Sacha Cohen and Arab Minstrelsy
by Daniel Ibn Zayd (Original guest piece)
In May of 2005 I joined a group of students and activists to watch a documentary entitled Paul Robeson: Here I Stand. Paul Robeson was an American political figure, though he remains virtually unknown by most in his home country. Many might recognize him from a booklet of stamps published by the United States Postal Service, entitled “African-Americans on Stamps: A celebration of African-American Heritage”. The booklet opens with Robeson’s smiling face, and states: “By the late 1930s, [Robeson] had become very active and outspoken on behalf of racial justice, social progress, and international peace.” This is true. He was also exiled from the United States, his citizenship revoked and then re-instated; he was poisoned with drugs and tortured with electric-shock therapy, the latter while under American supervision in hospital custody in London. He was repeatedly forced to defend himself during the Communist witch-hunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He died in relative obscurity in 1977. For any group that has suffered similar treatment, this will sound all too familiar.
Like many acculturated Americans, I was familiar with Robeson as an entertainer; his rendition of “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat (written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern in 1927) is considered an American classic. The dirgeful ballad describes the toil and strife of the black slave working the gambling ferry boats:
Colored folks work on de Mississippi, Colored folks work while de white folks play, Pullin’ dose boats from de dawn to sunset, Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day.
In the score this refrain is marked optional; replaced with “[a] musical part” depending on the whim of the director, in deference to audiences perhaps not comfortable with this rendition. This “comfort level” is the driving force of acceptance of Othered minorities as citizens, as well as their presence within cultural manifestations and national mythologies. The allowance or not of these couplets speaks of an understood ever-shifting limit of tolerance, the tolerated never quite alloted full freedom.
From this vantage point, the recent presidential election takes on a different significance, the opposite of current received wisdom, that a historic event has taken place with the election of a black American as marking a “post-race” America. Barack Obama’s election instead represents a similar “limit of tolerance”, based on the behavior, thought, and action of the one tolerated. His mediation* as a new “ideal” on the other hand, wholly separate from actions which make him hard to differentiate from his predecessors, and removed from the mood on the street and realities suffered on the ground, is, in this light, not a contradiction.
One month before the election in 2008 I stopped into a hip-hop clothing store in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Various T-shirts sported the visage of Obama along with statements of pride and hope. “My President Is Black” read one, against the backdrop of an American flag, and with the words “The American Dream” on the reverse. This explosion in production of T-shirts and signage outside of the licensing purview of the Democratic National Committee bears witness more to the weight placed on Obama’s shoulders than belief in “Hope” or “Change”. On the wall of the shop was a graffitied art piece reflecting Obama’s perceived political peers: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. To peer into Obama’s future we simply have to examine King, sadly reduced post-mortem to a shill for Alcatel and Cingular, and Mandela, who now serves a similar function as an ideal wholly removed from the realities of a post-apartheid South Africa, currently morphed into a neo-liberal and globalized nightmare.
Malcolm X, on the other hand, represented in image as well as in word and deed something much closer to the reality of lived life for many in the country, as stated in his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech in 1964:
No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver–no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare….
Reframed, these T-shirts thus become a grassroots manifestation of the poet Langston Hughes’sThe Dream Deferred; they implicitly contain the projection of what might happen if the dream is put off any longer. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of an Obama presidency.
Malcolm X also happens to be the only Black activist in the USPS booklet (this due to lobbying efforts), nonetheless painstakingly described therein as a “lifelong criminal” who did time in prison before his conversion to Islam. No mention is made of his assassination, perhaps due to his description of the assassination of John Kennedy as America’s “chickens [coming] home to roost”. This was echoed by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright who said the same about the attack on the World Trade Center, and Like Malcolm X and Paul Robeson, Reverend Wright also suffered a smear campaign to paint him as a threat to the nation.
