Why “Hidden Figures” matters

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Katherine Johnson- Physicist and mathematician who was instrumental in NASA’s journey into space and their landing on the moon

I’ve long since become accustomed to seeing leading black women in movies as slaves, love interests and/or maids. Other times, I’ve become accustomed to seeing them as caricatures; either they are women who do too much or too little, women who act but don’t inspire because their characters are one dimensional and overdone.

For years, we would ask for not only minority representation but strong minority representation that doesn’t reduce us to either eye-candy, sassy black woman and/or a mammy characters. We were told that what we wanted just was not possible. Our underrepresentation in films were not a result of some active and implicit bias but simple Mathematics. We were told that movies with lead black women would just not do well at the box office. Only movies focused predominantly on white heroism, pains and struggles would. So, they would give us things like Madea, The Help and so on, not yet knowing that their argument would soon be riddled with holes as “Hidden Figures” (based on the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly), has even beaten Rogue 1 (as it well should because Star Wars is crap) at the box office while having far fewer theatres available to it. Now that their argument is demolished, I hope that this movie will represent a tide of changes to come within the film industry.

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Mary Jackson- Mathematician and aerospace engineer at NASA. She was the first black black engineer at NASA

I went into the movie the day it opened at Giftland, excited but slightly skeptical. Would this movie fall prey to the common trope of the tiara syndrome and that of the white savior? Would this be NASA’s version of ‘The Help’?

While on surface level there might have appeared to be elements of both, there weren’t, not really.

Harrison, the leader of the mission in a nice scene breaks down segregated washroom signs. I was a bit dubious about this part until I realised that he did not do it because he feels particularly sympathetic to Katherine, he did it because it was in his and NASA’s best interest to do so. They could not have their lead mathematician running off everyday for close to an hour because she did not have access to bathrooms close by. Meanwhile, the women are not silent persons waiting to be recognised, but actively pursue and adapt themselves to achieve what they want and that is highly refreshing.

People often shirk at the idea about positive representation in the media. Entertainment is entertainment and in the larger scheme of things it doesn’t matter. While that may be true to an extent, seeing not only one but three trailblazing women who look like you accomplishing so much in a much more oppressive system, does wonders on the minds of little black girls everywhere and lets them know that they too can do great things.

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Dorothy Vaughn- Mathematician who was the first black woman to supervise staff at NASA

Within five minutes, I was in tears. This silly tear spilling over the women, their triumphs and their struggles continued sporadically throughout the film. I was thankful that it being day, not many persons were in the theatre, but I did gain a strange look from the ticket collector on my way out because of how red my eyes were. If such a movie can matter to me, someone who has by and large been very privileged and grew up hearing that I could be whatever I wanted and throwing away my family’s lofty ambitions and aiming to become a writer, then imagine what it means to those less privileged and who are told that their stories and lives do not matter. Just imagine.

I liked that the movie was not this idealogical pipe dream which saw the white people all realising that, “Oh, they’re just people like us and as such we should treat them equally.” No, it is a movie rooted in reality and as such, the evolution of the central white characters are subtler and one gets a sense once again that they are not being accepting because they particularly like these women, but because it is in their best interest to have the best minds working for them. The movie offers a very sobering question about equality, biases and the implications these have for our advancement as a people. While we see the barriers the women face with regards to advancement due to their race and gender, we begin to wonder how many persons never got a chance to make their genius known due to the prevailing biases surrounding them.

In solidarity with sexual assault and harassment victims #lifeinleggins

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For all the conversations, panels and education movements we have on sexual violence and harassment, there has been the persistent perpetuation of silence where victim stories are concerned. Yes, we do have those who, according to one friend, become poster-women for abuse but while this is commendable, too often these people are removed from the larger society which they are trying to change. Then there are those who speak out and are not believed. Then, there are those who speak out and are believed but are expected to carry on as if nothing is wrong. All this feeds into the belief most victims of sexual abuse and harassment have that it was somehow their fault and see’s feelings of loneliness and depression consume them, particularly if (and it is mostly the case) the person was close to them. That is why I particularly love the #lifeinleggings movement because while it can be seen as just another hashtag, I love that it is helping women to come forward and share their own stories. It is an important movement that we need to see more of.

Its a movement I need to see more of because like many victims of sexual abuse and harassment, it makes me feel as if I am not alone and I have no reason to be ashamed because it is never our fault. The first time I had a hint that my father was sexually abusive was when I was 12. One of my cousins in a letter to my aunt told her that when she was younger my father used to come into her room at nights and touch her inappropriately. I confided the details of the letter to another cousin, letting bare my anger at what I presumed to be a lie. It was not long before I forgot the letter and the way I viewed my father and the unwarranted love I had for him had still not changed. It was only the morning after he had tried to have sex with me when I was 14, stopping touching me only after I started crying did I remember the letter and realised how I was complicit in the culture of silencing victims.

