Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 1: Cornball Brothers

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In case you didn’t know, I am black. This is shocking, I realize. Nevertheless, as a black man, i have grown up realizing just how coded race is in America. Now obviously i’m not saying that African Americans are the only citizens to experience racial pressures; what i’m trying to say that the community’s racial pressures are more identifying. Model minorities (mostly East and South Asians) are coded as “others” by Americans, but also compete on the world stage at such a high level due to economic and cultural wealth that said distinctions are at least ignored, if not applauded. Non-American Caucasians have a few foreign markers, but still share enough phenotypes and history to become regular ole white people after a generation or two.

African-Americans, on the other hand, lack the cultural history to stand on proudly (given that, for all intents and purposes, our culture begins with slavery), have no international capital, and can’t assimilate nearly as well. As such, African American cultural tropes are “hyper-realized” due to a combination of outside and inner influence, to the point where “blackness” for many people is the only thing that makes African Americans valuable. Stereotypes are enforced because they define us and create an identity. American masculinity exacerbates this, since men have to constantly assert value in order to retain their manhood, which means black men have to constantly assert blackness to retain their black manhood. As such, black men make very extreme figures in media, where they have historically vacillated between often contradictory caricatures.

For most of Western history, “masculinity” was based on a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) model. Paragons of masculinity were defined as the ruling class (royalty, landowners, etc), so just not being WASPy in the Western world meant you were inherently “unmanly”. This is seen in visual depictions of the Irish and East Asians, who were often short, unattractive, and slight.

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This was true as well for African American males. A great example of this are the illustrations of the prominent 1800’s print-makers Currier and Ives, which charted the growth of the nation through their pictorials. Part of the American flavor they depicted were the perceived whimsy of African Americans. Several illustrations focused on the fictional “Darktown”, especially a notably recurring series that features the “Hook And Ladder Corps” responsible for fighting fires. And boy are they great at their jobs!

Drawn by “Knig [sic] & Murphy.” Currier & Ives, 1884

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Notice how one member throws water in a person’s face, another dangles a child over the ground, and two use a hammock to catch a LIVE STOVE which most likely caused the fire in the first place. Firefighting is one of the mostly blatantly manly jobs in the world; you go into burning buildings, chop shit with axes, and save women that tacitly consent to sex with you. These guys manage to take all the piss right out of it with their buffoonery,which is kind of the point.

Calling a black dude a man was inherently contradictory at this point in history: they were ‘boys’. As such, any feat they attempted would be bungled in the same way a child would. Their purported physicality reflected this: blacks had the grace and physique of baby calves. They had lanky limbs that assisted in making their odd movements seem even more exaggerated. Rather than having chiseled or at least plausibly defined bodies, they had overly-rounded faces and either gangly or rotund bodies. In short, there wasn’t much that was “masculine” about black depictions at the time. One of the worst examples has to be the infamous Warner Brothers 1943 Merry Melodies cartoon Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs (yes that’s spelled correctly) that has some of the most grotesquely imagined blacks you’ll ever see.

When black men appeared in narrative media, the best they could hope for was being a benign sidekick meant to emphasize the manliness of a white man, which is seen in works such as Will Eisner’s famous 1940’s comic series The Spirit with Ebony White and,to a lesser extent, the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No with Quarrel.

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If archetypal racial caricatures have paragon saints, most would attribute the pathetic black man stereotype to the eponymous Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.Legree

The novel was an anti-slavery narrative that predated the Civil War. Stowe’s method of communicating the sinfulness of slavery was by portraying African Americans as ideal Christians, which was exemplified by Uncle Tom. Tom is so pacifistic and gentle that he actually forgives the men who beat him to death at the novel’s end. Oddly enough, anyone who reads the novel carefully sees that Tom is actually clearly meant to be a POSITIVE character, who stuck to his morals even in death. He was also a dutiful father and servant who inspired characters of both races to better themselves. The character Jim in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is often considered a slightly more dignified iteration of the character, given that despite having Tom-levels of fealty towards Finn, has enough autonomy to run away from his master and call out Finn on his disrespectful nature.

Unfortunately, most imitations of Tom simplified the character by leaving out his saintliness and only focusing on his passivity and subservience. Pop culture osmosis has turned Tom into a pussy who does what ever a white man tells him to do, leading to his very name becoming an epithet for “weak” black men. Despite a century passing, this is still a prevalent trope, even though it’s transformed somewhat. Characters like Tom, Ebony White, and Quarrel are subservient to whites, but still very much members of African American culture (it’s their only real personality trait, after all) as shown by their speech and mannerisms. Modern “Uncle Toms” are often identified as actually mimicking whites to the point of parody, with the assumption that their personalities are affectations created as a form of cultural subservience.

