Paul Beatty

Blackness as a Performance: Afro-Modernism, the Black Arts Movement, and the Post-Soul Aesthetic

This image taken from BET.com's article "Is Jazz the New Nigger?" (June, 2008) demonstrates blackness as a performance. Stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness often control black male identity.

This image taken from BET.com’s article “Is Jazz the New Nigger?” (June, 2008) demonstrates how blackness can be a performance. Stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness often control black male identity, which is seen through literary works of Afro-Modernism, the Black Arts Movement, and the Post-Soul Aesthetic.

Blackness is a fluid and complex identity, yet American society constructs black male identity through stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness. Black men must navigate this prepackaged identity in a “performance” of blackness, which has evolved through the literary periods of Afro-Modernism, the Black Arts Movement, and the Post-Soul Aesthetic.

During the Afro-Modern period, the performance of blackness was largely an unconscious act, which is perfectly embodied by the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Afro-Modernism centers on feelings of dysphoria and displacement brought on by changes in science, technology, and industrialization within society; it is a struggle for identity in the midst of becoming an automaton. On addition to this, the Afro-Modern period must also deal with the historical realities of slavery and racism in the United States.

The protagonist of Invisible Man is naïve and inexperienced with the ways of the world. The novel begins with the protagonist reflecting on his experiences, explaining that he is invisible to others:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you sometimes see in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me. (Ellison, 3)

The nameless narrator feels helpless because his identity is beyond his control; people never see his true self because they are absorbed in their own perceptions of his blackness. To white characters (and even some black characters) the protagonist is perceived as a caricature of blackness. Without realizing it, the protagonist is participating in a performance of blackness. This performance typically results in the protagonist being exploited for others’ purposes; they use him as a puppet for their own means. He is the object, never the doer, in these various situations throughout the novel.

During the course of the novel, the protagonist is haunted by historically important memorabilia; these items reflect the racist realities for African Americans in the early 20th century:

This early Americana Negro coin bank demonstrates features racist, exaggerated features of African Americans.

This early Americana Negro coin bank demonstrates features racist, exaggerated features of African Americans.

Then near the door I saw something which I’d never noticed there before: the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth. (Ellison, 319)

This early Americana coin bank is a racist caricature of African Americans. The protagonist of Invisible Man senses the racist nature of the bank and he inadvertently smashes it to pieces. He then tries to get dispose of the bank, but to no avail. He puts the broken pieces in his briefcase and tries to drop them into a trashcan on the street, but the owner of the trashcan forces him to remove the package. Then, he attempts to leave the package in a pile of snow at a stoplight. The protagonist feels immensely relieved until a man catches up with him a few blocks later and tries to return the package to him. The protagonist simply cannot get rid of this thing.

This "Dancing Sambo" doll is found in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

This “Dancing Sambo” doll is found in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

This “Dancing Sambo” doll makes an appearance in Invisible Man when the protagonist spots Brother Todd Clifton peddling these dolls on the street. Upon seeing the crowd around Clifton, the protagonist looks at what is being sold and thinks, “I’d seen nothing like it before. A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper with thin flat cardboard disks forming its head and feet and which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask-like face” (Ellison, 431). The Sambo doll troubles the protagonist; he cannot figure out what makes it dance. Frustrated, he says to the doll:

Go on, entertain me. You entertained the crowd. I turned it around. One face grinned as broadly as the other. It had grinned back at Clifton as it grinned forward at the crowd, and their entertainment had been his death. It still grinned when I played the fool and spat upon it, and it still grinned when Clifton ignored me. Then I saw a fine black thread and pulled it from the frilled paper. There was a loop tied in the end. I slipped it over my finger and stood stretching it taut. And this time it danced. Clifton had been making it dance all the time and the black thread had been invisible (Ellison, 446).

The invisible black thread is indicative of the white characters of Invisible Man, particularly the Brotherhood who have used the protagonist for their own purposes. They have been controlling him and making him perform without his knowledge. The protagonist eventually realizes both his invisibility and how the Brotherhood exploited him: “I could see it now, see it clearly and in growing magnitude… The committee had planned it. And I had helped, had been a tool. A tool just at the very moment I had thought myself free” (Ellison, 553).