The relationship with my father evaporated after that. While he never did it again, every time he was close by I would feel dirty, every time he looked at me, I felt violated and every time I told someone I was made to feel as if it wasn’t that bad of an experience because “he didn’t really do anything.” One parthner had would even use it against me when he was annoyed with me.So it did not matter to them that I was disgusted by his mere presence, I would still be forced to see him and occasionally sleep in the same house with him because the ones who knew (not a lot of persons did know and only two persons in my family knew) did not think what I went through is concerned real sexual abuse. While I know that there are those who have had far worse experiences, when we begin to trivialise and normalise rape and sexual harassment what we are effectively doing is lining up potential victims for sexual abusers because they know that they will be protected. I don’t think a lot of people understand how these incidents can break little boys and girls. I have since forgiven my father, not for him, but for me but even in my forgiveness, I still feel uncomfortable when I’m in the same room with him, I still feel unsafe.

I have long since stopped talking about it but I have realised that my silence also see’s many persons trying to go through it alone when what we need is conversation and action. I want to be a part of the movement to help break the silence but in all this we should be mindful that it is not our place to force anyone to speak about their experiences but rather to let them know that they are not alone. We are here and we stand with you. #lifeinleggings

https://redforgender.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/lifeinleggings-call-for-feminist-solidarity/

The right to bare arms

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(Yes, this was the dress I wore)

I know, I’ve written on this topic already but I believe in continuous comments on rules that are nonsensical. Even if no substantial changes are being made, rules such as the dress code implemented in so many buildings across Guyana should continue to be challenged.

Today, forgetting once again that we are a country still trapped with a colonial mentality when even our colonizers have grown from that, I went to the National Communications Network (NCN) for an interview in a dress that dared not have sleeves.

There I was met with two guards, one of whom told me that I could not enter the premises as my dress had no sleeves. (Yes, my arms were that arousing.) I pointed out to him that the sign he was so diligently referring to made absolutely no mention of armless clothes not being permitted.

The other guard after checking the sign told him that I was right, but the guard probably feeling as if I threatened the small modicum of power he possessed refused to hear reason and insisted I not go in.

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I began to speak to him like the fool he was because he could not understand the rules he was so tirelessly trying to uphold. I only later saw that Sonia Yarde, well known dramatist also had on armless and passed by the same guard but she had no problem entering. Why are we at the whims of irrational beings who cannot even stick to their nonsensical belief systems about how a woman should or should not dress is beyond me.

(See below photo of skunthole guard)

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Finally, an NCN staffer came down and offered me her blazer. Realising that I stood no chance in reasoning with an idiot, I pulled it on so that I could leave the guard hut. As soon as I was through however, I shirked it and dared him to come remove me from the compound and continued to refuse to don it again in spite of the many admonitions.

The thing that bothered me with the rule however, was not really the attitude of the airheaded guard, but rather, the attitude of the women who worked in the facility. Yes, they all agreed that it was a stupid archaic rule, but calmly advised me to don the blazer once again. After all, that was the rule and how dare I, a common citizen question that.

I await the day with glee when a government agency will begin turning away Sandra Granger or female parliamentarians from entering buildings just because they dared bare their arm to the public. Maybe only then will women earn the right to bare arms in public venues and not be condescendingly told that those are the rules because by then we would know that often, rules need changing.

 

The Orlando shooting

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With every mass shooting, bombings or acts of hate and terror in countries such as the U.S and U.K, the world watches in grief as the often-grisly murders are explained to them. Often, these killings overshadow similar ones in continents such as Africa and Asia as mainstream media decides who gets our sympathies and who does not.

Whether it is acknowledged or not, the attitudes and opinions we hold on certain tragic matters are largely influenced by the media and the stories they harp upon.

This is one reason why we hardly heard a peep about the 49 persons who died in Syria and the 35 others who were injured in shooting and shelling and hardly anything about the rise of Boko Haram and their countless victims.

Before I go on, I should say that I am in no way trying to undermine the brutality of the act of hate mixed with self loathing which resulted in the death of 49 persons and injuries of over 50.

The speculated reasons behind the assault are many, with the most popular one of late being that the shooter himself was gay and was struggling with an identity he was conditioned to hate from childhood.

To an extent, it can even be considered an act of terror, which was very particular in its nature, as was the case with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

It should be noted that the shooters ghastly act not only wounded the gay community but also served to add fire to the proverbial flames of anti- Muslim sentiments in a time when followers of Islam have been singled out for hateful political rhetoric.

Whatever the reason behind the work of that deranged mind however, I know that the attack has caused LBGT persons in the U.S and around the rest of the world to feel less safe than they had just a few days ago.

