Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Black Brute

Cretinetti attaccabrighe per amore (1911)
 
In November, a national spotlight fell on a grand jury hearing in which police officer Darren Wilson testified about his shooting of Michael Brown.  Commentators, including Slate's Jamelle Bouie and Vox's Lauren Williams, found that Wilson's statements recalled the "black brute" stereotype that originated during the Reconstruction era.  Wilson said, "He looked up at me, and had the most intense, aggressive face.  The only way I can describe it – it looks like a demon.  That’s how angry he looked."  Dr. David Pilgrim, a professor of sociology at Ferris State University, wrote, "The brute caricature portrays black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal. . . This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace.  Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially white women."  Historically significant was Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman, which later served as the basis for D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).  In the book, Dixon described blacks as "half child, half animal, the sport of impulse, whim, and conceit. . . a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no word of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger."

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)
 

It needs to be examined what myths and realities played a part in the public's perception of Michael Brown.

It was my contention in The Funny Parts that the black servants in silent film comedy were chiefly derived from the Commedia dell'arte servants and had only a tenuous association with the minstrel show stereotypes.  The Commedia dell'arte's Zanni servant was a statement on class divisions.  Wealthy nobles and merchants of Venice obtained their servants from the Lombard-Venetian countryside.  The men in these poor rustic areas were commonly named Gianni, the Venetian variant of which was Zanni.  So, a funny servant became a Zanni.  A black servant in a silent comedy film, whether he was called Snowball, Hambone or Possum, was a Zanni.

The minstrel show stereotypes were constructed and conveyed with a mean-spirited glee.  The objective of these depictions was, without question, disparagement and condemnation.  But malice is generally lacking in the way that black servants and black workman are portrayed in silent comedy films.  Traces of the minstrel show stereotypes turn up only occasionally.

Camouflage (1918)

Black men were almost never portrayed as brutes in silent film comedy.  The absence of the black brute is not surprising because the silly fellows who made these films were not trying to make a critical commentary on the modern black community.  Not that everyone would agree with my perspective.  Others have made the point that the black brute was too disturbing for popular entertainment.  They claim that the image of the docile black servant was more acceptable to white audiences, who liked to see a black man kept in his place.   

Comedian Larry Semon was unique in depicting black men as potentially violent.  Take a look at this scene from Semon's The Sportsman (1921).

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Then, we have this scene from Semon's Her Boyfriend (1924).

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A straight razor, which was cheap and easy to acquire, was a popular weapon in black ghettos.  Richard Pryor remembered his grandmother, Marie, keeping a straight razor in her bra.  The straight razor came to be known as a cut-throat razor because a robber could easily convince his victims to relinquish their valuables by pressing the cold blade against their throat.


Harlem godfather Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, who once worked as a barber, was known to be adept with a straight razor.  This deadly implement figured prominently into a dramatization of Johnson's exploits featured in Hoodlum (1997).  At one point in the film, Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) directs one of his men to slice open a man's throat with a straight razor.  In the 1920s, the idea of a black man menacingly brandishing a straight razor was a source of anxiety for white people, who imagined walking down a street at night and a black man jumping out of the shadows to stab or cut them.  Stories of criminal acts by blacks were given prominence in newspapers and magazines of the day.  But this was never reflected in films except in rare instances.

Stull and Burns

A good example of the black brute stereotype could be found in a 1916 "Pokes and Jabbs" comedy Reckless Romeos.  Pokes (Walter Stull) and Jabbs (Bobby Burns) learn of a beautiful and mysterious actress named La Bella Edna (Edna Reynolds).  When they arrive at Edna's home, the actress greets them wearing a veil over her face.  Edna asks that one of the men accompany her to a cafe.  Pokes and Jabbs play a quick dice game to determine which of them should go with Edna.  Pokes wins.  As it turns out, Edna is playing a joke on the men.  She has darkened her face with greasepaint and, once she and Pokes have sat down for dinner, she removes her veil to reveal her dark complexion.  Pokes panics and flees from the cafe.  Jabbs, who has learned of the prank, arrives at the cafe and joins Edna for dinner.  Edna again removes her veil, but Jabbs knows better and acts as if nothing is wrong.  Suddenly, a big burly black man struts into the restaurant and demands that Edna accompany him.  Jabbs tries to interfere, but the black man knocks him out.  Edna races out of the cafe, but the black man chases after her.  The black man overtakes Edna at her home.  He tries to force himself on the frightened woman by threatening her with a straight razor.  When the woman begs for mercy, he grabs a towel and wipes greasepaint off his face, revealing himself to be Pokes.  This is Pokes' rather grim payback for the ruse that the actress played on him.

