The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Say My Name: Quvenzhané Wallis

(I inadvertantly mispelled Quvenzhané in the earlier version of this post affecting the text in the link. I have corrected it in the post I sincerly apologize to her and to her family.)

A black girl-child must be the most fearsome thing in the world based on how hard so many adults in the juggernaut of Hollywood Hollywierd are working to demean and debase her. Whether it's reporters who can't or won't learn to say her name – "Can I call you Annie?" No. "My name is not Annie. My name is Quvenzhané." (I am not naming the offenders. I refuse to call their names.) Can you imagine a reporter not bothering to learn the name of a world leader because it makes demands on her articulation? Yet some want to call her uppity for insisting on the dignity of her own name. We've seen that before: Grown black women called "Gal," never "Mrs."

And then there was the person and organization who thought it was ok to call a nine year-old baby girl carrying a stuffed dog a vaginal slur.

I am reminded of the prophetic and prescient bell hooks and her continually relevant essay "Selling Hot Pussy." Black women and girls and our brown sisters are commodities from plantations to picture shows reduced to our urogenital orifices. (Bootylicious anyone?) The claim of comedic license would be a joke if it were not so feeble and so deadly. The law of this land not so very long ago was that black women and girls could not be raped because we had no ownership of our own bodies, no right to withhold consent or access from any white man or any black man to which he wanted to breed us. A black woman or girl who defended herself and her womb against violation and pollution was beyond uppity; she was a criminal.

White privilege and its daughter, White Ladihood, cover white child-actressess from Jodie Foster and Drew Barrymore to Dakota Fanning in its embrace. They were not and would not be called filth and out of their names on their big night. The actions of these journalists reveal their belief that Miss Quvenzhané Wallis is not deserving of the protections afforded white ladihood, not even at the tender age of nine. Like a slave, she is not afforded the luxury of a childhood. 

No baby, we haven't come a long way. Some have never left the plantation. Others are trying desperately to recreate it and impose it on the rest of us. We are not a post-racial society. We are a society in which a few people of color have made extraordinary accomplishments and are then used as shields to defend against claims of racism. We also live in a world in which violence against women and girls is epidemic and cataclysmic. Little Quvenzhané lives at the intersection of black and female and is doubly impacted, doubly marginalized, doubly vulnerable. 

That the writer who called Quvenzhané Wallis a word no nine year-old should hear, know or have to be shielded from should be held professionally accountable and lose his (or her) job must be said. That so many in the twitterverse an on other social media platforms are outraged is a hopeful sign. But that the media outlet which posted that comment and later took it down without apology has not taken responsibility for its vicious act of sexualized (verbal) violence against a child is reprehensible. That the people who work there don't understand that they feel entitled to treat Quvenzhené they way they are because she is black is the point and the problem.

Quvenzhané, I say your name with pride and respect. You are a gift to this world. You are brilliant and beautiful, made in the image of a loving God whom many cannot or will not recognize because she is a black girl flowering into womanhood. And the world that lynched a Jewish single mother's child simply can't handle God in black female body. (See Janet McKenzie's iconic image of Jesus using a black woman as Christ/a.)

Jesus of the People by Janet McKenzie

21 Responses

  1. avatar
    JDKahler

    Even satire used to have standards, this is just so wrong. Wil, you have been if anything restrained in your response.

    25 February 2013 at 4:20 pm

  2. avatar
    Michelle Ellis

    Thanks so much for standing up for Quvenzhene. Your closing statement is heavy, one that I will be meditating on for awhile.

    25 February 2013 at 4:45 pm

  3. Testing, testing.

    25 February 2013 at 5:01 pm

  4. Amazing essay. And perfect that you mentioned bel hooks, whose commentary on the movie itself was the only one I read that called it like it really was:
    “Sadly, all the vibrancy in this film is generated by a crude pornography of violence. At the center of this spectacle is the continuous physical and emotional violation of the body and being of a small six year old black girl called Hushpuppy (played by the ten year old actress Quzenhane Wallis). While she is portrayed as continuously resisting and refusing to be a victim, she is victimized. Subject to both romanticization as a modern primitive and eroticization, her plight is presented as comically farcical. Some audiences laugh as Hushpuppy, when enraged at the antics of her disappearing alcoholic oftentimes abusive wild man dad Wink, burns her shanty house.”
    http://newblackman.blogspot.com/2012/09/bell-hooks-no-love-in-wild.html

    25 February 2013 at 6:56 pm

  5. Preach, preach again, and preach some more!

    25 February 2013 at 6:58 pm

  6. It seems its easier to hate than love…

    25 February 2013 at 7:06 pm

  7. avatar
    hillary goodridge

    Thank you.

