The Show Must Go On
Abstract and Keywords
This book has explored the foundation and infiltration of racial stereotypes into the American entertainment culture. It has rejected the notion that African Americans should be used as scapegoats for the continuance of black stereotypes in popular culture, arguing that entertainment culture in the United States was largely founded and developed on negative racial imagery created and inserted into the public sphere by whites. While acknowledging that the African American community holds some responsibility for the continual proliferation of racist and sexist stereotypes in the mass media, the book contends that accountability must be placed within a larger cultural and historical context. This epilogue reflects on the continued proliferation of black stereotypes in popular culture, suggesting that it simply represents a continuation of an entertainment tradition that was created intentionally to express the antiblack, prowhite ideology of America's culture. Furthermore, the perceived inferiority of blackness was actively promoted through society's folk culture.
On the Oprah Winfrey Show on February 3, 2006, Dave Chappelle had his first national interview after walking away from a $50 million contract and his hit comedy series, The Chappelle Show. His show had debuted in 2003 on Comedy Central and was considered by audiences and critics alike to be one of the funniest shows on television. Chappelle, who created and wrote the show, is a professional comedian and African American actor whose trademark, politically incorrect humor, explored popular culture, race, sex, drugs, and fame. The Chappelle Show became one of the highest-rated programs on Comedy Central, earning three Emmy nominations. It went on to become the bestselling TV show in DVD history.
Then, in April 2005, a year after signing a two-year contract to continue the show, Chappelle abruptly walked off the set and traveled to Africa. In his first national broadcast after his disappearance, Chappelle explained why he had abandoned his hit television series. In a racial skit in which Chappelle played a blackface pixie, which he described as the “visual personification of the ‘N-word,’” he had begun to question the social ramifications of these satirical performances. During the taping of this particular sketch, Chappelle noticed, “somebody on the set (who) was white laughed in such a way—I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me—and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with. … I don’t want black people to be disappointed in me for putting that message out there. … It’s a complete moral dilemma.”1 The “moral (p.193) dilemma” with which Dave Chappelle grappled concerned the racial images he was propagating in the public sphere of mass media through his comedy show. The social responsibility of African Americans in the entertainment industry has always been a topic of great controversy due to the negative, stereotypical manner in which blacks continually have been portrayed.
Similar to so many black entertainers in American history, Dave Chappelle continuously balanced on the thin line between parody and racial stereotypes.2 Furthermore, the racially charged rants directed toward black targets by famous white figures in the first decade of the twenty-first century, including Michael Richards and Don Imus, fueled discussion on the manner in which blacks are portrayed in popular culture. These controversial events also mobilized black activists to seek retribution against public displays of racism by mainstream media. Richards and Imus—who was fired (though rehired)—experienced social and professional repercussions for their racist displays.3
The Richards and Imus controversies, however, had a secondary effect: a negative backlash against blacks in the entertainment industry. Interestingly, in the aftermath of these controversies, the current generation of black entertainers has been left holding the blame for promoting negative stereotypes in popular culture. At the same time, these racially tinged media incidents have raised questions about differences in popular culture intended for white or black consumption. Today, a heated debate continues within the African American community centered on what responsibility black actors and actress have within the entertainment industry. With the 2012 success of black actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in the film The Help and the continual controversy regarding blacks within the music industry, black entertainers currently are bearing a heavier burden concerning race and gender within their public performances.4
African American entertainers often are blamed for the continuing racist ideology present in mass media. For instance, after making racist and sexist comments on a publicly televised radio show, Don Imus defended his comments by stating, “I may be a white man, but I know that … young black women all through society are demeaned and disparaged and disrespected by their own black men.” Currently, the African American community is involved in an introspective debate on the racial responsibility of black entertainers. Conversations regarding the prevalence of racist ideology in mainstream entertainment have seriously neglected the historical significance of these events. The racist (p.194) ideology prevalent in mass media has become inappropriately legitimized due to the pervasiveness of African Americans reenacting black stereotypes.
