A SELF-INVESTIGATION ON INBETWEEN-NESS AND BLACK WOMANHOOD IN TERMS OF EARTHA, IDA AND MYSELF.
When first listening to Eartha Kitt’s I wanna be evil, her self-will and persistence struck me. “I want to see some dissipation in my face, I wanna be evil, I wanna be mad, but more that that I wanna be bad”- We hear her sing and speak with a twang, some kind of overpowering ardor that is penetrating and enchanting all at once. We hear her whisper and roar and when she opens her mouth her lips formed a funny curl. Eartha was beyond fierce, beyond badass. To me she seemed like a walking oxymoron, tender hearted and full of joy for life, still tough to the core and bad to the bone.
Her 1982 documentary, directed by Christian Blackwood, looks back on a long life of pleasure and heartache. All by myself: The Eartha Kitt Story orchestrates her as the flamboyant show business icon she was, but at the same time reflects her deep sorrow and troubled soul. Eartha was the child of a black mother and a white father. Because of that ‘inbetween-ness’, she had to cope with a rejection by both black and white people, from early on. Eartha’s speech is marked by this very conflict, it is a voice of two minds. A voice, that stings and stabs. It engraves on you, slightly carves under your flesh and makes the skin crawl. At the same time her inflection and clear pronunciation are those of an innocent school girl. Even when she murmurs, she screams and shouts, mastering the art of double cross. Hearing her sing was like a revelation. Hearing her speak, it seemed like she came from another country, another planet even.
Another Country, James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, explores the interconnection, or rather the entanglement of race, love and society. The story is set in New York in the late 1950’s and revolves around a group of interracial friends, their subculture and private lives. It also is a story about how racial difference fractures relationships, as power structures affect every human interaction, be that among accquiantances, colluages, friends or lovers.
Ida Scott, the main female character, is an up and coming singer who goes back and forth between her Harlem community and her new circle of friends in Greenwich Village. As a black woman in a white supremacist society, Ida constantly goes back and forth between two opposing worlds. Her inability to reconcile the black and the white stand at the center of the relationship to Vivaldo, her caucasian boyfriend, whom she continuously suspects of being with her for all the wrong reasons: namely to merge into blackness by being with a black woman. While love is always based on assimilation to and identification with the significant other, in its critical state it may become an act of appropriation: the act of devouring the loved one in his or her alterity in order to ‘get a piece’ of otherness.
These days, discussions on race are often built upon the naive notion of ‘colorblindness’. Since we do not live in a post-racial society and black lives are at still at stake, “I don’t see color” never counts as a valid argument when it comes to racism, but rather obliterates actual injustice and oppression. Black and brown women share the fate of being perceived through a certain lens – the monocle called white gaze. A twisted mindset that reduces our bodies to objects of desire, our sadness to colleteral damage and our fury to a sheer force of nature. This naturalizing view, builds the groundwork for degrading stereotypes, describing black women as exotic, temperamental or just ‘angry’. Either otherness is highly appreciated, exoticised or plainly rejected – whether it’s is a right wing’s dismissal of blackness or a leftist romantization of black bodies, both negative and positive racism are two sides of the same coin.
I admire Eartha, the actual person, for her brave and graceful acceptance of whiteness and I cherish Ida, the fictional character, for her stubborn suspicion towards it. Between Eartha, Ida and me there is a link, a bond, for they represent various shades of my personal story and the history of black womanhood itself. In them, I seek solace and find strength.