The Story of O.J., Peaches & Valerie Castile

I’ve been thinking a lot about the living prophets and other voices around me who describe aspects of what our country is going through right now. As I wrote last week, those voices help me stay grounded and awake in those moments when denial and oblivion beckon like sirens from the rocky shore. Sometimes those voices appear on my Facebook feed or on the Rachel Maddow show or from a pulpit somewhere. But sometimes those voices float from my son’s room as he is getting ready for school or practice: Chance the Rapper, Nick Cannon, and, my latest obsession (according to my son): Jay-Z.

I promised last week that I would write more about the class we had on Philando Castile and gender. So that’s what I’m going to do now. But first, please go listen to these two songs: Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” and Nina Simone’s “Four Women” you know these two songs, you will understand why I suggest you listen to them both together; if you don’t, you soon will.)  I’ll wait.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by wondering if you understand what these two songs have to do with the current state of our society, government, world. But I am going to ask your indulgence in following my current (possibly obsessive) analysis of these two songs as tools to understand – and undermine – that current state of affairs.

Here are the lyrics of both (I’ve excluded the last verses of the O.J. song for space and focus reasons. Much there to analyze too, but not for today). I’ve highlighted the distinct characters – and their traits — in bold. :

The Story of O.J.:

Light n–a, dark n–a, faux n–a, real n–a
Rich n–a, poor n–a, house n–a, field n–a
Still n–a, still n–a
Light n–a, dark n–a, faux n–a, real n–a
Rich n–a, poor n–a, house n–a, field n–a
Still n–a, still n–a

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” …okay

House n–a, don’t fuck with me
I’m a field n–a, go shine cutlery
Go play the quarters where the butlers be
I’ma play the corners where the hustlers be
I told him, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood
That your mama rentin’
Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood
That’s how you rinse it”
. . . .

And Four Women:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
Inflicted again and again
What do they call me?
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah
Aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
But my father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
And what do they call me?
My name is Saffronia
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
My mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me?
My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see!
My life has been rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves
My name is Peaches!

These characters and traits are what narrative theory would describe as “stock” characters, or archetypes, the idea being that they describe kinds of people rather than individuals. So for black men, the stock characters used to be house slaves and field slaves; now they are rich n—s and poor n—s, butlers and hustlers. But all of the archetypes boil down to just one: still n—. Even O.J. Simpson can’t escape from that archetype – still n—, still n—.

And for black women, Simone describes four archetypes as well: Aunt Sarah, the “mammy” character who can handle whatever comes at her – with her strong back and long arms; Saffronia, the product of violence who might pass as white in some circles, but remains part of the world of “still n—;” Sweet Thing, the black temptress who, with her wide hips and wine-like lips can be bought by the highest bidder; and finally, Peaches – the epitome of black female rage, with her rough manner and language, who threatens violence against anyone who crosses her.

Okay, so these are two interesting songs telling interesting stories about being black in America. Why am I obsessed with them? Because they are not only describing stereotypes about African American men and women.  Rather, these songs are describing the processes of categorization and oppression. The characters identified by Jay-Z and Simone were not created by the artists or by the people populating the archetypes. They are created and maintained by the system of white supremacy itself, as a way to sort and control all blacks.

These songs are not about the stereotypes of the slavery or Jim Crow era, but of today’s American society. Every single black man and every single black woman is forced by today’s American society to fit in to one of these archetypes.  If an African American individual does not conform to the contours of one of the stock characters, chances are that White America will fill in gaps and build on assumptions to make them fit.  That is part of how a hierarchy based on “race” works:  the dominant “race” gets to sort and label the oppressed “race.”

I started our class last week by playing the Nina Simone song/video on a loop as the students walked in. (I had assigned both songs in a previous week) And then we talked about the issues involved in Philando Castile’s killing and its aftermath.  I didn’t even have to prompt my students to think in terms of characters, traits and archetypes.  They were right there with me.

Who is Philando Castile? Go look at the coverage of the shooting, look at the pictures of Mr. Castile, read what his family and friends have to say about it and about him.

Over and over again, we read after one of these police shootings of black men that he “wasn’t in a gang;” “he isn’t a criminal;” “he had a job;” “he was in school;” etc.  Why? Why is this what families and friends and communities of color stumble over themselves to say loud and clear to whoever will listen?  A loved one has just been killed and those most devastated by his death are desperate to tell a counter-narrative about him:  that he is NOT one of the typical black men America knows all about — the house n–a, the field n–a,  the butler or  the hustler.

And what about the women in Philando Castile’s life? We started with Valerie Castile — Philando Castile’s grieving mother who “stayed calm” and “dignified” throughout the events following her son’s death, all the way through the trial and beyond.  Who is she? “She is Aunt Sarah,” sighed one student.  And indeed, here she is, with her broad back and strong arms, embracing the grieving fiancee of Justine Ruszczyk in the days after Ruszczyk’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police:

Whether in news coverage of how quiet and dignified she was during the trial, or photos of her attending a private vigil for her son, Ms. Castile was the middle-aged black woman white America could root for; and be comforted by.

Until . . . . she became Peaches.  Every account I have read or seen or heard of the moments after Yanez’s “not guilty” verdict was read contains a sentence like this one: “After the verdict was read, Valerie Castile yelled an expletive and . . . left the courtroom in tears.”

No stranger to the boxes white America tries to put black women in, Castile described her experience in her own Facebook Live video a few days after the verdict:

“I’m sure y’all seen this bullshit that happened today. Fuck what they talking about!. I’ve been holding myself, trying to be strong, and not say the wrong things because I already know how they get down. I’m 61 years old. I’ve seen it, I’ve smelled it, I’ve heard it. Now you see exactly what these motherfuckers think about us. They murdered my mother f*cking son with his seat belt on. So what does that say to you?”

I could go on, and I’m sure you can do.  Where does Diamond Reynolds fit? Is she Sweet Thing and Peaches, or just Peaches? And what about Mohammed Noor? Is he a house n–a  as a cop; or a field n–a, as a Somali immigrant?

And then of course, we have to consider the two songs themselves, and the layering of Patriarchy over White Supremacy.  Where do Nina Simone’s “Four Women” fit in Jay-Z’s landscape? He samples the song throughout his, but doesn’t use the gender identifying language of the original song.  What does that do to the unique (and deeply intersectional) experience of a black woman, as opposed to a black man?

All of which to say, these songs and the tools they suggest are just that — voices and ideas.  What we do with those tools is up to us.  I propose using them to remind us to keep our race and gender and power goggles on; to challenge ourselves at every turn to identify hierarchies and interrogate our own participation in them.  I believe that is what makes these voices those of living (or recently deceased — RIP Nina Simone) prophets:  they remind us to look beyond and outside of ourselves and to keep paying attention to what we find there.