BY Derica Shields
THEME LEADER Hannah Black
SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.
London based writer Derica Shields on a walk through selected 1990s US visual and political history. Characters include Missy Elliott, Anita Hill, Desiree Washington, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, The Welfare Queen.
It is 1997 and we are watching TV. A woman named Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott has released a video for her track ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’. We are watching a figure in a diaphanous shiny black bodysuit face away from the screen and begin to turn, before the image cuts to Missy, in a white shirt, gold chain, hoop earrings, deep Josephine Baker finger waves, parting deep-plum lips to smile, then laugh at the trick she is about to play on you.
What follows is frame after frame of impossibility and defiance of that same. In the bodysuit again, she faces the camera to dance, sort of, her eyes covered by reflective, fly-eye glasses with a purple tint, her head hidden by what, from the front, resembles a generously bejewelled cycling helmet. She’s looking straight at us through those glasses, but we cannot see the shape of her human body, only the billowing body she presents to us. She pushes air, or perhaps liquid, around and through that voluminous black skin that expands her body into impossible contours. She presses those contours with her hands and the body gives way, but still she appears untouchable. Here she is in a red raincoat and red dungarees. Here she is in yellow with a lime green T-shirt and yellow-rimmed sunglasses. It is seventeen seconds in and Missy is on her fourth outfit. Here is Missy even bigger and blacker, two things our world – our economy of racial production – says you should not be. What is happening?
It is still 1997, which means that the Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas hearings of October 1991 have already happened. Anita Hill has appeared before a long table of white men. She is wearing a plum lipstick and using words with more precision than anybody else there. Joe Biden does not call the witnesses who would corroborate Anita Hill’s account of sexual harassment. Instead her allegations are dismissed, but not before the panel shames Anita by having her recount the details of Clarence Thomas’s coercion. Claiming, on 11 October 1991, that Anita Hill’s allegations are spurious and part of a salacious political plot to subject him to a ‘high-tech lynching for uppity blacks’ at the hands of an all-white panel, Clarence Thomas ascends to the Supreme Court on October 23. Anita Hill is called a liar. If it is 1997 then Clarence Thomas is still an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. If it is 2016, then Clarence Thomas is still an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since it is still 1997, you might remember that two years ago Mike Tyson left prison, where he spent three years after being found guilty of raping Desiree Washington. Desiree is not the bubbly girl she once was; she keeps to herself, her former friends tell the Los Angeles Times. People are angry that she has stolen the prime of Mike Tyson’s life. They mean his boxing life: after all, do white people believe in black people’s lives outside of the hours in which black people are performing for them? That’s a separate question and one I do not care much about.
I have become a black woman, sometimes in England, sometimes in the United States and sometimes hearing and seeing the black women outside the Indiana courthouse where Mike Tyson was being tried in January 1992, calling Desiree a liar. I have become a black woman wondering how the part of them that throbbed, ‘Poor Mike, oh, Mike!’ was formed. And what about the part of them that might have throbbed for them(our)selves, too?
Desiree says, ‘You hurt me, and I was big enough to stand up to you and tell you you need help. You hurt me and I’m trying to help you’. Mike says, ‘I was young, I wanted to have fun, I enjoyed having fun, maybe I took it further … whatever’.1 If you are in 2015, you can read the comments under any YouTube video in which Desiree Washington’s sworn testimony appears. They say: ‘NO PROOOOOOOOOF—You put him away in his boxing prime’, ‘What a liar you money hungry [abuse abuse abuse]’, ‘oh shut the fuck up [abuse]!!! you went into a black boxer’s hotel room at 1:30 in the morning and you thought you went up there for bible study? fuck you …’
In 1995 there is a party for Mike in Harlem. When a group of organised black people named African Americans Against Violence chanted ‘You lose when you abuse’ at Tyson, his handlers tell them: ‘Mike Tyson is not going to sit up here and answer silly questions!’
Here are some silly questions I would like to put to the panel that interrogated Anita Hill, to the folks gathered outside the Indiana courthouse:
1) What is the weight of a black woman’s word?
1a) Why so light?
2) What is the worth of a black woman’s life?
3) What metric could register a black woman’s pain?
These are not silly questions as much as it is silly to ask any question of whiteness. Wherever you and I are in space and time, see my hand wrist-deep inside my body, rooting around for the part of me that would stand in front of an Indiana courthouse and throb for Mike and not for myself, that would call that woman a liar. I would have to tear at that part roughly again and again, although I would like to excise it cleanly. My fantasy is its muffled thud into the tin of a medical bowl: a bloody fibroid, veiny womb-muscle, attached to nothing, growing entirely out of place.
