Herman Cain and the Myth of Acceptable Black Behavior

Coon. Modern day Stepin Fetchit. Self-Loathing. Uncle Ruckus. Those are a few of the names some in the black intelligentsia have hurled with the velocity of a Satchel Paige fastball at Herman Cain. I have zero interest in Herman Cain the right wing political figure as a presidential candidate, but the visceral reaction to ‘Herman Cain the media phenomenon’ amongst the black punditry has me both riveted and perplexed. Yes, a couple of Cain’s lively antics at times seem a bit undignified to some, but the name calling by informed and intelligent people is surprisingly imprecise and exposes a one dimensional view of racial images in American popular culture.

Those black pundits that invoke images of Stepin Fetchit and Uncle Ruckus to describe Cain are falling into the unfortunate trap of substituting emotionalism for analysis. Everybody processes images differently, so I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to tell anybody how to feel about Cain, but I do think that once you veer into the analysis of image types, it’s important to look at the panorama of black images that have become a part of American popular culture, and put one’s emotionalism on pause when doing so.

When the black pundits liken Cain to the coon character, they are likening him to a character represented as lazy and devoid of any ounce of human drive or ambition. That ‘type’ was created to help justify oppressive American racism against black people in the pre civil rights era. This subhuman depiction planted an image in the American psyche. Every slow talking, slow moving black person that a white person had ever seen was baked into the coon character and broadcast to the world. This stereotype sent the impression that the vast majority of black people behaved in such a fashion and reinforced the belief that we black people were unqualified to live the American dream. Though the coon was created in the minstrel era of the 19th century, the gold standard for coons was Lincoln Perry, bka Stepin Fetchit, whose repeated performances of that character from 1929 through the ’30s was so “refined” that he was dubbed the “laziest man alive”. Perry/Fetchit’s rendition of the coon has been described as follows:

Fetchit became identified in the popular imagination as a dialect-speaking, slump-shouldered, slack-jawed character who walked, talked, and apparently thought in slow motion. (“The Coon Caricature”, by Dr. David Pilgrim, Ferris State University, October 2000) One need only watch a sliver of a Fetchit performance to see the accuracy of this description.

Contrasting Fetchit’s shuffling, slumping gait and mumbling, slurred speech with Cain’s ramrod posture and crisp articulation begs the question, how could anybody make such a comparison?

The answer is complicated. Even Cain’s most diehard critics in the black pundit community would admit that Cain’s manner bears little resemblance to Fetchit’s. Their complaint is that Cain gives America an example to show that racism doesn’t exist, hence allowing Americans to ignore racism just as they ignored it in Fetchit’s era.The two comments by Cain that pundits like Dr. Boyce Watkins focus on are: 1) blacks are brainwashed to vote Democrat 2) racism is not a major hindrance to black success. (see “Dr. Boyce: Open Letter From Herman Cain….Sort of”, News One, 11 November 11)

Though criticism like Watkins’ makes for sensational reading, it ultimately looks through the wrong end of the binoculars. It’s true that Cain said blacks are brainwashed to vote Democrat, but the history of the perspective that blacks are too loyal to the Democrats doesn’t come from the coon community, instead it is rooted in Black Nationalist thought. Malcolm X was perhaps the first to question what he believed was a blind loyalty black people held to the Democratic party. In his classic Ballots or Bullets speech, Malcolm said the following:

“So it’s time in 1964 to wake up… They get all the Negro vote, and after they get it, the Negro gets nothing in return. All they did when they got to Washington was give a few big Negroes big jobs. Those big Negroes didn’t need big jobs, they already had jobs. That’s camouflage, that’s trickery, that’s treachery, window-dressing. I’m not trying to knock out the Democrats for the Republicans. We’ll get to them in a minute. But it is true; you put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last.”

Similarly, when Cain talks about racism having lost a great deal of its bite, he’s not living out on an island by himself. Quite the contrary. In 2007, a Pew Research Center survey reported that 53 percent of all black respondents believe that poor black people are responsible for their plight, while only 30 percent blamed racial discrimination for making it impossible for impoverished black people to better themselves.

Whether it’s brainwashed black democrats, or the the limited role of racism in the prevention of black success, my goal is not to examine the truthfulness of those statements. My only point is to show that there is precedent, in the black community, to Cains words and actions that undercut the coon comparisons.

Having put that comparison to rest, next up is the Uncle Ruckus character. Dream Hampton, a respected journalist in hip hop and popular culture has said that Herman Cain makes Uncle Ruckus look like W.E.B. DuBois. No question this is a hilarious line, but humor and analysis are two very different things.

