It seems that above all else, as a Black person, the predominant belief is that you must never publicly criticize another Black person who is held in high esteem by the community. Regardless of the merits of the statement, or whether it’s accurate or not, the idea is that it’s absolutely wrong to say anything that could be perceived as negative under these circumstances, with few exceptions. Protecting the collective image of Black people is the goal of those who don’t like to see public criticism of prominent Blacks.
The need to protect those figures is shrouded in the idea of promoting the collective Black image or improving conditions of an oppressed people. So, public criticism of someone who is seen as one who represents the Black image and is a force for positive change and social advancement is viewed as an attack on Blackness.
They aren’t, however, really protecting actual Blackness, but their idea of the way Blackness should be–more like Whites. They are actually protecting their portrayal of the Negropean character–the conformist Black image. Keep in mind that the Negropean character is not the reality of Black culture as it is now, nor is it completely assimilated into White culture–it’s in the middle, or some mixture of the two.
Due to the complexity of these dynamics, there seems to be loose guidelines adhered to determine whether or not one warrants critique.
Conservatism Is Fair Game For Criticism
In general, the belief is that all conservatives are fair game for criticism because they’re considered “sellouts” and “Uncle Toms.” For this reason, Blacks such as Michael Steele, Herman Cain, Allen West, and Juan Williams are constantly berated with little outcry from other Blacks. The harsh critiques and name-calling they often attract is warranted in the minds of those who see their conservative views as anti-Black.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Whites from both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party opposed civil rights for Blacks. During that period, many of the Dixiecrats–segregationists Democrats–left the Democratic Party and aligned with Republicans, or conservatives. From this point on, conservatism was synonymous with the perspectives of Whites who were unwilling to acquiesce to civil rights for Blacks, thus were viewed as anti-Black. The anti-Black stance of conservatism was further solidified by the massive social program cuts of the Reagan Administration alongside promotion of negative images, such as the welfare queen.
Consequently, any Black person who would align themselves with anti-Blacks is considered a sellout. With the understanding of the Negropean character, prominent Blacks and others view conservative Blacks as having swayed too far in the direction of racist Whites.
Liberalism Equates To Blackness
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and social programs that seemed to help Blacks were instituted by Democrats who were called liberals. The Democrats, as a result of those policies and programs, made it appear as if Blacks were accepted as full citizens in their White society.
Since this time, Democrats have been viewed as the pro-Black party. Consequently, most Blacks see liberalism as the appropriate political positon for themselves. And, the more liberal the Black person is, the more “Black” they’re considered as being.
The problem with equating liberalism with being pro-Black is that it isn’t true. Democrats are not pro-Black, but rather they know they can exploit Black affiliation with the idea that liberalism is pro-Black. This, however, doesn’t stop Blacks from faithfully supporting Democrats across the board, regardless of whether they actually commit to doing anything to improve the condition of Blacks.
Since Blacks are predominately liberal Democrats, prominent Black liberal Democrats are generally off-limits when it comes to public critiques.
Heroes Fight Villains
Due to the history of African Americans in the United States, there were always challenges to overcome. The result is the classic comic book dynamic. A villain–the conditions, the racist American culture–exists, who along with his evil ways need to be destroyed by a hero. Some people become heroes on their own due to this fight, while others are elevated to this rank by the group, thus becoming a symbol for the positive Black image.
These include historical heroes, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, as well as modern-day heroes like President Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Muhammad Ali and others. You absolutely cannot publicly criticize these heroes, or else your Blackness will be questioned. The reason you cannot criticize these heroes publicly is because the underlying idea is that it chips away at the collective self-esteem of African Americans. Critiquing them is viewed as a commentary on Blacks as a whole and counter to their heroic actions.
Some people found out the hard way what happens when you criticize hero symbols in the Back community despite being liberal in their approach.
Tavis Smiley And Cornel West Take Heat
In August 2011, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West decided to embark on a 15-city “Poverty Tour” to bring attention to what they described as the failures of President Obama.
