Starting at the Bottom

The matrix of mass mediated stereotypes for African-American’s listed in Debra L. Merkin’s Media, Minorities, and Meaning include : Sambo, Mammy, Buck, and Jezebel.

Although in more modern forms, these stereotypes still exist in our culture. Through study in film, I want to address a possible new plot and theme for many films with lead African-American roles. Most movies in the US still have white actors as lead characters. If an African-American actor takes part in a mainstream movie, they are most often supporting roles or character roles. Through the analysis of a few rare circumstances, I suggest a new type of mantra for mainstream film: The African-American lead starts from humble beginnings and through hard work and wit, they end up achieving the life they’d always dreamed of.

Will Smith and The Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness tells the story of a middle-aged African-American man who wants a better life for himself and his son. Upon meeting a stock broker, he decides he wants to put his all into their unpaid internship program. The film is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, showing that racial and financial bias can be overcome. Even though the film is relatively true to his story, Gardner describes his journey in even more detail.

Chris Gardner speaks on The Pursuit of Happyness

It is also important to note that the actor, Will Smith, started his career in Hip-hop. One of the main ‘back-stories’ to many Hip-hop artists include starting in the ‘hood’ and making it into the mainstream. Although the film is not mainstream, Fear of a Black Hat is a parody of the Hip-hop industry and addresses the theme of ‘rags to riches’ (and many other themes) in the Hip-hop industry, which is dominated by African-American artists.

Another example of this hardworking, upward movement theme can even be seen in Disney movies. The first African-American Disney princess hit theaters in 2009. Although it has been criticized for stereotyping African-American women, The Princess and the Frog‘s plot sticks to the theme . She begins from a humble beginning and through hard work and a typical Disney journey to find love, Tiana ends up finding success.

The most comparable Disney princess starting from such means is Cinderella. At the time, perhaps Disney was not ready to make an African-American Disney princess. Interestingly enough, a second version of Cinderella was made in 1997 starring African-American Hip-hop and R&B artist, Brandy.


The Boondocks, “Hunger Strike”

For this blog post I will be focusing on ‘The Boondocks’, an American animated series created by Aaron McGruder, and the way it criticizes black stereotype on BET.  The show features an African American family named the Freemans who have just moved from Chicago to the fictional, peaceful, and predominately white suburb of Woodcrest.  The show is important because it often offers satirical perspectives which cleverly criticize cultural norms in the United States.  In particular, the perspectives of the story (seen through the eyes of two young African American kids) offer a mixture of cultures, lifestyles, and races—all of which simultaneously provide the comedy and important messages of the show.

“Hunger Strike” is an episode which is particularly clever.  It successfully criticizes both the people who are in charge of Black Entertainment Television, and the people who watch it.  The episode begins in the headquarters of BET.  One of the company’s CEOs, who looks strikingly similar to Dr. Evil, berates her employees for not doing a good enough job of “completely destroying black people,” (0:27).  The board members begin to brainstorm ways to help speed up the destruction of any remaining meaningful elements of black culture.  The scene ends with one of the show’s main characters, Huey Freeman, stating on CNN that he had begun a hunger strike which would not end until the network is brought down, and “all of its top executives commit Japanese ritual suicide,” (2:23).  Already, in the first couple minutes of the episode, we find that the producers of The Boondocks are critically analyzing the ways in which BET damages African Americans.  BET is represented as completely and utterly evil—and most importantly, completely aware of the damage they are doing to black culture.

The next scene offers an interesting dialogue between Huey and his brother, Riley.  Riley, who watches BET every day, thinks that the hunger strike is silly.  Huey explicitly states that “BET is out to destroy black people,” (4:05), to which Riley comically replies, “My nigga, I watch BET every day, feel me? Aint nothin’ wrong with me, feel me? Nigga you just hatin’, feel me? That’s why you aint never gunna have no paper, and never gunna have not bitches, feel me?” (4:15). This brief dialogue reveals how BET damages younger generations; Riley’s grammar is atrocious, he speaks crudely, and we see that he is only concerned with women and money—both of which are the main focus of many BET shows.

