Revolt of the well-spoken

July 01, 1994

Because media images play a powerful role in shaping attitudes, the representation of African Americans in the popular media has long been a subject of controversy. During the 1950s, for example, NAACP protests forced the cancellation of the popular sitcom "The Amos 'n' Andy Show" because of its demeaning portrayal of blacks. Now a new generation is questioning the stereotypes of hip-hop culture and MTV. They're mad as hell -- and determined not to take it anymore.

Writer Leonce Gaiter, for example, fired a broadside in a recent New York Times Magazine article decrying the popular image of black America as a bunch of gangsta rappers and "bad boys in the 'hood." "Imagine being told by your peers, prospective employers, the 'leaders' you see on TV, that to be your true self you must be ignorant and poor," Mr. Gaiter writes. He argues that while the image of blacks as poor and deprived may have bolstered support for social welfare programs, it came at the cost of allowing the most troubled segment of the black community to represent the whole.

In a similar vein, Washington University Professor Gerald Early, in a review of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s book "Colored People: A Memoir" in The New Republic, suggests that even middle-class blacks often accept urban poverty and despair as the only "authentic" African American experience.

Mr. Early criticizes the sentimental view of a harmonious black community life in the 1950s that Mr. Gates contrasts to the "mean streets" of today -- while pointing out that the black middle class today is vastly larger than it was in Mr. Gates' youth. Today's "mean streets" may be more violent but they are hardly more representative.

The danger of such oversimplifications is that they feed into the prejudices of both conservative opponents of increased opportunity for blacks and liberal whites. To both groups, blacks are presented as less competent, less educated, more prone to anti-social behavior -- all attitudes that tend to confirm a sense of white racial superiority. At the same time, such images reduce the diversity of the black experience to a one-dimensional caricature.

The most pernicious aspect of such stereotypes is that blacks themselves internalize these negative images and use them as yardsticks to measure each other's behavior. Thus Mr. Gaiter ruefully recounts how he was once accosted by a fellow black student at his suburban Maryland high school for speaking standard English: "This girl was asking, Why wasn't I impoverished and alienated?" he recalled. "In her world view, a black male like me couldn't exist."

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