The Negro coin bank and “Dancing Sambo” doll are significant for the protagonist’s black identity.  He cannot escape the fact that objects such as these exist in the world and that they will affect his existence as a black man in American society. The protagonist looks up to the white characters of the novel such as Mr. Norton and wants to please these men; he wants to be the ideal black man—polite, respectable, educated, and most importantly, a man who “knows his place” (i.e. his racial inferiority). In reality, the white characters see him as a stereotype—a mindless, groveling entertainer, much like the Negro bank and Sambo doll.

The literary successor of the Afro-Modern period is the Black Arts Movement. The Black Arts Movement was the sister to the Black Power Movement. The BAM valued blackness; it emphasized racial pride. The protagonist Dan Freeman in Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door is proud of his blackness, but he still must navigate stereotypes about black individuals. Freeman, unlike Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man, is well aware of the stereotypes he’ll encounter; his performance is polished and deliberate.

Below is the trailer of the film adaptation of The Spook Who Sat by the Door. It gives a great sense of the tone of Spook and outlines Freeman’s character well:

To “whitey,” Freeman is the ideal black man—a prime example of success for his people. Freeman thinks, “It was not difficult to conform to the image whites desired, since they did most of the work. They saw in most Negroes exactly what they most wanted to see; one need only impressionistically support the stereotype. Whites were fools” (Greenlee, 32).

A brilliant example of the calculated race relations between Freeman and “Whitey” occurs when Freeman is meeting with the Senator who was responsible for the integration of the CIA. He says to Freeman, “Tell me, Mr. Freeman, do you like working for the agency?” The senator had found that calling Negroes “Mr.” often had a magical effect on the relationship,” to which Freeman replies, “Yes, sir.” Freeman used “sir” with whites as often as possible. He found that it had a magical effect on the relationship” (Greenlee, 45).  This interaction demonstrates how both Freeman and the senator are attempting to manipulate the other through their navigation of stereotypes. If this interaction had been with the senator and the protagonist of Invisible Man, the protagonist would have been flattered to be addressed as “Mr.” Freeman, however, knows better.

The video below features the entire film adaptation of Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door:

The scene from 20 minutes and 11 seconds to 21 minutes and 36 seconds shows the CIA’s thoroughness in ensuring that Freeman is a “good” and “safe” black man to have in the agency—a radical of any kind is unacceptable. Freeman though, has a pristine cover and keeps his black nationalist identity to himself. Freeman restrains himself in the presence of whites; a great example of this is his interaction with the senator from 28 minutes and 4 seconds to 28 minutes and 52 seconds. The senator tells Freeman that he is a “credit to his race” and makes insulting statements about black people being natural-born athletes. The senator is quick to comment that black people are still primitive though—“there is a cultural gap.” Freeman responds to all of this with a smile and a “yes, sir,” despite Freeman’s true thoughts on the condescension of this white man.

Freeman then moves back to Chicago to be a social worker. He plans to “reach out” to a local gang, the Cobras. He is really recruiting them as a guerilla army against “whitey.” The scene begins at 34 minutes and 57 seconds to 35 minutes and 57 seconds; Freeman assaults the Cobras and asks them, “Do you really want to mess with whitey? I can show you how.” This Freeman in this scene is in direct contrast with the earlier Freeman in the scene with the Senator. Freeman is performing his model blackness perfectly; whites trust him. Yet his true self emerges in his relationship with the Cobras. Eventually, Freeman trains the Cobras to become trained killers on the streets of Chicago; their skills are highlighted at hour, 31 minutes, and 39 seconds to 1 hour, 32 minutes, and 35 seconds.

The climactic ending of the film at 1 hour, 35 minutes, and 26 seconds shows Officer Dawson’s surprise at Freeman being behind the guerilla warfare. He says to Freeman, “Cool Dan Freeman, the South Side playboy, nothing on your mind except chicks, clothes, good whiskey and sports cars. A beautiful cover, now that I think about it” (Greenlee, 241). Freeman understands how the world operates and he uses it to his advantage; he knows how to play the game.

