And what exactly is a bulletproof diva?
A model Republican law professor who went toe to toe with a future Supreme Court justice?
A quintessential prima donna a la South-Central or Detroit, deep-diaphragming like, or maybe even better than, Pavarotti?
Or an award-winning writer who denounces any and all bi- or multiracial labels because she knows “that cultural pluralism (is) more than a performance piece for well-heeled art patrons?”
Individually, they represent distinct facets of a conceptual creature viewed from many angles in essayist Lisa Jones’ “Bulletproof Diva: Tales of Race, Sex and Hair” (Doubleday, 1994).
Together, they populate Lisa Jones’ America.
“It ain’t as airbrushed as a Benetton ad, but it’s a happening place,” Jones writes in her introduction.
It is a place of blackness. A space where the political and the personal meet with style. Where the rooms are crowded with wit and vernacular from the League of Ivy and the nation of Brooklyn. A menagerie of African Americans “whose sense of dignity and self cannot be denied.”
But ultimately, it is a photo album filled with words, tales of the world according to Lisa Jones.
This is what happens when black nationalist writer Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones and Jewish writer Hettie Jones have a baby. It was early 1957 in Greenwich Village when a young LeRoi Jones walked into the offices of Record Changer magazine to interview with then-22-year-old Hettie Cohen for a vacant position. The two fell in love, married and had children: Kellie and Lisa.
The marriage dissolved. Hettie, who had been disowned by all but one member of her white family for marrying a black man, decided to raise her daughters to be whole, without fissures or fractures. That meant some weekends with Dad and some summers with Grandma. That meant leading them into the waiting embrace of black America, with all its pains and all its pleasures.
In an interview during a recent Los Angeles trip, Jones recalled her childhood: "(My mother) taught us a respect for difference, that difference in the context of a family is something to be enjoyed, appreciated and discussed. . . . I grew up thinking that I was a part of a very healthy American family and it has always amazed me when people respond to it as if it is an oddity.”
With the exception of crediting her mother for instilling in her a strong sense of pride and individuality as a black woman, Jones does not linger in public conversations about her parents. As a feminist intellectual of color, the shadows she will box are many but perhaps the largest one is that of her parents’ successes as writers.
Born of famed writers, armed with an undergraduate degree from Yale and a graduate degree in film from NYU, this diva faces a general perception that she has never seen the likes of bullets in her path.
A wide-eyed observer, she is petite and perfectly charming with a smile that is part mischievous, part whatever she chooses at the moment, with a head full of long, loose-kink black hair. In conversation, as in writing, she dubs herself “just another butter-pecan-colored black girl.”
But looks are deceiving. She has worked hard for all that is here. She’s been a supermarket check-out girl, a waitress, a cookie salesperson. The list is long.
A scholarship student at Yale, she worked in the dining hall, where the “boys would come in with their hats, drunk as hell on Friday nights, buying their candy and milkshakes, throwing stuff at you and you’d be wearing your Yale hat and they’d still be treating you like the help.”
While attending film school full-time, she juggled writing books with Spike Lee, working as an editor at the Village Voice and free-lancing for four years.
The book, composed mainly of essays from Jones’ Village Voice column “Skin Trade,” reads like an autobiography. It is hard to separate the woman from her work. She profiles many people: her favorite aunt, Cora; Tony Smith and Carmen Montalvo, owners of Tompkins Square Video; filmmaker Julie Dash; comic strip artist Barbara Brandon; fine-art photographer Coreen Simpson.
It seems she presents these people as mere dimensions of herself. They are her heroes. When Jones was young, a colleague advised her to go with her obsessions. She followed that advice and--true to the subtitle of the book--writes primarily about race, sex and hair.
Although last on the line-up, hair is the string that weaves together her issues of race and sex. Jones 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. It’s all in the hair.”
Always with that mantra in mind, Jones reigns supreme as a cultural critic. She places herself alongside those at the forefront of an ongoing dialogue of African American writers, such as Cornel West, Michelle Wallace, bell hooks and Greg Tate.
Jones mixes her humor with irony, sparing no one--least of all herself--from the candor of her observations.
In “Looking for Mariah,” she tackles another obsession--consumer identity. “By marketing themselves as anything but black, do light-complexioned entertainers such as (Mariah) Carey become, in the eyes of most Americans, de facto whites? And do Carey and other people of color who feel more at ease representing themselves by their combination ethnic heritage, and not by race (making use of the privilege to remain outside), teach the world how to be ‘raceless’? . . . The ironies of racial identity and cultural province in the ‘90s are making popular culture the best sideshow in town. . . . Rainbow baby girls (Mariah, Sade, Jasmine Guy) rule the mirror.”
Indeed there are ironies. One need only look at the cover of “Bulletproof Diva” to witness a contradiction. It boasts a smiling Jones looking all too much like those “rainbow baby girls” who have probably abandoned the mirror in search of their pots of gold.
Despite her attempts to place herself and her visions in the historical and political context of black America, it is obvious that Jones falls prey to the very marketing strategy she condemns.
To that observation, she responds: “The work that I am doing is probably a lot easier to stomach coming from a multi-culti chick like me. . . . I think what I am doing in the book is critiquing some of that fascination with that image.”
What then, if anything, does this mean? Does the fact that Jones is light-skinned by way of mixed race invalidate the potency and the necessity of her writing? Certainly it calls into question her ability to fully claim and write work that operates through and is informed by an African American experience. And she is aware of this.
“I certainly don’t want to be mulatto of the month. I am able to speak comfortably as an African American and as a person of mixed race, which is part of African American culture.”
As a coda to her essay, “Tragedy Becomes Her,” which addresses the dilemma of the mulatto, Jones writes: “How do you like me now? I could be heroine, I could be healer. I talk back. I refuse complicity with any of you if I can’t speak the truth that is mine. On my body is inscribed the future. I’ll keep my hands around your throat until you claim me. I am yours. I am yours. I am.”
Having refused all labels that society would seek to place on her, what identity does Lisa Jones choose for herself? She is a collector of images. A woman in search of more heroines like her grandmother and her mother. Like Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, Buchi Emecheta and Lani Guinier (about whom she says: “If I could be anything other than who I am, I’d be that diva.”)
But what exactly is a Bulletproof Diva?
“It’s safe to assume that a Bulletproof Diva is whoever you make her--corporate girl, teen mom or the combination--as long as she has the lip and nerve, and as long as she uses that lip and nerve to raise up herself and the world.”