This is a very thoughtful essay by Kathleen McGhee Anderson, a noted author, playwright, screenwriter and television producer who has worked in the movie and television business for more than three decades. Most recently, Kathleen was Executive Producer of the TV series “Lincoln Heights”. The essay talks about how images in the media shape society’s views towards Blacks and the images Black children have as models of behavior. The article recalls the demeaning images of Blacks that historically dominated the media and the turning point when The Bill Cosby Show portrayed on prime time television an upper middle class family who happened to be Black, culturally aware and well educated. The article suggests the current generation of young Blacks takes for granted the positive imagery that their parents and grandparents fought so hard to get and does not appreciate how the celebration of “gangsta” culture could affect society’s expectations for them. Let us know your thoughts on this essay and what we as parents can do to help our children understand the importance of maintaining and protecting positive images of ourselves in the media.”
Not too long ago, a brilliant American artist, Varnette Honeywood, died in Los Angeles, and with her passing came the celebration of a woman who created a bolder, more colorful canvas of African Americans than had ever been embraced by popular culture before. The images that Honeywood painted gained mass recognition when Bill Cosby decorated the walls of his TV house with her work. At the height of “The Cosby Show,” over 30 million viewers each week saw her paintings, and although the focus of the series was on the characters, not her artwork, Varnette’s popularity soared. American audiences gained a new perspective of African American life watching the middle class Huxtables portray a proud, well-educated African American family. They also got a double dose of positive imagery with Varnette’s characters, beautiful African American women of every size and hue. Despite the fact that her paintings never cracked a joke or waxed eloquent, they still managed to speak volumes, for the power of film images operates visually, imprinting itself on our minds whether words are spoken or not, (a sensory phenomena known as persistence of vision.) This concept of the after effect of images has long fueled the efforts of African American leaders and thinkers since the advent of television, and prior, to insure that our representation helps us maintain, survive and progress as a people.
For the Facebook/i-Pod/online generation, whose first glimpse of “The Cosby Show” has been on syndicated TV re-runs, these kinds of positive images are the norm, as unspectacular as the fact that the sky is blue and grass is green. For them, it has always been this way. It’s no surprise then that the value of positive black images is not regarded with the same importance by this new generation as compared to those of us born when the medium of TV itself had no color. TV fare like the “I Love New York,” reality series and sit coms with stereotypically predictable characters are favorites of my nineteen-year-old niece, who had never heard of Varnette Honeywood before she died. I explained to her that Varnette’s art was groundbreaking at a time when a single black face on TV, be it in a commercial, or an appearance on a single episode of a television series, was a cause for major celebration. The boost in our self-esteem and the acknowledgement for millions of Americans that we existed and mattered was succor for the soul and encouragement for writers and artists to keep up the fight for inclusion and betterment.
What I deem offensive and degrading in current images of black people on TV doesn’t seem to register with a generation who don’t share the same history, knowledge or frame of reference. Without context, images are perceived at face value. Without the understanding of the concept of the persistent image, our preoccupation seems unfounded. Perhaps if my niece considered the possibility of being mentally tattooed by her favorite scantily dressed, foul mouthed, bug-eyed heroines, she might switch the station.
If not, I’ll remind her that in the era before TV, movies, even radio, (in the years following our emancipation,) the popular forms of entertainment were minstrel and vaudeville shows in which white performers blackened their faces and portrayed newly freed blacks as imbeciles, clowns and fools. Those degrading images carried over for decades into the new mediums of entertainment when they continued to reinforce the lowest common denominator of our place in American culture; the thug, the fool, the overly sexualized female, the befuddled, countrified simpleton, and the guffawing good-natured big mouth. It has only been through great political and cultural struggle that we have progressed to the point that a show like “The Cosby Show” could break through, delivering images of dignity and pride, and hopefully eroding the negative depictions that characterized us in the past.
Understanding how we got here is the only way my niece’s generation will grasp why images of us are so important. A bit of film history is illuminating. Early audiences ran stampeding from a movie theater in the 1890’s when the moving image of a locomotive rolled into the station, seemingly directly at the audience. Today, although we know that moving objects on screen aren’t real, the gun being fired won’t kill us, and the black thug is fiction, they still impact us, make lasting impressions and remaining persistent images long after the television has been turned off.
Perhaps knowing the personal struggles of African American actors will help my niece understand how important images are to her sense of self esteem. I doubt she knows the story of Hattie McDaniel. An African American actress who struggled for years to play roles other than maids; refusing to speak the word nigger in the 1939 classic movie “Gone with the Wind” for which she earned the first Oscar ever given to a person of color. Or Paul Robeson, the African American political activist, singer and actor, the first to perform Shakespeare on Broadway, becoming a major star of both stage and screen during the segregated era of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s; refusing to play roles without dignity, paving the way for respected, celebrated stars like Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington. I’ll tell her that long before Hollywood made Varnette’s work famous she would set her freshly painted canvases in front of her Spelman college dormitory to dry, glorious images of larger-than-life African American women. Passing by, her fellow students would marvel at images of black women never before seen on such scale. Varnette’s inner pride poured onto the canvas. Her images filled us, motivated us, and made us feel good about ourselves— important, powerful, with the ability to achieve anything. I’ll ask her the question, is that how you feel about yourself today?