"I read five pages of this thing and could not go any further. I tried to read more of it, and I'm not a soft spoken guy, but it was such an appalling mis-direction of history in terms of taking an actual guy who worked at the White House," but then he ni**erfies" it. He "ni**ers" it up and he gives people these, stupid, luddite, antediluvian ideas about black people and their roles in the historical span in the White House and it becomes ... well ... historical porn. I refused."
Although the Black (1) actor Harry Lennix may not have been aware of the consequences of his comments regarding Lee Daniels's movie The Butler, his words immediately became a lightning rod for controversy, commentary, and critique. This was after all, one Black man in the entertainment industry making a disparaging comment about the laborious work of another Black man in the same industry, publicly, unapologetically, and defiantly before White America. As I read the perspective offered by Lennix, I could not help but wonder whether individuals shared his perspective, how Blacks feel about the servitude role that was the backdrop of the film, as well as how Blacks' generally view the cinematic offerings of Hollywood, particularly as it relates to Black historicity, overall. Therefore, this paper will be built on the following two foundational questions: (1) How do individuals perceive The Butler and movies like it in which Black protagonists are featured in roles of servitude? (2) Do individuals perceive The Butler as a source of strength or a beacon of contemporary slavery? These foundational questions are important for racial identity which is a fluid process generally based on the type of work in which a person engages, the type of satisfaction an individual receives from said work, as well as how that work is perceived by others (Lee & Ahn, 2013).
In the subsequent sections of this paper, I will provide a brief overview of the primary scholarship related to racial identity, the portrayal of Blacks in various forms of mass media, as well as the impact of such portrayals on the racial identity of African Americans. Next, I will discuss the theoretical frameworks on which this study is based. After this, I will provide the written responses provided by the bloggers on The Griot (2) website. Finally, I will highlight the main findings from the study as well as discuss the implications of the responses for Black identity and Black historicity.
Review of Literature
Extant scholarship regarding media representations of Blacks in America is multifaceted. Scholars have examined how Black men construct masculine identities (Brown, 2008), Black male portrayals of Black women in film (Chen, Williams, Hendrickson, & Chen, 2012; Faust, 2014; Wallace, 2015), as well as the construction and maintenance of Black female identities (Gehlawat, 2010). While some research has noted an increase in the number of powerful, rich, and multidimensional storylines portrayed by Black women in homicide television dramas (Mascaro, 2005), others have more frequently noted stereotypically negative images of Blackness.
For example, negative descriptions and stereotypical portrayals of Aunt Jemima (Griffin, 1998), Black soldiers in Vietnam-themed cinema (Woodman, 2001), African-Americans in the films of former movie actor Ronald Reagan (Vaughn, 2002), as well as Whites' enjoyment of stereotypical entertainment of Blacks (Banjo, 2011) are but a few examples of the prevalence of negative imagery of African Americans in film.
While the roles that have been offered to African Americans are generally minimal, those offered to Black women in particular are even more scant. Not surprisingly, the stereotypical images of Blacks offered in film can negatively impact the racial identity, racial pride, and racial history (real or perceived) of members of this group. Several have blamed the prevalence of negative Black imagery on the few, quality Blacks roles that are offered to Blacks in general, and Black women, in particular. In essence, the invisibility of Black women in cinema generally renders them powerless to provide a multitude of experiences that stands as a strong counter narrative to the negative images. For example, one scholar found Leticia Musgrove, the female protagonist played by the Black Hollywood Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry to be the conflation of two negative Black female stereotypes, namely the sexual siren and the welfare queen (Mask, 2004). To illustrate this, one study examined the frequency and correlates of two dimensions of racial socialization--messages about ethnic pride, history, and heritage (Cultural Socialization) and messages about discrimination and racial bias (Preparation for Bias)--among 273 urban African American, Puerto Rican, and Dominican parents. Interestingly, African American parents reported more frequent Preparation for Bias than did Dominican parents who, in turn, reported more frequent messages of this sort than did Puerto Rican parents. Furthermore, ethnic identity was a stronger predictor of Cultural Socialization among Puerto Rican and Dominican parents than among their African American counterparts. In contrast, perceived discrimination experiences were a stronger predictor of Preparation for Bias among African American and Dominican parents than among Puerto Rican parents (Hughes, 2003).