The tour, despite its lofty goals, has been dogged by a raging debate, largely in the black community, over scathing criticisms Smiley and West have levied against President Barack Obama in the past. In addition to derision by bloggers and media figures, the tour encountered backlash amongst some of the very groups of people it purported to champion. Crowds in Detroit disrupted the tour’s town hall meeting with a pro-Obama protest, while many other citizens denounced the tour via Twitter.
Source: The Nation
Smiley and West took actions they thought were heroic in their own right, but their actions were negated because they criticized a hero–the first African American president, Barack Obama. Consequently, the tour was seen as anti-Black and the duo took plenty of heat for it.
Spike Lee Characterized As A Hater
Over the past few years, Spike Lee has sparked controversy over his criticism of other filmmakers, namely Tyler Perry, and pointed to the responsibility African Americans have for not supporting non-hero worshipping Black films.
In a 2009 interview with Ed Gordon, Lee blasts Tyler Perry (a Black hero), saying that his movies contained buffoonery/coonery. Later in the discussion, Spike goes on to explain how Blacks are responsible for not showing more balanced support for films that don’t glorify self-destructive characters and lifestyles within the Black community. He lists how many people went to see John Singleton’s Boyz-N-the Hood versus Rosewood as an example of this.
People like Tyler Perry films because they have relatable characters. The problem with Spike pointing out the coonery/buffoonery is that it is a direct criticism of these relatable characters and people take this as a personal attack, an attack on blackness.
At the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012, Spike Lee premiered his newest film, Red Hook Summer, to mixed reviews–many were scathing. Spike found himself in the seat of controversy again after his response to a question posed by comedian Chris Rock: “What would you have done differently if you’d actually gotten a bunch of studio money. Would you have blown up lots of shit?”
Spike snapped back, explaining that he never sought studio money and did it on his own. We all know that Spike knows, being Black, that the Hollywood studios weren’t likely to fund his film in the first place.
Lee went on to detail his struggle with studios to produce a sequel to his highest-grossing movie, Inside Man and acknowledged the presence of several cast members from the recently-released, predominately-black Red Tails.
Source: The Grio
What you must understand about Red Tails is that is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen portrayed as great heroes. The movie, however, was refused Hollywood backing, so George Lucas funded the film himself. At the same time, Lucas began a campaign to garner support for the film, telling people that they must come out to see the movie or else Black films were in jeopardy of becoming extinct. Due to those efforts, he was viewed a champion for Black peoples’ cause. On the other hand, we have Spike whose initial inkling was to just make a film.
Spike’s perceived harsh criticism of Red Tails was seen as an attack on the White champion for the Black cause, and even the heroes portrayed in the film. Both of these films tell the stories of Blacks. One is supported, one is not. One portrays Blacks as heroes, while one is about regular Black people.
The consequence of these controversies is the painting of Spike Lee as a hater–anti-Black.
Roughly speaking, family business consists of anything that might make the race look bad in the eyes of another group.
For this reason, it’s frowned upon to do anything that will be perceived as negative by another group. You cannot do it in movies, you can’t do it in politics, and you can’t do it in social settings. This is why movies such as Precious and The Help catch flack in Black circles, as well as many Tyler Perry movies. It is also the same reason why it is unacceptable to participate in a public disagreement with a prominent Black person. Doing so puts on a show for outside groups, and the belief is that disagreement should take place behind closed doors.
For instance, it was considered highly embarrassing when Cornel West and Al Sharpton came to verbal blows over West’s criticism of President Obama. In this case, Sharpton played the role of the hero by defending the Black symbol, President Barack Obama. So in this forum, Cornel West was perceived as anti-Black because of being outspoken in a public forum against the president.
The crux of West’s argument was that Obama has not done enough for Blacks and the poor. The underlying reasoning behind Al Sharpton’s defense of the president is grounded in the idea that Obama cannot act favorably toward Blacks because of how other groups might perceive the group. It would make President Obama appear too Black–tipping his Negropean rating more toward the Black side–making the entire group (Blacks) appear too black. In Cornel West’s attempt to have the actual issues of Blacks addresses, he was labeled as anti-Black for his attack on a symbol of Black progress and trying to make us look too Black. The symbol is more important than actual Black progress.
