Black Identity in Kendrick Lamar’s “i” and “The Blacker the Berry” on To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar is a contemporary and prominent African American hip-hop artist. He was born in the city of Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles that is famous in hip-hop culture as being the birthplace of the group N.W.A. The men of N.W.A. were pioneers of gangster rap and the tradition that fathered modern hip-hop culture. Lamar, though his roots are steeped in the West Coast hip-hop tradition and aesthetic and he no doubt owes much to that tradition, is a pioneer in his own right. The West Coast hip-hop legacy which Lamar grew up with and runs with includes a rich and wide history. To name a few examples: Snoop Dogg’s honey-smoothly delivered lyrics concerned mainly with casual sex and currency, Ice Cube’s indignant and meticulously architected verse, and 2Pac’s revolutionarily heart-slamming (and rending) ballads glamorizing and burning-in harsh coals of reality of both his personal struggles and also the broader strife and conviction of (particularly urban) Black America. West Coast hip-hop has developed an impressive, unique and flavorful tradition and has established itself both in the physical place of Southern California and in the metaphysical realm of hip-hop via homages to and borrowings from the genre. However it is what an artist adds to the literary “conversation” that distinguishes them.

Each artist and indeed each human being is faced with the constantly adapting “problem” of life as humanity understands it, and the artist is tasked with constantly drafting possible solutions and fruitful breakthroughs and hypotheses toward improving society’s understanding of it. An artist’s endeavors ideally allow society to digest and confront disturbing truths about the world and also become aware of fleeting beauties in life that occur in unexpected forms. The way an artist understands their identity forms the way they approach their craft by determining the sorts of inflection that is inherent when one of a given social group addresses any particular audience. The Black artist in particular is faced with the added difficulty (or imposed asset) of needing to deal with the phenomenon W.E.B. DuBois called “double-consciousness” and its significance towards the sculpting of identity. Lamar clearly subscribes to the idea of double-consciousness as will be explicated later in the paper. The Black artist understands the necessity of defining and coloring this identity to the extent such that it is useful as a foundation from which to speak steadfastly to a broader society that has already defined the Black person/artist with stereotypes of being inferior, amusing, mentally-deficient beings incapable or unworthy of being fully understood.

Black artists have taken many different types of approaches to conquer this obstacle. Some find their calling to be to attempt to embrace individualism and reject the importance of the construct of race to its historical and present nature of being used to justify oppression and hate. Zora Neale Hurston perhaps often strived towards this as a means of transcending the issue as best as possible without denying racial culture and heritage. Others are inclined to accept DuBois’ vehement philosophical conclusion that “all art is propaganda and ever must be,” and find that art, this brutally delicate and uniquely human diversion and marvelous tool for social revelation, is best used when it directly addresses race and promotes individual encouragement, psychological empowerment and political change.

On To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar tackles the Black artist’s problem with an acuteness and urgency that can only be imitated by most of the rappers conscious enough to attempt to do so. His meditation on the theme of identity, and its implications for one’s responsibility to the group they identify with, that is baked into two different pictures of Black identity in the militaristically melodied and militantly messaged track “The Blacker the Berry,” and the racial self-affirming and hopefully existential track “i” is both profound and pounding. These works stand out among the rest of his work to emblazon Lamar’s place in the African American musical-literary tradition as a skilled propagandist and painter of America’s social ills (especially concerning racial identity and wealth inequality) as they corrupt the nation’s people. One of the affinities that makes Lamar unique in the hip-hop crowd is his ability to capitalize on the convention of creating single, poignant punchlines at the end of verses and songs that attack the listener’s philosophy and acceptance of Lamar’s premises in the verses and songs. For example in “The Blacker the Berry” Lamar emphasizes the insidiousness of the reality of the urban, working-class African American condition in a punchline that harmonizes with the theme of the song but is immediately preceded by a list of actions the narrator could take to show his support for one conception of blackness. This punchline problematizes ideas about Black identity and responsibility with a representation of reality as the narrator seems just as likely to, and capable of, being a credit to his race within the paradigm of stereotypes created by American society or of being someone who literally destroys the life of another Black person thereby symbolically reinforcing racial self-destruction and the inhibition of the race being all that it could or should be. These final two lines of the song that the audience is left to consider are “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/ When gangbanging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?/ Hypocrite” (Lamar “…Berry” 96-7). This mastery of the punchline is not, however the most obvious characteristic that stands out to the listener about Lamar’s album.

Lamar’s latest shtick and the musical idiosyncrasies he has adopted include a near rejection of the popular hip-hop practice of sampling pieces of older musical works to use as the cornerstone of the melody of rap songs. Sampling is indicative of hip-hop’s postmodernist bent, due to the fact that it is a, “patchwork music speech, vigorously quilted from fragments, granting it…a parodist’s attitude both toward the songs that are quoted and toward their traditions” (O’Meally 38). Lamar instead chooses the exact opposite direction when it comes to the melodies of his songs, more often enjoying the accompaniment of an actual flesh, bones, brass and wood band whose music sings the jazz tradition, as well as heavily using back-up singers and vocalists. Aside from its appeal due to its sheer peculiarity in this day of auto-tuned choruses, drum-machines, and technologically produced and manicured sounds, this decision demarks an existentialist theme around his music. Jazz music in particular lends itself to existentialist ideology because of its rejection of prescription and conventional timing and harmony and its emphasis on solos, improvisation, and spontaneity which mirror existentialism’s concept of the prominence of the individual and their capacity to “determine their own development through acts of [their own] will” (Google). This is just one weapon in Lamar’s musical-literary arsenal and “The Blacker the Berry” instead uses an interrogative tone surrounded by a relentless, snare-heavy beat.

