped, and their culture less civilized, their future warrants less concern than that of other peoples” (West 122-3).
Secondly, nihilism is felt throughout the black community but is acted out specifically by black males. Nihilism is defined as the “entire rejection of established beliefs, as in religion, morals, government, and laws,” and philosophically as, “the denial of all existence; rejection of objective reality or of the possibility of an objective basis for morality”. (“nihilism” def. 1 and 2) West furthers this definition of nihilism specifically in reference to the black community as “[…] the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world” (23).
The third point is abject materialism – as counter stance to abject poverty and as sign of middle class success. Contemporary black rappers’ celebration of possessing and obtaining material objects by any means necessary feeds not only their music video personas/performances but also informs the narrative of many films created for black audiences. Black women are often reduced to a series of body parts and are treated as objects that are easily replaced if male desire is unmet. On the other hand, black women use this as a way to gain some value from sexual transactions that they have no expectation of leading to committed relationships.
All of this contextualizes the fourth and final point: the lack of trust between black men and women. Based on history, observed behaviors and the reinforcement by the media, there is no space allotted black women and men to find a way to learn to trust each other. From music, to books, and largely the visual media of television and film, black women and men are constantly bombarded with reasons why they should not trust each other.
The chapters of this thesis are organized by the depictions of images from the point of view of black men; black women, and films that present their narrative from the dual sides, i.e. the “relationship”. In Chapter I, “Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile” : Black Manhood, black men are represented as sexually compulsive, sexist, nihilistic thugs regardless of class. Sexuality and its performance has become the core of identity formation for the hip-hop generation. In Chapter II, “When Ya Say Ya Love Me It Doesn’t Matter- Goes Into My Head As Just Chitta Chatta” : Black Womanhood, black women are represented as sexually manipulative, emasculating and untrustworthy. Simultaneously, these same female characters are often developed in a way that supports sexist patriarchal models. In Chapter III, “Hopeless: Moving Past Postmodern Hip-Hop Adolescence”, the relationships in these films re-appropriate hip-hop’s superficial materialism and sexual manifestations. These images give examples of how the hip-hop generation is attempting to learn how to behave. The idea is to draw a line through the visuals created, discussing manhood and womanhood, and the interactions that should lead to family. In the Conclusion: “Where Do We Go From Here?”, the discussion of contemporary romantic images fuses music videos with film, highlighting the complex relationship hip-hop generationers were having with media representations of themselves.

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