It is possible to find other examples of the black brute in early comedy films, but you have to be willing to take your time and look very hard.  A tramp (Fred Mace) is evicted from a wealthy widow's home by a burly black masseur in A Widow's Wiles (1912).  In Where is My Wife? (1921), Monty Banks panics because he assumes that a black man is pulling a knife on him.  The joke, as it turns out, is that the man is simply pulling out a handkerchief.

Take a glance at this still from a lost film, Zip and Zest (1919).  It looks as if a brutish black man is terrorizing comedy team Joe Rock and Earl Montgomery.  Was the black brute something to laugh about?

Black characters were not normally among the criminal class in either drama or comedy.  The criminals in films were Italians and Irish.  Low-budget independent films about Harlem gangsters were produced during the 1930s.  But these films, the most notable of which were Harlem After Midnight (1934), Dark Manhattan (1937) and Bargain with Bullets (1937), were distributed exclusively to black neighborhoods. 

The criminality of the minstrel show black was mostly limited to chicken theft.  This was occasionally the basis of a gag in silent films.

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 Don't Park There (1924)


It could be argued that filmmakers expressed their anxiety of the black brute in an indirect way.  The inspiration of pulp magazines allowed filmmakers to move the action to distant and remote parts of the world, where they could replace switchblade and straight razor with spear and saber.  Black cannibals were eager to stab white castaways with finely sharpened spears.  An Indian maharajah or an Arab sheik, both dark in hue, conveyed unbridled glee as they swung sabers at white tourists.


A cannibal, which was buried beneath heavy paraphernalia, could be seen as more of an abstraction than an actual human being.

Washed Ashore (1922)

But it is undeniable that the legacy of the comic cannibal is offensive.

Cretinetti Hero (1909)

 Robinson Crusoe Ltd. (1921)

The idea of a knife-wielding black bogey man persisted for decades.  Redd Foxx once joked, "I carry a knife now because I read in a white magazine that all black people carry knives.  So I rushed out and bought me one."  In big cities like New York and Chicago, tension grew between black and white residents.  But, even then, the anger and anxiety that white people felt towards the black criminal was never expressed openly in films.  A violent outpouring of emotion did occur, however, when Chicago police captured black serial killer Robert Nixon in 1938.  The man was depicted in the press as a beast.  Chicago Tribune reporter Charles Leavelle wrote, "[C]ivilization has left Nixon practically untouched.  His hunched shoulders and long, sinewy arms that dangle almost to his knees; his out-thrust head and catlike tread all suggest the animal."

I should admit that I have deeply personal feelings on the subject.  I was mugged three times - twice in New York and once in Orlando.  All three times, the mugger was a black man.  Two of those times, the mugger threatened me with a knife.  The Orlando incident was the most frightening.  I rode into town on a Greyhound bus.  Because I knew that the station was in a bad part of town, I made sure to arrange my schedule so that I would arrive while it was still daylight.  But Greyhound buses are never on time and, as it turned out, my bus ran three hours late that day.  It was already night by the time that I got off the bus.  It had been a long day and I was exhausted.  I just wanted to get to my hotel room and go to sleep.  The area outside of the terminal was poorly lit.  I could see a cab parked several yards away and waved to the driver.  As I was walking to the cab, a black man stepped of the shadows and poked me in the stomach with a knife.  He demanded my wallet.  All I could think about at the moment was the fact that I had my cash, my credit cards and my hotel reservation in my wallet.  How could I give up my wallet?  I needed my wallet.  So, I hesitated, which got the robber mad.  I felt him press the blade harder into my stomach.  "Come on," he insisted, "give it to me."  But I still did nothing.  He looked surprised, maybe even frightened.  I am not trying to say that I was brave and I was standing up this lowlife.  It was just that I felt as if I was in a dream.  Every muscle in my body had become paralyzed.  Just then, the cab pulled up next to us.  I remember the cab driving up on the curb, but this is likely an embellishment that my mind has weaved into my memory.  The driver jumped out of the cab and grabbed me by the shoulders.  He glared at the man with the knife.  "Leave my passenger alone," he shouted.  The driver threw open the back door of his cab and unceremoniously shoved me inside.  We drove away and it was only then that the reality of the situation hit me.  I am convinced till this day that I might have died that night. 