Back to Missy. According to episode 19 of VH1’s documentary series Behind the Music, in 1992 Missy wrote, produced and rapped on Raven-Symoné’s track ‘That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of’. In Raven’s music video, however, Missy is nowhere to be seen. Instead a lighter-complexioned actress lip-syncs, which goes some way to showing how a black woman in the music industry was supposed to look. But now it’s 1997, Missy’s time has come, and in a video directed by Hype Williams, she decides how the world will see her.
What else is happening? In the U.S. political and legal imaginary of this time some of what constitutes the idea of a black woman is Desiree Washington and Anita Hill, and some of it is Bill Clinton’s Welfare Queen. Back in 1993, in the United States of America, Bill Clinton has come to power. He will be president until 2001, but we don’t know that yet. Other things we don’t yet know: that in some parts, and among many people, Clinton will be remembered as a charming, benevolent, liberal president, his tenure marred mainly by his adulterous dalliances which were blown way out of proportion. But sax-playing Bill also presided over oppressive and destructive reforms to the welfare system.
To understand how he came to do this we have to go a little further back. Meet Ronald Reagan. Before and during his presidency, Reagan often invoked a figure called The Welfare Queen: avaricious, cunning, hyperfertile (so many kids!), irresponsible, recidivist, BLACK – obviously. In a 1976 campaign speech, Reagan explained why he needed to fix the welfare system. It was because of people like Linda Taylor, the archetype: ‘In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record’, the former California governor declared at a campaign rally in January 1976.
She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.2
What Reagan said about Linda Taylor was not true, but he won the election anyway.
Clinton built on the vilification of people dependent on welfare to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). In 1996 he instituted PRWORA to ‘end welfare as we know it’ (his words in The New York Times, 2006),3 which ended individual entitlements to welfare and instead provided states with block grants.
How to recoup a black woman from history, stigma and to liberate her into new ideological territory?
Yours, with heartfelt good wishes,
A figure of the Black, roaming through space and time, with a hand inside myself.
I’m thinking of Saidiya Hartman when I note that both Anita Hill and Desiree Washington’s attempts at justice or redress went through the U.S. legal system and did not work out at all. Hartman writes:
Legal liberalism as well as critical race theory, has examined issues of race and racism and equality by focusing on the exclusion and marginalization of those subjects and bodies marked as different and/or inferior. The disadvantage of this approach is that the proposed remedies and correctives to the problem—inclusion, protection, and greater access to opportunity—do not ultimately challenge the economy of racial production or its truth claims or interrogate the exclusion constitutive of the norm, but instead seek to gain equality, liberation, and redress within its confines.4
Both Hill and Washington suffered further abuse as a result of appealing to these structures. Anita Hill went into hiding and was prevented from teaching at the university where she was a tenured professor, while officials at the university attempted to revoke that tenure. In a TV One Access interview, Desiree Washington said: ‘We were both tried and convicted; I was also tried and convicted. And as long as he is in prison – maybe even longer – I will be in a prison’.5 It has been reported that she changed her identity and appearance using cosmetic surgery. It doesn’t escape me that in Anita, the Anita Hill documentary streaming on Netflix, Hill is framed as a liberal hero, whose courage in speaking out about Thomas’s sexual harassment is responsible for new workplace freedoms. But this form of inclusion, in selected white feminist tellings of U.S. history, only compounds and reinforces the story the U.S. tells about itself and its justice system: that things are getting better, getting better all the time.
I want to hold all of these black figures in my mind when I look at ‘The Rain’. I see Missy’s performance as refusing inclusion, and instead inventing a language and a world in which to speak ‘a truer word about [her]self’, a possibility to which the theorist Hortense Spillers alludes in ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’ when she writes:
In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meaning, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness.6
Missy Elliott’s playfulness, her mischief, is to refuse the language that she might have inherited by being a black woman in music, in this racial economy.
Missy’s billowing black suit obscures her body until she is huge and fluid. She takes the designation of fat black woman rapper that had placed her beyond the camera’s lens and blows herself up on screen until her proportions are strange and uncertain, until it looks like she might levitate.
Derica Shields is a writer, editor and programmer from London. She has written and edited for The New Inquiry and Rookie, and most recently has published work in Flash Art. Her research interests include Blackness, futurisms, literature, visual art and film.
1. YouTube, ‘Mike Tyson Admitting Rape?’, 2 Oct. 2007, YouTube,
2. SoundCloud, ‘Ronald Reagan campaign speech, January 1976’, 2014, SoundCloud,
3. Bill Clinton, ‘How we ended welfare, together’, 22 Aug. 2006, The New York Times,
4. Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson III, ‘The position of the unthought: an interview with Saidiya V. Hartman; conducted by Frank B. Wilderson, III’, Qui Parle, vol. 13, no. 2, p. 234.
5. YouTube, ‘TV One Access on Mike Tyson’, 4 Aug. 2008, YouTube,
6. Hortense J. Spillers, ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’, Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, Summer 1987, pp. 64–81.