Cain is a black man who, as CEO of a large corporation, had literally hundreds of white people report to him. Meanwhile, Uncle Ruckus, fictionally speaking, believes that black people (including himself) are incapable of achieving anything of note. Uncle Ruckus couldn’t conceive of himself being superior to any white people. Comparing Ruckus to Cain is illogical and makes about as much sense as comparing Cain to Malcolm X simply because of similar beliefs about blacks and democrats.

Of course the pundits can fall back on the argument which was also used for the Fetchit comparison: it’s not Cain’s behavior, it’s the function he plays in the American psyche. While that point of view warranted some consideration where coons were concerned, it’s completely misinformed on Uncle Ruckus. Unlike the coon, Uncle Ruckus is not a stereotype. He is an archetype of self-loathing, created not by white people to reinforce white racism, but by a black satirist to highlight how ridiculous racism actually is. Ruckus was created to subversively bury the coon, not to exalt him.

So if Cain is in fact the real life Uncle Ruckus, his existence, like Ruckus’s should serve to deconstruct and deflate American racism. The black pundits who compare Cain to Ruckus miss this important point.

An even larger issue missed by those pundits is that in making their comparisons, the pundits start with the coon then leapfrog 82 years to get to Uncle Ruckus. This Olympic sized broad jump ignores the myriad other images of black life that were created during that 82 year gap.

The most important of these images where Cain is concerned was the black comedic authority figure. This character first hit the American popular culture scene in 1973 with Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson character. Hemsley’s Jefferson was an opinionated and successful entrepreneur (sound familiar?) who graced the TV screen from 1973 to 1985. Other characters that came later were Robert Guillame’s Benson DuBois, and Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable.

If you count both first-run and syndication, each of these character’s have been seen thousands of times by millions of Americans over decades, and each of these characters in a small way chipped away at the racist stereotypes that for years were lodged in America’s psyche. Yes, they were comedic and at times clownish, but that fell in line with the formulaic nature of the American situation comedy. So despite their comedic extremes, they ultimately were also explicitly depicted authority figures that exhibited humanity. If somebody were to poll the contemporary white American electorate, I’m betting that the numbers of people familiar with Jefferson, DuBois, or Huxtable overwhelm those that have heard of Stepin Fetchit.

The pundit may respond by saying that Jefferson, DuBois and Huxtable are just coons modernized for their era, but that would be disingenuous, since it’s during the era of the black comedic authority figure, that Black America made its most substantial social gains. Though “comedic”, those images consistently provided a context in which blacks were on equal and at times superior footing to whites. That visual and verbal empowerment was something the coon image never provided, and is directly related to the image of Cain in a debate, confidently using humor and reason on equal and at times superior footing with his white opponents.

Talking Black, Demanding Respect

That many (including myself) disagree with the actual policies behind those words, is simply not the point, since through the comedic black authority figure, most Americans have been exposed to a black image that can joke and command authority at the same time. So when Cain sings or jokes in front of a large number of white folks, the black pundits fear that he is shucking and jiving ‘for the man’, and ignores the fact that many Americans are far more likely to map him to a folksy authority figure with a sense of humor than a dehumanized coon image.

This point cannot be overstated, since folksy with a sense of humor occupies a significant space in the American mind in the form of former President Ronald Reagan.

That it could even be suggested that Cain could possibly conjure up images of Ronald Reagan takes us to a place where the black pundits criticism is on its firmest ground. That criticism being that in order to be successful, Cain has to distance himself from his blackness. This perspective, though valid to a point, places too much emphasis on Cain without speaking to the context of political theater, and the “script” black candidates follow when seeking majority white constituencies or consensus on policies.

To that end, in 2000, the renowned black sociologist William Junius Wilson published an article entitled, Race Neutral Policies and The Democratic Coalition (Prospect.org, 4 December). Wilson’s central thesis that explicitly emphasizing “blackness” is an outmoded strategy is contained in the following passage:

“Such a change of emphasis is overdue. In the 1960s efforts to raise the public’s awareness and conscience about the plight of black Americans helped to enact civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs. However, by the 1980s the civil rights strategy of dramatizing black disadvantage was backfiring. The “myth of black progress” theme, frequently invoked to reinforce arguments for stronger race-specific programs, played easily into the hands of conservative critics of antibias policies.”

