Message To Hollywood: Nina Simone Is Probably Not “Feeling Good” About Zoe Saldana Being Cast To Portray Her Legacy

*Special Note: Nothing is wrong with you. Please do not allow Hollywood’s definition of beauty to define what you truly are. Own your kinky hair, your dark skin, your wide nose, your luscious lips, and your curvy hips! No surgery or bleaching will ever be necessary.*

zoeninasidebyside

————-

No one wants to acknowledge his or her privilege. Not men. Not whites. Not wealthy individuals. Not educated folk. Not heterosexuals. And most recently, not Zoe Saldana.

It is very difficult to have someone understand his or her undeserved privilege, but it is time that Saldana unpacked her invisible knapsack within the Black community.

The controversy surrounding Zoe Saldana has been a difficult one to read. Colorism in the Black community has been a problem for many years. I have sat quiet on the topic regarding Saldana being cast to play the legendary, Nina Simone; however, per usual, I must add my two cents because as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.”

————-

While I do not think Zoe Saldana is a bad actress, she certainly should not have been cast to play Nina Simone. Not now and not ever. Nina Simone was a beautiful, curvy, dark-skinned Black woman with a rich voice. I remember first hearing Nina Simone when I was younger. Immediately, I fell in love from the first note to the last as I embraced her singing of pain, happiness, and even heartache. For much of her life, she experienced trials because of her darker skin complexion.

Zoe Saldana is a lighter-skinned, Afro-Latino woman. Saldana has probably never experienced the same resentment for her complexion as Nina Simone has. This is not Saldana’s “fault,” but the failure to recognize it, is. This is a major problem with Saldana being cast as Nina Simone. Even if Saldana was the greatest actress on earth, what is Hollywood attempting to portray by casting a lighter-skinned woman to play Nina Simone?

I must say, however, this issue is much bigger than Zoe Saldana . . . and must be addressed without “Trayvon Martin’ing” Saldana.

Let me explain further.

—————

When Trayvon Martin was tragically taken away from us by self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, people seemed to speak of racial profiling, violence against Blacks, and selective prosecution as isolated events when, in fact, they were systematic and continuous occurrences. Similarly, Hollywood’s failure to cast a dark-skinned Black woman, and instead cast Saldana, is not only disrespectful, it is not an isolated event, and simply another example of erasing ‘darkness.’

This issue is much bigger than Saldana; it is about displaying a true biopic of the life of Nina Simone. This is about Hollywood’s failure to cast dark-skinned Black women to play a dark-skinned Black woman.

You know who should play Nina Simone? Someone who does not have to paint her face darker to become a dark-skinned woman. Someone who has experienced trials because of her skin complexion by mainstream society, and can embody that into making an amazing film. Someone who has heard society say, “you are pretty for a dark-skinned girl” and understands that, by default, dark must not be pretty. Someone who . . . looks like Nina Simone, unless Hollywood is attempting to argue that dark-skinned Black women do not exist, which of course, is an entirely different conversation.

————-

The other day, I made the statement that “lighter-skinned Blacks receive a ‘privilege’ for being lighter-skinned.” When I used the word, “privilege,” to describe the treatment lighter-skinned Blacks received by mainstream society (and even by Blacks), I received some push back, though I am still unsure why. Privilege is, in essence, a preferential treatment that is not earned. This is not about whether Saldana has denied her blackness and whether she has always recognized the black part of her heritage. This is about our society valuing things that are closer to European features and devaluing blackness, but more specifically, dark-skinned blackness. The only way we can value dark-skinned blackness is by calling out the erasure of it by society and by Hollywood.

There are many dark-skinned actresses that could have been cast as Nina Simone, lest’ not forget that Simone was devalued because of her dark complexion (in this casting, that should have mattered — a lot). As a young Nina Simone, I can easily imagine Adepero Oduye from Pariah, and as an older Nina Simone, the directors could have cast Viola Davis — both of who are amazing actresses and can portray the triumphs and struggles of the icon.

