To this day, a mere invocation of the South in polite conversation tends to devolve quickly into cautious chatter about accents, the weather, food, and other topics that are perceived to be "safe." In many ways, the South continues to function as America's dirty linen, or as a place that it even borders on being taboo to mention. As numerous scholars have observed, the South's racialist ideological conservatism has long shaped the national identity in the United States, to the point of constituting major political and social agendas, even as the South has been paradoxically stigmatized and viewed as a "problem" in the nation due to its spectral legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. (1) Phenomena from the national popularity of the film Birth of a Nation (1915) early in the twentieth century to the mainstreaming of Southern politicians like George Wallace, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush in more recent years bear out this premise. In the United States, that the South has been so determinate in shaping American national identity also suggests how probable it is that its conceptual reach would extend elsewhere, particularly if we factor in globalization processes that have increasingly, and in many ways disturbingly, become a fact of life.
Anyone who believes that the South cannot conceivably ground politics of American imperialism in the global arena need not think any farther back in history than the 1996 Olympics, which was held in Atlanta, Georgia. I was particularly captivated by the phenomenal gymnastics competitions--and I'm sure that more people than me alone are wracked by a twinge of guilt to this day over having held their breath, with all the passion of the worst stage morns, in hope that Kerri Strugg would stick her second vault on a sprained ankle so the U.S. women would take home the gold in the team competition--but troubled by ways in which the event reinforced the fantasy of a multicultural global village on the one hand, and notions of American/Western supremacy on the other. For in the opening ceremony, all the extraordinary efforts that had been made to emphasize diversity in the performances, which included African-American sorority and fraternity step teams from the local Atlanta University Center, were undercut by the rehearsal of a narrative of southern history steeped in plantation myth, replete with larger-than-life puppets of strutting antebellum ladies and gentlemen whose joy was foreclosed as darkness swept over the land in the form of the Civil War. To add to this, during the team introductions in the parade that followed, commentators seemed to decide the winners and losers before the games began by giving us a running account of every nation, most typically Third World, that had "Never won a medal."
At present, we have the most fecund climate that we could ask for in which to ponder the geopolitics of the American South. It is heartening that in recent years, and perhaps against all odds, we have witnessed "turns" toward the South in a number of areas. Perhaps in retrospect, we can situate V.S. Naipaul's 1989 travelogue A Turn in the South as one of the early signs of what has now become a full-blown Southern renaissance in contemporary scholarship. (2) Houston A. Baker Jr.'s, critical volume Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T., which titularly echoes Naipaul and is one of the most salient signs of the growing academic interest in the South in our time, points out that "a new southern studies is long past due." (3) Many scholars who work in queer studies, a field that has up to very recently been most focused on urban contexts, are now thinking South, thinking rural, or thinking both, as we have seen in a profusion of volumes such as John Howard's Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, James T. Sears's Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South, and Carlos L. Dews and Carolyn Leste Law's Out in the South. (4) Madhu Dubey reads the "turn South" in the United States in the postmodern era "as a distinct response to recent processes of economic and political modernization that are dramatically transforming the region." (5)
The imprint of this Southern renaissance is also apparent in contemporary popular culture. We have, for better or worse, witnessed a veritable sea change in the world of rap, which has long been marked by an East Coast/West Coast bias that excluded the South altogether. It is a wonder among wonders that "representin' the South," or being from the "dirty South," are actually cool things now, and that Southern-identified artists stand at the vanguard of hip hop. Producers such as Master P of No Limit Records and the brothers "Baby" and "Slim" Williams of Cash Money Records are among those to be credited for helping to bring about these changes. Even Russell Simmons, who has been heralded as the "godfather" of hip hop, was inspired to create a Southern outpost of his Def Jam company. Interestingly, many of the classic elements of Southern romance are ostensible in today's popular culture. In the 2002 films The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Sweet Home Alabama, representations of actresses Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon as neo-Southern belles who are highly successful professionals living in New York, and who must reconcile themselves with estranged mothers at home down South before marriage, offer nothing less than a field day for psychoanalysts as they announce a continuing national fascination with the South. Elizabeth Hayt's August 4, 2002, article in the New York Times entitled "It's Never Too Late to Be a Virgin Again," which discusses the trend of "secondary virginity" among young Southern women prior to marriage as away of remaining true to both historical notions of Southern womanhood and Southern Baptist values, provides proof all the more that Southern nostalgia and romance are still very much alive in American culture.
There is always the possibility of reinforcing the historical forms of imperialism and colonialism in any attempt to illustrate how the American South as we have conventionally known it is extra-national. Yet, in contemporary scholarship, it is truly imperative that any "turns" toward the South move beyond the nation-centered models that have been dominant within Southern studies, and toward transnational models, such as the kinds that have defined the course of American studies in recent years. Of course American studies is not the only area toward which we might look in formulating a transnational Southern studies. I want to suggest that blackness, and more generally, the field of black studies, may be another useful area to turn to in the development of an epistemology on global and transnational dispersals of the American South.
