Monthly Archives: September 2015

How Empire Broke Down Stereotypes

Empire’s Cookie Lyon: “A New Kind of Black Woman”

In a recent article in Huffington Post, Zeba Bay, from Voices of Culture, wrote an article on the FOX television series Empire. The title of her article was, “How Empire Broke Down Stereotypes By Embracing Them.” Ms. Bay argues that the value of Empire is that it allows us to combat stereotypes by accepting and embracing all versions of ourselves and acknowledges that blackness is not a monolith. She considers Cookie Lyon an important deviation from the polite characters that have traditionally been acceptable for television. She points to Clair Huxtable as the prototype character who fits that categorization.  She then suggests that Clair represents an unbelievable standard by which to measure characters and it is unfair to do so. In a most extraordinary statement, Ms. Bay then writes that Cookie, “Is a new kind of Black woman on television and she is one that we desperately needed.”

WOW!!!!!!!!

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I don’t really know where to begin or better still should I even bother. I guess if Ms. Bay had the need to write that a street-hustling, dope-selling, finger-popping, filthy-mouthed, weave-wearing con, who spent seventeen years in jail, is the new kind of Black woman maybe I should just leave it alone. But to suggest that we embrace stereotypes as a way to deal with them is just a bit much. Using her logic, then our ancestors should have accepted the stereotype portrayals of them in minstrel shows and early movies like Birth of a Nation. At the turn of the century, whites accepted those kinds of stereotypes so that was reason enough for our ancestors to reject them as they did. Minstrel shows used skits and songs performed in an imitation of Black plantation dialect. After the Civil War, white minstrels concentrated their portrayals on the nostalgic stereotype of “Old Darkey.”

Blacks were depicted as carefree, caught up in a life of constant child-like singing, dancing and frolicking. In 1906, Fred Fischer, sold over three million sheet music copies of his first hit, “If the Man in the Moon were a Coon.” The coon was not just the traditional ignorant and indolent figure for derision, but he was devious, dangerous, and sexually on the prowl.  Blacks were even allowed to perform in minstrel shows only if they identified themselves as the “real coons.”

Minstrel shows reinforced the perception of the hat in hand, the downcast eyes, the shuffle and scrape, the fumbling words, the head scratching and grin description of the Black man. Whites lined up outside in order to get into theaters to see these insulting acts performed for the entertainment at the expense of an entire race of people. The perception that white audiences had of the Negro was of a clown. The theatrical darky was childlike; he could be duped into the most idiotic and foolish schemes…his songs were vulgar and his stories the most gross and broad; his jokes were often on himself, his wife or woman. He was slow of movement, or when he displayed a quickness of wit it was generally in flight from work or ghosts. (Nathan Huggins, Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, New York. 1971 pg 251) Unfortunately Black Americans could do nothing but stand by and observe the deracination of their culture and character. Now we have Empire, which is nothing more than a modern day sophisticated version of the stereotypes of the past. For Ms. Blay to suggest we embrace the stereotypes as a means of dealing with them is an insult to our culture.

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I imagine many of the seventeen million viewers of Empire last year were white and they probably embraced the stereotypes running rampant in that television series just as their ancestors embraced the perceptions of Blacks back in the 19th Century. And like Black folks in the past, isn’t that sufficient reason for us to reject them now.

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Four Little Girls In a Church and Two Young Boys on Bicycles

On September 15, 1963, four little girls walked into their church in Birmingham, Alabama expecting to socialize a little, learn about Jesus a little and go home to prepare for school the next day. But instead, they never made it through the morning.  Their frail, innocent, young bodies were blown to pieces from a bomb planted at the base of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, by a professed white racist.  Later in the afternoon, two young boys riding their bikes, innocent of what happened at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, were struck down by bullets fired from the guns of friends of the culprits, who detonated the bomb at the church.

