Watermelon man

Oct 25, 2000 at 12:00 am

Rastus and Remus are two colored gentlemen lolling around the watermelon patch talkin’, cogitatin’ and generally philosophisin’.

Rastus: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Remus: What you mean?

Rastus: Well, we used to be cullid people, right?

Remus: Yea.

Rastus: Then we got to be Negroes, right?

Remus: Yea.

Rastus: The we declared ourselves black and beautiful, right?

Remus: Yea.

Rastus: Then we became African-Americans, right?

Remus: Yea.

Rastus: Now they callin’ us people of color.

Remus: Yea.

Rastus: Well that mean we cullid agin.

Remus: Yea, but we been niggers all along.

Not talking about it hasn’t helped.

Not talking has caused the problem to fester and infect far more than if it had been dealt with long ago.

Questions of race and the specter of racism create the primary neurosis that infects America. And filmmaker Spike Lee’s Bamboozled — which explores America’s legacy of minstrelsy and its present manifestations — may be just what the doctor ordered. Because it seems that everybody is talking about the film. And that presents an opening that may well start a dialogue.

“We hope there might be things they never understood and didn’t think about and hope they talk about those images that we portray,” said Lee of the film’s audience during a telephone interview with the Metro Times.

And the images Lee portrays are ones Americans — black, white or any other color — have been loath to confront in an age when the most graphically violent and explicitly sexual images are just a point and click away.

This is the story: In an effort to get fired, a black cable network executive produces a traditional blackface minstrel show that becomes a runaway hit. Along the way, Lee’s film touches almost every Jim Crow stereotype in the medicine chest. The show’s main characters are named Mantan and Sleep ’N Eat. They’re backed by a chorus of dancers named Aunt Jemima, Sambo, Jungle Bunny, Rastus, Topsy and Lil’ nigger Jim. The sets become crowded with objects depicting blacks in smiling, red-lipped, coalblack-skinned splendor. The traditional Happy Nigger Bank with a hand that deposits a coin in its mouth becomes a key image in the movie. Clips from films and TV shows such as The Birth of a Nation, “Amos ’n’ Andy” and “The Jeffersons” round out the display of minstrel-inspired stereotyping and complete the connection to modern times.

Most damning among the images is the use of burnt cork to blacken the faces of the actors — the technique used in the mid-1800s by white actors to depict blacks and later by blacks who acted in and created their own minstrel shows.

Are we ready to talk about all that?

“I think people are going to end up having to talk about it whether they are ready or not,” says Breena Clarke, a playwright and novelist whose book River Cross My Heart was an October 1999 Oprah Book Club choice. “When you make a major film like that you throw open the doors.”

Clarke, along with co-author Glenda Dickerson, a University of Michigan professor of theater and drama, wrote Re/membering Aunt Jemima: A Menstrual Show. While their play is more about feminism, it follows the minstrel show format and focuses on the images of African and African-American women.

Plenty of others are also willing. “I’m doing this book-length poem called ‘Birth of a Notion,’” it looks at the history of blackface and minstrelsy and the images of blacks in popular culture,” says Detroit playwright Bill Harris. “It is pervasive in that it has a really long history and that it is central to popular culture in America.”

Harris says that when he first heard about Bamboozled, “I was pissed because he beat me to it. He got it out there.”

Minstrel roots

In the wake of Bamboozled, Harris’ work will be an addition to a widening stream of discussion among artists and scholars. Dickerson’s and Clarke’s play was written 10 years ago and has been published in two anthologies. One of those anthologies, Colored Contradictions, include two other plays that use the minstrel format: I Ain’t No Uncle and The Little Tommy Parker Colored Minstrel Show.

“There’s been a constantly running dialogue since Sterling Brown wrote a seminal essay elucidating the seven primary black stereotypes that are used in pop culture,” says Dickerson. “Since then there’s a long history of various scholars and pop culturists examining the way the stereotypes impact people of color.”

It’s all rooted in minstrelsy.