His track, “The Blacker the Berry,” while it does rely on a more traditional, less improvisational, shorter-loop beat, the producer drops or alters this beat during given sections of the narrator’s rant against himself, Black America, and American society as a whole. This rant is prompted by the narrator’s sense that seemingly any response falls short and is inadequate to affront the contradictions, stereotypes, and pains created by racist American society. His catalogues of manifestations of the malicious understandings and goals of racist American society juxtaposed with the narrator’s own coming-to-understanding, reactions, destruction of a stereotype through the superficial significance of gaining wealth, reconciliation of Black-on-Black violence, and his and the Black community’s role in allowing itself to be formed by such malicious understandings, goals, and stereotypes represent an identity crisis and a sense of responsibility or culpability without direction or a clear solution. One line in the song that plays with the listener’s idea of blackness is “I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan” (Lamar “…Berry” 77). This line follows the problematic tradition of using the color black to describe something as evil, but also this description shows a deep degree of blackness, and it just as significantly depicts blackness as something powerful. Lamar treats blackness from both postmodern and existential perspectives.

“…Berry” appears two songs before “i” on …Butterfly which serves as a pleasing progression as its postmodernist, confused and distressed theme and tone yields to the more hopeful, existentialist theme and sound of “i.” The contradictory opening lines, “Everything black I don’t want black/ I want everything black I ain’t need black/ Some white some black I ain’t mean black/ I want everything black” creates a theme of disturbance and disorientation around the definition and significance of blackness (Lamar “…Berry” 1-4). This sense of confusion and ambiguity is enhanced by the seamless combination of declarations without line breaks which make it unclear whether a given word or phrase applies to the preceding thought or the following one. One example of this is “I get off watchin’ you die in vain/ It’s such a shame they may call me crazy” in which the ambiguity is whether the shame is that “[he] gets off watchin’ you die in vain” or that “they…call [him] crazy” (Lamar “…Berry” 11-12). The end of this brief opening verse proposes an aspect of one take on Black identity in “Black don’t crack, my n****,” suggesting that the Black community perhaps has a sense of pride derived from the consequences of maintaining a taboo against acknowledging (and/or suffering) mental illness (Lamar “…Berry” 14). This ambiguity occurs again when the narrator presumably addresses racist American society, “You hate my people your plan is to terminate my culture/ You’re fuckin’ evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.” Here the ambiguity is whether the narrator wants the addressee to recognize that “[They’re] fuckin’ evil” or that “[He’s] a proud monkey” (Lamar “…Berry” 24-5). Noting the fact that “proud monkey” is an extremely deprecating term and is probably used sarcastically or spitefully, the narrator’s necessity for the addressee to acknowledge this reality of pride speaks to identity being constructed in part by the way the person is perceived by others in congruence with DuBois’ idea of double-consciousness.

The repetition of the seemingly charming idiom, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” is the bridge between the verses and choruses of the song. These sections are bereft of the incorrigible snare drum that slaps home Lamar’s syllables on the rest of the track and are stated by a different vocalist whose male, matter-of-fact toned, echoing voice takes on a dream-like or brain-washed sounding effect. This clear auditory shift in the background in no subtle terms tells the listener, “Pay attention to what I’m doing here. Do not take this at face value.” The song and the idiom alike are centered around race, however, as suggested by the last line of the bridge, “The blacker the berry, the bigger I shoot” [emphasis added] (Lamar “…Berry” 35)[1] explains that the convenient, disarmingly harmful and not-so-subtly racist thinking fastened in people’s minds by such aphorisms can lead to a false sense of security that may be disrupted by an explosion of violence, the insatiable beast that knows no race or hue. In fact one theme of the song—illustrated in part by this corruption of the last half of this line—is that despite a legitimate enemy in the presence of racism and racists, circumstances, ignorance and confusion often lead to outbursts of violence missing the mark and instead harming this representation of a troubled Black community itself. Violence as a theme in Lamar’s songs, tends to be something unpredictable and more-or-less irrational, done out of desperation and reaction rather than careful, macabre planning and deliberation. This is most evident when comparing the two different versions of Lamar’s song “i.”

Kendrick Lamar’s “i” magnetizes towards Hurston’s idea of the development and nurturing of the individual as both an intrinsic good and an indispensable tool for raising up the entire Black race. The song appeared as a single, in a more harmonically-engineered and produced, politically correct version, and again as a rougher-cut, live and interrupted version on the album entitled To Pimp a Butterfly. The album title is obviously is a transformation of the title of Harper Lee’s canonical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lamar’s album is concerned with race and the machinations of racist American society just as Lee’s novel is. “i” is unique in the context of his last two albums in that it does sample the Isley Brothers’ “Who’s That Lady.” It is also unique in that it bears two markedly different versions.

Both versions of “i” carry two and a partially identical verses and similar choruses (see Table 1 below for a comparison of the choruses). The first lyrical discrepancy between the two versions is a minor, and perhaps innocuous or incidental one—trading “The Devil” for “Satan.” The subtle, and perhaps subconscious choice of preference of “The Devil” which is a more generic, secular term for the figure of Christian mythology also creates the consequence of softening and broadening the conceptual break between the two lines by simple virtue of the addition of the extra syllable via definite article, “the,” that in the single version suggests a sort of counterintuitive and perturbing connection between the Devil’s agenda and a believer’s knowledge of God, “I done been through a whole lot/ Trial tribulation but I know God/ Satan wanna put me in a bow tie” (Lamar single “i” 1-3). The …Butterfly version, while it may seem a departure from collective racial consciousness towards individuality from the single cut, actually diverges yet again halfway through the song into an unscripted (or at least an intended-to-appear-unscripted) moment when a disturbance in the crowd prompts Lamar to address the scuffle, tie the trivial event back to a theme of urgency, unity and pride, and improvise a lengthy verse of acapella rhymes that implicitly link the struggle of the individual to survive and thrive in ruinous circumstances to that of the broader Black society in the United States and maybe beyond. More examples of championing individuality and its place in the improvement of the confidence and status of the Black race abound in the song’s lyrics.

