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BlackPlays: The New Minstrel Shows

Racialinequality remains one of the most discussed topics in the US, mainlyinvolving white supremacy and black inferiority. The many African-Americans chained and brought to the country as slaves have continuedto endure discrimination due to their color. The advancement oftechnology and emergence of mass media has enabled a racialstereotyping to become widespread. Particular interest in this essayfocuses on black minstrels, which are constantly over time todisseminate racist images, perceptions, and attitudes. The blackracist stereotypes originated in 1830, an era of minstrel shows thatcharacterized slaves and free blacks as arrogant inferior to thewhites. The most distinguishing feature of blackface stereotypes inshows was that whites used to apply black makeup on their faces toperform as blacks. This made it possible for white supremacists toextend their racial ridicule further vindicating the black community.Later in the mid-1950s, black performers had already taken the stageentertaining the audience with stereotypical roles where they used towear a black costume despite their color(Bloomquist 411).Subsequently, this portrayal has continued to the contemporary TVshows and films, and they have continued to portray negative imagesof the black community. The central concern is whether black playsare becoming the new minstrel shows. Following the extensive evidenceobserved in various black films, it becomes necessary to explore howblack stereotypes are praised in modern black plays.

Thehistorical characters such as Coon, Blackface, and Sambo indicate asignificant degree of racial stereotyping in the 20thcentury American Society. The Sambo character portrayed AfricanAmerican males as docile, simple-minded people who largely dependedon their slave masters. Sambo was associated with submissive blackswho had accepted the Jim Crow rules of inequality and etiquette(Bloomquist 412).On the other hand, the Coon caricature remains the most profound,insulting character to the black community. Coon is an abbreviationof raccoon, which is dehumanizing when referring to people. Itrepresented the black men as lazy, idle, inarticulate, and easilyfrightened buffoons. The Coon was an adult with childish behavior,rebellious, and contemptuous of his inferior position in the society,identified with the young disrespectful blacks living in cities(Merrill 640).The Coon caricature originated during American slavery where thewhite masters believed that blacks were lazy, slow, and needed a“pushing” to work harder on the plantations(Bloomquist 415).The slave masters desired to obtain maximum labor from the slaveswhile the latter wanted the least labor. This resulted to the slavesrunning away, slowing work, destroying the work tools, doing sloppywork, and sometimes faking illness. The slave’s poor performance,in turn, was attributed to stupidity, genetic deficiencies, anddesire for freedom. As such, this resulted in the Coon character,despised by the slave masters as good for nothing lazy blacks.

StepinFetchit promulgated the widespread stereotyping of African Americansby playing the Coon caricature in many theaters, as well as inHollywood films. His performances resulted in the perception ofblacks from the whites as weak, lazy, crazy, subhuman creatures whoseexpertise was stealing a chicken, eating watermelons, and destroyingthe English language(Glick 4).In the 1900s, the Coon caricature led to many white believing thatblacks were genetically inferior to whites and this led to the broadsupport of the Jim Crow laws. The prevalent argument was that blackswere hedonistic, idle, and irresponsible children who deservednothing better than slavery. In essence, the Coon had beentransformed into a racial caricature as whites drew the lineseparating themselves from the black community. The stereotyping ofblacks became so prevalent such that studies conducted in thepre-civil rights movement showed that African Americans were lazy andsuperstitious, even to those who had never interacted with them(Bloomquist 418).Further, in the 1990s, many whites opposed welfare programs directedtowards helping the blacks, with the claim that their tax money wasbeing used to support the sluggish African Americans. Lastly, theblame is directed to the media for depicting pictures of poor blacksduring poverty coverage documentaries while the whites are portrayedas wealthy.

TheCoon caricature became common among most minstrel performers whoentertained the audience by playing the foolish adult AfricanAmerican who avoided work and responsibilities(Merrill 643).Later, the Coon was transformed into a comic figure that oozed vulgarand bitter comic relief. The stage depictions showed him as apathetic human being who believed was smarter than the whites were,though his distorted logic confirmed otherwise. Additionally, the useof inaccurate English was humorous to the white audiences andreaffirmed their beliefs that African Americans were less intelligent(Glick 6).However, the continued brutalization of the Coon image in theminstrel shows gradually moved to the films and this has continued toair in the mainstream media for years. In essence, the whitecommunity remembers the Coon caricature as self-demeaning and barelyliterate, which represented the black culture of laziness andincompetence. The stereotyping of the contemporary black plays hascontinued to revive these memories in the society achieving theeffect of degrading the humanity of black people. Further, in theprogression of this racial divide, the 2004 film WhiteChicks,portrays whiteface counter of the blackface. However, the movie showsthat black people tend to associate with the classy white lifestyleto escape their stereotyped idealism in the society. Lastly, with thedecline of coon caricature in the media, new black plays continue topromote the idea of black stereotypes creating a wave of newminstrels.