Full acceptance in a culture which mocked their aspirations
Part of what marks X, King, Robeson, and even Obama is their not matching their bestowed stereotype. In his book Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, Gilbert Osofsky states:
What was most striking about the Negro stereotype was the way it portrayed a people in an image so totally the reverse of what Americans considered worthy of emulation and recognition. The major and traditional American values were all absent from the Negro stereotype. The Negro was conceived of as lazy in an ambitious culture; improvident and sensuous in a moralistic society; happy in a sober world; poor in a nation that offered riches to all who cared to take them; childlike in a country of men….Negroes hoped for full acceptance in a culture which mocked their aspirations.
The condition of the American black man was a function not just of racism, but of a built-in inability of those so tagged to voice or discuss the nature of the problem; an inversion in which the dominant discourse promulgated stereotypes which were subsumed within the dominated culture itself, and then further assumed and re-characterized by the targeted group in question.
It is only relatively recently that we are witnessing documentation of Robeson and his work–time having defused any revolutionary potential here–along with one of the first stars of an entertainment realm that tolerated black performance: Bert Williams. In 1903 Williams staged a musical comedy entitled In Dahomey that was so successful it forced the racial integration of many theaters in the States. Simultaneously, W.E.B. DuBois was seeing the birth of a Black cultural awakening in such work. In an essay from 1916 entitled “The Drama Among Black Folk”, he wrote:
In later days Cole and Johnson and Williams and Walker lifted minstrelsy by sheer force of genius into the beginnings of a new drama. White people refused to support the finest of their new conceptions like the “Red Moon” and the cycle apparently stopped. Recently, however, with the growth of a considerable number of colored theatres and moving picture places, a new and inner demand for Negro drama has arisen which is only partially satisfied by the vaudeville actors….The next step will undoubtedly be the slow growth of a new folk drama built around the actual experience of Negro American life.
This cultural expression, wrested from the dominant class, spoken in its own language, and directed inward in terms of audience was the de facto segregated black nation attempting to stand on its own feet and create its own place, speak in its own voice. For this reason it could not be tolerated. Dubois’s appeals for funds for such a theater went unheeded; audiences wished to see re-affirmation of their view of black Americans, as shaped by white actors in blackface makeup. The stillborn theatrical awakening was reduced even further to the horrific tragedy of actors such as Williams smearing oily burnt cork ash on their own [not] black [enough] faces.
This inversion of Black culture through the mediation of the white artist is evident as well in Porgy and Bess, an opera about Black life (written by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward in 1935). In a biography of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, the jazz-era band leader stated, “the times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.” Similarly, when listened to outside of the dominant discourse such as on the radio show L’épopée des musiques noires broadcast on Radio France Internationale, such artists speak openly of the racism that they suffered and which continues to plague them. That Duke Ellington successfully staged all-black musicals that rose above the minstrel dross remains lost within history; meanwhile, Showboat and Porgy and Bess have replaced actual historical memory.
Black to the future
This specter of white men in black face rises every so often as a reminder and as a warning, but also as a marker of white privilege defended as “free speech”, as in the case of firefighters on Long Island who wore Afro wigs and black face in a community parade in the late ’80s:
The police commissioner’s management authority has been undermined by federal Judge John Sprizzo’s June 23 ruling, following a non-jury trial, that the city did not have the right to fire a police officer and two firefighters who rode in blackface and wore Afro wigs on a parade float in 1988. Police Officer Joseph Locurto and the two firefighters were punished, wrote Sprizzo, “in retaliation for engaging in protected speech.” This “protected speech” involved being part of a float with the banner “Black [sic] to the Future: Broad Channel 2098,” which the defendants said was a parody of black racial integration into the mainly white Broad Channel neighborhood. They threw watermelon and fried chicken at parade goers and, as the parade was ending, a firefighter grabbed the back of the truck and dangled himself toward the ground, re-enacting the brutal dragging murder of a black man in Texas two months earlier.
