Category Archives: africa

Visions of Oshun

Oshun Collage
We’re all here for Oshun so I equate that with Oshun being here.

-PBS Documentary on the Nigerian Oshun Festival

So I’ve been working on this project lately that has required a study of different illustrations of the goddess Oshun. Oshun is one of hundreds of Yoroba Orishas, a Goddess who embodies, beauty, sensuality, healing, abundance, harmony, divination and the feminine archetype. I am discovering that there are many different interpretations of what Oshun represents but essentially she is in some ways to ancient African religions what the Virgin Mary is to Catholicism, what Venus or Aphrodite was to Romans and Greeks. But unlike those latter mentioned, Oshun, to my unending delight, is represented primarily as a very dark skinned Black woman. Her colors are represented as a constant spectrum of gold, amber, yellow and orange. She can be found near bodies of water and always carries a mirror. She likes sweet things and is often shown wearing a veil which allows her to see the world eternally as a sweet heavenly vision of beauty. Doesn’t that sound dope?

It hit me yesterday as I looked at all the googled images of her, how powerful the symbols of her identity are with regard to visual interpretations. With all the different versions out there, there are those basic elements that never change. Like the Virgin Mary, Venus or Aphrodite, artists understand that key colors, elements in nature and symbolic objetcs are what communicate to the viewer who and what this woman represents. This is art 101 obviously but I never really even understood this even in art history class. I wish it had been taught to me in this way. A Picasso version of the Virgin Mary will not look like Carravagio’s, but the basic symbolical indicators will be there somewhere whether literal, obscure, abstracted or minimized.

Blue, white, rays of natural light. Yellow, gold, mirror water nature. When we wear these colors, spend time in specific natural spaces, we can recognize that certain religions and cultures would see us as invoking saints, goddesses, gods, spirits that are represented by these things. We attribute powers to elements based on both ancient practice and natural metaphysical laws.

Why do the colors deep blue and purple represent royalty? Why does yellow invoke joy and lightness? Most of us have been conditioned to an unconscious reflexive knowledge of white as representing purity. The color black however has had the worst rap ever. Buried in decades of negative association with death, evil, abyss, black actually symbolizes the highest seat of wisdom as seen in clergymen and ministers who wear all black or martial arts masters who acquire the Black belt in the various disciplines of Martial Arts. We all know that a Black Belt can only be acquired with intense hard work and commands great respect. For me, seeing so many versions of Oshun with this dark black skin is even more of a validation and praise of the color black. It sends the message to my heart that blackness is beautiful, is sacred, is virtuous. And every version of Oshun must be dark skinned in order for me to understand that she is Oshun.

It is said that in the Vatican, there is a black version of the Virgin Mary hidden somewhere and that this is the one the Pope worships behind closed doors. Oooh! My google search of Black Virgin Mary has produced such a range of beautiful renditions! The darker Goddesses are stepping out into the light.
We make it so.
-Team Urban Eve
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Belafonte: Film History 101

Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences' 2014 Governors Awards - Show

Last night I was watching the acceptance speech Harry Belafonte gave after receiving the Humanitarian Award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He is someone I have admired greatly for years, more for his activism and work with youth, than his acting. I prefer his musical performances to his dramatic ones. But having worked in film at a time before racial integration, the projects he chose to work in were deliberate in their revolutionary positions on race, social justice and class structure. Even he has said that he never wanted to be an actor for any other reason than to have a platform from which to positively affect social change.

My favorite part of his acceptance speech is when he began to reverently and expertly break down the fundamental ways in which films like “Birth of A Nation” and “Tarzan,” while admittedly innovative for the time, helped to invent and stereotype popular ideas about who Black Americans and Black Africans were, to in effect plant the seed of hatred in the minds of Whites and Blacks alike. Even Belafonte was impressed as a young person, watching “Tarzan” for the first time. But he was clear that for people of color, awe and amazement were quickly stamped out by images of themselves that evoked and reflected the base fears of a dominant white culture that were bent on maintaining power over this medium by keeping aesthetic ideals of intelligence, beauty and heroism as white as could be.

That hasn’t changed by the way.

As an avid film lover with a degree in Media and Social Issues and as a woman of color I make it a point not only to study film but to try my best to understand what I am consuming when I watch films. Since the dawn of filmmaking there has only been one story to tell albeit in many different ways. The story is of humanity. We cannot tell any other story but this. Even in nature documentaries about animals, ecosystems, planets, everything that is being studied, or explored, or interpreted is being done through the human mind. We like mirrors. We hate mirrors. But if we do not look, we can never know we exist, how and for what reasons.

