The crutch of black protectionism

Bruce A. Jacobs

March 08, 1991|By Bruce A. Jacobs

I CREATE advertising, among other things, for a living. I come up with ideas for ad campaigns, and I write commercials, and I translate marketing mumbo jumbo into ideas that sell things. I am also an African-American.

I tell you all of this because I recently had an unexpected skirmish. It has to do with the long-standing battle to improve the image of black people in the American media. And it left me wondering which side of the barricade some self-styled black media critics are really on.

A client of mine, for whom I recently created a TV commercial, called me on the telephone the other day. She was perplexed and upset. She had just shown the commercial to a watchdog committee. And one of the watchdogs -- a black woman -- had nearly bitten my client's head off after seeing it.

The TV spot uses a common film technique: showing only parts of the actors' bodies, such as their arms and hands, while you hear their voices talking. It's not a new idea. You've probably seen it done in a dozen commercials. It's simply a way to create a little drama.

But to the watchdog, it was sacrilege. The actors, you see, were black.

How, barked the watchdog, could my client possibly approve of a commercial that so ruthlessly stripped black characters of their identities? How could my client condone this faceless treatment of black people? How could she be so insensitive to the need to portray black people as strong and full-charactered?

What I said to reassure my wounded client doesn't matter here. But what does matter is this: I am so fed up with this kind of whining, defensive, cultural-etiquette claptrap among some of my black associates that I want to scream. I am sick of seeing intelligent black people turn into gibbering parrots when it comes to presenting ourselves to the larger world. I am tired, tired to my very bones, of feeble-minded black protectors who would treat their own people as a race of cultural cripples and invalids, to be comforted and soothed and stroked by sterile, politically-correct images that portray us just so.

This is not to say that the American media, particularly television, do not monstrously misrepresent African-Americans. Of course they do. Watch the simpering, gyrating black characters on most television sitcoms -- or the cardboard role models on "Crosby" -- and you'll know it. We all have some serious work to do in trying to bring the caricatures in line with reality.

But let's not get silly about this. To insist that television never show us dramatic shots of actors with hidden faces who happen to be black, or black sitcom characters who are slightly off-center, or interracial couples, or anything else that ventures beyond white-bread correctness, is to deny us the very strength of our variety.

It is to admit that you, as a black person in this largely white society, feel that you cannot stand up straight and be respected for who you are without a crutch. It is to admit that underneath all of your sputtering and your posturing, you are weak and timid and afraid.

Worst of all, it reduces the important issues of how we as black people are treated in the media -- issues such as the painful shortage of strong black male characters, and the shallow and sensational nature of most black variety shows -- to the level of trivial, cosmetic squabbles over headless actors. Especially now that so many black Americans have sacrificed for their country in the Persian Gulf war, my patience for this sort of weak-kneed bleating is at an all-time low.

I feel sorry for the watchdog and her sad, insecure brand of protectionism. For one thing, I'll bet "Cosby" is one of her favorite shows. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

Bruce A. Jacobs writes from Baltimore.

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