    25 February 2013 at 8:51 pm

  8. avatar
    Lisa

    You are truly a blessing. Thank you for your honesty and wisdom and what seems to be a deep love for humanity. Thank you for an image of Jesus that will help me to continue in my studies to be a pastor in a church that still believes Jesus was white and God is a Father. I don’t know you but I am so thankful you are in the world and using your voice.

    25 February 2013 at 9:43 pm

  9. It is important to note, however, that The Onion did apologize to Quvenzhané publically and personally. Even they recognized that this was not an instance of “Can’t you people take a joke?”

    26 February 2013 at 10:28 am

  10. avatar
    John

    Thankfully, The Onion has apologized, and taken steps that would prevent this kind of crap from happening again.
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-onion-apologizes,31434/

    Thank you for reporting this – yep, preach, preach, and preach some more !!!

    26 February 2013 at 10:34 am

  11. avatar
    Thomas E. Doyle, II

    I agree.

    26 February 2013 at 10:40 am

  12. The Onion did end up apologizing and it sounds like the person/people who posted the tweet will be held responsible.
    http://www.upworthy.com/how-to-apologize-after-you-call-a-9-year-old-girl-a-horrible-name-in-front-of-ev

    26 February 2013 at 11:15 am

  13. avatar
    Sharon C

    Thank you Pastor Wil. We as Black women have such a long way to go.

    26 February 2013 at 2:36 pm

  14. fortunately they did write a very sincere apology.

    26 February 2013 at 2:59 pm

  15. I read this comment with dismay. There was too much anger about the behavior of ignorant adults deflected upon one little girl. Quvenzhané celebrated a major accomplishment for her age. In time, she will learn all about life and its joys, beauty, intelligence, and yes, ugliness. We may never be able to correct another person’s ignorant words, but we as caretakers of the Word, and our culture should maintain our words at all times with the utmost care and principles afforded us.

    Words of praise for what Quvenzhané did in acting alone are most appropriate and not at the end of an angry rant using her name to disparage other people. Yes, it is unfortunate that people do not pronounce names correctly, or the usage of inappropriate words, a sad commentary on people to change, belittle, or shortchange what they do not understand, can spell or pronounce.

    Quvenzhané alone is the most important person in this commentary. As a former Children’s Church Director and teacher for over 20 years, children did not necessarily request prayer for “their” problems; they normally asked prayer for the problems of “troubled adults” in their lives. Quvenzhané knows that her parents named her something special and she corrects everyone about her name, nothing more.

    Her night was filled with happiness, anticipation, and the grace to applaud the person who won the Oscar. Through it all, Quvenzhané twirled, danced, and had a magical night!

    26 February 2013 at 11:04 pm

  16. Thank you for your thoughts on this Wil. I don’t watch award shows for various reasons but clearly others do for the purpose of finding ways to express their own shortcomings. It’s a shame that white privilege is too often imbedded with such ignorance. Long Way – No Way!

    27 February 2013 at 11:55 am

  17. Pingback: FemFest: The road behind and the road ahead | unchained faith

  18. avatar
    JSK

    Of all places, SNL on tv came up with a great save, not only with a theological bent but apparently a Latin punch line (http://www.usmagazine.com/entertainment/news/kevin-hart-dresses-up-as-pope-quvenzhane-wallis-on-saturday-night-live-201333), which I’m sorry I missed. Seriously, though, the whole spelling/pronunciation thing shouldn’t be too tough:
    [Call/Response]
    Q*U*V/Q*U*V
    E*N*Z/E*N*Z
    H*A*N*E/H*A*N*E
    What’s that spell?/Quvenzhane (kwuh-VEN-zhuh-nay)!
    What was that?/Quvenzhane (kwuh-VEN-zhuh-nay)!
    Quvenzhane/It’s fun to say
    Quvenzhane/It’s fun to say
    Quvenzhane/It’s fun to say
    [All] Yay!

    3 March 2013 at 8:59 pm

    • avatar
      Wil

      No. Kevin Hart’s buffoonish drag was not a great save for him or SNL. Its theological bent was the continued mockery of a child by adults who should protect and cherish her.

      4 March 2013 at 9:00 am

      • avatar
        Deirdre Whitfield

        I agree. Sorry about the poor editing in my first confusing response. I was referring to the shortcomings of the person at the Onion, not people who watch award shows. Two thoughts mixed up.

        5 March 2013 at 10:16 pm

  19. Pingback: Shocked. Disgusted. We have not - Brian McLaren

Leave a Reply