By DeWayne Wickham
I really hope what Sophia Nelson is saying will muffle the voice of NeNe Leakes, whose growing presence on TV surreality shows sullies the image of black women.
A former stripper, Leakes is a hulking, loud-mouth whose profanity-laced outburst on a recent episode of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice was the most APPALLING of her bad-girl acts on a genre of TV shows that falsely claims to reflect real life. She’s also a mainstay of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta, where she regularly behaves like an overgrown schoolyard bully on estrogen.
Nelson is the author of a new book that seeks to debunk the image of accomplished black women as angry and unfulfilled —a stereotype that Leakes feeds. While Nelson doesn’t say her book is the antidote to Leakes and the proliferation of other dysfunctional, angry black women who populate TV surreality shows built around black female characters like her, I hope it is.
In a recent Celebrity Apprentice episode, Leakes, who rose to TV fame as a well-to-do Atlanta housewife in the Bravo show, confronted fellow black contestant Star Jones with an expletive-laced tirade that had to make a lot of television viewers cringe.
“You talked a good game. Now bring your street game, because that what I’m bringing,” Leakes said to Jones in a ghetto bravado that she flashes just about every time a camera focuses in on her. And usually for no good reason, Leakes threatens to pounce upon someone.
In her book, Black Woman Redefines: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama, Nelson holds out the nation’s first lady as someone who is dispelling the stereotypes about black women. “You humanize us. You soften us … You make us approachable, feminine, sexy, warm, compassionate, smart, affirmed, accomplished, and full-filled all at once,” she writes about Obama in the book’s prologue.
Her point, of course, is not that the wife of this nation’s first black president possesses positive qualities that few other black women have. It is, instead, that her husband’s elevation in the White House has put a spotlight on Michelle Obama — who is a high-profile, counterbalancing image to people like NeNe Leakes.
More than anything else, Nelson’s work is a how-to book, a feel-good tome that offers black women prescriptions for personal and professional success that empower them without tearing down someone else. For her, the president’s wife is the most obvious and inspirational example of a successful black woman who refuses to be negatively defined by others. But, as Nelson points out, she is by no means the only one.
Black women have long struggled to define themselves in ways that others would understand and respect. From Sojourner Truth’s 1851 plaintive “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, to Zora Neale Hurston’s reporting on the 1953 murder trial of Ruby McCollum (a married black woman who killed a white doctor that fathered one of her children), to the Agriculture Department’s controversial dismissal of Shirley Sherrod, this fight has taken many forms.
Nelson’s book is another skirmish in this battle — one she hopes will bring about a transformative victory. She wants it to help black women be defined by something more representative of them than NeNe Leakes. Because as Hurston — the most prolific black female writer of the first half of the 20th century — once said, “All of my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk.”