The Possible and The Probable Part One
I spend most days in the classroom teaching on issues of race, social class, mobility and opportunity. The discussions I have always intrigue me, particularly because most of my students are people of color from working class backgrounds. After listening and reading, I’m beginning to think the belief that anything is possible, clouds us from seeing what is probable. I say this not to be a pessimist, rather because I wonder what the line between naivete and willful denial of reality is. And if there are or what are the consequences for this thinning line for our people.
Over the past few days, I’ve seen some rather public discussions of the possible (what could happen) and the probable (what will likely happen). There are 2 recent occurrences that made me write this: 1) the Cassie nude photo(s) leak and 2) the Brooks Op-Ed on the Promise Academy. Well, given the folks who read my blog, I’m pretty sure you’ll be expecting a deep discussion of the Promise Academy and schooling, but for now you’ll have to sit through my discussion of Cassie :) (Promise Academy discussion and high poverty schooling discussion coming in The Possible and the Probable Part Two).
When the pictures of Cassie were “leaked” onto the internet and she offered a public response via twitter and her blog de-emphasizing them. Many on the internet and radio began to chorus like Jay-Z and say, “We don’t believe you, you need more people.” Behind this incredulous response to Cassie was another discussion that I heard stated squarely by Phonte from Little Brother (while Phonte said it, I know a number of brothas have expressed the same sentiment to me many times over). Phonte tweeted, “So next time you hear someone talk about how unfair the industry is for women, look em in the eyes and say THE DEVIL IS A MUTHAFUCKIN LIAR.” He continued on to tweet, “Female singers play the ho role because they want to, not cause they HAVE to. Minnie Riperton aint neva had 2 show a titty for me 2 buy a CD” and “Neither has Chrisette Michele for that matter (for all you “BUT MINNIE’S HEYDAY WAS 30 YEARS AGO” ass niggas).”
So the argument goes, that women “in the industry” don’t have to “ho themselves out” they make a choice to do it. Now I want to distinguish between a sistah engaging her sexuality on her own terms (or as much of her own terms are possible) and an A&R or label engineering her image to something hyper sexualized and fetishized. The line can be thin, but 9 time out of 10, the industry (in this case music) actively pushes women into the latter.
I know, many are saying, “But wait, they have a choice! It’s not the industry, it’s them.” Duly noted, but all choices are subject to available options. Phonte points out Minnie Riperton and Chrisette Michelle, whom I both love, are successful (well relatively successful) and that they made it or are making in the industry without exposing themselves. While this is true, the reality is that they are the exception to the rules or norms of the music industry. If you are participating in the mainstream music industry companies want units moved and profits more than they desire “quality” music. As a result, creativity is compromised, images are engineered, and people are shoved into niches for marketing purposes. You can easily see the same tired archetypes and tropes being repeated in Hip-Hop, R&B, and in most genres of music. The idea is “people buy what they know” and essentially if they know these hyper feminine and hyper masculine images, profits will be made so they keep feeding and forcing people into those categories to “make it” in the music industry.
But what about the exceptions? What about the folks who are themselves? The ones who don’t buy-in or sell-out? You know, Minnie Riperton, Chrisette Michelle, Erykah Badu, etc. Yes, there are always exceptions but those exceptions do little to disprove the rule. Remember for every Riperton, Michelle or Badu there are hundreds of women who equally have fought of these hyper-stereotyped images and go double wood (the opposite of double platinum). Pointing to the exception does not negate the rule. Throughout history of Black America we could point to the exception or “exceptional negro” and say their advancement indicated the openness of opportunity, but that would be short-sighted.
As others have said, it’s like saying, “Madame CJ Walker was a millionaire in the early 1900s. Which shows Black women can make it in business if they work hard and have their stuff together.” Yes, a Black woman was a millionaire then, but that can tell us little about the lives and experiences that most Black women had. In fact, I doubt that most Black women in the 1900s didn’t have drive, perseverance, and all the other things attributed to Walker as exceptional qualities. Ultimately Walker’s achievements didn’t mean that most Black women wouldn’t be circumscribed to domestic labor where they would accrue pennies in comparision to her millions. It’s like pointing to Barack Obama and saying, “See the Black man can make it out of poverty in America to be President of the United States of America.” Yes, Barack Obama is a phenomenal example and case, but highlighting his life ignores the fact that 50% of Black men in New York City are unemployed. If you keep pointing to the possible, then you will miss the probable and the reality is that most of us live in the probable and are seeking the possible, not the other way around.
Our community is much like a rose garden with millions of roses. When people ask about our garden we pick the most beautiful rose from the healthiest bush and we show it to everyone. We highlight that rose as indicative of our gardening ability and smile to collect accolades. But the sad reality is that the prize rose is only so beautiful because there were so many that grew with it, but did not make it.
We concentrate on the exceptional because it can be too hard acknowledge the probable and the majority of roses that aren’t award winning, aren’t beautiful, and are subject to the harsh conditions of the world. We must be cautious in pointing to the possible and mistaking it for the probable. In the past, many from outside our community did that and we served as a corrective to this faulty logic, today, I hear all too many within our community endorse this same fallacy.