Stories a Name can Tell

There am I in the digital universe doing information indulgence care of the BBC, ESPN, and Google News -(soccer, folks)- and along came a signifying digital interloper causing cognitive dissonance. The surprise was the name of one Benedict Cumberbatch; an actor, English, of theatre, television, and film, most famous for playing the title role in the Sherlock Holmes television series.

The moment the Cumberbatch name was sighted it became a source of attention, I asked myself, because of what the name signified and was a signifier of, for me, “is he Caribbean heritaged?”

Or, to be charitable and politically correct to the other nations and peoples of Caribbean Civilization, since the English-speaking ex-colonies of England are but part of a greater cultural political economic and linguistically diverse region “ does Benedict Cumberbatch …play cricket, eat callaloo and salt fish, bake breadfruit, eat guava, cassava, plaintain, edoe and/or yam?” Is he a descendant of cane cutters?

Through Internet searching, I was both surprised and not surprised to discover he is both of Caribbean Civilizational heritage and not of Caribbean Civilizational heritage. So how can he be and not be at the same time? Is he or is he ain’t?

But then when I read entries in the digital universe about him, intuitive suspicions were confirmed, for Mr. Cumberbatch was that historically peculiar variant of the Cumberbatch family, an English-English Cumberbatch in contrast to the Caribbean-African descended Cumberbatch’s descended from sugar cane cutting enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and Americas. His name was an imperial interloper into the drama of this history.

The Caribbean-African descended Cumberbatch’s lived in ex-English colonial dominions like Barbados, Guyana, Dominica, Jamaica, Antigua, St-Kitts and St-Lucia. Their name was one of the many English names my ancestors claimed as their own, either because they worked on a plantation owned by their name sake, or, once worked with an overseer with such a name, or found the name associated with a person of local distinction or heard of it from the Bible and liked it, or were commanded by force of law. This naming practice was repeated throughout the Caribbean and Americas by enslaved Africans be they in Spanish-, Portuguese-, or, Dutch-speaking dominions.

This latter feature of Caribbean colonial history, explains the variety of names among the African-descended players from the Caribbean and Americas in the 2014 World Cup of soccer in Brazil. You had Valencia from Ecuador, to J. Campbell of Costa Rica, to Juan Zuniga of Colombia, to Nigel de Jong of the Netherlands and Jozy Altidore (Haiti) of America. Of course there are many others, but this sample was chosen to make a point: there is more to name than the name itself.

A name is history, culture, economics, gender, and politics. It is time, place, identity and purpose. It is change, stability, violence and revolution. It is us when faced with ourselves and us when we run from ourselves. It is, lastly, a digital entry for the state in its bureaucratic management of society.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s name belongs to him; it also belongs to the history of Britain and the many nations and peoples its imperial past gave birth to. And Benedict whilst not of Caribbean African heritage is by virtue of his ancestral ties part and parcel of that heritage as are those who claimed that surname as their right marching forward into the future unknown part of the ancestral heritage of his England, regardless of what the English might think and or feel-his name says so.

Pages: 594

Charles Simon-Aaron

July 20th, 2014

‘Straight Outta Compton’ Casting BOO! BOO! NO! NO!: Freudian Slip or Freudian Vomit?

Whilst surfing through the digital universe checking momentarily for the latest cultural production that might, be worthy of my hard earned crocodile tears, I saw an entry care of the Washington Post web site( 2014/07/17) “Universal distances itself from ‘Compton’ casting”

Care of Associated Press, July 17th, 2014, the story relates to an open casting call posted on Facebook by the Sande Alessi Casting Agency recruiting background actors for the Universal Pictures biographic film of the pioneering Rap group N.W.A (N…..s With Attitude), titled,“Straight Outta Compton,” founded by Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. It is directed by F. Gary Gray and supported by the group’s founder members.

The casting agency sought to recruit women in four categories. “A girls” were described as “the hottest of the hottest” and could be of any ethnicity. “B girls” were to be “light-skinned,” whereas “D girls” were “African-American… Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone.” (Associated Press; July 17th, 2014)


I am thinking Facebook! Los Angeles! Rodney King! Riots! Donald Sterling!  How in the name of modern America can you *#@^–up like that? How? To further add to the shock, it was posted on—wait for it—Facebook! Facebook!! F-A-C-E-B-O-O-K!!! THE DIGITAL DICTIONARY of the digital universe where the whole world watches, or, at least the 1 billion that have access to a computer and are sufficiently literate to use it. Wow!

Now you know and I know that not 1 billion Facebook users watched the post by the Sande Alessi Agency. The point is in the Internet age there is a safety first thinking called for whenever you post: always assume that whatever you post is going to be seen by 1 billion human beings some of whom might not have your best interests at heart. So write as if your enemy is reading, hates you and wants to harm you. Virtual thinking in a virtual world; or, put another way: CYA: Cover Your A_s. The Sande Alessi Agency failed to do so; or, did it?

Could it not be that the collective wisdom of a small part of the American community of which the Sande Alessi Agency and its employees are a part holds the above to be so true, normal and natural that its airing on Facebook is a normal unproblematic fact of life and business? Could it not be? And, that what we are witnessing is a social Freudian slip cum Freudian vomit, a vomit of sub-communal sputum onto the terrain of mainstream America? Or, is it?

Surely what we are witnessing is the new impress on social and commercial relationships in the modern world wherever the computer and Internet are present and accessible: all posts are transparent; automatic; universal and subject to interpretation by all who view. The technology is ahead of its users. The Sande Alessi Agency is the latest victim of the rapid growth in mass usage of the Internet. It is a teacher in a learning moment for us all. The Internet is flatlining social communications.

Needless to say Universal Pictures issued the following statement:

The company said in a statement late Thursday that “the filmmakers … did not approve and do not condone the information in this casting notice. We regret and sincerely apologize for being in any way associated with the offensive descriptions it contained.”

