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In the Eyes of the People: The Representation of African Americans in the Media

Why I’m Interested in This Issue

Black History in the Eyes of the American People

Image of a Minstrel Jubilee poster showing a white man wearing blackface.
This poster of a man in Blackface is for a Minstrel Show. This should provide an example of what people who wore Blackface looked like.
https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/blackface-birth-american-stereotype

To start my project I am going to walk you through the history of black misrepresentation in the media. Although huge progress has been made, African Americans have never had enough proper representation in the media, particularly movies. Black people first started to appear in the media in the 1830s. The appearances came in the form of Blackface. In case you don’t know, Blackface is when people paint their faces black and pretend to be black people. Although it isn’t omnipresent anymore, in the 1830s Blackface was actually so popular that for many Americans, it was the only time they came in contact with black people (NMAAHC). The popular minstrel shows featuring Blackface portrayed all African Americans as lazy, hypersexual criminals (NMAAHC). Blackface gained enough popularity that by around 1845 it was regarded as its own sub-industry (NMAAHC). Moving into the 1900s, Blackface would continue to gain momentum in the media and become more of a mainstream form of entertainment. Some examples include its appearance in the hit film “The Jazz Singer” in 1927 as well as when famous actors and actresses including Shirley Temple donned Blackface (CNN). In addition to Blackface, there were also fabricated caricatures of black people that people would then use Blackface to portray in movies. One prime example is the ‘Mammy’ character. Mammy was usually an obese maid with very dark skin who cared more about the white family employing her than she did about her own (Ferris). Mammy was one of many caricatures that were brought to life by Blackface in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mammy was a commercial success, making appearances in movies as well as advertising campaigns. The most commercially successful version Mammy was Aunt Jemima, who originally was used as a spokesperson for a pancake mix (Ferris). Blackface and its many uses, including Mammy and other characters, dominated black media representation during the 1800s and into the early 1900s leading many to believe those characters to be realistic. This was an issue because of the horrible stereotypes the characters promoted.

The 19th and 20th centuries also featured some positive representation for African Americans. First published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the story of a slave named Tom who saves the life of a young white girl named Eva (History.com). Although Tom is Eva’s family’s slave, the two become friends and when Eva’s health declines she wishes for her father to set Tom free (History.com). Her father dies in the process and Tom is purchased by new owners and eventually whipped to death because he wouldn’t tell them the location other runaway slaves (History.com). The book would sell 300,000 copies in the US during its first year after publication (History.com). Uncle Tom was the first time that a black person had been portrayed as a hero. Being the first real positive media representation black people received, the book was obviously a huge step forward, but there was more work to do because of the excessive amount of degrading representation of black people in the media at the time.

Progress Doesn’t Always Make Perfect

Above is a banner for the TV show: Power. The show has a cast full of African Americans, but the plot consists of drugs, crimes, and adultery.

Although conditions have improved, African American people have never been properly represented in the media in the United States. The poor representation began in the 1800s with Blackface and minstrel shows.  It continued throughout the 1900s in various forms, including racist caricatures such as Mammy and Sambo. Stereotypes about African Americans being lazy, rude, and ignorant were very prevalent in mainstream media many years ago. Now the year is 2019. Blackface and the characters it featured are nowhere near as common as they were at the time. Nowadays, millions of Americans watch shows like Blackish, which is all about the daily life of black people in America. In 2018, the movie Black Panther, which had a deep emphasis on black culture, was a huge commercial success. It had the fifth largest opening of any movie ever (Mojo). However, the current state of the representation of African Americans in the media is still not where it needs to be. Although tremendous progress has been made and black representation is in a good position, as we now have multiple instances of black shows and movies experiencing tons of success, there is still not enough in the media that depicts black people as regular people.

This pie chart shows that 55% of Oscar-winning actors and actresses of color play characters that are rooted in stereotypes. Additionally, 20% are playing the role of a famous person. This leaves just 25% of winners who play roles that are not stereotypical or portraying a famous person.
This pie chart shows that 55% of Oscar-winning actors and actresses of color play characters that are rooted in stereotypes. Additionally, 20% are playing the role of a famous person. This leaves just 25% of winners who play roles that are not stereotypical or portraying a famous person.
https://venngage.com/blog/oscar-racism-interactive-infographic/

