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.

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.

COME AND EXPERIENCE THE LITERARY WORLD OF BLACK AMERICA

The sheet music for "Love Will Find a Way," one of the hit songs in Shuffle Along. One of the most rarely discussed  | Image Courtesy of: www.musicals101.com
The sheet music for “Love Will Find a Way,” one of the hit songs in Shuffle Along. One of the most rarely discussed | Image Courtesy of: http://www.musicals101.com

A major stimulus to the advent of the Harlem Renaissance was the all Black production of the musical, Shuffle Along. Its debut performance took place on May 23, 1921 in the Cort Theater, located on 63rd Street right outside Harlem. Flourney Miller and Aubrey Lyles, both who got their start performing at Fisk University, teamed with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, two celebrated musicians, to write and perform what would become one of the most successful musicals of the 1920’s.

Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography that it was the magnetism of the show that had him coming back night after night, and led to his decision to enroll in Columbia University so he would be closer to the theater and Harlem. Long after the vibrant cultural activities that dominated Harlem in the 1920’s had waned, Langston still had fond memories of that musical. He wrote in the Big Sea, “But I remember Shuffle Along…because it gave just the proper push—a pre-Charleston kick—,”to what would become the most famous literary period in the life of African Americans.

Shuffle Along became synonymous with the excitement, vibrancy, and exceptional creativity that represented Harlem. The famous cultural historian, Nathan Huggins, wrote of the musical that, “It was like Harlem itself, infectious, it made everyone want to forget his troubles and do it, like the chorus dancers in the clubs.” Shuffle Along opened the era of the Black experience like none other in history. It was, according to Langston, “A period when Charleston preachers opened up shouting churches as sideshows for white tourists. It was when at least one charming colored chorus girl, amber enough to pass for a Latin American, was living in a pent house with all her bills paid by a gentleman whose name was banker’s magic on Wall Street. It was a period of cabarets and extravagant parties given by A’Lelia Walker, the socialite daughter of Madam C. J. Walker. A’Lelia, a grand and statuesque woman was according to Langston, ‘the joy-goddess of Harlem.’ It was a period when every season there was at least one hit Broadway play acted by a Negro cast. And when books by Negro authors were being published with much greater frequency and much more publicity than ever before or since in history…it was the period when the Negro was in vogue.”

Shuffle Along launched the careers of many great entertainers. The great Florence Mills got her start as a singer and dancer in one of the lead roles. The flamboyant Josephine Baker started out as a dresser then earned a place in the chorus line. Paul Robeson also sang with the Four Harmony Kings Quartet in the show, before launching his successful international career as an actor and singer.
Shuffle Along was only one of a myriad of cultural firsts for Black America that emanated in Harlem and spread throughout the entire country and still has a tremendous impact on musicians, artists and writers in the contemporary Black artistic world.