Today’s popular Black culture, as seen in mainstream media, is a corporate fabrication: a caricature born from the mind of narrow minded white executives whose racism and bias created an image of Black people based off their stereotypes, fears, and fantasies. And sadly, for too long have so many willingly played the part while impressionable minds, young and old, have accepted this as who they are; who Black people are.
And all for what? Money?
Looking back through the years, white advertisers and marketers have always painted their own version of Black people as lazy, ignorant, clownish, and untrustworthy by appealing to white consumers’ innate racism in order to sell anything from soap and food to household appliances and clothes. Historically, movies and TV shows have also played a huge part in perpetuating racial stereotypes, thus conditioning the masses to accept these as truths. While white America was entertained by Stepin Fetchit’s portrayal of a lazy, slow talking, self demeaning fool, the actor, LincolnTheodore Monroe Andrew Perry, was a millionaire (at his peak) and a writer for the Chicago Defender, a weekly Black-owned newspaper. The 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation, depicted the KKK as heroes while Black men (played by white actors in black face) were shown as unintelligent and sexually aggressive toward white women. This movie was considered groundbreaking for the time (although there wasn’t much competition) and the highest grossing movie until 1939, when Gone with the Wind, another movie glorifying slavery, was released with unparalleled success. Both movies’ incredible popularity over the span of a few decades speaks volumes about how racial degradation was widely accepted.
Old cartoons were just as bad. A quick YouTube search on racist cartoons will bring up clips of Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and a hundred other characters many of our parents grew up with. Here, the same portrayal of Black people as unintelligent, inarticulate, and untrustworthy rears its ugly head once again, this time indoctrinating children. Even today’s cartoons continue to promote stereotypes albeit in more subtle ways when depicting the lone Black character of an all white cast as the basketball player or the cool, street smart, wise cracking kid.
In the 70’s, Blaxploitation movies straddled the fence by showcasing characters who were either pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, and criminals, or smooth talking ladies’ men and ultra cool, bad asses. Despite showing some Black characters as crime fighting good guys, a welcomed change for the times, Blaxploitation movies (appropriately named) simplified the humanity of its characters by presenting gross extremes (heroes vs villains) rather than more developed, nuanced portrayals. Still, this showed Hollywood that there was indeed a market for movies with strong Black characters.
While some positive and realistic representations of Black people were seen throughout the years, thanks to a handful of visionary entrepreneurs, directors, and executives, the dominant white media continued its promotion of one dimensional Black characters, virtually uninterrupted. However, the 80’s groundbreaking “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” introduced educated, intelligent, empowered, positive Black images to prime time TV and mainstream America, something the average TV viewer hadn’t often seen. Despite some concerns that Cosby’s picture perfect world ignored the realities and struggles facing Black America, the show ended up becoming one of TV’s most successful program ever. In the meantime, the influence of “A Different World” contributed to an increase in Black college enrollment. Coincidentally or not, the late 80’s also saw the era of pro Black consciousness and Afrocentricity in Hip Hop music, helping to popularize important historical figures like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and giving millions of young people across the nation a sense of strength and cultural pride. Looking at the impact of these TV shows as well as Hip Hop’s role in empowering youth, it’s hard to deny the media’s power of influence, be it positive or negative.
The Cosby Show ended in 1992, A Different World in 1993, and the pro Black/Afrocentric era of Hip Hop around 1992. With it came the end of positive portrayals of Black people in mainstream media…and the rise of so-called gangsta rap, the thug life mentality, as well as every other racial stereotype that mainstream media has exploited and capitalized off. This short 6-7 year window into positive Black images might have been too much for mainstream America to handle.
Did mainstream America miss the caricatures they had previously grown so comfortable with? After all, in a media industry dominated by white decision makers, there’s little room, value, or genuine interest in promoting positive Black images. From their standpoint, there may also be little long-term profit to make from it when Black people make up only 12 % of the population. After all, how can positive Black images attract a large white viewing audience when the average person really only seems to support Black entertainment when it reaffirms their twisted fetishized perception of Black culture, as illustrated by the likes of white college students in black face who organize “ghetto” parties, Mil
And just in case some still find it difficult to believe that the average white audience isn’t interested in seeing Black characters who don’t fit their beloved stereotypes, consider this: in the 2012 movie “Hunger Games”, audiences were outraged and disgusted when they realized that one of the book’s sweetest character, Rue, was played by a 12 year old Black actress, something they hadn’t pictured when reading the book. Fortunately, because of the internet, the hateful venom these bastards posted online is forever documented in cyberspace for all to see.
Since ’92-’93, the mainstream entertainment industry has repackaged its old racist views of Black people, found hungry, eager, impressionable artists willing to take on these roles, and sold the same distorted images the likes of “Birth of a Nation” and Stepin Fetchit portrayed years ago. The unintelligent, hyper sexualized, untrustworthy, criminally inclined Black man now mindlessly played by the likes of Chief Keef, 2 Chainz, and Juicy J is beamed to more people than ever before, thanks to the power of technology, bombarding both Black and white people with the same filthy stereotypes of decades ago. And somewhere in TV land, Jerry Springer and Maury have given birth to new talk shows that still sell us Black dis-unity and dysfunction for entertainment, even if most of the “baby mamas” and “deadbeat dads” featured on these shows are actually paid actors.
We’ve come so far and yet have barely moved forward when our young people are still conditioned to believe that media’s long held racist beliefs and stereotypes are reflections of who they are…who they should be.
Sebastien Elkouby is a Hip Hop Culture historian, freelance writer, consultant, and award-winning educator. Check out his educational program, Global Awareness Through Hip Hop Culture and his blog,SebIsHipHop.wordpress.com