The issue isn’t whether a white author shouldn’t attempt to create a black character.

Posted on June 27, 2010

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It’s whether they will understand the importance of getting it right.

There’s already more than enough highly insensitive and downright offensive depictions of African Americans in genres such as art, music, literature and film still floating around. We’ve all seen the bug-eyed pickaninny, charcoal black with grotesque lips hawking classic products or being emailed with some crude joke attached. Those stereotypes are easy to spot. What seems hard is spotting the caricatures that pop up in modern literature. And there’s a reluctance to even acknowledge that some authors re-cycle wildly held, but erroneous beliefs on the intelligence, behavior and morality of African Americans.

Products manufactured to mock African Americans during Segregation. Image from Ferris University's Jim Crow Museum From the Disney animated film Mothergoose in Hollywood, a caricature of Stepin Fetchit

       

Products manufactured to mock African Americans. Image from Ferris University's Jim Crow Museum

 

From the Disney animated film Mothergoose in Hollywood, a caricature of Stepin Fetchit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The author is usually given the benefit of the doubt that the error is unintentional.

But that’s where the importance of research cannot be underestimated. By knowing who these characters are, and facing the fact that they’re still ingrained in American society, only then will authors start to see that they’re liable to be  put back into use whenever there’s a need to add a black protagonist.

Who are these characters?

A character that gets resurrected continuously is the blindly loyal, nurturing, asexual martyr. This character is popularly used to show nobility, but only after the character either faces alienation by showing support or death by being defiant. Some examples are Gunga Din, Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Uncus in Last of The Mohicans.

The next is the comic relief. This character generally grumbles or is reluctant to perform required acts, usually pertaining to employment. Stepin Fetchit was a popular go to guy for these type of roles.

Stepin Fetchit

 

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson perfected the man servant trying to coolly get out of doing work without looking lazy on the Jack Benny Show. More recently, the ill conceived sit-com “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfieffer” used this character to try to make the Civil War funny. Female counterparts were usually cooks or maids, heavy set, dark, and also humorously cantankerous. The most famous was Mammy from Gone with the Wind, and to a lesser extent, Prissy. Far more minorities have played this role in a domestic capacity, but there are variations of it. In modern sit-coms its known as the side-kick role.

What happened with The Help, is that the author wound up using variations of these characters and also adding others. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is credited with being the prototype of several black characters considered stereotypes.

While Eliza was the tragic mulatto in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lulabelle is this character in The Help.

Aunt Chloe is the comic, sassy relief in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Minny plays the role in The Help.

Aibileen is the loyal martyr in The Help, while Tom played the role in Uncle Tom’s cabin.

Sam had the thankless role of the shiftless slave. Leroy apparently plays that part in The Help.

Stockett also adding yet another loyal character, that of Constantine.  

Writing a black character, much like any other character still requires research, because African Americans more than any other race are the children borne of familiarity. After decades of being told that only whites knew what was best, that we couldn’t be left to our own devices and that we were not equal in worth, it should come as no surprise that during segregation they would  control what images of blacks were put forth.

Early version of Aunt Jemima

 

Sunflower, the deleted fawn from Fantasia shines a hoof

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay

 

Thankfully, authors like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullins, Zora Neal Hurston, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison to name just a few had their writings and poetry published to help counter the negative depictions. But even that was not enough, as the views whites had of African Americans were still embraced by many. And so it continues in 2010. Reviewers rush to proclaim The Help authentic, while the author admits in an interview with NPR that she didn’t get the voice “all right.”

And yet, this could have been avoided

Those encouraged by the book’s solid premise,  but intent on pushing the novel through knowing the inaccurate depictions would cause controversy, and still others who deemed even the attempt to tell the story “courageous”  and “authentic” need only look at the role they played years from now. For they too believed in the stereotypes they read, and did not hesitate to promote them.

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