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Julianne Malveaux

Mo'nique’s Oscar – Victory and Setback

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The comedienne, talk show host and actress Mo’nique has become just the fifth African- American woman to win an Oscar. Her portrayal of Mary Jones, the revolting and depraved mother of Precious, was arguably masterful, and she now joins Hattie McDaniel (who played a maid), Halle Berry (who played a sexstarved fool), Whoopi Goldberg (who played a medium in Ghost), and Jennifer Hudson (who played a singer).

I mention the roles that African- American women played to win their Oscars because the roles African- American women get in Hollywood are too frequently stereotypical, and it is these stereotypical performances that are often lifted up. While I am glad for Mo’nique’s victory, I did not relish the Precious story of welfare pathology making it to the screen. Why not more positive roles for African- American women?

Sandra Bullock, for example, won Best Actress for her role in The Blind Side. She played a White mother who took a Black child into her home and helped him reach football stardom. Why no roles like that for Black women?

While The Blind Side is based on a true story, there are countless true stories of African-American women who take in relatives or other people’s children and move mountains for them. This might send the wrong message about Black women, though. It might suggest that we believe that it takes a village to raise a child, instead of highlighting the bestial way that Mary Jones treated Precious.

I know, I know, it’s all about the Benjamins, and those who have the power to “green light” films don’t think that people will go see a movie with positive depictions of African-American people. Precious, for all its pathology, didn’t have an easy time getting produced and, indeed, has twelve producers, including Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who helped promote the film. The movie had a small, $10 million, production budget, and has earned only about $50 million, recouping production costs, but underscoring the modest level of resources available for this movie.

It rankles that an image of the fat, Black, slovenly welfare cheat is lifted up even at a time when public assistance rolls have been drastically cut, despite our economy. The myth of the welfare queen, strongly promoted by President Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California, reinforced in 1996 when President Bill Clinton supported “welfare reform (I called it deform) legislation, is one of the ugly urban legends that seems to shape perceptions of African-American women. And ain’t I a woman, Sojourner Truth might say. Aren’t there positive dramatic roles for African-American women in Hollywood? To be sure, every character in Precious is not a negative stereotype. Mariah Carey’s role as a social worker was a pitch perfect depiction of an overworked and somewhat harried helping professional with too large a caseload. Paula Patton plays teacher Miss Blu Rain in a way that reminded me of my best teachers, those who went the extra mile. There are other characters with redeeming social value in the movie, but there would have to be given the pervasive degeneracy of Mary Jones.

I would love to see someone green light the story of Madame C.J. Walker, our nation’s first Black woman millionaire.

There’s some glamour there, and some drama! What about the story of Ida B. Wells, who had to flee the state of Tennessee because of her anti-lynching writing. In a contemporary context, why not tell the story of Cathy Liggins Hughes, the millionaire owner of Radio One who slept in her studio because she couldn’t afford rent and the cost of station operations. These are dramatic stories, but they fly in the face of the stereotypes that were replete in Precious.

I don’t begrudge Mo’nique her Oscar.

She took the material she was given and she worked it. She made Mary Jones a repulsive character with absolutely no redeeming social value. I am simply frustrated that these are the only kinds of roles that Hollywood offers African- American women, the only kinds of roles that Oscar chooses to lift up. I am frustrated that some may consider Mary Jones’ bestiality as typical, not atypical of African-American women.

When African-American women’s characters in film are more reflective of our reality, and when these characters’ performances are lifted up by Oscar, then we will have come a long way, baby. Until then, Mo’nique’s victory is her laudable personal success. It is a Black community setback.

The Meaning of the Jobs Meeting

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It was good to see the photo of NAACP President Ben Jealous and National Urban League President Marc Morial leave the White House, snow hip deep, after they met with President Barack Obama to talk about the ways the unemployment crisis is affecting African-Americans.

It was unfortunate that Dr. Dorothy I. Height, who at 97 doesn’t let much stop her, wasn’t able to make the meeting because of the weather. It was puzzling to see the National Action Network’s Rev. Al Sharpton included in the meeting, as I’m not sure that the NAN has done work on employment and unemployment, though Sharpton has been an effective spokesman on race matters.

Still, the NAN is not an organization of the stature of the NAACP or Urban League. If another leader might have been included, it should have been the Rev. Jesse Jackson, leader of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, or a labor leader like Bill Lucy of AFSCME and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. And it is unfortunate that Dr. Height could not send an NCNW representative so that African-American women would be represented in the conversation.

I quibble. I’m glad the meeting took place.

After indicating that he is the President of “all” Americans, I wondered whether President Obama would ever meet with African-American leaders. I do hope they shared the devastating impact unemployment has had on the African- American community. Our unemployment rate is not 9.7 percent, as the overall rate is. It is not the 16.7 percent that is officially reported. According to my own calculations, the Black unemployment rate is at least 28.7 percent. Would such a rate be acceptable if “all” Americans were experiencing it? The visual of Black leaders leaving the White House reminded me of the tortured history of African- Americans with White House leaders. In the nineteenth century, only two African-Americans visited the White House in a non-service capacity. President Lincoln signed Sojourner Truth’s autograph book when she visited the White House, and President Roosevelt Hayes invited Frederick Douglass to the White House for a conversation.