The rest of the episode centers on Huey promoting his cause with a rich, well-respected African American political figure named Rev. Rolo Goodlove.  While Huey remains true to his hunger strike, Rolo tries to exploit and profit off of BET’s poor publicity.  We watch as Rolo produces his own vulgar rap album, is caught in strip clubs, and exposed for exploiting the poor; all of which effectively perpetuate BET’s negative stereotypes towards black people.  Huey’s movement is destroyed when Rolo sells Huey and his boycott out for his own personal sitcom on BET.  The episode ends with Huey depressed about the way his strike turned out.  In a melancholy tone he asks his grandfather, “What do you do, when you can’t do nothing, but there’s nothing you can do?” (18:40), to which his grandfather wisely replies, “You do what you can.” (18:40).

This episode is an interesting criticism of Black Entertainment Television.  It reveals the ironic stereotyping of black people on a show which is supposed to represent African Americans respectfully.  “Hunger Strike” shows how BET perpetuates negative stereotypes by representing black people as unintelligent, uncritical, and concerned primarily with money and women.  ‘The Boondocks’ takes a critical stance against these stereotypes and shows the damaging effects it has on younger generations, (like the way that Riley talks to his brother).  Finally, the episode reveals that BET has become a spectacle which won’t be changed by a single person.  However, I feel that Huey’s grandfather’s final words reveal that viewers have the freedom to choose not to watch BET programming, and that might be the best way to combat its stereotypes.

Miss Black USA



Article via Washington Post

Meaning of Miss Black USA Pageant Runs Deep

By DeNeen L. Brown,August 05, 2009

Late into Monday night, or shall we say in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, when everybody else was feeling tired and ugly, the final 15 contestants in the Miss Black USA pageant stood on the auditorium stage at the University of the District of Columbia. All glittery and poured into their evening gowns, curves revealed, cheeks aching from all that smiling. Lipstick still perfect.

They clapped prettily for their competition, pretty eyes glancing around, wondering whether the next girl might look better in that dress, might have a little bit more talent, might have that added crispness to her answers or a dimension that makes her sparkle a little more brightly before the judges seated in the audience below.


Wondering who would win the coveted title of Miss Black USA.

Jeweled dresses, bows, feathers, silver stilettos and stage whispers from the audience. “Keep your head up, girl, keep that pretty head up.”

It was a long evening full of spunk and sashays, those difficult pageant walks in which the upper torso is turned to impress the judges as the legs are walking across stage in another direction.

Around midnight, when the audience is losing steam, is hardly the time to take an assessment of the state of black beauty in a so-called post-racial era. And yet somebody has to do it.

It is necessary because a ceiling has been shattered and there is a black man in the White House. And where better to ask the question than at a black beauty competition: Why is there a need for a Miss Black Whatever in 2009?

Organizers say the Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant was founded in Prince George’s County in 1986 to showcase leadership among African American women, and to provide an opportunity “to young women of color to develop the whole woman, mind, body and spirit.” This year’s 28 contestants (some states did not have representatives) were competing for, among other prizes, a $5,000 scholarship, free cosmetics from Black Opal and a trip to Ghana.

The contestants were tall and thin, short and round, an ample selection of black beauty. They wore their hair short, long, spiked, straight and natural, and with locks twisted into crowns piled on top of their heads, competing in a world that some say has found only a certain aesthetic beautiful, and has “been absolutely suffocating to women of color all over the world,” says one woman. You see Asian women changing their eye shape through surgery. Black women wearing blue contacts, Latinas bleaching their hair. All these contortions and foolishness going on to reach a Barbie doll standard.

The reason, they say, there needs to be a Miss Black Whatever: so black differences can be appreciated. Then the variety within a subculture can be fully explored and celebrated, and a beauty that does not conform to a dominant standard can be recognized. Because in the mainstream pageants, someone is always left out. Sometimes there can be years before a black winner emerges. In a black pageant, black beauty will win every time.

Earlier in the evening the smell of curling irons wafted backstage amid harried nerves and the rustle of evening dresses.

“I would say black beauty is all about embracing oneself, embracing individuality, uniqueness,” says Miss South Carolina, Molesey Knox Brunson, 26, a business owner from Columbia, S.C. “It’s different because instead of conforming to a certain ideal, we are allowed to define beauty on our own. We bring to the table what we think is beauty. We celebrate our curves. We celebrate our dark complexion. We celebrate our natural beauty.”