We are all part of the evolution of public speech via the Internet, including you. Be careful now.

Words: 599

Charles Simon-Aaron

July 19th, 2014

What does Hollywood, the Oscars, Jesse Jackson and Octavia Spencer have in common?

Who is Octavia Spencer (1972-    ) I hear you say?

Well, she is only the most recent winner of an academy award for best supporting actress-“The Help” (2012). She is testament to personal determination to take membership in a profession that marginalizes women whose figure and color are, to coin a phrase, irregular deviations from the preferred norm.

I remember Spencer as a familiar face in countless episodes of television dramas and comedy films (Bad Santa; Blue Streak; Big Mommas’ House; Beauty Shop). Her roles were small and fleeting; they made use of her size, face and color as supportive props for the normal and everyday that defines African American life: the girl opening the door; the waitress; the security guard; the customer; the landlady; the nurse. However, even in those limited acting moments she added such a touch of “realness” to the scenes in which she appeared one more often remembered her presence than that of the “star (s)” of the venture.

She won an academy award for the role of a maid in “The Help” (2012), the type of role African-Americans and African-American actors hope would cease to be their pathway to paid work in the acting profession, or, at least, the filmic part of it.

It is always a tortuous moment for African-Americans when their actors receive recognition for roles that continue to affix them in a symbolic continuum of subordination and inferiority. They appreciate the recognition for acting talent the particular actor or actress receives, but shudder when the role is that of a character that mimics their history as unfree labour in America’s past.

The collective call is for roles that show the wide variety of accomplishments, good and bad, of African-Americans in the modern era; roles that reflect their earned capacity to determine their own destiny. It is this request ticket buying European America and some members of the Hollywood casting, directing and producing establishment refuse to promote. Take, for example, the directorial history of Theodore Witcher, who wrote and directed, “Love Jones” (1997), starring Nia Long and Larenz Tate; some 15 years after the film’s debut, Witcher has not directed another film. In an interview with the Internet magazine, The Root, Witcher had the following to say about his disappearance:

TW: No. I intended to have a long list of credits, but I couldn’t get another movie. There has to be something that you want to do that a studio wants to pay for. I was never able to sync that up. I wanted to do ambitious films with more black people. You don’t get to do that.(,1)

The yearning for diverse and respectable images is therefore an ongoing political struggle that no one individual can engage in alone and hope to win. It is for this reason Reverend Jesse Jackson’s pre-Oscar’s open letter to the Hollywood establishment care of his Huffington Post blog, becomes reason to pause. Titled, “Academy Award Voters Need Diversity in Script” Reverend Jackson made a case for an elite and unrepresentative Hollywood to become more representative than it presently is:

“… the 5,765 voting members of the Academy are far from representative of the moviegoing public…. A remarkable investigation by Los Angeles Times reporters pierced the screen of secrecy to reveal that the voting members are a stunning 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male. Only 2 percent are African-American, and less than 2 percent are Latino. Their median age is 62, and only 14 percent are younger than 50.

The Academy’s leaders say the organization is trying to do better, but it is hard to see any evidence of that. Since 2004, the names of 1,000 invitees have been published: 89 percent white, and 73 percent male. The 43 member Academy Board of Governors has all of six women, one of whom is the sole person of color. The Academy’s executive branch is 98 percent white, as is its writers branch. Corporate boardrooms do better than that.

Not surprisingly, the voting tends to reflect the composition of the voters. In the 83 years of the Academy, the Times reports, only 4 percent of Oscars have been awarded to an African-American. Only one woman has received the award for directing.

In 2011, not a single minority person was among the 45 nominees for the major awards: best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, director, original and adapted screenplay. More astounding, the Academy failed to identify even one black male presenter for the awards. African-American actors were not only shut out of the awards; they were shut out of the attention that comes from presenting them.

….Women and minorities dream of becoming directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors just as white men do. Young talent drives Hollywood and our popular culture more than the established older generation. And Hollywood’s audience across the country and around the world is young and diverse.(–diversity_b_1290850.html).

Are roles of helpful, when not angry, subordinates, the only roles and images African-Americans and non-African Americans are to be permitted to see of the former, or can more diverse and respectful images be trusted to make profits at the box office?

In my book, The Atlantic Slave Trade: Empire, Enlightenment and Cult of the Unthinking Negro (Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), I created the concept, the commodity property of anti-African hatred, to make sense of how and why African American actors partake in the creation and reproduction of demeaning roles and images. The answer: Africans as a scapegoated community are symbolic evidence of inferiority (non-being) to the European superior (being). In other words, the African, just by virtue of his/her skin color represents to the European American confirmation of his/her superiority and the African’s inferiority.

Hollywood is the symbolic police; the police industrial complex, the body police: one polices the African image to maintain it in a posture of inferiority vis a vis European America; the other, polices the African body to keep it in the geophysical space of inferiority designed for it to reproduce the reflexes of subordination socially prescribed for it. In both instances, the desired outcome: the innate sense of superiority European Americans enjoy in America is a function of policing protocols by Hollywood and the police-judicial system.

Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films (1973) was an important resource in my efforts to theorize the above. Bogle showed African American actors transformed stereotyped roles into much more than Hollywood directors and producers expected. They used their limited time on screen to protest their anti-human minimization claiming the fullness of their humanity in the process. Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis-her fellow maid in “The Help”- are the latest African-American actors to transform demeaning roles into filmic works of art. A Luta Continua: The struggle continues….

Words: 1,194

Word: 2007

Charles Simon-Aaron: Mugabe: Land Wars, Resource Nationalism and Empire (Forthcoming)

Class Ideology and African Political Theory (Edwin Mellen Press, 2011)