President Theodore Roosevelt had Booker T. Washington as a dinner guest on October 16, 1901. This is the first time that an African-American had dinner in the White House, and it was the last time, during Roosevelt’s term, that an African-American was invited to dinner.

Booker T. had the opportunity, on other occasions, to visit the White House, and several African-American leaders were invited to receptions, but it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that African Americans were regular dinner guests at the White House. Imagine the irony, then, that now an African- American woman, Desiree Rodgers, is the gatekeeper who draws up lists of White House guests.

President Woodrow Wilson, for all his academic acumen, was extremely hostile to African American people. History does not record a regular presence of African-Americans until the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was an outspoken opponent of racism. She invited Marian Anderson to entertain at the White House, and was at least partly responsible for her historic concert at Constitution Hall.

President Roosevelt also had a “kitchen cabinet” of African- American advisors that included NAACP President Walter White, economist Robert Weaver (the first African-American to serve on a Presidential cabinet, as Secretary of HUD under President Lyndon B. Johnson), and Mary McLeod Bethune, who was Roosevelt’s special advisor on Minority Affairs.

One might think that with an African- American man in the White House, there is no need for African- American leaders to clamor for regular attention from this President. But African-American leaders should not take President Obama for granted and assume that, because of his race, he will pay special attention to Black issues. He should not. Instead, African-American leaders must be as insistent with this President as they would with any other. And indeed, they must look back to the history of the kitchen cabinet to develop a relationship with President Obama that provides him with regular input about African- American issues, just as he is gaining information about labor issues, women’s issues, gay and lesbian issues, Latino issues, and other issues. All of these groups, I believe, have had meetings with our President. Why not African- Americans?

Hopefully, last week’s meeting will be the first of many. And, hopefully, beyond meetings, work must be done both to lower the unemployment rate and close the black/white unemployment gap.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. She can be reached at presbennett@bennett.edu

Rebuilding Haiti from the Earthquake and From Benign Neglect

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On Monday when many commemorated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, United States troops were headed to Haiti to keep order and to provide the humanitarian aid that is desperately needed after the devastation of a 7.0 earthquake. President Barack Obama has pledged $100 million of US aid, and other countries are pledging aid as well. People are sending supplies, and some of them are getting through. And, through their cell phones, people have given more than $4 million for Haitian relief. One does not have to wonder what Dr. Martin Luther King would say about Haiti. In a speech at Lincoln University in 1961, he spoke to our connectedness, “All life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in the world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.”

We are diminished by the tragedy in Haiti, but the fact is that we have been diminished by Haiti for decades. The earthquake’s tragedy compounds the poverty of a nation that has been utterly neglected by the world. There is no infrastructure in Haiti, little ability to bounce back from a crisis. There is scant government, a law enforcement system that is helpless in the face of gangs, and a poverty that affects most of the country. If this were any other nation in the world, there would have been intervention and humanitarian aid a long time ago. But Haitian slaves beat the French back in 1804, more than two hundred years ago, and they have not been forgiven for it since.

The United States has had an unreasonable policy on Haiti, allowing Cuban refuges, but not Haitian ones, here in the 1980s and 1990s, building concentration camps for those who dared escape from that country’s economic challenges. We have offered a few dollars, but only a few, in humanitarian aid, and at times have actually withheld support to determine “democratic” outcomes, as if starving people should be bribed to embrace an elusive democracy. While the earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people and displaced three million can be called an “act of God”, the weak infrastructure exacerbated the damage the earthquake caused. If we are honest, we in the United States must say that some of the blood that was spilled in Haiti is on our hands.

What must we do now? First of all, we clearly must provide as much humanitarian assistance as we can to offer immediate relief to displaced and starving Haitian people. Our next priority, however, must be to assist with infrastructure planning and development for our neighbors in this small island nation. We have used the Monroe doctrine to intervene in Haiti and in other places in our hemisphere in the past. Now, let’s use the Monroe doctrine to make a positive difference in Haiti.

Former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the artist and activist Wyclef Jean, Institute of the Black World leader Dr. Ron Daniels and so many others have an interest in the growth and development of Haiti. President Clinton’s charity is among those that are funneling dollars and supplies to the island. Imagine that these diverse brains sat around a table, with Haitian brothers and sisters and strategize ways that Haiti can thrive. Perhaps former President Aristede could be part of such discussions, if only because of his strong connection with the poor in Haiti, a connection that his successor seems not to have nurtured. Indeed, it has been interesting that President Preval has had low visibility as the world has responded to the crisis in Haiti. President Obama deserves credit for his quick response to Haiti. So do many others – Doctors without Borders, the International Red Cross, Wyclef’s organization, and more. It will take more than the distribution of bottled water, highenergy and high-energy biscuits to rescue Haiti, more than the clearing of rubble and the keeping of order. Haiti needs help rebuilding, not only from the earthquake, but also from decades of benign neglect.

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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