Lil’ Wayne was just nominated for eight Grammy awards. Kobe Bryant may be the best player in the NBA, with LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Garnett and Chris Paul also in the running. Forbes recently named Beyonce and Jay-Z the No. 1 richest celebrity couple with combined earnings of 162 million this past year. Barack Obama will be the next president. Looking at these top positions, one thing is clear — the people holding them are all black.
But something else may be less apparent: until Barack Obama’s victory on November 4th 2008, the “leaders” of the U.S. black community — or at least the most prominent representatives — were all entertainers. The obvious question, then, is what does this say about society’s one-dimensional perception of the African American community?
In the U.S., the arenas of comedy, music and sports are hard to imagine without African Americans on the front lines. For as long a time as blacks could perform publicly in the U.S., we have seen African Americans as essential to the progression of entertainment. In a Harvard University Institute of Politics forum on Race and the Media, Stanley Crouch spoke of a time when blacks helped revitalize entertainment, saying: “The tragedy is this: when the negroid came into minstrelsy it was on the way out, but these black people were such good singers, so funny, and sang so well that they reinvigorated minstrelsy.”
There has certainly been progress for African-American civil rights over the course of the last fifty years, but today, entertainment is still the only place where stereotypical blackness is accepted. In entertainment, it’s okay for blacks to be thugs, pimps or hypersexual beings. But when African Americans step out of the entertainment paradigm and into white America, it’s not okay anymore. Blackness is okay in music videos, standup comedy, and football fields, but African Americans who “wear” their blackness in the real world will have a harder time climbing the ladder of success.
In 2007, a Washington Post article titled “Parents and School Tangle Over Waldorf Tot’s Locks” told of a three-year-old boy being suspended indefinitely from a private school because of his dreadlocks. In a 2008 TheRoot.com article called “The Perilous Politics of Hair,” Grace Salvant, a former Ruby Tuesday’s employee, wrote that she could not be rehired at the restaurant because it had changed its policy and would no longer hire people with braids, dreads, or twists. While Lil’ Wayne may don his dreadlocks without impunity, others whose primary job is not to entertain are not so fortunate.
This image discrepancy matters, because limiting blackness to the field of entertainment is a way of undermining black identity. In less progressive times, blacks found entertainment as a niche in which they could be both black and successful. But today, simultaneously denying blackness in the corporate world and endorsing it only in the entertainment field keeps African Americans firmly held in a delegitimizing social paradigm.
At the same time, African Americans should continue to arrive at their own definition of blackness without submitting to stereotypical images, even if these images are the ones that sell records. Figures representing the black community — like Lil’ Wayne — need to be conscious of the fact that embracing these stereotypes might bring them success but it won’t shatter the social inequalities that relegate them to the entertainment business.
And while President-elect Barack Obama represents a stereotype-defying, prominent image of blackness, it’s not in the African-American community’s interest to simply inherit another rigid definition. True progress will only have been made when blacks aren’t just accurately represented, but the vast diversity inherent in black culture is also portrayed.