Black celebrity marriages are making headlines this week: musical duo Ashford and Simpson’s for its endurance and Will and Jada Smith’s for its possible breakdown. How important are these relationships to the African American community?
Beautiful Songs Emerge from a Beautiful Relationship
When news broke that Nick Ashford, half of the renowned Motown songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson, died of throat cancer Monday at age 70, not only were the songs he wrote with his wife Valerie Simpson legendary, but so was their 38-year marriage.
The duo wrote some of Motown’s biggest hits for artists like Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Chaka Khan, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Ross, “You’re All I Need To Get By” for Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and “I’m Every Woman” for Khan. They also wrote hits for themselves, the best known of which was “Solid As A Rock and, according to the Associated Press (AP), they are credited as co-writers on Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own.”
Ashford and Simpson met in 1964 at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church, USA Today reported.
“They were always comfortable with each other and they made all of us comfortable, because they were comfortable,” Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire told AP. “The thing is they were married and working together, that was what was special about them. Everybody admired that.”
“They generated excitement onstage with the tall, leonine Ashford trading harmonies with the sultry Simpson,” Steve Jones wrote at USA Today.
“Their love gave voice to Tammi Terrel and Marvin Gaye,” wrote Oretha Winston at Elev8. “When I was growing up that’s how I learned about the expression of love and true friendship. It was from listening to those songs.”
The Importantance of the Pinkett-Smiths
Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s marriage was in the news too, but only because of conflicting reports that it is in trouble.
Writer Morris W. O’Kelly waxed eloquent in The Atlanta Post on why Will and Jada’s marriage matters:
For whatever many and unfortunate reasons, marriage within the African-American community is the exception, not the rule. You bet, I’m rooting for Will and Jada. The husband is best known for a music and acting career in no way connected to misogyny, drugs and buffoonery. His millions aren’t tainted with the stain of calling women B****s and men N****s, year after year after year. It is what separates him from the likes of a Jay-Z, who at 41 is still as lyrically irresponsible as he was at 21, disrespecting the whole of Black people for a buck. Mind you, this is after his previous career as a drug dealer. It’s not about the money amassed, it’s about the responsibility accepted (or refused) along the way. Integrity matters. Her name is best known for co-starring in TV shows about African-Americans in college (of all things) and running a nursing staff and a host of movies in between the two. These facts speak to the importance of Will and Jada and their substantive contributions.
O’Kelly goes on to add that the couple is the closest thing his generation has to the iconic Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
What do you think? Are successful Black celebrity marriages important?
The marketing execs at Nivea recently caught all kinds of flack for an ad they ran for their new campaign, “Look Like You Give a Damn.” The ad features a clean-shaven black man throwing a head of a black man with a fro, a beard, and a furrowed brow. The ad drives home the point with the slogan: “Re-Civilize Yourself.”
Although it’s no surprise to me that this ad has stirred up charges of “racism” from the Black community, I’m still disappointed that it has. The Urban Daily is one of many sites that have chosen sides on the controversy:
“Nivea wants black men to ‘re-civilize’ themselves by adhering to Nivea guidelines and style experts who think this is how a Black man should look.”
“The imagery coupled with the words offends me on several levels. For one, the implication that wearing an afro or beard is uncivilized is terribly ignorant. Dr. Cornel West, who sports a very prominent Afro and beard, is one of America’s foremost thinkers … you can hardly call him uncivilized.”
One writer even goes as far as to question whether Rihanna should drop her $5 million contract with Nivea due to its “racist” ad.
To even consider telling a successful black woman to ditch a multi-million dollar contract over your personal beef with Nivea is absurd. That’s hardly a decision you could make for someone else, let alone the highly unlikely chance that you would say no thank you to millions yourself.
So why do we feel the need to respond to every suspected incidence of racial offense, no matter how minor or inconsequential? And why didn’t any one of these writers acknowledge that Nivea also published an ad featuring a white man tossing the head of an untamed white face? Sometimes I feel like we, as Black people, act like an insecure teenage girl who at any given moment will be up in arms because some other girl looked at her “the wrong way” or is acting like she’s “all that.” Curtly put, this is petty people! Let’s act like grown folks and agree on a few facts:
1. If you go into a job interview with an untamed beard and long untamed hair, you will most likely not get the job, no matter how coarse or straight your hair is.
2. Dr. Cornel West, a prominent professor at Princeton University, philosopher, and activist, is unarguably a genius. He could show up in pajamas and we would still listen to what he had to say. This does not mean that if his IQ were lower, or equal to yours, he would get the job either!
3. Entrepreneurs, celebrities, and successful eccentrics are just that: exceptional! If you want to earn a living and be an individual, then you better be darn good at what you do, because, more often than not, the American workplace is a factory and we are all drones. If you want to beat the machine, you’re going to need some tools.
Once we’ve agreed on those three points we can move on to the more sensitive issues at play here. We — and I say we because I am including myself in this too — are sick of dominant culture pulling our strings and making us dance to their tune. I mean, who made them the deciders of everything anyway? Why can’t I wear my natural unkempt hair, name my child whatever ethnic name I choose, and keep it real without being considered ghetto, dangerous, or unsophisticated? This is very frustrating, and it’s a long and complex battle that most likely will only result in short victories in an already lost battle.
There are some Black people who seem to think they can actually solve this problem. To them I say, “Good luck.” But to think that this war can be won one Nivea ad or public racist misstatement at a time is a gross underestimation of the bigger issues at play.
