I was recently invited to watch the Canadian premier of the movie Being Bebe about Bebe Zahara Benet, the first winner of Ru Paul Drag Race. The film follows Bebe over 15 years from pre-Ru Paul fame to the after math of winning all the way to the pandemic and death of George Floyd. While there were several criticisms I would make about the film, I had some unsure thoughts about how Bebe marketed her Blackness and Cameroonian roots for the predominantly white audience that was attending her shows.
At the onset of the film, we learn that Bebe is Cameroonian and immigrated to America, pursuing Drag in Minneapolis and then being scouted for Ru Paul. Fans often yell “Cameroooooon” before she appears on stage. Throughout the film, the audience learns that Cameroon is highly homophobic going so far as to murder people who are out as queer. Bebe leans hard into her Cameroonian roots throughout the scenes of her on Ru Paul (don’t hate me but I’ve never seen more than two episodes of Ru Paul’s Drag Race and so I don’t know how heavily Bebe referenced Cameroon while the show was airing, but in this movie all scenes from Ru Paul reference Cameroon). After winning, while conceptualising her own drag shows and performances, Bebe often creates jungle landscapes, sings about the wildness of Africa, wears very tribal looking outfits but then jokes that the audience believes that in Cameroon people hunt lions for food. It was in this joking about how little the white audience knew about Africa, while leaning into the stereotypes about Africa, that I started to take issue.
I do want to recognize that a lot of these scenes were a decade ago, when I think Black people were still hesitant in calling out micro-aggressions and less overt racism. If I was working in Drag where I am ostensibly a spectacle, I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t consider monetizing my immigrant story from Cameroon to Minneapolis and becoming a Drag Queen. That story is certainly an amazing one, and surely why this film was created. That being said, at a certain point there is making money from the white Man for reparations, making money to tell your story, and then there is selling a caricature of Blackness so that white people will come to the show, feel unthreatened and continue to see you as otherworldly, other, different – but at what cost? If we continue to sell the idea that all of Africa is in huts, poor, hunting lions for meals then when will people in Africa actually get treated like real human beings with normal issues that are tangible to the white people they hope to empathize with?
I’m faced with this issue every time the radio asks me to share my story, when I write these blogs on my opinion. At what point am I selling “Blackness” for a white audience versus being authentic to my truth? I want people to be aware of the injustices I have suffered as a mixed person, knowing many have had it worse. I want people to know life is hard for Black people without needing to talk it up into great horrors and grand traumas. Yet, I see people’s faces light up at the idea of me dressing as the VooDoo Queen for Halloween, when I talk about Dad being from Senegal. When I bring this air of mystery, travel, hardship into my Blackness and make it more removed from the possible guilt white people feel for their hand in colonization is when their attention seems to be truly grabbed. I must either describe the racism I have suffered in huge atrocities or make my Blackness sound like wild witchcraft and VooDoo to keep the attention of the people I want to have moved by my story.
If Bebe is selling out by offering a tribal rendition of Cameroon, am I selling out by only telling Black traumas to the media?