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This trope is played with in The Boondocks with Tom DuBois, whose mistreatment by pretty much everyone portrays him as the prototypical Uncle Tom and also, in the series’ satirical tone, highlights how exaggerated the cultural prejudice is. He’s wealthy, educated, attractive, fit, honest, and even has a hot wife. Yet, he’s constantly being mistreated by his mostly lower-class neighbors for not being ‘black enough’. 

The shift in the stereotype is strange, but one could presume that it’s an evolution of resentment towards the “black elite”. For slaves, the black elite would have been the house slaves, who’s devotion to white masters has landed them the indentured servant equivalent to a CEO position (just look at the amount of power Steven wields in 2013’s Django Unchained). As blacks have been afforded more opportunities, some can now achieve the success of their once masters, which invariably includes adopting some of their culture as well (pretty much becoming black yuppies).These African Americans become figures of resentment for two primary reasons: 1. they invalidate the culture as a whole by connotating success with whiteness or at least rejection of blackness 2. they often have more money, education, and overall acceptance than their less fortunate kin.  The paragon saint of this version of Uncle Tom is a character who’s been the bane of un-black black men for years: Carlton Banks.

Carlton Fucking Banks

Carlton Fucking Banks

For the two people who have never seen the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it focuses on a street wise youth from West Philadelphia – born and raised – who moves in with the posh Banks family (I see what they did there). People in the screenwriting biz would call this a “fish out of water” plot: Hilarity ensues because Will is out of place in high society. In order to hammer this conflict home, a comedic foil was needed: Carlton Banks. Carlton was the mirror opposite of Will: he was studious whereas Will was lackadaisical, he was serious whereas Will was flippant and so on. Carlton also served as enough of a contrast to sell us on Will’s “street-ness”. Will Smith was one of the whitest black men in media, narrowly being beaten by Al Roker. His acting credits pre-Fresh Prince consisted of after-school specials. Despite all that, he’s still “streeter” (i.e. blacker) than Carlton, who’s nothing more than a preppy straw-man made for derision. As the show matured, most of the characters’ became more nuanced and realistic, especially Will, and yet Carlton got even goofier, as if to remind us that Will is still supposed to be a cool black guy. This becomes even more evident once Will’s friends Jazz and…that other black guy…become recurring characters, establishing an official in-universe “black culture” for Carlton to be rejected by. Will in one episode directs a poetic jab towards Carlton that sums up his role quite well: “Roses are red / violets are blue / we’re all black / Carlton, what are you?

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Not only is Carlton coded as un-black, his un-blackness marks him as inadequate in every conceivable way. He loses out in every endeavor that black men purportedly succeed in ( sports, humor, sex ). He’s also consistently insufficient in non-stereotypical things as well: Will ends up being a better student than him and his own father tells Will in secret that he feels he has more potential than all of his children, including Carlton. Carlton fails so much because he isn’t street smart, he doesn’t have “swagger”, he overall just isn’t cool (i.e. black) enough. One could say that this is more a function of him being the designated nerd than his blackness, but I would contend that he’s portrayed too negatively for that to fly. Urkel was a laughing stock, but was also the most moral character in Family Matters. Same could be said of Screech from Saved By The Bell. Carlton’s closest analogue, Alex P. Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox) from the 90’s sitcom Family Ties, was also a conservative, short, douchey nerd, but was at least treated as a legitimate person with who regularly displayed strengths. Carlton is not only unmanly and unsuccessful, he’s a snob who’s supposed to suffer misfortune.

This character could be viewed as a deconstruction of the cultural promise that The Cosby Show asserted: while black men like Philip Banks can grow up in black culture, become successful, and reconcile that success with their upbringing, their successors will be detached from said upbringing and be “weaker” because of it (like Carlton). In contrast, Will is a wish fulfillment character who has blackness AND success, further diminishing the already diminutive Carlton. And the audience, whether they realize it or not, love seeing the poor guy diminished. Carlton Banks embodies a very real prejudice in the African American community (and to a lesser extent, America in general) against black men who don’t practice traditional black masculinity.

EDIT: Now to be fair, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air at least had enough self-awareness in later seasons to acknowledge the unfortunate implications of Carlton in this episode

Go here for the other parts of the series: “Black Supermen” and “Noble Savages”

For more posts on Afro Americans in media:

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

Supplementary Viewing/Reading:

Basketball Website “Grantland”‘s article “The Rise of The NBA Nerd” by Wesley Morris: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7346656/the-rise-nba-nerd

For those who don’t get the “cornball” reference, here’s former ESPN commentator Rob Parker’s infamous debate which led to his firing:

A 1930’s animated adaptation (and i use “adaptation” loosely) of Uncle Tom’s Cabin