This post began as a response to some of the commentary surrounding Spike Lee’s Chi-raq. But primarily, it’s a personal essay about the dichotomy of perfectionism and shame.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
I once knew a man who was extremely self-deprecating. I’ll call him R. Every day, R. would put himself down, talk about how lowly he was. But he wasn’t especially negative. He praised others as much as he insulted himself. If you gave him a gift or did the smallest kindness for him, he would go on and on about how generous you were, and how undeserving he was. I’m certain it was no coincidence that R. was also a devout Christian.
I spent a lot of time with R. and observed his behavior over several years. On occasions when he was tired or suffering from health problems, his attitude would reverse. Suddenly, a person who frustrated him was “an idiot,” a morally bankrupt individual; and he, my friend, was the innocent and more intelligent victim, wronged by virtue of being superior in every way.
The contrast was stark. He could go from obsequious to vicious on the turn of a dime. A psychiatrist today would likely diagnose R. as having a personality disorder, and put him on a course of chemical treatment. But R. was deeply religious, and interpreted all of his behavior and thoughts through the lens of purification vs. corruption. When he apologized for speaking sharply, it was with a bowing and scraping that we rarely see today.
Getting to know R. was integral to my development. I recognized bits of myself in him. Because I was also devout, we had something in common. Despite being of different faiths, we shared a strong and mutual admiration. But as the years went on, it became apparent how his ritual self-abasement was only the flip-side of a raging egoism. This prompted me to consider my own long-term depression, and tendency to minimize myself. “I am insignificant, I am not worthy,” etc. Could it be that my religious practice of submission had suppressed a latent desire to be of significance, to be powerful, to be admired? For ten years I thought about this.
Perspective vs Aggrandizement
Several years ago I decided to prioritize having a balanced perspective of myself. I was not the most worthless person in the room simply because I was not the most accomplished. I was not an ugly beast simply because there were women who were more beautiful. My writing wasn’t garbage just because it wasn’t as good as it could have been if I’d spent more time on it. And so on.
With focused effort, I have made tremendous strides in this area. I can now receive criticism on my work, be awkward in a conversation, be preferred over someone else and so on, without feeling that my heart has been rent. Not being the best or the most prized is not a reason to give up, hide away, or stop participating.
But it’s still something I have to work on. Daily. One thing that doesn’t help me at all in this, is something I see online – also daily. It’s the “flawless” assertion.
It is popular among fellow Black women of my generation and some Millennials. The highest compliment you can pay a woman is that she is flawless. I’ve never seen a definition of it, but from what I gather, a flawless woman is one who is beautiful, can be counted on to be well put-together (at least on camera), usually the most superior person in the room, and seemingly in control of her destiny.
The concept of “flawless” is a difficult thing to counter, in part because it’s reactionary. Black women in our society are so maligned, so sidelined. We are disproportionately abused by cops and domestic partners; in popular entertainment, we’re usually relegated to roles of support staff; romantically, we’re the least preferred on online dating sites; the list of inequities that signify Black women (as a group) are near the bottom of the social hierarchy is long.
So it makes sense, that culturally speaking, we counter this degrading narrative with one of flawlessness. That we declare, “Black Girls Are Magic!” I understand all of that; I am a black woman who grew up in this country, I understand it. I understand that for a Black woman to achieve significance, to be noted or notable, is going against the odds and can seem like magic.
But personally, it does me no good. Why? Because it’s not true. I am not magical. Nothing I do in the world, good or bad, is magic. And most certainly, I can never be flawless. It is impossible.
It’s also not true that Black women should play second fiddle to white women (or anyone), or that we are the least attractive women on the planet (as many claim, including ordinary people who insist they are “colorblind”), or so on. None of it is true! The inequalities that Black women must contend with have nothing to do with our actual quality. They are social injustices built upon centuries of calculated, white supremacist economic and social policies.
I don’t want either narrative. For my own sanity, I need the truth. I need to be able to see myself with clarity. Tearing off one delusion only to immediately replace it with another is not wise. I can be flawed and make mistakes – and still have value. I can say stupid things and embarrass myself, wear an ugly outfit – and still make great art and be a good mother and a good friend. I can lose an athletic event – that doesn’t mean I should take my sorry ass home. I can be the worst karaoke singer of the night but that doesn’t mean I should be ashamed and never touch the mic again.
Black Creativity, Black Freedom
This came up for me again today because I was on Twitter. A fellow there, Brandon David Wilson, aka @GeniusBastard, was tweeting about Spike Lee’s latest film, Chi-Raq. Wilson is a Black man in Los Angeles who teaches English and makes indie films. He often loves films that I am meh about and dislikes films that I adore. Nevertheless, I follow him because he is interesting, has a point of view, and is well-informed about film.
I haven’t seen Chi-Raq – I’ve watched one trailer for it. From the day the trailer was released, I witnessed ire among many people who were embarrassed by the film, by the very premise of the film (based on the play Lysistrata, which I first read 20 years ago, and is still frequently performed on US stages), and by Spike Lee’s politics (such as they are), in general.
The first commentary I read about Chi-Raq was an article rejecting the movie on the basis of the trailer; this author claimed that the women in the film have no agency (misogyny) and that Lee had appropriated Chicago culture.* Later, Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo published a withering review in The Stranger titled “Fuck you, Spike Lee.” “Chi-Raq is bad,” she said. “Everything about it is bad. Don’t see it.” On my Twitter timeline, the overwhelming tone among Black people (none of the white or brown people I follow has said a word about it to my knowledge) is: the film is trash; how could Spike even do this?!
Wilson, who saw the film last night, wrote, “Chi-raq is no masterpiece. It is uneven. But it’s an important film that needs to be seen. When it’s working it transcends its shortcomings.”
Because I haven’t seen the film, of course, I have no opinion of it. And usually I disagree with Wilson. Also, Chi-Raq looks like a musical – that’s a tough genre to sell even when the material is bland. Spike Lee has always been hit or meh for me. He is also really eccentric. The fact that he’s a Black filmmaker in Hollywood and has managed to crank out two dozen feature-length films implies he is not preoccupied with random people’s opinions (aka “gives zero f***s”).
I do plan on seeing the movie now, simply to decide for myself. But regardless of what I think of it, I have to wonder: is it possible (yet) for a Black filmmaker to make a provocative movie that is considered worthwhile, if it is unwieldy? If it is not great? If it is ambitious but not entirely successful? As a Black person who writes and must battle daily to view my own creations with simple clarity (what works, what can be improved upon?), this is an important question for me.
On Twitter, Wilson added, “Black Cinema only has room for hagiography or crowd pleasers, not art.”
I feel what Wilson is saying here. I have seen countless white-male-directed movies that have had their flaws laid bare but are still deemed worth watching. To answer my own question, I do think it is possible for Black filmmakers to be in this position, but we are in a process … and a gradual one.
Only this year did I begin to recognize the role racism (both external and internalized) might be playing in my ongoing, personal struggle between shame and perfection.
Being able to take a measured view of oneself and ones creative output is an incredible freedom. For some of us, the dichotomy of shame and perfectionism is imprinted on us by personal experience. For some of us, it is demanded, by the whole system. This is a false dichotomy.
I have only one set of eyes. How can I ever see that I am a work in progress, both flawed and valuable, without seeing the same in others?