The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for April 2019 said:
‘A writer and teacher examines more than 60 words, many hugely contentious, that are used to describe black men and women, with a particular focus on black masculinity’.
I had originally intended to read Naomi Wolf’s book on Sex and Censorship which I was keenly looking forward to – only the publishing date was changed to later so I had to pick another title from this months options. It is fair to say this title both intrigued and intimidated me. I have spent a lot of my academic and activist life considering oppression and diversity issues but I am mindful that whilst I identify as a working class, disabled, lesbian woman I am white and as such, privileged. I have not given very much thought at all to masculinity except in relation to the impact of masculinity upon women and I can only be academically aware of the impact of race upon lived experience. Would I find this book interesting to read or indeed, relevant (enough) to me personally? I was acutely aware of and politically anxious about the nuance of my preference for Wolf’s book over Boakye’s.
With limited time and energy one much choose carefully where to focus and whilst books about masculinity are important I guess I have decided to commit my own time largely to books about and by women. This should not be understood as a single focus so much as more a positively gendered choice. I am aware of the contradictions inherent in a narrowed focus.
As I have mentioned before in this blog, I see little merit in reviewing books already thoroughly reviewed elsewhere. The aim of the blog is to consider the merit or relevance of the Guardian Review Literary calendar. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, gives a compelling, politically powerful, and mediated by his own experiences as a black man, review in the Guardian (15 April 2019) . It is a thought provoking read of itself.
I loved this book. I loved, admired and envied the cadence and rhythm of the writing style which was musical and easily accessible whilst discussing challenging concepts. I found it to be a radical and compelling book – the kind I want to hand to dozens of friends, students and strangers and tell them to read it. It was funny. I learned so much from it – things I had never known or understood – and things I really should have known or thought about but can hopefully, not now ‘un-know’. I (re) considered the nature of language, labels, binaries, cultural homogenization and appropriation, loaded terms and the impacts of these and who is hurt most. Some of it was uncomfortable reading (language as a weapon) and some especially thought provoking in relation to terms (of endearment? of ‘outlaws’? of politics?) I now often hear used/appropriated across communities.
However – and I am mindful that as a white woman I am on wobbly ground here – there was one section that just didn’t sit right with me and that in his discussion of the naming of Melanie Brown AKA Scary Spice. Drawing on an article by Chaedria LaBouvier ‘We Owe “Scary Spice” an Apology’ in which LaBouvier discusses hair – specifically black girls hair, Boakye repeasts her questioning of why a black girl was given the name ‘Scary’ which LaBouvier says is inherently racist. Boakye suggests that as a nickname ‘Scary Spice’ is about blackness being frightening to white sensibilities. In a HuffPost live conversation Mel B explains the origin of the name and why she still uses it – because she likes it and has never been offended by it. She acknowledges it was given to her by (female) journalist who, like Mel came from Leeds. Whilst LaBouvier suggests Mel B may keep the name because she has no choice, nothing I have ever read about Mel B suggests she is a woman without agency. I have always ‘read’ her name to be a manifestation of her Leeds girl, badass, could wipe the floor with you if she wanted to, take no shit, self-confident attitude (and indeed, in the interview Mel B suggests it is exactly this). As Yorkshire born I have known, been scared of and achingly wished I was more like/as ballsy as Leeds girls/women as I grew from girl to woman. I understand that there is an ‘eye of the beholder’ issue here and that this is a discussion of different hues with no ‘correct’ answer but it was the only part of the book that that made me feel something was missing and I was unpersuaded by the depth of the point being made. The focus felt narrow and possibly even, dare I say it, not respectful enough in according Mel B (women’s) power to make her own informed choices.
This is a wonderful book – I have never read one quite like it. I have read a lot of books about oppression and discrimination underpinned by (righteous) anger and the fury can be an infectious call to arms. There are several hundred pages of book here which could be a call to arms but Boakye does not write with incendiary fury. He writes instead with the voice of a wise, funny and thoughtful teacher who must be heard. His voice opens eyes and minds and I wish I could write like that.
So far, the ‘books to look forward to’ list offered by the Guardian Review is proving to be (almost annoyingly) worthwhile – though, as I will discuss in a future post, somewhat unbalanced and skewed in relation to representation.