KEEPING IT NOVACAINE
By Regina N. Bradley
Wednesday, November 17, 2010.
My first "scared shitless" moment occurred when I was five. My mom and I went to the video store Friday night per our weekly ritual to rent videos for the weekend. Out the corner of my eye, next to the Rainbow Brite VHSs I saw it. Black cover, blood red writing, and a picture of my boyfriend Michael Jackson: THRILLER. I heard the song on my folk's vinyl and already ruined two Moonwalker (1988) videotapes from over-watching them. Yes, THRILLER seemed a perfect replacement. I was grown. I was five. And my mom shot down my dreams.
I tried the next week and she finally relented and gave me the dollar for the rental. I hoped my mom would hurry the hell up so I could see it. My sweaty hands covered the box with anticipation of seeing MJ on the video. I popped it in. It started out cool enough. Date in the boonies. Car runs out of gas. Full moon. And then....he changed. Those eyes ran my blood cold. That was all I could take. And I ran behind my mother's chair scared to death to finish watching the tape. My loving, dear mother's response? "You been getting on my nerves these past two weeks to watch the damn video so watch it! Get over here!" I couldn't do it. Not until I was 20 years old.
Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is still the top Halloween anthem. Jackson's transformation from the shy, handsome high school athlete into the hideous werewolf and zombie further into the video pleasantly and (in my case) fearfully shocked the audience into watching it. While this merits its own analysis - suppressed animosity, sexuality, etc. etc. etc. - I'm especially intrigued by the idea of the weight of shock value in American (popular) culture and its relation to social-cultural awareness.
Does being black still shock the masses?
Even in this present racial space of "multiculturalism," blackness still strikes fear into the heart of white society. The push to mold Americans into a nonpalpable mass of racial harmony is countered by the flooding of the often exaggerated, stereotypical representations of those same various ethnic identities that comprise the United States. Thus, the desensitization of America and its culture falls within the same normative discourse that has been the stronghold of white supremacist ideology since this country's inception.
What has changed, however, are the mediums presented. Instead of blatant, direct references to racial inferiority of the past like minstrel shows and films like Birth of a Nation (1915) public culture tip toes around racial inferences with Satire/Parody, fantasy, and apologist approaches. Shows like the brilliantly written series The Wire reflected a dark, gritty underworld of blackness that drew audiences in but still allowed them to change the channel after the credits rolled. The shock value of the show lessened each season, with it's finale sparking sentiments of "damn, that was good television writing" instead of "damn, that's scary reality for some folks." It's horrific to think that some of those same sentiments surrounded Oscar Grant's murder that was caught on tape and posted on YouTube.
Fascinatingly, those attempts that try to retain the avant guarde of the African American experience- intentionally shock their audience for purpose and reflection - are all too often devalued as a trend or fad. While I am not a huge fan, Sapphire's novel Push (1989) and its screen adaptation Precious (2009) have received critical acclaim and also kicked up a little dust in the process. The novel speaks to the overly strenuous battles of Claireece Precious Jones, an overweight, illiterate, teenage mother who is HIV positive because of the horrific incestuous abuse by her father. While I do not intend to take away from Sapphire's message of survival and transcendence, Precious steers the audience away from some of those underlying themes and focuses on the tragic, often one dimensional (stereotypical) aspects of black womens' experiences.
This was especially prevalent during this year's Oscars when the "best screenplay adaptation" nominees were announced. Although there were numerous powerful scenes adapted from the passages of the book to the screen, the scene chosen to represent the brilliance of screenplay adaptation was the scene where Precious steals a bucket of chicken and hauls ass down the street while eating it?! Not only does this display nonchalance towards the significance of the work, it also reaffirms those (mis)understandings of African American to a majorly white audience (and award selection committee).
Another example is Kara Walker's controversial and often awe-inspiring artwork gives voice to the black slave woman's experience. And, instead of attempting to deconstruct and interpret its meaning, it is often viewed strictly within "collector's must-have" and brushed off as uncomfortably trendy. Jean-Michel Basquiat fits into this category as well.
Where the lived experiences African Americans faced once sufficed to shock a nation into action (or at least force some acknowledgement of a difference in life for people of color from whites), those same images and narratives today would probably be shrugged off like Kanye. There is no gauge of social responsibility. The numbness and lack of social awareness exhibited by our society reflects not only in our popular culture but our responses to those real life travesties that influence made-for-TV melodramas and movies.
Keepin' it Novacaine is killin' us slowly. And we don't feel a thing.
Regina N. Bradley is a doctoral student in African American Literature and Culture at Florida State University. She earned her MA in African American Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Currently, her research interests include performance and gender identity, popular black culture, late 20th and 21st century black literature, and Hip Hop.
Ms Bradley blogs at Red Clay Scholar.