Thursday, 27 August 2009

One Thousand Tiny Suns

One, two, three suns rising on Eritrea's horizon
four, five, six sun-steps across the sky,
seven, eight, nine shining bright in noon's high,
ten years and rising
even in dusk's bullets;
the infinite light
of dreams
burns bright.

Heaven is under the feet of children
dusty from play,
some bruised, some tired,
all soles cracked with laughter.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

"I am a Girl" Caster Semenya


This past week has seen South African athlete Caster Semenya hit the headlines, in part because of her incredible talent but also because of questions surrounding her sex and gender raised at the IAAF World Championship Games currently held in Berlin. I have had discussions about this issue with my good friends on Facebook and these are my thoughts on the matter. Firstly, this case teaches us that we've also got to interrogate ourselves as people and ask what do we mean by the word man or woman; there is no 'standard', a strict division between the two, but they are fluid, continuous terms who biological and sociological meanings are more similar than it is different. The socially constructed lines we have carved up have always been in contestation and in this instance again they are again challenged.

While the IAAF claims that they are going to test her, I find our quest for absoluteness and exactness in science very questionable. If science decrees she is sexed as a man or a woman; do we accept it because science says so? Is our truth value determined by science alone? What about her lived experience; gender in itself is a sociologically constructed meaning which can contradict the biological definition as in the case of transgendered people. Judith Butler in her conception of gender performance theory argues that gender is performed; it is "a relation among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts." Rightly so, gender is not a fixed but fluid identity that undoes the patriarchal conception of a male/female binary. Gender should be seen as a variable; but moreso as performatively constituted as it depends on how one performs their gender rather than ascribing to socially fixed ideas. Gender placed within the gender-sex continuum identity is about biology as much as it is about one's lived experience and Caster Semenya was born female and has lived as such. If because of a chromosomal imbalance, Semenya 'fails' their testing will the "scientific experts" be the ones to dry her tears and deal with the psychological trauma of declaring her more genetically male than female?
Eva Klobukowska of Poland was eliminated from the 1966 European Games in Budapest because she had one too many male chromosomes with a rare makeup of XXY but she went on to have children! (Pity I couldn't find any images.) Maria Jose Martinez-Patino, was stripped of her medals when it turned out she wasn’t genetically female because of a rare condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). Patino 'failed' a DNA test before the 1985 World Championships in Kobe, Japan and was asked by Spanish officials to fake an injury to bow out of competition. She refused, competed, and won gold in the 60m hurdles. After her test results came back, she was stripped of her medals, but after a long battle she proved her faulty receptors actually made her resistant to the additional testosterone in her body and thus did not give her a competitive advantage. She was allowed to represent Spain and went on to have a successful career. Santhi Soundararajan is the Indian athlete who 'failed' a gender test in 2006 after the Asian Games, attempted suicide and although she survived and her story has a happy ending; she was shattered when she 'failed' and her silver medal was taken away. Caster is 18, young and has the world to conquer and because of a chromosomal imbalance she like these other women is forced to prove and defend her femininity.
For argumentsake I could say that Michael Phelps because of his low blood lactate level which allows him to recover faster than other competitors, has an "unfair biological advantage beyond the reach of others" but there are no quibbles there. Or the argument against the sprinter Oscar Pistorius of SA who had a prosthetic leg and it was claimed this was an unfair body enhancement. *???* Yes, the mind boggles at that one. And it does so on this one too. Gender testing in itself is a sexist practice; how do we know there are some men who are more female than male in their genetic makeup and so they do better at archery or badminton as these are sports women are naturally better at than men. The IOC ruled in 2000 that gender testing was to be abandoned, and in 2004 ruled transgendered people could partake in the Olympics. JL Simpson writing in the Journal of American Medical Association (2000) states,
"gender verification tests are difficult, expensive, and potentially inaccurate. Furthermore, these tests fail to exclude all potential impostors (eg, some 46,XX males), are discriminatory against women with disorders of sexual development, and may have shattering consequences for athletes who 'fail' a test."
Given these developments; why is the IAAF still holding onto an outmoded, invasive rule? And if it's apt to question chromosomal imbalance as unfair advantage, its also important that we question how international sport can ever be fair when economic and political advantage athletes from richer countries have over those from poorer and/or politically unstable countries who do not have access to training facilities as good as other competitors.

