One of the bits of news from 2014 that I keep wanting to revisit is the Raven Symone brouhaha. Remember when Raven said the notorious words “I want to be labeled a human who loves humans, [and] I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American; I’m not an African-American, I’m an American,” and the internet went batty? I know, so passé. It’s 2015 already. But in 2015 I want to make a plea for thoughtful and sisterly discourse on the internet (and in general). To me, this means returning to old conversations where we may have responded impulsively; it means thinking twice. And then three or four times more about things. In this spirit, let us return to the scene of action: the Oprah Winfrey show on October 4, 2014.
You might need a quick memory jog on the controversy around Raven’s statements. Most of the criticism was towards her perceived rejection of the ethnic category, African American, in favor of the ostensibly more privileged label, American. Folks didn’t miss a beat before staging an online take-down of Raven. The take-down is a very particular way of telling someone they’ve done wrong by negating their point of view. It can be subtle in the tone of an online article, a joke, a passing micro-aggression, or it can come in the form of an all-out verbal or written assault. It’s not a private disagreement; it’s more like a public invitation to ridicule someone (online comments, oy vey). We see it in multiple forms: tweets, Facebook posts, essays, articles, blog entries, radio verbiage, memes, and Youtube videos. After Raven’s comments, my Facebook newsfeed was filled with nasty and disapproving status updates that mostly added up to a single “Oh, hell no.”
Take-downs are pervasive; look out for them.
Kendrick Lamar says the wrong thing? Take him down. Phylicia Rashad? Some random person in your Facebook newsfeed? Take them too. Effectively, take-downs say shut up, you’re wrong, and I never want to hear from you again. Oprah Winfrey could sniff the take-downs to come when Raven made the defiant statement on her show, her immediate response being “Oh, girl, don’t set the Twitter on fire!”
Take-downs get us hype; they gather energy in the same fashion as a seventh grade cafeteria fight. They happen quickly, draw a crowd, and no one remembers it the next week.
What I’m interested in here is revisiting how people responded to Raven’s controversial statements. I’m not so much interested in Raven as I am the ways in which we interact with each other when we disagree, the silence we engender, and the complexity that we glide away from. For me, the intense coverage and subsequent backlash Raven’s statements provoked said something about this ahistorical take-down driven culture we live in. (Although much of the backlash came from within the African American community, I say “we” because I think take-downs are epidemic in American culture at large.) What take-downs fail to reveal are the nuances—the long-spanning connections we have with each other and with those who proceeded us.
Raven was not the first black woman artist to publicly express her desire not to be categorized. Indeed, she is in excellent company with women like Zora Neale Hurston and Nina Simone. These women made folks—black and white—ill at ease with their independent and sometimes unpopular antics. The take-down most certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. Zora and Nina had their share of haters as well. I’ve continued to think about the Raven drama in part because I think the conversation left out a legacy of black women like who rejected labels. There are so many ways of thinking about this. And even as I brace myself for a potential take-down, I demand a safe space for these ideas to exist.
Today, Zora Neale Hurston and Nina Simone are considered to be among those at the vanguard of American art. These women are very different from each other and they are very different from Raven. Let me be clear: I have not set out to convince you that Raven Symone’s artistry is in any way parallel to the iconic and soulful Nina Simone or the brilliant Zora Neale Hurston. But I do wish to highlight a connection between these women who were criticized by their audience and their peers, yet said what was on their mind anyway.
Nina Simone refused to adhere to the confines of category, racial or otherwise, and it drove people nuts. In her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You, she wrote, ’It’s always been my aim to stay outside any category. That’s my freedom.” Like hell it was. And Zora was on a similar wavelength. In the essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me” she wrote, “At certain times I have no race, I am me.” Sound like Raven? Hurston continued to say:
“But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red, and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless.”
Zora’s “brown bag of miscellany” seems to align with Raven’s comments on being a melting pot below.
“I don’t label myself. What I really mean by that is I’m an American … I have darker skin. I have a nice, interesting grade of hair. I connect with Caucasian. I connect with Asian. I connect with black. … I connect with each culture. … Aren’t we all (a melting pot)? Isn’t that what America’s supposed to be?”
When I read Zora’s loose racial and ethnic identification for the first time in the ninth grade, I thought it was for the birds. If Twitter was around then, I might have tweeted about it. “How could she, at any time, ignore or not feel her blackness in racist America?” I thought. Since then, I’ve had a lot more time to think about Zora. Now, I see that subversion comes in as many different forms as there are people.
I continue to ask myself the larger question of why we get so ruffled by those who decide to challenge the road laid for them. It seems to me that one of the reasons is connected to our desire to categorize and contain as a mode of control. It’s the sort of strength in sameness logic. If someone breaks the pattern by disidentifying, there is a threat to power and control. But we really must ask ourselves this: Are the Ravens of the world really the problem, anyway? Are they at the root of racism and inequality in America? I think not.
Perhaps what’s threatening to some about Raven’s expression of freedom is that it pushes us to look deeper at the black activist script and at our attachment to race. In fact, it disrupts the script entirely. Black female subversion is not of a singular aesthetic; acts of subversion in general do not fit a one-size model. But it’s the tradition, it’s a rich and informative history that’s there to remind us to cool it and make space in the room for multiple voices, other ways of being. When folks respond to Raven’s rejection of labels through jokes of ridicule, we enter the ugly territory of the take-down. We don’t have to agree, but at the very least, we must recognize that there are a variety of ways to engage the struggle.
Take-downs are an easy way out of the unglamorous and unpopular work of thoughtful disagreement. Absorbed in the flurry of the moment, they refuse to look backward or forward. They don’t challenge us to be better humans and they certainly don’t foster a culture of love, sisterhood, or reflection. I don’t have all the answers; maybe I’ll change my mind on Raven. Maybe I won’t. But I do know that I am sending out a call. As women, sisters, feminists, womynists, humanists, whatever label you want to claim (if any at all), I insist that we revisit the spaces where we disagree when the flames have lost their sparks. Let’s do away with the here-and-now attitude of hotness that has infiltrated our culture. It’s played out. We can decide to be thoughtful and loving instead by thinking deeply before we tweet, post, or do whatever it is that we do online. We can talk to each other in our written discourse and not just at each other. We can enter into disagreeing discourse with an ethic of empathy. It’s romantic, but worth a try.