Minstrel troupes were the first popular entertainment in the United States. The troupes first appeared as a formatted style of blackface entertainment in the 1840s. White actors blackened their faces with burnt cork in order to portray blacks as buffoonish, ignorant characters. There were other caricatures— Chinese, backwoodsmen, Irish — in the popular idiom, but it was the blackface actors, dancers, musicians and comedians who captured the fancy of a white America being torn apart by the issue of slavery. The minstrel originators, however, were hardly familiar with blacks; most of the songs about longing for the good old South were written out of the fantasies of white Northerners who’d had little contact with blacks or plantation life. These minstrels, who marketed themselves as depicting the true culture of Negroes, created a narrow and demeaning set of character types that still live with us today.

When in the late 1800s and early 1900s black minstrel troupes became dominant, the format and characters were so set it was nearly impossible for black entertainers to break the mold. These black minstrel shows were advertised as presenting “real coons.” Yet, ironically, even real coons had to don burnt cork to represent themselves.

“It makes you a nonperson,” says Lee. “It makes you not human. It’s something that denigrates and dehumanizes you. Savion (Glover) and Tommy (Davidson) said they felt that deeply every time they had to put on blackface in the film.”

Putting on the mask is the root of the idea that all blacks look alike. Blackface makeup destroyed the differences between blacks and made them the same in the eyes of the minstrel audience. There was no diversity allowed.

Minstrelsy survives in American culture as the basis for the variety show, musicals, stand-up comedy — and in the majority of roles available to African-American entertainers today. That is still the case after the civil rights and black power movements, even after the dawn of new black filmmaking ushered in by Lee — a stark contrast to the blaxsploitation films of the 1970s with characters such as Sweet Sweetback, Super Fly and Foxy Brown. (Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle dealt directly with the issue.)

“We are still dealing with some of these same stereotypes in our pop culture,” says Clarke. “All you have to do is look at television and see. The grinning shine; it’s still funny to see a large fleshy woman cavorting, cursing with her hands on her hips, and the oversexed, tempestuous African-American woman.”

But Lee concedes some progress: “All those roles are not necessarily minstrels, but the roles are still limited in comparison to the white counterparts.”

The roles that buck the system tend to become insignificant next to the sheer numbers of the stereotypical ones. For every “Cosby” show there are a raft of shows such as “Homeboys in Outer Space” and “Martin.” And how many of the works with really good roles get promoted and well distributed?

Beamed worldwide

Detroit filmmaker and educator Njia Kai has a startling anecdote about stereotyping. She recounts speaking to a young African man who had just sat through a documentary on black historical characters such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois. The young man was shocked by the images of African-Americans who were leaders and committed to helping others. “‘We see a lot of film in Mauritania,’” she recalls him saying. “‘Based on what we were seeing they told me before I got here: Don’t deal with any black people.’ In the films that they see, we are whores, criminals and drug addicts.”

Further confusing things is the fact that although many entertainers play parts that some consider shameful, they actually do them well. Bert Williams performed in blackface makeup from the late 1890s until his death in 1922, yet he is considered by some the greatest comic of all time. A whole generation of African-Americans loved their Shirley Temple movies and thrilled every time Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was onscreen teaching that cute little white girl how to dance. As demeaning as those movies may have been, they afforded Robinson the opportunity to dance in a tuxedo rather than rags, a goal he strove for in peeling off his minstrel past. And artists such as Savion Glover would have little legacy to build on if not for Robinson and his generation.

The jokes and skits may have been racist and demeaning, but they were often well done. And, historically speaking, these were the groundbreaking original black entertainers on the public stage. Unfortunately they were almost all comic roles that reinforced the stereotypical Negro image.

Real deals

Dickerson sees a similar dynamic at performances of her play. People laugh at things they intellectually find politically incorrect. “People find themselves laughing and find themselves horrified at their laughter,” she says.

One of Lee’s targets in Bamboozled — gangsta rappers and the misogynistic images they propagate — falls into the same bag. “Gangsta videos are the embodiment of the 21st century minstrel show,” says Lee.

Indeed, black minstrel shows were advertised as “real nigs.” In his book, On the Real Side, A History of African American Comedy, Mel Watkins writes: “Black troupes also emphasized their link to plantation life and often referred to their companies as Slave Troupes. They were so successful at this that critics and journalists frequently praised their authenticity. A New York newspaper called the Brooker and Clayton troupe ‘genuine plantation darkies from the South,’ and hailed them as ‘great delineators of darky life,’ who vigorously showcased the ‘peculiar music and characteristics of plantation life.’ Black minstrel shows were seen as real-life scenarios in which the participants engaged in their normal behavior.”

