"Racial authenticity is typically understood to be the idea that individuals have some moral or political imperative to behave in conformation with some racial ideal or standard. This dominant view of authenticity is unquestionably essentialist. If there are racial essences, then racial authenticity demands that one behave in conformity with their particular racial essence. Racial inauthenticity, in this view, is the intentional or unintentional failure to behave in conformity with that racial essence. Thus, there are "real" blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, and so on, and then there are Uncle Toms, sell-outs, and race-traitors" (Monahan, 38-39).
In every society people are stereotyped into groups based on specific characteristics such as the color of their skin, their nationality, or their religion, to name a few. These stereotypes are based around a central root of racism, classism, or whichever other -ism is applicable in that particular instance. In the United States, racial stereotypes play a powerful role in how each citizen understands their neighbors, particularly those stereotypes surrounding the African American person. Such stereotypes include, but certainly are not limited to, ageless titles like Uncle Tom, Sambo, Mammy, Brute, and Pickaninny. These images of African Americans are not, regardless of their prominence in television, movies, and culture in general, representative of the whole group. And, the misconception of the opposite is a driving factor of African American inequality in the United States today.
To best understand the reason behind the existence of these stereotypes one must first delve into the atmosphere of blatant racism that circulated around the United States prior to and specifically directly after the end of the Civil War. Though the Civil War marked the end of slavery for African American's in the United States1 , it did not signal the end of racism. In fact, it signaled the proliferation of racism in America. Jim Crow laws, Poll Taxes, and literacy tests were the devices for governmental regulation of a freed people. Often crimes against African Americans went undocumented and uninvestigated. Whereas, an accusal against the very same person would be nearly guaranteed to carry charges.
"For four hundred years, whites have engaged in various shenanigans and, when apprehended, have conveniently scapegoated Black men. They are empowered to exploit racial prejudices and racial stereotypes. Since the testimony of a Black male is not worth a plug nickel, a conviction is guaranteed.
Glaring examples go back four hundred years. Nearly seventy-five years ago, two white female hobos cried rape when the local sheriff stopped a train near Scottsboro, AL, and found them in the company of nine Black boys. Eight Blacks were sentenced to death after a kangaroo trial with intentionally ineffective assistance of counsel. Although innocent, Alabama destroyed their lives. About sixty years later, five Harlem youths would be sent to prison despite a lack of a complaining witness and the presence of DNA evidence exonerating them of raping a white female jogger in the Central Park Jogger case" (Maddox, Jr.).
Under this atmosphere of double-standards and blatant racism. Membership in organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan exploded in the 1920's to nearly 5 million members nationwide, some fifteen percent of the eligible voting population2, even after they had seen a decline in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. And, as desegregationists and civil rightists began to win victories in the name of African American equality, the aforementioned stereotypes reappeared themselves in the mainstream media as a means to undermine the current progressive trends.
The mood in America in the 1920's-30's brought timeless iconic, and blatantly racist figures like Sambo the happy-go-lucky, docile blackfaced man to the movies and later to television. He was viewed as irresponsible, carefree, and many times childlike. This stereotype's American proliferation stems from an English story “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman published in London in 18993. It was a children's story of a young Indian boy and his adventure escaping a man eating tiger. Although the story itself was merely a work of children's fiction, segregationists in the United States latched onto the description of the boy, his dark black skin, large lips, wild hair, and enormous appetite. Sambo was prevalent in cartoons up through the mid-1960's as a lazy, watermelon eating, unkempt savage. In fact, to this day, Sambo has found a spot in Japanese pop culture, through popular Japanese invasion characters such as Pokemon's “Jynx” and Dragonball Z's “Mr. Popo”. Additionally, the Moja Troop on Sony Playstation Portable's video game Loco Roco personifies this stereotype4.
Next, to be called an “Uncle Tom” or a “house nigger5” was to be called subservient to White America. To “tom” is to be a traitor to one's African ancestry and the plight of their ancestors. The title of course is reminiscent of the character Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin and was proliferated ever since, not only in White American but in African American America as well.
