“Passing Strange” and the Struggle for Authentic Performance

In my Spring 2014 Race and Performance class, taught by Professor Vivian L Huang, we explored the performativity of race in everything from pop culture and television and film to everyday life and historical events. For our midterm papers, Prof. Huang asked us to examine a cultural piece and explore the racial performances within. My classmates’ paper topics ranged from the controversial Richard Sherman interview during the football playoffs, to the early 2000’s Disney cartoon “The Proud Family”.

As a former actor and lifelong musical nerd, I chose to write about my favorite musical, Passing Strange. The often-overlooked show played during the 2008 season, and won that year’s Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. As I wrote in my paper, “The rock musical [is] the semi-autobiographical work of musician Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald that chronicle[s] the migration of Youth from South Central, Los Angeles to Europe in his search for the Real and his artistic voice. The all-black cast embod[ys] three iterations of characters that Youth encountere[s] along his travels, the only constants being his long-suffering mother and the Narrator (who may or may not be an older version of the Youth), played by Stew himself”. Here is a selection of my paper: Continue reading

Watch the Queens Conquer: Female Rappers and the Visual Language of Music Videos

From my Fall 2013 class in Global Visual Culture, Professor Arun Kundnani asked us to write about a specific visual form and its iterations. I chose to explore the visual language of music videos in regards to female rappers, ranging from Queen Latifah to Nicki Minaj. Here are some selections from my 15 page paper, where I describe music videos and deconstruct the evolving language of hip hop :

In her essay “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance”, Cheryl Keyes outlines the 4 distinct categories of women rappers: the Queen Mother, the Fly Girl, the Sista with Attitude and the Lesbian. In discussing female emcees, this paper will make use of the first three categories in order to easily discuss the conventions that each artist uses to present herself to the world. Keyes points out that artists can shift between categories or belong to more than one simultaneously, and that “each category mirrors certain images, voices and lifestyles of African American women in contemporary urban society” (256). It is interesting to note that these categories are similar to the cultural stereotypes of Black women such as the Mammy, the Jezebel, the Sapphire that have traditionally been used in narrow portrayals afforded to Black women in the mainstream media…
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“There is a visceral quality to Twitter that can bring stories to a boiling point.”

People are quick to discredit social media because it is a form of new communication increasingly used and pioneered by people of color. Hashtags like “#iftheygunnedmedown“, “#justicefor” whoever is the black or brown victim of the week and, like this NYT article mentions, #ferguson, bring attention to causes and crimes that would be otherwise ignored by the mainstream media and the average (read: white) social media user.

The emerging power of Black Twitter and the livetweeting of social movements like the Arab Spring and airstrikes in Gaza has resulted in people, including myself, turning not to traditional media outlets for timely and accurate accounts of current events, but to the apps and websites usually associated with insignificant updates and details of users’ daily lives.



At the beginning of the year, I had the opportunity to see and attend the Voices of Crisis exhibit and lectures at the New School, a retrospective of the American Race Crisis lecture series held there in 1964. Reading the correspondence from Civil Rights figureheads like Martin Luther King, Jr, Ossie Davis and James Baldwin (and a rescinded invitation to Malcolm X) and listening to Harry Belafonte, Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defenders and Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad of the Schomburg Center made me reflect on the efforts of those in the past and what we, the present Civil Rights movement, can do to better this country.

The events in Ferguson, MO following the murder of unarmed teenager Mike Brown made me think of the Voices of Crisis exhibit and how unfortunately relevant some of the historic words I saw at the New School are today. The media-blackout and resulting Twitter ‘news-reel’ that causes me to take a breath every time I log on only highlight the continuing inequalities and injustices that take place in this country every day.

One of the letters I found at the exhibit had this to say about the 1964 ‘Race Crisis’ : “Negroes are the protagonists for democracy in this country.They’re the most ready Americans for this new world…I think that America needs to get ready for the Negroes, and not the other way around.”

The Internet as a Stage: Tumblr and the Rapid Growth of Identity Online

“Popular culture is a stage where we rehearse our identities,” says Jose Munoz in “Stages, Queers, Punks and the Utopian Performative”. I agree with him, as I think that popular culture shapes and influence many of our ideas about ourselves, while also providing a space to live in those ideas. Now more than ever, people have the opportunity to connect with each other and discuss shared interests, identities and ideas. When so much of our world today is consumer and media based, people are coming together due to their shared love of a singer, or a tv show, or fashion designer. I think the blogging website Tumblr is a good example of people discovering and rehearsing their identities on a popular platform by using popular and niche culture references.

