This week the comedian/actress Mo’nique won a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of the abusive, horrifyingly ‘out-to-lunch’ mother in Lee Daniels’ Precious. I saw the film the weekend before I was scheduled to discuss the first chapter of Mo’nique’s 2004 memoir Skinny Women Are Evil in my undergraduate humor seminar. I wanted to give it another read before class. It was tough. Actually, it was impossible. I skimmed a paragraph here and there, then gave up and began flipping through the book, stopping at the photographs in order to remind myself that Mo-nique was not the woman she played in the film. Mo’nique‘s worst-mother-of-the-year performance as Mary Jones was torturous: referring to her Down Syndrome grandchild as an “animal,” kicking Precious continually in the head as she lay on the floor about to give birth, and, of course the creepy and truly haunting “Mommy-needs-you” masturbation scene. Mo’nique forced me to struggle with the distinction between character and actor to a greater degree than I have in quite a long time, just as she has challenged us to confront body image bias and dominant conventions of beauty in her comedic performance. (Having “neglected” to shave her legs for the Golden Globe Awards, she promises to provoke us even more in the future. Anywho, the Daily Mail seems sure that she “won’t be winning any awards for her personal grooming.” FYI, Daily Mail reporter, many black women do not shave their legs and do not consider unshaven legs to be poor “grooming.”)
Still, the color politics of Precious are troubling: all the folks whose lives are wracked with dysfunction are medium brown to dark-skinned and all the good-hearted, social worker types are fair-skinned. Even as I celebrate another victory for a black female actor, the reemergence of the film has reminded me of the “lost” news story of the past week, the latest blown-out-of-proportion racial ‘incident.’ Remember Sen. Harry Reid’s comments about how “electable” President Obama was based upon his “light skin” and ability to speak both standard and black English (although Reid clunkily referred to it as “Negro dialect”)? Oh yeah… that was just a little over a week ago. Reid’s poor word choice aside, I think he did us a favor by giving us (non-white folks) a glimpse into white Americans’ thinking about skin color. Not that we are surprised that white Americans are “colorstruck,” so to speak, or that such prejudice constitutes an important means by which racism thrives in this U.S. I’m just surprised that a white person put it out there into the public discourse. In fact, I think Senator Reid did us a favor by exposing something that I think most whites aren’t comfortable discussing for fear of being called a racist; that is, how the politics of “shade” structures their assumptions about morality, authority, leadership qualifications, etc. And we all know that many blacks haven’t “come to terms” (whatever that means) with their own color consciousness and, in the absence of a vibrant anti-racism movement, perhaps never will. For many of us, the scene in which Precious fantasizes about a fair-skinned boyfriend with “light eyes” and “good hair” is a moment of painful and inarticulable recognition.
The emergence of the tag phrase “Haitian orphans” in the news this week serves as an indicator of our newest, highly problematic reification of racial sentiment (sorry, jargon and cynicism). CNN has reportedly been bombarded with requests to adopt Haitian orphans this past week. According to the U.S. State Department, the numbers of Haitian adoptions have been on the rise over the past five years (i.e., even before last year’s hurricanes and recent earthquake ). Almost all of those children range from chocolate brown to midnight black. If colorism structures how we dole out political power, as Reid suggests, then what does it say about the politics of affect? If we are not capable of electing a dark-skinned president, then how can we sympathize with girls like Precious and how do we explain this clamor to adopt dark-skinned babies? In fact, how can we feel empathy for black babies if we cannot do the math that enables us to associate dark skin with all of those positive qualities that Americans supposedly value. While I’m not one of those people who believe that only black parents can raise black children (you have to be super committed to pursue a Haitian adoption), I am feeling very conflicted about this sentimentalization of black children by Americans (which, btw, is a historical phenomenon in the U.S.). I confess that I have felt the Madonna baby-knapping urge quite a lot in the past week. Watching children being shipped off to adoptive parents and other safe places has given me a huge sense of relief: all children need a loving family. But at the same time I feel a visceral, historically-engrained anxiety about children being taken out of an almost all-black environment and brought into predominantly white ones. I also worry about black children being raised in black homes where they are made to feel inferior or ugly because they are dark-skinned.
Perhaps we need to do a rewind and use Reid’s racial Turrets to help us reexamine this broad-based empathy for Haitian children within the historical context of a pervasive colorism against darker-skinned people in this country. This colorism crosses the racial spectrum, it cannot simply be dispelled by racial finger-pointing. And when I look at Gabourey Sidibe, I have to wonder if she’ll ever really work in Hollywood again.