Although we might not remember the vaudeville circuits of the early 20th century, this news item attests to the lingering epithets and uglinesses that were used to disparage blacks of that period. Their deep-seatedness is revealed in the non-reaction to their use, and the ensuing disapproval if not dismissal of the discussion that might follow such an event. This legally protected “free speech” leaves no humanizing aspect untargeted, by referring directly to black stage characters and their disempowering nicknames (Step-‘n’-Fetch-It, Jim Crow); to the sight of white eyes peering out of black face ([rac]coon); to the percentage of black blood in a person’s bloodstream (high yellow, quadroon); to one’s renegade slave background (maroon). Furthermore, the “reverse” of this often used as a defense, namely, disparaging terms for whites, are few in number, hardly as powerful, and are by contrast comical in their ineffectiveness.
This brings up the main point of any such discussion of representation, which cannot be limited to its visual or aural perception: the power differential involved. Who is the audience, and where do they fit societally speaking? What is my physical, technical, and economic ability to reach them? What are the various legal rights that enable and/or impinge such communication? What is my privilege to make such a statement, and what personal, communal, moral, etc. limitations might I place on myself before doing so? What is my luxury to so speak, above and beyond these other aspects of such expression?
Examples of unspoken referents thus weigh even heavier, in the sense that one need not even speak to evoke the same racist sentiment: Confederate flags flying over southern state capitol buildings (or in hidden locations out of public view); separated primary elections that reflect the class breakdown of the political parties along racial lines; the voting down of a federal holiday commemorating Martin Luther King (“states’ rights” makes direct reference to George Wallace’s statement of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”); the practice of diluting minority power via the gerrymandering of electoral districts; the use of scare tactics at the polls; the prohibition of the vote for felons; etc.
The equivalent disparity of direct expression within the culture, along similar overt as well as covert lines, includes endless examples: Billie Holiday used to relate how she was run out of Mobile, Alabama for singing Strange Fruit (written by Abel Meeropol in 1937), a song about the infamous practice of lynching. In Louisiana more recently, black students were convicted and imprisoned for their protest and reaction to a noose being hung from a tree on the school lawn; this “warning” to the black student population came after they decided to assemble underneath the “white student’s” tree. A super-mediated* discussion of the word “nigger” took place when Michael Richards (Kramer from the television show Seinfeld), not happy with some black hecklers, informed them that “fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass.” More disturbing are the commemorative postcards made from photographs of hanged men, these “black bodies swinging/in the Southern breeze”, surrounded by smiling white faces as might be seen at a picnic or a communal pigsticking, and today disturbingly mimicked by images from Abu Ghaib prison in Iraq, as well as of soldiers in Afghanistan posing with corpses.
A share of the wealth and a piece of the action
It should thus come as no surprise that during the Democratic primaries of 2008 Andrew Cuomo made reference to Barack Obama’s “shuck and jive”, a phrase which has no meaning outside of imposed black vaudeville dialect for shiftiness and evasiveness, making semantic reference to costume change, rapid dance steps, and a fancy ability with words. The attorney general’s disavowal of the term as racist is contradicted by his former statement that voting for his [black] rival for the New York governor’s race, Carl McCall, would result in a “racial contract” between Black and Hispanic Democrats which “can’t happen”. Similar was the statement from Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland that Obama seemed “uppity”. Everyone who speaks American English completes this noun phrase with the one epithet that follows, explicitly referring to a black man who should “know his role”.
These terms and images are so loaded that they only need be hinted at to get the message across; even in their denial they hit the target and leave their mark. The resulting backtracking can be seen to be prefigured; meaning they are planned if not staged, the knowledge remains that exculpation awaits for simply denouncing the action of having stated them, or else by labeling the targets thereof as “oversensitive”, “politically correct”, or “racist” themselves. In this way, the legacy of the ignoble practices and codes of that time most assuredly live on, as a chronic condition of the culture itself; the equivalent of linguistic sucker punches such as “I would never refer to my opponent as a Communist”.