On Tumblr, one can track search words- maybe “Givenchy”, “Katy Perry”, or “Mad Men”- and find other people who share those interests and their ideas with the world. Like many social media and media collecting sites, a number of Tumblr’s users are young teenagers from every corner of the world. By having the ability to be exposed to a multitude of aspects from popular culture, these young users are having their malleable identities shaped not only the industry’s content, but also by their fellow user’s generated content. By posting original and collected works from the site on their blogs, these teenaged users present their idealized image of themselves and who they stand for to the world (or at least their amassed followers). These kids use their blogs to rehearse their burgeoning identities for the real world, trying out a grunge inspired look here, or a gif-set of a popular movie here.

Our first generation of widespread media cultivators has the opportunity to rehearse and refine our identities on a much wider stage than any other generation that has come before us. By utilizing the technology and programs we have on hand, we are able to create new identities out of thin air and disseminate them to an enormous audience. While Tumblr may be a ‘stage’ for many of its users, it has also provided a stage for which we have and will continue to present ourselves. 

The Novel Idea of Homosexual Class and Community, or We Don’t Think About Something Until it’s Put In Front of Us

In D’Emilio’s ‘Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities”, he talks about the “emergence of a class of people who recognized their erotic interest in members of their own sex, interpreted this interest as a significant characteristic that distinguished them from the majority, and sought others like themselves” (11). While I am familiar with the struggles that gay men and lesbians have to go through even in our modern, western culture, it is interesting to me the sense of community and separatism that LGBT people have created and cultivated for themselves. As a member of the majority, a straight woman, I cannot begin to think that the specific problems lesbian women my age go through apply to me, and although I have friends who are gay and hang out with them frequently, I can’t begin to think that I am part of the pervasive gay culture and community.            

New York has it’s own designated Gay Pride Parade, gay friendly neighborhoods, LGBT owned businesses and a prominent gay culture that is unique in many ways. Intertwined with the rest of the city in this way, it is easy to forget that there are specific problems and concerns that are tied to the gay community in a very intimate way, including the ongoing struggle for marriage equality. It’s not that I forget about these things, exactly, it’s just that it’s a part of the background of my life in the city. My friend is always concerned about whether there are going to be other gay people at whatever party we’re going to, and while at first I brushed this off as ridiculous criteria, I realized that I would feel the same way if I was at a function where all the other guests were white, or if they were all male.

By seeking out other people like them, gay people are just like every other demographic that has ever existed. I think that part of the reason people are taken aback by the idea of a widespread gay community is that one- homosexuality is still viewed as a threat; and two- many people believe that being gay is a choice, not part of who someone is. This separate class, this alternate aspect of personality and self that so many people take for granted, is necessary and makes complete sense. It’s interesting that you don’t think about something until it’s straight up presented to you. 

“Feeling Brown, Feeling Down”- Whiteness in the Media and the Dichotomy of Blandness Versus Normal


In Munoz’s article, he talks about the ways in which Latinos and other ethnic minorities are often portrayed in a manner that exaggerates their characteristics, while white people are seen as neutral or the norm. It’s clear to anyone that studies media or even is just a passive consumer that the prevalence of white faces and the token characters of color are the MO of every creative industry in the western world, and this issue leads to problems within minority communities when they can’t find anyone that looks like them to look up to in their daily media intake. Munoz also points out that when “we look at whiteness from a racialized perspective, like that of Latinos, it begins to be flat and impoverished” (70). Although people of color are given one-dimensional parts to play in the mainstream media, and are often foils for the main white characters, in comparison sometimes white people are seen as blander and less inviting than their sassy black friend or the blunt Latina companion.

The contrast between being “normal” and being “bland” is an interesting dichotomy that only white people face in terms of media representation. While everyone else is portrayed with set characteristics based on race and fit into specific racial categories, white people can be seen as either the common denominator or the one with no culture, the character that all others can bounce off of. Examples of this is current TV shows are the dynamic between the white male doctors and Mindy Kaling’s character on “The Mindy Project”, and the scene stealing Sofia Vergara and Nene Leakes on “Modern Family” and “The New Normal”, respectively.

On minority based media channels and publications, white people are frequently seen as the butt of the joke, or the ones left out of the equation due to their race. Unlike in mainstream media, the issue of race is made explicit and seems natural. White people seem to be afraid of talking about race, and even though racism is ingrained in every aspect of minority representation, anytime confrontation comes the way of “natural” or regular characters, they are quick to present the option of “reverse racism”.

“Fear of a Black President” and the Double Standard of Successful Minorities: Common Sense or a Brand New Concept?

