Why So Many Divas?: A Question Of Values
By Harold Mshujaa Baker
After another brief and unsettling experience with a self-proclaimed diva out in the urban dating jungle, I have to ask a question: Why do so many Black women claim to be divas? What is so special about the perception of being a diva that so many of our Sisters identify with and embrace this term, its related persona, and values?
We have self-declared divas in every age, shape, size, complexion, and economic category in our community. We can find them everywhere from work to church to the beauty salon, of course, and anywhere in between.
But what does it mean to be a diva? I found two answers in the dictionary to shed light on the situation. One of the definitions provided the obvious description. It defined a diva to be "a usually glamorous and successful female performer or personality," including "a fashion diva", or "especially a popular female singer." This creates the 'fame and fortune' appeal that lies at the heart of many diva aspirations. But since only a few of our women are trying to be popular singers or "successful performers" in a real way, the remaining majority are either differently motivated toward divadom, or they are pretending to be something they are not.
Since entertainers and celebrity fashionistas are so highly celebrated--if not worshipped--in this society, I understand how American values prompt our Sisters to imagine themselves in these roles. It's no secret that distorted and often imaginary Hollywood-based values negatively affect those who subscribe to them. It's also no secret that many of our divas impoverish themselves and sometimes their families while attempting to live up to misdirected "fashion diva" standards.
But the deeper meaning of the other definition in my dictionary was more troubling to me. A diva was first defined to be "a prima donna", where prima donna equates to "a principal female singer in an opera or concert organization." But a prima donna is also defined to be "a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team." This second definition is more troubling, and unfortunately consistent with the spirit, manner, and attitude projected by too many of our self-declared divas. The applied result of this attitude breeds disharmony, alienation, and drama that serves no one well, including self-declared divas like the one I just met.
Still, I also understand that many Sisters call themselves divas as a seemingly harmless way to express their confidence or elevate their self-concept. It's quite possible they have never considered what it means to be a diva by definition and the related implications. In my judgment, that compares to the many Brothers out here who declare themselves to be "players" (or "playas" if you prefer) without really thinking about what that means or how the related practice affects them and our community. These men are similarly compelled by distorted concepts and values handed down by the dominant society that, in practice, do more harm than good to a man's moral standing and to our community at large.
It's easy to criticize the men in our community who curiously imitate conquerors and enslavers who saw our women as less than divine objects for sexual pleasure. In fact, some of our divas are among a playa's strongest critics. But there is an inherent and undeniable relationship between examples like this. Because most certainly, a playa can't be a playa without willing women or those who fail in their obligation to know the men they get involved with.
In either case, I am reminded of the wisdom of Mary McCleod Bethune who relayed the ancient wisdom of our ancestors when she said "If you want to measure the character of a society, take a look at its women." In no way do I interpret that phrase in a way that solely blames women for real or perceived character and value flaws in this society or in our community. Instead, I interpret the statement in the way I believe Mother Bethune intended. She continuously praised our women for sustaining our community as best they could throughout the holocaust of enslavement and subsequent periods of oppression up to today, and I join her in that acknowledgement. But Mother Bethune understood, as I often state, that the world will change when women decide the world will change.
In other words, instead of identifying themselves as divas and projecting the negative attitudes and values inherent in the label, I suggest that our Sisters and our community would be better served by the applied wisdom of our most learned ancestors, elders, and scholars concerning the way a woman should engage the world. For example, instead of adopting divaism as a mode and model for life, I contend that Dr. Clenora Hudson-Weems' Africana Womanism philosophy would yield a better result in its application. Her two books, Africana Womanist Literary Theory and Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves provide a much more meaningful and rewarding model for how an African descended woman should engage the world. Read her books and I'm sure you will agree.
For now, I close with a response to my opening question. Why so many divas? Simply put, it's because the distorted values of this society encourage it. When our Sisters become aware of and embrace a more meaningful way to be human and woman in the world, they will become better people in the world and we will all be better because of it.
Why So Many Divas? A Question Of Values, Copyright (c) 2010 Harold Mshujaa Baker. All Rights Reserved. Duplication in whole or in part prohibited without permission. Contact the author at