Monday, November 26, 2007

Zora on Film: "Heading South" – White Women as Consumers of Black Flesh

An article on MSNBC about older, white women traveling to Kenya for sex tourism made me recall a film I watched a little more than a year ago. I remember that I stood in a long, movie line waiting in the humid heat of summer. I was surrounded by middle-aged, white women who chatted gaily while eagerly anticipating the film. On observing them, I knew that I was not going to enjoy myself that afternoon.

You see, I suffer from a phenomenon termed by sociologist Charles Horton Cooley as “the looking glass self.” This is essentially the interaction between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Because respectable negroes so often find themselves in white dominated spaces, we all experience this phenomenon at some point or another: we may adore Jay-Z, but we groan when we see our white colleagues grab their crotches and attempt to sing Girls, Girls, Girls; we may love fried chicken, but we pass on it at the company picnic; we may love to dance, but we’ll be damned if we are the first to get out on the dance floor at the firm’s holiday party… Why? Because we know that what they see is not what we see. In reacting to others perceptions of us, we both alter our behavior and our own perceptions of ourselves.

As I stood in the line to see Heading South, and later as I watched both the audience and the film, I knew that those women would not see what I was seeing. I was there to see a film about the terrible exploitation of the developing world by the West. They were there to see what they imagined as the white woman's version of How Stella Got Her Groove Back. A New York Times report on one screening described, "Some bought tickets in groups for a kind of middle-aged girls’ night out. Interviews indicated the movie has hit home with this audience because it affirms the sexual reality of women of a certain age, that even as they pass the prime of their desirability to men, libidos smolder. More than a few said they came seeking a hot night out."

Heading South takes place in Papa Doc's Haiti -- one of many terrifying chapters in the island's history. The central male characters are all poor, Haitian men who are struggling to get by. The central female characters are all elite, middle-aged women from the U.S., Canada & Europe. The women are there to purchase the attentions of young men (in one case very young, thirteen). The story focuses on the relationship between Ellen and Legba, her favorite, young lover. Early in the film, Ellen confesses, "I always told myself that when I'm old I'd pay young men to love me. I just didn't think it would happen so fast." Like the women in the audience that night, she could care less about the vulnerability and desperation of the young man she embraces. The violence and poverty of the island she enjoys is held at bay by security guards, leaving her free to exploit her fantasy. She doesn't care to know more. When tragedy inevitably raises its head, Ellen foolishly and selfishly sees herself at the center of it all.

The fact that the male protagonist is named Legba should have been the first clue to both the audience and to Ellen that all was not as it appeared, that there was a truth to take away. Legba, aka Eshu, Elegba or Elegua, is a Yoruba deity found in the practices of Orisha-ifa, Candomble, Santeria and Vodou. He is known as a playful, "trickster" god who plays pranks on mortals in order to teach them hard lessons. Somehow this key fact was lost on the female characters, on the audience members and on movie reviewers alike. They completely missed a major part of the story line and reduced the film to a hot story about sexy mandingos and the white women they crave. Of course, I left the film angry and with an attitude. And, of course, my fellow movie-goers assumed that my anger was tied to a resentment of their desirability. My entire movie experience, my entire night, was altered by what I imagined a bunch of old, white women were thinking.

At this point, I know that you are wondering why I let myself get so worked up about a film. The problem was that I knew that this film was based in fact, that it wasn't entirely fiction, that many of those women in the audience ran to book vacations to Haiti, to Cape Verde, to the Dominican Republic, to Jamaica, to Kenya ... As a frequent traveler, I can't tell you how many times I have gone to the Caribbean and witnessed wrinkled, flaccid women from Europe waiving dollars, Euros and gifts in front of young men who, in stronger economies, would be employed or in school. I try to hide the surprise and disgust on my face, but the men see it and either react with aggression ("Who the hell do you think you are?") or turn their heads in shame. When I was traveling in upper-Egypt, I witnessed the same phenomenon: beautiful, Nubian men in traditional kufis and gallabiyyas walking along the shores of the Nile with frumpy, old women immodestly dressed. Anyone who has ever visited a man in jail or prison has witnessed similar dynamics. There, you very often see young, black men in their prime attached at the hip to older, white women, those who presumably could not afford plane tickets abroad.

