Race Theory in Jordan Peele's "Us"

Race Commentary in Jordan Peele’s 'Us'

"The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out.Out came the sun and dried up all the rain and the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again."

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"The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout.Down came the rain and washed the spider out.Out came the sun and dried up all the rain and the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again."
- Itsy Bitsy Spider, Version by the American Folk Songs for Children (1948)


Published in 1948, this song describes the journey of an "itsy bitsy spider" that, even when washed away, still manages to climb back up again. In its essence, this early children's nursery rhyme clearly lays out the plot of Jordan Peele's 2019 film, Us, as well as describes America's murderous history descending from the very land on which we walk. The record-breaking hit follows the life of Adelaide and her family as they vacation in Santa Cruz, California in an effort to get away from the hustle of everyday life. That night, four mysterious "strangers" broke into their childhood vacation home and, to the family's surprise, the intruders looked just like them. Peele stated that the film is not directly commenting on race however, race is woven within (and inextricably linked to) historical systems of oppression and their modern contexts which is a huge theme of Us, overall. Additionally, the Wilson's Blackness within a genre that traditionally centers White people as the default was an intentional choice that forces filmmakers to rethink the roles that Black people can (and should have access to) play.

The movie began with a flashback from 1986 where a young Adelaide carefully clutches a red candied apple as she wanders off into a carnival maze. While in the house of mirrors, Adelaide whistles the tune to "Itsy Bitsy Spider" before being approached and dragged underground by a young girl that looked identical -- her tethered doppelganger. Once underground, Adelaide's doppelganger locked her to a bed, and replaced her in the life above in order to escape the harsh captivity below. The girl known as Adelaide lived her life underground and became known as "Red" as her doppleganger repressed her memory of the occurrence and grew up pretending to be the real Adelaide in the life above.

Within the flashback, the camera situated on a sign that read "Jeremiah 11:11." According to the King James version, the verse states: "Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them." This verse clearly foreshadows the rise of the "tethered" from their underground, subordinate state (led by Red), and decent upon the above ground community. The verse comes from a passage that describes people's inability to hide from their past sins that, much like the "itsy bitsy spider" will always come up the well again. Once above land, the tethered joined hands in the same fashion as the 1986 publicity campaign staged by "Hands Across America" therefore publicly situating themselves as Americans. Additionally, the reference to Hands Across America demonstrates the ways in which Americans pacify their guilt with empty gestures for the "others" (poor, oppressed, marginalized) without truly addressing the history and root causes of oppressive forces in this country; Instead, choosing to offer limited support that makes them feel fulfilled and continuing to live their lives of privilege with little thought given to those that continue to suffer. This is echoed when, after being confronted by the tethered, Gabe offers his wallet in exchange for safety. But in this reality, no amount of money can save America from themselves. When unraveling the specificities of Jordan Peele's creation, it can be seen that he is offering commentary on the Black experience and experiences that are shared by many marginalized communities in the United States.

Us (also standing for the abbreviation U.S.) addresses the reluctance of many Americans to acknowledge the nation's dark history that is wrought with blood. The decision to give a double meaning to the title removes the otherness of the subject matter, precisely placing it within our modern American context. Peele clearly demonstrates his efforts to put the United States of America on trial for their lingering injustices when Red hauntingly mutters "We're Americans" through her broken speech that mimics that of spasmodic dysphonia patients. In another scene, Adelaide urges her husband, Gabe, to cross the border to Mexico which provides a stark parallel to the sentiments about Mexico being a dangerous country, saturated with rapists and criminals as expressed by President Donald Trump in 2015. In this reality, Mexico is a safe haven while America is haunted by the history that they tried to bury. Through centering America's past shadows and paring it with today's sociopolitical moment, audiences are left asking "when was America ever great?" As the population above lived their daily lives, they were literally walking above the bodies of a forgotten history much like how 15,000 intact skeletal remains of enslaved and free Africans were found in New York in 1991, and how Americans walk on stolen land that was taken from Indigenous Americans, many of whom were they murdered in mass genocide. The film demonstrates privileged Americans' violent efforts to hide from their horrendous past when Adelaide fatally snaps Red's neck as Red whistled the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" tune for the last time.

The rain that washed the spider away was guilt, greed, and a reluctance to accept responsibility for the vestiges of past horrors. But, as the film and Jeremiah 11:11 suggest, it is impossible to keep the spider down forever. Us offers a space for Black Americans to finally be seen and understood in a way that American culture has previously tried to erase in exchange for a White washed narrative of triumph. Peele's positioning of the underground and tethered as an allegorical space that serves to represent the unearthing of American skeletons and sins. Us reveals what would happen when, as Baldwin would put it,"all your buried corpses are now beginning to speak."

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What Is Womanism?