Until recently, black identities had received scant study within the discourses of globalization. This is ironic when we consider the historical centrality of black identities to the making of modernity. (6) As Moradewun Adejunmobi and I argued in our proposal for a 2002 UC Davis Conference, blackness operates nowadays as a highly serviceable paradigm for processing cultural flows among a range of ethnic identities within global contexts, even as black bodies often remain paradoxically marginal and excluded on the world's stage. (7) I believe myself that the contemporary meditative role of a historically abject and marginal blackness in the global arena is also helpful for understanding and beginning to theorize ways in which the South in the United States, in light of its historical national abjection, is similarly serviceable as a paradigm for processing cultural flows and formations within a global context. In this line of thought, I am also inspired in part by Mae Henderson, who has given us the most clarion theoretical call of our time to think the American South in relation to the global arena. She reminds us to acknowledge the traditional field of black studies in the genealogy of contemporary black cultural studies, and urges us not to look exclusively to Birmingham, England, but also to Birmingham, Alabama, in formulating methodologies for black cultural studies. (8) I think that these kinds of approaches might push us closer to a more organic and comparative dialogue between fields such as black studies, American studies, and Southern studies and remind us of how useful it is to draw on conventional fields such as Southern history and Southern literature in thinking new directions for Southern studies. I would venture to say, even, that the American South is one of the best theoretical apparatuses available for examining the American and the African American, as well as for thinking global and transnational contexts, including places such as the Caribbean in the African diaspora. (9)
To underscore the utility of doing comparative work on the American South in relation to the African diaspora and the importance of shaping Southern studies in a way that works critically to destabilize nation-centered frameworks of analysis, this essay offers a critical mediation on the implications of a recent media phenomenon in the American context: Miss Cleo. Here I am indeed referring to the eponymous woman who came into our living rooms, bedrooms, and various other places in a string of psychic hotline infomercials entreating us to "Call me now!" The mere utterance of her name, I know, is the kind of thing that some might easily take as more evidence of a cultural studies, or for that matter, of a southern studies, gone wild. For me, Miss Cleo is a useful site of critical analysis not only because she has been one of the most salient and enigmatic embodiments of Caribbean identity in the American media in our time, but also because aspects of her invention and marketing, as I will show, are amazingly similar to those of Aunt Jemima. I go on to consider some other representations of Caribbean identity in contemporary American media, including the 1998 film How Stella Cot Her Groove Back, which is based on Terry McMillan's 1996 novel by that same name, to reveal persisting ideologies in representations of the Caribbean in the United States. What particularly fascinates me is the agenda in the novel and in the related film that romantically casts Caribbean men as the viable alternative for black upper-middle-class women with the means to travel abroad to escape the vexed relationship between black men and women in the United States, particularly to the extent that participation in sex tourism aligns black women in this nation with colonial and imperial practices.
Aunt Jemima and Miss Cleo
In 1999, Miss Cleo's Mind and Spirit Psychic Network was launched by wealthy Florida entrepreneur Steven Feder and his cousin Peter Stolz. They paid Youre Cleomill Harris to lend her image for the advertisements featuring a Miss Cleo, a woman with the ability to read Tarot cards who spoke patois and claimed to be descended from a line of Jamaican shamans. This gimmick was by every indication successful, ultimately placing Feder and Stolz at the helm of a multimillion-dollar business. According to the New York State Protection Board, the Miss Cleo infomercials and other aspects of the enterprise, including a line of tarot products for home use distributed by the Walgreens drug store chain, an online dating service, and a clothing line, were part of Feder and Stolz's network that grossed up to $400 million per year.
In recent times, their enterprises have been the subject of controversy in the American media due to lawsuits from consumers who claim to have been defrauded. Questions concerning the authenticity of Miss Cleo herself have also been raised. Her critics charge that she is not a true Jamaican by virtue of her birth in California and that her accent is fake. As her critics have discovered, Miss Cleo was actually born in Los Angeles, California, to parents from California and Texas, apparently lied about receiving a theater arts degree from the University of Southern California, and has gone by a number of assumed names. In a former life as a producer and playwright for the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center in Seattle, Washington, she reneged on payments to her fellow cast members, claiming to be overwhelmed by the costs of treating bone cancer. Furthermore, the Federal Trade Commission maintains that Feder and Stolz's Access Resource Services and Psychic Reader's Network, which has been forced to pay the government a five-million-dollar fee, falsely promised free psychic readings, charged customers while they were on hold, violated "no calls" rules, and charged at least six million customers for calls that averaged $60 each, even billing for calls from minors, for calls never made, and for calls made by those who were deceased. It goes without saying that these issues raise ethical questions of the highest order.
The story of Miss Cleo's origins is reminiscent of that of the oldest and most enduring advertising trademark in American history: Aunt Jemima. Originally invoked in songwriter Billy Kersand's "Old Aunt Jemima" in 1877, "Aunt Jemima" was adopted in 1889 by Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood, who were owners of the Pearl Milling Company in St. Joseph, Missouri, as a name for their ready-made pancake mix. Rutt had allegedly witnessed a routine by a duo of white male performers in the town, one of whom was in blackface, cross-dressed as a bandana-coiffed black cook, and singing a version of Kersands's song. Aunt Jemima was registered as a trademark by Underwood's brother Bert that year and sold to the R.T. Davis Milling Company in 1890. Subsequently, she was popularized and promoted through a mythic biography and through real-life incarnations beginning with Nancy Green's performance at the World's Colombian Exposition held in 1893 in Chicago, Illinois. Images of her were widely circulated beginning in the late nineteenth century in American material culture. Aunt Jemima was purchased by the Quaker Oats Company in 1925, where she has been kept alive as a trademark and periodically reinvented to the present day. (10) Aunt Jemima is understood to be an outgrowth of the mammy figure birthed within antebellum Southern plantation ideology as part and parcel of an economy of stereotypes, such as the docile "uncle," to constitute slavery as a benign, happy, and paternalistic institution. She represented a kinder, gentler version of the caustic, asexual, obese mammy whose priority was the devoted and loving care of the young white children entrusted to her by her master and mistress, even as she willfully neglected her own. We have seen illustrations of the mammy in literature in characters such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Aunt Chloe in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Charles Chesnutt's Mammy Jane in The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and William Faulkner's Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury (1929) and in films such as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939). (11)
My own approaches in Southern studies, which are shaped to some extent by my investments in comparative literature, attempt to deviate from the nation-centric orientation of some of the work in the field. While I believe that it will be necessary to draw on conventional fields such as Southern history and Southern literature in the development of usable methodologies in contemporary Southern studies, it is imperative that the repertoire of texts that count as legitimate objects of study in Southern literature expand. It is in part because of this outlook that I find value in extra-literary examples such as Aunt Jemima and Miss Cleo. Furthermore, I want to suggest that the continuities in Aunt Jemima and Miss Cleo speak to the importance of using Southern history as an interpretive framework to think the African diaspora, and questions related to Caribbean identity in particular. For the latter as a marketing phenomenon in American culture cannot be understood without remembering the legacy of the former as a raced, sexed, and gendered advertising prototype. Though I think we need to be very concerned about the entrepreneurial exploits that were carried out under the name Miss Cleo, I suggest that it is important to raise questions about how and why it was that 110 years after Aunt Jemima's inception within the tradition of American minstrelsy, and on the brink of a new millennium, an advertising campaign based on a view of Caribbean identity as romantic, mystic, and exotic could have enjoyed such widespread success in the United States in the first place?