When the bomb exploded at 10:22 a.m., the four young ladies were in the basement lady’s room talking about the beginning days of the school year. That particular Sunday happened to be Youth Day at the church, and they were also preparing to run the main service at eleven o’clock. The four girls, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all dressed in white, were excited about the adult roles they would play in about twenty-five minutes. In a bitter twist of irony, a Women’s Sunday School Class upstairs in the sanctuary was discussing the topic for the week, “The Love That Forgives.”

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Inspired by the bombing at the church, later that day a white police officer shot Virgil Ware in the back while he was riding his bike, and Johnny Robinson was shot by a good old Eagle Scout, Alabama version, vintage 1963.  On that particular Sunday morning, while the world paid homage to God, six young Black children fell victims of a vicious, racist cult that has existed in this country since its inception back in 1787.

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There is a sickness that dominates America and just refuses to go away. It’s called racism. Now that term has become one of the most misused words in our lexicon of terms.  Contemporary users of the word state that almost anyone can be a racist. However, the historically correct definition states that racism exists when one race of people assume their superiority over another race. The feeling of superiority is simply a form irrational thinking that leads to brutal acts of violence. That certainly has been the case of white relationship with blacks over the course of American history. One of the most blatant examples of,  “the power of irrationality in men,” occurred on that Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama.

At the funeral days later for three of the girls (Carole Robertson’s parents decided to have a separate funeral for her), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reiterated and elaborated on what the women’s group had been discussing when disaster struck. He would stress the value of love and forgiveness as requisite for the Christian Church. Love and forgiveness were also critical components in Black America’s struggle against racism. The fact that an aggrieved Black population did not strike back, and possessed the willpower to forgive the murderers is a testament to the strong spirituality, endemic to the Black race. Dr. W. E. B. Du Boise wrote about it as a unique quality that Black America has given to all civilization. That our family members sacrificed that day at the altar of evil is true personification of the forgiving nature or our people.

The combined six deaths served to connect the Black experience from the time our forebears first arrived in this country in chains until today. Their murders were an awesome sacrifice that serves an awesome purpose. The four young ladies and two young boys’ legacies in death are our challenges in life. It is quite obvious that other races can learn from our experience on how to be forgiving, and actually believe that by loving your adversary, you also love yourself.  For years after the tragedy at the church and on the streets, Black folk turned inward and discovered who they were and how God had blessed them with an inordinate amount of courage and dignity, through times of suffering.

We must never lose that special quality that is the foundation of our culture. We owe it to Denise, Carole, Addie Mae, Cynthia, Virgil, Johnnie and all the other martyrs who have gone to their death, at the hands of evil. With the attacks on our culture we are witnessing today in media and books, it is now time for a new renaissance among our people. Like the great sphinx rising out of the ashes of destruction, we must rise once again and reject those forces of greed, narcissism, and nihilism that would bring us to a point of cultural annihilation.

Additional Note: Much of this post was gleaned from the essay, “The Love that Forgives,” I did with my daughter, Carrie, for the anthology, Black Is the Color of Strength. For more very cogent and well-written essays about our culture and race, you can purchase the anthology through Amazon.com or by visiting Prosperity Publications website at www.prosperitypublications.com.

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Change

The Oxford Dictionary defines change as to make someone or something different. It further defines improve as change for the better. Using these two verbs, allow me to apply change and improve to a brief analysis of the cultural evolution of Black America.

I believe we can identify four specific periods in our history when change occurred specifically within the Black race. The first obviously was from slavery to freedom. The second occurred during the first three decades of the Twentieth Century and especially during the 1920’s. The third period is identifiable with the Civil Rights Movement. We are now witnessing the fourth period of change that began sometime in the 1980’s with the crack epidemic and the introduction of a specific genre of RAP music. Now please keep in mind to improve is change for the better. Conversely is the possibility that change may not be improvement, but could be just the reverse. Therefore, a critique of those four periods of change is only relevant if we can determine if they also improved the condition of Black people in this country.