She twirls. Her black hair is natural and twisted into an updo. She has skin that looks like velvet. A dusting of Black Opal purple eye shadow. She is an intense beauty. “We celebrate our heritage, drawing strength from our foremothers all the way from Africa to our modern day sheroes, Oprah to Michelle Obama, we celebrate black women.” She stops. “I really should go.” Then she disappears into a dressing room full of steam and women applying makeup, chaperones smoothing dresses.

Pageants are not for the shy, and no one thinks defining black beauty is too hard a question. Because the question is like those that contestants have to answer in the final competition, smiling and not flinching or stuttering.

There is Breyuna Williams, 28, Miss Black D.C., a graduate of Howard University School of Law. She has competed in other pageants in the USA Pageant system as well as the Miss Georgia Teen Pageant. But with this Miss Black USA Pageant, she feels a difference. “There is more of a sisterhood,” she says. “We have doctoral candidates, historians, teachers. It is a competition, of coon Miss Black USAurse. Only one person will take the title of Miss Black USA. But we are patting each other on the back.”

By DeNeen L. Brown

Oprah Speaks to Miss Black USA Contestants,


“This is 2012. For the first time in history, we’ve got an African American First Lady, and sisters in positions of prestige & power at powerhouse corporations and organizations. It’s time to redefine what it means to be a courageous, compassionate & CONFIDENT black woman today. We’ve got obstacles to overcome and stereotypes to smash. Sound like your kind of revolution? “

So , beside Oprha, what type of women suceed in this type of competition? Women like Selena Watkins, winner of the 2012 Miss Black USA pagent.


selena-watkins-200”  She is a Fitness Trainer, Professional Dancer, and   aspiring Multimedia Personality. Meet Miss Black USA 2012, Selena Watkins, a Magna Cum Laude Graduate of Rutgers University with a BFA in Dance and in Journalism/ Media Studies.

Born in Texas, and raised in Yonkers, New York, Selena has learned that humility, positivity and perseverance will take you on the highest road.

As a first generation Antiguan-American, Selena values her parent’s courage to immigrate to the United States. Growing up in a West Indian household meant a push towards higher education, spiritual growth and self-discipline. Selena’s parents made sure that her core values illuminated in her work ethic and all that she pursues.

As a Fitness and Dance Instructor, Selena teaches many classes in gyms and clubs throughout New York City and Westchester County including ballet core, afro-Caribbean dance, total body toning, cardio boot camp, hip-hop aerobics and stiletto heels.

Selena also has experience as a radio producer. She started as an intern for Angie Martinez on Hot 97 and in less than a year began working for sister station 98.7 Kiss FM. She became an Assistant Producer for the DL Hughley Morning Show with Jacque Reid and producer of “Champagne & Bubbles w/ Andre Harrell.”

With all that she does, Selena still makes time for her biggest passion, which is to perform as a professional dancer. She continues to train with renowned choreographers in New York City, honing her skills in hip-hop, dancehall and world jazz.

As Miss Black USA, Selena’s civic platform is the Heart Truth Campaign. Heart disease is the leading killer of women in this nation and 1 in every 4 women die of heart disease. Through this partnership, Selena will bring awareness to the Heart Truth, ways to keep a healthy heart and lead a fit life. “

Django and the N-word

“Django Unchained” gives audiences what they’d expect from a Quentin Tarantino film — violence and harsh language, including excessive use of the N-word. So, how did the stars feel about using the word over and over in the film?

In this video, actors from the film briefly discuss what it was like using and hearing the N word while filming. They discuss the use of a metaphorical shield in order to protect them from harm. Not only has the film been criticized for the violent content, but also the amount of times the N word was used and who used the word. Proponents of the film say the language is based on the time period, where slavery often lead to the mistreatment of African-American citizens. Despite which state or racial group one was in during the time period, United States citizens can have a hard time looking back and acknowledging slavery and the treatment of men, women and children. It can be shocking to see how the N word could have been used during that time. I argue that the “shield” the actors talk about in the interview is a shield individuals had to use during the real days of slavery. Not only slaves, but  also slave owners put up a shield. In order to justify the mistreatment and violence toward blacks, many slave owners thought they were doing the slaves a favor (which we see in Django through a variety of characters). In order to act upon racism, it is much easier and requires much less guilt if you view the oppressed as different from yourself.

