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…..

No Apologies

I get quite a few comments on my blogs and appreciate all of them. Also, I usually do not respond in a blog to them, but the one I recently received has caused me to do just that. Someone sent the following comment:

      “I was loving this article until I saw featured a prolific rapist, Bill Cosby. How violent to dismiss the sixty women who stand as witness and cry out about their rapes, and men like you just ignore them. Where is the noble masculine?”

Many of you might recall the blog I posted “Why We Celebrate Black History Month,” explaining, from my perspective, how the millions of Black Americans who over the years have brought us as a race to this place in history. Of that million a few have stood out in their contribution to give us hope, as we plow forward in a constant battle against the evils our people confront in this country. One of those individuals happened to be Mr. Bill Cosby.

Mr. Bill Cosby and Camille

Whatever you think of Mr. Cosby, his good works will stand as an individual testament to the great contributions he has made to the race. From September 15, 1965, to April 15, 1968, he thrilled the entire Black world, in his role as Alexander “Scotty” Scott with Robert Culp who played Kelly Robertson in the spy thriller I Spy. Finally Black America could watch a television series featuring a handsome, articulate Black man, and not the usual Amos and Andy characters that the white control media loved to feed us. Through Cosby’s brilliant performance in that spy series, he effectively put an end to what roles Blacks could play and opened the door to many actors that followed in his footsteps.

Mr. Cosby’s next outstanding creation in the media world was the character Fat Albert. The series, Fat Albert and the Cosby Boys ran from September 9, 1972 until October 4, 1981 and then from September 1, 1984 until August 10, 1985 on Saturday mornings, and always featured an educational lesson. For ten years young children, both Black and other races received a lesson in math, English and other subjects that helped them in their educational growth. Andrew Wyatt of Purpose PR who is now Mr. Cosby’s public relation and crisis management representative (I know you all have seen him arm and arm with Mr. Cosby on many occasions) told me that as a young boy growing up in Bessemer, Alabama, he never missed Fat Albert on Saturdays because it helped him with his ABC’s.

Fat Albert Character

By the year 1984, all of Mr. Cosby’s media successes had made him a revered and household name throughout Black America. But what took him over the top and put him in a category all his own of greatness among Black America was The Cosby Show which ran from September 20, 1984 until April 30, 1992. Mr. Cosby drew up the blueprint for the show that featured a Black upper-middle class family living in Brooklyn, New York. It was refreshing to watch a television fictionalized show that was not about drugs, crime, and the negative portrayal of our people. We know it exists, but we do not need a constant stream of stories that do nothing to encourage our young to seek better things in life. That is exactly what The Cosby Show did. Today if you could take a poll, you would find a segment of successful Blacks in law, medicine, education, and business who found their encouragement to do better through that show. Today also with the out of control and exorbitant number of murders among our young we could use another Bill Cosby show to do what he and his cast did for those important years in the late nineteen-hundreds.

The Cosby Show

To my writer friend who feels because I featured Bill Cosby as one of the great heroes of our race, I am ignoring violence perpetrated against women in this country and where is my noble masculinity, this blog was not about that subject but about the great men and women who have helped bring my race up the rough side of the mountain of racism and bigotry, and Mr. Cosby is certainly one of the many who have done just that. If you care to hate Mr. Cosby as your response so indicates that is on you. But for me I will concentrate on his good deeds and many good things he has done to deserve a special place in the hearts and minds of all my people. If that makes me less than a masculine person, “Let it be, Let it be, LET IT BE!”