Time to change depictions of the black body
- Published: 12 June 2010
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What you see is what you get. Or is it? When it comes to the black body, especially the black male body, more often than not the images we’ve been force-fed have no bearing at all on reality. The danger in this is the high level of influence these images have on our perceptions, expectations, and prejudices: people are inclined to believe that what they see is what exists, writes Hill Harper.
Take a moment to think about it—the black male body, that is.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Probably not the most flattering or politically correct image, huh? You’re not alone. A lot of us stumble over stereotypes before our mind’s eye finally settles on an image that’s more wholesome, more human.
That’s the damage that decades, if not centuries, of very specific and very destructive images—pimps, murderers, rapists, thieves, thugs, hustlers, junkies, drunks—will do. No matter how much you deny or dismiss it all, eventually it does seep in.
Thankfully, times are changing. This year may very well represent the emergence of multiple alternative images of the black male body.
The election of the forty-fourth president, Barack Obama, and the formation of his new administration, has everything to do with it. It completely flips the script.
Quiet as it’s been kept, black men who are intelligent and hardworking and family oriented
and educated and successful have always existed; they just weren’t visible. Mainstream media kept them skillfully hidden in the shadows of their more menacing counterparts.
So, what is the real significance of being able to see them now? What impact will that have on our day-to-day lives, on the way we think about and treat each other, or on the way we think about and treat ourselves?
I’m not sure there are any quick and proven answers to those questions; at least, not yet. Even so, it’s fascinating to discuss and take note of the many ways in which the black male image is currently being redefined not only in this society, but all over the world.
This, for me and for most black men, I’m sure, is good news.
The onslaught of negative images of the black male form has always been troubling to me. The fact that I’m an actor and I work in an industry that manufactures—and, often enough, manipulates—images probably makes me a bit more observant, more sensitive about it.
But the truth is that long before I decided to become an actor, while I was still in my youth, I became acutely aware of the black male body, of the images around me and the messages they were sending to me about my supposed possibilities—and limitations.
My older brother and I were raised by my divorced father, so there were three males in our home. My father, a psychiatrist and an entrepreneur, was a hard worker, a driven man who wanted nothing but the best for his family. He took a lot of risks with different careers and different projects in an effort to be what he considered successful.
A number of those ventures worked, but a fair number also turned out to be complete disasters, economic failures. My father’s was the first and most powerful image of the black male body that I had in my life.
Success was important to my father; it was something he desperately wanted. Everything about him and his actions was geared toward attaining and announcing his definition of success—even his wardrobe.
Or maybe I should say especially his wardrobe. He was somewhat of a flashy guy. He wore a good amount of jewelry and drove flashy cars. He wore a tie everyday but he had jewelry underneath, and when he had his shirt open you could see lots of chains.
My father was always impeccably dressed in the finest Italian suits; the finest everything, actually. He wanted the best of the best. To him, there was no such thing as flying under the radar. He wanted people to know he was there; he was present; he was successful.
Whether you want to say that it was a point of pride, of not being afraid to let people know you’ve got it, or that it was borne out of insecurity, of needing people to think you’ve got it, the image of the black male body that was introduced to me by my father is one that I’ve encountered often in my life.
In fact, it’s the entire focal point of the bling culture. And yes, part of it does have to do with our own insecurities, with our need to let people know that we have money, that we are successful.
With women it’s all about big Gucci and Louis Vuitton purses, Jimmy Choo shoes and other things that are outward symbols of privilege, wealth and success. That’s what the big chains are all about, getting it—something to announce our presence, our success.
We created big chains that we laced with diamonds as a way of basically saying, “I’ve got money.” And we all know the importance of money in this society.
If you’re a brother with jeans and a tee-shirt, that doesn’t say anything; if you’re a brother with jeans and a tee-shirt and a $500,000 diamond necklace, now that says something. Especially if the person it’s speaking to is a member of the opposite sex.
So it’s not just about insecurity; it’s also about attraction, being a peacock and fanning your feathers, something that’s customarily done by the male members of various species in the animal kingdom.
I was blessed to learn very early in my development that there are many different definitions of success and many different ways to negotiate the outward expression of one’s success. That’s because I had various images of the black manhood available to me.
In addition to my father, I had my two grandfathers. My paternal grandfather was a physician; my maternal grandfather was a pharmacist. They were committed, educated, thoughtful, giving and hardworking. They were nothing at all like the black men I saw on television and at the movies.
I used to wonder who those men I saw on the television and at the movies were. They were so beyond anything I’d ever encountered.
And I used to also wonder why people like my father and my grandfathers were so rarely portrayed. What was it about them that made them unworthy of being shown on television or plastered across a cinema screen?
Because my family was steeped in the concept of community, my world was populated by more than just my brother and those three men, so it wasn’t all that hard for me to figure out that they were not anomalies. What I didn’t understand was why the public was being made to believe they were.