In all of the popular discussions of this growing phenonemon, the narrative is always about white women rediscovering their sexuality. The women are always haughty and self-righteous about their arrangements, asserting a dynamic of equal exchange. Rarely do we hear the voices of the men and young boys, for this isn't their story. They are merely part of the supporting cast. They are black bodies for purchase. They are what white women perceive them to be. The suffering economies and violent societies are mere backdrops for a neo-colonial love fest. This is the story of Miss Ann being "served, serviced and pampered" by her over-sexed mandingo.


gordon gartrelle said...

Preach it, Sister Zora.

But were you equally offended by Terry McMillan's ...Stella?

Zora said...

I have to say that I was offended by McMillan's Stella, but not to the same degree and for different reasons. I was offended to see a story of an accomplished, beautiful black woman who saw her only option for a meaningful relationship in the eyes of a lazy, spoiled island boy. In McMillan's story, the male protagonist came from a privileged family -- he wasn't exploited. He probably could have secured a visa on his own and easily entered the professional class. What bothered me was Stella's, and Terry's, desperation and self-delusion. With the options in the U.S. for black women being what they are, we too often settle for something that is too good to be true. Black women, too, are beginning to travel to the Carribbean to meet men. The key difference is that they are most often looking for husbands, for true love and not for a mandingo sex toy.

Dallas Penn said...

Damn Z,
Let these white hos get some of this cock.

Nahh, but seriously, when has privilege or entitlement ever had to look itself squarely in the face and admit that it was just a ho, a thief, a coward?

White would do their damnedest to bring an extinct animal species back from the dead before they would fess u[ to the benefits of supremacy.

My only hopw is that some of these wrinkled bags end up with 'change of life' babies. Now that would really change their lives.

Zora said...


You're absolutely right -- the privelege of white supremacy is that you don't have to be accountable to anyone (except to maybe a more powerful white person).

Your hope for retribution, however, will only serve to disempower us further by filling our ranks with black folks who willingly refer to themselves as "mocha babies" or "zebras" and spend their days trying to convince white people that they are "not really black."

Anonymous said...

I agree with this post, but I take offense to your claim that us racially mixed blacks want to be white. My dad let me know that,even though I'm half white,society will see me as black,and I 'keeps it real' and never tried to be a oreo. Although I did know a few half-black kids who had mostly white friends and looked pretty white,there were many more "mocha babies" that hanged with the black folks,considered themselves black, and these were the majority. The assimilated mulatto doesn't exist.

Anonymous said...


Forgive me. I didn't mean to offend you at all. I absolutely do not think that all mixed folks want to be white (my post on "light-skinned negroes who know the value of being black" supports this).

What I was referring to is the disturbing trend of people who want to create a "mixed-race" identity, of people who want to claim every part of their identity except for that which extends from Africa. It both denies a social reality in America and undermines a history/practice among black Americans that has always been inclusive of "mixtures." The mixed-race identity movement includes a lot of white female voices who have no connection or affinity to African-Americans other that through the partner they coupled with. They have narrow visions of what it means to be black, of the black experience generally, and they often pass this on to their children. With little exposure to the full diversity of experience and culture among black folks, the children of these women react to stereotypes: "Black people are like X; If I am not like X, then I can't be black; I know that I can't be white in this country, so let's come up with an alternative ..."

The women I write about in "Heading South," women who see black men primarily as exotics, are the very women who are most likely to raise children who willingly call themselves zebras. There are plenty of other white women (and men) who are both thoughtful and pragmatic in raising their black children -- examples abound...

Again, no disrespect intended.