This phenomenon has deep historical roots, running all the way back to the beginning of the institution of American racial slavery. This work has revealed the foundation and infiltration of black stereotypes into the entertainment culture in the United States. Rejecting the notion that African Americans should be used as scapegoats for the continuance of black stereotypes in popular culture, Ring Shout, Wheel About recognizes that American entertainment culture was largely founded and developed on negative racial imagery created and inserted into the public sphere by whites. Although the African American community holds some responsibility for the continual proliferation of racist and sexist stereotypes in the mass media, that accountability must be placed within a larger cultural and historical context. To that end, this work discussed the historical events and cultural construction that contributed to and continue to contribute to blacks’ self-desecration.
Today, the proliferation of black stereotypes in popular culture simply represents a continuation of an entertainment tradition in the United States that was created intentionally to express the antiblack, prowhite ideology of America’s culture. Furthermore, the perceived inferiority of blackness was actively promoted through society’s folk culture. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes captured the intricacy and quandary of black performers, and furthermore the African American experience, in his prolific poem “Minstrel Man.”
- Because my mouth
- Is wide with laughter
- And my throat
- Is deep with song,
- You do not think
- I suffer after
- I have held my pain
- So long?
- Because my mouth
- Is wide with laughter,
- You do not hear
- My inner cry?
- Because my feet
- Are gay with dancing,
- You do not know
- I die?5
(p.195) The moral dilemmas of the African American entertainer, as articulated by Dave Chappelle, are directly related to the tradition of subjugation and negative imagery infused in popular culture that derived from the plantation society.
Racialized entertainment often constructed blackness or the black body as “other,” a subordinate being who was completely incompatible with whites and just as naturally suited to serve or to amuse whites. Frantz Fanon stated, “White civilization and European culture have forced an existential deviation on the Negro. … [T]he black soul is a white man’s artifact.”6 Throughout the foundation of North America, whites willfully negatively constructed the black body, resulting in the erroneous categorization of blackness through myths and stereotypes. Although the “black soul” was not a “white man’s artifact,” the public image of blackness was distorted intentionally by some whites to propagandize negative images of blacks in America.
These slave-era images were transformed after the Civil War, when some blacks began donning blackface in minstrel shows. Although the blackface performance style originated in Europe, the rise of the minstrel show in the antebellum era represented a distinctly American form of entertainment that reflected American society’s collective mentality. The postbellum era witnessed the emancipation of black slaves in North America and the early roots of blacks’ entrance into minstrel shows. Although there were professional black entertainers before the Civil War, such as Black Swan, Thomas J. Brown, Blind Tom, and the Whitehouse Sisters, these entertainers experienced limited success compared with those of the postbellum era, when large numbers of blacks rose in the entertainment industry.7 Black minstrel troupes developed throughout the United States in the 1860s and gained great popularity as “authentic” darkies because they were “genuinely negroes.”8
The popularity of black minstrel troupes in postbellum America gave some validity to the performance of blackness in blackface theater and also brought African American entertainment to the forefront of the American public sphere. However, blackface minstrelsy still represented only an imitation of an imitation, an image of a fantasy plantation life with “happy darkies” and paternal whites. The American minstrel show continued the tradition of displaying blacks “as only an irresponsible, happy-go-lucky, wide grinning, loud laughing, shuffling, banjo-playing, singing and dancing sort of being.”9 The American minstrel show contributed to the proliferation of negative stereotypes of African Americans while also ironically contributing to the professionalization of many black performers.