Table 1. Respective choruses of the two versions of “i”

Butterfly Version Chorus (minus “I love myself”) Single Version Chorus (minus “I love myself”)
When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see? The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs
Agh! I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police But it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants (and) I don’t mind
Illuminated by the hand of God boy don’t seem shy He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide
One day at a time, hunh! One day at a time, sun gon’ shine

 

The line, “When you’re lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see?” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 10) acknowledges society’s role in attempting to define an individual’s identity without any possibility of knowing the truth about that identity which it professes to understand. This line evokes DuBois’ concept of double-consciousness as he defined in The Souls of Black Folk, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (DuBois 689). The phrase “I love myself” is central to each version, and is a straight-forward assertion of self-love, self-affirmation, and celebration of the individual, but it is by no means exclusive to the narrator alone; indeed the “emcee” effect of the construction of the heroic and impressive narrator/persona in the hip-hop tradition requires that the narrator is someone to admire and emulate. Therefore this self-affirmation, love and celebration is to be adopted by the listener and Black society. The line that follows the first “I love myself” in the …Butterfly  version of the song, “Illuminated by the hand of God boy don’t seem shy” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 12), relies upon Lamar’s technique of using line-break placement to create fascinating ambiguities. The second half of the line can be taken as either a comment about the boy who is apparently the subject of the line, or conversely as a command of encouragement to some generic “boy.” The first interpretation, given the syntax of the line, seems the more likely intent or most common listening of the line, yet whether or not and how this boy is related to the narrator is unclear. The second, command interpretation lends to the somewhat Garvey-esque or Zionistic idea that the whole Black race has been chosen by the creator to be a special people, and the presence of an entreaty by the narrator to the Black masses to discard their insecurities and self-doubts and allow themselves to shine across the spectrum of all human activities, be these activities, journeys and achievements quantifiable or qualifiable.

Lamar draws the narrator’s struggle in “i” as an individual struggling against a maniacal society and the mental illness of depression as parallel to the Black individual’s, and by extension, the Black-race-in-general’s struggle against the inhibiting, belittling, bruising and frequently hostile environment of broader American society. Lamar’s narrator continuously directs his[2] rhymes at an undefined “you” as when he raps, “These days of frustration keep y’all on tuck and rotation” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 21), inviting this unknown group subject “you” (from y’all) to be an acting agent in the remainder of the verse or at the very least explaining how the nature of the flawed world that this “you” is living in impacts this group. This “you” appears again later, this time to be indignantly interrogated, “What do you want from me and my scars?” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 44). While there is no particular verbal emphasis on this line (though Lamar does make generous use of tonal variation in this version of the song—his singing rhyme-delivery swoops up to discordantly high pitches in the chorus in the words “see” and “police”) the structure and delivery of the line encourages a sense of surprise. The conjunctive addition “and my scars” is preceded by a brief pause which enhances its unexpectedness. This query about what society can reasonably expect for someone that it views as possessing the narrator’s identity, complete with his visible and recognizable scars, is pained and rhetorical. The next line beckons the audience to join in the narrative meditation, “Everybody lack confidence” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 45), then sharply turns, asking the audience questions about the narrator and ending the verse with a promise made ostensibly to the audience, “How many times the city makin’ me promises?/ So I promise this, n****/ (I love myself)” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 47-9). The promise of course is the vow of self-love, esteem, and pride in the face of the ugliness and rudeness of both the larger, impartial world as well as the echo-cage of racist American society.

The narrator of “i” is a larger-than-life warrior, but is still inadequate to take on alone an enemy as numerous and demonic as the negative spirituality of the world and the casual, sadistic racism of America. While the narrator “post[s] up fee-fie-foe-fum basis,” “Blow[s] steam in the face of the beast,” “[Goes] to war with an automatic weapon” and “deal[s] with depression ever since an adolescent,” it appears the war is a perpetual and losing one, as the narrator says he, “could never bob and weave/ From a negative and letting them annihilate me” (Lamar …Butterfly “i“ 21, 23, 61-2, 65, 67-8). However the narrator in this version doesn’t realize that he is not alone in the struggle until he is stirred onto a different path by a spontaneous event in the audience of the live recording, and this theme is carried through and built-upon within the acapella section of the song at its end.

While one would think that such an outburst in the audience would be edited out to preserve a polished, ideal version of the recording, Lamar opts instead to leave it in. The outburst itself is a vague dispute heard as a mosh of voices off-stage. Lamar is able to peace-make and put things in perspective for the inflamed parties like a practiced patriarch or street-preacher. This is a very meta-musical moment as Lamar presumably sheds the cloak of narrator and the audience hears the artist’s own spontaneous thought. The most notable aspect of this half-dialog is the change to the use of the pronouns “we” and “us.” This collective pronoun deposes the “I’s,” “My’s,” “You’s” and “Y’all’s” that have dominated the lyrics thus far, creating a union where there was formerly a separation. Lamar’s emcee/narrator now attacks an artery near the heart of historical Black identity as defined by language—the “N word.” The narrator uses his influence to “school” other artists and his audience about a majestic and elevating etymological origin of the prominent incarnation of the initially hateful American word from the Ethiopian word negus (pronounced /nee-guss/). What this rhetorical act makes clear is the narrator’s conception of the importance of Black America building its identity to one of strength, constitution, and pride to combat and repel the assaults of a society damaged with racism. His acapella verse culminates in a call-to-action punchline that simultaneously asks his audience to adopt his take and invocation of the word and directs them not to the historically problematic corruption of it, “N-E-G-U-S, say it with me/ Or say no more” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 90).

By examining the two versions of “i” side-by-side, one may probe the essential theme of the song as well as draw hypotheses regarding the significance of the differences. A commonality between the two versions that reinforces the theme of a fractured, hard-to-grasp identity is the line, “In front of a dirt double-mirror they found me” (Lamar {both versions} “i” 8). The lyrics state that the narrator’s reflection upon himself (which the listener can safely assume is a primarily metaphysical self-reflection due to its lack of context) is split and obscured, however the words “they found me” also must be accounted for. These words reveal the probability that others discovered the narrator perhaps in a sort of trance because the task of “cleaning the glass” of the mirror and choosing the right angle, lighting, and gaze from which to seize the core of their identity overloaded the narrator’s senses. That is, the task proved to be stymieing in magnitude and depth of implication. The first striking discrepancy between the versions comes in the “hook,” or chorus. The …Butterfly  version, instead of including, “The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs” (Lamar single “i” 10), substitutes “When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see?” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 10). The single version’s creation of its universe as one in which the entire planet is dramatized as a “ghetto,” a dangerous, sad, and impoverished place complete with weapons-of-considerable-destruction and conflicting politics and personalities is explicitly absent from the more introspective …Butterfly version of the song. While the single version chorus’ first line represents the narrator’s view on the outer world, both versions are concerned with the outside world as a force acting upon their narrator’s construction of identity: the …Butterfly version’s narrator rhetorically questions the outside world’s perception of him while the single version’s narrator claims he has let go of his concern for what the outside world is doing and is focused on himself as Ellison’s invisible man in his cave of light.

Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” and both versions of “i” examine the nature of Black identity as a basis for influencing individual and community activity in a complex and assertive manner. His songs make clear the continued relevance of the questions of what it means to be Black, what the acceptance of Black identity asks of and means for the individual, and how seriously to take broader society’s sentiments about one’s self and one’s community. Good art always causes its audience to ask questions, but doesn’t answer these questions to a high degree of satisfaction. At the conclusion of one song the audience is left with a hypocritical figure with whom people may relate or perhaps better understand after listening to the song. At the conclusion of another the narrator recommends a fraction of a solution and a direction to the audience by which to fortify Black identity into something strong and to be proud of as a base for creating positive changes for the individual, the community and the society. And at the end of the alternate version of that song, the narrator sees his story—not only his personal overcoming of obstacles, but also his knowledge that counters the mythological omission and destruction of a Black legacy to be proud of—as a means of transmitting a message to the youth that will allow them to transcend the obstacles to a greater degree and more easily than the narrator himself has. Lamar’s songs draw on philosophical and musical-literary tradition to create new and powerful, original and contemporary statements about Black identity.

[1] Line citations are approximate because song lyrics are spoken or sung and not written. The system of citing line-numbers in this paper will skip non-lyrical spoken audible words and would-be “verses” on the tracks.

[2] While Lamar’s emcee persona is possibly an auto-biographical narrator, neither version of this song definitively marks the narrator as male, as many of Lamar’s songs do. For simplicity’s sake and because the lyricist sounds male, with some concession the author of this paper chooses to use masculine pronouns to refer to the narrators of both songs.

Sexuality in Oz and the Handmaid’s Tale

While at first glance, sexuality may seem to be treated entirely differently in the two shows Oz and the Handmaid’s Tale, there are also striking similarities when viewed with an objective eye. This is true despite the fact that Oz centers on men and The Handmaid’s Tale (THT) mostly on women. Sex in Oz is often violent rape whereas in THT, sex is usually coerced. In both universes, sex is forced by one party onto another the majority of the time and both societies are very structured ones within larger, more lawless worlds. The outside world of Oswald State Penitentiary is the fictionalized version of the 1990s-early 2000s law and order justice department of the United States of the time. The outside world of the infant nation of Gilead in THT is Canada, the colonies, and ostensibly the rest of the globe who is steering clear of America’s nuclear civil war.

Sex in Oz is often gay sex which cannot produce children, which is somewhat similar to the futility of “the ceremony” in Gilead of which the rare pregnancies bear a one in five chance of producing a child healthy enough to survive. Sex in both societies reinforces the hierarchy of the society, both of which are ruled by men–in Oz the ultimate rulers are the male warden and mayor and Emerald City director Tim McManus, in Giliead the leaders are the male commanders. One might also say the C.O.s in Oz are “rulers” or even that the heads of the prison gangs are rulers, too, with some justification. In Oz, sex is forbidden, but in the Handmaid’s Tale, sex is a privilege. The C.O.s have the privilege of having sex with the inmates in Officer Howell’s case and in the case of the officers who had sex with Shirley Bellinger, the female death row inmate. While commanders explicitly carry the privilege, the C.O.s in Oz can get away with having sex with those of lower status as well as of their own. Some characters in each show are prohibited from having sex altogether.

The quintessential example of this is the priest, Father Mukada in Oz, however THT has entire classes of people who are forbidden to have sex. These are the Marthas, those sent to the colonies, men who haven’t been assigned wives, and the Aunts who are akin to the C.O.s in Oz in other ways. These characters provide a contrast with the overtly sexual nature of each society. The status of women in each show is somewhat similar. Women are treated as sex objects in both shows–in Oz, all women implicitly are because the men are around women so infrequently, whereas in THT, only fertile women are explicitly sex objects. The treatment of sexual assault however is much different. In the Handmaid’s Tale those who are sexually assaulted are blamed and shamed and the perpetrators put to death, whereas in Oz, it is either a fact of life that is accepted as part of the natural hierarchy or a crime which can lead to punishment of the perpetrator. The purpose of sex, though, is one of the most notable differences in between sexuality in the two shows.

The function of sex is completely opposite in each show. Sex in Oz is about dominance and or pleasure whereas in THT, sex is supposed to be a duty and purely for procreation. Gay sex is forbidden in Gilead, as is sodomy, both of which are commonplace in Oz. Both shows put their characters in extremely structured societies with clear rules about sex. Emerald City is a prison within a prison–consequences of sexual impropriety are swift and heavy yet don’t lead to death sentences. Gilead is a post-apocalyptic nation governed by religious extremists and the consequence of having illicit sex could be death. In both series’, consensual heterosexual sex is rare where the drama is centered and often clandestine when it occurs. The natural consequence of heterosexual intercourse is treated very differently in each show–in THT it is supposed to be a miracle and a blessing, but in Oz, procreation is either not allowed in the case of prisoner Busmalis, or an accidental inconvenience in the case of Officer Howell’s pregnancy.

Both shows depict sex as restricted and complex in the confines of the highly structured society, one governed by religion and the other by justice. In each show the people are not truly free so sex is a privilege. Hierarchical societies create boundaries around sex and obliterate other boundaries. Both shows are critical of the idea that sex should be restricted for some people and argue that doing so causes more problems than it solves.