One would be hard pressed to argue that the change from slavery to freedom was not an improvement in the condition of our ancestors. Yes, they confronted some very insurmountable odds. They understood the tremendous obstacles facing them on a daily basis during the apartheid years. Every major institution in this country lined up against them. The national, state local governments, the courts, the police and even the military set out to keep them in a subservient status. But there was something very special about those beautiful Black folk who united together against their oppressors. They never became negative but instead turned to love, prayer, and an uncanny determination to never give up, never quit, and never succumb to the evil all around them. Their spirit strength and unity became the foundation for our culture. They survived so that we might live.

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The second historical period of change occurred as Blacks, three generations removed from bondage, jettisoned the old slave mentality and rejected the notion that somehow they were inferior and must always remain subservient to a race of people who assumed their superiority. This period of change can best be understood through the works of the Harlem Renaissance artists. Moving into the 1920’s and led by the godfather of the movement, Dr. Alain Locke, these artists made it clear in their works that a new Black consciousness had evolved. The writers, painters, poets and musicians had one common theme; they were proud of their race, believed in self-reliance and demanded their rights as American citizens. Dr. Locke expounded on this theme in his anthology, The New Negro, published in 1925. Dr. Locke recognized the damage done to the perceptions of Blacks right after Reconstruction failed and during the next fifty years. His goal, as he stated in the foreword to the anthology was “to document the New Negro culturally and socially, to register the transformation of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America.” According to Locke, the old Negro had been socially constructed as “Uncle Toms,” “aunties,” “mammies,” or “sambos.” He went on to describe the New Negro as one who operated with the dual purposes of bringing new leadership to modern America and “rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have so largely been responsible.” (Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Harlem Renaissance, Checkmark Books, An Imprint of Facts on File, Inc New York, 2003). These artists also began to take pride in their African heritage and often argued that the “New Negro” was Pan African in outlook and determined to link Blacks in this country with people of color all over the world. This particular period of cultural change had a positive impact on Black Americans. It allowed Black artists and spokespersons to express new perceptions of the race and take pride in who they were and from where they had come. According to Aberjhani and West the New Negro phase of cultural development allowed educators at Black high schools and colleges throughout the United States during the latter half of the Twentieth Century to employ its general philosophy to motivate their students to set and achieve goals beyond what they expected. (Ibid, 234)

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The third phase of change occurred with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in conjunction with the Black Arts Movement. Activism rather than the arts dominated this period of change. The artists were complimentary to the warriors who took to the streets throughout the south and marched against apartheid. This period represented the greatest coming together of activists, writers and musicians in the history of the struggle. James Baldwin, John Killens, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone, Malcolm X., Kwame Ture, John Lewis, Julian Bond and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are some of the significant contributors to the cultural change in the third phase. It was an improvement within the core of the culture because it was a continuum of accentuating the beauty of our race and love we shared among ourselves as initially expressed during the Harlem Renaissance.

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We are now in the fourth phase of change. It began in the 1980’s and was influenced by crack cocaine and a specific genre of RAP music, “gangsta rap,” and a specific genre of books called “street lit.” Activism became less important and race pride was relegated to a lesser position of importance. This phase has an existential theme. Nihilistic behavior runs rampant within the Black community. There seems to be more concern with the individual than the race. The expression of Black consciousness instilled into the race during the 1920’s and perpetuated throughout the next five decades lost its importance. We no longer refer to ourselves as “Brothahs” and “Sistahs” but instead as “Dawgs,” the “N” word and the “B” word. Gangs dominate our youth in urban areas and money made from the sale of crack cocaine is often glorified. Brothers selling this poison can launch successful careers that take them from the crack house to the White House. Movies like Straight Outta Compton and television dramas like Power and Empire subtly send a message that money is more important than ethics and morals. At this juncture, I will withhold assessing whether this change has improved on the quality of the culture and leave that to the reader.

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Inevitably, there will be a fifth phase of cultural change. It happens in every race and every country. A major question and concern will revolve around what characteristics of the previous cultures will be adopted by future generations. Will the creators of the future phase build on the second and third phases or will they continue to build on the changes made in the past thirty years.

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