Lauren Berlant's essay entitled "National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life" offers a poignant and now classic examination of processes of American female embodiment and the problem of citizenship through a treatment of the trademark (i.e., "Aunt Delilah") and the trope of passing in Fannie Hurst's 1934 novel Imitation of Life and in the related films by John Stahl and Douglas Sirk. As Berlant observes, "public embodiment is in itself a sign of inadequacy to proper citizenship" in the American context. (12) She goes on to point out that "in American culture legitimacy derives from the privilege to suppress and protect the body; the fetishization of the abstract or artificial 'person' is Constitutional law, and is also the means by which whiteness and maleness were established simultaneously as 'nothing' and 'everything'" (p. 132). The hyper-embodiment of Miss Cleo in the world of American infomercials must therefore be taken as a sign of her subjection and as a phenomenon that enunciates her within the historical crisis of American citizenship for the various identities positioned outside the cultural authority of a white male category whose class, gender, and race privilege has been disembodiment in the national arena. Of course the excessive embodiment of a female identity marked as Caribbean in American public and popular spheres makes the normative citizenship all the more removed for a Caribbean subject within a schema in which nationality serves as a basis of alienation and exclusion in addition to other factors such as race, class, gender and sexuality. As the work of scholars such as Michael Hanchard, Paul Gilroy, and Carole Boyce Davies has suggested, a hegemonic and African-American-centered notion of blackness steeped in politics of American imperialism forecloses the legibility of a more diverse range of African diasporan subject positions in the United States, including an array of identities that might be categorized as Caribbean. (13)
The questioning of Miss Cleo's Jamaican origins and her Caribbean authenticity in the American media within the dialogue that emerged in the wake of her fraud charges for the most part elided issues of exile and migration, as if to suggest that claiming lineage from a place where you were not born amounts to dishonesty in any and all cases. Not only was there an elemental negation in this logic of the flows, synchretisms, and dispersals that have become so endemic to how some Caribbean and other people of the African diaspora think their identities. Here there also seems to have been a clear if unstated attempt to impose the models of assimilation, absorption, and disavowal that have shaped the negotiation of ethnicity and processes of white racial formation in the American context. The expectation that the persona Miss Cleo portrayed in her infomercials would line up perfectly with her identity in the real world of course also negates prerogatives that come with performance in the entertainment industry. That is to say, African-American actors such as Laurence Fishburne have routinely portrayed Caribbean characters on screen; (14) the film Gone with the Wind may have been half as memorable without the British actress Vivien Leigh's now legendary rendition of a Southern belle in the character Scarlett O'Hara.
To be sure, if Miss Cleo's example in the world of infomercials is extreme, it is by no means exceptional. Prominent African-American entertainers ranging from the singer Dionne Warwick to the actor Billy Dee Williams and the legendary actress Esther Rolle served as spokespersons for psychic networks in the 1990s, helping to give these enterprises legitimacy and appeal in the American mainstream. The likely reasons that some of these entertainers turned to such gimmicks had to do with economic instability and job scarcity in all entertainment industry in which work for African-American singers and actors is not available widely.
Notwithstanding her "true" nationality, Miss Cleo may have been a site on which American anxieties about immigration were played out to some extent. (15) This possibility is especially important to consider in light of immigration policy issues that have come to the fore in recent times in the public sphere, including the controversy over Elian Gonzales, the six-year-old Cuban boy who became the subject of a bitter struggle between his father in Cuba and relatives in Miami, Florida, in the wake of his mother's death in 1999 en route to the United States as a refugee. The tightening of immigration policies, even as there has been an increased emphasis on free trade, has made it difficult for a host of immigrant populations, including Haitians, to cross this nation's borders in the present era.