Following the Black Arts Movement, blackness as a performance becomes even more convoluted and complicated with the Post-Soul Aesthetic. While Afro-Modernism and the Black Arts Movement focus on black male characters who, for the most part, emulate white masculinity in hopes of being accepted by American society, the Post-Aesthetic, specifically Paul Beatty in The White Boy Shuffle, shows the fluidity of blackness and acknowledges how the performance of blackness has become more complex.

Beatty explores this performance of black masculinity through his characterization of Nicholas Scoby. Scoby embodies the ideal black masculinity: he is a basketball star. After playing a few games with Scoby, Beatty’s protagonist, Gunnar, explains why Scoby is held in high regard on the court: “He never missed. I mean never” (95). Scoby’s perfection of black masculinity is illustrated through his perfection on the basketball court–a stereotypical domain for black males. This perfection, however, becomes burdensome to Scoby and it begins to consume him:

“It’s not fair. I wasn’t born to make them happy. What I look like, motherfucking Charlie Chaplin?” Scoby’s eyes reddened and he started to sniffle. I could see that he was cracking under the pressure. Watching his hands shake, I realized that sometimes the worst thing a nigger can do is perform well. Because then there is no turning back… American society reels you back into the fold. “Tote that barge, shoot that basketball, lift that bale, nigger ain’t you ever heard of Dred Scott?” (Beatty 119)

When his fame becomes too much for him, Scoby rejects basketball and seeks other outlets for his identity. He listens to jazz music constantly and is particularly drawn to the music of Sarah Vaughan:

Scoby’s interest in jazz is about destroying stereotypical ideas about his masculinity. Vaughan’s music is sensually feminine, emotional, and contemplative–everything that stereotypical black masculinity is not. When Gunnar asks why Sarah Vaughan is so special, Scoby says, “Sarah’s not one those tragic niggers white folks like so much. Sarah’s a nigger’s nigger, she be black coffee. Not no mocha peppermint kissy-kissy butter rum do-you-have-any-heroin caffé latté” (Beatty, 194). To Scoby, Sarah Vaughan is the real deal; she is not pretending to be anything or anybody else. Her identity is pure because it is authentic and this is what Scoby desires because he feels trapped within the stereotypes of black masculinity.

Coupled with his fanaticism for Vaughan is his devotion to Japanese love-suicide plays, specifically The Love Suicides at Sonezaki by Chikamatsu Monzaemon: 

Scoby is drawn to the freedom that death gives. Japanese love-suicide plays indict society for the act of suicide, not the individuals committing the act, which is the opposite of Western thought on suicide. Because of this, Scoby’s suicide should be read in the same way. As Gunnar reads the love-suicide play to Scoby, he observes, “Whenever the sake dealer and the loyal courtesan cross the bridge and start looking for a place to kill themselves, Nicholas weeps with the star-crossed lovers. “I know what it feels like to live in a world where you can’t live your dreams. I’d rather die too. Why won’t they leave us alone? They fuck up your dream. They fuck up your dream” (Beatty 194).  American society is too constrictive about identity and forces black men into prepackaged identities and Scoby hates this. For Scoby, death is the only way to escape these stereotypes.

“I’m beginning to see the sheer casual genius of Chikamatsu writing for the puppet theater. If I blur my eyes I can see the black strings attached to my joints and stretching up to the skies… Nicholas sees the strings, but he spends all his time looking for a pair of scissors. Every now and then the puppet-master hands him a pair of wooden scissors—Sarah Vaughan, an open jump shot—and Scoby thinks he’s free, thinks he’s clipped his strings. The slack string is just a slack string” (Beatty, 194).

Blackness is a performance that matters. The progression and evolution of this performance adapts and changes with each new literary period: the performance found in Afro-Modern texts demonstrates that the performance was, on the whole, unconsciously done. In the Black Arts Movement, blackness is overtly valued, but stereotypes are still present and must be navigated; individuals must outwardly perform a particular kind of blackness to whites. The Post-Soul Aesthetic shows the fluidity of blackness and the detrimental pressure of the performance of black masculinity. Stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness will continue to impact black men no matter what the time period; the performance will go on.