 

Desert Rendezvous (a parody)

Angela was glad Juanita had insisted she come out; it was nice to sit and chat with the gals over a few cocktails. After last call, she said goodbye to her friends and strode out of the smoky bar and into the parking lot. Her eyes scanned the star speckled sky and the cacti dotted landscape. She opened the door of her navy blue Honda Accord and slid in. She fished through her CDs looking for something besides country albums, and settled on a 60s rock mix. She shimmied the key into the ignition and twisted. The desert pseudo-silence grew louder, crickets taunting her. “Damnit,” she grumbled. She cranked it net time for seven seconds and nothing happened. After rinsing and repeating a few times, she groaned and slammed her door on the way out. She swept the parking lot and was surprised to find that she was the last person to leave. She searched the web for the AAA number and called.

“yeah. The Rattlesnake Tavern… yes 505…” She impatiently thumbed through a Reader’s Digest, taking advantage of the dome light still functioning. As she began to decide going out was a mistake after all, an unmistakable glint of headlights in her rearview mirror snapped her back to the moment. Angela began to script what she should tell this stranger, thinking how big of an idiot she was going to look like driving a car with a bad starter. She shivered, but not from cold. Oh well, here she was, the damsel in distress. She decided to embrace the role. Gravel crackled under the truck’s tires as it approached. She studied her exhausted countenance and now unflattering makeup in the visor mirror. He’s just a truck driver–I don’t want to look too good for him anyway. He slowly and deftly maneuvered the rid next to her car and stepped down from the truck. Some boots, ha. She never knew what to make of a man in fancy boots–neither the boots nor the cocky attitude wearers impressed her. The driver was a hair over six feet, built like a baseball player. She stole a peak at his rear end before he turned around.

“How do you do, miss?” I’m Marco with Spare Tire Towing,” his warm voice put Angela at ease like a friend’s hand on her shoulder.

“Hello…Marco. I’m Angela,” she managed to squeak out as they awkwardly shook hands.

“What’s a-matter with the car?

She swept her bangs out of her eyes and replied, “Oh uh, I don’t know exactly…it was running fine earlier tonight and I thought it would be okay…”

“Are your lights working?”

“Yup–yes.”

He frowned. “Bad starter. Gotta tow it.”

“I would’ve been able to jump it if it was the battery” she claimed, trying to impress him.

He looked around. “From wh-” he started to inquire then thought better of it. He linked up the car and wenched it up onto the platform. “Where to?”

“You know I appreciate you coming out here in the middle of the night like this to help me, you look like you just woke up.”

“Thanks,” he rubbed his eyes and chuckled.

“What I mean to say is…do you wanna go watch the sunrise together on the ridge?”

He was unprepared for this question and it hung in the air for a solid moment.

“Uhh…well I guess…I mean… sure.” He grinned and took her hand, helping her into the truck.

The tow truck lazily crawled up the road to the top of the ridgeline just as the golden disc of the sun began to peak over the horizon. She scooted over to him and lay her head on his shoulder. Half the sky was as colorful as a rainbow as the brilliance of the scene began to blind them. The cacti cast long shadows and a hungry coyote chased a clever rabbit through the brush. The pair in the truck held hands and exchanged increasingly bolder glances. Marco opened his mouth to speak and hesitated, “Angela…this is nice,” he leaned in and kissed her. Her lips met his eagerly. Then they trembled as she slowly exhaled and glided her fingers down his chest. He came to her again, gently brushing aside her hair, when her wig fell off! She gasped and shifted away, clutching the hairpiece. He gently seized her chin to raise her head. She hesitantly looked up and to her surprise, he tipped back his cowboy hat, revealing his own stark baldness. He was bald as a baked potato except he had sideburns. She gasped, this time in delight, and pulled him to her. They locked lips and he caressed her back and squeezed her breast gently. She stopped him, “Wait…have you watched the t.v. series Shaft?”

“The whole season, why?”

“Good,” she indignantly blurted and then pulled him over again. She slid her hand up his thigh. She rubbed his crotch and began unbuttoning her blouse, when he stopped her and ripped it open, roaring like a lion…only to see she was wearing an undershirt. She gracefully removed this, except for the fact that she elbowed him in the nose as she did. She pouted about the shirt, “My aunt Luna made that for me!” He hastily apologized. One palm on his now-bleeding nose, he unzipped her skirt and gently massaged her. She moaned and wiggled her drawers off. He popped open the glove box and pulled out limited edition Tiger Woods Hole-In-One® condoms. He eased inside her and she pleaded, “Marco!” He flicked her nipple and kissed her neck loudly. She pulled him into her, grasping his buttocks harder with each passionate thrust.

I thought love was only true in fairy tales…” Marco sang softly.

“Or for someone else, but not for me,” she continued. They found a physical rhythm with the tune and grunted with pleasure. They interlocked fingers and he tripled the pace without warning and she panted like a race dog. “Oh, Marco!” She bit her hand. “John…Jacob…Jingleheimer…SMITH!” She burst. Marco’s head reared back and his eyes squinted shut.

“Ah-ah-achoooo!” He sneezed powerfully right in Angela’s face. He sloppily cleaned her off with his forearm, and mumbled, “Sorry,” grinning sheepishly.

She slapped him. “Don’t Stop!” She scolded impatiently. He resumed as adoringly as before, kissing her collar bone and driving deep. This went on for another twenty minutes until she finally felt his hot breath on her neck. They smirked at each other as they dressed.

As Angela waved goodbye as he dropped her off, she hoped he would dial the number she had written carefully on the back of his hand.

Goombatah ch 1 and 2

A table outside a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the city. The city that never sleeps, that breathes fire, that wallows in swaying power.

A heaping plate of hoppin john sat before Simon. A cool afternoon sprawled across them. “You cower at the prospect, Simon?!” Roger quipped.

Simon mustered a low, grumbling laugh. He wiped the corner of his mouth with the embroidered napkin and sighed. “Roger. I need to talk to you about something serious.”

“Go on, then,” Roger blustered.

“The dry cleaner’s. The count is short.”

