TV, Validation, and the Three Sistas

[21 April 2004]

By Mark Reynolds

Once upon a time, black folks couldn’t get enough of themselves on TV. There were no complaints about being portrayed as criminals on the news; we simply didn’t exist on the air, save for a few sitcoms or the occasional movie rerun. In his memoir Colored People, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recalled the excitement that rushed through the Piedmont, West Virginia of his ‘50s youth at the merest rumor of a black sighting:

“Lord knows, we weren’t going to learn how to be colored by watching television. Seeing somebody colored was an event.
“‘Colored, colored, on Channel Two,’ you’d hear someone shout. Somebody else would run to the phone, while yet another hit the front porch, telling all the neighbors where to see it . . .”

Back then, the battle for black folks was about basic human respect; the fights for civil rights, voting rights and the like were only beginning to appear on the horizon. We lived vicariously through our celebrities, at least those few who found entrée into the American pop mainstream. The Brooklyn Dodgers became black America’s Team simply because they were the first to sign a black player, and the loyalty stuck even as other baseball clubs desegregated their rosters. Joe Louis and Jesse Owens were, for their fans, proof of Black America’s valor in the battle against oppression, not just as record breakers in their sports. For moviegoers, those musical stars that got precious screen time in cameo performances were Hollywood’s only nod to the fountain of talent that black audiences adored on the chitlin’ circuit.

Nowadays, things are better. Not good, and not much better, but better nonetheless. There are black faces all over prime-time TV these days, even on Friends. Our athletes are no longer expected to double as change agents (though some activists wish that millionaire jocks would at least think about it from time to time). Hollywood gives project approvals, marketing budgets, star billing, and even the occasional trophy to black talent.

But yet and still, all over Black America, folks still jump for joy whenever some mythic barrier is crossed, another pop culture glass ceiling broken. How else, then, to explain the passion some people have about it being a black who is almost always the first one to be kicked off a reality show? Had the same sort of interest and passion over the Ruben Studdard-Clay Aiken contest on American Idol existed in Florida four years ago, Al Gore would have been elected President. This year, we have the force of showbiz nature known as “I’m going to crush my competition” Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who has accomplished the improbable feat of out-hyping Donald Trump on his own turf, or at least on his own show. Among those who care about such matters, this is seismic: a black reality contestant refuses to accept second-class status, even at the risk of bringing to life every caricature about the mouthy, head-rolling Wronged Black Woman with Attitude.

One of the year-to-date’s most highly anticipated black pop events was Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl gig. A pop star who hadn’t released a relevant record in 11 years would be holding down the fort while male America took a potty break — where’s the news in that? The news was that it was Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty, the princess of America’s First Family of Black Pop. Blacks who are old enough to remember Michael’s original nose have always treasured the Jackson siblings, not only because they were adored in a way that wasn’t thinkable for child performers of generations past, but because their talent changed the pop music game, and on several occasions over the years, at that.

Janet’s been a grown woman for a while now, but many still treasure her like they treasured her role as Penny on Good Times back in the day. So when Wardrobe Malfunctiongate popped onto the scene, her longtime fans reacted with not moral outrage but confusion, an almost personal betrayal: “Why, Janet, why did you feel you had to go there?”

But the award for Black Woman in a Starring Role award goes to Condoleeza Rice, for her performance before the 9/11 Commission this month. With all eyes on her, Rice played her role as national security advisor to the hilt, defending her administration and her President as best she could. She occupies a weird spot in American politics: demographically unique among the most powerful, but culturally similar to almost all of them. Her morning in the hot seat relayed a similar dynamic. Her testimony was all about foreign policy (and election-year politics), but there simply is no way one can watch Rice without being aware that no other black woman has ever achieved a comparable level in US government.

Before the testimony, Debra Dickerson argued in the Los Angeles Times that Rice “may well be the first truly free black person in our history. She faces the nation as an individual, allowed to accede, despite her race and gender, to the highest level of her own incompetence.” Dickerson’s point parallels her main theme in The End of Blackness, her treatise on the races published earlier this year (Pantheon): the notion of “black” no longer carries either the stigma or the political urgency it once did, and that, especially as more cultures find their places within the mainstream, it’s high time America rethought the whole idea of race, especially as it relates to “Black” and “White”.

The problem with Dickenson’s construct is that while she may have no further use for “Blackness”, the rest of the country isn’t anywhere near that point. If anything, we are as obsessed with race as ever. In a review of Rice’s date with the commission The New York Times (9 April 2004) offered her up as the “anti-Omarosa”, “a breath of reality to a television universe too often clotted with distorted images of black women”, it said. Even when it’s not about race per se, if it’s black people doing it, then race cannot helped being dragged into the mix kicking and screaming.

Racial overtones were also uncomfortably clear in the wake of Janet Jackson’s coming-out party. Although none of the self-appointed moral guardians (i.e., Congress and the FCC) would ever have said it out loud, the sight of a White man singing “gonna have you naked by the end of this song” and then ripping apart a black woman’s bodice is too reminiscent of master-slave dynamics for a nation that has never been at ease at the intersection of race, sex, and power (that discomfort may also explain the apparent revoking of co-conspirator Justin Timberlake’s ghetto pass).

So no, race isn’t going anywhere. But Dickerson is right about one thing: we do need to find new ways to deal with race. The dynamics have changed in the US: we’re no longer novelties when we show up on the pop radar, and we’re not always there on the radar screen just because we happen to be black. But the impulses that presence triggers remain the same: a need to reclaim the nobility of our predecessors, to re-assert for our own peace of mind, our own worthiness, and to serve as a reminder of the many achievements still before us. Old habits die hard, but they should at least be amended for modern times.

In the ‘30s and ‘40s, a school of thought emerged from writers of the French-African Diaspora. The concept held that the descendents of slaves came from a worthy heritage, not a land of backward primitives. It called for a recognition, appreciation and acceptance of black people’s African roots. Martinican writer Aimé Césaire named the concept, and offered the first definition of it, in his 1939 epic poem, “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”:

my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of day
my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s dead eye
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience

Negritude was, in the hands of its major proponents, both a literary movement and a political philosophy (its use in the latter capacity was most realized by Sengalese poet-turned-President Léopold Sédar Senghor). The Negritude writers were enormously influenced by the Harlem Renaissance poets of the ‘20s, and their work anticipates the “Black Is Beautiful” boldness of the Black Arts Movement and the post-civil rights black political consciousness of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Perhaps we can make sense of all the things that happen when race and the American mainstream collide by looking at them through an updated idea of negritude; Negritude 2.0, if you will. Clearly, the need is still there. We’re now used to black presidential candidates, astronauts, and hockey players, but many of us still get exorcised over a stupid reality show. Somewhere in the country, a black woman who has no use whatsoever for the Bush administration’s approach to global politics watched Rice on the witness stand and chanted, “You go, girl”. Political and economic progress be damned, we still live vicariously through our celebrities.

The sense of a need for validation of self has yet to leave the black psyche. Maybe it never will; you’ll have to consult Miss Cleo about that. We may be more likely to “Tivo it” than drop what we’re doing and run to the set, but when a black person shows up on the tube, we still run to the porch and yell out, “Colored on Channel Two!”

Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/54588-reynolds040421/