As racial lines blur and a new generation rises, the stereotypes of African Americans remain so deep that they are both overt and covert within American culture. But when is this archetype of ignorance satire or art, versus when it’s just old fashioned stereotyping.
The What About Our Daughters blog highlighted an image that popped up on Daily Kos a few weeks back by a regular contributor called ONECITIZEN. It was the classic “What on earth were they thinking” moment.
A drawing of Michelle Obama in a red dress being branded with the words “Uppity Liberal” by Ku Klux Klansmen. A burning cross is in the background and it is labeled as a part of “Our New Hi-Tech Strategy to Burn the Middle Class.”
I get the point they were trying to make, Michelle Obama is being criticized by the GOP for numerous things, but really what was going to your mind when you imagined Michelle Obama being tortured by the Klan? SECURITY CALLING SECURITY! To be clear, REPUBLICANS did not create this,a liberal “progressive” blogger created this foolishness.
The picture, her face superimposed on what appears to be a pulp fiction novel book cover, exposes Michelle’s back while her wrists are strung up a tree. It’s meant to be an indictment of the Republicans, but quickly became and indictment of the alleged Obama supporter who created the image. (He quickly took down before criticism came to a boiling point.)
When I saw this I wondered why anyone would think this was appropriate satire. Up until the 1970s, the Klan was the tour de force in the south. Judges, lawmen, politicians and business owners were in the Klan. Not these fat bellied nobodies who pop up on Jerry Springer, drunkenly sloshing their way through “mud people” insults. These were men of power and stature running around in the middle of the night, burning crosses, burning houses, and murdering black men, women and children. It’s simply not, if ever, funny.
On top of that there was Michelle, being victimized and abused in the same manner black women throughout history and continue to be abused as deviant sexual objects deserving of whatever horrible fate that falls upon us. The red dress symbolizing the loose morality white men labeled black and mulatto slaves with, forcing them into prostitution or forcing themselves upon them without conscious. We were sex starved, insatiable beasts who needed white men to rape us.
I wondered if anyone would have created an image of Jewish politician’s spouse being tortured by the Nazis. Even if it was satire. Even it if was supposed to be anti-bigotry. Couldn’t they see that the image they created, this propaganda was so obtuse it could misfire and endorse the behavior it was supposed to condone?
Then I wondered how could an image, so obvious in its racist roots blow right past the conscious of the individual who created it, clinging to their so-called Liberalism like a blanket when people pointed out the image’s its racist implications.
People claim that things have changed, that we have advanced, but the same stereotypes, black woman as whore, black man as beast, soldier on. Whites our age have grown up in a more integrated society where they listen to hip hop and R&B and love the Chappelle Show, but without context many don’t know what any of it means. Then they create art that is a dead ringer for our racist past, but feign ignorance when confronted with the evidence. They were just being provocative, edgy or funny. They don’t know the past, this archetype of ignorance is so strong it is subvert, imprinted on the subconscious of our primal brains, routinely taking us back to our roots.
From the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia:
The English colonists accepted the Elizabethan image of “the lusty Moor,” and used this and similar stereotypes to justify enslaving Blacks. In part, this was accomplished by arguing that Blacks were subhumans: intellectually inferior, culturally stunted, morally underdeveloped, and animal-like sexually. Whites used racist and sexist ideologies to argue that they alone were civilized and rational, whereas Blacks, and other people of color, were barbaric and deserved to be subjugated.
The follow are some examples, including the Michelle Obama branding, that straddle the area being art and archetype of black bucks and whores. I’m going to describe some of the items to provide some context, then give my opinion below. Please share your interpretation as well of where you see art, where you see ignorance and where you see overt racism.
Some of these pictures are very offensive to me. Mainly the first one with Michelle Obama and some of the imagery from the Assassination exhibit. If you want to see the full exhibit for both click here and here. While I found the Michelle Obama image to be inexcusable, the more and more I read and saw of the Assassination exhibit it became apparent this was more about attention seeking and provocation than art.
The artist, Yazmany Arboleda, was questioned by the police and secret service in New York when he tried to put up his exhibit. He called it a criticism of the media and its coverage of the Democratic race. The one that stung the most for me was the “Nappy Headed Hoes” statement above a picture of Sasha and Malia Obama. But as I grew more and more offended I wondered if I would have viewed the artwork differently if it was done by Kara Walker or some other edgy black shock artist. This was artwork using long-held stereotypes about African Americans to explicitly illustrate that these media “criticisms” against Obama were further examples of the racist archetype. But does that criticism get lost in the art when you blur “character” assassination with the threat of actual, deadly assassination?
And the more I read about Arboleda the more I thought he was an enterprising provocateur, an opportunist. Not necessarily racist, but fame seeking through the utilization of these archetypes of black sexuality, racism and demagoguery.
The LeBron Vogue cover, which I’ve highlighted before is more about LeBron not being conscious of his image. The picture is garish and ugly, and one can question photographer Annie Lebowitz’s intent, but the blame falls on those who participate in such foolishness.
As for “Tropic Thunder,” that’s a little more hazy. I realize some are apoplectic about Robert Downey Jr. playing an award winning actor who undergoes surgery to become “black” for a role originally written for a black man. This sounds like pure satire to me, but I’d have to see how the finished product is executed. No one has really touched blackface for comedic fodder since 1986’s “Soul Man,” where C. Thomas Howell, which Downey himself noted when explaining why he took the role.
From Michael Vass’ Black Entertainment USA blog:
Can this be funny? Maybe. Some audiences so far have seen portions of the film and it is testing well, they say. Given the commitment of Downey, I can see the satire in it. But I don’t trust Stiller’s ability to direct or act. I’m not confident in the writing.
Most of all, I’m not sure how I feel about it.
This could be like the absurdity of Gene Wilder in Silver Streak. Or it could be Al Jolson … Already Robert Downey Jr. has said:
“At the end of the day, it’s always about how well you commit to the character,” he says. “I dove in with both feet. If I didn’t feel it was morally sound, or that it would be easily misinterpreted that I’m just C. Thomas Howell in [Soul Man], I would’ve stayed home.”
A film depiction of a white, self-important method ac
tor who would try to make themselves “black” is almost a coincidental response of the new film “Stuck” where Mena Suvari plays a biracial actress (or Angelina Jolie’s foray as Marianne Pearl in “A Mighty Heart.”) Does it cross a line? Does it go too far? Does the parody turn into an endorsement? I don’t know. I’d have to see the movie. But that’s the point of these examples. When do these works go bad? What is the turning point where they go from social commentary to disrespect? Where does someone redraw these lines and begin a reeducation of black stereotypes in America?
Assassination photos from The New York Times and SandraRose.com.