The Persistence of Old Models / Old Beliefs

by Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                      Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Last month, I had the good fortune to sit down with, break bread with, and drink good wine a couple of times with award-winning playwright, Black Theatre expert, and educator Paul Carter Harrison.  I have to thank fellow scholar R. Candy Tate for turning what was supposed to be our first meeting (to trade academic notes and talk shop) into a meeting where we added yet another spirited scholar to the mix.  This was one of those rare opportunities we graduate students receive where we can converse with someone who is, arguably, one of the first artists to seriously study Black Theatre and create a scholarly canon that tells us what Black Theatre is and what it is not.

However, I deliberately did not ask Paul about his many books (The Drama of Nommo or Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora).  Among the many things we discussed was his frustration and anger about what he considered to be some younger playwrights, actors, and directors’ pandering to the tastes of White audiences; and an unfortunate dumbing-down of theatre, television and film in an effort to appeal to audiences of all races for the sole benefit of entertainment just for entertainment’s sake.  He was not ambiguous at all; he was livid.  He saw a disturbing trend where some Black performers decided to cater to what White producers and audiences—even well-meaning White folks—wanted them to appear to be on stage.  No more martyred Black folks, he said.  Exactly how many times must everything WE do be a response to some other group of people?  Exactly how many times must we be characterized as long-suffering and stoic or, for that matter, be the super baadaass Black man who always manages to rush in and save the day?  He made his point.

He saw this pandering as something that, while it might be quite commercially satisfying,  stifled Black creativity and stunted artistic risk-taking while it simultaneously applauded and rewarded the mundane, the ordinary.  He noted that this lack of vision, this lack of adventurousness, would eventually cause a lot of artists to hit a commercial brick wall.  He did not bite his tongue about the fact that certain Black stereotypes and certain Black archetypes had become the norm in film, on TV, and on the stage.  While Paul is a part of my larger ongoing research, which will not be discussed here, he did make me think about not only why artistic and scholarly risk-taking is necessary for growth, but also why stereotypes are particularly dangerous.

After our two marathon conversations, I thought about how people on both sides of the political and racial aisle, so to speak, hold onto and cling to certain images and ideas about Black people.  I have to honestly wonder whether, WE Black folks have any real friends who actually know US; that is, friends outside of our own racial/ethnic group.  I am not kidding; I mean this.  Aside from the racist who assumes that at any given moment I will be spitting out watermelon seeds or that I have bred babies like rabbits, there are also those White folks that go to other extremes.  They are so hell bent on proving that they are not racist that they see beauty and goodness in everything and everybody that is Black—and that is a fallacy as well.  Blackness and Black people become a fetish.  One of the first things that makes us, Black folks, human is our ability to be great or weak, right or wrong, smart or dumb, honest or dishonest.  Any belief, sentiment, or romanticism that strips us of the full range of human expression denies us our humanity, no matter how flattering those beliefs and sentiments might be.  It is dangerous to hold onto those kinds of extremes and expectations.

Only a few days after my meeting and hanging out with Paul, one of my History students, a young White male, told me about this funny video he saw.  According to this student, someone filmed security personnel in a department store.  In the video, all of the security personnel were following all the Black customers assuming that the Black customers would be the customers who would shoplift.  However, while security was following all the Black customers, White shoplifters were stealing everything they could get their hands on.  Both my student and I laughed, but the humor quickly faded when we began to consider what really happens when someone makes assumptions based solely and purely on race, or I should say, on racism.  Now, anyone with half a brain knows that people of all races and ethnicities steal for a variety of reasons.  Nevertheless, this video—that I have never seen, by the way—said something else about misconceptions based solely on race.

When people buy into any stereotype it does something more than degrade and devalue the victim of the stereotype, it tells everyone else exactly who they need to victimize or who they need to “not look like” or “not behave like” in order to get away with whatever they are attempting to get away with.  I am not going to say anything about Trayvon Martin, this time.  However, for all of those frightened and paranoid White folks (and Black folks) who live in gated communities in Florida and elsewhere, I have only one thing to say:  Beware of respectable looking young White males who may be walking through your neighborhoods.

While I am sure most of these young White men will not be planning to commit any crime or do anyone any harm, one of them might have decided that since he did not look a certain way that he could get away with certain things.  When you buy into and believe those old models and old beliefs, eventually, someone figures out that all they have to do is make sure they do not fit the model.  After that, they can get away with anything!  And for those folks who might be feeling guilty for believing the worst stereotypes about Black people,  the last thing you need to do is stop for some poor Black guy on the side of the road at midnight, just to prove a point.

The majority of us Black people work hard, pay our bills, take care of our homes and lawns, and never ever hurt anyone, but that does not mean that all Black people are saints.  If we could just let these old models and old beliefs go, we could proceed in this world based just on facts rather than assumptions.  Now, I have a Black elder statesman of Theatre and a young White male student to thank for raising the level of the discussion.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

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2 thoughts on “The Persistence of Old Models / Old Beliefs

  1. Hello Ms. Allen,
    I truly appreciated this post. I am a white male and a high school mathematics teacher. I have spent most of my career in an inner city school with a large African American population. I have developed some wonderful relationships with many of my African American students and colleagues during my career and I consider them all friends. (As much as any high school teacher would call a student a friend – but I hope you see my point.) The fact that we don’t truly know each other is precisely what makes the bond so powerful and meaningful to me. My African American friends and students love to teach this Connecticut born white boy about their lives, their culture and what it means to them to be an African American. And I love learning about them, all without judgment or criticism on either side. Maybe a heated debate or two, but isn’t that the best part of a friendship? This isn’t to say that we don’t also have quite a bit in common as well. It’s not much different than any of my friendships really, it is about learning, understanding, respecting and appreciating. And, I dare say, not being afraid to enjoy our differences. I have learned so much about myself as a white man through talking to my African American friends and students, and I hope they learn things about themselves through interacting with me. I believe that is the greatest challenge but most important goal for any of us these days – to have a proud identity as a member of the human race while still preserving our own individual culture; not to fade into society. If you just mix black and white you get gray; and gray would be a terrible thing for both white and black because they would no longer exist (just watch any McDonalds commercial if you want to see what gray really looks like). Forgive me for getting abstract, but I find much more beauty in the harmony between black and white – I picture an intricate M. C. Escher drawing; with distinct contrast and complexity up close, yet beautiful simplicity and a common purpose at a distance. Clearly black and white – not gray. Mr. Harrison hit it right on, and his example applies to a much bigger picture; I see these things happening in our schools all the time. And it’s not just black and white but any distinction we make like woman and man.
    Sorry for being so long winded, but I am very passionate about this. Thanks for sharing. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work.

    • Thank you Matt Wilson for your thoughtful comments. And might I add I am not at all surprised that these comments have come from a teacher. I do not think any group of individuals is more prepared to speak on these topics than folks who deal with young people of all races and ethnicities on a daily basis!

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