Although there is still progress to be made,  the portrayal of black people in the national media has gotten exponentially better in the last few centuries. Although there are still some incidents, for the most part, blatant racism is completely unacceptable and hard to come by in the media. Recently when clothing brand Gucci released a sweater that clearly resembled a person wearing blackface, celebrities used their social influence to reproach and publicly shame the brand, ultimately resulting in Gucci ceasing to sell the item. People who have clout on social media can be quite effective in the battle against racism. Another positive sign is the aforementioned Black Panther movie. The movie featured a black superhero, which is a huge win for black people around the world. The hero functions an example of black excellence for people of all races to appreciate. Another way African Americans are positively portrayed is the TV show Blackish. It’s a show about a suburban family of African Americans and their everyday life. The show is a comedy, so it’s something everyone can enjoy and I think it does a great job contextualizing certain real-life situations that black people go through that may be hard for others to understand. At the same time, the family is a family or normal people, and showing that black people are just normal people is a fundamental solution to the issue at hand. To contrast Blackish and Black Panther, there are Shows such as Empire and Power which have predominantly black casts, but they are no better than the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970s in which Hollywood’s directors tapped into the desire of black people to see themselves in positions of power to create popular movies (The Drum). Empire and Power both utilize black stereotypes as the shows are about guns, drugs and loud music (The Drum). The stereotype of black people, particularly black men, being dangerous or threatening is unfortunately still alive and well in our country (Journal of African American Studies). Shows like this, that simply exacerbate the already-existing negative stereotypes on black people, don’t do anything to improve our image in the media the way that Black Panther does. Nonetheless, the current state of black media representation is still a vast improvement on what it was in years past, but there is a long way to go before it accurately represents the normal African American person.
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Making Things Right: Fixing the Representation of African Americans in the Media

This is a poster advertising the movie Black Panther.

Due to the nature of the issue at hand, there is only so much that an average person can do to help solve the problem, but those who have a large platform can be vital in improving the media’s representation of African Americans. Unless you are going to put positive images of black people into the national media spotlight it is hard for you to reach a large volume of people and influence their opinions. With that being said, you can still help on a small scale by liking or reposting posts that promote positive images of African Americans. The other thing you can do is be mindful of the media that you consume. Ask yourself if you’re supporting a media outlet that fairly represents people. For example, by watching shows like Empire you can accidentally create and reinforce biases and stereotypes in your head about African Americans. You don’t necessarily need to boycott the show, but it is important that you’re conscious about what you’re watching. For those who have influence online, being cautious about what you post is quintessential. Social media can be a terrific tool for racial justice work because of its ability to reach so many people easily (Racial Equity Tools). When utilized properly, social media can be a terrific tool to spread your message. For those reasons, anyone who has a significant amount of social influence can help fix the issue with posts that accurately represent African Americans. Others can be mindful of what they consume. Together, we all can help improve the media’s representation of black people.

On a large scale, we can fairly easily improve the portrayal of black people in the media. We can so do by creating new content featuring black actors and actresses playing positive, realistic characters. Hollywood began using black people in the movies because they recognized it as an opportunity to make money (The Drum). However, the way that Hollywood chose to portray their black characters was often as some sort of urban superhero (The Drum). Blackness became synonymous with coolness. The issue with that relationship of the two concepts is that when black people are featured in popular shows, programs such as Empire and Power are the result. These shows both feature black actors, but the subject matter does nothing to improve the image of African Americans and actually exacerbate the existing issue. Shows such as Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder demonstrate progress, but we need more of those types of shows with black people playing positive roles. The creation of popular shows with black main characters that have positive, appropriate plots would go a long way to advancing the representation of black people in the media.

This chart shows Oscar-winners in the lead-actor category by race. The chart speaks to the disproportionate numbers of Hollywood actors and actresses who are people of color. 93% are white, 6% are black, and 1% are Asian.
This chart shows Oscar-winners in the lead-actor category by race. The chart speaks to the disproportionate numbers of Hollywood actors and actresses who are people of color.
https://venngage.com/blog/oscar-racism-interactive-infographic/

All things considered, the representation of black people in the media is indisputably in a terrific place and has made tremendous strides since the days of Blackface in the 19th and 20th centuries. With that being said, there are still too many people who have inaccurate and negative biases towards African Americans (Washington Post). This issue can be solved by the creation of more programs that positively represent black people. The positive image would be pushed out to the public through TV and movies, which would alter their views on black people, ultimately helping alleviate the issues caused by the poor representation we have been victims of for the last 200 years. Ultimately if we couple this by having celebrities who use their platforms positively and individuals who are mindful of the media they consume and post, America can become a place where everyone is represented fairly in the media.