Then candidate Obama listlessly defended himself against such provocations, and was rewarded with the presidency. In stark contrast, no U.S. postage stamp, indeed, few American history books represent any leader from the Black Power movements of the 1960s, and this despite the acknowledgment at that time by then president Richard Nixon, who used the term Black Power in a speech attempting to subvert the movement at its core:
[M]uch of the Black militant talk these days is actually in terms far closer to the doctrines of free enterprise than to those of the welfarist thirties–terms of “pride”, “ownership”, “private enterprise”, “capital”, “self-assurance”, “self-respect”… What most of these militants are asking is not separation, but to be included in–not as supplicants, but as owners, as entrepreneurs–to have a share of the wealth and a piece of the action. And this is precisely what the Federal central target of the new approach ought to be. It ought to be oriented toward more Black ownership, for from this can flow the rest–Black pride, Black jobs, Black opportunity and yes, Black power….
The actuality is better known: the former Black Power movement leaders have either been assassinated or put in prison, have come around to parrot the dominant discourse, or have retreated to obscurity and/or academia; all have been rendered place-less, historically silenced and disappeared. Similarly, if no one remembers the black musicians of jazz, blues, funk, gospel, etc. that the U.S. Postal Service attempts to pay tribute to, everyone on the other hand knows their white stand-ins, their role-reversers: Elvis, Joe Cocker, The Rolling Stones, Eminem, etc. To reinforce this diminishment, blacks of a certain celebrity are often referred to as the shadow of their white counterparts, especially in terms of politics and culture: “the black Daniel Webster” applied to Samuel Ringgold Ward, or “the black Callas”, attributed to Barbara Hendricks, or now, “the black Kennedy”, in a reflection of racial privilege, and the one-way directional flow of cultural appropriation and political designation.
The rainbow sign
In one such Black spiritual now forgotten, God gives Noah the “Rainbow Sign” that ends his estrangement from the land; however the sign comes with a warning that He is done with water, promising “the fire next time”. In his book of the same name, James Baldwin describes Malcolm X’s relationship with the United States thus:
Whether in private debate or in public, any attempt I made to explain how the Black Muslim movement came about, and how it has achieved such force, was met with a blankness that revealed the little connection that the liberals’ attitudes have with their perceptions or their lives, or even their knowledge–revealed, in fact, that they could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man. When Malcolm X, who is considered the movement’s second-in-command, and heir apparent, points out that the cry of “violence” was not raised, for example, when the Israelis fought to regain Israel, and, indeed, is raised only when black men indicate that they will fight for their rights, he is speaking the truth. The conquests of England, every one of them bloody, are part of what Americans have in mind when they speak of England’s glory. In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks, and the only way to defeat Malcolm’s point is to concede it and then ask oneself why this is so….there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forebearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary. The real reason that non-violence is considered a virtue in Negroes…is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened.
Here Baldwin presages the purely symbolic non-threatening black man who will be acceptable in the United States. Another such example, Bill Cosby, echoes this when he states that “all the problems [on his TV show] were not solved, but were dealt with without violence.” In contrast to the [acceptable] violence of Israel and England (which too has its own “Jerusalem”) Baldwin reveals what is most threatening about the landless or placeless minority nations within Anglo-Saxon realms. More importantly, he reveals society’s inherent fear of those who have similarly examined the topic of self-representation (Ture, Fanon, Roy, Dabashi, etc.), and who conclude that violence is, perhaps, the only possible reaction to greater violences both actual and virtual suffered by the oppressed.
We’re here without any rights
This discussion of violence controlled by those who have the power to define the parameters for said violence brings us to Sacha Cohen, and his portrayal of an Arab leader in his movie The Dictator. In naming the dictator “Gen. Shabazz Aladeen”, pointed reference is made to the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s taken name, juxtaposed mockingly against the exoticized “Aladdin” (which removes any religious significance here). In an interview with Howard Stern Cohen states:
“All these dictators blame everything on the Zionists,” said Baron Cohen, “it’s a great scapegoat. Now, young people are saying the reason we’re not happy is we’re living in these dictatorships. There’s a guy who’s a trillion-aire who’s sleeping with models and actresses, and we’re here without any rights being persecuted.”