The irony here is that in Al Sharpton’s decision to participate in a public verbal may-lay with West, he actually did what he was trying to avoid–making Blacks look bad in front of other groups.
Al Sharpton and Barbershop
Al Sharpton is the consummate defender of the Black hero symbol as evidenced by a 2002 incident related to the movie Barbershop.
A character in the hit movie ”Barbershop” says, ”If we can’t talk straight in a barbershop, we can’t talk straight anyplace.”
Apparently there are limits to this license, even there.
The movie, which captures the tart banter among customers in an African-American hair salon, has drawn criticism for a scene in which a character mocks the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton have called on the studio, MGM, to apologize and to delete the jokes from future video and DVD versions.
So even humor, Black humor made by Black people is not allowed if it dares to threaten the image of the Black hero. It is still Family Business.
Bill Cosby Talks About Blacks Like Whites
Entertainer Bill Cosby, learned his lesson for making what was perceived as mean-spirited comments against the Black community as a whole. He used conservative type language while he was talking about African Americans. This was a big no-no because criticism of Blacks as a whole is only tolerated when done by heroes–those against whom you cannot speak.
At the NAACP Brown v. Board of Education 50-year anniversary commemoration, Bill Cosby gave an off-the-cuff speech condemning poor African American youth and their parents. He criticized poor Black parents for being willing to buy $500 sneakers for their children rather than spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics. Dr. Cosby also held poor African American parents responsible for not setting the proper example for their children by speaking standard English. Poor African American youth were criticized for their use of non-standard English and the widespread adoption of “pimp culture.”
Bill Cosby’s castigating comments toward poor African Americans expose an internal pain. If we care about the African American people to any extent, we share the same pain on some level or another. Still, Cosby’s behavior in issuing such an account is as bad as that of the worst misguided Black youth whose stereotyped and caricatured behavior he universalizes.
Source: People’s World
Bill Cosby placed all of the responsibility for the conditions of Blacks onto Blacks themselves, ignoring other factors. This hurt the collective ego and esteem of African Americans. He essentially created/perpetuated a negative image of Black people contrary to the projection of the preferred image.
It may have bode well if Cosby was still the hero he hoped to be, but he wasn’t seen as the classic comic book hero.
The Great Tradeoff
Understanding the desire to protect the way Blacks are perceived, it seems that there’s a tradeoff–swapping positive change for maintaining the image of Black people as a whole though symbolic means. So, if being pro-Black is about actually being that hero, then the ones who take those actions or exhibit these qualities of the symbolic hero should be viewed as heroes, not anti-Black.
Those who take steps to critique prominent Blacks are not the problem. On the contrary, the issue at hand is the intellectual dishonesty of those who seek to protect the image at all costs–even to the detriment of the people. The question is whether or not Blackness itself is even being critiqued.
Should we protect the facade? Is it positive to attack those who challenge the facade itself? What should be judged is the merits of the argument and whether or not it creates positive change, as opposed to positive illusion. We should welcome the challenge so that we as a people can continue to grow and improve, no matter who’s eavesdropping. Furthermore, we should be confident enough in our Blackness that we can be who we are without the pressure of assimilating into the predominate culture or being accepted into it on their terms.
It all comes down to shaping the portrayal of African-Americans to appease the broader of society–largely non-Black and hostile toward. Why, Black people, are you trying to please a group that has no concern for you, does not accept you, and will never lessen the load of your plight?
The fact is the outside group does not accept blacks as is. To try to be accepted and gain access into that club, the tendency is to try to show that group that Blacks are in fact just like them. Negropean approach of seeking acceptance is most anti-Black of all. As such, this is the image that needs to be destroyed. The same society that you’re dying to be a part of is the same one that responsible for the conditions you’re in and keeps you there–the one that reeks havoc around the world. That’s the image that people are attempting to portray, adopt and protect.
This very piece challenges the loose guidelines of critique. Heroes are questioned, negative images are exposed, and family business is discussed publicly. It may very well be greeted with harsh criticism. But, how much harm does it cause?