Vincent S. Moore Presents:
Separate And Unequal
A Mule And Forty Acres Of My Own, Part Nine: What, Me Angry?
I am not angry.
I feel I have to say that here from time to time. Because I often write about topics that bring out the passionate side of my personality and I tend to take injustice and stupidity seriously. An injustice for one is an injustice to us all. And stupidity negatively impacts our lives in ways difficult to fully fathom. Witness the War On Terror, for example.
I just feel I have to remind you people out there in Internetland that I’m not by nature an angry person. Partly because I’m a Buddhist. Partly due to my upbringing. I usually go through any number of emotions throughout the day -- love, joy, sadness, frustration, fear, courage, passion, and compassion -- depending on what happens and how conscious of my reactions I am. Not anything special or different. It’s just that running a full emotional gamut is part of being human.
Which makes it unfortunate that all too often, in comics and on TV and movie screens, one doesn’t get to see many black people demonstrating the broadest possible range of human behavior.
What we usually see is the Magical Negro, full of wisdom and advice and little else.
Or the Sacrificial Lamb, that good buddy whose sole purpose in the narrative is to die saving one or more white people. You know this type very well if you watch a lot of horror movies.
Or the one you might see most often is The Angry Black Man or Woman.
Ah, yes, The Angry Black Man. That figure full of piss and vinegar and violence, all too often played these days by a rapper (I wonder why). The purpose of this character is to perform the level of violence that would normally make the white hero look unheroic before the eyes of the audience. The flipside to this purpose is to also show just how moral and idealistic the white hero is compared to this brooding, brutish animal who walks on two legs, not on four.
I imagine that I supposed to be happy to even see black characters in genre fiction and superhero comics. After all, as I wrote in my last column, it just so difficult for good black characters to be created. We are a tough people to understand and with which to empathize, I know. Any black face (pardon the pun) that shows up should be embraced and cherished for the blessing he or she is.
However, I usually find myself chewing on my pillow or hand every time I see this stereotype on display in order to not start shouting at the screen or throwing the book across the room. Anger begetting anger, serving to make the whole world that much more pissed off.
Okay, I lied. I tend to start bitching vociferously every time I see The Angry Black Man.
Look, I understand that when it comes to writing, particularly screenwriting, it becomes all too easy to rely on formula plots and stereotypical characters. In the writing game, sometimes, it boils down to how many words or script pages one can crank out in a given period to earn some money. How many times have to you seen the same romantic comedy with different players and settings every year? How long did it take you to see that Avatar was basically the same story as Dances With Wolves and Ferngully and Little Big Man and, in a distant sense, Tarzan? It can make it very easy for an audience to enjoy a movie if it merely rehashes themes and plot points everybody has seen before many, many times. Again, any horror movie is repeating a certain formula that almost never fails to satisfy its intended viewers. I am not naive; I’m just idealistic.
I’m idealistic enough to hope that writers and editors and producers would feel that it’s okay to skip some of these tired old plots and characters from time to time. To not overuse them or abuse them. But, like I said, I’m idealistic and not stupid.
I know these formula plots and character stereotypes will continue to be used until the Sun goes dark.
Just as I know I will have to suffer occasionally seeing The Angry Black Man.
If I have to suffer dealing with this stereotype, perhaps I need to better understand it. The understanding might make it easier to stomach the time when this stereotype appears.
To understand The Angry Black Man/Woman, let’s begin at the beginning.
Why would black people be so angry all the time in the first place?
Colonialism in Africa.
The 40 acres and a mule, both the promise and the reneging of the promise.
Reconstruction and how southern blacks were sold out by the US government.
Higher crime rates than average.
Higher poverty rates than average.
The Ku Klux Klan.
And just racism and its younger brother ethnocentrism in general.
Okay, so I guess there are probably some really good reasons for a certain level of anger to exist within the black community. But is anger really the only emotion black folk experience and express?
What about the joyous noise that is gospel music?
And the hot and saucy sounds of jazz?
Or the love a husband has for his wife? And a father for his daughters?
No, somehow I don’t think anger is the only emotion black people experience and express in their daily lives. If that is true, then why would anger become the defining characteristic for so many black characters created by white authors?
Perhaps many of them have read or heard about Native Son by Richard Wright and are so affected by this singular portrayal of one black man that it permanently colors (pardon the pun) how they craft their own characters.
Perhaps in the act of tapping into the creative unconscious, these white writers can only tap into their fear of black men and women seeking revenge when they think of black characters.
Conversely, it may be white guilt made manifest, a vague version of penance for all the wrongs done to black folk by white people.
Or, and I would deeply hope not, The Angry Black Man character may be the last remnant of a need amongst some but not all white people to dehumanize and/or demonize black people.
Lastly, I wonder if the history of black protest against racial injustice has helped to reinforce this stereotype? All those scenes of black people fighting against police dogs and fire hoses that helped to define the 1960s. If so, then we are truly screwed. Because if black folk didn’t complain and protest, then white folk would have had no pressure or reason to change racist ways and beliefs.
I don’t really know.
I don’t really know from where The Angry Black Woman or Man truly comes.
In every interview I’ve ever read no white writer has bothered to explain in deep terms why their particular version of the Angry Black Man is just so damn angry. For example, even though I love the character, I just don’t see how Cyborg is so angry. Okay, sure, he ends up losing most of his body to cybernetic parts in an accident in his parents’ lab. But his father lost his wife and Cyborg lost his mother in the same accident. So wouldn’t sadness also be a part of his character? And Victor Stone was shown to be incredibly angry even before the accident. He rejected his parents’ upbringing that brought out his own genius talents by befriending a young thug well on the path to a thug’s death. He also rejected his mind by developing his body with sports, aiming at the Olympics instead of M.I.T. I could go on except I just realized I quoted two parts of the Black Hero Origin Algorithm. Namely, criminal past and the Olympics. It looks being The Angry Black Man suits Cyborg far better than I thought.