As soon as I finished reading “Fear of a Black President”, I texted my stepmother to tell her that she should look it up. The entire article resonated with me on a political and personal level, and was especially relevant in the days before the election. From the opening argument about the national reaction to the Trayvon Martin case, which I was heavily invested in last spring, to the most basic statements Ta-Nehisi Coates made about Obama and his relation to blackness, I was hooked. As a black woman who loves current events, politics and talking about the taboo of race, this article was right up my alley on a number of different levels.

Many of Coates’ statements in this piece stood out to me, especially when he said that “a democracy must never acknowledge the weight of race, even while being shaped like it”. I think that applies to many aspects of life, not just government, at least if you’re a minority. People say they don’t like to talk about race because it makes them uncomfortable, or because it doesn’t have any bearing on their day-to-day life, but when you are a person of color, your race informs everything you do, as it is evident the from the moment you walk into a room. White people and people in the majority don’t have to or want to think about race because they simply don’t have to- everything about the way our societal system is set up favors those who hold the most power.

So when President Obama talks about race in any way, he’s criticized by those who hold the most power in the media- white upper middle class males like Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump who don’t understand the tightrope Obama walks on whenever he opens his mouth to address the problems of Hispanics, Asians, or god forbid, Black people. Unfortunately, I totally understand why the President has chosen not to become a major advocate for his and other minority communities, and as much as I don’t like it, he probably won’t be able to until he’s out of office. Obama’s Blackness has nothing to do with how he governs, until it has everything to do with it. Can someone be the first Black president without addressing those concerns, or will we have to wait for another Bill Clinton who, revolutionarily, decides to help out those who aren’t in the majority? Coates also says that “whiteness has a monopoly on American possibilities”, and while that’s slowly changing, there’s still a double standard that comes with when you’re successful and Black. 

“How We Become Post Human”: Information Hierarchy in the Digital Age

In “How We Become Post Human”, N. Katherine Hayles references Carolyn Marvin’s idea that  “Anglo-American ethnocentrism that regards digital information as more important than more context-bound analog information” (19). Living in a highly electronic age that has forced all forms of media to catch up or go extinct, I agree with Hayles and Marvin that digital information and high tech media are placed at a higher level than traditional forms.

With the Kindle replacing bound books, the GPS replacing paper maps and email replacing written letters and correspondence, people have come to rely on and look to digital technologies as better and easier. Emailing is seen as more professional and more efficient, and while it’s better for work, some people are concerned with the death of the handwritten letter, which has been completely phased out. Almost every movie that shows in theaters has a 3D or IMAX option, books are being released as downloadable PDFs, and texting has become a replacement for face-to-face conversations. The newest, most advanced way of doing things is seen as more important, and sometimes allows old technologies and information to fall by the wayside.

Although the advancement of technology is important and unavoidable, the rise of digital information and technologically mediated social experiences are having effects on the way we relate to each other. I always hear about studies on the way cell phone use is changing personal relationships, especially among young users who are the first to purchase and master any new technology, as well as the ones who will use it the most. By not taking any “old school” information seriously, we lose a whole host of resources that we can be taking advantage of. We should embrace new, digital information and look to the future, but we also need to have a good catalog of “analog information” in order to make sense of that new material.


Clashing Identities within Online Communities: “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community”

One of the main premises of Judith Donath’s article “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community” is that “knowing the identity of those with you whom you communicate is essential for understanding and evaluating an interaction”, and that there is a fundamental need to care for your reputation and identity in both ‘RL’ and your virtual life in order to maintain a solid sense of community. I agree with these points, and can understand the reluctance of an established community to letting in a new, unknown member.

When I was younger, I was active on an Internet forum that used message boards and specific threads, and had definite clique-like groups. I was a member of a group that required members to solve a puzzle in order to be accepted, and while I was in the process of finding the answer to the “mystery”, I formed an allegiance with other hopeful users. Together we helped each other find the answer and became members of the community together, as well as made a name for ourselves as a smaller faction within this bigger community.

            However, in the process, there was another group of users who were also attempting to gain access to the group. They seemed to be young girls who knew each other in RL, and took up a lot of space on the message boards with annoying personal replies to each other. Established members of the group were reluctant to embrace them the same way I had been welcomed, and they were seen as nuisances. For users who had spent time establishing the group and caring for their online identities, these girls were somehow ruining the atmosphere of a place many people went in their spare time.

            I wish I could say that the group of girls were trolls, as Donath talks about later on in her article, but it was not that dramatic. Eventually the girls found out what other members thought of them and their antics, and calmed down their online personas, but there was still an element of dislike and mistrust between the older members and these young girls. Their relationship to the entire site and the others users had suffered even though they had been completely honest about who they were, as opposed to the deception put forth by trolls who look to take down the infrastructure of online communities.