The Perceptions of African-Americans in the Media

May 18, 2009
By Myron Grant BRONZE, Valdosta, Georgia
Myron Grant BRONZE, Valdosta, Georgia
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

William Shakespeare once declared, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” As I began to write this essay, I began to wonder if indeed the perception of American-Americans was entirely negative, entirely positive, or if it lay somewhere in the midst of these two extremes. Thus, I believe that the view of African-Americans in the media has largely depended on the context of the times in which blacks were being depicted. For example, minstrel shows were perhaps the most popular form of American entertainment in the mid-1800s. The depiction of blacks during this time was overwhelmingly negative; with white actors in blackface portraying blacks as ill-bred and disgusting sub-humans. Half a century later, the portrayal of blacks was not much better. However, during the 1930s, black at least garnered more critical attention and the perception of African-Americans marginally increased. This general attitude was perpetuated until the 1980s when shows such as “The Cosby Show” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” emerged. Thus, the perception of African-Americans in the media has been more or less fair in the last 25 years due to gains in socially equality, education, and entertainment. In the last 10 years alone, blacks have won a dozen or so Academy Awards and Emmys; we have had two black secretaries of state, and have elected Barack Obama as President of the United States. Our portrayals have awakened a sense of self-consciousness in all Americans and have allowed us to see that the American Dream lies dormant in certain communities. In effect, we have really given thought to Langston Hughes’ lamentation, “I swear to the Lord I still can’t see why Democracy means everybody but me.”

Much to my dismay, the negative connotations associated with African-American entertainment have been rearing their ugly heads lately. This, while the perception of African-Americans in the media has been rather favorable for the last 25 years, incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and the “Jena 6” confrontation have once again placed us in a less-than-favorable light. We are often portrayed as uninformed, apathetic, and violent. It breaks my heart to think that my generation perpetuates these attitudes with their acceptance of the status quo and their complacency. As Barbara Jordan once said, “We must exchange the philosophy of excuse—what I am is beyond my control—for the philosophy of responsibility.” Though great strides have been made in the media’s perception of blacks, we are still, to some extent, depicted as “Steppin Fetchits” and “Mammys.” Minstrelsy seems to be alive and well. In fact, Robert Downy Jr. was recently nominated for an Academy Award for his role in “Tropic Thunder,” in which he acted in blackface. His portrayal of a black soldier was largely negative, with over-the-top use of Ebonics and exaggerated features.

The perception of African-Americans has affected my self-identity by making me more aware of certain “ethnic eccentricities.” I am deeply proud of what we have accomplished, but I cannot help but feel a sense of anger and shame at the way in which we are depicted and at the way we present ourselves. Nothing bothers me more than to hear blacks “put down” their own communities and way of life. This, the media is only partly to blame for occasional negative portrayals; we must examine our behavior and adjust our actions and attitudes as necessary. It would be more than appropriate to end this essay by quoting perhaps the most powerful figure in all of America media, Oprah Winfrey, who said that “I am where I am because of the bridges that I crossed. Sojourner Truth was a bridge. Harriet Tubman was a bridge. Ida B. Wells was a bridge. Madame C.J. Walker was a bridge. Fannie Lou Hamer was a bridge.” In sum, we should not allow the media to define us. We should allow those African-Americans who have helped to clear the battleground of the American media of its racist ghosts, to become our bridges and to become bridges for those who faithfully follow us.

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