The medium of film has been co-opted by the dominate culture for decades but the stories of humanity within them that have been allowed into the mainstream have been broad, compelling, heartbreaking, transcendent, universal and beautiful nonetheless. Like any form of art, you can find the voices you’re looking for even if they are not released by the big studios. But you have to look. And if you can’t find the voice you’re looking for, try using your own or supporting and encouraging those around you which hold promise.

I know without looking at my film collection that it is primarily made up of white casts, and white directors. I can also guess that the majority of these directors are male. This is the world I live in. I can see myself in a story that does not include characters that look like me because as humans, we all share the human experience. But humane portrayal in film is not always shared equally across race and gender. Types stick. Genres and formulas generate buzz and bring in millions. And the deep psychological effects of racism and sexism play out on the big screen and the small in ways we are often depended upon to overlook as consumers.  Being educated about the history of any medium of expression is to understand more about its present day incarnations and the ways in which the actual evolution or change in its depictions are usually more or less the same as they ever were for better or worse.

With regard to film and the role it plays in enlightenment, exploration and inciting movement, it’s not always change that’s necessary, but a realization about why we tell stories the way we do in the first place. Our  voices, stories, faces, our diversity is there.  It has been from the beginning in directors like Oscar Micheaux and performers like Paul Robeson, in films like “Black Orpheus” and “Sugar Cane Alley” The problem is in the monopolization of the dominate eye behind the camera. And you can always tell whose eye it is because the same trail of evidence is left behind in each frame.

Day off Interlude

Day off Interlude

I have no particular point to make here. I just wanted to share what I did today on my day off from the morning to this very moment perhaps so that you can learn a bit about me.

I watched two episodes of “Project Runway” on my phone while in bed on the Lifetime Channel app. I live for people making things and I when I saw the commercial for “Threads” the Jr. version of PR I lost it. Shows about kids cooking and making clothes or anything. I live for it.

I wished everyone in my Facebook network a “Happy Indigenous People’s Day” and responded to a status update I made last night that “Goldilocks was mad rude.”

My mom has been visiting with me for the last couple of weeks so I got up, sat and talked with her for over an hour while crocheting a hat and watching “Wendy Williams” and “The View.” Among the topics of our discussion were, Heidi Klum, Kimora Lee Simmons, marriage, gay marriage, and several things that came up related to guest on both shows. I’m not into Wendy but I paid attention when Betsy Johnson was on because I adore her. I love how spry and youthful she is at 72! I also love that she has her daughter walk the final walk at her shows and that now she brings her granddaughter with her as well. I just love that whole image.

Next I paid attention on the View because Russell Brand was on and I really dig him. He always brings a certain element of anything can happeness around him and it always keeps interviewers on their toes. I like that. And I love comedy and I like his politics most of the time.

After that mom went out to do her thing and I got myself reluctantly together to go to Chelsea and get my eyebrows threaded, a ritual that I enjoy because when I do it it’s usually all I do. It’s a laid back day.

It was so cloudy out I almost convinced myself I wanted to stay in but I am so thankful I didn’t. It was very nice out. On my iphone, I played WTF, one of my two favorite podcasts at the moment and lost myself in it as I rode the train. I listened to Marc’s ranting and venting and sadness and totally wished I could be there and tell him it would be all right. It’s usually a cross between that and wishing I could tell him GET OVER IT! Then I listened to his interview with the second Black Comedian he’s interviewed since last week with Ms. Pat. Today was Larry Wilmore. I found I could totally relate to his humor influences as a young person (as a girl, I also loved Groucho Marx and Monty Python) and that, like him, I am also a “contrarian.” That’s not a good or bad thing. Just an accurate assessment. In not all but many ways, I aim to always to be going the opposite direction from everyone else.

After my brows were done wonderfully because my favorite lady, the only one I ever want to see, did them, I decided to stroll down to 14th Street. When I’m listening to podcasts, walking alone is great. And although Chelsea is covered in dog shit, I somehow always like to walk down there. I like taking photographs of building and things I find in the side streets.

At 14th Street I hoped on the uptown express to head home. The podcast ended somewhere around 116th Street. I had my eyes closed because I’ve had a period headache (I can say period to you right?) all day. I ended up smiling because Marc played the show out unexpectedly on his acoustic guitar. It was really nice. Music is really important to me and I really liked the spur of the moment improvisational feel of what he played because it sounded like it came right from his insides. I like how he shares.

When that was over I played Hugh Masakela’s album “The Lasting Impressions of Oooga Booga” where I had left off listening in the apartment earlier that afternoon before I left. There’s this track that always plays on one of my hundred Pandora Stations called “Mas Que Nada,” Masakela’s cover of the Jorge Ben song and it lays me out every time. I mean I think it’s magical. After hearing it like three times over the weekend, I finally broke down bought the entire album on iTunes last night.