Massmedia has developed into a powerful tool in the society as itprovides most of the information regarding a particular culture andtheir existence. The way African Americans are portrayed in massmedia affects the subsequent use of the media. In 2008, a surveyshowed that blacks are primarily attracted to watching the televisionfor entertainment, gratification, and to a lesser percentage forlearning(Merrill 639).Additionally, the study found that most African Americans avoidtelevision shows or programs primarily based on ethnic identity, aswell as those that lack an in-group member representation. Further,the over-exaggerated and repetitive themes of black crime, racialprofiling, and the negative stereotyping of blacks have created anormalized the mass incarceration of this community. This is becausethe perception of a person towards others largely depends on the waythe environment has shaped the particular mindset. Therefore, it iscorrect to say that stereotyping, racial, and sexual prejudice existsregardless of its positivity or negativity. However, the largestmistake people make is stereotyping others by grasping the directlyrecognizable characteristics about a person, exaggerate these fewtraits, and paint them on the individual without a chance fordevelopment (Bloomquist414).As such, stereotyping the black community functions to make racism,poverty, sexism, and other social injustices appear natural andnormal irrespective of the reality.

Themenace of racial prejudice has been apparent in the American society,and it its representation on mass media has made it pervasive amongthe Americans. Most of the stereotyped minstrel shows were based onmockery directed to the African-American community due to theirminority status. In the mid-20thcentury before the Civil Rights Movement, many blacks engaged in theentertainment industry in part to air their grievances. The Chitlin’Circuit allowed autonomy for the blacks as they pushed further forequality in the highly segregated American society(Merrill 640).However, when such a movement becomes aired in mass media, itfunctions against the contemporary black culture and functions as areminder of the stereotypical harsh black past. It is agreeable thatmost black plays have gone back to portray the disadvantaged blackneighborhoods. However, this is perceived as wrong since it paintsthe African-American lives, marriage, and other social aspects asderogative and unbecoming. Further, black males are portrayed asderanged, irresponsible, and neglecting, implying a negative pictureof the black culture. Therefore, due to such representations, theAfrican-American community is seen as inferior and incompatible withthe modern world.

Theexaggerated exploitation of black history and image of blackcaricatures has become prominent in the 21st-centuryblack plays. One of the most explicit minstrel shows that widelyadvance on such grounds is the Tyler Perry’s plays and film, whichexcellently employs negative stereotypes to represent black people.Perry’s favorite character, Madea, is a temperamental matriarch whois greedy and lazy with the lack if an ostensibly comical effect(Copeland).Further, Perry treats African-American men and women as a means to anend with the worst presentation of behavior and personality.Subsequently, men are portrayed as inherently abusive and predatorywhile women are manipulative and immoral this disregards the idealcharacterization of black families (Harris and Keisha 325).Additionally, the films lack a sense of creativity as they aredeveloped along the same theme mainly demoralizing the black culture.For instance, the 2009 film MadeaGoes to Jailhas received immediate criticism, as the portrayal ofAfrican-American lives is counter-hegemonic. He utilizes the CivilRights imagery to market this movie in a way that disrupts thenegative historical representation of blacks in blackface andminstrel shows, as well as the myths of black crime(Copeland).As such, the movie was able to attract intercultural and commercialsuccess by use of the hegemonic propaganda of superiority in thesociety in presenting race and crime as the main themes. Apparently,such mass media presence of black inferiority creates audienceassumptions of ridicule subjected to this community.

TylerPerry clearly stereotypes his characters by letting them take theform and shape of characters in the old minstrels. For instance,Madea’s character closely relates to “Mammy” a faithful andobedient house servant in the slave master’s home (Chen, et al.113). The depiction of Mammy was an overweight woman with large arms,broad shoulders, and wide stance, which takes the form of a“masculinized sub-human creature.” Mammy’s caricatureoriginated to justify sexual abuse of black women by their slavemasters, and she represents a void of sexuality with a deliberateintention to express ugliness (Chen, et al. 115). Additionally, Mammyexceptionally admired due to her loyalty to her slave master.Similarly, despite Madea’s outbursts and violence she is loyal toher family and at some instances, she stands as a leader. However,members of her family never question her actions since she instillsfear in them by issuing inherent threats, as well as the use ofphysical violence. Further, her angry nature contrasts well with thestereotype “Sapphire” who is described as “a nagger withirrational states of anger and indignation” (Everett131).Most of Sapphire’s targets were black men, but she stood firm andviolent to anyone who disrespected her. In that case, thisstereotypic representation of a wild black woman shows that AfricanAmerican men are incompetent and cannot stand firm in their familiesbut rather are ruled by the wives.