“Shazzad.”

“You have some sympathy for him, or what? Get Alfio and get it done.”

“I’m on top of it, I’ve got him over there with Mikey right now. Shit. I’m a captain–I delegate.”

“As you should,” Simon reassured mockingly. “Look at your fat ass–you ordered pasta and steak and finished em both before I finished my lobster and john.”

“The fuck,” Roger chuckled. “Ho! Take it easy, I’m sensitive about it haha.”

The docks. Mikey finds Alfio on his boat, the waves rocking it steadily, with a purpose. “You fuggin bum I knew I’d find ya here. C’mon, we gotta take care of you-know-who-zzad.”

“One moment,” he pled in broken English. He grabbed a rope and tied off the boat again. “Okay. We go.”

“Wait. One mo-ment. Motherfucker. Simon says he saw you with my goomar on Tuesday.”

“Get the fuck out here–of here! Mike, I would never do this you–know you know that. Don’t insult me.”

At Regina’s of all places? Not even a club, something fun? Unbelievable.

“I-a never been to Regina’s!”

“Re-lax. I’m just breakin ya balls. Let’s go.”

“You Americans have a funny sense of humor.” They climbed into the waxed Cadillac and sped off.

Alfio and Mike arrived at the dry cleaner’s three minutes earlier than Mike had guessed due to good traffic–God’s speed for the Devil’s work. The kid at the counter was a punk. Mike flexed and made him shrink and they pushed past him into the office. Behind the counter was Shazzad being felated by an Indian floozy. He looked up and frantically stammered “Oh no no no! I paid.”

Alfio grabbed him by the shirt collar and lifted him up, then kneed him in the testicles. Shazzad yelped, “Motherfucker!” and fell to the ground like a dusty sack of green potatoes. Mike picked him up and slammed him on the desk. Shazzad squirmed helplessly. He was about to punch Shazzad when he paused. He noticed a lego set on a bookcase. “What the fuck hahaha” Mike yucked. Alfio, grab some of those lego men. Alfio did so and tossed them one by one as they entered Shazzad’s nose and he bled significantly. “You’re too old to play with toys. You’re too old not to pay the vig.”

Vig? What Vig? Shazzad coughed. “I’m Muslim”

“Well we ain’t. So fuck you!” Alfio chopped at Shazzad’s kneck as Mike reached into the safe behind the desk and pocket fistfuls of stacked bills. Alfio inquired half seriously, “What do we do with this…cocksucker?”

“Leave her. She’s ob-vi-ously suff-ered enough,” Mike explained laughing. They disappeared into the night, leaving the neon sign lit in their rear view mirror.

Goombatah ch 1 and 2

A table outside a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the city. The city that never sleeps, that breathes fire, that wallows in swaying power.

A heaping plate of hoppin john sat before Simon. A cool afternoon sprawled across them. “You cower at the prospect, Simon?!” Roger quipped.

Simon mustered a low, grumbling laugh. He wiped the corner of his mouth with the embroidered napkin and sighed. “Roger. I need to talk to you about something serious.”

“Go on, then,” Roger blustered.

“The dry cleaner’s. The count is short.”

“Shazzad.”

“You have some sympathy for him, or what? Get Alfio and get it done.”

“I’m on top of it, I’ve got him over there with Mikey right now. Shit. I’m a captain–I delegate.”

“As you should,” Simon reassured mockingly. “Look at your fat ass–you ordered pasta and steak and finished em both before I finished my lobster and john.”

“The fuck,” Roger chuckled. “Ho! Take it easy, I’m sensitive about it haha.”

The docks. Mikey finds Alfio on his boat, the waves rocking it steadily, with a purpose. “You fuggin bum I knew I’d find ya here. C’mon, we gotta take care of you-know-who-zzad.”

“One moment,” he pled in broken English. He grabbed a rope and tied off the boat again. “Okay. We go.”

“Wait. One mo-ment. Motherfucker. Simon says he saw you with my goomar on Tuesday.”

“Get the fuck out here–of here! Mike, I would never do this you–know you know that. Don’t insult me.”

At Regina’s of all places? Not even a club, something fun? Unbelievable.

“I-a never been to Regina’s!”

“Re-lax. I’m just breakin ya balls. Let’s go.”

“You Americans have a funny sense of humor.” They climbed into the waxed Cadillac and sped off.

Alfio and Mike arrived at the dry cleaner’s three minutes earlier than Mike had guessed due to good traffic–God’s speed for the Devil’s work. The kid at the counter was a punk. Mike flexed and made him shrink and they pushed past him into the office. Behind the counter was Shazzad being felated by an Indian floozy. He looked up and frantically stammered “Oh no no no! I paid.”

Alfio grabbed him by the shirt collar and lifted him up, then kneed him in the testicles. Shazzad yelped, “Motherfucker!” and fell to the ground like a dusty sack of green potatoes. Mike picked him up and slammed him on the desk. Shazzad squirmed helplessly. He was about to punch Shazzad when he paused. He noticed a lego set on a bookcase. “What the fuck hahaha” Mike yucked. Alfio, grab some of those lego men. Alfio did so and tossed them one by one as they entered Shazzad’s nose and he bled significantly. “You’re too old to play with toys. You’re too old not to pay the vig.”

Vig? What Vig? Shazzad coughed. “I’m Muslim”

“Well we ain’t. So fuck you!” Alfio chopped at Shazzad’s kneck as Mike reached into the safe behind the desk and pocket fistfuls of stacked bills. Alfio inquired half seriously, “What do we do with this…cocksucker?”

“Leave her. She’s ob-vi-ously suff-ered enough,” Mike explained laughing. They disappeared into the night, leaving the neon sign lit in their rear view mirror.

Shary Flenniken: Feminist Comix Artist Launched out of a Missile Silo

www.sharyflenniken.com

Shary Flenniken is a United States citizen and artist, editor and writer who has worked extensively through the medium of comics. She has gained notoriety for her talent for both illustrating and writing. She was born in the year 1950 and grew up as a “military kid.” She was raised in a few areas in the northwestern quadrant of the globe. Her father, a cartoonist himself, encouraged her development as a cartoon artist. After attending an art school in the state of Washington, she found an inviting artistic environment creating illustrations for an underground newspaper (Flenniken).

