“I think Rae Dawn Chong is the only black woman to fly a plane in a crunch time situation.”
“Rae Dawn Chong. You know…with the curly hair?”
“Is she Chinese? Her last name is ‘Chong’…”
“Babe. Tommy Chong is her dad. Cheech and Chong?”
Marshall grabs his iPhone and sets about Googling. He has no idea who or what I’m talking about. Had this conversation transpired between Sami/Adwoa Gyekye and I, or any person who spent their childhood watching the same 15 films repetitively because migration to Africa in the 80s necessitated it, we would have gotten much further along in the exploration of this question and perhaps even arrived at some alternate conclusion.
But this conversation was NOT carried out with someone of with an underprivileged movie viewing background. This conversation was between me and someone who had unlimited access to Nickelodeon and NBC after school specials and a plethora of disposable content. Someone who will never know what it’s like to pine for those weekends that stretched into months in anticipation of a new VHS sent from a sympathetic cousin in the US filled with never-before-seen cartoons and blow man films like Commando. I can quote Commando, and Rae Dawn Chong is the reason. She was simply amazing.
I used to be in love with Rae Dawn Chong. I loved the sound of her name, the color of her skin, the curl of her hair. I think I mostly loved her because I frequently confused her with Irene Cara, who for me was the epitome of youthful Black woman cool. Rae Dawn Cara could do anything. She could sing, she could dance, she could fly a plane, she was quick with the witty comebacks. At some point in time – probably the late 90s – I separated the two women’s identities in my mind, much to the relief of all concerned. Rae and Irene were free to be their individual selves again.
Marshall and I were watching Modern Marvels: Glass, when Rae popped into present memory. One of the scientists over at Corning was explaining how they made glass for the shuttles that launch into space that had to be strong enough to withstand a temperature of absolute zero. Everyone in each of the frames – from the men fitting the panes into the shuttle holes to the experts interviewed to speak about the company’s and industry’s history – was white and with the exception of one woman, male. It left me mired in a feeling of dread. What would happen if there was a situation that needed an individual with a unique set of skills (not necessarily of the Liam Neeson sort) and there was no white man present? Would we survive? Could someone drive a boat or pilot a plane if necessary? Has a Black woman ever been capable of this? I only think of one: Rae Dawn Chong.
We have long bemoaned the representation of Black women in film. Until the Magic of Shonda touched our television screens, we were always cast in a box: The sassy best friend. The mouthy security guard. The crack whore strung out on the street. The ‘strong black woman’ who raised her kids on roach infested Raisin Bran and tough love until a benevolent white hero(ine) rescued her son(s) and made him a football/basketball star. If it weren’t for Foxy Brown and the Blaxploitation era, we may never have had the opportunity to see a Black Blow Woman portrayed in film… even in the 80’s when the genre guaranteed a box office hit. It was always Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Gibson, Chuck Norris or Van Damme. The closest we ever got was Rae Dawn Chong.
Marshall disputes this. He says that Halle Berry as Storm is Rae’s counterpart in this unique category. I disagree.
“No. Storm is a Yoruba goddess. And she was trained at a facility specifically kitted out for combat. Storm is not at Starbucks slangin’ coffee right now. She doesn’t count.”
And that’s my point. If you had a room full of 20 people of various races and there was a crunch time situation – say the room began flooding – who would you assign certain tasks to?
- The white guy to lead, for sure.
- The Asian (it doesn’t matter if they are male or female. ALL Asians are brainy) to calculate how much oxygen we had left before any imminent escape.
- If there were zombies outside, (just to up the ante) the huge Black dude would fight them off with his brawn as heroically encouraged everyone to “Go! Just get the f*** outta here, y’all!”
Once safely on the coastline, perhaps the troop happens upon a World War II era plane, long abandoned; its hull covered in seaweed and lapped by the waves. Who might be qualified to fly this plane, or at least get its propellers rolling? You’re not looking for the Black girl, are you? No…she’s either dead by now, or sent on some fool’s errand like gathering firewood or rustling up some fried chicken. Unless that Black girl is Rae Dawn Chong, the only non-superhero Black female civilian to ever pilot a plane on demand in the history of film.
This is why I will be not only be looking into the cost of flying lessons for my girls, but scuba and equestrian training as well. Because should an oily man rippling with muscles suddenly appear and need them to dive into the water to retrieve the key of a speed boat to ferret them to safety, I don’t want my babies losing their lives because they were afraid to get their hair wet… or unfamiliar with horses or intimidated by knobs and switches. I don’t want my daughters dying an ignoble death while rustling up some fried chicken at the end of the movie.
So! Have you come up with any alternate names yet, or am I right about Rae? Honestly, I can’t think of anyone else who has rivaled her ability to date. Man, Commando got lucky the day he picked her out of the crowd and used her for bait. Look at that poise.
Ladies and gentlemen…Rae Dawn Chong.