Sunday, April 6, 2014

BlackFaces…the portrayal & progress of black TV characters

So on Buzzfeed, you can take a plethora of trivial quizzes which tell you which state you should live in, what your career should be, and what TV character you are from popular sitcoms. More often that not, when people are getting their results back from these “Which TV character are you” quizzes, you don’t see a plethora of black characters in your quiz results.  As I think about it…it’s been a while since I’ve related to a black character on television.  I remember the first time I did relate to a black male TV character, and that was Tahj Mowry playing the role of TJ Henderson in Smart Guy. It was finally nice to relate to someone who looked like me (and wasn’t a white cartoon character like Nickelodeon’s Doug or an aardvark like PBS’ Arthur).

Fast forward throughout my adolescent, teenage and adult TV habits…I’ve noticed that I haven’t felt there were many opportunities to relate to characters that look like me. On some levels I’m not upset by this and don’t view it as entirely problematic. It definitely supports the “we’re all the human race” ideals that allow me to connect to different gender, racial, cultural and socioeconomic groups.  Simultaneously, my limited opportunities to relate to a black character show that there is an underrepresentation and narrow/archetype representations of black characters in television.  This in turn limits the opportunities that non-blacks have to connect to a character unlike themselves/ or is black.  I am fully aware that TV is not the only way different races can connect. Through this post I am simply focusing on the lack of opportunities that blacks and non-blacks have to connect to black characters through the lens of television.

With all that said, I’ll continue with some feedback I got from other blacks around this idea. I put it together in a short montage video, which highlights the driving sentiment of this post.

After thinking about the implications and solutions to the problems and progress that were raised from my “research” (lol…) I came up with the following:

Problem:  Confusing Positivity with Relatability
Some writers are confusing “positive” and “relatable”.  Sure there are black women dentists, yes there are black male therapists…but flooding TV viewers with squeaky clean/nearly perfect/unrealistically successful adaptations of these black professionals combined with cliché storylines and weak dialogue often leaves viewers let down and unfulfilled.  Relatable characters are flawed, have various socio-economic backgrounds and occupations, and are complex beings with many endearing character traits.

Solution:  More Black Writers, Producers and Directors
Get more skilled black writers, directors and producers who can tell the range of narratives and experiences of blacks. There are countless names for white TV screenwriters and producers, how come we can only think of Shonda Rhimes when it comes to black TV screenwriters???

Problem:  Typecast Tokens
Black characters on TV often exist in siloes with assigned archetypes.  While it helps to get blacks exposure on the silver screen, it limits and stifles the range of black experiences and opportunities for people to connect to black characters. Also, sometimes the typecast role of tokenism perpetuates stereotypical and damaging perceptions of black people.

Solution: Cast Multiple Blacks on a TV Show
I know it sounds crazy…but there are lots of places in America where there is more than one black person interacting with whites, Asians, and Latinos. I don’t know who got the idea that you should just have one black person, but casting multiple black people on a show normalizes and differentiates blacks’ representations. It increases the opportunities that blacks and non-blacks have to connect to TV characters.

In the interim, I’ll be waiting to get a black TV character result from a Buzzfeed quiz that feels fitting and doesn’t leave me thinking, “Did I get them because I’m black??!!?!”

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Lately I’ve been pleased with the strides that black gay men have made in asserting themselves in arenas that typically leave them out. For this post, I’ll examine 3 gay black men who have been game changers, and highlight the courage and talent they exert to reach their goals.

My alma mater has made headlines more recently with the news that one of its most talented and star football players, Michael Sam, announced that he was gay. He has received an outpour of love and acceptance from people across the nation who admire his courage and embrace him for what he is…a great football player…that just happens to be black and gay. Sam had been inundated with questions about whether or not the NFL is ready for a “gay player” and he graciously reminds people that he is a talented football player with a goal of winning games. Sam’s sexual orientation reveal will not be upstaged by his talent in the hyper-machismo world of high profile college and professional football.  As someone who graduated from MIZZOU, I can attest to the courage that Sam had to muster. I was NEVER public about my sexual orientation in college, and recognized that the unspoken don’t –ask-don’t tell/avoidance technique for blacks with a questionable sexual orientation was the most successful form of navigation. I had a pretty black experience at MIZZOU and I would never risk being shunned from that community by aligning myself with the LGBT organizations on campus. While Sam has hypermasculine qualities about him that perhaps help his acceptance…he still took a huge risk in sharing his gay identity with the world. Kudos Sam.