I’ve known about Hugh Masakela all my life and have certainly heard “Mas Que Nada” many times before because my parents played him in the house while I was growing up. But this happens to me all the time. It’s like one day something that was all in the background of my upbringing just comes to the forefront and a strong definition takes shape and I feel it in my core. It speaks to me. This song speaks to me. The entire album is fucking brilliant but I just want to get on my knees and give thanks for “Mas Que Nada” even if it is a cover.

When I got home I heated up some Roti my mom made last night and continued listening to Masakela on my stereo and then I started writing this.

I’m really glad to have had this day off.

What place freedom?

What kind of world do I want my unborn daughter to grow up in? It’s a question I’m asking myself more and often lately. And it kind of scares me.

How do young Black girls come to love themselves if they ever do? I know way more about how they come to hate themselves and each other. Though I have never hated my skin color, I myself struggle all the time with the crippling tendency to identify my value with how I look each day, my weight, hair, make-up, clothes. It’s an ongoing process. In my searching and my studying about the power of the human heart and mind, I understand that these things are only transient, fleeting symbols in our lives. But when I’m in the thick of these illusions on a daily basis it’s a real challenge to remember that these images are not who I am at the core. It’s even harder not to always be angry, disappointed, cynical and even a little apathetic to the oppressive nature of racism and the ways in which it subtly and systematically pumps out the message that people who look like me are not as important, valuable, lovely, integral and human as those who identify as white.

And let me be clear. I don’t hate white people. Just by default of the nature of the way I was raised, (home schooled and vegan) I often have a lot more in common with some white people than most blacks until I don’t. But I’m still uncomfortably aware of the way racism and white privilege work to stereotype, demonize, dehumanize and destroy the character of people of color in ways that have not changed since slavery. I am a woman of color and as such I fall into a category which is largely stereotyped, marginalized, brutalized and undervalued to the end goal of mental, emotional economical and political obliteration. It is the evolution of slavery.

This weekend I was hanging out with six lovely ladies at the house of my good friend and academic mentor. We were eating this great chili that her daughter made and chatting about topics like the inhumanity of incarceration and the experiences of mixed race children and how they make their way in the world. Some time later in the evening I started talking about being a home schooled vegan who graduated from a charter high school. Incidentally her daughter also brought up her experience at something called the Afrika School. I asked her what that was and what emerged was this realization the both of us were raised by women who took us to institutions to educate us about African heritage outside of the system of Westernized indoctrination and education which leaves out completely the stories of African Culture pre Slavery time. We were both enrolled in African Dance, Art and drumming classes as well as holistic and alternative practices like meditation, chanting, smudging, vegetarianism, veganism, cleansing, crystal healing, altars prayer and a respect for feminine energy.

But we never talked to our peers about these experiences. And though we never put them down we also never shared them, revered them or boasted about them. That’s another thing we had in common. I think we both agreed that while we didn’t regret it, we also didn’t know how to fit what we had learned from these experiences into the world we existed in where the majority of young black women and men did not receive his kind of tutelage. And when you already feel strange, or odd, or different from people as a young person for whatever reasons, it’s rare that you make the decision to be your “self” not knowing who that is yet or to share stories which would potentially alienate you even further. In High School, fitting in is about being like everybody else. College is about “reinventing” yourself. It’s all a fucking marketing tool.

In any case we exchanged some of the hijinks of these experiences and had a few awkward laughs over them but agreed we were better off having had them rather than not at all and I told her that I would be interested in interviewing her about our shared experiences at some point. I think it’s important to have a space of comfort and pride with which young black women take part in self affirming practices. I feel bad that  as a young person I was not more out of the closet about my time at the Shrine of P’Tah learning about Imhotep, the pyramid architect or at the Fanny Lou Hamer institute learning more about Black Educators with a small group of young people whose parents had the same ideas my mom had. I might tell myself I wasn’t embarrassed about these experiences but if I wasn’t why would I choose to keep it to myself?

Two reasons.

1. Popular culture aka white identified systems of oppression,  never brought it up and young people respond to popular culture even if they live under a rock.

2. I was embarrassed to share things that were not discussed in popular culture.

I do hope that by the time my children get here, this is no longer the case. But in the meantime I have to do what I can to make up for all that I kept to myself by staying connected to those with like-minded ideals for the promotion of spiritual and historical education of young Black hearts and minds. And while I do that I have to confront and dismantle any residual shame or embarrassment that still exists in me over the possibility of not being accepted by popular culture or any majority.