“There has been this fascination with black people,” says Harris. “The first white men who portrayed these black images had the theory they were revealing who these people were. But they got stuck to the tar baby.”

Those same sentiments are often paraphrased by modern-day rappers with their insistence that they are presenting the “real deal” of urban black life. That they are from the “street.” That they are “keeping it real” as they perform with bandannas on their heads while drinking from 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. Then you get movies such as Whiteboys about young Midwestern whites whose entire concept of urban blacks is based on music videos.

Maybe this is a manifestation of the adage that “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.”

And a legitimate part of that history is the existence and popularity of images from the Jim Crow era. The sets in the second half of Bamboozled are decorated with the Sambo-Tar Baby-pickaninny-grinning-watermelon eating figures that many folks find painful or shameful or both. Still, there are others who find something to be reckoned with there. Many of these objects are finding their way into collections owned by African-Americans.

“We got them from many different places, some from my own collection,” says Lee. “I think it’s a reminder of how we were thought of and what was the accepted behavior.”

The outrage factor

When the Metro Times ran a story on such collections in 1996, there was a swell of protest from many who were aghast that there was anything positive to be seen in these images. At the same time, for African-Americans who wish to dig into their own history and culture, these things are among the few artifacts to be had. This could well be a turning point with blacks able to look at these objects and bring something more to it than hatred or shame. Clarke and Dickerson are both collectors of such Americana.

“It’s a reclamation, rescuing, a sort of gathering those things in,” says Clarke. “It’s a way to surround yourself with imagery of African peoples. Some of them are broad and coarse and just ugly. Some are so ugly they’re beautiful.”

Clarke says she knows of some people who buy such objects and destroy them in order to get them out of circulation. They are plenty who don’t see how such racist artifacts can have any artistic value.

“I guess the difference is in the attitude, in the way they are displayed and the way they’re used,” says Clarke of her own collection. “Most of them are displayed in a lovely cabinet and displayed with respect and appreciation.”

The point, she says, is to “overcome what that image was initially and use it to kind of remind yourself and strengthen yourself through your overcoming of what its negative intention was.”

It’s a confusing concept to work through in the same way the word “nigger” is confusing. African-Americans sometimes refer to each other as nigger, sometimes in intimate and loving ways. Yet the use of the word by whites is almost never deemed acceptable because of the history of race relations between blacks and whites.

There are no easy answers. Ask Ted Danson, who was roundly vilified after appearing in blackface makeup at a Whoopi Goldberg roast and performing a text written by Goldberg — his girlfriend at the time. It might have been OK for an African-American to do the same thing, but not Danson.

Take Clarke and Dickerson, who are African-Americans, when they approach the Aunt Jemima figure. Literature about their play reads: “We acknowledge her as the symbol and the repository of the shame, disease and self-hatred from which we wish to free ourselves. … When you strip away the preconceived notions that make us cringe at the mention of Aunt Jemima’s name, what you are left with is a big, strong, capable woman who came with us from Africa, who guided our journey through bondage, who is with us still.”

No answers

The only way to get that dynamic straight will be to talk about it. To let the feelings come out and examine them in the light of day rather than to hide them in a box in the attic. Jim Crow and all that came with it was a painful part of American history for blacks. Few really want to examine it and talk through the pain to the clear space on the other side.

And that seems to be mainly what Lee is looking for. His film certainly doesn’t give any useful answers.

Lee says it’s “about an ugly part of American history that still reverberates today. We hope there might be things they never understood and didn’t think about and hope they talk about those images that we portray.”

Bamboozled is no deeper than that. Lee “admits that his films do not hold the solutions and that is not where he come from,” says Kai.

“I don’t consider him a good storyteller. I consider him a good technician. He has done it successfully for years. But I don’t consider him a storyteller. He doesn’t have the analysis, the synthesis that would allow him to present a conclusion that would allow him to present his perspective.”

But he does have an eye for shocking images and what the dialogue should be about. So sit back, slice off a big piece of watermelon, and call Dr. Spike in the morning. You may feel a lot better after a few visits.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]