The Head of the ASA, Leonard Chuene has described this as "racism of the highest order". When an 18 year old South African girl's gender is questioned in front of the whole world, it certainly stirs up feelings and I myself in emotion had shouted 'racism, racism'; but rescinded once I read up on what other athletes had been through. In a no-holds barred criticism, Chuene lashed out,
"who are these White people to question the makeup of an African girl"
That was classic! Despite that I now disagree with him; this was a very bold statement that got people, talking about Caster, applauding Chuene and jeering the IAAF. And, while I as a private individual had the freedom to rant on Facebook on a shaky historic burden of proof, Chuene is a public figure who as the country's sports ambassador bears a much heavier, more specific burden of proof. In hindsight I do wonder what implications that statment might have for South Africa's image considering next year they host the World Cup. Was he playing the race card? Maybe, but I'm still laughing at his outburst.... Nonetheless, what I am in full support of is this remark by Chuene,
"If gender tests have to take place, they should have been done quietly. It is a taboo subject. How can a girl live with this stigma? By going public on the tests, the IAAF has let down this young child, and I will fight tooth and nail to protect her."
The insensitive and unethical manner in which the IAAF has handled this issue is unacceptable and the ASA is in the process of filing a complaint of violation of personal rights to the UN. Regardless of the previous attempts they'd done to handle this matter in confidence, to publicly announce their intent of further investigation 4 hours before her race is morally unjust and they ought to apologise to Semenya and her family for the damage caused.
Coming back to the issue of race/racism; I think the racial component makes things even more complicated and it can be a dangerous invocation if the parameters are not set out right. In my view, taking into account the history of gender testing in sport as outlined above; a framing for race rather than racism as a critical standpoint can be made, in the wider historical context of the Black gendered body in sport. It is not a pretty history and Black women have struggled against racism, sexism, oppressive tradition in their quest for sporting glory. The stories of these pioneers tell this all too well: Alice Coachman the first African American to win Olympic Gold, Berlin 1948, Althea Gibson of the US, the first Black woman to win Wimbeldon Singles, 1957, Helen Kimaiyo of Kenya who first competed in the Olympics in 1984, LA at just age 15 (!) and Derarte Tulu of Ethiopia the first Black African, but not the first African, to win Olympic Gold (see pic). Salut!
When I saw Caster Semenya I thought of the Williams sisters and champion runners, Maria Mutola of Mozambique, Amy Mbacke Thiam of Senegal and Samukeliso Moyo of Zimbabwe who have had their gender questioned on numerous ocassions; if not by official bodies then by fellow athletes or inquisitive members of the public who couldn't accept someone different to their narrow conceptions of normative female beauty and physique. For charges of racism to be levelled against the IAAF would be treading into murky waters. One would have to look at its handling of other similar cases in the past post-1966, after the Press Sisters' case, as an appropriate temporal comparative. It would also have to be asked whether the IAAF has acted on rumours/complaints about White/Asian/South American/Arab athletes from Black athletes. So far, I've found no solid evidence pointing to that, the only thing is that Caster Semenya is the first Black female athlete to my knowledge, to have her sexed identity questioned in this particular manner.

What is unquestionably racist and heartless though is the way some bloggers have described her as animalistic or like she were some half-evolved person. Trashy tabloids like The Sun have have been sniggering at this with tasteless headlines. Places like Paddy bookmakers in the UK are taking bets on the outcome of her test and I find this despicable and morally reprehensible. While these organisations are profitting from cheap headlines and foolish betters; and bloggers are taking stabs at Caster; they forget that she is a person. A human being with feelings and deserving of dignity that the faces behind these screens might one day demand when they have become the subject of inquiry. Same goes for the IAAF and its inappropriate handling of the matter. Further to this, were science to decree that she is biologically more male than female, what would be gained? A returned medal? So what? Personally, I hope she will be able compete in 2012 come the London Olympics. And if she does I hope she runs her heart out and smashes those records to claim medals upon medals; she may not be feminine by narrow normative standards but she was born a woman and a gifted and talented one at that!
Thatha Sisi, thatha! The world is yours!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Illusionist, The Puppet or The Joker?


Around the world, in its many variations; street art has historically be a form of political expression for the disenfranchised and marginalised and this was the first thought that came to mind when I saw this montage of President Obama as 'The Joker'. However, this poster has become an overnight controversy along partisan and racial lines. The poster first appeared in LA and Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the LA urban policy unit has said, "Depicting the President as demonic and a socialist goes beyond political spoofery." In my opinion, to label this, "demonic" goes beyond political hysteria and is spoofery in itself! Its a gross misinterpretation of the image and where it comes from; its The Joker character acted by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008). Obama's Stans (obsessive fans) in the blogosphere have claimed; this is reminiscent of the minstrel show and have described it as racist. Steve Mikulan was quoted in the UK daily, The Telegraph as having stated, "The only thing missing is a noose". This is a far stretch of the imagination, methinks.

