There have been leading African American men who have achieved fame and prominence — Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, Laz Alonso, Harry Belafonte, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Hart have all taken to the stage and created an image of African American men that provided the inspiration for so many men to follow. And so many young actors in Hollywood distinguish themselves in such a manner that it begs the question, “Why wouldn’t you always put your best face forward? Why would we want to sag and look bad on a regular basis?” Hoodlum and thug personifications that disgrace the race cannot be so easily explained away.
Those images captured on the screen are permanent manipulations on film, that some think are distinctive of the culture, and others see as comic relief. But now, after nearly 150 years of freedom, we seem to be slaves to silly ideas and buffoonery in epic proportions. These conflicted depictions of the black male are also a statement about the black female. The paradox can be seen in how frequently we refer to each other with disdain. We went from “preacher,” “doctor,” “cousin” and “brother” to “dog” “b—-,” “whore” and “homey.” The names that we call each other are a reflection of the esteem — or lack of it — in which we hold each other.
What would we have thought of Sidney Poitier had he not uttered that classic line “They call me Mr. Tibbs”? What if he had allowed those who mocked and demeaned him to call him “boy” or anything other than his proper and given name? Would it have made the same impact as watching this proud man working to distinguish himself in a racist environment and commanding the respect of those who addressed him?
The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson who advocated not for Black History Week, but for Black History Month, has seen an entire generation take the distinction away from their culture and through negligence, erase the recognition of our accomplishments. Instead of pushing for a 365-degree celebration of culture as McDonald’s does, these misguided members of our race minimize its importance as they sit in ivory towers and corporate boardrooms, and say there is no longer a need to celebrate black achievement. What is it that we do not understand about creating a culture that we can be proud of versus embracing mediocrity? If we are thought of in derogatory terms, then our contribution will stop at entertainer. It will not be the businessman.
It is true that knowledge has its place, but with dwindling numbers of high school and college graduates, we will not be referring to each other as “doctor,” — literally or colloquially. We call a Ph.D, a player hater’s degree. We say that we are part of a brand, and we don’t call ourselves geniuses or intellects or inventors. Instead, we tattoo ourselves and call it expression. Whether it’s a snow cone or a Mickey Mouse image, we are attempting to express, what? That we are pieces of meat to be sold in the marketplace?
I asked one young man who had — from the tips of his fingers up to the top of his neck — inked himself extensively. I asked how much it had cost him, and he replied “Over 5,000 dollars.” I asked if he had that much saved in the bank and he told me he didn’t. And to my chagrin and disappointment he did not understand the fact that if he could spend that type of money on his skin, he should have at least that much in the bank.
We look for those things that give us value long term, but we must begin to distinguish what that is with the images that we create. We must not berate and degrade our women, and we must not behave like buffoons for a few dollars. We must re-eductate ourselves to be and look like more distinguished and intelligent people.
Forge better communication among your peers to regulate and challenge the images that producers and media companies bandy about so readily. Question the reality shows depicting these less than flattering images of ourselves. Hats off to the Harry Belafontes, the Laz Alonsos, the T.D. Jakes and the Quincy Joneses of our world. We must engage in stronger conversations to fortify ourselves as a community. The images that we project will forever be there, so let them be pictures of distinction, rather than images of degradation.