Who is more Black?

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Who is More Black?
By Yemáya Williams

“Who is more Black: Will Smith or Tupac?”

On the first day of my Black Cultural Arts class, my professor made each student verbally answer this question and wouldn’t let anyone give their reasoning. We were to say either name and then he would move on to the next person. The majority chose not to answer, the consensus being that there is no specific way to be Black and therefore neither is more Black than another. Will Smith and Tupac are individual Black men. To argue one side is to imply that there is a right and wrong way to be Black or insinuate that the ideals of colorism are accurate. 

However, subsequent lectures showed us that wasn’t actually what the teacher was asking. When looking at Tupac and Will Smith, not as Black people but as the Black cultural productions that they were involved in, the real question was “Is the thug life rapper or the sitcom actor more Black?” 

When it comes to Black cultural production (books, music, movies, TV shows, and any other media that are considered “Black”) the question of authenticity becomes a nuanced discussion involving politics and capitalism. You’re forced to consider who is behind the production, who is involved in the execution, who is consuming the material, who is the intended audience, and, most importantly, the ways the representations of Black people reflect the political climate at the time of its making

The question becomes: is this authentically Black, made by Black people to express themselves and to relate to the Black American experience? Or is it a commodified version of perceived Blackness meant to profit white people and/or advance a political agenda? Tupac was a rapper from Harlem who talked about the harsh experiences of living in the ghetto, which is what the Black-created genre gangsta rap is all about. Meanwhile, Will Smith acted in a white-written and produced sitcom about a Black family living in a rich white neighborhood. Ironically, many Black viewers couldn’t relate to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, because systemic housing discrimination keeps them living in places more similar to Tupac’s neighborhood. There are  many factors to consider when labeling something “Black.” Oftentimes, asking questions reveals that something purportedly “Black” is just another case of white people turning the perception of Black people into a commodity. 

The commodification of Blackness has been happening since the commodification of Black bodies. Elvis was not the first white person to get away with stealing and claiming the Black aesthetic as their own. With the rise of the abolitionist movement came one of the first forms of entertainment to enter popular culture: minstrel shows. Minstrel shows, the first commodification of Blackness outside of slavery itself, were a white fantasy that served political purposes. It is from minstrel shows that representations of Black people originated: the Sambo, who is always singing with a big smile on his face, the Coon, always making a fool out of himself, and the Mammy and Uncle Tom, who is more than happy to serve their white masters. 

At the time, these shows sent the message to the white audiences that Black people were happy to be enslaved. They tried to get people to pay no mind to the possibility of abolition by making them believe that slaves spent their days in the field singing and smiling, waiting to happily fulfill the next request of their master. The character tropes that were created by these stereotypes evolved into the inauthentic representations of Black people in popular culture. Watch any Madea movie or one of the many TV shows with a Black side character who only opens his mouth to crack jokes, and you’ll realize that these tropes never disappeared, only evolved with the times.

Ask yourself: Is Tyler Perry’s Madea authentically Black if it is based on the old Mammy stereotype, or is it simply a way to commodify a popular, inauthentic perception of blackness? Outside of Tyler Perry himself and the other actors in the film, how many Black people were involved behind the scenes as writers or producers? How many Black people profited off the film? Did the movies relay the lived experiences of Black people in America to the audience, or do they rely on the part of our brains that can recognize what stereotypes about Black people are supposed to make us laugh? How many people watching the movie know that the trope Madea is based on originated during slavery to push the white political agenda of the time? 

After minstrel shows succeeded in making money and failed to permanently secure the institution of slavery, post-abolition movies like “Birth of a Nation” tried to send the message that free from the domination of slavery, Black people were savages. According to Blackface representations from this era, all Black men wanted to do was rape virgin white women. These popular images on-screen allowed for another justification for the murder of Black people. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, a Black child, was brutally murdered after a white woman lied about him whistling at her. Emmett Till’s death is a clear example of inauthentic, commodified Black representations ending in real-life consequences that reflect the violent societal racism of the times in which they were made.

