Shirley Q. Liquor Uncorks Backlash v. Blackface

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Jasmyne Cannick

(WOMENSENEWS)–Jasmyne Cannick is doing everything she can to put an end to Shirley Q. Liquor.

For anyone who’s never watched Charles Knipp’s impersonation, Shirley Q. Liquor is an illiterate, welfare-collecting, malt-liquor guzzling mother of 19 who drives a Caddy and attends Mount Holy Olive Second Baptist Zion Church of God in Christ of Resurrected Latter-Days AME CME.

Cannick is outraged that the character has an acceptable place in American comedy.

"Somehow, I find it hard to believe that if the heel was on the other foot and some black comedian was traveling the country selling himself as a piece of poor white trailer park trash in whiteface, that he’d be welcomed with open arms by whites," said Cannick, a Los Angeles critic who often discusses African American culture on TV.

Rolling Stone reported last year that Knipp is paid between $4,000 and $7,000 per show and earns annual income of between $70,000 to $90,000. His shows are usually sold out in venues across the South and his most widely held appearance is at Southern Decadence, the annual Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans that attracts a mostly gay crowd.

Knipp, a drag queen comedian from Kentucky with Canadian citizenship, says the character is based on his experiences with and interpretations of black Southern women.

Petitioning for a Ban

In March Cannick and talk radio’s "Bev Smith Show" launched a national campaign to ban Charles Knipp’s act and has so far collected almost a thousand signatures for a petition to ban blackface performances "that mock the plight and lives of African American men and women."

While Cannick has taken the gay community to task for tolerating and encouraging Knipp’s frequent performances in gay clubs, she has plenty of criticism left for characters developed by black actors and executives.

There’s "Norbit," the 2007 Hollywood comedy about a morbidly obese, junk-food gorging black woman played by Oscar-nominated actor Eddie Murphy.

"In fact, long before the film was in theaters, the billboards promoting it were enough to make me wanna holla and throw up both my hands," Cannick said. As for Murphy, Cannick said she "can’t overlook the fact he did it as a black man."

Rolling Stone and the Philadelphia Inquirer raised objections to "Norbit" for reveling in a degrading stereotype. Nonetheless, the movie grossed more than $88 million, according to E! Online, an entertainment news site.

Tyler Perry, director-producer of "Norbit," in 2006 also created "Madea’s Family Renuion" about an aggressive, violent, Southern black matriarch who speaks in profound Ebonics. Madea doesn’t know who fathered her daughter due to a night of heavy drinking and unmemorable intimacy. Perry’s smash hit grossed more than $63 million.

A similar role was played by actor Martin Lawrence in the 2000 box office hit "Big Momma’s House," featuring Hattie Mae Pierce, an overweight Southern grandmother obsessed with food. Despite negative reviews, "Big Momma’s House" grossed more than $100 million.

Moya Bailey, a graduate fellow in women’s studies at Emory University, shares Cannick’s concern about the extent to which much of the negative media about black women is produced by black artists and executives.

"’Norbit’ is particularly troubling because it portrays black women of size as being undesirable and monstrous," Bailey said in a recent interview. "The main shift is that now there are more blacks who are creating images which are disturbing to me because we see some of the same images being perpetuated. Just because we have control doesn’t mean that we are getting different things. Things haven’t shifted much since the civil rights movement."

Bailey wrote about black women and media for the March 2008 "State of Black America" report by the New York-based National Urban League, which this year focuses exclusively on women.

With a foreword by civil rights activist Dorothy I. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, the report–in addition to Bailey’s entry on media–includes sections on economics, education, health, social justice and civic engagement.

In her essay "Going in Circles: The Struggle to Diversify Popular Images of Black Women," Bailey focused on the disparaging depiction of black women in hip hop and how violence against black women is marginalized.

She recalls St. Louis rapper Nelly’s scheduled performance at a charity event at her alma mater, Spelman University, a historically black college in Atlanta.

When Bailey and her organization, Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, developed concerns about Nelly’s 2003 song "Tip Drill," which includes the refrain "I said it must be ya ass cause it ain’t yo face," they planned to talk to the singer about the lyrics. Instead the rapper pulled out of the event to avoid a confrontation.

Bailey says that while hip hop fixates on black women’s sexuality the actual violence that black women are suffering in the United States goes under-reported.

"Generally I say that black women have the same dominant stereotypes that date back to slavery: hyper-sexual, demanding and overbearing," Bailey said in an interview. "But at the same time you don’t see images of black women when violence is involved. Violence against black women–it doesn’t garner as much attention," she said.

Shanelle Matthews has just completed the Women’s eNews internship. She is a recent graduate of the Manship School of Mass Communications at Louisiana State University.

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