Works Cited:

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Picador, 1996. Print.

“Black Americana Dancing Sambo Magic Trick.” Ruby Lane. RubyLane.com, n. d. Web. 14 May. 2013.<http://www.rubylane.com/item/370999-5565/Black-Americana-Dancing-Sambo-Magic&gt;.

CrazyDeeDee. :Vintage Negro Mechanical Cast Iron Bank.” Etsy. Etsy.com, n. d. Web. 14 May. 2013. <http://www.etsy.com/listing/127059381/vintage-negro-mechanical-cast-iron-bank?ref=market&gt;.

Dixon, Ivan, dir. The Spook Who Sat by the Door – Trailer. United Artists, 1973. Film. 14 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsH8Y5wpDSs&gt;.

Dixon, Ivan, dir. The Spook Who Sat by the Door. United Artists, 1973. Film. 14 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BynXfREPG8&gt;.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, Inc., 1952. Print.

Greenlee, Sam. The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969. Print.

“Is Jazz the New Nigger?” BET. BET.com, 04 Jun 2008. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://blogs.bet.com/betj/underdog/is-jazz-the-new-ngger/&gt;.

Masumura, Yasuzo, dir. The Love Suicides at Sonezaki. Kimura Productions, 1978. Film. 14 May 2013.
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_a21dE09Jk&gt;.

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Identity as Performance

Identity should be unique, something that we call our own. Not an exploitation for entertainment.

Identity displays who we are.

There is no doubt that one’s identity defines their unique persona.  Being white vs. being black both come with a unique set of characteristics.  However, identity is frequently used to exhibit performance.  Oftentimes being black or being white goes beyond simple identity; color is also used for performance.

There are numerous places where one can see racial identity being used as a means of performance.  The picture below is from a blog by Crystal Sykes in which she reflects on her own experience of being black in San Francisco.  This picture is interesting because it portrays a black girl among several white people; she is thinking to herself, “I’m not your black friend.”  In this particular blog post, Crystal writes about hipster racism.  In other words, being above racism but still making snarky remarks.  The people in her community saw her blackness as different, as something unique and “cool.”  This shows how blackness can be perceived as not just a person’s identity, but as something to be exhibited.  If Crystal had used her white friends’ intrigue about black culture to her advantage, this would be an example of blackness as performance.

Black in a sea of white

Black in a sea of white

Authors from both the Black Arts Movement and Post Soul portray racial identity as a means of performance as well.  The protagonist of the novels from this time period usually use his or her skin color to their advantage; performing and appealing to the desires of the particular crowd.

In Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shufflethe protagonist Gunnar exemplifies blackness as performance.  Unlike Crystal, uncomfortable in a city filled with white people, Gunnar embraced his unique situation and used it to his advantage.  Gunnar says, “I was the funny, cool black guy. In Santa Monica, like most predominantly white sanctuaries from urban blight, “cool black guy” is a versatile identifier used to distinguish the harmless black male from the Caucasian juvenile while maintaining politically correct semiotics” (Beatty, 27).  Gunnar goes on to say, “I learned early that white kids will believe anything anybody a shade darker than chocolate milk says” (Beatty, 28).  Gunnar had the ability to appeal to his white class mates.  He embraced his racial identity and used it to his advantage.  Being black gave him a sense of empowerment, not defeat.

Whiteness as performance is also portrayed in the media of popular culture.  In the movie White Chicks, two black men must disguise themselves as white women in order to protect the multi-billion dollar fortune of two white girls.  This comedy portrays whiteness as performance using satire.  The satire lies in the fact that two successful black men must present themselves as two dumb, white blonde chicks.  As they present themselves as white girls, the audience for which they are performing is white as well, making the situation even more ironic: white people are being deceived by black people who are pretending to be white.

In Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, there are several instances of whiteness as performance.  Walter Marsh’s family is a good example of whiteness as performance.  Birdie’s mother Sandy referred to wealthy white people as wasps.  Walter Marsh, she said, was a real wasp.  Sandy said, “The proof was the layer of dust covering their house–and the way Walter sucked on a toothpick, picked his nose, hacked into his hand, and performed other blatantly rude personal habits in public, oblivious that they might be offensive to the people around him” (Senna, 155).  This portrays whiteness as performance because being a wasp means being white and wealthy but trying to keep it hidden.  The Marsh family doesn’t want to come off as rich and uptight so they let a layer of dust cover the tops of all of their fine things; this is a performing act to keep up appearances and portray themselves as being laid back and casual.

Birdie and her mother are both living as white.  However, Birdie is not actually white; she is able to pass as white by telling others that she is of Jewish descent.  Both Birdie and Sandy have to continually “mask” their true identities in order to appear as white and to appeal to their particular audience.

An example of whiteness as performance in Caucasia is when Birdie confronts Samantha about her blackness.  Birdie was uncomfortable with whiteness as performance but her mother’s words to trust no one were always ringing in her ears. One night at a party, she found Samantha, the only other black girl:

“What color do you think I am?

Nora said you were Jewish. I saw you wearing that start thing they all have to wear. Yeah, Jewish. Why do you ask?

I’m not really Jewish. It’s a lie.

What do you mean?

I mean, I’m not Jewish. My mom’s not Jewish. She has to be Jewish for me to be Jewish, really, and she’s not.

As I said it, I wondered, for the first time, if the same was true with blackness.  Did you have to have a black mother to be really black? There had been no black women involved in my conception. Maybe that made us frauds” (Senna, 285).  This is the first time when the protagonist becomes entangled by her own set of lies.  While blackness and whiteness as performance can be used positively to enhance the perceived persona of a character, this performance can also entangle and become a messy web of lies; using identity to perform can become damaging to a person’s real identity.

This damaging effect is particularly seen in John Oliver Killens’ The Cotillion.  Yoruba is an African American girl whose mother insists that she attend etiquette training classes and be in a cotillion.  While this particular cotillion consists of all black women, cotillions are originally a tradition of white southern females and are used as a way to introduce young females to society.  So from the beginning of this novel, blackness as performance is seen everywhere.

This has a damaging effect on Yoruba, however.  While her boyfriend Ben Ali Lumumba is telling her to embrace her blackness, Yoruba’s mother is telling her to try to not be as black as possible but rather to simply acknowledge her blackness and to leave it alone.  This creates tension within Yoruba.  She wants to please her mother and win the scholarship offered by the cotillion but she also loves and respects Ben Ali and simply wants to live as a black girl, free of all the stress and drama that the cotillion entails.

One way that blackness as performance is portrayed in this novel is within the mayhem of the politics of appearance.  John Oliver Killens focuses part of a chapter on hair.  In a discussion between Yoruba and her mother he writes:

Come. Come, dearie, I’m going to buy you a lovely wig. Come. I forgive you. Come.

A wig? Forgive me? 

She shook her head. What could she say to her mother? What could she do?…No wig for this Black and beautiful child, not even for her mother’s sake. She had made her debut into truly Black society. And there was no turning back” (Killens, 213).

Natural, black, beautiful

Natural, black, beautiful

This is an interesting turning point in the novel because Yoruba turns from whiteness as performance to blackness as performance.  She was once black in a white world filled with white traditions but is now truly living as black, despite what society is expecting of her.  When Yoruba refuses to wear a wig, or better yet, when she cuts off her permed hair, she is not just being rebellious, she is making a statement against performance.  It is always an attempt to be white when black women straighten their hair.  If a black woman really wants to be seen and respected as black, then she must get the perm out of her hair and wear it naturally.  This politics of appearance is a breaking point for Yoruba.

