Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Does the work you do represent you?

We've all seen the commercials. The smiling young black faces rapping and singing R&B about... 

And it seems that every marketing campaign geared toward black people ever since they introduced those commercials has followed suit.

On twitter a couple of friends recently noted the trend:

#imtiredof these blck ppl singing and rapping on McDonald's commercials
The Census rap song? How come everytime they need to explain something important to black folk they put it in a rap song? #iblamemcdonalds
The first thing I think when I see these commercials is why are these black people in this when all they are doing is selling obesity and continued stereotypes to their own people? The answer is simple though: a check.

Since living with a working actor I am much more aware of what that means, and sometimes it means taking the next job because that's how you are going to pay the rent and eat. The Roomie though, has been fortunate the past few gigs he's had. Most recently he had the opportunity to play the lead in the controversial play Neighbors at The Public. After seeing the heady and heavy caricature of race in America, I told him point blank, "I think you are doing important work."

But let's take the play itself as a case study for exactly what I'm investigating here. There's a moment near the end of the show where Jim Crow Jr. (played by The Roomie), who is a part of a family of minstrel performers needs to be convinced to join the minstrel show. For reasons that aren't entirely made clear, Jim Crow Jr. is adverse to the idea of participating in the coonery and family members Mammy, Sambo, and Topsy take turns convincing him that it's all a show for the white folks who "luv it when we be's lak..." What follows is a litany of performed black stereotypes such as shouting "Hallelujah" in church; complaining about The Man; shaking booties; black women sucking teeth and rolling necks; shufflin', shuckin' and jivin'; mispronouncing words; feeling the blues; voguing and pumping etc. Mammy ends the litany by saying to Jim "You'll be fine baby. It's just a show."

This is undoubtedly my favorite scene in the play because it gets at the very heart of what this thing called blackness in America is: a show. Every identifying aspect of blackness (as listed above and beyond) is simultaneously what gives this country its unique character and culture in comparison to the rest of the world, in addition to being the site for mockery, caricature and performance. Our very identity is reduced to nothing but spectacle, entertainment, amusement - a rendering of sorts for someone else's consumption and pleasure.

And why do we participate? Because it's our job. It's how we get paid. We become minstrel acts performing ourselves in a way which may or may not be true, in order to feed ourselves. And it's okay, because it's just a show.

But what does that do to our psyche? How do we separate our real black selves from our performed black selves? Can we? Most importantly, should we (particularly professional performers) be held responsible for the work we do especially when we are just trying to pay the rent?

Speak on it.

1 comment:

Stan said...

When was the last time u watched "Bamboozled?"It was the first thing I thought about after reading this post. Bottom line, u do have to eat and pay the rent. U're doing what you want to do, sing, act and dance, even if it is selling a McD's burger, that's not your problem. Be damn glad that U got that gig because 9 out of 10, there were a bunch of folk who didn't get that gig. We live in America, and in America U do whatever U have to do until U can do better. Just continue to strive for Better! This is the reality of the business, take it or leave it. Luther Vandross and Patti Austin made a damn good living singing McD's jingles, and laughed all the way to the bank, Believe it!


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