While working on an assignment at a rock-n-roll festival, she encountered a trio of underground comix artists with whom she would join forces with to produce Air Pirates Funnies in the underground comix mecca that was the early 1970s in San Francisco. Eventually, a representative from the National Lampoon humor magazine contacted Flenniken due to the magazine’s interest in her work and the magazine regularly published her comic strips including Trots and Bonnie. Some of her friends and colleagues in the comics business include Doug Kenny, Chris Miller, Anne Beatts, Michael O’Donohugh, Tony Hendra, Matty Simmons, Charles Rodrigues, Mike Kaluta, Jeff Jones, Gahan Wilson, Randy Enos, Sean Kelly, Brian McConnachie, Jerry Sussman, Bobby London, Ted Richards, Dan O’Neill, Gary Hallgren, and Terry Southern. Flenniken was married twice and is now a widow. She resides in Seattle. She has written screenplays and currently does freelance work for books and magazines (Flenniken).

The themes of Shary Flenniken’s work as an underground comix artist bolstered the popular (counter)culture manifestation of a feminist movement in 1970s United States. Her incorporation of the funny animal genre—a dog character’s dialog contributing to the social and political commentaries in her long running series Trots and Bonnie—adeptly addressed feminist and women’s issues and philosophies. Perhaps a reaction to the cultural shift back towards domesticity for women after WWII, the movement often called Second-Wave Feminism was a political activism movement that fought for, and lead to, the winning of several enhancements in women’s rights. The movement challenged the status quo in American society’s treatment of reproductive rights, family dynamics, legal rights, gender roles, occupational concerns, and domestic violence. Underground comix and newspapers were the media in which many of these bold artists began satirizing the patriarchal paradigms in United States society and amplifying the dialog surrounding women’s interests and perspectives.

Comix anthologies like It Ain’ t Me, Babe, Wimmen’ s Comix, and the outrageously named Tits and Clits were forums for new women cartoonists to communicate previously taboo subjects that mattered to them and to their readers: sexual harassment, abortion, lesbianism, single motherhood, sex and sexism – and certain not-yet legal drugs. Some of the cartoonists to emerge from this period were Lee Marrs, Shary Flenniken, Roberta Gregory, and Trina Robbins (Robbins).

As a reaction to the incredible level of misogynistic objectification and hypersexualization of women in popular media, feminist artists like Flenniken often chose to share their insight into, and illuminate, the subject matter of women’s sexuality.

Shary Flenniken’s work spoke to such topics as sexual education, puberty, contraceptive methods, sexual orientation, objectification of women in the media, and the diversity of reproductive anatomy, among other topics. A cover of Flenniken’s French comic Sexe et Amour (see Fig. 1 below) features a man and woman apparently in the act of lovemaking, the woman exclaiming, “I love you,” and the man replying, “Don’t shit.”

sexe-et-amour-1989-flenniken

Comic image by Shary Flenniken, copywrite Comics USA 1990*

His reply more accurately translates to “Give me a break,” or “Don’t mess with me,” or “Don’t bullshit me.” The woman holds the man’s head andhe holds her shoulder and waist. The dialog and text work together to convey the contrast between each gender’s ideas about intimacy.

A 1979 Trots and Bonnie page features young women, ostensibly at a slumber party, discussing offensive misconceptions about male homosexuality, and comparing it briefly to female homosexuality, before ending, as the title often does, with an ironic punchline delivered by dog character, Trots.

Another Trots and Bonnie strip involves an older woman, seemingly Bonnie’s mother interrupting Bonnie’s reading to lecture her. The expressive mother figure offers an inept and blunt warning to a stone-faced Bonnie about the tragic and lasting significance of menstruation. The drawing of the mother figure as constantly shifting on the sofa in each frame, as well as her soliloquy’s increasingly pessimistic tone, make menstruation sound like an enormous ordeal—a sort of prison sentence that half of the human race is destined to suffer and endure. Female birth control methods—some of which have properties that often mitigate these troubles—such as hormonal contraceptive pills, were just introduced on a mass scale in the United States in the 1960s.

A Trots and Bonnie comic strip from 1988 sets the reader into the seat of two sex-ed. classrooms, after a contradictory introduction to the subject by a busty blonde teacher, the young ladies and men are split off according to their gender to receive two wildly different versions of the “nitty-gritty” from an older woman teacher and older man teacher respectively. The girl’s expert sex educator preaches puritanical abstinence, while her male counterpart starts off in similar fashion and then abruptly changes his tune to encourage the boys to seek out who he defines essentially as “sluts” to have sex with—being sure to use condoms. In a scene-to-scene transition, Bonnie and Pepsi are reading an absurdly outdated textbook entitled “Your Body Down There” adding to the strip’s theme that young women are inadequately informed about their sexuality and sexual development. Again, Trots—a zoomorphized representation of masculinity—paws his way into having the last comic word, expressing his desire to enjoy more sex with another dog while trying not to pick up an STI. Flenniken’s treatment of femininity versus masculinity is another theme of her work, and many of the manifestations of this theme concern more political subject matter.

A particularly popular Trots and Bonnie strip presented Bonnie and two of her friends, Pepsi and Elrod playing doctor in a garden toolshed. Pepsi as a female surgeon is arguably a feminist portrayal simply by representing a prestigious professional occupation in a female character, however the strip dedicates most of its content to the (play/unqualified) surgeon’s task at hand, the botched vasectomy of young Elrod. Acting nurse Bonnie is unware of the type of operation to be performed as she hands Pepsi a menacingly large pair of shears, and when Pepsi informs her, Trots cannot resist the temptation to “break the third wall” as it were, and interject to emphasize how typical it is of Pepsi to be concerned with sexual matters. In the next panel, Pepsi reveals with a grin complementing Elrod’s that the operation is a condition of an accordance she came to with Elrod—he may have sex with her so long as he allows her to render him infertile. Three of the four characters are active in the strip, Elrod being the patient, passive “odd man out.”