(p.196) Although the American minstrel show was filled with negative stereotypes of black life, it also provided essential theatrical training and experience for black actors and actresses. Blacks in the postbellum era found popularity and fame on the minstrel stage, gaining national and sometimes international recognition. Many black minstrel performers were able to add diversity to characters’ skin complexions, instead of the single black complexions offered by white minstrel performers. They also introduced cultural dance styles and new characters to their blackface acts.10 Black minstrel performers paved the way for the further development of black professional entertainment ventures. However, regardless of the strides black minstrel troupes made, they still represented a “veil of misunderstanding and make-believe” for white audiences; blacks were continually silenced and selectively viewed by whites who were taking this opportunity to see their “cherished fantasy made briefly real.”11
The negative portrayal of African Americans continues today throughout various forms of media.12 The resurgence of negative black stereotypes displayed through mass media has influenced and is now representative of the entertainment culture in the Unites States and several other countries. Essentially, it must be recognized that an active part of American culture and entertainment is grounded in racism. The collective mentality found in the United States is constructed on the premise of whiteness and the ideals associated with whiteness in a system in which blacks must continually contest their status.
The collective mentality present in mass media was addressed in the controversial film Bamboozled, a satire about the history of black representations in television and film. Director and writer Spike Lee recreated the blackface minstrel show in current times with African American actors in a series entitled the New Millennium Minstrel Show. Lee parodies a network television station that, in pursuit of ratings, airs a new comedy series created by an African American that reinvents blackface minstrels on a plantation setting. The television series becomes a cultural phenomenon among blacks and whites, although often falling under attack from various community activists. Lee addresses numerous controversial topics within this film in order to shed light on the degradation of blacks throughout popular culture. He stated in an interview that the negative images of blacks in mass media are “painful—the pain comes from looking at the images. How people of color, in this case specifically African-Americans, have been portrayed since the inception … of film, radio and television. … we have to look at the way we portray black collectibles … we’re viewed as less than human, sub-human, and that stuff (p.197) is painful.”13 Lee’s comments represent the turmoil many blacks face as a result of the distortions of race in American entertainment culture.
Later in the interview, Lee stated, “And film roughly is 100 years old and now we’re the beginning of a new century. And what will the next hundred years bring?” This comment recognizes the persistent racism present throughout the history of film, but the characterizations that it displays have been present in American culture since its inception. The entertainment culture has centered on negative representations of blacks while placing whites and whiteness as the nonracialized, dominant representations. This study broadens the dialogue on race, racial representations, and entertainment in the culture of the United States in an effort to contribute to moving forward from the centuries of injustice in popular culture; however, there is still a need for continual scholarship, discussion, and activism. (p.198)
(1.) The information concerning the Oprah Winfrey Show and her interview with Dave Chappelle comes directly from the archives of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
(2.) Michael Eric Dyson, Debating Race with Michael Eric Dyson (New York: Basic Civitas, 2007).
(3.) Michael Richards, comedian and actor, commonly known as Cosmo Kramer from the television series, Seinfeld. In November 2006, Richards sparked national controversy when he shouted racial epithets at black hecklers in a Los Angeles (p.234) comedy club. Don Imus, controversial radio host, made negative racial and sexual comments toward the Rutgers female basketball team on April 4, 2007.
(4.) Kathryn Stockett, The Help: A Novel (New York: Berkley, 2009).
(5.) Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad, and David Roessel, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1994).
(6.) Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967), 14.
(7.) Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1980), 1.
(8.) Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 262; Karen Sotiropoulos, Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 3.
(9.) James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (New York: Arno, 1968), 93.
(11.) Scott Herring, “Du Bois and the Minstrels,” MELUS 22:2, Popular Literature and Film (Summer 1997): 10.
(12.) Robin Means Coleman analyzed the history of African American representations in mass media for more than fifty years. She reviewed the various trends and portrayals of blacks, determining that the minstrel show was active in the foundation of mass media and has presently resurged in what she labels the Neo-Minstrel Era. This revival of minstrelsy was also mentioned by mass media scholar J. Fred MacDonald in his work on the history of television. He referred to the displays of blacks in television shows in the 1990s as a new form of minstrelsy, with blacks performing negative stereotypes of themselves instead of whites in blackface promoting these stereotypes.