It is not just black girls straightening their trying to be black, however.  There is also a great deal of whiteness as performance in The Cotillion. There are scattered scenes of white girls who try to portray themselves as black.  Killens writes of whiteness as performance very humorously, “Earlier, three white girls had arrived at the ball, as invited guests, wearing Afro wigs and darkly tinted contact lenses, and had been refused admission, roughed up, third-degreed, searched for weapons, threatened with arrest, called trouble-making yaller niggers, and so on, until finally they compromised their firm convictions, removed their wigs and declared their whiteness, at which point they were immediately admitted with abject apologies and Southern hospitality” (Killens, 222-223).

This part of the novel puts whiteness as performance into a different light than blackness as performance.  Blackness as performance is a way of getting by; it is Yorubas way to come out into society and to be accepted by her white counterparts; it is Lumumbas way of being accepted by Yorubas family.  Blackness as performance is not always something that is preferred or desired by individuals, but rather, it is expected.  Whiteness as performance, however, is something that is optional.  For instance, in this scene, the white girls didn’t have to dress up in wigs in order to impress the black persons at the cotillion.  In fact, their performance caused them to be beaten.  By being white, they are already naturally accepted by society.

What is also interesting, is that in a novel like The Cotillion, it is not just the women who are subject to performance; the men are equally subjected to this politics of appearance and performing act.  When Lumumba comes to the door to greet Yoruba one night, he is decked out in the finest clothes.  Killens writes:

She opened the door to greet her lover (she was all grinning smiles again, unknowingly) but her beloved was not there. In his stead there stood a colored dude all decked out in a mucho sharp American suit. Brown, herringbone and truly worsted. White on white shirt, green polka-dot tie, brand-new, gleaming, wing-tipped shoes. So sharp he was almost bleeding. Crew-cut like the Ivy League” (Killens, 146).

What is interesting about this scene is that just a few pages prior, Yoruba’s mother discussed how she felt towards Lumumba.  “Lady Daphne was finally convinced that there was something to this Black boy, when they did a portrait in the white folks’ most prestigious paper. The New York Times had covered a reading he had done at the Truth and Consequences Cafe uptown. Yoruba showed The Times piece to her mother, who glanced at the news article and stared long at Lumumba, beard and woolly head and all. Her sole comment was ‘Humph!’ (Killens, 145).

This scene is interesting because the mother is 100% for blackness as performance but from a white perspective.  For example, she doesn’t accept Yoruba with natural hair, only with “white” hair.  In this scene, we see that she doesn’t approve of Lumumba for Yoruba because he is “woolly-headed.” But once Lumumba has received the stamp of approval from the white community, she begins to like him a little bit more.

This scene portrays an interesting twist between whiteness as performance and blackness as performance.  This novel does a play off of both types of performance as we have seen.  Even though all of the major characters are black, there is a confusion of performances because the mother is forcing a white identity onto her black daughter.  I found this novel to be particularly useful when tying together the two types of racial identity performances because it does indeed incorporate a mixture of the two.

However, what we see from both perspectives across media and these three novels is that color goes beyond identity, it involves performance as well; performance that can enunciate identity or manipulate identity.

Multimedia Cited:

First Image: No author. n.d. [Identity]Retrieved from www2.fi.edu

Second Image: Sykes, Crystal. 2013. [I’m Not Your Black Friend]. Retrieved from www.thebolditalic.com

Third Image: No author. 2006. [Black Rio] Retrieved from http://www.juliushonnor.com/catalyst/Default.aspx.LocID-0hgnew0ik.RefLocID-0hg01b001006009.Lang-EN.htm

Video: White Chicks Movie Trailer [Video]. (2006) Retrieved May 13, 2013 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rr_SY-1Z5vg

Works Cited:

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. Print.

Killens, John O. The Cotillion: Or One Good Bull is Half the Herd. Canada: Trident Press, 1971. Print.

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead, 1999. Print.

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Should we all really be who we really are?

Image

Individual identity is something that is often emphasized within the United States, however more and more individuals are changing themselves in order to match a certain expectation or stereotype. Even within Paul Beatty’sWhite Boy Shuffle there is a struggle between individuals assimilating and their later struggle with identity.