I want to make it emphatically clear that while such an interpretation might be possible, my intention in foregrounding the linkages between Miss Cleo and Aunt Jemima does not so much represent an effort to constitute Miss Cleo as a neo-mammy type in light of the character of her job, which entailed listening to, diagnosing, entertaining, and empathizing with callers who were predominately white and male, though the affective outcome of the circulation of any trademark within a consumer economy to promote a commodity is important to acknowledge. (16) With regard to the question of serviceability and Miss Cleo, it seems necessary to factor in a much larger historical framework. As Doris Witt has remarked, Aunt Jemima established the foundation of an ideology in the late nineteenth century that has made the black female body serviceable in constituting a range of identity formations on the basis of race, gender, class, and sexuality in this nation to the present day:
A product of the dialectic between commodity capitalism and popular culture, Aunt Jemima was created to suture contradictions in ideologies of racial, ethnic, gender and class difference in an economy increasingly dependent upon mass production and exploitable labor. Although the trademark is generally construed as a symptom of a racially bifurcated country, it would be more accurate to say that it has historically marked a space where members of a heterogeneous population could, through the production, performance, and/or purchase of black womanhood, "play with their identifies" (albeit in unequally empowered ways) and navigate the changes wrought since the late nineteenth century by immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and imperialism. (17)
If there is any fundamental common ground shared by Miss Cleo and Aunt Jemima, I want to suggest that it has to do with the fact that both represent a hyperbolic black female body that has historically played a role in constituting a diverse range of identity formations in the United States, even as black female bodies have remained paradoxically subordinate and abject in the nation. That this phenomenon accords with how blackness functions as a paradigm for processing a range of cultural flows and formations in the global context becomes clear when we factor in the typical status of the feminine as a marker of an essential home and family within a nationalist or imperialist discourse. What M. M. Manring describes as the mythic proportions of Aunt Jemima is indispensable to understanding how icons such as Miss Cleo might originate, circulate, and become entrenched, if only momentarily, within the national consciousness in the present day. (18)
Lauren Berlant observes that "American women live the effects of their national identity directly on the body, which registers the subject's legitimacy according to' the degree to which she can suppress the 'evidence.'" Berlant goes on to point out that "One of the main ways a woman mimes the prophylaxis of citizenship is to do what we might call 'code-crossing.' This involves borrowing the corporeal logic of an other, or a fantasy of that logic, and adopting it as a prosthesis" (pp. 132-133). I want to suggest that Miss Cleo's act of "passing" as a descendent of shamans and as Jamaican, which was steeped in a scripted performance that evoked selected linguistic, stylistic, and cultural markers and effectively reassembled both her national and familial origins for rewards that included finance and fame, also conforms to this cultural logic to some extent. Though the historical contexts differ, it is also useful to think of Miss Cleo in light of Victoria W. Wolcott's landmark essay that examines black female spiritualist mediums in interwar Detroit, which argues that "their participation in the underground economy and religious sects led to cultural authority and economic independence." (19)
Ideologies of white female and male identity produced during the era of slavery, including the "Southern belle" and "Southern gentleman," have fed the national grammar book on femininity and masculinity, and have complemented die American South's various raced and gendered ideologies of blackness. Southern history--and the history of antebellum slavery and the Southern plantation in particular--is vital for understanding die forces that made the emergence of Aunt Jemima as a trademark possible in the late nineteenth century. Aunt Jemima and Miss Cleo, though separated by over a century, are cut from the same ideological cloth as advertising logos. As the next section aims to illustrate, the fashioning of Miss Cleo in informercial as a stereotype of Jamaican identity is also consistent with broader strategies of Caribbean representation in contemporary American media.
Both the American South and the Caribbean exist as heavily romanticized places in the cultural imagination above and beyond the weight of the history of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism. In the African-American context, violence and terror in forms such as lynching fueled the Great Migration from the South from the early-to mid-twentieth century and mapped the South as a site of trauma. (20) Paradoxically, the American South has been imagined as a "home" for African Americans, as the primary locus of black historicity, ancestry, and "folk" roots in the United States, and as the throughway to other points in the diaspora that link back to Africa. The romanticizing constructions of the South and the Caribbean help to obscure ways in which black Southerners and blacks in the Caribbean are excluded from notions of authentic blackness within contemporary African-American cultural politics. That is to say, narrowly construed and American-centered categories such as "black" and "African-American" have not only alienated blacks in other parts of the African diaspora from definitions of blackness at times, but have 'also, in their emphasis on urban subjectivity, worked to exclude black Southern identities in the United States, and perhaps black rural Southerners especially. (21) Increasingly, attention needs to be paid to the status of Caribbean people and black Southerners as they are relatively positioned within the schema of a hegemonic African-American cultural politics.
In terms of the Caribbean, the problem of a hegemonic African American cultural politics is perhaps no more resolutely pronounced than in the severely limited and sometimes stereotypical representational spaces that Caribbean identities occupy in the American media. Coming in the years after civil rights campaigns had effectively challenged the most obviously and egregiously stereotypical images of African Americans in American advertising and film, Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000), Keenan Ivory Waynans's I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), and Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle. (1985) addressed the continuing problems with African-American representation on screen. However, if the representational space in this nation is narrow and persistently ideological for African Americans in film and other media, it remains perhaps even narrower for Caribbean identities. For instance, we might ask what is at stake in commercials of the present era that invoke Caribbean identity to promote items such as the cleaning solvent Lime-Away, whose rhyming jingle sung by three men begins, "Hello, pretty lady." (22) This depiction recalls some of the grossly stereotypical representations of African-American identity in American advertising that civil fights campaigns eliminated, but such representations have not generated the kind of public and political concern that would likely attend similar representations of African Americans in the present era. It may be that this elision occurs precisely because of the invisibility, marginality, expendability, and alienation of Caribbean identities within the dominant discourse of "blackness" in the United States. That the space for Caribbean identities remains relatively marginal is underscored by the far too many one-hit wonders, including the Bahamian group the Baha Men's 2000 song "Who Let the Dogs Out," that have marked Caribbean success in the American popular mainstream. It is also problematic that Caribbean languages and styles are frequent targets of ridicule on African-American comedy circuits.
Film is perhaps the most salient enterprise in which Caribbean people have continued to be overwhelmingly excluded or ideologically depicted in the United States. Mbye Chain has theoretically overviewed the various contexts of Caribbean film production, which are situated indigenously in places like Guadeloupe and Martinique and outside the Caribbean region in places such as Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, France, and the United States. "Besides these two categories of Caribbean film practices ..., " Cham notes,
there is a third category which consists primarily of films about the Caribbean, but made by people--both Black and white--who are not Caribbean in any way. Some of these films perpetuate dominant industry practices and stereotypes while others inscribe themselves within a tradition of independent and Third Cinema film practice that differs radically from dominant Euro-American industry productions. (23)
Though the film How Stella Got Her Groove Back is set in California and Jamaica and highlights an upper-middle-class African-American woman as the central character, I want to suggest that it overlaps with the third category of Caribbean film that Chain outlines and manifests the characteristic stereotypes.