In a failed bid to play victim, Cohen instead reveals his “Arab-face” minstrelsy; his portrayal of stereotypes are in fact directed at an audience the class of which has controlled the destiny of those living “under dictatorships” for the greater part of the last century, if not the past 500 years. The insinuation here is that such dictatorships are a function of the Arab inability to assume democracy (a great Orientalism, barely worthy of non-scholars such as Bernard Lewis) and claiming falsely that the region has no democratic or, indeed, socialist, pan-Arabist, anti-colonialist, etc. aspects to its past. It is too easy to discuss these neglected historical forces of liberation in the Arab and Muslim world to debunk such heinous racism–Mossadegh, Shari’ati, Fanon, Memmi, Nasser, etc. (among many, many others) all come quickly to mind–and this, coupled with the fact that the Third World’s leftist realm has been targeted for extermination for decades if not more than a century, only reinforces the hubris of Cohen’s statement.
In economic terms, it also reveals the power differential inherent to capitalism and globalization, and is reminiscent of Bill Cosby’s attacks on “bling”-style rap artists–he doesn’t even admit to their more political precursors–who have managed to acquire wealth and status by following all of the lessons learned in a neo-liberal society (similar to Mexican drug cartels, the Mafia, the Saudi monarchy, etc.) but who get punished when they become too competitive (like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan) and are thus rendered docile and brought within the domain of global Capital. “The trillionaire sleeping with models and actresses” is a glorified trope within American culture, so it is odd to find it given populist overtones as concerns the current Arab revolts and uprisings, as if we are to believe that in any way Sasha Cohen finds common cause with the Arab street.
The idea that the struggle against the colonial apartheid state of Israel, indeed, that the resistance to First-World globalizing dominance in the region as premised and foregrounded by the Palestinian struggle, might somehow be simplistically reduced to “criticism” of Zionism (in and of itself an ignoble ideology) is so Orwellian an inversion as to be unworthy of retort. There is no point wasting time considering the cultural “flip”, in imagining an Arab or Muslim “doing the same thing” culturally speaking; there is likewise no point in discussing the ridiculous concept of “reverse racism” when such debates require a thorough examination of said expression along economic and political lines. This, the power differential of the dominant culture as portrayed by that culture’s media, is the central point of this discussion, and however we might examine it, those who are minority, who are Other, fundamentally cannot rise above such representations as they are played out within this mediated system.
A critical black gaze
As a black American convert to Islam, Malcolm X, despite mediated attempts to historically reduce him, could very well be a case of a sub-mediated* image that survives such a pulverization, and as such, serves as a model to follow to bring us out of this quandary. As stated by bell hooks, in one of her essays concerning and quoting Malcolm X:
Understanding the power of mass media images as forces that can overdetermine how we see ourselves and how we choose to act, Malcolm X admonished black folks: “Never accept images that have been created for you by someone else. It is always better to form the habit of learning how to see things for yourself: then you are in a better position to judge for yourself.” Interpreted narrowly, this admonition can be seen as referring only to images of black folks created in the white imagination. More broadly, however, its message is not simply that black folks should interrogate only the images white folks produce while passively consuming images constructed by black folks; it urges us to look with a critical eye at all images. Malcolm X promoted and encouraged the development of a critical black gaze, one that would be able to move beyond passive consumption and be fiercely confronting, challenging, interrogating.
Proclaimed “hope” or promised “change” should not derail any criticism of the Image Machine, especially when this Machine has minimized minority histories to literally belittled images riding on tickets of commerce; to bogus misrepresentative celluloid trash; to symbolic representations of white privilege embodied in the heads of state and power: All the more reason we must be “fiercely confronting, challenging, interrogating…look[ing] with a critical eye at all images”.
The answer to such racism lies not in a faux multi-culturalism, nor in a homogenizing, “borderless”, “nomadic” neo-liberalism. The answer lies in manifestations of resistance to this dominant culture which are able to pre-emptively prevent co-optation by the dominant discourse. Hamid Dabashi, in his book Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror, states:
Out of this cul-de-sac, one possibility has always remained open: a creative re/constitution of cultural character and historical agency from a range of poetic and aesthetic possibilities, where the notion of the beautiful is violently wrested out of the banal, the sublime forcefully out of the ridiculous, agency defiantly out of servitude,subjection combatively out of humiliation.