I may never really know why this stereotype is so popular and seeming all pervasive in genre fiction and pop culture. I may just have to learn to love The Angry Black Bomb, er, … I mean, Man. Since it isn’t going away any time soon.
Therefore I have to ask, what’s so wrong with The Angry Black Person character? After all, as I stated above, there are plenty of reasons for black rage. Why not dramatize this rage, to better understand it?
Because purely and solely angry characters of any kind are not fully dimensional. They are one dimensional and flat. A character that is only angry all the time feels flat and unrealistic after a time. More like a caricature than a character. These characters are not fully realized within the context of the story the way many other characters are. An angry character is merely angry and his or her goals only reflect that anger; a fully realized character has goals in his career, her love life, and the story goal itself. Thinking about it that way, I wonder if this angry characterization is a metaphorical way of saying black people are not completely mature or fully human? I would hope not.
Well, if the Angry Black Person isn’t going way, maybe there is a way to embrace and empower the stereotype?
After all, it looks like blaxploitation movies did just that. Except characters like Shaft and Priest from Superfly and Black Belt Jones showed they could love and be loved, feel loyalty to friends, had higher aspirations, and were interested in justice. In fact, part of the appeal these movies still hold is the full dimensionality of the major and minor characters, no matter what their color. Even The Man ended up being shown as not just being evil and racist. Even The Man was shown as a family man and a community leader and a friend, capable of love as well as evil. So this is out.
Now, Hip Hop and the images of most rappers live and breathe and thrive around the myth of The Angry Black Man. Anger is a source of power to much of this modern music form. Yet I feel that the anger here borders on being impotent. That’s due to Hip Hop’s obsession with bitches and money. The anger isn’t directed outside of their community; it’s directed at their community. And maybe that’s part of why Rap appeals as much to white youth. Because it’s a way of playing with black rage that ultimately will do them no harm because it isn’t really anti-white and it can only make them look and feel cool.
I don’t know. Embracing The Angry Black Person could work. It does work somewhat for Hip Hop. But is The Angry Black Person character enough to satisfy an audience? No, I don’t think so. I just don’t see an angry black hero riding a rocket to the stars and saving the princess of the alien world and all those other cool things the white heroes get to do.
Maybe the best answer is to skip dealing with mainstream pop culture and simply make and support black pop culture.
This should go on anyway, both the making of our own sci-fi, horror, detective, pulp, and superhero fictions and supporting those already out there making strong, well rounded black characters. But that shouldn’t let the white guys off the hook. If black creators can come up with fully dimensional white characters, then white creators should be able to do the same. Right?
So, in case they can’t think of it themselves, how do white writers start moving away from this tired stereotype?
First, they have to reject the false notion that the color of a character’s skin is the sole content of his or her characteristics. There is more to being black in real life than having black skin. Ask any black person about Bryant Gumbel, for example. Also if -- and I will probably lose my Black Card for this -- black people can differentiate each other by using color terms like Blue Black or Redbone or High Yellow with certain qualities associated with those colors, then even the color of our skin has a lot to say about who we are and where we came from. Something that white creators miss.
Second, writers have to start in the same place where they do with white characters. That is ask and answer questions like: Who are you? What do you want? Why do you want it? David Gerrold, in his book Worlds Of Wonder, provides this really great questionnaire that helps him to figure out who a character is. Why not try using something like that? Then, once that’s done, add the appropriate elements from the African and/or African American experience as the seasoning. We are the same yet different, after all.
Third, and it is completely silly I have to say this, go meet a good number of black people from all walks of life. In other words, stop watching the TV news and old movies and reading only the black protest literature. Read biographies of famous black people. Read black magazines. Watch some of the good and bad direct-to-DVD black movies being made currently. Go to an African American bookstore. And interact with us black folks wherever you may find us. We won’t bite. I hope.
Finally, I would suggest that white writers demonstrate enough imagination to realize that a young black child reading about interesting, fully dimensional black heroes and heroines and sidekicks will react in much the same way as you guys did when you first read Superman or Flash Gordon or Batman and Robin or Tarzan or Spider-Man.
I feel bad having to put what should be obvious into words. Yet I feel I have to do it. Because otherwise The Angry Black Man will continue to rage and rage, not against the dying of light but just to rage on.
And that bothers me deeply.
It bothers me that it feels as though I and other black fans are only able to have fantasy figures that are only angry and violent. It is enough to make me angry and violent.
What’s worse is knowing the fictional versions of blacks can only reflect a single emotion or quality -- such as anger or wisdom or happiness --at one time. This is in complete contrast to whites who can see full spectrum ideals of themselves and their cultural values on display on the printed page and the silver screen great and small.
It is enough not to make me angry but to make me cry. And I would if it wouldn’t make me feel pitiful. Which is another favorite state of being imposed upon black people and characters by white folks.
As Slim Pickens said in Blazing Saddles, I am depressed.
Wow, I just realized I have written 50 of these columns. That’s a lot of time and a lot of words and a lot of headaches I’ve given to my editor Marc Mason.
50 Omnium Gatherum columns, just in time for Comics Waiting Room ver. 3.0 #50.
This isn’t say I’m quitting or moving on. I’m just amazed at myself to writing this many and that people are interested in what I have to say. I am and will always be appreciative for this opportunity.
And y’all ain’t seen nothing yet.
2010 is the year of the Omnium Gatherum, just you watch.
Until next time, folks.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved