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Identity Crisis

From: Cinema Journal
Volume 52, Number 4, Summer 2013
pp. 123-128 | 10.1353/cj.2013.0051

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W. E. B. Du Bois described double consciousness as a sense “of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” There may be no truer example of Du Bois’s theory than the relationship between African Americans and the media, or between an African American scholar and the field of media studies. Growing up, film and television were sources of entertainment as well as history lessons. My parents would sit me down to watch Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) and were just as likely to praise Hattie McDaniel’s performance as they were to point out the troubling “mammy” trope she played. I suspect that many other media scholars of color grew up with similar experiences of media consumption. On the one hand, I delighted in the images and representations that appeared on the big and small screens. On the other hand, I was never able to separate my enjoyment from an awareness of the ways that these representations operated in broader social and political contexts.

Though I have since learned to appreciate this particular form of media-specific double consciousness, it proved a stumbling block on more than one occasion as I embarked on my graduate school journey. Even though I felt drawn to study mainstream popular culture, I felt a heavy sense of guilt for not choosing to focus on more “respectable” media. I wondered whether I was disappointing people by choosing to study Breakin’ (Joel Silberg, 1984) and rap videos rather than more “worthy” films like Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991). Of course, I wasn’t sure who these “people” were that I was so afraid of disappointing. My parents? My grandmother? Melvin Van Peebles dedicated his opus Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) to “all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man.” Maybe I should adopt the same approach?

I was still attempting to reconcile these conflicting impulses when I went to Northwestern University to interview for admission to the PhD program in screen cultures. Interestingly, Du Bois’s double consciousness took on a quite literal meaning when I found myself the only person of color present among the potential graduate students and faculty. I wondered about what meaning my interests would take on in this particular setting. Therefore, when Jeffrey Sconce asked me a fairly simple question—my favorite movie—I felt a knot growing in my stomach. I was momentarily paralyzed as I found myself in the midst of a personal dilemma. I wanted to be honest and present who I was, but at the same time, I felt a heavy pressure to represent myself as a serious candidate for graduate study. I bit the bullet and tentatively offered that I adored Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995). Having uttered a statement that bordered on confession, I nervously awaited his reaction. When he slipped a copy of Film Quarterly across his desk—the issue containing the roundtable discussion of Showgirls—I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

For a prospective graduate student who very much felt the burden of representation weighing down on her in that moment, Sconce’s gesture reassured me that there was a place for me in academia. Back in my hotel room that evening, I devoured the reflections on the film offered by scholars Noël Burch, Akira Mizuta Lippit, Chon Noriega, Ara Osterweil, Eric Schaefer, Jeffrey Sconce, and Linda Williams. What impressed me was not simply the novelty of academics writing about a “bad” film, but also that their arguments revealed aspects of the film that I had felt but had not been able to articulate. That moment was revelatory. I had long known that I wanted to focus my attention on bringing out the overlooked merits and possibilities of popular culture, but I did not possess a vision of what that might look like. Jeffrey Sconce and Film Quarterly gave me that.

Young scholars need that kind of encouragement. In her essay in this volume, Meheli Sen discusses how she pushes back against Western theoretical frameworks that continually “other” her work on Indian cinema. While my work on African American media does not involve...

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