Hipsters, Gentrification, and the Problematic Geographies of Cool
I texted this rant (or as my friend’s call them, “mini dissertation”) to an unfortunate acquaintance. Ha! The spirit moved. I thought I’d share this with the world.
The children of suburbia are tired of the commute, conservatism, and cookie-cutterism, but where they want to be in the case if the yuppy is too expensive and they settle in a “neighborhood in transition”, or in the case of the hipster, they are exactly where they want to be because their proximity to blackness does something for (1) their liberal bleeding heart or (2) their “I don’t give a fuck”, anti-system, anti-normative cred. Ironically/offensively/problematically, it only reifies the very (racial and conservative) normative ideologies they seek to subvert, because in their tragic estimation the very blackness upon which their street cred is dependent, relies on a notion of blackness that is non-normative, strange, off-kiltered, and most importantly marginal. They prove their counter-culturalism by living in the “unsafe” neighborhoods their parents told them to avoid. If this particular post-hiphop chase with antecedents in jazz continues (read: Harlem Renaissance “slumming”), then the hipsters will find themselves right back in the suburbs with the displaced blacks and latinos looking for that elusive cool. And unfortunately, hipsterism helps to usher in gentrification and displacement—something you would think they would create a change.org petition about…
Currently at the point in the chapter where I have to contend with consider 19th c. plantation landscape painting. The work has been done, but I feel as if something is missing… Here’s me thinking “out loud” (nothing finite):
How should we understand American landscape paintings? How do we understand American beauty? In the context of continental wars, genocide of indigenous, and enslavement of stolen peoples, how does one paint the pretty and the awe of this country’s terrain. These themes are often left out, but let us not forget that this perceived and imagined beauty is always already implicated in the violence (and vice versa). Beware of the beauty. I suppose the notion of the “sublime” could be helpful, but to consider the black and the native as “sublime” is naively offensive. Let us call it a picturesque of erasure.
While the physical sufferings of slavery were surely brutal, I contemplate the emotional torture experienced, and the perseverance required to survive.
I reflect on the story of my paternal great, great grandmother Lilly who was transported from Virginia to Louisiana when she just old enough to remember the warmth of her mother and sister, but too young to remember the names of her former owners—making it impossible to find them after emancipation.
I also think of the torment of my great, great, great grandfather Joseph Arsene Pelletier who was owned by his father, and how what ever minor privileges this afforded only operated as a cruel reminder of his station as chattel.
Next, I honor a little known HBCU, Leland University, and one of her alumna, Zenobia Collins, my paternal great-grandmother. Whenever I feel weary about my doctoral stories, I often think of my grandfather’s stories of his mother who would drive over 100 miles to attend night classes at Leland—and this was before interstate highways. She used her training toteach elementary education back home in Terrebonne Parish.
Leland University was founded 1870 in New Orleans as by the American Baptist Home Missionary Society as an institution of higher education “open to all without distinction of sex or color” as per its charter. Leland had a system of affiliated preparatory schools throughout the state, which provide rigorous college prep for colored children and funneled these students into normal, collegiate, and theological programs at the university. It’s theological school was noteworthy, and was frequently praised in religious and Southern educational periodicals of the day. The campus was shuttered in 1915, because of a mysterious fire during the Hurricane of 1915 (storms were not named then). Instead of rebuilding, the mostly out-of-town Board of Trustees quickly sold the land, which was located on what had become the fashionable St. Charles Avenue where gated Newcomb Boulevard intersects. (I know right!) Due to the persistence of some of the state’s Black leadership, Leland reopened as Leland College in Baker, Louisiana just north of Baton Rouge in 1923. It was responsible for educating many church and educational leaders of Louisiana and the South until its official closure in the second half of the 20th century. Long-time and famed Grambling State University football coach Eddie Robinson was a proud alum of Leland.
It is always interesting how this city is described as “America’s Most African City” and the alleged “Paris of the South.” I’ve come to understand such distinctions as being quite silly, because if both, then it is neither. The music of Congo Square out of environmental necessity was always translated into something else. Most of the French Quarter was built by the Spanish. And yet still, the architecture was not that of the metropole, but quite colonial. I suppose the tourist industry must use these too big/too small terms to usher the understanding of the cattle they herd, but *sigh*
This short video offers an amazing overview of how urban planning has a direct effect on a community’s culture and economy. It is a clear and accurate indictment of the relationship between the postwar interstate highway, suburban sprawl, and urban decay. Also, notice how the most vocal advocate of the interstate system was cozy with the automobile industry (e.g. speaking at the “GM” podium). The interstate system was/is a government subsidy of a then unsustainable business model (inefficient automobiles) and an unsustainable lifestyle (sprawling and distant suburban living cannot be maintained with a depleting fossil fuel source)!