Bibliography:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1553wSaWtD2UWmPRAAve7h5BF12LrTROX4b5GPsqbaBg/edit?usp=sharing

Below is a short survey about my project, it would be awesome if you could fill it out for me.

If you want to continue this discussion or have any questions for me, please leave a comment or feel free to contact me on Social Media.

Instagram: @chrisan_10 or Twitter: @chrisan10_

I also want to let you know that if you click on the title of any of my sections, it will take you to the original paper that I wrote on the topic. It has more information in case you’re curious.

Thanks for reading my paper, I hope you learned something!

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COMMENTS: 12
  1. April 26, 2019 by Jasper Reid Reply

    Absolutely loved it! The charts about what roles win Oscars were super interesting. I also really loved how you made the distinction that not all representation is good representation, comparing shows like blackish and empire.

  2. April 27, 2019 by Addie Behrens Reply

    Hi Chris! Great job on your presentation, I love how well you addressed your topic! Your charts and images really helped in my understanding of your topic. I learned so much after reading through your presentation and watching your video. Very well done!

  3. April 28, 2019 by Manasi Garg Reply

    Hi, this is a topic I really wanted to learn more about and I your presentation was very helpful. We briefly discussed minstrel shows in my history class, and this helped build on my understanding of this topic. I think it was really cool how you showed the evolution of the representation in movies and TV shows through time, Your statistics were also interesting. Great job!

  4. April 28, 2019 by Karin.Noskova Reply

    Hello Chris, I really like you picked a project that is that close to your heart. You presentation is very informative and interesting. Even though I am not from the United States, there are also racial prejudices present in my country Slovakia, so I could definitely see some parallels.

  5. April 28, 2019 by Leo.Abelson Reply

    Hi, the information you used to support your topic is very interesting. I like how you addressed a solution to fix the portrayal of African-Americans in the media.

  6. April 29, 2019 by Rose Cook Reply

    This is so good!! I really enjoyed reading this, especially the section on modern representation. I agree, there definitely isn’t enough media that portrays African Americans as just average people, and your webpage really explored the idea of representation in a such a compelling way.

  7. April 29, 2019 by Jaya.Dayal Reply

    Hey Chris, I loved your page. I think this is a really important topic to discuss and you did a really good job of delving into the historical roots of it along with the more subtle but still toxic representations of African Americans in the media today. The shows and movies you pointed out are all pretty relatable and actually made me think about the representations of African Americans in the ones I’ve watched as I read through your page. The pie charts were also a really great touch that really put everything into perspective! Overall great job!

  8. April 30, 2019 by Lande Ajose Reply

    This is super interesting. It’d be interested how to know more about more producers and filmmakers like Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris, Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, Keegan Michael-Key, Oprah Winfrey Ava Duvernay, Ryan Coogler and others who are working hard to portray a strong and nuanced understanding of black people in the media. I’m curious to know what challenges they encounter, and what it would take to increase the number of television and film projects with positive black depictions.

    Great work Chris!

  9. April 30, 2019 by Kola Reply

    Excellent work Chris!! Very thoughtful depiction of black people in the popular media through the ages. I have lots of questions for you!! See you soon!

  10. April 30, 2019 by KT Mower Reply

    Well written, Chris.

    I like that you cited that not all popular shows are representing African-Americans in positive roles. It’s true that Empire is a popular tv show, but it is still perpetuating a negative image.

    I think that programming in less progressive states to pick up available shows that represent positive images of African-Americans would be a step in the right direction. It seems like the coastal states- East and West Coast states – are much more progressive than the middle states where programming is still very controlled and less representative of African-Americans in a positive way.

    On that note, hoping that there are more shows like Blackish being produced would be good progress in fair representation.

    Relevant points across the board and supported with facts.

  11. April 30, 2019 by Wendy Wilkinson Reply

    Thank you, Chris! I was definitely “checked”! Although my favorite shows are the positive representations (Blackish, Grey’s Anatomy, Being Mary Jane and Scandal), I also have found myself watching shows like Power. Thank you for the wake up call and I will check myself and others as you helped to remind me that consuming is making it ok to continue!

    I’m super proud of this work!

  12. May 01, 2019 by Tanveer Alibhai Reply

    Wow Chris!
    What a compelling piece that is filled with incredible history and thought provoking insights and opportunity for great discussion. If you host a discussion group I’d love to be there!

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