Sassy essays by a multicultural feminist

April 26, 1994|By Cary Darling | Cary Darling,Orange County Register

Lisa Jones' sensationally sassy new book, "Bulletproof Diva," is subtitled "Tales of Race, Sex and Hair." That about says it all.

This collection of previously published essays, mostly from the Village Voice between 1990 and 1993, comes from someone who's pondered long and hard about what it's like to be a black woman at the backside of the 20th century. She's tough, and like a diva from another era, Gloria Gaynor, she will survive.

But this is one woman who's not going to sacrifice looking sharp or her sharp sense of humor on the blunted altar of political correctness.

It's precisely her mix of wily multiculturalism, coffee-klatch feminism and urban renegade style that gives her writing such a crafty kick. Certainly Ms. Jones had a good teacher; her previous books were collaborations with Spike Lee on the making of his films "School Days," "Do the Right Thing" and "Mo' Better Blues."

Like Mr. Lee, Ms. Jones is quintessential black New York -- buppie/Afro-chic Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to be exact. ("The most cutting-edge black neighborhood in the country," writer Nelson George told me once.)

Like Mr. Lee, she's got lots of well-tended bones to pick with whites and blacks. Like Mr. Lee, she invests her high-five style with a sense of hip-hop, boombox urgency. Unlike Mr. Lee, she can laugh at herself -- and that makes all the difference. Her writing moves with sashay and stride, but only rarely is she strident.

To give some order to her columns, Ms. Jones has divided "Diva" into five sections, each dealing with her public obsessions: racism, strong women, discovering her African side, men, and hair -- a veritable mantra of African-American concerns over the last couple of hundred years.

The first, "How I Invented Multiculturalism," is even more self-explanatory than it seems. The child of a black father (writer Amiri Baraka) and a white, Jewish mother (writer Hettie Jones), Ms. Jones was multiculti from the get-go.

And, she says, whether we like it or not, we're all going to have to get along, because we're all afloat without any lifeboats on this ship called America.

The other sections -- "Bring the Heroines," "The Blackest Market," "Genitalia and the Paycheck," and "The Hair Trade" -- also telegraph her intentions but not her singular style. Take, for example, her observations on African-American names:

"Sheniqua, Twanda, Lakeisha -- I call these the Watts, Africa, names; they sound African to some ears, yet they're made in chocolate cities like Detroit. Mattel's new African-American fashion doll line has two dolls with Swahili names and one named Nichelle, which falls in the 'Frenchified' category of the Watts, Africa, aesthetic (along with the names Chante, Saute, Tanqueray). . . . I admire the invention of these names, how boldly they announce themselves, how they aim for the singular quality of royalty.

"Watts, Africa, names don't get much respect from the intelligentsia. Essence ran an opinion piece a few years back dismissing them for being 'cumbersome,' 'phonetically incorrect,' and, presumably, low class. A buppie couple in their early 30s, asked recently why they chose an Anglo name for their child, said, 'At least we didn't name her Toyota Corolla.' "

She's equally consumed by hair -- how the perception of African hair being inferior to European hair is a symptom of African-American self-loathing.

"Hair is the be-all and end-all," she writes. "Everything I know about American history I learned from looking at black people's hair. It's the perfect metaphor for the African experiment here: the price of the ticket (for a journey no one elected to take), the toll of slavery, and the costs of remaining.

"People, mostly men, tell me I'm too strung out on hair. That hair is not political. . . . But this is just not true. Like Jamaica Kincaid, who writes only about a character named Mother, I've decided to write only about hair: what we do to it, how we do it, and why. I

figure this is enough."

Oddly, it's when Ms. Jones traverses more blatantly political territory that she runs into trouble. An essay on a visit by Nelson Mandela to New York, "Mandela Diary," is as plain as its name. Others, regarding the 2 Live Crew obscenity case and Mike Tyson, appear to want to have it both ways in terms of both celebrating and castigating them.

But these are small quibbles in what are generally marvelous missives from the racial/sexual/follicle front. "Welcome to my America," Ms. Jones writes at the end of her preface. Welcome, indeed.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Bulletproof Diva: Tales of Race, Sex and Hair"

Author: Lisa Jones

Publisher: Doubleday

-! Length, price: 306 pages, $22

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