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Call Me by My Name and “Cunt” Ain’t It: A Response from The Ignant Intellectual
My love of satire is deep and abiding and being able to racially joke with ‘white’ folk gives me life. Go Seth. Go prime time TV. Kinda.
I seldom watch the Oscars or any other awards show for that matter and had no plans of watching last night, as I just do not need yet another reminder of how brown people are overlooked in the arts. Also, I’m not the biggest movie watcher so The Academy Awards don’t really appeal to me. However, I am a native New Orleanian and many people in my life (more so non-natives) have been telling me for months that I need to watch the movie Beast of the Southern Wild starring nine year old phenom, Quvenzhané Wallis. Last night I was exhaustedly sitting at my computer responding to emails and paying bills. As I saw my Facebook timeline become filled with anticipatory commentary about the awards show, I decided to tune in; TV muted. I decided to unmute the TV and was actually pleasantly surprised to see the host, Seth MacFarlane, deliver some racialized jokes that I found to be bold simply because of their content, although his delivery needed major work. Anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE LOVE LOVE being able to racially joke with ‘white’ folk. A ‘white’ person that can take and deliver racial jokes and it be purely in jest and we walk away still friends, still adults, will always have a soft spot in my heart. But then he kept going and it got uncomfortable. Then I began to process the behind the scenes facts. This was not improv. His script passed through a plethora of approving hands. Then the terms ‘systems of oppression’ began to float around in my brain. This is how one of the largest systems (racism) operates. Systems are reified. Systems are approved. Systems are bolstered. Systems are normalized. Go Seth. Go prime time TV. Kinda.
Hindsight reminds me that I actually saw some snippets of the red carpet interviews with Quvenzhané Wallis where she was forced to pronounce and re-pronounce her name. I believe that because I, too, have a hard-to-pronounce (read: longer than two syllables) name, perhaps I was just numb to what was unfolding before my eyes. So I kept it moving. Thirty-three years of having to pronounce and re-pronounce my own name, Zerandrian, takes its toll. So much so that I have recently caved and begun to go by ‘Z’. But the universe provided me another opportunity to behold the splendor of the amazing post-race society in which we have the pleasure of living when Seth MacFarlane himself began making jokes at Quvenzhané’s expense sending my ‘over it’ meter through the roof. I find it spellbinding how names are handled and tossed and butchered so effortlessly. How names with more than a few syllables are shortened without permission from the owner. I find it even more mesmerizing how painlessly Seth assumed access to the protective space of a name, entered that space, placed himself inside, and when there, he got uncomfortable. There were things he had never seen. Letters strung together in ways that were foreign to him. There was a Q and a Z and god-forbid, an apostrophe. So he did what average people do when they get uncomfortable in above average places. He poked fun as a way of escaping his discomfort by projecting it onto someone else. This time, the recipient of his emotional vomit was a 9-year old girl. Privilege at its finest. Interlocking systems of oppression tightening at its noose. Clearly, Seth has never had to re-pronounce his name.
As soon as I thought my ‘over it’ meter was done firing, it was shot through Earth’s atmosphere when The Onion, one of my favorite providers of satire, decided to, with great vile, at 11:42pm EST, out the clear blue sky, tweet, “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?” WOAH KIMOSABE. Say what? Say who? This can’t be real. Have you ever had a moment where your ears received something and this weird thing happened during brain processing time where it’s like all the neurons and synapses were in overdrive and you don’t know what the hell to think? Yeah that’s what happened. The only emotion of you feel is…perplexed. Your responses become really basic sentences like: Quvenzhané is a KID! She’s only 9. Did she do something that I missed? Who refers to a kid as a cunt? WHO?! If I am not mistaken the age of 9 was deemed too young for white children to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the word nigger was edited out in Tom Sawyer because of the harsh realities of such language, but it’s ok for a 9 year old black child to be called a cunt, by The Onion, in America, in 2013. Riddle me that! I recognize that The Onion is an organization comprised of individuals with individual perspectives and opinions and that perhaps this sentiment was not shared by everyone on staff, but I would be remiss to think that had it not been for the outpouring of backlash they received, the tweet would have remained. In its okay-ness. Silence is the loudest approval.
Seth’s jabs and The Onion’s tweet are small reminders of the lovely post-race society in which we have the pleasure of living. This speaks to the level of disrespect shown to brown people with ‘hard-to-pronounce’ names like Quvenzhané and Qulyndreia and Venjie and Senecia and Sadiqa and Abimbola and Aisha and Alkhyseam and Njeri and Nequay and Zerandrian and countless others. It also speaks to hegemony and presumed access to any and all spaces. It shows that sometimes all you have to do is inhale.exhale.repeat while being black and you’ve done something wrong. It shows that those that don’t abide by the norm will be attacked; even when they’re busting through history and norms by being the youngest actress ever to receive a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Not youngest black actress. Youngest actress period. Black, white, blue, or pink. It shows that we really ain’t ready to see a black president. It shows that while we might be ready for access to all spaces, all spaces ain’t ready for us. Again, I value being able to racially joke with ‘white’ folk. I have always had a special place in my heart for that, but when one assumes access to labeling me and assuming access to joke about my name simply because it makes them uncomfortable, this is where we have problems. When one cannot sit inside their own discomfort and struggles in pronunciation of a name in their own ancestors’ language and alphabet, I have issues. Calling a 9 year old a cunt is not satire. It’s not even funny. Satire = funny.
Instead of expanding the boundaries of artistic expression and its aesthetic to include all of its nuances, we attempt to limit the spaces that make us comfortable; including a name. And what’s worse, we try to force others into those spaces to be miserable with us. I would love for the day to come when someone can operate possess a ‘non-traditional’ name. I would love to see a moment when a black female-bodied person can inhale.exhale.repeat and that be it.
To be Black, female-bodied, privileged, and socially responsible is to be a warrior. Let us pray that more of us have the courage to love ourselves wholly and be outspoken mentors even if our mentees are older than us! Keep creating Quvenzhané and don’t bend.
About The Ignant Intellectual…
The Ignant Intellectual is a New Orleans-reared writer, poet, and spoken word artist who has been writing before completely mastering the English language. From the accent to that je ne sais quoi that folk have been trying to put words to for far too long, to the curious name, The Ignant Intellectual is indeed a ‘strange fruit’. I.I.’s goal in writing and performing is to deconstruct the many unconscious social constructions that guide our mental processes and ultimately our actions, to influence youth and elders to re-imagine what is, pushing/pulling the collective to our full potential. The Ignant Intellectual’s vibrant, often humorous, and always though-provoking writings and performances convey that, “Life really is good enough to be true.” And so it is.