The female equivalent of this was the “Aunt Jemima,” that is pertaining to the warm, matronly black woman on the box of pancake mix whose goal in life was to server her White master (or later, employer). She is always seen as a heavy woman with a round face. She is nearly always dark black and always conveys a warm demeanor. Stereotypically, “Aunt Jemima's” were preferred as house slaves because their unattractive physique would not tempt husbands into infidelity. She was also commonly known as “Beulah” after a 1950's television show of the same name. Additionally, both the Sambo and the Aunt Jemima were staple characters in the films of the early 20th century.
Other like euphemisms include “Oreo” and “Coconut,” which both mean the same thing as Aunt Jemima and Sambo (that is black on the outside, white on the inside). Although, such a title was not only given to African Americans who betrayed their roots. Less commonly known are “Uncle Tomahawk” for Native Americans who conform to White standards and “Tío/Tía Taco” (that is Uncle or Aunt Taco) for Mexicans who have forsaken their roots for a whitewashed American life.
The most important thing about Sambo and Aunt Jemima however is not clearly visible upon casual introspection. However, if one looks carefully they can see that both stand as a justification for the resegregation and re-enslavement of African Americans. They were happy to work for White man, therefore they would rather be slaves. This is perhaps the most blatant of all the harms that these stereotypes tried to convey.
Of all the stereotypes created for African Americans at this time, the most prevalent today remains the Black Brute or Brute Savage. These men were vicious, violent, drunken, sexually insatiable, unbalanced creatures. As their name implies, they were strong muscular African American men who were mentally unstable. This stereotype was implicated by White men as a warning for White women to stay away from African American men. They were “dangerous” and wanted nothing more than to take advantage of a pure White woman, who was the epitome of attractiveness. The Brute was the segregationist's reasoning against interracial marriage and more generally desegregation as a whole.
And the last, albeit more minor group, to be described are the Pickaninnies. They were the children of Brutes and were generally just as unkempt and wild as their fathers. This stereotype was created as a means to show that African American children were savage and thereby villianizing them and their unfit parents. Pickaninnies were popular cartoon characters during the early to mid twentieth century.
Sambo, Uncle Tom, Mammy, Brute, and Pickaninny, these were all stereotypes for African Americans between the 1860's and the 1950's. For ninety-some years these ideas held dominance over the African American discourse. What made them so appealing, so enduring? Why did they exist at all? And, what affect did they have on African America society?
Spike Lee tried to answer these questions in his 2000 movie Bamboozled. It was a 135 minute immersion into the world of race politics, social atmosphere, and minstrel historiography. The main character, Pierre Delacroix, is charged with producing an inventive new African American orientated television show for the network that he works for. He jokingly came up with the idea of a minstrel-esque show featuring many of the aforementioned African American stereotypes. In short, the show became a great success, much to the surprise of Delacroix. But, African American groups protested the blatantly racist plot of the minstrel show and, at the end of the movie, the man that Delacroix hired to play the main character was kidnapped by the Mau Mau's and executed.
The ideas brought forth by the racial stereotypes aforementioned became sort of security blanket for those who feared racial integration. These people spread racist misconceptions of African Americans as a means to retard the progress of African American rights. They were traditionalists and desired to see segregation continue unimpeded. Their beliefs were descendant of their parents and their parents' parents, back to a point in time where White Americans were economically hurt by the end of slavery.
Of course, it would not be important to note the existence of the previously described stereotypes and trends if not for the ill affects that are proliferated from them today. Some would say that such ill affects do not really exist. But evidence is overwhelming in support of the opposite view. There is a two-fold negative result of these stereotypes for African Americans. First, they have not achieved complete equality with White America as has been their goal for well over one hundred years. Because of the lasting affects of these stereotypes, they have been unable to prove themselves equal, specifically in intelligence and civility, as White Americans. And second, the African American community has succumbed to an identity crisis of sorts whereby old stereotypes have crept their way into mainstream thought and the internal identity of many in the African American community, in short the authenticity of the African American is in dispute.
