Contemporary African American writers of fiction must deal with the issue of how blacks are represented in their works. Often using blacks as their protagonists, the tendency has been to channel the black experience in reality, and depict the harmful consequences of racism in America. Historically, race in America is inextricably linked with social class, as blacks are often depicted as poverty-stricken in contrast to their white counterparts. However, significant changes have occurred post-civil rights era and since the 1990’s (especially in the 21st century, which has witnessed the election of an African American President. This era has even been described as post-racial).
Blacks have made significant social progress in their careers, finances, and even debunked myths about their academic prowess as they have gained access to the most prestigious institutions. Certainly, the effects of racism are persistent. However, the arts have failed to adequately recast the image of blacks that has been handed down through the legacy of slavery and racism. The scope of representation of blacks in art remains familiar and limited to stereotypes of race, poverty and despair of the black lot. This paper critiques a solution proffered by the author, bell hooks, to counter and control how the black image is represented.
In May 2005, the entertainment industry was shocked, when Dave Chappelle jettisoned the production of the third season of the critically acclaimed Chappelle’s Show. (Chappelle’s Show DVD set is the best-selling DVD of a television show to date.) The show offered a sardonic social commentary on American culture, predicated on parodies of black stereotypes. It projected a panoply of black representation (or misrepresentation) including: teacher, athlete, rapper, gangster, minstrel, convict, drug-addict, “black white-supremacist,” sellout, and even a black U.S. President. Because the show pilloried blacks, Chappelle would come to consider it socially irresponsible. However, the diversity within “blackness” depicted by Chappelle, contrasts with the monolithic image that seemingly underscores bell hooks’, “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life.” Although the leitmotif of comedians is to entertain and not necessarily to serve as barometers for social responsibility, their pervasive influence may have made them hierophants as well as entertainers.
The author, Gloria Jean Watkins better known by her nom de plume, bell hooks, allegorically describes her family’s experience with photography, to narrate a poignant story of the black experience in America, vis-à-vis, African American struggles for racial justice. Hooks postulates the need to resist black misrepresentation, by revisiting the use of photography as a “site of resistance.” She makes a case against black apathy and complaisance, emphasizing the imperative that blacks control their own imagery—and portray a more expansive image of “blackness”.
Hooks affirms that the source of misrepresentation is exogenous—a white colonizing culture. She makes an allegorical allusion to a white patriarchal culture that controls representation (images and perception) via the role of her father as “the picture takin’ man […] the only one [with] access to the equipment, who could learn how to make the process work, my father exerted control over our images”. Even in childhood, hooks’ mind was already forming a “site of resistance” to this paternalism that controlled her image: she “hated it”.
In her adult life, hooks would feel empowered by photography and view it as a “site of resistance” and the camera as “the central instrument by which blacks could disprove representations […] created by white folks.” Hooks emphasizes the need to produce “counterhegemonic” images that refute the misrepresentations of the colonizing dominant culture. She claims photography was a potent instrument that challenged racist misrepresentations during segregation, partly because the camera was widely accessible to blacks. Thus, blacks proudly exhibited photographs in their houses (where they had control), displaying their collective worth on walls that represented who they were, in contrast to the “degrading images of blackness that emerged from racist white imagination and that were circulated widely in the dominant culture”.
While hooks shows the use of photography as a site of resistance in shaping black image during segregation, she seems to overlook the potency of other media such as film and television in her exposé. Hooks says, “Photography […] calls us back to the past and offers a way to reclaim […] images that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye.” Thus, hooks seemingly looks to the past for a panacea for misrepresentation—without emphasizing the practical possibilities inherent in electronic media.
Hooks posits that the civil rights movement ended segregation and provided equal access for blacks. However, hooks claims that after desegregation, blacks inadvertently relinquished control of their collective image, which they had cultivated during segregation.
Furthermore, hooks states, “contemporary commodification of blackness creates a market context wherein conventional, even stereotypical, modes of representing blackness may receive the greatest reward”.
