Sunday, February 10, 2013

Betty and Coretta: A Story of Black Gender Politics

Lifetime Network

This time of the year, Black History Month, usually finds me running through my cable guide. I’m not an avid consumer of this form of media. However, I make an annual trek to TV land during Black History Month because this is the time when I’m apt to find shows on the Black “experience”. So imagine my excitement when I learned about “Betty and Coretta”, to be aired on Lifetime Network. The icing on the cake for me was that it starred Angela Bassett (one of favorite actresses). In anticipation, and to ensure that I didn’t miss what I was sure would be the highlight of my TV viewing experience of the year, I asked my daughter to DVR the show.

Eight p.m. found me on the couch with my peppermint tea. I was curled up and ready. The opening captivated me.  This was my super bowl.  Mid way through the “documentary” saw my interest waning. By the end I felt betrayed. This was not a story of Betty and Coretta. 

In my anticipation I was looking forward to learning about the friendship between these women and their activism. Instead, I got a story that did not center their agency and one that told me of their activism only as an outgrowth of their husbands’ activism.  Some have critiqued "Betty and Coretta" in terms of  embellishment and the fact that the families might not have been consulted. Consequently, some have questioned the authenticity of the production. Maybe this is all true. However, I’m more concerned with the narratives deployed in the telling of the story.

“Betty and Coretta” seemed to be a story of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was presented with a narrative of Black gender politics where the narratives of Black men are often privileged.

I understand that much of who these women are, real and imagined, is linked to the men they married. But must we not wonder who these women were prior to their marriages? Did they only understand politics and freedom via the lens of their husbands or might they have had their own conceptualizations? Did these women not have families, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles who might also have informed their activism? Did they not have political views on race, class, and gender prior to this? Where did these women come from? What were their childhoods like and how might this help to explain the friendship they forged? Did they have any correspondences with others outside of their families that might have helped us to understand how they made decisions?  These were the questions I pondered as the show progressed.

The narrative presented to us suggests that these women only found their voice after the untimely deaths of their husbands. In deed this was how I imagined the “Real Housewives of XX” to be and not a show on Dr. Shabazz and Mrs. Coretta Scott King.

While a number of narratives were deployed in the telling of the story of "Betty and Coretta", I focus on one narrative—that of the “strong” Black woman.There are two manifestations of this “strong” Black woman narrative that ran throughout the production. 

For one, the narrative speaks to the sacrificial Black woman. These women, via the notion of strength become the racial mothers for (Black) America. The normalization of the functioning of the Black woman as mother (biological and/or cultural) leads to the expectation that she will sacrifice so that others can make progress while simultaneously denying her needs and dreams.

Second, there is the narrative of  spiritual/supernatural strength. On the one hand, the story “denied” these women any connection to their Islamic or Christian faith. While allowing the men such a connection. This in indeed an interesting caveat, as we do not see how their beliefs influenced (or not) their activism. On the other hand, the women were constructed as supernaturally and spiritually strong. The spiritually/supernaturally strong Black woman is used to transcend worlds—present and past. The presentation of the women's stories allowed us to transcend Martin and Malcolm post-death. They allowed for the continuation of the dreams of these men. At times, the women who transcend spiritually become gods/icons themselves and serve as an affirmation of feminine power, and as a source of feminine solidarity. This is the narrative used to suggest the basis of the friendship between Betty and Coretta. While this notion of strength is used to construct the story of friendship, it does not permit these women a full display of their humanity.

Relying on these two scripts of the “strong” Black woman, while appearing to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Shabazz and Mrs. Coretta Scott King, show the continuation of the ideology of Black male privileging. Implicit, and often explicit, these strong Black women were depicted as protecting their men primarily because they are able to transcend all forms of punishment/harm/pain. They sacrifice themselves for the community and racial families, so that the dreams of their men might be manifest;  therein lies their value. Their story becomes valuable only in relation to the men some in the Black community hold as national heroes. 

There was a moment in the show when “Betty” said that Malcolm had left a series of problems that no matter what she did, she could not change. This I think could have been such a critical opening for us to understand her thinking. Instead, this thread was not weaved into the story in a substantive manner.

The construction of Betty and Coretta suggest that these women lacked activism/consciousness until after the deaths of their husbands. But we would never know because we were not afforded an opportunity to see these women. Consequently, I walked away frustrated. I had not learned anything about these women, but more about the construction of raced-gendered politics and practices.  

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