My question is: what is the difference from this privilege than others? Why is it easy to understand white and male privilege, but not privileges within communities? Most people who receive privilege pretend not to recognize it as such. Being Black is not immunity from privilege; lighter-skinned Blacks should also realize this to be the case. Certainly, this is not to say that light-skinned people do not experience racism; they do. My point is that many receive preferential treatment for having more European features as if something is wrong with African features. Do not convince me that you have never heard someone say they want a “redbone” or someone who is “light-skinned, with green eyes, and long hair.”

Apparently, Saldana never received the memo of her privilege in-and-outside of Hollywood. In September, Saldana re-tweeted someone referring to her negative treatment as “reverse racism” in the Black community. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but racism does not go in reverse. It has been in drive for many years, and this erasure of dark-skinned Blackness is another example. “Reverse racism” is an overused statement by those who have the luxury of benefiting from privilege and entitlement. Reverse racism is fictional and has never existed. Since Saldana is playing Nina Simone, I am surprised she would ever make a statement about her experiencing “reverse racism.”

To make matters worse, Saldana has been extremely defensive of the criticism. I heard someone say “Saldana is being picked on.”

Let us be clear – this is not a schoolyard bully looking for a problem; this is about defending the legacy of Nina Simone and for dark-skinned women in Hollywood. By not even attempting to understand the colorism complex in the Black community, and in Hollywood, Saldana will continue experiencing backlash for accepting this role. I will not even discuss the irony of a minority doing “Blackface” to play the role of a dark-skinned Black woman.

Calling out this type of privilege does not mean that a person is valued less. It simply means that someone must value us as dark-skinned individuals because we recognize that if we will not, no one will — especially not Hollywood.

————-

I, for one, do not think Saldana should be the person to play such an icon whose music was highly influential in the fight for equality in our country. When dark-skinned women cannot even be cast as dark-skinned women, we have a huge problem in Hollywood and in our country. It should be addressed.

Recently, I read an article that stated, “Zoe Saldana is black ‘enough'” to play Nina Simone. They went on to say that “the quality of her acting” was all that mattered. If all that matters is the quality of Zoe Saldana’s acting, then let Meryl Streep play Harriet Tubman. Let Tom Cruise play Frederick Douglass. Let Nicole Kidman play Maya Angelou. While we are at it, let us pretend that racism and colorism has nothing to do with casting in Hollywood.

There must be a standard and lines must be drawn. If Hollywood does not care to do it, then we can take out our permanent marker and draw one for them.

While I do not think Saldana is 100% to blame, she should have exercised some artist integrity to decide to turn down the role. I reserve most of my blame for the continued erasure of dark-skinned Black America, especially in regards to this film, for Cynthia Mort and Jeremy Lovine for casting Saldana. However, by happily accepting this role, not only has Saldana failed to exercise artist integrity, she has also failed to realize the perpetuation of the racial-hierarchy that Hollywood has promoted, and that she has helped to promote.

People do not believe that the history of Nina Simone should be chastised simply because Hollywood is afraid of casting a dark-skinned Black woman with luscious lips and curvy hips. People care about the image of a woman with kinky and natural hair receiving recognition. People care about Nina Simone. This is about her more than it is about Saldana.

Nina Simone’s life. Her legacy. Her Blackness. Her dark-skinned blackness . . . matters!

Advertisements

Suicidal Thoughts, a Rainy Summer Night, and the Power of Frozen-Hands

“A few slits to the wrist in the right direction will make this all go away,” I thought on one humid, summer night. While it would not erase my ‘blackness’ and ‘gayness,’ it would erase the thoughts in my head that I was neither black enough nor gay enough. When I was younger, I repeatedly heard comments from white people, mainly teachers, on how surprised they were to hear such articulate words come from my mouth. What shocked them so much about the way I pronounced the same words they were using? Was it that a little black boy from the hood of Youngstown, Ohio understood the use of syllables? Were they shocked that I never uttered the word, “yo’” and other ‘hoodisms’ they saw presented through the lens of the media?

Growing up, I always wondered “am I black enough?”