Other people in my family have also been crime victims.  My son, Griffin, was home alone at the age of 14 when he became a victim to a home invasion.  His mother was at work.  His younger brother was at day care.  He was playing video games in his bedroom when four black teenage males forced their way into his home. 

The police acted quickly to round up the four teenagers involved in the crime.  Their ages ranged from 15 to 19.  The youngest one, Terence, had been bragging at his high school about the theft.  He was happy to confess when the police finally caught up to him.  He turned over the stolen items that he had in his possession and he gave the police the names of his accomplices. 

I later learned a few facts about Terence.  The boy's mother grew up in a middle class family, but she fell in with a young man from a less affluent part of town.  The young man got her into drugs.  She became pregnant with Terence as a result of their relationship.  For reasons that I don't know, the father was arrested and put into prison.  The mother's drug use got out of control and authorities turned Terence over to her parents.  Terence was able to make friends in his grandparents' neighborhood, but he preferred to spend time with friends and family from his old neighborhood.   I understand that one of his accomplices was a cousin. 

The two older teenagers from this group had extensive criminal records.  My son's mother talked to their probation officer.  The probation officer said that the 19-year-old of the group had the worst juvenile record that he had ever seen.  He had committed a long list of crimes, but he had never seen the inside of a prison.  This was because the crime occurred in Gainesville, the residents of which have a more liberal stance on juvenile crime than people in most other parts of Florida.  I talked to a victim's advocate at the prosecutor's office.  She expressed more compassion for the criminals than she expressed for my son.  She said that they do everything they can to make sure juvenile criminals finish high school.  She insisted that taking them out of school and putting them into prison will only turn them into career criminals. 

I earned a college degree in criminology.  I know all the theories and statistics about juvenile crime.  From what I've learned, you focus on reforming the ones that you can and you get the rest of them off the street.  The criminal justice system is limited in what it can do with criminals.  Rehabilitation would be the best outcome, but this is something that is rarely achieved through government intervention.  Seeing criminals serve long sentences in prison should create deterrence, but criminals don't worry about prison because they never believe that they're going to get caught.  There is a discomfort that many people feel to have punishment effected by the justice system.  It is the reason that we don't see public floggings.  It may seem to be inhumane for a man to gain satisfaction from inflicting pain on another man.  Responding to cruelty with cruelty is a self-defeating practice.  But prison is undoubtedly good at one thing - incapacitation.   Violent criminals need to be locked up so that they cannot continue to hurt others. 

The value of incapacitation is proven by an incident that occurred in Gainesville only a few months before my son's break in.  Alfred White, Jr., a black juvenile criminal on probation, made plans with his girlfriend to rob a convenience store.  The only person standing between them and the money was a 46-year-old woman behind the counter.  White needed to make sure that this woman didn't interfere with the robbery.  So what did he do?  He threw bleach into the woman's face, pushed her to the floor, and beat her senseless.  Then, finally, he grabbed money from the register and ran.  It was at first believed that the cashier had permanently lost her sight, but she managed in time to regain partial vision.  White had committed several crimes before his convenience store robbery.  He had an extensive criminal record.  Why was he allowed on the street?  Authorities wanted him to finish high school.  I agree that it doesn't benefit anyone to put juveniles in prison, where they can be mentored by older criminals.  But that's not the only option.  Other cities in Florida have programs that allow a juvenile criminal to live under strict supervision in a halfway house.  The people who run the halfway houses make sure that their residents continue their education and earn their high school diploma.  You don't have a chance to get a young criminal on the right path unless you get them away from their bad homes and their bad peers.

In college, I studied a wide variety of crime statistic reports.  No matter how you want to look at these statistics, the plain fact remains that black men create a disproportionate amount of crime.  Pick any type of report.  I remember having to analyze a report that mapped out a city's car theft incidents for a three-year period.  Low crime areas were green, moderate crime areas were yellow, and high crime areas were red.  The closer that a car was to a black neighborhood, the more likely it was to be robbed.  Black neighborhoods and nearby areas were red zones on the map. 

I had professors who had been criminal attorneys.   I had professors who had been police officers.  I heard a variety of stories.  Prosecutors in many jurisdictions will not pursue a case unless they know they can win it.  They are not frivolously throwing criminals in prison.  A former defense attorney told me that he had started out with great enthusiasm.  He was going to make sure that he kept the innocent defendant out of prison.  But he became cynical after doing this job for years.  His clients never bothered to hide their guilt from him.  Guilt or innocence wasn't the issue.  Justice wasn't the issue.  His clients always expressed the same concern: "My last attorney got me a good deal.  What kind of deal can you get for me?"