The African American community is not one entity and it cannot be classified into rigid groups. “By conceiving black urban culture in the singular, interpreters unwittingly reduce their subjects to cardboard typologies who fit neatly into their own definition of the 'underclass' and render invisible a wide array of complex cultural forms and practices” (Kelly, 17). As one can see it is faulty to try to assign the African American community to one or more stereotypes because if one does, they alienate much of the depth that African American culture has to offer. Yet too, one must not under-divide the African American community into an undecipherable mass as “...young jobless men hanging out on the corner passing the bottle, the brothers with the nastiest verbal repertoire, the pimps and hustlers, the single mothers who raised streetwise kids who began cursing before they could walk” (Kelly, 20). It is important to understand that just as the White community has different aspects and cultural variations, so to does the African American community.
In addition to recognizing the existence of a multitude of African American subcultures, it is important to understand that it is necessary to be careful not to follow predisposed categorical markers when trying to understand cultural differences. The African American community is not a group of Sambos and Aunt Jemimas, Uncle Toms and Mammies. “To tell...local histories of cultural survival and emergence, we need to resist deep-seated habits of mind and systems of authenticity. We need to be suspicious of an almost-automatic tendency to relegate non-Western (read: black) peoples and objects to the pasts of an increasingly homogeneous humanity” (Kelly, 42). One must be conscious of the ideas of the past and be wary to accept them as truth, especially without hard factual evidence. The fallacies of a culture of Sambos and Mammies has become one of the most detrimental issues affecting the African American community's image today and their pursuit of continued integration and equal rights.
The second plight for the African American community today is partially self-inflicted. It is true that they did not start nor do they proliferate most African American stereotypes, but many African Americans have begun to accept one particular stereotype as culture, that is the Brute. “[Toasting], he argues, has played a positive role in curbing violence while the latter [rap] is responsible for heightening aggression” (Kelly, 36). “Hip Hop, particularly gangsta rap, also attracts listeners for whom the “ghetto” is a place of adventure, unbridled violence, erotic fantasy, and/or an imaginary alternative to suburban boredom” (Kelly, 38). That is, those whose parents have been successful enough at raising their families into a middle class position, have a tendency to take that position for granted and through the influence of movies, music, and television desire a return to the working class ghetto lifestyle which now seems that much more exciting than their present situation.
However, this second situation is merely a subset of a greater, and White, attitude towards African American culture and in particular “gangsta rap”. A vast majority of the non-African American community and especially the middle and upper class community today sees this ghetto personification of the old time Brute persona inherent in rap music as a major part of African American culture. And, worse yet, they many times misconstrue the message that the true African American community is trying to get across with such expression. “Of course, the line between rap music's gritty realism, story-telling, and straight-up signifyin(g) is not always clear to listeners...” (Kelly, 38). “Several scholars insist that Hip Hop... has grown increasingly isolated from 'mainstream' society” (39). In the past two decades, what the general population sees as Hip Hop and the rap community is tending towards Brute-esque qualities, thus further detrimenting the cause of African American equality.
It is unfair to ask of the African American community to change who they are or ask them to help the majority of White America better understand their culture. It is unfair to ask of the African American population to make up for the misdeeds and continued exacerbation of racial stereotypes by a small minority within their ranks. But it is also unfair to ask of the non-African American community to take a leap of faith to help the African American community if they themselves will not also take a leap in the same direction. Too true it is just as unfair to assume that either side is simply made up of “cardboard typologies6” and that any one person can speak for the whole of either group.
In short, the problem is exhaustively difficult to solve and remarkably simple to explain. There is a gap between African American society and White American society. The gap is a carry-over from the days of slavery and the racist caricatures of African Americans such as the Sambo and the Mammy that had plagued the American past and persist in some form into the present. The media exacerbates this gap through it's portrayal of African Americans in movies, television shows, and the music industry. For too long the African American community has been described through these false authenticities, thus creating a pseudo-authentic African American persona that White American's are wary to accept as equal to their own.
This unwillingness to accept African American culture for what it is and the proliferation of what it is not, leads towards a loss of authenticity throughout the African American culture. The media portrays the African American community as Brutes today just as they portrayed them as Sambos, Mammies, and Uncle Toms in decades past. This leads to an identity conflict amongst the youth in the African American community who may see the present Brute-esque Hip Hop and gangsta rap lifestyle as the road to take, thus further proliferating the stereotype. Whereas, what they (and many White youth) must realize is that such a lifestyle is not glamorous and in fact is widening the gap between White America and African American America.