Blackness isn’t just commodified by white people who expressly want to create the stereotypes that allow dominant hegemonic thought to continue. Black music is a great example of how Blackness is commodified through theft. Many people know who Elvis is, but most don’t know Big Mama Thornton. Elvis stole his songs and sound from Black blues musicians like Big Mama Thornton, the original singer of “Hound Dog,” and Otis Blackwell, a songwriter who wrote for Elvis. As a white man, he was able to reach a large audience across the country while Black artists were restricted to ‘Race music’ venues and radio stations. While it’s slowly becoming more widely-known that Elvis copied Big Mama Thornton, the racial history of blues and rock and roll is still commonly unknown. 

Rock and roll music only exists because Black people created the blues. The blues was an authentic, uncommodified version of Black culture. It was a genre born out of the Southern experience, made by and for Black people. White people called it “devil music” because of some of its raunchy content and considered it, like all things Black, to be a part of low culture at the time. Popular blues artists would go around the South playing what they called “one-nighters” to bring a night of release and relief to the pressures of the deep South. It was never about money, it was about shared experiences and community. At the time, the genre was called “Race music.” White people started to catch on to the value of Black musicians and started going to one-nighters and listening to Black radio stations.

This was all happening during segregation, so the KKK and general white public couldn’t stand for it. This cross over into popular culture from low culture turned Race music into “rhythm and blues.” All of a sudden, Black artists were being asked by record labels to come in and record singles to be played on white radio. Of course, white producers and owners of record companies took advantage of Black musicians when it came to contracts and compensation, but these musicians mostly cared about being heard. One-nighters turned into fully-segregated concerts where the white sections were given the dance floor. The shows became about them. 

Commodification leads to a transformation of authenticity. 

The complete takeover of the blues was swift. First, Black musicians, both live and on radio, were swapped for white musicians who would cover their songs. This mimicking of Blackness could never recreate the authentic messages of the songs. Next came rock and roll. The rebrand of Race music to rhythm and blues still alienated some crowds of white people who wanted nothing to do with low culture. So the next rebrand came with new songs, by white musicians and musicians like Elvis, instead of covers. Popular equals profitable, and in order to remain dominant, white industry members kept the money to themselves and away from Black people. 

This theft for the sake of financial exploitation is another way in which perceptions of Blackness are commodified. Black artists in all mediums are constantly being stolen from or taken advantage of. Without Black agency and authenticity, these practices are commodification. 

So who is more Black: Will Smith or Tupac? There are various modalities of Black people within and impacted by political context. The blues spoke to the people of the deep South, but Black people in the North were going through different versions of that struggle. Who is to say what is the real Black experience when there are so many different Black experiences? And if you can’t define the experience, then who is to say what is authentic? These questions don’t come with definitive answers, but by looking at racist systems, it is possible to answer what isn't an authentic Black experience. 

If you question who portrays a more authentic Black experience, Will Smith and Tupac are the perfect people to pit against each other. Tupac was one of many disenfranchised Black people whose lives were negatively impacted by systematic racism. He was forced to live in ghettos and involve himself in underground street politics. He made gangsta rap to express the conditions and daily experiences of being Black in the hood. Even as he entered popular culture, he stayed true to his people and his message, and even signed with a label created by other Black rappers. The context and means of production and profit were centered around Black people and lived Black experiences that stem from racist housing policies, job discrimination and lack of generational wealth. However, despite Tupac’s notoriety and place in pop culture, gangsta rap as a genre was still looked down on by high white society and deemed low culture. 

Even though “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Airhad a majority Black cast in addition to Will Smith, it was never considered low culture. How true to the Black experience can something be if it is wholly accepted by white people? The systems keeping Tupac in the ghetto are the same ones that make a Black family living in a mansion in Bel Air a white fantasy–and all fictional white fantasies serve a political purpose. 

“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” like “Family Matters” and “Good Times,” was considered to be Black TV shows because they had majority Black casts and Black lead characters. But is a Black lead character enough? Black people, who are underrepresented in media, are often just happy to see themselves on screen. Madea’s character may have awful origins, but at least Black people can go to a movie theater and laugh at people who look like them. You can’t be what you can’t see and seeing B*ll C*sby play a successful doctor may have inspired a Black audience. But when you think about all these shows and movies considered to be “Black,” you have to ask yourself: is it a Black show if the premise is so far from reality that Black people can’t relate to it? 

