My Sister’s Country: religion, colorism, & femininity
On April 6, 2022, I attended author Alexis V. Jackson’s program where she discussed her recently published book, a collection of poetry titled, My Sister’s Country. Joining Jackson in conversation and discussion during this event were Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin and Dr. Channon Miller. Jackson is a family friend of Dr. Griffin, and was her research assistant during her time at Columbia University. When asked by Dr. Griffin about why she decided to write this book of poetry, Jackson responded by saying that she wanted to compose a book about Black women’s poetry canon. Much of Jackon’s childhood was spent attending religious school, and her step-father was a preacher. Her religious background would go on to influence her poetry, as religion is a topic she examines in My Sister’s Country. This program also discussed the themes of amplifying female voices, colorism, and Jackson’s personal experiences growing up as a woman. I strongly believe that these themes are significant to our understanding of African American History because they are crucial aspects of the African American experience. Alexis Jackson’s poetry draws a lot of inspiration from her own personal experiences with Black culture, racial discrimination, and femininity from the perspective of a woman of color.
The first poem that Jackson read aloud during this event was titled, Dear Mom. Dear Mom opens the book, and is a nod to an identity struggle and putting a focus on religion and femininity. Alexis Jackson describes her mother as her introduction to her first form of a God or a creator. In the poem, Jackson elevates her mother to divine status, and capitalizes Her when referring to her mom. This capitalization of Her is meaningful and unique because it calls back to the New Testament, where God is referred to as Him through use of capital letters. With this replacement of Him with Her, Jackson is also calling into question God’s traditional male gender pronouns. I felt the raw emotion and powerful use of vivid imagery when Jackson read this poem aloud during the program.
One aspect of Alexis Jackson’s childhood experiences with religion that I found interesting was that she grew up without any female preachers. Her step-father was a preacher and she encountered different versions of God while attending high school.
During Dr. Miller’s conversation with Jackson, the topic of colorism was brought up and discussed. Alexis Jackson explained how colorism is very real to her personal life and lived experience as a woman of color. She talked about her childhood and how family members would use terms such as, “chocolate or butterscotch” to describe skin color, and how it made her uncomfortable. Jackson explained how this terminology is negative and demeaning, even if her family members did not intend to be offensive or insensitive. In their conversation, Dr. Miller and Jackson also talked about how darker skinned characters in popular culture, such as television shows and movies are often portrayed as being mean or given less important side character roles. The example that they brought up was Aunt Viv from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air television show, and how her character was another example of the mean darker skinned character. New York Times best-selling author, Luvvie Ajayi talks about this same issue on her blog where she writes, “My (and a lot of other’s) major complaint with the show is about the abrupt character switch that happened. For the first three seasons, Will’s Aunt Viv was played by the beautiful Janet Hubert. Then ALL OF A SUDDEN, we turned on the TV and Uncle Phil’s wife was about 8.5 shades lighter, and played by the gorgeous Daphne Reid. I ain’t got nothing against Mrs. Reid. I’m sure she’s a nice lady but I was immediately not here for this change” (Awesomely Luvvie). Ajayi goes on to explain that with this change of actors came a new personality (or lack of) to the character of Aunt Viv. The screenwriters effectively removed her strong and outgoing identity and made the character forgettable. The original Aunt Viv was a professor who would teach Will Smith’s character about Black history, while the new Aunt Viv did not have a job. While this example of one character of a popular television show being recast by a different actor may not seem very significant, it is still an example of how colorism can still exist in popular culture. Personally, I did not grow up watching this tv show, but after listening to Dr. Miller and Alexis V. Jackson talk about Aunt Viv, so I decided to do some more research. I stumbled across and read Luvvie Ajayi’s article entirely dedicated to her issues with the show’s decision to recast the character as “Aunt Viv 2.0”. This article proved to me that colorism is still alive in the mainstream television shows and movies, and still has a recognizable negative impact on African American culture.
In our textbook, Freedom On My Mind, there is a section in chapter 17 that covers solidarity, culture, and the meaning of Blackness. I found this section particularly interesting and relevant to this program as well. The textbook discusses this and states that, “The disruption of unity is suggested by the passionate discussion of “blackness” and who is “black.” In the twentieth century, black people debated what they wanted to be called — colored, Negro, Afro-American, African American, black — but not who was actually black. Black/white multiracials, black immigrants, and Transcendents have complicated the meaning of blackness in the twenty-first century” (Freedom On My Mind). The authors use celebrity and professional golfer Tiger Woods and former President Barack Obama as examples of African Americans who faced public scrutiny and questioning about their ethnic backgrounds in recent years. Woods had referred to himself as “Cablinasian” and identified with his white, black, Asian, and American Indian heritage. His decision to say this led to many people questioning his blackness and others taking offense to this and even goes as far as to accuse him of not wanting to be considered black. Obama faced similar public criticism and inquiry about his blackness. The textbook writes that Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign left, “many believing that Obama’s midwestern white mother and Kenyan father made him something other than African American” (Freedom On My Mind). I was shocked to read about Woods and Obama, as this was the first time I was learning about their African American identity being publicly challenged. Reading these recent examples of famous African Americans having their identity publicly scrutinized, reminded me of when Alexis Jackson talked about colorism in her life in the forms of Aunt Viv and even the language her own family members used.
When exploring the purpose of this program, I came to the conclusion that Jackson spoke about her book for a variety of reasons. The first being she wanted to celebrate her African American heritage and the powerful female figures in her life. I also think that Jackson wanted to call attention to the identity struggle that many African Americans find themselves facing in their everyday lives. In one of her poems that she read during the program, Jackson described having to correct people about her identity from a very young age. I particularly enjoyed her opening poem titled, Dear Mom, as it challenged me to question God’s gender identity and reflect on why I have been taught my entire life that God is a man. Furthermore, I believe that Alexis V. Jackson’s poetry and her life experiences that she shared in her program all contribute towards our understanding of African American History. I felt that this program educated me in poetry as an art form, taught me about the issue of colorism in our current American society, and challenged me to question the traditional gender norms of God.
Awesomely Luvvie. “5 Reasons Why No One Is Here for Aunt Viv 2.0 from Fresh Prince.” Awesomely Luvvie, 7 June 2014, https://awesomelyluvvie.com/2013/01/no-light-aunt-viv-fresh-prince.html.
McCollum, Sean, et al. “‘What’s ‘Colorism’?”.” Learning for Justice, https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/fall-2015/whats-colorism.
White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2021.