Althoughthe minstrel shows declined in the 20thcentury, the constant reoccurrence of new black plays hassignificantly plagued the stereotypical notions. The ABC’s TV showBlackishis one of the most insensitive shows to racial and social differencesin the American society. The play features Dre and Bow, who raisetheir children in an upper neighborhood dominated by white families.The show is primarily based along the ethnicity lines and tries toportray that a deviation from the stereotypical expectations makes anindividual lesser of his or her race(Gray 198).The pervasive nature of the teachings passed down from Dre to hiskids tries to question their decisions when they do not raciallyconform to the stereotypical behavior. The notion of moving intoupper-middle-class neighborhoods seems racially insufficient, asblack people are “supposedly” incompatible with suchneighborhoods. The TV show insignificantly supports the stereotypicalunderstanding of a black person, whose behavior is shaped not byexperience but ethnicity and the historical memoirs of slavery. Theshow actively purports that race forms and depicts the behavior of anindividual thereby promoting the traditional beliefs of blackinferiority. Further, it fails to acknowledge that culture is derivedfrom personal experiences, not from the ethnicity and suggest thatblack people are “black” when they adopt the negative stereotypesof hip-hop culture(Gray 199).These characteristics are observed in individuals who perpetuateblack stereotyping similar to the minstrel shows whose aim was toportray the morally deprecated African Americans.

Thetitle of the TV show Blackishsuggests that a well-up black family is not purely black, but rather“black-ish” since they have deviated from the commonly thoughtblack lifestyle of poverty. In the show, Dre regularly prompts hischildren of their racial identity even though they innocently assumehis fervent reminders. His 12-year-old is not interested in playingbasketball as a sport for the blacks, but he wants to play fieldhockey, which is a game for girls according to his father. Inessence, Blackish tries to validate certain stereotypes such as“keeping it real” translates to black people playing basketball.However, it is agreeable that playing same sports or eating aparticular type of food does not sufficiently define millions ofdiverse African Americans in the American Society. The show togetherwith other similar black plays continues to damage the traditions ofblack minorities by not moving beyond color in this century. Thecontemporary society should outgrow these stereotypical beliefs andallow autonomy of individual actions regardless of the racialidentity. However, most of these shows lack this sense and continueto propagate feelings of racial segregation, which is detrimental tothe construction of social relations in the American society.Therefore, Blackishhorribly depicts the African American life as defined by race ratherthan the totality of the community.

TheAfrican-American society dwells on a racially segmented society wherethey are subject to racial stereotypes. The marginalization hasextended to become part of the national television shows, whichprovide falsified information regarding the daily occurrence of blacklifestyle. However, these depictions mainly affect how other ethnicgroups perceive African Americans as irresponsible, and the belief isthat it is no different in reality. One of the most successful TVshow in the last decade, TheWire,portrays relevant knowledge of the black families surrounded by crimeand drugs(Haynes 157).The show provides various depictions of racial segregation in almostall scenes as the storyline develops along two perspectives one forthe Baltimore police and the other of African American residents,mainly drug dealers. The black males take center stage as racialstereotypes in the black community where they are regularly involvedin crimes that attract the police department. Most interestingly, theracial stereotypes are introduced from the police’s viewpoint andare reinforced by the African-American characters, which areattributed to derogatory values, norms, and lifestyles (Haynes159).This leaves the African Americans vulnerable to public opinion, asthey are painted dangerous and associated with most crimes. The showis a new form of the minstrel shows that showed the negative aspectsof the black community this case, these people are slaves to drugsand work for a powerful drug lord.

Themain character, Avon Barksdale, a black male, typically represent thewell-understood television stereotyping of African Americans. Hecontrols the drug trade in West Baltimore after his father mentoredhim on how to survive in the rough neighborhood. Later, he climbs theladder to become the drug pin and provides employment opportunitiesto underage young blacks to work in his drug business (Haynes163).As such, Barksdale’s good intentions as a leader of the blackcommunity are presented as stereotypically dangerous, uneducated, anda threat to the society. Further, TheWireportrays negative stereotypes of deviance and poverty that afflictmany black families across the United States. The recurring belief ofAfrican American’s animosity incepted in the slavery period isdisplayed through Barksdale who is violent, and a coordinatesnumerous murders. This portrayal of such characters mysticallytransforms the public to fear black males in reality since mostviewers fail to recognize that films and television shows are createdto entertain, not educate. However, people are quick to judge andascertain meaning to stereotypes and labels by correlating them to aparticular group of individuals. The television show leads to thenotion that black culture is infiltrated with crime, which hasreduced the entire race to a minority in the country. Therefore,other ethnic groups ascribe these negative attributes to AfricanAmericans leading to their segregation in the society.