“Was I ragingly gay back then?” I asked a black Greek fraternity member that was around/was an insider for my pre-membership rituals and routines. “You weren’t. You were comfortable in your skin. You’re not particularly feminine. You belch for sport,” he replied.  Though I often attribute my lack of black Greek fraternal membership to not aligning myself with men at a chapter who could not offer me the type of brotherhood I was looking for, I sometimes wondered if I weren’t gay would I have had a different experience. That anecdote leads me to Brian Stewart. Brian is a bright, talented and accomplished student leader at Morgan State who had aspirations to join Kappa Alpha Psi, and publicly spoke out against the fraternity with legal action when he got word that he was rejected because of his sexual orientation. That took a lot of courage! Though I know a PLETHORA…and let me repeat…PLETHORA (LMAO) of gay black male Greeks (even some from the chapter that I didn’t join), none of them have ever once spoken about the total acceptance of their sexual orientation by all of their line, chapter or at large fraternity brothers. Almost all of them silenced/closeted/denied their sexual orientation during their pledge processes, and in order to function in the organizations they have to selectively disclose their gay identities and readjust their behaviors. I’ve come across a large portion of black gay male Greeks who no longer have strong ties to their fraternities due to the lack of acceptance/support they receive as openly gay men, however that is not the case for all black gay male Greeks. Regardless, homophobia and its cousins “microagressions” and “degrading language” are prevalent notions of black male Greek culture. For Brian to fight back against the chapter that discriminated against him, shows that he knows his self worth and won’t settle for less.  I imagine that the chapter that discriminated against him is kicking themselves while Brian enjoys his White House internship and overseas travel.


“Throw that boy pussy!” Wait…what, did he just say? Those are the chorus/refrain/title lyrics to a new rap song that is getting a lot of attention from an openly gay rapper named Fly Young Red.  Now, before anyone goes clutching their pearls, you have to know that in this day in age, some rap music is raunchy, vulgar and explicit. It’s normally told from a heterosexual and hypermasculine perspective. In essence, no room for faggotry. Then enter Fly Young Red with a legitimate rap bassline track/beat (that could have been easily used for Soulja Boy) talking about his love for the male  derrière in very precise, sometimes clever, and very vulgar language. I’m not here to take a stance or give an opinion about his lyrics, however I am commenting on the bravery and courage he shows in attempting to assert himself into rap music. Anti-gay language is almost a staple of rap music, but Red lifts up his mic and is pressing through the hate with an assured confidence, self-awareness and unapologetic stance for his talent. I’m not sure how substantial this is quite yet, but I have read on several news outlets that he has just been signed by Lil Wayne…we’ll see if that’s true.

Looks like the gays are doing it for themselves these days!

Chicagoland…living, loving and working in a complex city

I love living in Chicago. I have loving family members here, amazing friends, a great job, and so many outlets for excitement, leisure, and cultural enlightenment.  That’s why I was thrilled when I heard that there was a docuseries  on CNN called Chicagoland that would highlight my wonderful city.

As I’ve been watching the show…I’ve experienced a range of intense emotions. Sadness, pride, laughter, disappointment, and perhaps a surreal acceptance that I am in the trenches of one the show’s most pressing issues…Chicago Public Schools education. Yes, I participated in the Chicago Public Schools teacher strike, it actually served as fodder for one of the first posts I did on this blog. Yes I maintained employment during the largest school closings/consolidations in American history.  Yes I teach at a welcoming school (schools that receive students from nearby schools that were closed) that is next to a dangerous and gang-ridden housing project.  Sometimes I get so focused on my daily lessons, grading, paperwork, planning, bulletin boards, behavior problems, and extracurricular activities that I don’t zoom out and recognize that Chicago Public School students are in a crisis.  A crisis of discrepancy is ramped amongst student safety, extracurricular and cultural exposure, teacher student ratio and access to nutritious foods. I was stunned when I learned that CPS was only 9% white, which means that it’s majority black and brown. That means in buildings throughout Chicago most of Chicago’s white kids are receiving a different, dare I even say better educational experience that is not plagued by gun violence, fear and intimidation when walking to and from school, a classroom that does not have 44 first graders, and more exposure to Chicago’s rich cultural enhancements.  And I’d just like to state…I’m not relying on anecdotes of others or a projected narrative that Chicagoland producers are trying to tell. Over the last month a 7th grade student at my school has gotten shot, and on one of the first nice days where students could go outside for recess, that time was ended abruptly because gun shots were fired right outside the corner/fence of my school. I know that is not the case for all CPS schools, which is a good thing, yet it also causes inadequacies in CPS’ ability to provide an equal and quality education for all.
Sprinkled throughout Chicagoland are glimpses of one of my BEST friends from college. She is Mayor Emmanuel’s Press Secretary and I always get so excited when I see her. I am super proud of her and I always text her and comment on her fashion and professional demeanor. I’m sure she and I may have our differences about how Chicago Public Schools business is being handled and I know she finds the Chicagoland education narrative a bit sensationalized.  However one thing that I know we agree on is, “…your zip code should not determine your life outcome. Opportunity and exposure are everything.” That’s actually a direct quote she said over a text message when discussing our views about the show.  I know that we both want the same thing for Chicago’s kids…while we may be going on different and intersecting paths to get the kids there, we are sitting down to create and collaborate on real exposure opportunities for my students. I look forward to the respect that we’ll show each other in trying to understand our different and shared opinions. I look forward to the partnership and work that we’ll do together on behalf of the kids. There won’t be any cameras documenting what we do…but that’s what lets me know that she and I, Chicago city workers, are both on the right side of making this city the amazing place that it is.

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