The green hair, white face, black-ringed eyes and red lips of The Joker in The Dark Knight is not the same as the image of minstrel as claimed. The minstrel was black-a-face, with red lips whose thickness was exageratted and eyes made extra wide. The picture above is not the same as those of AfricanAmericans denigrated years before; anyone who's watched Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000) will understand what minstrel means historically and in corporate Amerikkka today. To suggest this poster has the same connotation of black-a-face is absurd and playing the race card; there are real issues of racism more deserving of social outrage than this legitimate satire of a sitting President. The same image was used of Dubya, Sarah Palin, John McCain who were indeed jokers, but not 'The Joker'.

For the Republicans who've delighted in seeing this as criticism of Obama; the joke is on them. America has had a long history of a hyperfear of socialism and anybody who thinks Obama is a socialist needs to realise its 2009 not 1962, the Russians aren't a superpower anymore and neither are they threatening to storm in on Washington. They need to take Socialist theory 101 and read the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. And to fully understand the intersection of race and class in the US; Amilcar Cabral, Angela Davis and Malcom X would be a few names on a long essential reading list of Black Liberation and Socialism 102. If they did, they'd not only realise firstly even in the warped American imagination that equates socialism to 'the death of capitalism and democracy' as Americans know it, Obama has proven to be a true blue. This Banker's President, is anything BUT a socialist proposing to nationalise everything; a man who's passed the biggest stimulus bill in American history and refused to nationalise the health insurance plan can hardly be equated to real socialist revolutionaries like Che or Castro. Secondly, returning to the lesson plan; these Socialism phobes would learn that socialism modelled on the Scandinavian system of The Third Way might actually be beneficial to America where unbridled capitalist greed and foreign aggression are the modus operandae.

In light of the current birther movement and the real racist images of Obama doing the rounds online, this image just makes the Right look even more hysterical, irrational and desperate. Its also extremely hypocritical of them; the same people who ran the country badly for 8 years. The Conservatives are the xenophobic, eugenicist, capitalist architects of social iniquity and to now take up a position of protest in solidarity with the poorer and disenfranchised people disillusioned with the Obama administration would be the real insult of this image, if that was the intended message of the unknown poster.

If Obama's PR team and Stan bloggers are young and smart enough to remember the movie, they'll realise this image was neither racist nor slander. The joker was the best character in that film. Even though everyone pretended he was the bad guy, in reality he was the hero that everyone was rooting for and he made it worth watching. This poster is probably quite accurate in that sense as people like Obama as a person; he is the articulate likeable guy who appears on TV to reassure the people and give them a renewed sense of hope so much that it elides his Bush-lite manner of handling domestic and foreign affairs. The Obama hype machine has spawned an enormous movement of mostly seletively informed (on the details of his policies), but fervent supporters who have knighted him 'the untouchable one' and it is almost forbidden to criticise him.

As a Stan of Obama who belatedly saw the light when the first air strikes left 17 dead in Afghanistan and Somali pirates were murdered at his behest; this is my li'l planet to write what I like (a la Steve Biko) and critique the administration as and when I see fit. Obama has reneged on too many of his campaign promises to deserve status of The Joker, maybe the suave Illusionist, or Wall St's Puppet titles would better suit him; so here's to better thought-out, intelligent, protest street art to come!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

A Sister SoulJah Moment on 'Good Hair*'


Recently I was talking about US comedian, Chris Rock's documentary 'Good Hair' with some of my peoples and we were discussing what hair signifies as a cultural statement about Black identity and femininity. While in America, Black hair is an outward symbol a history of African heritage, slavery, the struggle for civil rights and institutionalised racism, it is also a historical narrative of cultural trends of the 'hip' of a generation was articulated. For me being an African who grew up in Africa my perception of Black hair is informed by my history of traditional customs, colonialism and how global Black hair cultures translated into the African setting. I don't want to take up a historical perpsective but rather paying homage to history by having stated these things from the outset. My intention is not to be in conversation with the the past but remember these roots when engaging with the everyday; the here and now. I feel inasmuch as its important to be legitimated as a historicized subject located in 2009, it is equally important for us to look at ourselves as 'just people', informed and shaped but not always trapped in historical discourse, so we can find a different way of discoursing about Black hair. So from the 'podium of the here and now' I speak my mind.

I am tired of seeing the binaries of straightened/dread = fake/natural; why must it be that being dreaded or having an afro is an automatic signifier of being deep and wise. What is it that is 'natural' about having unprocessed hair, but still living in a modern cosmpolitan world? Is hair the only artefact of 'natural living'? Is having a weave symbolic of being 'mentally shackled' and having aspirations to Whiteness or is having 16 inches of hair weaved down your back somehow 'inadequate for the revolution'? At what point are the intellectual, spiritual and personal qualities of a person chiefly defined by hair? Hair is a social construct - just as a weave is a construct of urban culture, so are dreadlocks, afros, plaits with all their of connotations that are rooted in Semitic religion, traditional custom, resistance to conformity, Black struggle and Black fashion.