Though Wilson’s advice was directed to the Democratic Party as a way to keep white voters, it’s also applicable to a black candidate, irrespective of party, seeking large numbers of white votes. Nine years after Wilson’s article, Joy James of the University of Texas, had this to say about what she calls, The New Black Candidate:

“In shifting class and racial identities, blackness remains fixed as negation (of civil society, of prosperity, of law and order, and of patriotism). Thus on the campaign trail, it is to be avoided or disciplined, or in the case of the candidate’s persona, transcended.” (“Campaigns against “Blackness”’: Criminality, Incivility, and Election to Executive Office”, Williams College, Humanities Dept., 9 October 2009

Thus, when Cain says he is “American first, black second and conservative third”, he may in fact be subordinating his Blackness to his American-ness, but no more than President Barack Obama does when he says, “The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again.”

That Obama is favorably(or at least neutrally) viewed by many of the black pundits for being able to navigate “the system”, while Cain’s behavior is roundly criticized as selling out or self-hating is an inconsistency that said pundits fail to address.

Yet despite the “script” that calls for mainstream black candidates to transcend blackness, Cain finds ways to reference his race and his culture. He does this by singing hymns that are part of his black Baptist tradition. He does this when he talks about his “beautiful black skin” or jokingly says his security code name should “Cornbread” or that he’s not ice milk, but rather “black walnut ice cream”. Ironically those actions are viewed by many in the punditry as an unacceptable way of being black and that Cain is in essence “tap dancing” for the man. That unfortunate perspective proscribes that there is an acceptable way to be black in public, and ignores Cain’s following statements about Detroit, Michigan — a city that is 82 percent black: “The economy is on life support, and you have some cities and some communities where it’s not even on life support,” Cain said. “They’ve disconnected the tubing and they’re dying. How about Detroit?” (NorthStar.com, 30 September 11).

By painting a picture of a majority black American city that has been “abandoned” by mainstream policies is Cain not at least acknowledging some form of institutionalized disparity? Hasn’t he found a way, as Dr. Wilson advised black democrats, to find a way to talk about racism without actually saying the word? And if Cain is in fact simply “tap dancing”, then how does anybody explain Cain facing a hostile West Alabama crowd in October, that was described in the following way, “The audience at the West Alabama State Straw Poll in the University of Alabama’s Bryant Conference Center saw a different side of Herman Cain this morning, as instead of his usual punch lines, he took a dig at the crowd.” (“Herman Cain Gets Testy at West Alabama Straw Poll” by Sarah Kunin, ABC.com, 29 October 11)

Do kow-towing, tap dancing black men regularly go to Alabama of all places, and demand that white Alabamans to show them respect?

Juxtaposing the cultural references that Cain often uses to accent his public appearances with the ability to push back on a hostile crowd in one of the most historically racist states in the country, provides a more well-rounded view of Cain’s behavior that I’m hard-pressed to liken to “tap dancing” or “shucking and jiving”. That the black pundits can focus on what they characterize as “minstrel-like” behavior without nary a mention of Cain’s Alabama incident or his stance towards Detroit, is a major flaw in the black pundits’ analysis.

Another flaw in their view of the impact of Cain is the reaction, or dare I say non-reaction, of the black punditry to the sexual harassment accusations that have recently come to light during Cain’s campaign. Let’s say for argument sake that the pundits like Charles Blow of the New York Times are right, and that there is a chance that Cain is setting race relations and black people back 50 years. (RealClearPolitics.com, 05 November 11)

If this were the case, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that the allegations that Cain sexually harassed white women would raise the ire of the white power structure to a fever pitch? If I were to use the historic cultural guideposts that the black pundits use to evaluate Cain, would it be a leap to suggest that the vast majority of white men that support him, would do something significantly worse than not vote for Cain?

Instead, what we see is some of the most rabid white conservatives coming to the defense of Cain. Some pundits say their motivation is because Cain will help them maintain the status quo. I agree with this perspective, but the problem is I’m hard pressed to find any nationally elected black official, be they liberal or conservative. that does not have influential white allies seeking to preserve the status quo. If criticism is warranted here, it should be focused on national black politicians in general and note merely Cain.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that racism in America doesn’t exist, nor am I defending Cain against some very serious sexual allegations, anti-Muslim statements, or distasteful comments about immigrants. I do not support Herman Cain as a viable candidate for the US Presidency,as I disagree with almost everything he says from a policy perspective, but dismissing somebody as a political candidate is a significantly different undertaking than dismissing a person’s humanity. (See “Herman Cain’s use of racial language is rhetoric we must refuse”, by Ulli K. Ryder, NY Daily News.com, 23 October 11.)

As somebody who cherishes the creation and examination of black images in popular culture, I unconditionally support any effort to shed light on the images we see daily. However, by viewing Cain’s public behavior through a one dimensional prism while deliberately ignoring the other dimensions to his behavior which have also been part of the public sphere, the black pundits that blast Cain on his representation of blackness are unwittingly breathing new life into the thought process that gave us demeaning racial images in the first place.

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