Saturday, February 09, 2008

The History At Home | 9. Princesses & Privilege

1. The Princess Fetish

Maybe because we had enough, I didn’t want to be someone who had enough. Maybe those flickering black and white news broadcasts with soldiers, dogs, policemen, fire hoses and billy clubs made it explicitly clear that having enough didn’t matter.

It’s not as if I had to come to this idea intuitively. My parents made sure I knew it. I don’t think I ever recall thinking the policeman was my friend. Not even when they tried to tell me this in grade school. I knew better. We had a television. I had a father who had to leave in the nights sometimes because a riot seemed imminent in that place where all of the other Black people in Pittsburgh lived.

Maybe because people all knew who we were, I didn’t want to be famous. Being famous made you busy. Being famous meant someone wasn’t able to curl up with a book on Saturday evenings because she was too busy setting tables; serving cocktails; cleaning up hors d'oeurves plates; serving the wine; putting food on the buffet table; clearing the dinner dishes; taking and serving dessert orders and loading the dishwasher. It takes a lot of work to organise people. It takes a lot of labour to get other people involved. That labour was mine. (Later, the abandoned remnants of cocktails seemed a fair exchange.)

There was a lot of talk about changing the law. There was a lot of murmuring about staying within the confines of the law. Maybe this is where the princess fetish began. Princesses are above the law. They are the law. They are not loading dishwashers or serving dessert. And they had much nicer clothing than I did and a far more interesting life.

But - most girls love princesses. Fairy tales are designed to work powerful magic on the souls of people. So, none of the above reasons can explain my princess fetish. All I know is that it was a powerful, painful yearning for me. My father said that there had been all kinds of Black princesses and knights and ladies all over the world. But, the books he gave me were dry, musty tomes filled with blabbering scholars. They were not like the pretty picture books and later, fast-paced historical novels that I loved.

When I got to college, someone informed me that I was a BAP - Black American Princes. I was delighted. Finally!

The world has changed a lot since then. The devil Disney has made feeding the princess fetish a lot easier for modern day parents. (Except - nobody ever wants the costumes of the non-white Disney “princesses” - of whom only one is actually a “real” princess.) Even my son is caught up in the princess fetish. One day, he hopes to have the “full collection” of dresses.

So, in keeping balance, I’m thankful for the work of these people:

At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England by Walter Dean Myers, ISBN: 0-590-48669-1, Scholastic Press, New York, NY,1999 I had trouble with this book. But, I am not between the ages of 10 and 13. This is the true story of a Yoruba royal, Sarah Bonetta Forbes, who was rescued by a British soldier. She was raised under the protection of Queen Victoria.

Silviane A. Diouf has done a stunning series of books. Well researched, fantastically illustrated and with a summary about the modern region, these very expensive books which I can only to afford every financial quarter are worth it. Kings and Queens Of West Africa, Kings and Queens Of East Africa, Kings and Queens Of Southern Africa, Kings and Queens Of Central Africa.

They are similar to Joyce Henson’s African Princess. (Which Pittsburgh folks would be happy to know I found at Halfprice Books in Monroeville for a bargain price of $6.98?)

I’ve been meaning to pick up:
Ashaki, African Princess, by Patricia Weaver, ISBN 10: 0595182836, Writer’s Club Press, 2001 Set in the first century BC Shaba, Ashaki’s father has prearranged her marriage to a prince of Kush. Needless to say, she rebels and finds her own way in the world. It sounds like a book my inner 9 year old needed very much. I’ll keep you posted.

Finally, there are resources to feed my inner child and the one I’m currently raising. Thank you hard working parents, grandparents, greats and all the rest of my very busy, very community-minded, activist family, you really did a pretty all right job changing the world.

2. Privilege

I love young people. Each generation, they invent the wheel. Then, they look up with the most ecstatic smile on their face and say, "Look at this stroke of genius! Amazing! It is an EMD - Easy Motion Disc!"

So, the blogosphere buzzes about the latest invention of the wheel (or EMD depending how old your are. ) The Privilege Quiz. How biased is it? What is it really saying about racism? Is it really relevant to non-white? Go see Tami. She has links to the folks really discussing it.

I played this game in the last century while I was in college at the former "Bootcamp For The Revolution," Anticoch College. I think I felt guilty for about 2 weeks for being an "owning class" person. Then, I pulled my fur coat out of the closet one frosty Fall morning when I was hungover, late for my first class and catching a virus. I took one hard look at my skin and my kin and decided that what people gave back to the world; how they made use of their privilege; and the amount of muscle they could exercise against the "establishment were more important than apologizing to the world for catching a break. And to feel as if any sort of apology or reparations were due anyone would be akin to slapping my ancestors across their collective faces. I was a BAP - not a bitch.

I graduated and did "diversity workshops" where I used variations on this test. Eventually, I just began to address the issues in my artwork.

I had a discussion once with a young brother who had chosen not to expatriate to South Africa like many of his recently graduated Black friends. He visited. He mostly liked Africa. But, he couldn't stand the way in which privilege had changed his friends. They were living in gorgeous compounds with African servants; buying up land; and driving Benz's. He was disgusted by the colonialist behaviour. When I suggested that he could make the choice to do it differently. That he could be an agent of change and contribute positively to South Africa's growth. He shook his head sadly. He simply couldn't understand that a person had the power to be unchanged politically and spiritually by their income. It made me sad. because for some reason, it meant he couldn't see my life. It takes privilege to reject it perks.

Regardless, the quiz did spark the above post. And I thought I'd share my "score."I have modified the test for those of us who grew up before certain technological advances. These are marked ADM - Age Difference Modification

If your father went to college before you started
If your father finished college before you started
If your mother went to college before you started
If your mother finished college before you started
If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
If your family was the same or higher class than your high school teachers
ADM If you had specialized communications, entertainment or word processing technology at home when you were growing up
ADM If you had your own specialized computer specialized communications, entertainment or word processing technology at home when you were growing up
If you had more than 50 books at home when you were growing up
If you had more than 500 books at home when you were growing up
If were read children's books by a parent when you were growing up
If you ever had lessons of any kind as a child or a teen
If you had more than two kinds of lessons as a child or a teen
If the people in the media who dress and talk like you were portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it before college
If you had or will have less than $5000 in student loans when you graduate
If you had or will have no student loans when you graduate
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
(US students only) If you have been to Europe more than once as a child or teen
(International question) If you have been to the US more than once as a child or teen
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels rather than KOA or at relatives homes
If all of your clothing has been new
If your parents gave you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house as a child or teen
If you had a phone in your room
If your parent owned their own house or apartment when you were a child or teen
If you had your own room as a child or teen
If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
ADM - If your (had your own cell phone) permissable whereabouts included proximity to a working phone in High School
If you had your own TV as a child or teen
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries as a child or teen
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family

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