The first thing that I notice when I see this image is that there are four different individuals that seem to be hiding themselves behind the United States flag. They all look very similar, and the top portion of their faces is covered as if the flag is a mask; a method of concealment. I also noticed that they all are holding flags, presumably from their different countries of origin. These flags are extremely small in comparison with the United States’ flag, and represent 3 different countries. These four individuals all appear to be white or European males. Also, the United States flag is also in the middle of the picture and it seems to be the focus of the picture. The flag is also very bold in comparison to the other flags that are seen within the image. The U.S. flag is visible, the others mistakable.

This image is very relevant to assimilation because of the images of the men all hiding their faces. Also, the four different men also seem to be the same, under the American flag. This makes me believe that this translates to the United States as a place of assimilation, not a melting pot. This melting pot belief is that all cultures come together to make the United States what it is. Though this is partially true, this depiction makes me feel as though there are some individuals that have to give up who they are, whether it’s their cultural beliefs or their national identity. This image is very interesting to me because many individuals come to the United States because we are the “land of the free” and have the many different freedoms of speech, religion, petition, assembly, and press. However, conformation is emphasized.

Assimilation and the idea of identity and conforming can be very related to Paul Beatty’s main character, Gunnar. Gunnar’s start in Santa Monica, California was in a predominately white neighborhood. He and his sisters all felt as though they did not fit in or identify with being with the white people they were surrounded by. Their mother decided to move their family to predominately black neighborhood in West Los Angeles, which made them identify with the black community. Gunnar faced some hesitation regarding who he was as an African-American and his community of identification. A specific example, Gunnar’s coach separated the team by lip color, but Gunnar’s top lip was brown and lower was pink so he was allowed to play both sides. Because of his identification with two communities, he was not able to identify with neither team because he played both sides.

The use of assimilation within the United States is very interesting seeing as how we are the “land of the free,” however identity is a very important part of an individual’s overall being and assimilation complicates the life of an individual.

Sources

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. 2nd. Picador, 2001. Print

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_GaQ4pxaggc0/TPVrxI28d5I/AAAAAAAAAC8/qcTwc3l34nU/s1600/Assimilation_i.jpg.” Blogger. N.p., 30 Nov 2010. Web. 29 Apr 2013.

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Rodney King: Symbol of Police Brutality and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots

Photo taken during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

A National Guardsman stands by during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The graffitied wall in the background shows support for Rodney King.

The Los Angeles riots of 1992 were triggered by the acquittals of police officers in the Rodney King verdict. King became a symbol of police brutality and unified Los Angeles in violent protest of the verdict.

The above image was captured in 1992 at the Los Angeles riots. The image features a White National Guardsman standing alert and armed. The Guardsman is wearing combat boots, a camouflaged uniform, a watch, and protective helmet; he is also carrying an M16 rifle. The man is gazing at something in the distance, presumably the ongoing rioting. The Guardsman is standing on a sidewalk comprised of square concrete slabs. A small patch of overgrown, brownish-green grass is seen directly behind the Guardsman. The sidewalk is dirty and littered with various trash, including a Nike advertisement.

Behind the Guardsman, a discolored beige wall has been spray-painted black with various graffiti. The most prominent graffiti in the photo reads, “This is for Rodney King,” and below that, “We love you my brother.” The remaining graffiti is a conglomeration of scratch-outs and various messages. In the right-hand corner of the image, the graffitied wall reads, “X·Peace,” and “Police 187.” More graffiti can be seen above the National Guardsman’s head on the left side of the wall in the photo, but it is illegible.

This image is filled with historical and cultural significance. The graffiti memorializes the LA community’s support for Rodney King. In March of 1991, King was severely beaten by the LAPD, which was videotaped by a nearby resident. The LA community was all too familiar with police brutality, corruption, and racism within the LAPD. By videotaping the event, Rodney King was transformed into a symbol of police brutality. No longer was this issue an invisible one—there was proof and the racism was visible. Four of the police officers involved were charged with excessive force and assault with a deadly weapon. In April of 1992, a verdict was reached: three of the four police officers were acquitted of all charges. Los Angeles was outraged by the verdict and was not going to tolerate this injustice. Rioting commenced.