Before I go on, it would be useful to offer a brief plot summary of How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The film, whose screenplay was written by Terry McMillan and Ron Bass, features Stella (Angela Bassett), a forty-year-old divorced African-American female stockbroker who lives in San Francisco and has a ten-year-old son named Quincy. Though highly successful in her career, Stella is suffering major burnout from too much work and too little romance. She sees a commercial on television and is inspired to take a trip to Jamaica. This is an idea that she shares with her best friend, Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg), who lives in New York, and then dismisses quickly because of the lack of time. Delilah insists that they make the trip together for much-needed restoration. The morning after their arrival, Stella meets a young man at her hotel named Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs) while she is having breakfast, and the attraction between them is instant and mutual. He urges her to meet him at a pajama disco later in the evening, and though reluctant at flint, she attends. They soon begin a romance, notwithstanding their twenty-year age difference. Stella leaves the island when Winston, who is aspiring to become a doctor, is called in to work at a hotel, for her assumption is that be has been playing games on her. The romance fizzles. Stella learns that she has been fired from her job upon her return to the United States, and she also returns to meet condemnation from her sister Angela and curiosity from her sister Vanessa regarding the relationship with a much younger man. Winston, who has received the phone number from Delilah, contacts Stella and persuades her to return to Jamaica. ]'his time she takes her son and niece along. Stella's second trip is bittersweet as she encounters the hostility of Winston's wealthy parents and learns of her friend Delilah's severe illness, which has been kept a secret. Stella rushes to New York to join her friend. Winston arrives in the United States toward the end of Delilah's funeral service and returns to San Francisco to live with Stella. Though he encourages her to recommit herself to woodworking and organizes her studio innovatively to facilitate her work, Stella soon becomes frustrated that Winston lacks the maturity to be a true partner in the relationship. She gives no immediate answer when he asks her to marry him. He decides to leave for home to pursue his studies in medicine. As fate would have it, Stella follows him to the airport and the film ends with her affirmative response to the question of marriage.
Though Stella finally decides to take a trip to Jamaica, her first attempt at replenishment in the film is a trip to a day spa with her sisters, which devolves into bickering when they begin to comment on the lack of romance in her life. As her sister Angela remarks, "You need a man and your son needs a father." Before leaving for a trip to visit his father, her son urges her "to have some fun while I'm gone." The consensus is that Stella needs to try something new, notwithstanding the heavy demands of her career. Jamaica, a destination far away from her home, is a place that she imagines as an otherworldly paradise to which she can journey to get away from the routine and stresses of her life. The logic of Stella's escapist journey to Jamaica intersects in some ways with the representation of African Americans in crisis, in films such as Down in the Delta (1998) and Funny Valentine (1996), who turn to the American South for nurturance and restoration. These kinds of films should raise at least one burning question: Where do black people in the South go when they need to escape or find healing? I am struck myself by ways in which such contemporary films obscure the fact that, increasingly, black Southerners have been plagued by the same social woes that have made living difficult in the urban North over the past several decades, such as drug addiction.
In McMillan's novel, Stella's sister Vanessa outlines an explicitly sexualizing discourse on Caribbean masculinity in an answering machine message: "Girl, Angela called and told me you're going to Jamaica! How come you didn't call me? Way to go. Take plenty of condoms with you and get some from all those young Jamaican boys with big flapping dicks--do one a day if you can handle it--girl--and oooooh I wish I could go with you.... " (24) However, Vanessa's dialogue is absent in the film. Ostensibly, the relationship between Stella and Winston has all the trappings of romance from their first encounter, and Stella does not fit the profile of the female sex tourist in the Caribbean in the conventional sense outlined by Klaus de Albuquerque in a 1999 Transition article entitled "In Search of the Big Bamboo":
Sex tourists advertise their availability in various ways. Novices are much more likely to travel in groups, and they respond warmly to the faintest invitation: "Is this your first visit to Barbados?" or "How are you enjoying your stay?" or "Would you like to come on a jet ski ride with me?" The veteran sex tourist is much more direct. Site sits on the sand alone, unmasked by designer shades, scouting her surroundings for the most appealing beach boy. If the wrong one saunters over, she politely sends him away. Of course, the older the female tourist, the less discriminating she can afford to be. (25)
This is not to say that the discourse of sex tourism is not enunciated in the film. For instance, early on, when Stella sees a promotion for trips to Jamaica--"the most beautiful place on earth'--she begins to picture herself vicariously in all the tantalizing scenes that highlight young, handsome black men. At their initial breakfast, Stella is shown staring at Winston's biceps, focusing on his body to the point of being distracted from their conversation. In Jamaica, the pajama disco is the context in which an economy of sex tourism is most visible as some partygoers go topless and perform striptease.
However, Winston has many of the physical and stylistic trappings of the typical beach boy. As Albuquerque describes the scene in Barbados,
Young males--"beach boys"---cruise the sands in search of unattached tourist women. Beach boys are easy to spot because of their distinctive wardrobe: they go in for T-shirts, baggy swimming trunks, Teva sandals, gold bracelets, and brand-name sunglasses, preferably Oakley or Ray-Ban. They are without exception physically fit. Some have bleached hair, and a few sport baby dreadlocks, called "nubbies." (pp.50-51)
When we first see Winston, he is dressed in all black wearing a tank top and Nike shorts, a silver medallion necklace, and, as he points out, "new cologne." He opens the conversation by asking Stella questions such as "Are you dining alone?", Where's your husband?" and "Where s your boyfriend?" Stella initially thinks he is 'a rapper. Questions about why he is present at the hotel so early in the morning are never raised.
