The Archetype

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.

Exhibit A: Lynching Michelle Obama

Exhibit B: LeBron = King Kong?

Exhibit C: The Assassination of Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton Exhibit

Exhibit D: Robert Downy Jr. in “blackface” for the comedy “Tropic Thunder”

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

16 thoughts on “The Archetype

  1. The difference between Yazmany and Kara Walker is the power of Walker’s work is in the subtleties. You won’t find a gaint brown penis sculpture, Walker’s work focuses on the ways in which white supremacy-patriarchy determines our actions almost undetected… This kid is wrong for the picture with Malia and Sasha, that is uncalled for, and sadly, expected from “progressive” white folks.

  2. I love Kara Walker’s work for the reasons you described but I also know that within the black community when it comes to criticism of Walker is that she is a shock artist and is offensive. So, Yazmany’s work lacks in subtlety. (He’s wielding his metaphors with a 2-by-4.) But I wondered if my reaction would be different if this shock art had come from a black person. Although I’m positive I would have had a negative reaction to the “nappy headed hoes” illustration no matter the race of who made it. I think that was more cutting and offensive than the giant penis.

  3. I just was checking links to my sites and noticed that you were linking to me. I thank you for taking the time to have read my blog and the post you quoted.I do need to make a correction though. My name is Michael Vass, the blog is Black Entertainment USA, and my corporation is M V Consulting, Inc. You incorrectly creditied the quote.Beyond that I have no objection and found it interesting.

  4. “Stuck” looks like a hot mess waiting to happen. I can’t even articulate how annoyed I was with Angelina and Marianne Pearl. The only reason Angie got to play her was because she and Brad (or at least one of the two) were producers, so she could play whomever she wanted to. And Ms. Pearl didn’t seem to object and that annoyed me.Yazmany…I get it. I really get it. However, I can’t help but feel that it is horribly condescending coming from him and not some artist of African descent. This is going to be a long campaign for the entire Obama family.

  5. Sorry about that, Michael! I made the changes!marilynjean: Looking at Yazmay’s art made me think about a recent episode I watched of “Mind of Mencia” where Carlos Mencia dons black and white face to act out both Barack and John McCain. I cannot tell you how many things were wrong or how unfunny the alleged satire. Many times I was like, “I get it already,” since Mencia is very much Mr. Obvious when it comes to his shtick. South Park has far more nuanced sophisticated humor than Mencia and it’s South Park.

  6. Daily Kos: WTF?!! The GOP doesn’t need any help in Bashing Obama; we’ll do do the job for them! Say what you want about the Republicans; they have this uncanny ability to keep their nutbags in line, and they are UNITED. they do most of their squabbling in private, and it’s crap like this that’s going to make this a close race.As for Tropic Thunder, I really think they’re using the blackface as a satiric point.

  7. Snob,1. This was highly enlightening. Thanks.2. I’m surprised you didn’t reference Vanessa Beecroft: Does the Wayans’ “White Chicks” make Robert Downey, Jr.’s “Tropic Thunder” an ‘okay’ thing? Despite the fact that RDJ can really act?4. Does being in the public eye not subject us to all kinds of these things we have no and/or limited control over? In other words, deal–whether you decide to ignore or prosecute–or get outta town.

