Thursday, October 11, 2007

Karrine Steffans:
An I-Con of Urban Literature

“People just thought I was, like, a hooker … they didn’t know I was, like, an intellectual with a book.”
– Karrine Steffans

I was apprehensive about purchasing The Vixen Diaries, the second installment in Karrine Steffans’ sex-soaked memoirs. Yet, I couldn’t honestly analyze a book that I hadn't read. So last weekend found me sitting in Borders — less than two miles from the former video girl’s million dollar Sherman Oaks home — sipping an inferior soy chai latte as I pored over her latest tome.

Why was I so uneasy about this author, a woman whose first book, Confessions of a Video Vixen, spent nearly a year atop the New York Times best-sellers list? Partly because I take issue with Karrine’s fly girl brand of feminism. In Confessions, she dished the dirt about her sexcapades with A-listers (among them Diddy, Shaq and Jay-Z), and then framed her book as a cautionary tale for vulnerable young women trying to come up in the cutthroat entertainment industry. Despite an absent father, an abusive baby daddy, and countless lovers who bedded her then bounced, she was able to throw off the shackles of patriarchy to become a rich and successful businesswoman in Hollywood.

Yet, for all of her pseudo-empowering pontificating, Karrine comes off as a coon, a hypersexualized Stepin Fetchit in a risqué minstrel show. During her recent publicity blitz for The Vixen Diaries, I caught several of her interviews, and they didn’t make me want to throw a fist in the air for women’s solidarity. On the “Wendy Williams Experience,” Karrinne just sat and laughed as the titular talk show host administered countless verbal smackdowns.

“You are amazingly clean-looking to be such a dirty hooker,” Wendy deadpanned. “Compared to your ‘whory’ acts … for somebody who doesn’t know you, they would think you were virginal.”

Likewise, on Jamie Foxx’s radio show, Karrine's message of self-actualization for black women was eclipsed by cries of “skank” and “ho,” and questions about the penis size of her lovers. In both interviews, Karrine tried valiantly to maintain her elitist demeanor while simultaneously packing switchblades in her responses. “I’m a highly educated woman who just knows how to tap into my nigger side,” she boasted.

The same could be said about her writing style, which is ghetto grandiose. And yet, I found The Vixen Diaries decidedly lacking in passion. In a word, boring. In this soulless stream of consciousness, the artist formerly known as Superhead brags about being a New York Times best-selling author, her appearance on Oprah, her magazine covers, her Sherman Oaks house, her Benzes, her posh red-carpet lifestyle … then throws in a gratuitous romp with an anonymous Hollywood icon, or half-heartedly mentions her lunch dates with B-list celebrities. The tone of The Vixen Diaries is condescending and detached — she could just as easily be signaling for valet at The Ivy. She tries to pass off the lack of spicy sex scenes in this book as emotional maturity and spiritual growth, when in fact, she exhausted the more salacious details of her life in Confessions.

Karrine wants the reader to believe that her journey is both tragic and triumphant, that she is a talented young woman who felt marginalized in a male-dominated industry, but was still able to survive. For her, sex is an equalizer. As a black woman who has struggled to “make it” in Hollywood as a writer, who has felt both invisible and objectified, I wanted to sympathize with Karrine’s plight. Yet her story is lacking in literary integrity, and reads more like self-parody.

“I know the game and what it takes to be respected,” she writes. “I know how to use my intellect and not my body. These days, I walk into a room as Karrine Steffans, mother, New York Times best-selling author, entrepreneur and woman to be reckoned with.”

Although Karrine attempts to shed her Superhead trademark, she is indelibly stamped as a tramp. People pick up her books for mental masturbation, not for intellectual stimulation. She doesn’t realize that folks are far more interested in her sexual roster than in her transformation, hence readers who have trashed The Vixen Diaries for having less libidinous bling than its predecessor. If recent reviews are any indication, the star of this seductive scribe is on the wane.

It’s interesting that Karrine is both reviled and relevant because of her sexploits. She tapped into the zeitgeist, a post-modern hip-hop culture that glamorizes “money, clothes and hoes," and idolizes those smart enough to get rich or die trying. When I attended last summer’s Harlem book festival, I was amazed (and saddened) by the glut of “nigglature” on display. Folks flocked to the tables of authors who exploited every aspect of urban life — pimps, drug dealers, baby mamas and the ubiquitous Prada-rocking club chick on a mission to get paid. I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle. Everyone has a story to tell, and African-Americans are underrepresented in the Western literary canon. But when folks are more familiar with Superhead than with Sula, Houston, we have a problem.