While the film eschews an overt articulation of phallic stereotypes of the Caribbean male body to which Albuquerque alludes in his tide in citing the 1950s song "The Big Bamboo" by the Mighty Skipper, its energy is primarily invested in the objectification of a young and physically fit model of Caribbean masculinity. (26) On the other hand, two men (presumably American) who repeatedly approach Stella are presented as grotesque and comedic; one of them, who does striptease at the pajama disco, is described by her as "the old man trying to hit on me." The other one stutters. Their bodies seem to be presented in the film primarily for contrastive value with Winston's. These men perform briefly as stock figures in much the same way as the film's "Jamaicans." Winston's father graciously kisses Stella's hand, and his mother pronounces disapproval of the relationship, rebuking her by asking the question "Are you American women so desperate nowadays that you can't find a man your own age?" and telling her that "He's my baby" and "You should be ashamed of yourself!" A young Jamaican woman working at a drink stand is shown deliberately making fun of Stella by referring to Winston as "your son." Beyond Winston, Jamaicans serve a largely decorative or entertainment function and develop no subjective presence, nor is there complexity in how these characters are developed. On another front, Stella's friend Delilah suffers from a similar lack of development in serving as a tag-along who never actualizes a romantic relationship in her own right, and whose death seems perfunctory.
Of course Caribbean female bodies have not by any means been removed from the kinds of sexual stereotypes that frequently underpin constructions of Caribbean masculinity. My own suspicion was that Miss Trinidad and Tobago, Margo Bourgeois, lost the Miss Universe Pageant of 1997 due to an effort to pander to such stereotypes as one of three final contestants in die penultimate moments of the competition. When asked to describe the thing that she would most love to do in the world if no one was looking, her reply was that she would take off all her clothes and run around nude. I grabbed my head with both hands and gasped, for already, I'd been fantasizing the victory that I believed was assuredly hers. Nudity, as we saw years ago in the example of the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, who was crowned in 1983, and who lost her crown toward the end of her reign because of an erotic spread in Penthouse magazine, and as we have witnessed most recently in the dethroning of the 2001 Miss North Carolina due to nude photographs that her ex-boyfriend had taken in the past without her knowledge and released to the press, is anathema at this level of beauty pageant culture. Brook Lee, the reigning Miss USA, won in the end, and this was notwithstanding her response that she would eat as much as she wanted to, which seemed bold in the wake of the very public controversy over the standing Miss Universe, Alicia Machado of Venezuela, for substantial weight gain in the prior months; it was a response that would have been irreparably damaging in the eyes of the judges if Miss Trinidad and Tobago hadn't gone that extra mile. (27)
It is well known that Terry McMillan's art has imitated her own life, for she found love and happiness with a much younger Jamaican man in the years before her novel's publication in much the same way that her character Stella does. McMillan has often encouraged African-American women to consider romance in the Caribbean as an alternative to the dating economy in the United States in which the population of African-American inert is thought to be highly disproportionate that of black heterosexual women desiring endogamous romance, or else too saturated with noncommittal "players," so that many black women in the United States find few opportunities to date or marry. (28) Furthermore, a contemporary social climate in which statistics show that African-American men are not attending college or entering the professions at the rate of African-American women; have died at high rates due to homicide, diseases, or drug- and gang-related activity; and disproportionately comprise the prison population in the United States has been related to the crisis that many professionally accomplished and economically stable single heterosexual black women experience who have difficulties finding compatible partners for dating and marriage in the present era. (29)
For additional perspective, we might recall that the film How Stella Got Her Groove Back was released in the wake of the scandal surrounding Mary Kay LaTourneau, the white female schoolteacher in Seattle who bore two children for her male student beginning when he was a preteen. Her widespread condemnation in the media and eventual conviction would make much more sense to me if the older men who are in some cases raping and/or impregnating underage girls in African-American communities such as the inner city--in the way that Sapphire's 1996 novel Push illustrates--were the subject of as much public concern, shock, and outrage. Indeed, it is intriguing that the main provocation of the film was the imbalance in the ages of Winston and Stella, a provocation rooted in file double standard that has made it much more taboo for women to date younger men (witness Joan Rivers's jokes about Cher cruising Toys R Us to find boyfriends) than for the reverse to happen, as we've seen in popular couplings from John and Bo Derek to Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God offers a classic literary treatment of romance between an older woman and a younger man (Janie and Teacake).
In the film How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Stella's travel to Jamaica at "full fare" at the "last minute," and her extended stay there, are contingent on the material privileges and rewards that come with her corporate position, though her career becomes unstable as the film progresses and she ultimately loses her job. (30) The class disparity between American women tourists and their suitors is implicit in the stereotypes articulated by McMillan's Angela in the novel: "These guys from these foreign countries all want to find themselves a rich sugar mama so that they can trick you into marrying them so they can become American citizens. Everybody knows that" (p.331). The logic of How Stella Got Her Groove Back is most troubling precisely where it inscribes Caribbean men as sexual objects and commodities, reinforces sexual myths of Caribbean masculinity, and positions upper-middle-class black women in the United States in the geopolitics of Caribbean tourism, phenomena that cannot be understood outside historical legacies of colonialism and imperialism. Jamaica Kincaid makes such connections clear in her brilliantly argued short book of essays entitled A Small Place. (31) These romanticized representations also mask the economic and social realities of young men in Caribbean contexts in the contemporary era, men who are not necessarily from elite families or aiming to attend medical school like the character Winston, a man whose financial privilege reinforces Stella's and further sustains her fantasy that she has met the guy of her dreams. (32) Winston's lack of compatibility in terms of age is compensated in his potential earning power in the future. The strategy of seeking a prosthetic to embody citizenship that Lauren Berlant outlines seems to apply here to some extent; in dais instance, a hyper-embodied Caribbean masculinity is the basis on which African-American women's citizenship is reconfigured. Carole Boyce Davies's acknowledgment of African-American women's complicity in politics of American domination that contribute to oppression in the Caribbean is all the more reason to meet a film like How Stella Got Her Groove Back with concern. (33)
McMillan's novel endorses the phenomenon of African-American female sex tourism to the Caribbean. On the other hand, perhaps Toni Morrison's Tar Baby (1982) has offered one of the most compelling sites of critique by examining the politics of its African-American female protagonist Jadine. In the contempt that Jadine encounters from an African woman in the Parisian marketplace while wearing a "long canary yellow dress" with "too much hip, too much bust," (34) in the ambivalent relationship to her surrogate family members who occupy positions within the servant class from which she has been removed thorough her education and her career as a model, and in the relationship with a black man named Son, who comes from a small town in Florida and is found hiding as a stowaway in the mansion, we are shown the destructiveness of power relations steeped in politics of gender, class, race, and nationality.