And what's the difference between a womanist and a feminist?
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What is womanism? I first heard the term at a Stanford Black Student Union Conference my junior year of high school, but the little information I learned that day about womanism quickly left my memory. About a week ago, I was on Twitter and saw a girl who had “womanist” in her bio and it sparked my interest. If you google womanism, you’ll find two definitions.

1. believing in and respecting the abilities and talents of women; acknowledging women’s contributions to society

2. pertaining to a type of feminism that acknowledges the abilities and contributions of black women

The second definition is more commonly associated with the term womanism. The word “womanist” was created by, Alice Walker, who is an African-American writer and activist. She is most well known for her novel, The Color Purple but has written many other works as well, including In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose in which she used the term womanist for the first time. Womanism was created to recognize Black women who were overlooked during the Feminist Movement. Mostly middle class White women benefitted from the Feminist Movement, and although African-American women received many rights from the Civil Rights Movement, they weren’t recognized and praised for their immense contributions to society.

African-American women struggled with being seen as the lesser of the two sexes and as a minority, left in the shadows, while White women and African-American men stood on the forefront of the Feminist and Civil Rights Movements. African-American women also had to decide which fight was greater: the fight against sexism or racism? Fortunately, womanism fights both.

You may be wondering, how does womanism differ from feminism? In reality, they are pretty similar. Alice Walker said, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”. Womanists support feminist efforts, but they also add the African-American woman perspective that was missing during the Feminist Movement. Also, womanism focuses on aspects of Black families as well, not just Black women. Because womanism combats racism, Black men and children are included as well.

Personally, I think one of the reasons womanism isn’t a well known term is because there are few womanists. We still haven’t fully recognized Black women for their amazing capabilities and contributions to society. Of course, we have Black History Month, but Black women deserve to be celebrated for more than 28 days out of the year. And obviously, all women need recognition no matter what their racial background is and men deserve recognition as well. But, there’s no harm in taking some time to appreciate all the African-American women in your life. I challenge you to learn about 3 African-American women who are of great importance to American history this month and learn more about womanism.

“When Black women stick together, we are the most powerful force in the universe”-Alfre Woodard

Cover Image Credit: www.talkingwithba.com

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Dear Beautiful Black Girl, Never Forget Your Worth

An ode to all the beautiful black girls.

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We live in a society where societal standards greatly define the way we view ourselves. Although in 2019 these standards are not clear cut, some things are not easy to change. Not to play the race card, but this is true for women of color, especially black girls.

As much as I'd like to address this to all women, I want to hit on something that I'm more familiar with: being a black girl. Black females have a whole package to deal with when it comes to beauty standards. The past suppression and oppression our ancestors went through years ago can still be felt in our views of beauty. It is rare to see young black girls be taught that their afros and nappy hair are beautiful. Instead, we are put under flat irons and dangerous chemicals that change our hair texture as soon as our hair becomes too "complicated" to deal with. The girls with darker skin are not praised, but rather lowered in comparison to their peers with fairer skin. A lot of the conditioning happens at a young age — at the age of 8, already you can feel like you're in the wrong skin.

As we grow up, there are more expectations that come here and there, a lot of very stereotypical and diminishing. "You're a black girl, you should know how to dance," "black girls don't have flat butts," "black girls know how to cook," "you must have an attitude since you're black" — I'm sure you get the idea. Let me say this: "black girls," as they all like to say, are not manufactured with presets. Stop looking for the same things in all of us. Black girls come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and talents. I understand that a lot of these come from cultural backgrounds, but you cannot bash a black girl because she does not fit the "ideal" description.

And there is more.

The guys that say, "I don't do black girls, they too ratchet/they got an attitude" — excuse me? Have you been with/spoken to all the black girls on this planet? Is this a category that you throw all ill-mouthed girls? Why such prejudice, especially coming from black men? Or they will chant that they interact with girls that are light-skinned, that is their conditioned self-speaking. The fact that these men have dark-skinned sisters and mothers and yet don't want to associate with girls that look the same confuses me. And who even asked you? There are 100 other ethnicities and races in the world, and we are the one you decide to spit on? Did we do something to you?

Black girls already have society looking at them sideways. First, for being a woman, and second, for being black, and black males add to this by rejecting and disrespecting us.

But we still we rise above it all.

Black girls of our generation are starting to realize the power that we hold, especially as we work hand in hand. Women like Oprah Winfrey, Lupita Nyong'o, Chinua Achebe, Michelle Obama — the list is too long — are changing the narrative of the "black girl" the world knows. The angry black woman has been replaced with the beautiful, educated, and successful melanin-filled woman.

Girls, embrace your hair, body, and skin tone, and don't let boys or society dictate what is acceptable or beautiful. The black girl magic is real, and it's coming at them strong.

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