Will Smith was the Black main character of a “Black” sitcom, but his way of life doesn’t fit in the various modalities of lived Black experiences. It is written and produced by white people, made in a way that gets Black people happy about seeing themselves on TV while not alienating any white viewers. This way, white TV stations can use Blackness to profit off of both demographics. Not a single Black person who watched that show watched it from a mansion in Bel-Air. 

Simply put, when looking at the Black cultural production of Tupac and Will Smith, Tupac is more Black than Will Smith. 

This is not Will Smith’s fault. Black sitcoms featuring middle- to upper-middle-class Black families came about during the Civil Rights Movement, and they were meant to do a lot more than just make money off of the backs of Black bodies. They were meant to counterbalance what was on the news: Black people’s demand for equality and white politicians' opposition to welfare. Black TV shows told white people that Black people were asking for too much, that if they just worked hard and were “good,” that they too could be a Black family living in the suburbs, enjoying the “American Dream.” The Black characters on the show were palatable Black people, written by white people, to act as white as possible in order to paint assimilation and living the white way as the right way. 

Shows like “Fresh Prince” sought to give white and Black people the illusion that the American Dream was attainable for Black people when everything they saw on the news was saying the opposite. They told the Black working-class families in their audience that they needed to work harder so that they too could buy a house in the suburbs, while they were in the streets fighting to be treated like humans. Black struggles were erased in the minds of white people falling for a white fantasy that exploited the politics of Black people’s desires while ignoring the reality of Black people’s lives.

Who gets to define what reality is for Black people? Who is consuming these different versions of reality? As the years go by, Black people have slowly been granted more and more access to cultural means of production. Instead of Black representations being 100% white fantasies, there are now movies like “Moonlight” and “The Hate You Give,” made by black people about authentic Black experiences. Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele being influential Black directors is a big deal when Black people have been kept out of these positions of power for decades.

But access isn’t going to put an end to commodification. Black cultural productions extend beyond the screen. It is important to reinforce the ability to view popular culture as not just a source of entertainment but to also see the other elements that speak to the dominant ideologies of the cultural hegemony. This applies to every form of cultural production that has the potential to be copied, stolen or used. Ask yourself, how is Blackness being exploited for financial or political gain? 

The last example I want to give is the graphic design challenge that is the Black Lives Matter Movement, which is what prompted me to want to give this history lesson. Instagram accounts and brands competed to create the cutest viral rendition of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” to be performatively shared on everyone’s Instagram Story. Companies that barely employ Black people—or if they do, they aren’t in any positions of power—, are frantically posting their solidarity so as to not get “canceled” by their following. They are saying they “stand with Black people'' while the Black people in their spaces aren’t supported in any way. If they didn’t, they had to deal with followers demanding that they say something. But why demand something from them that they don’t mean? 

When a private white university (PWI) puts out a statement about its commitment to its Black community while the Black community constantly experiences racism at the hands of their peers and teachers and university policies, one has to be aware of how supporting Black people has been commodified to keep Black people giving their money and support to these white institutions without them actually doing anything concrete to support Black people. Brands that have stolen from Black creators suddenly reaching out to Black creators to collaborate because the political climate tells them it’s profitable is a slap in the face. Black creators and models and workers are getting attention now more than ever. It is good for them but it is also important to realize how their Blackness is being used by the people hiring or working with them for a good image and therefore good profit.

Blackness makes the world go round. From Black Twitter to Black fashion, to Black vernacular, to Black music, white people have always used their perceptions of Blackness to contort and distort what made it authentically Black into something that offers white people some sort of political or economic gain. Black bodies have been exploited since slavery, and this exploitation is continuing in present-day discussions about the mistreatment of Black bodies. There isn’t one way to be Black, but there are inauthentic versions of Blackness being perpetuated by our hegemonic culture.  

This is the opinion of Activism Editor Yemaya Williams.

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