On the surface, die dries of Houston A. Baker Jr.'s Turning South Again and V. S. Naipaul's A Turn in the South are strikingly resonant. What is more striking to me is that the works share common ground in several areas, including where they both invoke Booker T. Washington in dialogue on father-son relations within frameworks of psychoanalysis that are implicit and explicit, and where they both take up the poet James Applewhite. V. S. Naipaul, who first came to study Washington's Up From Slavery while growing up in Trinidad, "received the Booker T. Washington story my father read me almost as a fairy story, and in the part of my consciousness where it lodged it was stripped of both race and historical time" (p. 136). For me, this anecdote, taken with some aspects of Baker's study, poignantly illustrates the utility, of comparative approaches in thinking processes of black masculine formation in the South in the United States and in the Caribbean. Where we turn when we turn South is a matter of great importance.
I've been interested in attempting to illustrate the utility of Southern studies more generally, and Southern literature and Southern history in particular, for thinking the African diaspora by considering instances in which Southern identities and identities in the Caribbean diaspora have become mutually and ideologically intertwined. Comparative approaches that are developing in fields such as Southern studies, queer studies, and New World Studies in the contemporary era offer resistance to narrow epistemologies on the South steeped in ideologies of race, nationality, and sexuality. That is to say, these approaches are helping to destabilize "pure" notions of the South as an exclusively heterosexual, white, and American region. Increasingly, these fields should engage in interdisciplinary dialogue with one another. My own fantasy of the ideal Southern studies in the contemporary era is fundamentally interdisciplinary and incorporates methods of fields such as Southern literature and Southern history in tandem with queer studies, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and environmental studies, among others, along with dialogue on topics such as pedagogy and Southern folk art.
The South is indispensable for exploring concepts such as the American, and a valuable and necessary tool for thinking the phenomenon of globalization. The South in the United States needs to be recognized increasingly as a key site of transnational exchange. That the South is now a central site of rap production in the contemporary global hip-hop movement, that the South is a key industrial enclave for foreign industries in the United States whose labor practices are reminiscent of those in the Third World, and that the South is increasingly a site of ethnic diversification with the rise in Mexican and Indian populations over the past decade are all factors that underscore that a transnational framework is one in which we must increasingly think the region, If we fail to expand our frameworks for thinking the South, we will in effect help to ensure that the region's role in this larger global context remains just as suppressed, disavowed, and hidden as the historical role of the South has been in ideologically constituting this nation's identity. We cannot afford to repeat history in this way.
Already, Miss Cleo is gone and all but forgotten in the American cultural imaginary that she crone to occupy momentarily for a period of time in the millennial era, and her fall from the media spotlight was as rapid and as sudden as her rise. Her history, I've tried to illustrate through the example of Aunt Jemima, is more Southern than we might have ever thought it to be at first glance. Increasingly, we need to turn South, and then south of that South, to understand the South that we think we already know in a much more complex way. (35)
(1) I refer here to works ranging from W. J. Cash's classic study The Mind of the South (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1991), which was originally published in 1941, to Larry J. Griffin and Don H. Doyle's edited volume entitled The South as an American Problem (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).
(2) New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1989.
(3) Durham: Duke University Press, 2001, p. 9.
(4) See James T. Sears, Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001), Carlos L. Dews and Carolyn Leste Law, eds., Out in the South (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), and John Howard, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
(5) "Views from the South," Nepantla, 3 (2002), 352.
(6) See, for instance, Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciounsness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); and Stuart Hall, "The Local and the Global" in Culture, Globalization, and the World-System, ed. Anthony H. King (London: Macmillan Education, 1991), pp. 19-39.
(7) The conference to which I refer here is "Blackness in Global Contexts," which was coordinated by Adejunmobi and me and sponsored by the African American and African Studies Program at UC Davis on March 28-30, 2002.
(8) Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, "'Where by the Way Is This Train Going?': A Case for Black (Cultural) Studies," Callaloo, 19 (Winter 1996), 64.
(9) Here I draw methodologically on the strategy that Nahum Dimitri Chandler proposes for thinking the utility of African-American identity in deconstructing the concept of the American. As he remarks, "The study of the making of African American identities is one of the best historical sites of study for clarifying the most general social processes of our time, such as those entailed in the making of 'American' identities; the most particular and micrological aspects of the making of these identities have some of the most general analytical insights encoded therein" ("Originary Displacement," boundary 2, 27 [Fall 2000], 255). Even as I invoke the Caribbean in a broad sense in places in this essay, I understand that Caribbean nationalities are highly differentiated and variegated in terms of region, language, ethnicity, culture, and colonial and imperial histories, and that the geographical parameters of the Caribbean are debatable.
(10) For more background on Aunt Jemima, see M. M. Manring, Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998); Doris Witt, Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Patricia Morton, Disfigured Images: The Historical Assault on African American Women (New York: Prager, 1991); Phil Patton, "Mammy: Her Life and Times," American Heritage, 44 (September 1993), 78-87; Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1994); Diane Roberts, The Myth of Aunt Jemima: Representations of Race and Region (New York: Routledge, 1994); Kenneth Goings, Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); and Patricia A. Turner, Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1994).