Even here in Guyana the tension and unease amongst the gay community can be seen and felt as many persons openly share their sentiments which are largely urged on by religious views, that the man’s act was justified.

For every one of these bible thumpers however, there are maybe five who are sympathetic to the shooting. The sympathy and expressions of condemnation have been so overwhelming that it has caused me to wonder whether us Guyanese would have the same sympathetic response had such a shooting against LBGT members occurred here.

While we have never had such a mass shooting, over the years there has been a continuous rise in violent attacks often resulting in death against homosexual men, particularly those who are transgender.

Despite the deaths of these men, public response to these murders were miniscule at best with only a selective few seeing the clear trend of hate driven crimes that was forming. The years, 2013 through to 15 saw these targeted murders rising but yet, the larger public remained oblivious and even the police force did not seem to see the significance in the crimes nor the need to actively pursue and solve them.

In 2014, there was even a march against the slothful way in which the police were attempting to probe into the murders of several homosexual men with several citing the reasons for sloth as being trans-phobia and homophobia deeply ingrained within the psyche of the police officers.

While it is no laughing matter, I cannot help but find it amusing when I heard some of our nations leaders protest against the shooting and comment upon the need for tolerance and acceptance when nothing substantial is being done to protect those belonging to the LBGT group in their own country and removing outdated and dangerous legislation which makes criminals out of otherwise law abiding citizens.

If nothing else, this tragedy has offered us at home and abroad the opportunity to confront the often-unchallenged anti-gay rhetoric and actions touted and carried by friends, family and acquaintances. When these views remain unchallenged all they serve to do is contribute to the acceptance of hatred and violence against those in who their distaste lies with. Too often, these messages of hate and discrimination come from our churches pulpits and podiums when there is an urgent need for messages of love and acceptance. Too often, these messages of hate are passed down to the minds of our children. Regardless of what religion one belongs to, efforts should be made to ensure harmful ideologies, which discriminate against each other are not adapted.

Guyana: Culture & musings

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Often, whenever people talk about Guyana in a good light, they mention our diverse and rich culture and how it remains unmatched by many countries.

While this is true, not many of us realize the greatness that lies in our diversity and culture and as such, shun it. It was only last year in Haiti that I myself had a small glimpse of how various cultures can merge to create something truly wonderful when I bought plantain chips from a vendor who had no sour for me to pour on it. Haiti did not benefit from the same influx of Indians as Guyana did; as such there was never the chance for cultures to merge and people to figure out that plantain chips tasted better with sour.

Our cultural makeup goes far and beyond ethnicity and food though, and while we are a country of varying ethnicities, religions and customs, we are all unified in our shared history. This is not realized however, as we have sunk deeper into a culture of mimickery, superficiality, suppression and self-loathing as we cannot make links with our history and learn from it.

Knowing the History of one’s country and ancestors has its benefits, as it will show how the self-loathing of our culture is not something we are wholly responsible for as it was conditioned into our ancestors by plantation masters and then into us. Being aware of history will make one realize that every time they don American accents and upend their positive traditions for more Western ones, the plantocracy wins.

The plantocracy, suspicious of anything it did not understand chose to ban and denounce cultural practices and traditions different from their own, labeling them as being paganistic. As a result, we began to feel contempt for our culture as we were conditioned to think the “white man’s” own was better. So we adapted his God, his mannerisms and even his biases in an attempt to become more like him and have an advantage in the world.

The dying of languages, cultural erosion, diffusion and infusion all seek to upend Guyana’ already fragile cultural atmosphere. We have reached a point in which we seem to be struggling for an identity and grasping any one, which is dangled before us. While I do believe the state has a role to play in the preservation and promotion of varying cultures, the people have depended too much on the state to make changes regarding the values and attitudes of their cultures. Instead, we have traded in our own creole for that of Jamaica and other Caribbean islands and we twist our tongues to match that of the hackneyed Americans. We celebrate people “outside” making small ripples but do not celebrate our own who make large waves. We forget our mythology such as the Churlie and Water Mumma while celebrating the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween. We even thwart our Mashramani celebration to align with that of Trinidad’s carnival.

Then of course, Guyanese wonder why our country has such a low tourism rate. That is because tourists recognize that we have no real culture as we rush to mimic rather than create and embrace our own.

I know, nothing is fixed, changes are necessary and no one culture can claim to be pure as they have all undergone mutations when exposed to others but, these cultures have seemed to develop their own cultural uniqueness, a task which Guyana is yet to complete.

Guyanese need embrace their color, their creole, what’s left of our culture and release themselves from the shackles of colonial mentality as only then can we hope for a semblance of national identity free from biases and mimickery.