A few years ago, I suggested to my friend Christina Sharpe that we should plan something on visual culture and black hunger. By visual culture, I really meant film and television, mostly mainstream film and TV. Whatever we did would build on the idea that mainstream film and TV in the U.S. is always a bad diet for black audiences, always a site of malnutrition.
That is one metaphor.
When I first read The Black Aesthetic, edited by Addison Gayle, I was struck by the term “zero image.” It described, I think, not only the absence of images of black people in mainstream representation, but also the negating effect of the representations that existed. The particular and peculiar ways on-screen blackness could be annihilating, trapping one in a repertoire of sounds and movements, fashions and flavors.
From the space of Kenyan TV—and I always return to my childhood—it was the chasm between Dallas and Good Times, Dynasty and Sanford and Son, Hart to Hart and The Jeffersons. A chasm of who owned what, who worked for whom, who could move through the world how. It was also the affective work of these shows: we learned to laugh at black cultural production, to see it framed through humor, even when it dealt with serious questions (Good Times was exemplary, as it dealt with child abuse and community accountability). We might have imitated JJ, but we wanted JR’s power.
As middle class children in Kenya, children of professionals who’d worked their way from nothing, U.S. TV was entertainment—it did not accord with anything to which we aspired, or were taught to value. The Ewings were oil barons. The Evanses were not white collar. The Harts were millionaire amateur detectives. The Jeffersons were middle class, but not of the professional class. In a sense, these shows were as fantastic as The Incredible Hulk and Six Million Dollar Man.
They offered zero images. From Nairobi, the line between what was on TV, foreign—in strange accents—and our lives seemed unbridgeable. Too, while none of us thought of England as “the motherland,” many of our parents had sung “God Save the Queen.” The U.S. was a kind of fantasy, not as close as England. At least, not until later.
But the U.S. offered what England did not: programs with black protagonists. As far as I can recall, the only black person I saw on the few English programs available was on Mind Your Language, a midly offensive show about immigrants to the U.K., based on the fiction that racial and ethnic diversity was welcomed in the U.K., and, more, that it was recent.
Perhaps Mind Your Language cut too close to the bone: it offered a picture of us as migrants, as lacking the linguistic and social fluencies that we assumed we already had.
With U.S. programs, we saw people who looked like us, but didn’t sound like us.
Little in our cultural landscapes taught us how to forge affiliations.
And those who sounded like us on Kenyan television, on shows like Vioja Mahakamani and Vitimbi, didn’t inhabit the lives to which we were told to aspire. Perhaps that “we” is doing too much work.
Swahili TV programming occupied the same broad genre as U.S. TV: comedy and farce. Just as sisal-clad dancers were expected to perform for Kenya’s leaders, TV’s lower middle class and poor characters were expected to entertain the TV-owning middle class and elite. Identification was difficult.
I don’t think I’m trying to map my growing up Kenya onto the Clark experiments. As vernaculars, the Clark experiments are associated with goodness and beauty. The white doll is good or better, pretty or beautiful. Now, I wonder whether the doll experiments are also about pleasure: that whiteness owns pleasure, that the black children in the experiments wanted the pleasure they associated with whiteness.
It’s really not until I went to the U.S. that I discovered shows featuring working class and poor whites, shows contemporaneous with Good Times and Sanford and Son, shows that never appeared on Kenyan TV.
I’m being dishonest.
A cultural studies framework prioritizes mass culture as the site of a particular kind of classed making. Those anchored securely in the middle class, as I was, might participate in or consume mass culture, but it’s not the dominant scene of self-fashioning, not the dominant reservoir. Surrounded by professionals who looked like me, who had stories about how to be/come a professional, the world of mass culture might have shaped my possibilities, but it did not, it could not, limit them. And, in fact, given that TV started at 4 or 5 pm, was state owned, and featured a lot of state propaganda, I quickly learned to distrust its influence.
(this cannot be the long essay that needs to be written about culture work in the Kenyan 80s—about the state’s grasp on “culture,” about the limited forms of dissent culture, about how we used other spaces as sanctuaries, as spaces where we could breathe—that also needs to be written)
Mass culture was not the place I looked to find myself—but this was a class bubble. And, also, not living in a majority-white culture. Which is to say, while a Kenyan cultural studies might look to frames developed in the U.K. and the U.S., it must also account for the difference race makes. Of course, we were not exempt from white supremacy, as our ads for skin lightening products and ads for soap featuring all white characters proved—Victoria Principal used Lux—Roxena and Lifebuoy were used by black people—and it wasn’t until much later that we saw black people using Imperial Leather.