An old post on Beyoncé’s queerness; or, How King B ain’t nothing but a big ole Queen.
Again, I am in wonder at Beyonce’s latest cultural borrowings. In her video with Lady Gaga—“Video Phone”—Miss Honey makes heavy use of the Leiomy Lolly.
“The Lolly” is the backwards flowing neck twist that whips the hair, and it is the signature voguing move of Leiomy Mizrahi. Beyonce obviously lives for black queer/quare dance vocabularies! However, I have two quick and dirty observations, and then I have to get back to studying. First, can she give some props and not just use folk as props? Don’t be a new age Madonna… At least Lady Gaga firstly thanks “God and the Gays”! Second, she does not Lolly as good as Leiomy!
However, in that lack, I love the way that it disrupts and dislodges gender from its “innocent” “natural” moorings. Beyonce fails at her attempt to embody Leiomy’s (queered) feminity; all the while Leiomy’s embodiment of femininity is both lack and excess.Furthermore, it is quite interesting that Beyonce (and other pop divas) repeatedly borrows the movements of a black queer(ed) femininity in order to sex up her presentation. And in this mainstream context, “straight” girls want to be her, while “straight” guys want to be with her… But wait… follow me and let me bless you… You unknowing “straight” boys and girls out there are really fantasizing about a big queer simulacrum, a.k.a. SASHA FIERCE! A bio-female [Beyonce] playing a drag queen [Sasha Fierce] mimicing a trans-woman [Leiomy] voguing a “woman.” LMAO… Yes, you’ve just been queered (or what in the academy we call a “queer reading”)! I live…
The Fallacies of Racial Ignorance and Un/intentionality
[Considering that there has been more racial dress-up make believe going on, I figured that I should repost this timely rant from 2009.]
My apologies for typos and/or grammatical errors, but I had to get these thoughts out… This is in response to a forum on blackface that I attended tonight. The forum itself was a reaction to recent blackface performances on campus by white students… [And yes, that is the actual photo of one of this year’s  students who blackened up as “Serena Williams”]
There are problems with the way that we approach “racism,” or better performances of racial prejudice/power/privilege. Firstly, calling something “racist” links both our critique and solution to phenomena of spectacular violence. “Racism” and “Racialism” were first used to describe the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, and is linked to the violent and extreme atrocities of the Holocaust. As a result, when we as liberals go on the witch-hunt for “racism,” we then only find those most extreme forms of racial power, i.e. lynching, hate crimes, cross burning, etc. Thinking about acts of racial power/privilege in those singular and spectacular terms prevents us from seeing and/or understanding the quotidian, everyday, comic, humorous, and even pleasurable forms of racial power/privilege. Thus, some would argue that a white student blackening up is insignificant on some imaginary scale of racism (i.e. “What’s the big deal?” “At least we are not the KKK.” “Why are we focusing on this? There is more racism in the South.”), because it isn’t (physically) hurting anyone. Obviously (or obviously it is not obvious, but I am here to wake you up), if every Halloween there are white students who put on blackface, then these cases are not extreme, incidental, phenomenal, or out of the ordinary, but rather the frequency and predictability betrays its very ordinary quality—the ordinariness of grotesque black mis/representation.
Secondly, we get caught up in a circular conversation about intent and ignorance. As a good colleague—Keeanga—has suggested, focusing solely on the intention behind acts of racial power/privilege, orients the meaning of these acts around the perpetrator, and gives them the power to name and define that act for the viewing victim. Within the formulation of intent, the perpetrator is always left to tell the victim what the act means and thus how to feel and respond. We, the minorities, are then doubly powerless.
Thirdly, about ignorance… People attempt to excuse prejudice with the excuse of ignorance. Yet their ignorance points to the very privilege and racist structure that allows it. Additionally, it is not my responsibility to educate you. That places the blame on the victim and creates a double burden. Under this rubric, we must then educate white people in order to prevent a potential run-in with acts of racial prejudice/privilege/power AND be held responsible for the “racist” actions of whites, because we somehow failed to educate them. Further, this implies that the history of colonialism, slavery, segregation, blackface, prejudice, lynching, etc. is solely African American history, but these performances of racial power is American history. This is not my burden! How and why should I educate you on your own performance history and repertoire? As my good colleague Patricia has said, blackface is not a realistic performance of blackness, but a performance of white fantasies of blackness.