If you haven’t already had the opportunity to check out Dee Rees’s film ‘Pariah’ I highly recommend you stop reading this, find the nearest theater and see the next showing. I finally had the chance to see the film—which has garnered a significant amount of critical success—and was thrilled by Rees’s presentation of a story that too easily could have left an audience filled with sorrow, pity or false empathy.
What struck me almost immediately about ‘Pariah’ was it’s honest portrayal of adolescence. Alike, a 17-year old black androgynous woman, struggles to find herself amongst the chaos that surrounds her. Her dysfunctional family life, complicated friendships, her first sexual encounter—and the awkwardness that follows—are things that everyone can relate to despite race, gender identity or sexual orientation. Of course, these things are also complicated by Alike’s black skin, butch exterior and interest in women, which are central to her character. Rees does a phenomenal job of balancing general teenage angst and discomfort (think ‘Thirteen’ or ‘Raising Victor Vargas’) and the specific issues that speak to the black LGBTQ community.
While I was in New Orleans bicycling around the 6th and 7th Wards earlier this month, I passed by a tiny vintage house in Robin’s egg blue with a proudly displayed sign: The New Orleans African American Museum. I was reminded there that 2012 is an important milestone in the African diaspora’s history. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress, the social movement organization that helped eradicate apartheid. It is also the 200th anniversary of the founding of Tremé, the first free black neighborhood in the United States that is slowly rebuilding itself, although it has been abandoned by our federal government ever since the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In so many of the classes I teach, students start the semester with a strong sense that racism is unjust and an equally resilient lack of confidence that racism can and must end in our lifetime. My friends, many of whom are very dedicated scholars, artists and organizers have the same—not cynicism—resignation. Walking around the 9th Ward, where there is an abundance of grassy lots and rippling tarps instead of families and neighbors, I felt similarly dispirited. I thought the people who had come back to the 9th were very brave. They worked in coalitions to reconstruct a few beautiful brightly colored houses that stood up from the grass against the power that tried to let them drown.