Thegender representations of black women in the popular modern showssignificantly portray their position and stereotyping in the society.Most black women are placed at compromising situations either sellingtheir body or serving time in jails for various crimes. According tothe Hollywood Diversity Report, there is a continuedunderrepresentation of people or color in star roles in films andtelevision shows, while those existing in the industry are negativelystereotyped(Caputi 1131).The television show Orangeis the New Blackportrays women obliterated in mass media, as well as thosestereotypically denigrated and demonized. Additionally, the diversityof the show disproportionately represents marginalized women confinedin the “prison industrial complex” (Caputi1131).It is evident that the US government control social, economic, andpolitical problems through policing and imprisonment. The mass mediaportrays those that are racially and economically disadvantaged asdelinquent, criminal, or deviant, especially the poor, people ofcolor, immigrants, and other oppressed communities (Caputi1131).This knowledge creates the need to examine cases of stereotyping inthe television show Orangeis the New Blackwhere most of the women prison inmates are of color. When black womenand Latinas fail to conform to the conventional sexual identity andexpression of gender, they are termed as offenders rather than avictim in need of help.

Thetelevision show is based on stories of incarcerated and raciallysegregated women who use a white character to channel their memoirs.Jenji Kohan, creator of the show, notes that Piper, the whiteblonde-haired woman is used as a Trojan horse to sell the show aboutfascinating tales of Latina and black women (Caputi1132).The primary question arising from this commentary seeks to understandwhy the life stories of these marginalized women are mediated throughwhiteness. Right from the first season, the show tends to focussupporting stereotypical ideologies of a prison nation rather thanaccurately presenting the stories of marginalized women. The whitegirls are stereotyped as “innocent” while those of color arecriminalized as women who defy male control, poor, and uneducatedamong others characters (Caputi1133).Further, Kohan’s explanation signifies white supremacy in thetelevision production, which becomes troubling when the term“criminal” is used to define marginalized women of color(O`Sullivan 402).However, the most offensive part to the women of color occurs inseason four where explicit words such as “apes” to mean blackwomen in prison. These words echo the slavery era when the AfricanAmericans were considered immediate descendants of the primitiveapes. Lastly, the show reveals that white women are not subject topunishment as the legal system works to protect them while itfunctions to criminalize the law-abiding and misrecognized women ofcolor.

Theblack plays and television shows considered in this paper focus howmen and women of color are prejudiced and stereotyped in the massmedia. The most frustrating feature is that in most films, there isno representation of black people as compassionate that is, theright behavior is significantly erased in mass media. Additionally,most of these plays focus on adding “whiteness” to their cast sothey would become ethnically relevant for commercial purposes(Banjo and Fraley 45).Further, most of the characterization in the shows supports whitesupremacy, and the minorities are left voiceless or prejudiced andstereotyped to conform to the traditional racial beliefs. It isevident that most African American stars receive awards andcommendations when they perform in black stereotypical roles but failto receive equal acclamation when they star in docile movies(Everett 131).For instance, Denzel Washington won awards for his stereotypicalroles in the 2001 film TrainingDay,as well as the Flightin 2012. Other similar cases where black performers have gainedrecognition based on racial discussions are numerous in the academyawards. However, this is attributed to the white supremacy and theinvolvement of profit-seeking corporations in the mainstream media.Therefore, most black plays have become a hub for racial stereotypingin the American society.

Theanalysis of contemporary black films and television shows haverevealed that the mass media is inappropriately used to depictnegative black stereotypes. The onset of stereotyping started in the19thcentury in the age of Jim Crow minstrel shows that significantlypresented brutal comic relief of free blacks, as well as slaves. Themastery of minstrels became widespread in American theaters as whiteaudiences flocked to be entertained with black jokes that wereracially denigrating. In the 20thcentury, the racial caricatures became more prominent, and the Coonwas mostly associated with black men, perceived as lazy, incompetent,and subhuman. However, with the decline of minstrel shows, the blackplays and shows took center stage further promoting the blackstereotypes. For instance, the Tyler Perry’s films are based onnegative black stereotypes that degrade the African American men andwomen in various ways. Further, television shows such as Blackish,TheWire,and Orangeis the New Blackall contain significant assumptions of the black culture andlifestyle. All these shows are based on the racial inferiorityconcept of belief that blacks are less intelligent and display higherlevels of animosity. Additionally, the women of color are andpunished by the legal system, while the white women are protectedfrom the law. Lastly, it is evident that these films promote theideologies that blacks are lazy and lack the capacity to think forthemselves and, therefore, they require the whites as masters toguide and create their lifestyles.


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