The graffiti in the above image indicates the community’s support of Rodney King. The acquittal of the officers made the Black community feel worthless. In Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, the Rodney King verdict and resulting LA riots are documented and experienced by Beatty’s protagonist, Gunnar Kaufman. Upon hearing the verdict, Gunnar reflects, “Let go? The officers had to be guilty of something… I never felt so worthless in my life… Sitting on the couch watching the announcer gloat, my pacifist Negro chrysalis peeled away, and a glistening anger began to test its wings… I wanted to taste immediate vindication.” (Beatty, 130-132). After the verdict, the community utilized violence as an outlet for the pain and unfairness of the situation; Rodney King unified the Black community and became its rallying point in violent protest.

The above image documents the reality of the LA riots in 1992; “This is for Rodney King / We love you my brother,” highlight the sentiments of the rioting—the community reached its limit for tolerating the inequality of the law and the LAPD, and King was its unifying symbol.

Source:  

Chan, Bryan. The 1992 Los Angeles riots. 1992. Photograph. Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles. Web. 30 Apr 2013. <http://framework.latimes.com/2012/04

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Masculinity and Basketball Shoes

Image Via Freshness Mag

Dozens stand in line waiting for the latest Jordans.         Image Via Freshness Mag.

It may seem odd to think that every year, dozens stand in huge lines for hours to purchase basketball shoes. Is there a point to this practice? What is the benefit of spending hundreds of dollars on shoes that some never even wear to play basketball? Status, and coolness.

The above image shows approximately 50+ people waiting in line for the Air Jordan 11 Concords on December 22nd, three days before Christmas. The crowd appears to be mostly male and mostly people of color. It is the evening, it is raining, and, judging by what they are wearing, it appears to be quite cold. There is a barrier to keep people in line, which shows that the organizers of the event expected a large population to show up to stand in line and buy the shoes. This suggests that, in the past, many people have shown up to wait in line for shoes like these. The people that are most visible in line appear to be quite stylish, wearing hats and expensive-looking shoes. This all occurs in a city, with bright lights helping the people in line to see as darkness falls. The line appears to extend all around the block.

Typically a male-dominated activity, collecting shoes is a sign of status. These shoes can range anywhere from $100 to $1400, with some even extending to $7500.Therefore, by wearing such expensive shoes, males are showing that they can afford expensive things and thus play into the gender role of being wealthy enough to take care of someone. A male who wears expensive shoes is asserting his masculinity in the same way that a woman who carries a designer bag is asserting her femininity by showing that she knows what is and is not trendy.

A stereotype that we see in Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle is that, in order to be a Cool Black Guy, young black males must possess the right kinds of shoes. There are entire sites dedicated to keeping self-proclaimed sneakerheads up to date on the latest shoes. When he begins getting into basketball and becoming a cool guy, Gunnar  is encouraged by his friend to buy new shoes. There is an entire section titled “The Shoes” that is dedicated to Gunnar’s struggle to find the right pair of basketball shoes (Beatty, 88). Gunnar is teased when he picks up a cheap pair, and is instead led to “ a section of the store where the state-of-the-art, more expensive models were on display” (Beatty, 89). There is a clear reverence for these shoes, and Gunnar is forced to sign a document saying that if his shoes led to a crime, he would not blame them.

At times, people who engage in this practice are mocked and viewed as materialistic and foolish for being tricked into wanting an item of clothing badly enough to stand in the cold rain just to spend a few hundred dollars. Especially when it comes to items that are viewed as a part of black culture, people tend to be more critical.

It is important to think about the other items that all types of people stand in lines for for supposedly illogical reasons. Foolish as it may appear t some, the practice purchasing shoes like the concords can be a cultural and meaningful experience not meant to be mocked by outsiders.

Citation
Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. NY: Picador, Henry Holt and Company, 1996. Book.

Poe. “Freshness Mag.” Niketown New York Air Jordan 11 Concord Launch. 23 Dec. 2011.
http://www.freshnessmag.com/2011/12/23/niketown-new-york-air-jordan-xi-retro-concord-launch-event-recap/

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