Quentin Tarantino on Violence, the N Word, and Django Unchained

In this interview, Tarantino explains the reasoning behind the violence and language. He is questioned about the criticism and congratulated for his bravery as a director.

“We have to deal with the true brutality of slavery. I wanted to take a 21st century audience and stick them in the middle of Mississippi in the Antebellum South and have them see… this is America, this was America then. You have to see it that way. I cut it back, because, frankly, I could handle it more.”

Stills from “Bitch, Bad”

Lupe Fiasco’s music video for “Bitch, Bad” features themes of African-American representation in entertainment including minstrel shows, black face, radio and the images portrayed modern hip-hop music videos.

The music video contrasts and protests many of the images shown of African-Americans in entertainment. Broken up into three acts, the dialog is set up similar to a play.


Before the ‘show’ begins, a white man stands outside counting his money as a worker puts up a playbill for the show. This doesn’t have any apparent meaning quite yet, but acts as foreshadowing leading to the main themes of the video. Picture 2

Act I

A mother is singing along to lyrics on the radio. Sitting next to her son, she sings along lyrics that suggest being a “bad bitch.” The video appears to be suggesting that this is not a good message for children, especially a son who looks up to his mother. Not only is the mother limiting her own self-worth, but her son also receives the same message about women. Keeping up with the minstrel-like stage theme, the scene shows the victims of this message – the young male viewers.



Act II

Act II shows the effect portrayals of women in hip-hop music videos have on young girls. The act beings with a group of young girls, perhaps preteens, watching videos on the internet. Although music videos on television are can still be sexual and stereotypical, the online content is often even more uncensored. The video also mentions the internet’s challenge for parents: children might spend more time and have more experience online than the parents. Kids and teens know the ropes better than anyone when it comes to the web, in most cases. (Trust me, I figured out how to delete my browsing history when I was 12). Upon reaching womanhood, it is common for young girls to be curious about sexuality. What men are looking for can be especially important. The images in many hip-hop music videos only show one type of woman… the “bad bitch” dancing sexually, commonly dressed in thongs, makeup, wigs and other negative artifacts. This image of women is commonly associated with MEN being the primary “gaze” and judge; however, Lupe’s video suggests young girls are truly the victims of this image of African-American women.




During the third portion of the video, it shows the children growing up into adults. When the young girl grows into a young woman – and the boy into a young man – they cross paths. There is confusion here: The woman is ‘dressed to impress’ in skimpy clothing like the other women in the hip hop videos, but the young man views this type of woman as a ‘bitch’. This demonstrates a disconnect between the images women see men liking, and the types of women men actually want.

Picture 12

Throughout the music video, imagery relating to blackface is shown throughout the theatre. Actual 17th-18th century film of white actors in blackface is contrasted with modern African-American individuals applying blackface backstage.

Picture 14 Picture 7 Picture 8 Picture 9 Picture 11

This video potentially has many meanings and messages about racism and culture. The message I received has to do with African-Americans taking back their culture. I believe this video is a critique on the entertainment industry. The video illustrates white men determining their image in the media and using money to control the industry. The video appears to suggest that white men and money should not control the images of African-Americans.  Instead of the white media determining how to use African-Americans for entertainment, African-Americans could determine their own “face” for the world to see by removing the ‘blackface’ white society as put on them in order to generate cashflow. The removal of blackface can be viewed as a metaphor for African-Americans taking back their culture and attempting to combat racial stereotypes in white consumerist society.

Picture 7 Picture 15 Picture 13

Caliban as the “Other”

In the text A Different Mirror, Takaki studies Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

The wild and restless character of Caliban has been used as a metaphor for the relationship between colonizers and the “other.” Although early representations of Caliban may have been reflections of the “wild Irish” (during the time, a group Britain viewed as other), we can also use the Caliban metaphor to represent the relationship between whites and blacks dating back to the 17th century.

Here are some portrayals of Caliban in art and theatre:

Image ImageImage

Caliban is often shown as rural and untamed. In order to separate Caliban from Prospero and other ‘civilized’ characters, Caliban is costumed either naked or in rugged clothing. He appears sub-human and animal-like in his mannerisms and abilities.
Similar to the treatment of African Americans during times of slavery, characters in The Tempest believed Caliban needed ‘saving’ and ‘civilizing.’ The Caliban metaphor can be applied to the many groups that have experienced cultural othering, African Americans being one example.