Flenniken plays up the funny (wise, crass) animal genre/trope in this strip, as Trots interjects with a pun. Finally, the seemingly preoccupied Bonnie divulges her thoughts regarding Trots undergoing the animal equivalent of Elrod’s procedure, and Trots’ overreaction appears to be the mechanism of mayhem and misfortune by jumping half-way onto the operating table, causing the surgeon to slip and Elrod to scream in agony as his genitals are severed.

While the strip may at first glance seem simply a bawdy example of physical comedy, its undertones about the politics of each gender’s responsibility to provide and use some method of birth control—intentionally having Pepsi (the young woman) putting the responsibility on Elrod (the young man) to ensure their sexual interactions will yield no children—is pointedly “putting the shoe on the other foot,” as far as American society’s expectations and mores concerning gender on this issue, as it were. The fact that Pepsi is not only suggesting/requiring the operation, but also performing the it herself, combined with the fact that that he is probably too young to give informed medical consent to such a procedure, (and both of them probably too young to be sexually active, despite their best intentions and precautionary thinking), further augments the ironic mix of the rational—contraceptives and STI protection being at the very least both partner’s mutual responsibility—and the absurd—the degree of the naivety and gusto of the youths culminating in an extremely dangerous and ill-fated attempt at medically produced sexual sterilization. Flenniken has an affinity for bringing feminist thinking into collaborative works in which her creative influence is consequentially more limited or at least required to adapt to someone else’s writing.

A frame in a more contemporary illustrative work of Flenniken’s in Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson published in 2004, brings subtle feminist commentary into a male-dominated story. The four-page comic story contains only three characters (when defined as those figures given dialog or written about in narration)—all males, however Flenniken represents women in three of the thirty-three panels of the comic. The third frame of the comic shows a naked, voluptuous woman from behind as she is being painted by the doctor while spectators look on through the windows. The text in the panel, “And nothing they took more delight in than to see others painted” (Pomlun), is Stevenson’s, which makes it clear that Flenniken’s concept of the frame’s art is entirely hers, presumably derived from what came to her mind when she read that line of the short story. To enunciate the feminist comments the panel is making: “big is beautiful” is an obvious one, as the female figure is drawn in a gentle and unassuming style, while women’s inability to escape society’s objectification and the attention of voyeurs is also clearly indicated.

Shary Flenniken’s work is both delightful and insightful, and it is deserving of popular attention and critical analysis. While her work has certainly attained some degree of such regard and scholarship, there is plenty of fertile ground in her title’s fictional universes in which fruitful knowledge may yet be cultivated and harvested. As Trina Robbins pointed out years ago, “It’s really weird the way leftists and militant feminists don’t seem to like comix. I think they’re so hung up on their own intellect that somehow it isn’t any good to them unless it’s a sixteen-page tract of gray words” (Galvan). This sentiment is slowly changing, and women’s studies scholarly journals and comics journals alike have, especially in the “ought decade,” begun to dissect Flenniken’s brand of sequential art. Comprehensive analyses of artist’s work merit study, as does analysis of more discrete portions and aspects of artist’s work. The occurrence of the skillful women comics of the underground was not only a chance occurrence or “happy accident,” but rather a cultural backlash to the male-dominated nature of comics at the time, as DuBois said, “all art is propaganda and ever must be.” Art’s reciprocal relationship with society, i.e. “art imitates/influences life and vice versa,” is a well-established soft scientific law. Art work like Shary Flenniken’s is an instance of a critical and aesthetically beautiful (at the least within comix aesthetic values) foundation for discourse on issues of overcoming oppression that any society desperately needs.

References & Notes:

*It is my belief and intent that my use of the Sexe et Amour cover falls under fair use, I have no reason to believe the comic in question is still being printed or redistributed. I believe it is owned by Comics USA and copywritten in 1990.

Dueben, Alex. “Features: An Oral History of Wimmen’s Comix Part 2.” The Comics Journal, 6 Apr. 2016. http://www.tcj.com/an-oral-history-of-wimmens-comix-part-2/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Duncan, Randy, Matthew J. Smith, and Paul Levitz. “Exploring Meanings in Comic Book Texts.”The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009. 345-51. Pdf. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. “Biography.” Shary Flenniken, 2009. www.sharyflenniken.com. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. Trots and Bonnie. 1974. Unknown p. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/e3/b7/b4/e3b7b437b7b8a8d077d765b63b6c3cd9.jpg. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. Trots and Bonnie. 1979. Unknown p. http://i.imgur.com/07gDIO9.jpg. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. Trots and Bonnie. n.d. Unknown p. http://66.media.tumblr.com/af312d3ea9ba4ac055000a9e60573b72/tumblr_inline_nlbbdtbHP61rw2t38.jpg  Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. Sexe et Amour. 1984. Unknown p. https://www.le-livre.fr/photos/R26/R260132965.jpg. Cover. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. “Trots and Bonnie.” In Stitches A Patchwork of Feminist Humor and Satire. Ed. Kaufman, Gloria. Google Books. p 87. Web. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Mann, Ron., et al. Comic Book Confidential. Digitally remastered version; full screen. Chicago, Ill.: Public Media Inc., 2002. DVD.

Merino, Ana. “Feminine Territoriality: Reflections on the Impact of the Underground and Post-Underground.” International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 10, no. 2, Fall 2008. Translated by Elizabeth Polli. pp 70-88. EBSCO Host. Web. Accessed 3 Oct. 2016.

Noomin, Dian and Lasko-Gross, Miss and Robbins, Trina. Interview by Martha Kennedy. “Graphic Novels Panel 2: Book Fest 2015,” 5 Sept. 2015. Washington, D.C. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=6887. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Robbins, Trina. “Women in Comics: An Introductory Guide.” National Association of Comics Art Editors. teachingcomics.org http://www.readingwithpictures.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/Women-in-Comics-An-Introductory-Course.pdf. pp 1-10. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.