When I embarked on a career as an actor, I decided to make a clear distinction about what types of projects I would and would not participate in. Because I had been studying and attempting to dissect media images of black men my whole life, I had come to the realization that it was less about the individual role than it was about the entire project.
Not every role can be that of a good guy; that’s just not how the world is. Actors should be able to play a whole host of characters. The important consideration for me has always been the message of the overall project.
Is it celebrating a degenerative image of the black male? Or of black folks in general? If so, I don’t want to play a part in it. And I fully understand that I might be much wealthier and much more famous than I am now if I had accepted a number of the roles that have been offered to me over my career.
I don’t blame the people who ultimately took those roles because everybody makes decision about what they do for a number of personal reasons—which they don’t need to justify or defend to me. I only know that it’s not for me.
Let me give you an example of what I mean about the role versus the overall project.
I chose to do In Too Deep, a Miramax film with LL Cool J, Omar Epps and Nia Long. The role I was offered was that of a drug dealer; I think everyone would agree that it’s not an especially positive portrayal of a black man. But it’s a character, and I enjoy playing characters, which is why I became an actor.
But before I say yes to any role, I look past the character and ask, what is this film saying to its viewers? Is it applauding a negative act? Is it promoting the disrespect and abuse of women? Is it implying that there is no down side, no price to pay wrongdoing? Is it broadcasting that: it’s fine to deal drugs and cripple your entire community; call the women in your life Bs and Hs; father children you have no intention of supporting, emotionally or financially?
I can tell you right now that if In Too Deep had ended with me and LL Cool J in a hot tub with a bunch of beautiful girls, our glasses filled with Cristal, toasting and drinking to the pleasures and benefits of dealing drugs, I would not have said yes to the role.
It ends with the investigative officer (Omar Epps) catching us and putting us in prison. After that he rides off into the sunset with the girl (Nia Long).
It’s a very simplistic message. You’d be surprised how quickly and how deeply images and messages, no matter how complex or simplistic, sink in and stay in. That’s why this emergence of alternative images in our community is so exciting.
Not long ago, but definitely before the pendulum started to swing the other way, a friend of mine pitched a story to a major production company. It was a story with a central character whom he’d fashioned after his mother—a strong, beautiful black woman, a lawyer and activist.
The executive told my friend that he thought the character was unrealistic, that there was no way she could be a great woman, and strong and smart and professional—and a mother.
Since there had been many such white women portrayed on television, it was clear that race was also a factor. It was, in the executive’s mind, unrealistic for a black woman!
With Michelle Obama’s image and accomplishments being displayed and spoken about nearly every day, the entire world—including that executive—is now aware that black women can be dynamic, educated, professional, maternal and beautiful all at the same time.
This seems like such matter-of-fact knowledge, like something that should never have been an issue of concern or question in the first place. But positive and realistic representations of black people are so rare that when Barack Obama was elected as president there were articles written in major newspapers about how cartoonists did not know how to draw our new president in a way that was non-offensive.
From the looks of the cartoons that I’ve read, they’re still trying to figure it out; but thankfully, they’ll have plenty of time to do that.
America will also have the time and opportunity to become accustomed to a wide array of true-to-life images of black women and men, images that will hopefully undo some of the damage that past negative images of the black body have done.
Whereas once upon a time black men were constantly being depicted as criminals, now the prevailing image of a black man interacting with the justice system will be that of US Attorney General Eric Holder, an African American man whose duty it is to enforce the laws of the land.
If the images around us are reflections of what we can be and are expected to be, then this era of change can’t happen fast enough.
Young African American men are suffering. The graduation rate of African American males in the public school system is well below 50 percent. Too often the public faces of black male success have been relegated to the entertainment and sports industries.
It’s amazing that African American boys now know that they can actually grow up to become president. But that’s a pretty lofty goal for most people, black or white, so it’s important that the images our society consumes show the black body in all its forms of success and health and productivity.
It’s important that they provide young black men with something to which they can aspire—and achieve.
I’d love to see more images of people like James Stewart, who is the top Supercross rider; and Lewis Hamilton, the first black person to win the Formula One Racecar Driving Championship; and Richard D. Parsons, former CEO and former Chairman of the
Board of AOL Time Warner; and Kenneth Chenault, the CEO of American Express; and Marcus Samuelson, one of the best and most renowned chefs in the country.
The list could go on and on and on. And it should.
Maybe if more of these images of excellence were available to us, then we could say to young black children, to white Americans, to the rest of the world that when it comes to African Americans, what you see on the screen, on the television, in magazines, and in newspapers really is what you get.
Now wouldn’t that be something?
This is an excerpt 'What You See is What You Get' from The Black Body, edited by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah. Published by Seven Stories Press. Copyright (c) by Hill Harper. Reproduced here with permission of the author and publisher.
Hill Harper is an American author, film, stage and TV actor who plays the part of Dr Sheldon Hawkes on CSI: NY.