Even Karrine seems to understand that she is a product (and beneficiary) of the very culture she condemns. “The irony is, I have become an icon by sleeping with many of them,” she writes. “Something about that gives me an uncomfortable feeling and not because of my sexual roster but because of the weight that society places on the celebrities on it. For this I am iconic? Jeez.”

Despite seeming disenchantment with her “i-con” status, Karrine continues to capitalize on the Superhead brand. A third book is on the horizon, allegedly a titillating but fictionalized account of her life. Although she fancies herself a rebel and a street heroine who continues to hustle the system, Karrine is simply a narcissistic opportunist whose confessions are better left unsaid.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

National Day of Panhandling for Reparations

OK, so sometimes you can symbolically support a movement, right? I got $6 coming to me from a white friend, and I will definitely reroute it for the revolution!

I saw this on

Today is the National Day of Panhandling for Reparations! People all across the United States are taking an hour or two to sit in a range of locations in their communities: outside of businesses, libraries, museums, art galleries, or on busy street corners. We wear signs reminding passersby of the history of slavery in the United States. We collect reparations in the form of money from white Americans for the enslavement and free-labor of Africans and African Americans during the establishment and economic rise of this country. This money is immediately paid out to black passersby. Both parties are offered a receipt. We do this to offer a convenient opportunity for American citizens to acknowledge, apologize and compensate the unpaid labor of African Americans, the travesty of slavery, and the rightful due of reparations."

National Day of Panhandling for Reparations was created by artist damali ayo.

Monday, October 01, 2007

More Than a Photo-Op?
When Pretty Women Go Missing

When surfing for news about black folks, I usually log on to the “ghetto grapevine” before I visit CNN or the New York Times. The black underground was where I first learned about Megan Williams’ rape and torture in West Virginia and the Jena 6. These outlets may not always be objective in their reporting, but when it comes to covering issues affecting the black community, they make the mainstream media look like they’re running on CP time.

While browsing the message boards of one popular black Web site, I came across the name Nailah Franklin. The 28-year-old sales rep from Chicago had been missing for a week at the time and was presumed dead. Cyber prayer circles were forming. Condolences were being offered in advance. Calamity united total strangers.

Then the blow came: Nailah’s badly decomposed body was discovered behind a vacant store. It was so unrecognizable, she had to be identified through dental records. Shock quickly turned to sadness as mourners remarked on how unfair it was for someone so pretty to meet with such a tragic end.

Pretty. Beautiful. Wholesome. These are just a few adjectives used to describe the young woman. I confess, when I first glimpsed Nailah’s picture, I couldn't stop staring at it. In every pose, she looks sun-kissed. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I wonder if Nailah’s case would have garnered national attention if she weren’t so photogenic.

A recent Sun Times commentary said Nailah’s “all-American girl face” humanized her disappearance. That leads my inner cynic to inquire: If Nailah resembled Serena Williams – a woman whose features are not considered as American as apple pie – would her story still be endearing? Are we more sympathetic when disaster strikes pretty people?

Our culture places such a high premium on beauty that missing black women who don’t typify the all-American ideal fail to earn equal face time on the nightly news. "Unless it's a pretty girl ages 20 to 35, the media exposure is just not there," says Kelly Bennett, a case manager for the National Center for Missing Adults.

A story that has not received a significant amount of coverage is the disappearance of 22-year-old Stepha Henry. An honors graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Stepha vanished on May 29, 2007 while vacationing in Florida. Although she received a paragraph or two in a few media outlets, her story was largely ignored.

Many blacks decried the lack of coverage for Stepha’s case, and considered her a casualty of Missing White Woman Syndrome. This mocking phrase describes relentless media pursuit of photogenic "damsels in distress," among them Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson and Jessie Marie Davis.

I don't mean to trivialize the tragedy that befell Nailah Franklin. She was a vibrant young woman who was well-loved by family and friends, and she didn't deserve to die. Yet, I hope she is not reduced to a photo-op used to sell newspapers and ad space. Women of color who go missing are underreported in the media, so I’m thankful when these stories get any mention. I hope her case shines a spotlight on other sisters who vanish from parking lots and restaurants and sidewalks across America — regardless of age, economic background or good looks.

I know it’s impossible for the mainstream media to report on every woman who fails to make it home, but I hope future cases aren’t assigned relevance based on beauty.