Thursday, October 7, 2010

TV Blacks

New Roomy made a discovery recently. Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton from the Fresh Prince) is not African-American, though he played one, an "oreo"* to be exact, for so long on tv. His family is from Trinidad and Tobago, and he was born and raised in Washington Heights (a largely latino, specifically Dominican neighborhood in NYC). She made another discovery this morning. Jordan on the Bernie Mac Show has the last name Suarez! (Jeremy Suarez from California.) I'll throw in another, just for kicks. Soledad O'Brien who represents for black people on CNN hosting all of their Blacks in America specials is half-Cuban and half-Australian.


If you were to discern the racial and ethnic demographics of the United States from the content of television programming you would probably think that all black Americans are African-Americans (the descendants of slaves, not new generations of immigrant African families). Contrary to the actual ethnicities of the black actors, television would have us to believe that we are a monolith with the same slave story - and while this is the truth for a lot of black Americans, it is not true for all.

It wasn't until I came to college, and more specifically college in New York, where I met black people who not only identified their nationality as something other than American (not necessarily excluding American though), but celebrated it! I didn't know that Dominican people could be dark skinned and got perms. I never saw anybody rep hard for Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, or Jamaica until I went to the Labor Day West Indian parade for the first time. Hell, I didn't even know what the term "West Indian" meant. Ever heard of Curasol? Yeah, me neither. But I met dutch speaking black folks from there too. I remember talking on the phone to my mother one day my first year at Barnard. I was telling her how all the food staff in the dining hall were black but they had an accent that I couldn't identify. They were not "regular black."

Granted New York is somewhat of an anomaly. I always say it's more of an international city than an American city. Think of places like London, Accra, Rio de Janeiro - cities certainly representative of their country and culture, but also representative of the tourists and immigrants. Regardless, this is the place where I discovered that all black people are not the same. It's certainly not that this diversity of black people doesn't exist in Baltimore, but the culture of the city is severely segregated and in general people choose a side: black or white. Even latinos or asians who certainly are their own groups with plenty of diversity within them would often be lumped into a category - latinos black, asians white.

I remember in 7th grade there was a school project where we had to trace our family history back to its roots and bring in a food dish representative of that culture. Now thankfully, my family has very detailed records of where we came from. We know we were on the Mosley plantation in Louisiana, and we could trace to what Caribbean island we were on before that - Barbados. Before that, was well, somewhere in West Africa. Because all of my white counterparts could say they came from Poland or Greece or England or Russia or wherever, I wanted a different country too. Even my best black girl friend at the time could bring in a dish from her dad's home country, Trinidad. And so, my parents and I researched what foods are popular in Barbados. We chose fried sweet plantains, found a recipe and went on a hunt for the "big bananas" at our local supermarket. I'd never eaten plantains before a day in my life and it certainly wasn't representative of my heritage. Now that I look back on it, as stereotypical as it might have been, I should have brought in fried chicken. I'm sure it's what we had for dinner the night before, what my dad would have preferred to prepare, and it's probably what Mosley's of the slave era were eating too.

My story is the fried chicken story and I should have represented it then. But it's not the only black story, though television might have you believe so. Think about it. The black culture largely represented on tv is African-American culture. The Cosby Show. A Different World. Living Single. Fresh Prince. Martin. Girlfriends. The Bernie Mac Show. Everybody Hates Chris. Everything Tyler Perry. Even the satirical The Boondocks. We could go on with this list for quite some time.While it's a diverse in terms of situations and characters in terms of age groups, lifestyles/economic status, there is little deviation in terms culture and heritage.

If America is the melting pot, why don't we recognize and celebrate our diverse and divergent heritages within the black community? We are united by our skin color. That will never change. Before anyone ever has a conversation with me what they see is my skin. If I'm standing next to a Dominican, who's standing next to a Haitian, who's standing next to a Cuban we will all be treated the same because our brown skin looks the same, regardless of the specificity of our ethnicity.


But I don't blame other people for this monolithic view of black America. I blame us. Now that black people hold positions of power and decision-making in the media and entertainment industries, why don't we represent ourselves in more diverse ways? Why don't we know or see how different our individual stories are? Can we produce images of ourselves, and create programming that reflects these individual heritages?; that highlights our differences, and then reveals the rich culture created when all different types of blacks are brought together in America?

Thoughts?

*For those who don't know, an "oreo" is what some black people call other black people when they "act white." They are black on the outside, white on the inside. 

1 comment:

Clerbie said...

I just read this blog entry-my personal belief is that as far as the media is concerned, they are quite comfortable with going along with the racial construct that doesn't acknowledge the diversity amongst black and brown people, and simply... want us seen in a stereotypical way. On the flip side of things though, I personally have met many black Americans who don't want to acknowledge the diversity amongst us either (i.e. the argument I once had with a sista from Detroit who was angry with me for identifying myself as Haitian-American instead of African American b/c to her that meant I was denying my blackness). Also, there are plenty of artists in all genres that showcase the ethnic diversity among black people in their work (the annual African Diasporic Film Festival is a perfect example), but they won't get the mainstream support that shows like "The Game" or the likes of Beyonce would, especially in this day and age, b/c again, the media is not interested in enlightening the general public with such diverse representations. (Just to clarify-when I say stereotypical images, I'm including the often-limiting ways black Americans are depicted, in addition to the ignorance shown towards different ethnic groups...)

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