I grew up on a diet of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music and Dr. Zhivago and John Wayne. These were the films I memorized. The flavors that taught me what film should look like, sound like, who should be in it.
Was there a moment of shock when new(er) U.S. media began to move into Kenya? When I saw films with majority black actors (not many) or with black actors in lead roles? Not really. I had always taken for granted that black people were leaders. That black people were the main characters of any and all dramas. This was the privilege of growing up in Kenya.
A different hunger quickly emerged when I moved to the U.S. Cut off from the familiarity of black faces, black leaders, black decision makers, black professionals—I did not take a single class with a black faculty member at my university. The English department did not have one.
At first, I did not know I was starving.
Being away from home was an adventure. So many new flavors to taste. So many new ways of being to experience. And I was young enough to abuse my body without caring.
My geo-histories expanded: I made friends from Singapore and India, Lesotho and Nigeria, Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, Canada and Belgium. My world was more international among the small group of international students I embraced. Still, my classes were taught by white professors, people who, far from being cosmopolitan, often had the narrow provincialisms of those who’ve never left the U.S., those who’ve never had to think about and with spaces other than the U.S.
I was starving.
My body knew before my mind.
After gorging myself on what was widely available, I turned, deliberately, to what was available, but not widely so: black authors. In class after class, I would ask: “I know we haven’t studied this in class, but can I write on it?” I needed to learn how to hear black voices. I needed to learn how to understand my hungers—how to live with malnutrition.
Like many other black students before me—and still—I lived in different educational worlds: there was what I read in class and what I had to read on my own. This double labor is taxing—and it drains whatever nutrition supplements might provide. Supplements are not meals—they can’t be. But we use them to try to ward off the devastation that happens without them.
I could not, as an undergraduate, read African literature. The category would not make sense to me until 2005. And I needed to translate the black writers I was reading—to grasp the worlds they described, to follow their rhythms, to dance awkwardly to sorrow songs I learned to hear, sorrow songs I learned to sing. Starving.
And I wondered—I still wonder—what it means to grow up so ill fed, what it produces as expectation, as nutrition, as possibility.
One might argue that it produces an uncritical relation to black cultural production—all black cultural production feeds something, in some way. Hence, Tyler Perry. This, I think, is not strictly accurate. Which is to say, the nutritive value of, say, Tyler Perry, extends beyond what might be considered “good taste” or even “excellent nutrition.” (I’m not sure the metaphor is holding.)
There is a nutritive value to a room full of black bodies watching a film together, enjoying a film together, that extends beyond the content of the film. Cultural production and consumption both feed in different ways. This is why Scandal’s twitter stream is so very important. It feeds. It affirms. It says, “we are here assembled together, we are those who assemble together, in this moment, at this time, to be a we-together.”
I gorged on Girlfriends, relishing the (un)varieties of blackness on display. I was a fan of Moesha, 227, Martin, Living Single, In Living Color. They fed something. They offered forms of nutrition, even amidst the glut of mainstream annihilation.
Hunger manifests in many ways: one finds oneself sucking on stones. Chewing bitter leaves. Trying to squeeze water from cactus leaves. Abundance is rare. And even what ostensibly feeds can be so often adulterated, poisoned, made less enjoyable, less nutritious.
One tried to hoard what feeds the best, to pass it on to others who will need it—to “make generations.” Often, there is so little to pass on. We hoard precious grains. Offering little tastes to those who need to know more is possible.
Every so often, there is an event. A film that feeds. A film on which we can gorge. And we do. We gather as those who are gathered—a formulation I take from Wambui Mwangi—to learn who we can be as the gathered and the gatherers. We feed and carry what we can in precious little bags, to pass on to friends and strangers, to store in story and memory, song and dance, to pass on.
And, sometimes, we suck on stones.
I do not know how to talk about film and TV, about the technical aspects, the language of light and depth, position and angle. About props and extras, directors and producers. I’m mystified by the simplest descriptions of such things.
I do not know how to move from these technical aspects to hunger—how to find nutrition or discuss nutrition or confess that I am starving.
How does one confess that one is starving? Would I even recognize good nutrition if it were offered? One learns to distrust one’s tastes, fed on a diet of annihilating flavors that one learns to love.
How does one confess one cannot trust one’s tastes? That one does not know how to find nutrition? That one has become accustomed to sucking on stones?
Pregnant women will, sometimes, eat various soils or suck on stones. It is said that this is their body telling them that it is not receiving enough nutrition.