Negative perceptions of media images can have a damaging effect on how individuals perceive their race and gender. In one recent study, Chen et al (2012) conducted in-depth interviews with 36 Black women, ages 18 to 59 to examine whether exaggeratedly overweight depictions of Black women portrayed by men dressed up as women had a strong effect on their identities. The women reported that portrayals, such as Madea in Tyler Perry's films, Rasputia in Eddie Murphy's Norbit, and Martin Lawrence's Big Momma, were "mammy-like" and the fact that these Black men dressed as women to depict these roles heightened the stereotypes these images evoked. Interestingly, the women in this sample believed male mammy portrayals substantially increased the mockery of Black women in the media and greatly contributed to the effeminization of African American men (Chen, et al, 2012). Thus, although it did not specifically examine the effects of media representations on the identity of Blacks, another study found racial discrimination to be psychologically distressful and to be strongly correlated with various aspects of the Black experience, such as racial identity, including immersion-emersion, public regard, encounter, Afrocentricity/racial centrality/private regard, and intemalization (Cross, 1991, 1978, 1971; Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1991).
Interestingly, distress significantly correlated with pre-encounter/assimilation, encounter, public regard, immersion-emersion, and Afrocentricity/racial centrality/ private regard. Several of these relationships were significantly moderated by the measure of racial identity or demographic variables (gender or age) (Lee & Ahn, 2013).
Two theoretical frameworks were foundational to this scholarly work, namely Black Racial Identity Development and Value Orientation Theory. As will be discussed later in this manuscript, these frameworks are invariably linked to the motivation behind the qualitative statements that will be examined.
Black Racial Identity Development. The development of Black Racial Identity is a complex process that involves internal and external forces that help Blacks develop a sense of what it means to be a Black person in a white-dominated world. William Cross offered a theoretical trajectory of the development of Black racial identity. Essentially, Cross's Black Racial Identity Development model is a linear one with five distinct stages (3) (Cross, 1991, 1978, 1971; Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1991; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). As Black men and women negotiate these stages, they create a Black identity that influences how they see themselves and understand their place in the world.
Although regarded as one of the key models of Black identity development, Cross's Black Racial Identity model has been criticized by several scholars who assert its linear developmental trajectory minimizes the experiential ways in which identity is developed and solidified (Constantine, Richardson, Benjamin, & Wilson, 1998; Kambon, 1992; Parham & Helms, 1981). In particular, Joseph A. Baldwin (4) (1980, 1981, 1984; Kambon, 1992), asserted the Black personality consists of two primary components: the African self-extension orientation and African self-consciousness. The African self-extension-orientation component symbolizes the essential organizing principle of the Black personality system, and is an innate, unconscious psychological disposition that provides coherence, continuity, and spirituality to the basic behaviors and psychological functioning of Black people. The second component of the African personality system, African self-consciousness, represents the conscious expression of the African self-extension orientation (Baldwin, Brown, & Rackley, 1990). Baldwin (1980, 1981, 1984) indicated that African self-consciousness has an important function in defining normal psychological functioning of the Black personality.
The four basic characteristics of African self-consciousness are as follows: (a) to recognize their African identity and cultural heritage, and sees value in obtaining self-knowledge; (b) to place African survival and' proactive development as one's first priority; (c) to have respect for and actively perpetuates all things African; and (d) to recognize the oppositional and detrimental nature of racial oppression to Black survival and to actively resist it. So, when these basic characteristics are fully functioning in the Black personality, they produce self-affirming behaviors among people of African descent (Baldwin et al., 1990). According to Baldwin (1980, 1981...