This requires, however, that we change our perspective and our own viewpoint first; that we radically re-orient ourselves in terms our relationship to cultural consumption and its source. These manifestations as described by Dabashi are hard to suss out since we have unfortunately lost the ability to read them as such, for having been so long out of touch with our own creative potential, and for having forgotten the formerly “local” media manifestations of guerrilla television, public access cable, pirate radio, radical journals, homegrown theater, etc.
True to our native land
On January 30, 2009, in Denver, Colorado, a black woman was asked to sing the national anthem during the State of the City address by the mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper. Instead of theStar-Spangled Banner, Rene Marie offered a rendition of the “black national anthem”, resulting in hate mail and an outcry denouncing her action. She stated that her decision was based on “how I feel about living in the United States, as a black woman, as a black person”. Further, she said that she would no longer sing the national anthem because she “often feels like a foreigner in the United States”.
The correct response of the mayor’s office should have been “this is her right; this is her freedom of speech”, like our blackfaced firemen, like Andrew Cuomo; this was not forthcoming. The song which originally debuted in 1900 is entitled, Lift Every Voice and Sing (words and music by John Johnson, ironically quoted in the benediction for Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony), and it ends with the lyrics: “May we forever stand,/True to our God,/True to our native land.” This takes on a particularly humbling tone given the replacement of the previous attempts of minority Americans to leave their ghettoes with more current almost prideful acceptances of this, their “allowed” place.
This is manifested in the outlying reaches of Los Angeles–180 degrees removed from Cohen’s Hollywood–the scene of the Watts and Rodney King riots, and described in the music of Bambu among many others, and where a “beautiful” form of dance was created from the “banal” by Tommy Johnston, aka “Tommy the Clown”, borrowing from stripper pole-dancing, although performed by both sexes, and used to entertain children and adults at birthday and block parties. The dance is referred to as clowning, and it went on to spawn another form of dance, angrier and reflective of street realities for a generation lost, often mimicking police beatings and other brutalities, called crumping. Both are performed by youth attempting to escape the reality of gang-controlled streets, where misuse of colors is a marker for murder, and choices of home, school, job, and future are systemically limited.
In the documentary about this dance form called Rize! the youth in the movie describe their lives imbued with a renascent spirituality, sense of purpose, and avoidance of the commercialization that has befallen previous expression from this community. Included in this film is the striking image of a black man now painting his face up in white clown makeup and not minstrel black burnt cork, referencing a forgotten cultural marker and not a racist imposition; following Malcolm’s advice to “never accept images that have been created for you by someone else.”
Speak from the street
And so as Arabs and Muslims now targeted with similar minstrelsies, we do ourselves no favor when we simply smear brown paint on our brown features in order to entertain the Master in the Master’s house; we perform no beneficent action by simply parroting endless mediated exchanges with little bark and less bite. Sacha Cohen would ironically represent all of us as tinpot dictators, when it is he, culturally, politically, economically, and in terms of class and avowed ideological affiliation, who has much more in common with this fetid realm of the world stage than does the majority of Arabs and Muslims on the planet. What does Sasha Cohen know about what is going on in his own backyard, much less this world in active revolt? Indeed, it is Cohen who needs to “know his role”.
While we point out this obvious classist and racist arrogance, we must also strive to find the countervailing non-mediated* representatives that exist closer to home and which speak from the street: the Egyptian women whose strikes in the textile mills (not Twitter) led to intifada; similarly the women of the neighborhoods surrounding Tahrir Square in Cairo whose cooking fed this revolution; the 70,000 Palestinian refugees marching to the Lebanese border in May of 2011; the owner of the last kufiyyeh factory in occupied and embattled Al-Khalil, undone by sanctions and outdone by Chinese imports; the Syrian migrant workers slaving to build Beirut skyscrapers, far from their rural communities rightfully rising up in revolts kidnapped by regional powers; the Bedouin populations kept stateless and impoverished; Palestinian hunger strikers; etc. ad infinitum, all with their unique creative contributions of craft, art, music, graffiti, dance, calligraphy, song, poetry, spoken and written word, theater, etc.