(11) Of course these characteristics are not necessarily fixed. After all, even Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in the film Gone with the Wind was more sexual than most people have ever seemed to notice, if we think of the scene in which she, at the behest of Rhett Butler, coyly lifts the red silk petticoats so that he can see her sporting the gift that he has given her. These aspects of the mammy are also given some provocative play in the 2001 novel by Alice Randall entitled The Wind Done Gone (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
(12) In Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, ed. Hortense J. Spillers (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 110-140.
(13) See Michael Hanchard, "Identity, Meaning and the African American," Social Text, 24 (1990), 31-42; Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing and Identity (London: Routledge, 1994); and Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
(14) I am referring to Fishburne's role as Professor Maurice Phipps in John Singleton's 1995 film Higher Learning.
(15) Of course works from Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983) to the landmark anthology entitled Nationalisms and Sexualities, co-edited by Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger (New York: Routledge, 1992), have highlighted the imaginary quality of nationality.
(16) Though Miss Cleo's image was used to advertise the hotline, reportedly, she did not interact with callers herself.
(17) Black Hunger, p. 39.
(18) See M. M. Manring's Slave in a Box.
(19) "Mediums, Messages and Lucky Numbers: African-American Female Spiritualists and Numbers Runners in Inter-War Detroit," in The Geography of Identity, ed. Patricia Yaeger (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 273-306.
(20) This is a point that Fara Jasmine Griffin makes, for instance, in "Who Set You Flowin'": The African-American Migration Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
(21) For more insights on this problem, see Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (New York: Serpent's Tail, 1993), p. 221.
(22) I suspect, even, that in some instances, Caribbean masculine models are featured in scenarios in the American media that are thought to be incompatible with "cool" notions of African-American masculinity. We can drink, for instance, of ways in which Eddie Murphy has drawn on African masculinity to depict a naive persona in films such as Trading Places (1984) and Coming to America (1988), which served as a counterpoint to the street-wise masculinity that he epitomized in American popular culture during that decade.
(23) "Shape and Shaping of Caribbean Cinema," in Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence, and Oppositionality, ed. Michael Martin (Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1995), p. 246.
(24) Terry McMillan, How Stella Got Her Groove Back (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), p. 46.
(25) Transition, 77 (1999), 51.
(26) An allusion to the phallic imagery that Vanessa evokes in relation to Jamaican men in the novel occurs when Delilah, arranging male mannequins wearing Calvin Klein underwear, calls Stella on a cell phone and urges her to make the trip. Delilah asks the person working in the window with her to "give me more penis material 'cause these boys are just painful." The athletic look of the mannequins is soon fully embodied by Winston.
(27) The record shows that Miss Trinidad and Tobago, Wendy Fitz, won the pageant the following year. I hope that I won't seem too remiss in my feminist polities in having been honest enough myself to admit that I watch an occasional beauty pageant, sometimes just for the fun of it, and sometimes to share the viewing habits and pleasures of my eighty-four-year-old grandmother, who especially enjoys the evening gown competitions.
(28) Among the signal articles on this topic is Betty, De Ramus's "He's My Tenderoni," Essence, 29 (August 1998), 85-86, 134-136.
(29) It is also important to point out ways in which the vexed character of African-American gender relations in the United States has surfaced dramatically in the public sphere over the past few decades. Among the signal episodes are the controversies over Ntozake Shange's 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf which includes abusive male personas; Michele Wallace's 1978 treatise entitled Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, which offers critique of black liberation movement leaders; Alice Walker's 1983 novel The Color Purple and Steven Spielberg's related 1985 film, which includes physically and sexually abusive black male characters; the information provided by Rasheeda Moore that helped bring about the arrest on drug charges of Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry; law professor Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegations that were the basis of Clarence Thomas's hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 prior to his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice in the United States; and Desiree Washington's rape charges against the boxer Mike Tyson in 1993. The public dialogues surrounding these issues were underpinned by a narrative of African-American female betrayal and tended to promote the stereotype of African-American women as being sexually- and politically complicit with a white male-dominated political establishment in bringing about the downfall of African-American men who were, in some instances quite prominent in politics or popular culture.
(30) A decade or so ago, Terry McMillan virtually became a household name with the success of her 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale, which made the New York Times bestseller's list and was produced as a film in 1995. Both Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back focus on the lives of upper-middle-class black women.
(31) New York: Penguin Group, 1988.
(32) Rex Nettleford glosses some of these issues, for instance, in his article entitled "Young Bulls on the Loose," Essence, 27 (November 1996), 46, 204.
(33) See the first two chapters of Davies's Black Women, Writing, and Identity. African-American blind spots concerning the politics of this film also seem to be underscored in die fact that this film won three NAACP "Image Awards" in the year of its release.
(34) Toni Morrison, Tar Baby (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), p. 38.
(35) I would like to extend thanks to my fellow panelists Patrick Samway and Keith Cartwright and to our session moderator Karla F.C. Holloway for the valuable insights that she offered. I presented a version of this paper as one of the speakers at a symposium entitled "There's No Place Like Home: (Trans)nationalism, Diaspora, and Film" at the University of California, Berkeley in April 2003, which featured Hamid Naficy as keynote speaker and was organized by Tamao Nakahara and Monika Mehta. As I prepared this paper, 1 benefited from dialogues with the Caribbean Working Group at the University of California, Davis. I thank David Barry Gaspar for his outstanding instruction in Caribbean history and for being one of the earliest scholars to shift the paradigm toward a thinking of the African diaspora in black studies. Finally, major props to Jon Smith! Though he'd never admit it, everybody knows that Jon is the real godfather of this new transnational and postcolonial wave of Southern studies in light of his remarkable editorial work and his tireless efforts to build forums for discussion among new and established scholars in the field.
University of California, Davis
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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