There are those who claim that such a gap is not only acceptable but necessary. On the African American side, no one wishes to become an “Uncle Tom”. “As Naomi Zack rightly points out, the embrace of a racially essentialist identity is a denial of freedom. It is in effect a kind of surrender to readymade, externally imposed constructions of self” (Monahan, 40). And, on the White American side, many people see no reason to converse with or conform to their erroneously reasoned (gangsta rap-induced) ideal of African American culture. However, neither side is completely correct nor completely wrong. There must be an understanding between the cultures of White America and the cultures of African American America.
"...The behaviors of a particular individual as such are not in themselves indicative of authenticity or inauthenticity. What must be understood is the attitude with which they are undertaken—the agent's own understanding and interpretation of her specific behaviors and the way in which they relate to the larger social whole. If an agent behaves in accordance with the dominant understanding of blackness, this does not alone indicate authenticity or inauthenticity, regardless of the racial membership of the agent in question. If the agent is undertaking such behaviors because he understands them as black, and wishes to project this blackness, then the behaviors are inauthentic, since the agent is reducing racial membership to individual behaviors (in an essentialist way), rather than treating them as socially constituted" (Monahan, 40).
This is the bridge of the culture gap. To get there, African Americans' need to find their genuine authenticity and White Americans need to be educated in the genuine authenticity of African American culture.
"An example of the second kind of racial inauthenticity—the failure to acknowledge the reality of race—can be found in some champions of 'color-blindness.' This is the person who claims that she cannot "see" races, but only human beings in a raceless, universal sense. Just as the inauthentic Billy refused to acknowledge the contingency of race, this individual fails to acknowledge the reality of race. She is in effect avoiding an engagement with the role that race plays in her life and the lives of others. She is blinding herself to the important political force that race exerts in a social context which is inescapably raced" (Monahan, 45).
That is, White American's need to lay to rest the stereotypes of African American culture as a society of pimps and hos, gangstas and gunfights. Education in the cultures of African Americans is the only way to do this. It has to be taught in schools and it has to be properly portrayed in the media. It will not be easy to dissolve one hundred years of bigotry and ignorance, but White and African American society must start sometime, the sooner the better.
Until both sides come to an understanding, there will remain a distinct gap between the cultures of African American America and White America. This gap with lead to inequality for the minority African Americans due to misunderstanding and the proliferation of racial stereotypes. And, so long as this racial gap exists, African Americans will not achieve equality because the majority, White America, as a whole will have no reason to feel bad about not giving them what is rightfully, and Constitutionally, theirs. That is, in the words of President John F. Kennedy: “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not yet fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice; they are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all it's hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.” (6/11/1963)
1Slaves in the south were freed in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln under his executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, and he Thirteenth Amendment freed the remainder of slaves (in Kentucky and Delaware) in 1865 formally and permanently abolishing the practice.
2“Ku Klux Klan.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan
3Bannerman, Helen. “Little Black Sambo.” Project Gutenberg, 2006. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/17824
5This refers to the difference between house slaves and field slaves on plantations in the South prior to Emancipation. House slaves were seen as more civilized and more “White” than their field-working blood relatives.
Bamboozled. Written and Directed by Spike Lee. Produced by Kisha Imani, Cameron Jon Kilik, & Spike Lee. New Line Cinema, 2000.
Bannerman, Helen. “Little Black Sambo.” Project Gutenberg, 2006. Accessed: 18 April 2007. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/17824
Kelly, Robin D. G. yo' MAMA's disFUNKtional!. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
Kennedy, John F. Speech given 6/11/1963. Recorded by the White House. Accessed: 23 April 2007. “http://www.archive.org/details/jfks19630611
“Ku Klux Klan.” Wikipedia. Accessed: 19 April 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan
Maddox, Jr., Alton H. “Free, white, and 21 in the USA.” New Amsterdam News, 2006. p.12.
Monahan, Michael. “The Conservation of Authenticity: Political Commitment and Racial Reality.” Philosophia Africana: Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2005. pp. 38-39.
“Sambo.” Wikipedia. Accessed: 19 April 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambo_%28racial_term%29
“Uncle Tom” Wikipedia. Accessed: 19 April 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncle_Tom