To my mind, “the commodification of blackness” is manifested in contemporary black comedians’ characterization of African Americans. Consider parodies of blacks that have enriched many black comedians, from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock, and more recently Dave Chappelle, whose Chappelle’s Show, is predicated on parodies of black stereotypes. After a stellar run, Dave Chappelle declined a $55 million contract to continue his show, after experiencing guilt over his negative portrayal of blacks. He claims he had an epiphany after he discovered his white crew was “laughing at him, and not with him” in his disparagement of blacks. He perceived that they derived a racist joy from the parodies.
Hooks would likely commend Chappelle’s proselytization. She insists that blacks “resist misrepresentation”, by “challenging both white perceptions of blackness and that realm of black-produced image making that reflected internalized racism”. Chappelle offers a poignant analogy in his misrepresentations and subsequent remedy. In one of his satires, Chappelle plays Clayton Bigsby, a reclusive blind “white supremacist” author, who commands a large following of white supremacists that have never seen him. Bigsby is interviewed by a Frontline reporter, who travels into the woods to meet him, only to shockingly discover that Bigsby is black (a fact unknown to Bigsby and his blind white wife).
In describing blacks, Chapelle uses the following epithets, “lazy, good-for-nothing-tricksters, crack-smoking, swindlers, big-butt-having, wide-nosed-breathing-all-the-white-man’s air…they-ate-up-all-the chicken…they claim they’re the best dancers…and they stink.” When Bigsby is asked to consider the possibility of being black, he responds angrily, “I’m in no shape or form involved in niggerdom.” After Clayton Bigsby learns that he is black, he divorces his wife. When asked, “Why?” He replies, “Because she is a nigger lover.” (Chappelle).
This sketch instantiates “internalized racism” as well as black misrepresentation—themes in hooks’ work. What seems ironic about the misrepresentation of blacks on Chappelle’s Show, is that the stereotypes are actually promoted through a black entrepreneur—Chappelle. However, unlike the blacks who had venerated the “walls of images” in their homes which served as “black-owned and –operated gallery space” that countered black misrepresentation, Chappelle desecrated blackness.
In the past, blacks had demonstrated a sense of urgency and responsibility in showing an alternative image of blackness that countered white supremacist views. While there was no defined “iconic blackness,” the salient imperative for blacks to project positive images was understood within the black community. Chappelle, whose show could have served as a site of resistance, which projected edifying images of blackness, did not use his power “affirmatively,” but ironically (inadvertently) promoted a white supremacist ideal of blackness.
However, prior to Chappelle, other enterprising black comedians had attempted to counter the misrepresentation of blacks on television: most famous among them is Bill Cosby. Cosby produced a progressive image of a “successful” black married couple, Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable (respectively, an obstetrician, and an attorney). This rarefied image was a counterpoint to the pervasive black, poverty-loving-buffoonery infused, productions of Norman Lear in the seventies.
Thus, we find blacks scrupulously controlling and redefining their own image with television. This reality is not lost on Chappelle’s Show. In a comedy sketch, a Nostradamus-like sage, played by comedian, Paul Mooney, is asked why black television personality, Wayne Brady (of The Wayne Brady Show), is so much liked by white people? Mooney replies, “Because he makes Brian Gumble look like Malcom X.” (Brian Gumble was co-host of NBC’s Today Show.)
Paradoxically, while black television personalities successfully assume an appealing image that counters the pervasive demonized misrepresentations, I wonder if this is “attempting to perfect the image for a white-supremacist gaze”.
Defining acceptable (iconic) blackness is complex. A dichotomy exists in “black America,” as most African- Americans feel a disconnection with highly-educated blacks whom they perceive as elitist—and subservient to white interests. Some blacks even describe this educated cadre as “sellouts,” a term considered, within the black community, as more pernicious perhaps than the derogatory “N” word, because it challenges one’s loyalty to “authentic blackness.”
