Time to Break the Paradigm

In his study The Ideologies of African American Literature from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Nationalist Movement, scholar Robert E. Washington defines the paradigm that has controlled the images of Black Americans in all aspects of media. He writes, “In preindustrial structures of domination the ruling group typically controls not only the subordinate group’s economic and political life, but also its cultural representations—namely the ideas and images inscribing its social identity in the public arena.” In the case of this country that dominant group has always been white and the subordinate group all minorities. Washington identifies it as a cultural paternalism. He goes on to write, “It was under this type of paternalistic cultural system that the dominant literary images of Black American life were produced…through propagating ideas and images in the public arena that deny or devalue the subordinate group’s humanity—have a large hand in legitimating the prevailing structures of extreme social inequality.”

Frederick Douglas

Washington was primarily addressing the issue of literature, which also can be applied to movies and television. From the early minstrel shows, it has been the goal of the dominant social group to portray Black people in such a way as to support the concept of an inferior race. In the minstrel shows the purpose was to devalue the humanity of the Black race by portraying them as lazy, dumb, and inferior. Frederick Douglass took offense to these images. He spoke out, “The filthy sum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”

Bert Williams and George Walker

Blacks even joined the cause and began to emulate the images defined by the whites. Because there were very few opportunities for Blacks on the stage at the turn of the 20th century, they saw their chance for advancement and financial security on the minstrel stage. Bert Williams and George Walker became famous with the saying, “The Two Real Coon,” and performed as buffoons for the pleasure of white audiences. What is key is that whites were willing to accept them in those roles because it confirmed their assertion of black inferiority.

By the 1930’s movies took over the responsibility to portray the image of Blacks in an inferior light. In somewhat of a different format than the minstrel show, new characters appeared to continue the negative portrayal of Blacks. Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland and Willie Best gave white America what they wanted, and that was a continuation of the “Coon” syndrome. Once again, it was a case of opportunity that led to financial security, regardless how their roles continued the myth of Black inferiority. They were willing to do anything to satisfy the film magnates who controlled the images.

Paul Robeson

The first Black entertainer/intellectual to speak out against these roles was Paul Robeson in 1935, He writes in his autobiography, Here I Stand, “In the early days of my career as an actor, I shared what was then the prevailing attitude of Negro performers—that the content and form of a play or film scenario was of little or no importance to us. What mattered was the opportunity which came so seldom to our folks, to have a part-any part-to play on the stage or in the movies…Later I came to understand that the Negro artist could not view the matter simply in terms of his individual interest, and that he had a responsibility to his people who rightfully resented the traditional stereotyped portrayals of Negroes on stage and screen. So, I decided; if the Hollywood and Broadway producers did not choose to offer me worthy roles to play, then I would choose not to accept any other kind of offer.” That was the brilliance of Paul Robeson. He acknowledged that perception becomes reality and Black actors and actresses who acted out these roles, like Bert Williams, Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, and Willie Best, supporting negative views of the Black race in its totality, were doing considerable damage to the race and the culture.

James Baldwin

In a 1957 essay, recently made into a documentary, I Am Not Your Negro,” James Baldwin also addressed the image of Blacks in film. Because of the negative portrayals of Blacks and the positive hero image of whites in characters acted out by white actors like John Wayne and Johnny Weissmuller, young black kids growing up during that era were forced to accept the film magnates’ perception of the race. As a child of that era and not knowing any better we would go to Tarzan movies and pull for him against the natives, who were Black. We would go to John Wayne movies and pull for him to kill off all the evil “Indians.”  The reason we were easily brain washed with these deceptions of the truth, was because no one listened to Paul Robeson. The dominant ruling group made sure his voice was not heard.

Bill Cosby

Many years later in 1992, the most successful and famous actor Bill Cosby also spoke out on the subject. He believed that the networks did a disservice to Black America with the images they cast on various network shows. In his acceptance speech for an award presented to him in Orlando, Florida by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, he made it quite clear how the networks were perceiving Blacks in their shows. He said to the shocked television magnates, “In 1992, the directors of the network’s programming were still spewing sit-coms about Blacks as caricatures written by “drive by” white writers. They were “drive by” because they drive by Black people on the street and think they know them. I’m saying to you all now, stop this horrible massacre of images that show up on the screens now. It isn’t fair at all.”

All three of these men who spoke the truth were viciously attacked by the ruling group, because they dared to challenge their control. They rejected cultural paternalism that had dominated the images of Blacks for over one hundred years. These brave men said no more Stepin Fetchits, no more Mantan Morelands, no more Willie Bests, and no more lies. Fortunately, we have some actors, the late Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and King T’Challa in the movie Black Panther, Denzell Washington as Malcolm X, and Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in the movie Harriet who are committed to fight those negative images. These actors and actress are carving out a new paradigm. They are a good beginning, but we still have a long way to go to finally put an end to what Professor Washington described as a paradigm that has controlled the images of Black Americans for far too long.

…..Chadwick Boseman……………Denzell Washington……………Cynthia Erivo…..

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