  8. isonprize: Hilarious flow chart on that link. Priceless.kirk: I respect Downey enough as an actor to hope that this will not seem C. Thomas Howell-ish. I really think his character is more about the hubris of self-important, award-winning actors, like Angelina Jolie, who don’t let a little thing like ethnicity stop them from devouring a role. But there’s bound to be some reactionary umbrage from some moviegoers. moody: 1. Glad you found it interesting.2. Completely forgot about the white women breast-feeding the twins. That was a freaky image. Like Tori Amos and a rat freaky. And it especially seemed odd that historically black women were used as wet nurses to the children of their masters. Whereas that image, of a black slave nursing a white child who isn’t hers, is sad and disturbing. This resembled the belief of “White Man’s Burden,” where the British went around drawing lines in the sand and conquering things in an effort to “tame” the wilderness of the brown, black world and mold it into a vision of themselves. A sort of destruction out of duty because we couldn’t govern ourselves, so they thought.3.”White Chicks” was abysmal. I think all race swamping should be judged on their own merits on a case by case basis. Like “Soul Man,” offensive. “Black Like Me,” not offensive. Eddie Murphy playing an old Jewish man in “Coming to America,” hilarious, but possibly offensive. Mickey Rooney butchering the Japanese in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” racist. Italian American actors playing Latinos and Latinos playing Italian Americans, kind of a toss up.4. An occupational hazard of being not white in America is that the majority culture is sometimes going to pull some crap that you’ll think is highly offensive. I believe in picking your battles. Like out of all the things I posted as examples, the only one I was truly ready to go to war over was Exhibit A “Michelle Obama gets branded by the Klan.” While I get ONECITIZEN’s alleged intent, this DailyKos poster is either ignorant of what this imagery implies or knows exactly what he or she is doing and doesn’t care. In this age of cynical irony, I can see how an individual who’s watched a couple episodes of Chappelle and sat through a viewing of “Birth of A Nation” could cobble this together and see it as OK because the image is supposed to be attacking conservatives. The problem is it misfires and is near identical to what a racist organization would create to attack Michelle Obama, who is not running for president and should not be fair game.Sayeth, Barack Obama, “Lay off thine wife!” In an attempt to make a point ONECITIZEN pushed things full circle from an indictment to an endorsement.

  9. Yeah, I don’t like young liberal whites overconfidence in using racist images. It almost feels like since they (potentially) went to school with some black people and have ok relationships with some black co-workers, that they feel comfortable doing this stuff. It’s positive that they feel more comfortable and don’t have the same anxiety/fear/hate their parents had/have BUT it so easily goes into this privileged, over-confidence. Like “I may not totally get this issue or the feelings of the people but I am a progressive white liberal; it is my right!” If something is well thought through, fine, but how many young white liberals really understand the issues from a woman of color’s perspective? I would say close to 0. So for me it comes off as arrogance. I don’t think forbidding the use of such images is the way forward, but I’d only take the artist seriously if they were fully prepared to listen and learn from the critique and not just whine about how they didn’t know and are “so past all that”.Glad someone brought up the movie “White Girls”, I refused to see it. Beyond it looking like it would be a really poor film, white face is not ok either!

  10. I was disgusted by the first one that depicted Michelle Obama. The exhibit by Yazmany was disgusting as well. As for the picture of Obama’s girls with the offensive label, children of all races should be free of being attacked in such a way. Despicable!Meg

  11. Hi,Just 1 minor clarification: Vanessa Beecroft was asked by the Sudanese locals to breastfeed the orphaned twins. After doing so, she chose to use her photography art star status to SECRETly photograph their dark mouths at her pale boobs. They showed in the documentary the lengths she went to in order to avoid Sudanese adults who may have objected to what she was doing. She was awful. It was amazing how the documentary made it clear that her entire life is a bit of a sham.

  12. hello,i personally do not have a problem with the guy from Iron Man wearing makeup like a black guy, neither do I have a problem with teh girl in “Stuck”. Blackface is an exxageration of common african features to the point where they are not considered attractive.I don’t beleive these two do those things. I’m not offended at all. Netiher was I with Angelina’s movie. And why can’t a white woman play someone who DOES have white in them???

  13. I read the script for Tropic Thunder. It’s satire but that is the hardest genre to pull off. I’ll have to wait to see the movie (if it does come here to Rome) .re: a mighty heart. Thandie’s named was mentioned. She didn’t know who Marianne Pearl was. The producers were like next. I used to see Marianne pearl in NYC. She see herself as a French women of color. She is not a black american or black. One parent is white dutch and another is white cuban who had one grandparent who was multi-ethnic. Maybe Sophia Okendendo would have been perfect for the role. She’s a very good actress but she’s not a star so of course Hollywood would not cast her. And Halle would have been all wrong. Nothing about her says foreign international journalist. The scary thing is Jennifer Aniston bought the rights initial and was going to play the lead. WTF?!I agree with you regarding Kara Walker’s work.

  14. The day when black folk get just as upset over Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry for playing mammy stereotypes, is when I’ll get pissed at Robert Downey Jr. for playing Kirk Lazarus. Until then, I cannot wait until Tropic Thunder comes out.

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