Not every battle is worth fighting, and in this case I’m not sure there’s even a fight to be picked. Sometimes the victim becomes a bully due to the repressed anger they hold. I think Nivea was simply trying to attract a younger audience with a clever campaign. Their word choice for the black ad, “re-civilize,” is unfortunate and maybe careless, but racist is a stretch. They basically were saying young men are a bit slack when it comes to their grooming. Most young men, regardless of race, don’t like to shave or wear a tie. So it’s like a father saying, “Son, get it together! It’s time to grow up. Look like you give a damn.” It’s that simple.
MEMORIES OF DEATH: Genocide memorial site guardian Danielle Nyirabazungu lingers near the skulls of people killed at the Ntamara Church in Nyamata during the genocide. Photo: Newscom.
The most beautiful place in the world is a valley in Gikongoro, Rwanda. Everywhere you look, you see hills full of palm trees and winding red paths. The light of a setting sun graces the hills with a golden hue. You cannot imagine a place more perfect, more pristine.
And yet that word, pristine, would be the wrong one. These hills are not unspoiled beauty, because they were once tainted by blood. This valley is home to the Murambi Technical School where 45,000 Tutsi people were massacred during the 1994 genocide.
When I studied abroad in Rwanda this July, I went to the Murambi Genocide Memorial and saw the remains of countless bodies—person after person, yet only a fraction of the people who were killed at this place. I saw heaps of the victims’ dirty clothing laid on benches inside the Nyamata Catholic Church where thousands were slaughtered, and I saw rows of their skulls and bones stacked underground in remembrance of their terrible murder.
I walked on the same ground the killers and their victims did 17 years earlier, and I imagined what it must have been like for the Tutsi people to be forced into hiding, fervently praying for their family’s survival. The idea that professed Christians systematically killed the Tutsi people solely because of their ethnicity, sometimes singing worship songs or pausing to pray in the middle of their sickening task, is more than I can believe. I keep thinking, How could anyone believe God would approve of ethnic hatred and genocide?
The genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda was government-sanctioned, and to many, it appeared church-sanctioned, too. In the decades leading up to the genocide, the church supported the extremist Hutu government and failed to denounce the ethnic persecution of the Tutsi. And in 1994, churches were the main site of massacres. According to a 2002 government report, about 11.6 percent of victims were killed in churches, often with the help of priests who themselves lured victims there with false promises of sanctuary.
Stories of the genocide make me wonder, where was God when a place of such breathtaking beauty seemed to turn into a living hell where evil walked, where so-called Christians chopped down their brothers and sisters in Christ without the slightest qualm? Where was God when people justified this violence with ethnic ideologies? Couldn’t God shake them out of their cold, complacent hatred?
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE IN THE WORLD: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial on July 9, 2011. Photo by Catherine Newhouse.
The thing about gruesome violence like this is that it never makes sense. It’s so extreme and disturbing that the immensity of it all seems enough to overload a person’s brain, but instead life goes on—the beauty remains, and so does the echo of the voices of children who play in a village down the path.
It doesn’t seem right. It seems like this place should be forever somber, weighed down by the tragedy that happened. How are we supposed to make sense of such senselessness? Who would want to destroy the beauty of this place, spilling the blood of murder in the valley between these red hills?
Who would torture and kill someone just because they are Tutsi? Who could believe their ethnicity not only made them superior to others, but gave them the divine right to kill?
And how are we supposed to trust God after He let this genocide run unchecked for 100 days? In the Nyamata Catholic Church Genocide Memorial, you can see the rosaries that belonged to the Rwandans who died there. I wonder how many Christians reached for these rosaries and desperately cried out to God in the moments before their murder. Why didn’t God save them? The usual theological explanations for why terrible things happen just don’t seem to cut it for this.
In the aftermath of genocide, many Rwandans wondered where God was during the darkest chapter of their history. Could it be that he was silent, dead, absent, or sleeping?
Some believe God suffered along with his people in Rwanda — another victim of the evil choices that humans made. In Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda, survivor Reverien Rurangwa shared how he made this sudden discovery:
This Christ, disfigured, bruised, hacked away, pierced, cut, looks like me. … He looks like a young Tutsi from the Mugina hillside, dismembered on April 20 1994 by men who should have been his brothers. He looks like the victim of the Tutsi genocide. He looks like all victims of all genocides, of all massacres, of all crimes, of all wrongs. Is he the victim?
Perhaps God was present during the genocide, feeling the full-blown pain of the victims, mourning the loss of his beloved children, aching with Rwandans when killers violated the sanctuary of his church and his Earth.
In the end, I still don’t have all the answers, but that’s part of why I went to Rwanda this summer: I’m searching. I still don’t understand how people can have faith after living through genocide, why God can’t intervene to stop the worst violence, and how professed Christians can kill someone based solely on ethnicity. But I know that if we’re going to prevent future genocides, we have to be ready to stand up for the inherent worth of God’s children, seeing Jesus in the faces of the poor, tortured and killed (Matt. 25:34-40), and rejecting ideologies that try to warp religion into ethnic dehumanization.
And perhaps, hidden somewhere in Rwanda, there is something more: a piece of wisdom I cannot see yet, a clue to trusting God even amidst the most horrifying of horrors, a hope for the redemption of even the most twisted killers, a belief in a Christianity that will stand against genocide.