She's Mad Real: Popular Culture and West Indian Girls in Brooklyn

An exclusive excerpt from Oneka LaBennett's new book


China takes the A train to the Fulton Street/Broadway Nassau stop to get to her job as a sales clerk at a clothing store near Ground Zero, one of two after-school jobs China holds. It is just after 4 p.m. on a Friday in August, and, on this particular afternoon, China rides the train with her best friend, Nadine, and two other friends, Neema and Mariah.[1] The subway car is full of businesspeople leaving early from Wall Street jobs, vacationing tourists, and a few local New Yorkers of varying ethnicities. The businesspeople are mostly White and dressed in suits. The tourists, dressed in shorts and tee shirts with cameras swinging from their necks and purses held close, are also White. Both the tourists and the businesspeople appear to be uneasy sharing such close quarters with the Black teenage girls. China and Nadine wear jeans, tight tee shirts, and sneakers, while Neema and Mariah wear cotton shorts with matching tank tops, and inexpensive, trendy sandals. The four girls are acutely aware of how the other commuters regard their presence on the subway car. The girls seem to spontaneously react to and feed the avoidance and the silent disapproval of the White passengers by yelling loudly across the subway car, taking up more seats than they need, and laughing boisterously. China, whose hair is dyed the same shade of gold as that of her idol, the R&B/hip-hop singer Mary J. Blige, is listening to her iPod. She sits on the opposite side of the subway car, facing the other girls. China sings loudly over the divide, entertaining her friends (who are in hysterics at her poor singing) and visibly annoying the other commuters around her.

China: [singing melodramatically] Another lesson learned! Better know your friends! Or else you will get burned! Gotta count on me! ’Cause I can guarantee that I’ll be fine. . . . No more pain, no more pain, no more drama in my life, no one’s gonna hurt me again.

An interviewee smiles for the camera in Brower Park, a popular hangout spot for Crown Heights youth. Photo by the author.

An interviewee smiles for the camera in Brower Park, a popular hangout spot for Crown Heights youth. Photo by the author.

China is severely off-key as she belts out the Mary J. Blige ballad “No More Drama,” from the album of the same name. Hamming it up, arms flailing, China does her best impersonation of Blige’s performance in the song’s music video, as her friends’ laughter and the stares of the other passengers intensify. Although the Blige song is about the pain of a broken heart, sung from the perspective of a woman looking back on her youth, the lyrics seem especially relevant to China’s life. At seventeen, she has already experienced prolonged separation from her mother, who initially left China in Barbados before reuniting with her when China was ten. China has come to rely heavily on her best friend, Nadine, a first-generation Trinidadian, who moved in with China’s family after Nadine’s mom took a job in a southern city during Nadine’s senior year in high school. Like many West Indian children and adolescents, even before immigrating to the United States, these girls were accustomed to being cared for by extended kin. Nadine’s and China’s experiences of being raised by grandmothers in the Caribbean for several years before reuniting with their mothers is a common practice of “child fostering,” a Caribbean kinship solution to the rifts accompanying immigration.[2] Both girls know the heartache of such separation, and the self-reliance they learned in their parents’ absence continues to shape their lives; they use their own hard-earned money for luxuries like iPods, cell phones, and professionally manicured false nails, in addition to necessities like food and clothes. China’s life story parallels Blige’s song in terms of both the hardship of parental separation and the “drama” that characterizes life for children in the Caribbean who learn to be independent at young ages and who face daily challenges and dangers, including tending to younger siblings and walking to school without adult supervision. To attend school, these children journey alongside speeding cars on poorly paved roads where pedestrians are routinely struck and killed.

China identifies with the adversity Mary J. Blige has overcome, as illustrated both in her music and in the performer’s personal narrative. Asked why Blige is her favorite singer, China responded:

She’s mad real. She don’t front for nobody. If you listen to her music you learn stuff about her life and how she struggled to get where she is. She’s not just singing about how she’s out at the club. She’s mad real.

While Blige’s personal struggles, which include overcoming poverty and drug addiction, resonate with China, her subway performance is less about China’s own “drama” and more an action staged in defiance of her surroundings. Unlike the many child performers, such as break dancers and candy sellers who earn a living on the subway, China’s mini-performance is improvised and not intended to please anyone other than herself and her friends. She negotiates the public space of the subway as if on the attack and uses her poor singing as an affront to the other riders. China and her friends are accustomed to adults, especially White adults, regarding them suspiciously in public settings. When they shop for clothes, salespeople and other shoppers observe their every move, certain that they are shoplifters. At school, asserting a West Indian identity can sometimes put China in the good graces of teachers, but in settings such as the subway and retail stores, China is stereotypically marked by her age, gender, and race.

Placing Black Youth
China and Nadine are among the West Indian teenage girls you will get to know in this book. While China’s raucous rendition of Blige’s song took place on a New York City subway, Black teenage girls are overwhelmingly represented in national and global popular discourses in negative terms, either as being “at risk” for teenage pregnancy, obesity, or sexually transmitted diseases or as helpless victims of inner-city poverty and violence. Examples include the pregnant, overweight, and abused young woman depicted in the film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and the fat-lipped and scarred pictures of Barbadian hip-hop/R&B star Rihanna after famously being assaulted by her boyfriend, singer Chris Brown. Meanwhile, popular images represent their male counterparts as dangerous menaces to society or as hapless casualties of pathological family life; common portrayals of a Black inner-city teenage boys include dark-faced, hooded drug dealers, aspiring rappers, and, the character Precious’s male equivalent, the illiterate football player rescued by an affluent White family in the film The Blind Side. These representations do not fully convey the diverse, real life experiences of Black teenagers. However, such popular representations are pervasive and often portray Black adolescents’ consumer and leisure culture as corruptive, uncivilized, and pathological. This book is intended to intervene and to heed the alarm educators, policymakers, parents, and the media have sounded with regard to the negative ways in which teens in general, and Black teenage girls in particular, are being “influenced” by popular Black youth culture. She’s Mad Real takes Black youth culture as its starting point, arguing that West Indian adolescents are strategic consumers of popular culture and that, through this consumption, they assert far more agency in defining race, ethnicity, and gender than academic and popular discourses tend to acknowledge. The consumer and leisure spheres are revealed not as unabashed arenas of pleasure and power but as dynamic sites in which marginalized Black teenage identities are produced and contested, confined and liberated. Indeed, we will see that youthful racial, gender, and nation-based identities are critically constructed in popular representations.