Let me be fair – the same black folk they saw on television were similar to the ones that chastised me in elementary and middle school for being a little too “proper.” I was no stranger to the, “you are trying to be white” attacks, coupled with the “no one from Youngstown talks like that.” Sadly, “like that” meant “proper,” which, in turn, meant “white.” You see, where I come from, if you speak proper English, you are not black because many believed that the only black person that spoke properly, were the ones attempting to assimilate into a culture, dominated by white people.

Since I concluded that I was not black enough, when I accepted that I was gay, I immediately thought if I was gay enough.

It was completely my fault for believing that the gay community was all accepting. Let us face it; it is not. I blame myself entirely for believing that a group angry about discrimination would not blatantly isolate others in the community. But during my “questioning” days, I assumed I was going to be in this LGBT community and everyone would love me, because after all, we are gay and have that in common. Wrong.

When I first “came out,” I was nervous, overjoyed, and felt empowered. I felt fire burning deep inside me, but unfortunately, this fire began to simmer once I realized that I did not (1) have my eyebrows arched; (2) the newest Steve Maddens; or (3) a fantastic murse (man purse). The one thing Will & Grace did not teach me, you, or the rest of society (maybe besides that one episode with Taye Diggs), was that blacks, too, can be gay. The LGBT community is a lot more divided than people may think – some are rich, middle class, and many others are very poor. Just like Democrats and Republicans, we fight for our individual interests instead of, unfortunately, considering the community at-large. Do not get me wrong. I love my LGBT brothers and sisters, but we have a lot of work to do because we suffer from a deeply entrenched hierarchy of oppression.

Though we should not judge one another based on stereotypes, my life experience has taught me that some do hold true. On one hand, I did find myself isolated in the Black community for not wearing baggy clothes, the newest Jordan’s, or not being able to relate to things I simply did not like that many in my community did. On the other hand, many of my new LGBT friends always had a peculiar look when I said, “I don’t have casual sex.” Where was my strong Black community that fought against white supremacy? Where was my all-inclusive LGBT community? This internal confusion and isolation went on for years. This, in turn, led to arguments; the arguments turned into depression; depression turned into suicidal thoughts. As hard as this is for me to type, on June 16, 2006, at 2:00 a.m., I considered taking my own life. Outside of my friend’s house, crying in the rain, stood me, a bottle of vodka, Vicodin, and a knife. All I could think was, “do it right, Preston . . . don’t cut in the wrong direction.”

As you can see, I am still here. Still standing and stronger than ever before. That is because, at that moment, my hands literally froze and I could not move them for a brief moment in time. I would have to be silly not to understand that my Creator was telling me that he/she was not done with me yet.  I just wanted to know that someone cared for me. I wanted to know that I was not alone – that I could be Black and LGBT – that I did not have to pick between the two. I needed to know that I was put on this Earth for a purpose! I still have a life to live! My friend came outside, saw everything surrounded by me, picked me up, and brought me inside. We never spoke of that moment again. From that day forward, I made a re-commitment to change my life and instead of “thinking outside of the box,” I would fix the box; I would change my worldview.

I am a fan of therapy. The problem with many communities is that people advocate for “praying things away” as the sole answer. They preach that “God will find a way” when problems are not about religion or faith. Some issues are much deeper than prayer can answer; this is where I found myself on June 16, 2006. So, when I the fall semester began, in secret, I enrolled in therapy sessions. In addition to praying, I would seek professional help to tell my story about being a victim of sexual abuse, discuss my suicidal thoughts, and the feeling of isolation and abandonment. Were it not for her, I am not sure I would be here today. It is important to seek help for our problems, but first, we have to admit we are suffering from a problem. I am here to tell you that suicide is not a white problem, a rich problem, or a gay problem. It is something that anyone can experience and I urge you to seek help if you are having suicidal thoughts and know that you, too, have a life worth living!

My experiences have taught me that no group is monolithic – though we may share a common identity, we think differently, feel differently, express emotions differently, but should not be treated differently. Thank the Creator for saving my life that humid summer night. My “box” may not be fixed, but I am living and learning every day. That is a reason for me to smile!

Image