Friday, February 23, 2007

Black Beauty, Obesity, and "Norbit"

by Eric Walters

Last year at a local theatre near Baltimore, I participated in a questionnaire about the trailer for Eddie Murphy’s newest movie, Norbit. In the movie, Eddie Murphy plays Norbit, who is engaged, or “chained” to Rasputia (also played by Eddie Murphy), a dark-skinned, authoritarian, obese woman who incessantly dwindles Norbit’s manhood. Thandy Newton (light-skinned and thin) plays Kate—Norbit’s dreamgirl. Murphy is a multitalented comic genius who capitalizes on Rasputia’s dominance, insecurity, and self-image to generate laughs.

Jasmyne Cannick recently wrote about her deep frustration with Norbit because of its negative, stereotypic characterization of obese black women ("Why Norbit Sent Me Into Orbit"). To me, the trailer for Norbit encouraged a strange ambivalence of laughing at something that in reality shouldn’t be funny, because the comedy relates to the social and historic tragedies about body image/obesity and skin color preference, respectively. Tim Cogshell, in a review of Norbit, comments about this:

“…there is a great deal of mockery of the obese in Norbit, but therein lies a bit of truth, too: We do mock the obese, don't we?”

“…The lithe Kate (who seems to transform into a white girl post her childhood persona) juxtaposed with the big, fat, mean Rasputia may simply look like more of the same fat-bashing humor we've come to expect in movies such as this, and it is, but that's not all it is. There is a mirror in this movie, reflecting a lot of things, not the least of which is that we are a mean, fat country, that ironically doesn't like mean fat people.”

I often wonder if there are significant numbers of African American women and girls who suffer silently about their body images in light of the widespread popularity of movies like Norbit, particularly in a society that worships being thin. According to the National Heart Blood and Lung Institute, more than 80 percent of midlife African American women are overweight or obese, 52 percent have high blood pressure, and 14 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes.

In Baltimore, some churches have designated Red Dress Sundays to encourage lifestyle changes aimed to address the problem of obesity, heart disease, and stroke in African American women. But what can African American churches do within their own communities to further address the negative perceptions of obesity and skin color preference that saturate our entertainment and media outlets?

Perhaps a more holistic approach might employ strategies within our faith communities that:
· Demonstrate the practice of healthy diet and exercise programs within the life of the church. Food preferences in the church can be heart-healthy, and nutrient-dense.
· Confront negative stereotypes about dark-skinned, obese women and explore roots in historic racism. Education and discussion forums can quell suspicions and purge long-held assumptions about the obese. Open forums can also address the taboo subjects of skin color and hair texture preferences.
· Investigate how these factors contribute to the emotional and spiritual stress of obese women. Body image/body perception, and the image of beauty in American society should be explored. What is a healthy self-image?
· Challenge Christians to better define what makes for quality entertainment in our churches, homes and communities. What are the latitudes and limitations when it comes to movies, music, and other venues of entertainment? And how do parental/adult choices influence our children?

To be sure, Norbit is just a movie and many will watch, laugh, and go on with their lives. However, as a caution, I quote Jasmyne Cannick: “So while today it's Norbit, in a few weeks it will be Reno 911!: Miami, with Niecy Nash as Deputy Raineesha Williams and the big Black booty jokes.”

Sometimes cheap comedy costs more than the price of a ticket.

Eric Walters is Co-Founder of TheoSyst Group.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Gangsta Rap and Pulpit Wealth: A Tale of Two Greeds

by Eric Walters

"The church ought to say, 'If you can't do more positive rap, shut up and get the hell out,' ”

Those were the words of Reverend Michael Battle, commenting on how gangsta rap has negatively influenced black youth and black women. Battle is a Baptist preacher and President of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

Speaking to an audience of pastors and church leaders at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ (Los Angeles, CA), Battle charged that gangsta rap has stolen "the soul of positive rap," meant to articulate the "sociological circumstances" of African Americans, especially men. Some raps capture the obstacles facing a teen as he tries to "become a man … somebody with character in their turbulent circumstances."

Battle also alleged that the "wealth, health and prosperity part" of the [black] church as "what gangsta rap is to the hip-hop."

I think the comparison between gangsta rap and pulpit greed that Battle speaks of is quite fitting. It’s always encouraging to hear black clergy speak against self-inflicted abuse in the black community. Both gangsta rap and prosperity preachers prey upon their listeners with the empty promise of riches, respect, and prestige.

However, in ministry talk is cheap, and I’m concerned about what happens next. In the early 1990s C. Delores Tucker was one of the first African American leaders to galvanize a campaign against the emerging gangsta rap culture. Despite the Pastors and Laity Conference having deliberated the problems of gangsta rap/pulpit greed at its previous two conferences, I do not sense that there is a plan to mobilize their outrage into a foreseeable movement for transformation.

How do ministers and theologians move beyond "preaching and analysis" about the industry of gangsta rap and pulpit greed, to organized protest in the hope for transformation of our communities?

I have my own ideas and strategies, but I’d like to hear your suggestions.

What do you think?

Eric Walters is Co-Founder of TheoSyst Group.