West Indian culture and American consumption are juxtaposed in Crown Heights: Charlie’s Calypso City is adjacent to McDonald’s on Fulton Street near Nostrand Avenue. Photo by the author.

West Indian culture and American consumption are juxtaposed in Crown Heights: Charlie’s Calypso City is adjacent to McDonald’s on Fulton Street near Nostrand Avenue. Photo by the author.

Popular representations of and about Black teenagers do not exist in a vacuum but, rather, are placed within local, national, and global contexts. This ethnography examines the relationship between place and Black youth culture, exposing the spatial construction of West Indian girls’ subjectivities. China and her friends attend an afterschool program in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The afterschool program and her job near Ground Zero are two wage-earning positions China holds in addition to attending high school. Yet, in public places such as subway cars, movie theaters, and clothing stores, China and her friends are viewed not as hardworking citizens and valued consumers but as threats to civic decorum. This book situates West Indian girls’ consumer and leisure culture within public spaces in order to interrogate the ways in which teens like China are marginalized and policed while they attempt to carve out places for themselves within New York’s contested terrains.

She’s Mad Real: Authenticity, Femininity and Popular Black Youth Culture
She’s Mad Real paves new ground by engaging concerns about female adolescent identity formation vis-à-vis consumer culture with the social construction of West Indian notions of belonging. It addresses questions such as: What constitutes Blackness in today’s global world? Are teenage girls equipped to form strong self-definitions in the face of a hip-hop culture that is largely characterized as corruptive? The pursuit of “authentic Blackness” takes center stage in youthful constructions of Black femininity, and China emphasizes this centrality when she describes Mary J. Blige as “mad real.” She plainly articulates African diaspora scholars’ theorizations regarding the importance of authenticity in popular Black youth cultures (Fleetwood 2005; Gilroy 1993; Gray 1995; Hall 1996; Jackson 2005; Kelley 1997; Ogbar 2009). This book puts West Indian and African American girls in dialogue with scholars who have analyzed the paradoxes attached to notions of Black authenticity. The West Indian and African American girls you will meet strive to identify “real Black people” among the contradictory media images routinely offered to them. This is, of course, a tangled and precarious exercise. For West Indian youth in particular, “realness” is contingent and deeply problematic—they struggle to negotiate “authentic” West Indian selves while sometimes simultaneously identifying with African Americans. The quest for authenticity also has significant implications for the youths’ gender identities. For China and her friends, calling a performer like Mary J. Blige “mad real” is the highest compliment they could bestow because it connotes a feminine style that confronts and circumvents mainstream racialized and classed notions of beauty. Thus, being “mad real,” “really for real,” and “keepin’ it real” reemerge throughout this text as a central trope.

The anthropologist John L. Jackson Jr. has critiqued how authenticity functions in contemporary academic discourses, charging that a reliance on authenticity “explains what is most constraining and potentially self-destructive about identity politics” (Jackson 2005, 12). Jackson follows philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in highlighting the shortcomings of social authenticity, arguing that this form of collective identity formation relies heavily on “scripts,” or narratives “that people use in shaping their life plans and in telling their life stories” (Appiah 1996; Jackson 2005, 12). Jackson writes:

These scripts provide guidelines for proper and improper behavior, for legitimate and illegitimate group membership, for social inclusion or ostracism. We use these scripts as easy shorthand for serious causal analysis, and scholars who invoke “racial authenticity” usually do so to talk about how such scripts delimit individuals’ social options—describing how racial identity can be made to function a lot like social incarceration, a quotidian breeding ground, claims Paul Gilroy, for even more brutal forms of fascism (Gilroy 2000; Jackson 2005, 13).

Rather than interrogating authenticity to “delimit individuals’ social options,” in this book we will come to see girls’ reliance on “being mad real” as central to their subjectivity formations as critical social actors. While a number of scholarly analyses interpret the pursuit of realness as serving to essentialize Black people and limit Black youths’ chances for success by situating them outside White mainstream America, She’s Mad Real reveals how girls use invocations of realness to (re)write their own social scripts (Fleetwood 2005; Gilroy 1993).

[1] Interviewee’s names and identifying characteristics have been changed in order to protect anonymity.

[2] As anthropologists Sargent and Harris note, “child fostering” is not an exclusive outcome of migration, rather, it is a “prevalent” and “culturally legitimate” survival strategy in the West Indies, where an urban Jamaican woman, for example, may pass her children to rural kin if she is financially unable to care for them (Sargent and Harris 1998, 212).

Oneka LaBennett is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies at Fordham University. She is also Research Director of the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP).

Above is an excerpt from LaBennett’s new book, She’s Mad Real: Popular Culture and West Indian Girls in Brooklyn (NYU Press, 2011).

ExcerptsJessica GeorgesComment