In his book, Sellout, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedynotes that some blacks fear whites will empower “Oreos” who “look black but think white.” Blacks fear that these defectors will “sap solidarity and discourage effective strategies for resisting subordination” (Kennedy, 3. 2008). Significantly, in one of Chappelle’s sketches, Wayne Brady is portrayed as a sellout, because he is accepted by whites.
Hooks suggests that because of complaisance, the capacity of blacks to define themselves has diminished since desegregation. Hooks claims, “racial desegregation […] led many black people to be less vigilant about […] representation.” Consequently, “the erosion of oppositional black subcultures […] has deprived us of […] sites of radical resistance where [blacks] have had primary control over representation”.
Although contemporary comedy has featured the broad-minded images portrayed by Cosby, minstrelsy and blackface portrayals remain entrenched among black comedians—despite black control. Tyler Perry’s Madea character (featuring a cross-dressing black man, who parodies a cantankerous uneducated black woman) has a significant black audience.
Perry’s production is a potential site of resistance. However, his minstrelsy seems atavistic of “Jim Crow-type” comedy. (Jim Crow was a 19th century stock character in minstrel shows that caricatured blacks via racist lens and is the origin of the eponymous racist southern laws). Thus, white supremacists no longer need to caricature blacks —as black impresarios do, with the complicity of an uncritical black audience.
In 2010, a Tyler Perry production, Precious, won several Oscars. The ingredients of the movie were all the tragic circumstances (supposedly) inextricably linked to blackness—AIDS, violence, incest, ignorance, drug-addiction, poverty. I believe the myopic and insular image of blacks epitomized by Precious, would make hooks cringe—and insist blacks represent more than the distorted sampling projects.
Because of such pervasive distortions, many children grow up invariably associating negative phenomena—such as AIDS and violence—with blacks; some black children experience the sense of “unworthiness” that hooks felt in childhood. She says, “I could not see beyond all the received images [that] reinforced my sense of unworthiness […when the] psychohistory of [my] people is marked by ongoing loss”. Hooks emphasizes a broader awareness of blackness, by seeking “a more expansive cultural understanding […] of representation”.
Therefore, perhaps it is incumbent on impresarios like Perry to lead by “creating new cultural context[s] [through] images that […] subvert the status quo” (hooks, 58). Seldom are viable black professionals projected in media.
Perhaps Perry will display the remarkable courage exemplified by Chappelle when he terminated his black-denigrating show. Black impresarios can reconcile comedy and profits with social responsibility (Cosby did). Indeed, a reversal of the locus of representation portends significant ramifications for the black community. Forestalling misrepresentations, perhaps a social catastrophe could be averted—for instance, the astronomical rate of black male unemployment and its concomitant effects. (Society seems to respond to black misrepresentation by exacerbating prejudice against black men especially).
Before hooks expounds on challenging black misrepresentation, she introduces a photograph of her father belonging to her sister. Hooks says, “I want to rescue and preserve this image of our father […] It allows me to understand him, provides a way for me to know him that makes it possible to love him again, despite all the other images, the ones that stand in the way of love”. I find a trenchant parallel here with hooks’ desire for an image of blacks that is to be rescued and preserved. However, hooks is nebulous—by not defining this image of blacks.
Like her father, who “refused to answer questions about who he was”, hooks omitted crucial information: a definite alternative image. Consequently, hooks’ message is attenuated.
While hooks recognizes the benefits of black solidarity during the civil rights movement, and possibly hopes that this can be replicated to resist misrepresentation, it is specious to assume black homogeneity—especially with the effluxion of time. Acknowledging diversity within blackness, may serve as a pragmatic step towards realigning goals for sites of resistance.
Perhaps, Hooks offers no alternative, because she is not yet certain what iconic blackness ought to be. However, hooks understands that it may be as dynamic as the process of resisting black misrepresentation. Accordingly, “Subjugated people who […] create an oppositional subculture [against] domination recognize that the field of representation (how we see ourselves, how others see us) is a site of ongoing struggle”. Given this dynamic struggle, it is limiting, however, to look only to an idealist past (circumscribed by the use of photography) for solution(s).
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