Black and White Television Set-Ups, and the Horrible Truth about Wealthier White People
My thanks to Anxious Black Woman for reminding readers about two of many intersections of Black history, Nazi atrocity, and the matter of not forgetting genocide is not only in the past.
Her post made me think about the on-going ways in which genocide (which always includes gynocide) is invisibilised cross-culturally, across eras, and by global media.
As a little Jewish white boy, I understood from a very young age that something was terribly fucked up about suburban white Christians and Jews playing "cowboys and Indians". I had nothing resembling a clear analysis of white Christian male supremacy at the time but I knew this much: I didn't want to play, and to whatever extent I might have been coerced into playing, I never wanted to be a cowboy. EVER. The fact that the "game" wasn't called "white settlers and displaced Indians" or "genocidal european invaders and massacred Indians" remains a bit perplexing. Then again, in games like Monopoly, one can purchase railroads for two hundred dollars. It is worth noting that the game was created by a white Quaker, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Magie, who was interested in pointing out the dangers of private monopolies. By the time I was playing, it was VERY pro-monopoly, without a hint that there was anything morally or politically wrong with savvy individuals buying up everyone else's properties.
I've been watching some old b/w movies, also reflecting on some aspects of racism in television programs. "Black and White", as a term, becomes ironic at the very least, in cinematic movies or television programs where:
a) There are virtually no other people of color in these films, except for the random "Asian" (mostly from the North and East, sometimes the South) who is always a gross stereotype, or the "Mexican" who is either a seductress or some form of bandit.
b) The whites are usually mixed in class, but somehow the focus is on the ones with "class"--that term being used with sarcasm, and also a note of irony: think for a moment about the term "now he has real class!". Fucked up, right? These "classy" white folks in old movies often have a Black woman character, often not listed at all in the credits, assisting white women who are portrayed as never quite knowing how to dress themselves. Or there's a Black woman or man serving the white characters their meals, then quickly dashing off-screen, lest anyone dwell too much on what that says about race in Amerikkka. Or there's a Black man working in the house as a butler with one stereotypical accent and manner, often meant to be comical to whites. And of course there's the Black man who seems utterly at peace, if not gleeful, at the prospect of spending yet another day or decade shining white business-men's shoes. If the picture deals with traveling cross-country, there's the Black man as porter on the train of white passengers as a porter. I'm leaving out a stereotype or two, and not too surprisingly these stereotypes often dovetailed with real-life laws that prevented African Americans from being part of white-majority unions, white-dominated jobs, and working in any way that wasn't, rather directly, serving whitey. U.S. white cinema, as it is rarely called by anyone white, offered little to Black audiences that reflected anything meaningful about African American experience. For more on this subject, and for a history of U.S. Black cinema, see here.
c) Whites were and are rarely portrayed in cinema as the virulent racists we collectively remain, whether murderous directly or by proxy. Despite the harsh truth about those of us who own stocks, we are rarely clearly understood as being active genocidalists, for example. And in appallingly pro-white movies like "Dances With Wolves" white supremacist cinematic mores demand that not only the film center around the experiences of a morally distressed white person, but also that he be able to remain a hero in some sense. In that film, "hero" doesn't exactly equal "mass murderer of people of color"--even though at the era depicted, that's usually and often what "hero" meant in white society. Middle class whites, movie-going whites, and DVD-renting whites like our movies to show us in a positive light, even during those periods in history when we were overtly barbarous to people of color. And we like our movies to remind us we are superior to people of color, to this day. It's a delicate, if utterly corrupt, ethical balancing act well-accomplished in cinema and television.
d) In U.S. white cinema, historically, African American women and men are rarely if ever seen as "being in relationship" to one another, heterosexually or not. Black people seem to exist as hired satellites, orbiting around white people. These white people seem to have their own gravitational pull and, as a consequence of this fiction of physics or not, are also utterly self-absorbed. White women in cinema had a period where, although never free from oppressive white heterosexual male "beauty" standards, they were allowed a level of self-possession. Not that their lives didn't revolve around white men, of course. I mean let's not be ridiculous. But many white women in cinema, prior to WWII, demonstrated an ability to appropriately respond to misogynistic white men, and to have things called "careers". Black women didn't have "careers" exactly, unless lifelong positions of paid servitude to whites can be called "a career". If it was one, it was not likely one any child dreams about entering with glee when they become an adult. White women, on the other hand, could be news journalists, wear slacks, argue face to face with men, often of similar build and stature, and didn't yet have the perpetually polite and deferential posture found in white women's characters after the Second World War.
In the last decade of the twentieth century, there was a TV show, "I'll Fly Away", which I loved primarily due to the riveting performance of Regina Taylor as Lilly Harper. (And, um, that young white actor, Jeremy London, was kind of cute to me at the time, not that his personality did much for me.) And yes, boys, he had a brother in real life--a twin brother, in fact: Jason, whose personality I despised, for some reason.) Lilly DID have a visible, three-dimensional family, an inner emotional life, a will, a clear sense of what constituted injustice, and was neither mammy nor ho, although she was made to take care of several children, in two families. One was her own; she worked for a white one. She was a fictional character with depth. And I have always thought that Regina Taylor is a very talented actor--far more talented than many white women and men actors who get far more roles, get paid much more money, and have much fewer gaps between gigs. And, obnoxiously, even that TV show managed to make the lives of the white folks focus of the program. Just when there'd be a great scene with Lilly, we'd have to cut back to the white family's dramas and be reminded "Oh, right: Hollywood doesn't MAKE dramatic family shows with Black actors as the leads." "The Cosby Show" of the 1980s was fine, only because it kept white folks laughing. And then came "Seinfeld", which, along with plenty of other shows not featuring white Jewish characters, such as Saturday Night Live, reminded white audiences of every single racist and sexist stereotype known to dominant society.
To any white person who suggests that due to Michelle and Barack Obama occupying the White House, not as servants, is a sign that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream has finally come true, I recommend rereading the work of M.L.K., Jr., including the entirety of the "I Have A Dream" speech, and especially the writings from the last two years of his assassinated life. Below is but a portion of that speech he delivered, with a white woman in the vast sprawling audience who would, twenty years later, become my feminist mentor. We can note that this portion of the speech doesn't get replayed every year, as it is not, in any way, a liberal, white-friendly sound-bite, nor does it come down on the side of thinking "Monopoly" is a just a fun game.
From the "I Have A Dream" speech, by Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963:
"In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
"It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."
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