Quvenzhané Wallis is a hero at age 9. If being a movie star before hitting the double digits weren’t enough, she’s a hero for being a Black girl who makes sure you know how to say her name. For those of us who have names that are less-than-easy to pronounce if you’re only used to hearing Mary, Sarah and Brittney, you may have experienced moments where you wanted to—needed to—stop someone from calling you the wrong thing, but you just didn’t have the heart. Perhaps the speaker was ‘close enough,’ or you didn’t want to call more attention to yourself. I’ve allowed a number of people to call me “Jah-MIL-lah” instead of “Jah-MEE-lah” over the years, largely because I didn’t feel like having to correct them. But baby girl has no problem calmly breaking her name down at any opportunity: Kwe-VEN-zhah-nay.
Sadly, it seems that Wallis is already being informed of how the world sees Black girls who dare to own themselves.
Last night during the (long and boring) Oscars telecast, the person tweeting for satirical publication The Onion decided to make a joke at Best Actress nominee’s expense: “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?”
Unbelievable. Except, it isn’t.
I’m more surprised when the world gets it right when it comes to Black girls and women than I am when they get it wrong. Sisters are far too often on the butt-end of a joke or diss lobbed by some White folks or our own brothers. Hood girls are eternal punchlines. The First Lady’s brains, body and bangs are the subject of scrutiny from both writers and conservative leaders who couldn’t even level their White and male privilege to match her accomplishments. Beyonce was a treasonist for using a backing track at the Inauguration. And now, on what should have been the most sparkly day of Quvenzhané’s life, some fool made a cheap attempt at getting LOLz by calling her a dirty word.
We already know that in the inevitable interviews that find the 9-year-old forced to acknowledge the nasty tweet, little Miss Wallis will say something wise and remind us just why we love her so much—just as she has when chopping down reporters for butchering her name. Her puppy purse and poppin’ curls aren’t gonna stop for The Onion, believe that. Nor will they stop for the gross quip host Seth Macfarlane made about her and George Clooney. Speaking of Macfarlane, who is being widely panned for his “sexist, racist and homophobic” jokes last night, it’s safe to assume that Rihanna won’t be fazed by his domestic violence quip—yet another one that I doubt we’d hear if the 2009 Grammy fight involved Taylor Swift instead of the Barbadian bombshell— at her expense either.
Will the person responsible for that horrible tweet learn a lesson from the outcry? Perhaps. Hopefully. Seems doubtful. But maybe they will and maybe someone will now understand that using nasty, sexist language towards 9-year-old girls is not okay. It’s worth noting that The Onion is not The New York Times; it’s the newspaper equivalent of of Mad Magazine. They aren’t informing public opinion so much as they are reflecting it, much like the many White and female commenters on Jezebel who are confessing their annoyance and distaste for the Beasts star from behind anonymous accounts
If Wallis had a difficult to say Hebrew or Eastern European name, I think reporters would would do their job and simply learn it; they’d probably apologize for getting it wrong before ever daring to say “I’m just gonna call you something I can pronounce and understand.” I also doubt that so many would feel so irked by Wallis if her curls were blonde and her eyes were blue.
I wish that Quvenzhané could enjoy her newfound fame without these hard-earned Black girl lessons, but they would have caught her on the block, in the classroom, on the internet at some point even if she hadn’t garnered an Oscar nod. The outpouring of praise and love for the young actress is exceptional, but the disrespect? When you’re Black and female, it is to be expected. When you are self-possessed and in the public eye on top of that? It’s on another level.
What will come of boycotts of a publication few of the folks raging against it actually read? Will the anger stop at the petition level or will advertisers get pulled in? Time will reveal. In the meantime, Moya of the Crunk Feminist Collective has set a great example by penning a love letter to the little dynamo and reminding us that we should smother Wallis with love in the face of hate—because she deserves it.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com.