Historically hair as cultural practice on the African Continent was a considered thing of beauty and the centering onf one's spirtuality like among the Yoruba of Nigeria. A. Hardraacht writes,
"The hair on the head (irun Orí) is often likened to a grove that must be well maintained to hallow the sanctuary that the physical head constitutes for the Ori Inu, the inner head. This is why Yoruba women have traditionally regarded hairdressing as a mark of honor to the inner head (Araba 1978:8), apart from its social significance" (A. Hardraacht 2001/2)
Further down south, hair is also a cultural rite as among some Shona tribes in Zimbabwe it is customary for hair to be cut when one's father or husband dies as these are the leaders of the home in patriarchal society and their death is mourned and honoured through cutting the hair.

Rooted in ancient traditions such as these, African hair in the modern sense; is as much 'sacred' as it is material and aesthetic in value. Styles of plaiting hair are continually evolving, borrowing from the past and inventing something, its hard to keep up! The art, skill and speed it takes to braid is something to be revered and is a source of income for hairdressers across Africa, in general. Given that the salon is a creative studio for hair art, it is blatant ignorance to suggest that having long braided hair is symbolic of an internal desire for Whiteness when in fact it is not about this; it's a craft very much rooted in the African everyday and that is also reflective of Black hair global trends.

There are also practical reasons why people choose to wear their hair other than fashionable or lifestyle appeal a particular hairstyle can have. And so the defence goes; its for ease of managing hair - if its braided, locked or in a weave its easier than managing kinky hair, but kinky hair means less time and money spent in the salon. But then preference can sometimes outweigh this budgetary practicality. On the dark side of it, having straightened hair that may for some women be symptomatic of an internalized complex about Black while there is also a socio-historical villification of kinky or dreadlocked hair. This prejudice continues to play itself out today when having bongo locks can prevent someone from having a particular job because of the ridiculous view in the corporate world that its inappropriate. It is also displayed in social attitudes and the marketing of images where sheen n straight is beautiful but nappy is not cute and dare I say it 'native' or 'African' (in a derogatory sense). From the snippets I've seen of Chris Rock's documentary the self-hate in US society is entrenched so deep it can cause tensions in families; its an important dimension in African-American life which shows how deep history runs. I find it very sad and deeply troubling, but I don't fully understand it and not having 'lived it', its not my place to 'speak on it'.

Chris Rock's documentary like UK singer, Jamelia's hair documentary aired in the UK also explores, where the hair comes from, and after having watched Jamelia's show and hearing how she decided not to wear human hair because of the controversial nature of how its sourced I also chose not to wear 'human hair' but synthetic hair which is made in a factory. But even then what good is that if the hair factory unfairly pays its workers? And if they do, am I conscious weave-wearer if I still wear clothes and eat food that's not been 'ethically sourced'. And even then, what is ethical about 'ethically sourced' goods when it can only be bought by those that have the money and is it really consciousness or a mindset en vogue? Evenmoreso what does it mean in a capitalist world where profit margins drive the force behind this ideology? In this frame, having dreadlocks is again cast into the spotlight by the market forces of eco-consciousness as a trope of 'ethical living' oblivious to the deeper issues of the kind of class capital this image also articulates. Why not probe that too?

And in this process of exploring; the myth of depthness and struggle in dreadlocked people needs to be deconstructed to stop judging people on their physical apparance. I've known some pseudo-revolutionaries in my time who look the part because its the trend, but they don't read the news, they've never read a paragraph of Frantz Fanon's work, only rhymed his name in the music because it sounds cool. Or the sista, Nefertitti who hardly came to the classes I taught part-time on African literature and on one occassion when she waffled her way through an interpreation one of Ben Okri's poem, she came up to me at the end of the lecture and suggested we study Sizzla's lyrics as African poetry. I had no words. Don't get me wrong Sizzla is one of my favorite dancehall artists, but no, iCan't, iWon't, not ever in this class...

.......As a once dreadlocked now (synthetic) weave-wearing fashion junkie with an Afro-conscious, God-in-heart, revolutionary mindset, the question of hair is more about exploring deeper questions within myself; my self-image and how I see others in a non-judgmental 'ethical' lens and not policing the manner in which we as Black people wear and alter our hair.
*The concept of 'good hair' translates differently in the Africa context; its refers to thick, long hair, having bushy hair is admired as having the potential to become 'good hair' when its straightened, but when its unprocessed it is not looked down upon. However, in the US its fine, straight hair and bushy hair in its natural state is considered 'bad hair'. A small difference among many others worth exploring in a longer piece to come.