Of course, the impressions that I have on this subject go back years before my college education and the aforementioned crime incidents.  As a child, I lived in a white neighborhood and the subject of black people was not something my parents discussed.  But I saw black people on television.  Of course, I watched the old comedies.  I laughed at Dudley Dickerson acting scared and confused in Three Stooges comedies, but that clowning in no way diminished my opinion of black people.  How could it?  By then, Dickerson did not have to stand alone as the ambassador of black men.  The actor appeared on television alongside a wide range of black actors, including Sidney Poitier, Greg Morris, Ivan Dixon, Ossie Davis, Don Marshall, Brock Peters and Bill Cosby.  Morris played an electronics and forgery expert on Mission: Impossible.  Dixon played a communications expert on Hogan's Heroes.  Cosby played a witty secret agent on I Spy.  Poitier was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.  I admired Poitier when I saw him in The Heat of the Night, I felt sympathy for Poitier when I saw him in A Raisin in the Sun, and I had affection for Poitier when I saw him in Lilies of the Field

Forced busing brought black teenagers to my community in Bayside, Queens, in 1971.  That was the year that a group of black teenage girls threw my sister down a flight of stairs at her high school.  This was the first time that I got a close and sustained view of black people.  Groups of black teenage boys left school grounds contrary to school rules.  These teenagers went out of their way to act intimidating.  They never walked casually.  They always walked with a purposeful swagger.  They never talked calmly or quietly.  They laughed as loudly as they could and they shouted an unnerving stream of obscenities - "shit," "fuck," "motherfucker," and "damn." 

When I came home for lunch, my mother often sent me to Carl's Deli to buy groceries - usually milk, or bread, or cigarettes.  The deli, which made the best hero sandwiches in town, was always crowded at lunchtime.  I often begged my mother for the money to buy a hero, but she insisted that the heroes were expensive and we didn't have the money to afford them.  Several black teenage boys were often at the deli at lunchtime.  They would pull out large rolls of bills to pay for their heroes and sodas.  At the time, I knew that they came from poor neighborhoods and didn't understand how they could have so much money. 

Once they had their food, the teenagers sprawled out on the front porch of a nearby home.  The teenagers didn't bother to get the homeowner's permission.  They laughed, cursed, and tossed their bags and wrappings on the ground.  I knew the old woman who lived in one of the homes.  One day, the old woman came outside to confront the teenagers.  She told them that they could eat lunch on her porch as long as they cleaned up after themselves.  They agreed.  They were even polite about it, which made me think that they might not be so bad.

When I went to Bryant High School in Astoria, Queens, I saw black teenage boys get off the school buses in the morning and head straight for the school's basketball courts, where they would hang out and play basketball for the rest of the day.  The school administration did not do anything about this blatant truancy.  When we went outside for physical education, the coaches specifically instructed us not to wander over to the basketball courts.  Presumably, the school administration preferred to have this unwilling and uncooperative group segregated from the rest of the students.  They were contained like Indian warriors on a reservation.  Towards the end of my time at school, I heard that a number of homes in the area had been robbed by teenagers who had wandered off the basketball courts.  The young ladies who arrived on the same buses did attend class and, from what I saw, they had no problem securing a place in the school community.

I became emancipated from my parents when I was fifteen years old and I went to live with my older cousin Tom.  I went to school every day and I worked hard to get good grades.  I couldn't imagine how I would support myself without a high school diploma.  I never understood the reason that these other teenagers would turn down the opportunity for an education. 

I could go on and on with what I remember.  Let me share just one more memory that stands out.  My father was a fireman in Queens, but his company often had to travel to black neighborhoods in the Bronx due to chronic incidents of arson.  As the fire truck made its way through these neighborhoods, residents shouted at the firemen and threw bottles at them.  My father nearly died in one of these fires.  At the time, I thought that it would be better if my father let those neighborhoods burn.

We, as human beings, are products of our experiences.  How should I process these experiences?  What am I supposed to think?


Poitier's positive portrayals were suddenly undone by blaxploitation films, which promoted the image of black men as dangerous criminals.  I always found this odd since it was black filmmakers who had promoted these negative images.  In the 1980s, black actor Robert Townsend complained about white producers always wanting to cast him as pimps and junkies.  But it was black filmmakers who established these stereotypes. 