For of this common resistance might rise the creative manifestations–the “new folk drama”–that feed back into the revolts against the likes of Sacha Cohen and his ilk who would define us and confine us; manifestations that do not allow simply for a misconstrued and patently false “comfort level” or status quo, that do not inadvertently sell us short, that do not continue to sell us out. In this is perhaps a great step forward, since, as Malcolm X asks of us, once the realization of such mediated deception and the unveiling of the deceivers hits home, once we move from defensive mode to rediscovering the energy that would be better put to creative output, once we wean ourselves from the source of our own misrepresentation, then we might actually recognize the creative source all around us; a new nahdah; proving with our creative action what we already know to be true in our thoughts and words. Paul Robeson, in control of his own creative manifestation in concert, changed the formal and staged lyrics of “Ol’ Man River” to better frame his feelings of being an outsider within American society. It is likewise time for our own re-imaging; our own reformulation; our own restaging.
Mediation defines expression as a function of the distance from direct sensorial witnessing, on a spectrum that ranges from non-mediated to super-mediated.
Non-mediated: A spontaneous expression that is not designed, pre-selected, edited, planned; the voicer of the unsaid.
Example(s): The spontaneous verbal utterance or physical actualization in reaction to witnessing a car accident; Kanye West going off-prompt during a televised fundraiser for the victims of hurricane Katrina, stating: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
Super-mediated: Expression that is designed, pre-selected, edited, or planned, possibly within the constraints of a given group, its ideology, its manifesto or tenets, that may or may not stand in opposition to the dominant discourse, but whose use of tools, languages, systems, and technologies in fact are meant to enable, sustain, and promote such dominant discourse.
Example(s): The television show Cops with an episode concerning drunk driving; drivers’ education movies; a presidential press conference in the aftermath of Katrina.
Sub-mediated: Expression that is designed, pre-selected, edited, or planned within the constraints of a given group, its ideology, its manifesto, or tenets, that absolutely stands in opposition to the dominant discourse often in its uniqueness and its non-derivation from current customs or tropes, and which avoids or attempts to subvert the tools, languages, systems, and technologies of super-mediation.
Example(s): The white-painted ghost bikes of various cities that represent both the individual killed in an accident and their collective whole; the Legendary K.O’s rap song set to mashup videos for “George Bush Don’t Like Black People”.
1 “Dreaming XXL”; Jake Austen. Harper’s, November 2008. pp. 58–59.
2 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?
4 Harper Torchbooks, 1966.
5 The Story of Black Musics [sic] < http://www.rfi.fr/taxonomy/emission/187>;
6 Both musicals are featured as postage stamps. To note is that “First-day” issue of stamps exists for a very particular audience that collects such stamps for their value; this is a different audience than the subject of the stamps themselves.
10 Reference to this conversation taped by a reporter for the Jewish Forward. Interesting here and necessitating another treatise is the ability of Cuomo to claim “whiteness”, as opposed to his formerly equally marking ethnic identity.
11 Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities;;.
12 Black Liberation and Socialism, Ahmed Shawki.
13 William Blake poem and later hymn.
16 Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations
17 USA Today, January 31, 2009; “Controversy after singer substitutes ‘black national anthem’ for ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.
18 Pull It Back:;
20 Kufiyeh project:;
Daniel Ibn Zayd was adopted in 1963 and returned definitively to his land of birth in 2004; there he teaches art and illustration and in 2009 founded the artists’ collective Jamaa Al-Yad. He has written for CounterPunch, The Monthly Review Zine, Dissident Voice, and The Design Altruism Project, as well as on his blog: danielibnzayd.wordpress.com. He is a contributor to Transracial Eyes, a web-based collective of transracial adoptees. He can be reached at @ibnzayd on Twitter and by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.