Beginning in the 1980s, gangsta rap celebrated illegal street gangs and the "gangsta" lifestyle.  Rap artists openly boasted of their associations with street gangs to give themselves a dark and edgy image.  The genre promoted murder, thievery, drug dealing, substance abuse, promiscuity and vandalism.  Black youth has been heavily influenced by gangsta rap.  The black teenagers who robbed my son were dressed in impeccable hip hop fashion.


Then, we have music artist John Legend.  When he accepted the Best Original Song Oscar for Selma, Legend said, "We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real.  We live in the most incarcerated country in the world.  There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850."  It is deeply misguided to equate prison inmates to the Old South's plantation slaves.  Also present on stage was Legend's collaborator, Common, who once wrote a song to honor fugitive cop killer Assata Shakur.  Besides her conviction for murdering a police officer, Shakur was linked to a turnpike shootout, three armed robberies, a kidnapping, another murder, and an attempted murder.  As a crime victim, I regard it as deeply offensive for Legend to imply that every black man is in prison because of their skin color and not because of their victimization of other people.  I am even more offended by Common expressing his admiration for a cop killer.  What messages are being sent to the black youth of America?  I have great love and sympathy for children.  They deserve better guidance than this.

I know the arguments about profiling and stop-and-frisk.  I concede that these policing methods can be abused.  But the media has greatly exaggerated the problems in this area.  I knew a police officer who was involved in a stop-and-frisk operation.  It didn't require a sophisticated strategy to accomplish this job.  The police staked out a high crime neighborhood and they waited for young men to show up wearing gang colors.  For instance, a member of the Bloods gang could be expected to show up wearing a red bandana or a red cap.  I would describe this as shooting ducks in a barrel except that I think a duck trapped in a barrel presents more of a challenge.  It went even beyond gang colors.  This was years before the gang members wised up and made a fundamental effort to avoid detection.  At the time, a gang member might identity his gang affiliation by wearing a blue knit beanie, a baseball cap turned at an angle, or a plaid shirt (the color of the plaid depended on the gang).  Some gang members even went as far as wearing the gang's initials on their belt buckle or wearing a jacket with a gang symbol embroidered on the back.  Below is a member of the Los Solidos street gang showing off a tattoo of the gang's motto: "Laugh now, cry later."

 
They might as well wear a "Come and get me, cops!" tattoo across their forehead.  Would you board a plane with a man who has an ISIS tattoo?  You don't even need to look at a crime statistic report to know that gang activity occurs in the neighborhood.  A gang will brazenly mark their territory with graffiti. 

It is the chicken-or-egg dilemma.  Does a high conviction rate bring about targeting or does targeting bring about a high conviction rate?  I believe that the former is true.  In either case, criminals are being caught and convicted, which means that I can sleep better at night.

Profiling and stop-and-frisk policies aren't the real problems that need to be addressed in this situation.  Legend needs to speak out when a video like this is posted to the Internet. 

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This man, Vincent Lavon Johnson, is in no way inhibited about punching a pregnant woman in the face during a robbery.  This is a man filled with a sense of righteousness.  Who has told him that he has a right to do this?  Hey, he's just living the thug life.  He's hardcore.  He's a badass.  What is more damaging to the image of black people - Dudley Dickerson or Vincent Lavon Johnson? 

Reality television producers populate their programs with people who fit ethnic stereotypes.  The Jersey Shore cast knew that they could get more screen time if they played up the guido stereotype.  But black people receive the worst treatment on reality television and, unfortunately, they do so as eager participants.  Ratings are earned by reality television stars who are willing to act foolishly.  In this way, reality television has become the new minstrel show. 

It helped Italians to gain acceptance that, in the 1950s, the country fell under the spell of many smooth and charming Italian singers, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Perry Como and Frankie Lane.  Little Wayne does not benefit the image of black people.


It would seem that Michael Brown was a product of a brute stereotype promoted freely in the media.

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Empowerment is about opportunity and achievement.  It is not about making yourself physically intimidating.

 
Image is important in society.  If you want a good image, you have to be careful how you make yourself look to other people.  RapRehab columnist Lauren Carter wrote, "There is a lot we can’t control when it comes to racism and stereotypes.  But how we choose to portray ourselves through our art is something we can and should control, with the well-being of our people — and not personal wealth — as the end goal." 

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