Tambay Obenson has been after me to write about something that I love. My writing for Shadow
and Act has focused on criticism. I write in the tradition of George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht,
James Baldwin, Francois Truffaut, Alice Walker, Pablo Neruda, Jean-Luc Godard, etc. These
folks deconstruct the culture as they create their Art. It has taken me a minute to think of a
subject that I love that connects life and Art. The subject that I am choosing, today, is Black
As one can tell, I favor Art that parodies, examines, critiques or deconstructs culture. In
relationship to African-American culture, this has been in short supply. And, as readers of varied
ethnic backgrounds remind me, it is in short supply for other ethnicities as well. This is
unfortunate. The best Art, in my humble opinion, is created by thinkers. People who are
thoughtful and compassionate enough to care about the human condition.
Now, before you yawn, I am also a Sensualist. Many of us are, in one way or another. But, I live
it. I am attracted to those things that delight and engage my senses. So, when Art ignites those
two universes in me, I am deeply enthralled.
Lately, I’ve been considering the representation of the Black male body in the culture. Since the
death of Mike Brown, I have noted the parade of Black male offenders in the media: Ray Rice,
Adrian Peterson, now, the street harassment video. Always, after giving hours of attention to a
slain Black male, I note what happens in the media directly after. Since the death of Mike
Brown, Black men have become the face of domestic violence, child abuse and, now, street
I was encouraged by the attention given to Mike Brown’s death. I am encouraged by the
protests that continue in Ferguson. I am encouraged by the Activism from entertainers.
Typically, as a Feminist, I am awash in thought about Black women and our representation. Today, I’d like to shift the gaze.
As a Black woman, I have loved, befriended, relied upon and
cared for many Black men. My first feature film is in development because of a Black man who
respects my intellect (and, I his). I am in development on a TV series that a Black male wanted
me on board for because he wanted to make certain that the Black women are represented in
truth. I write for Shadow and Act because the Editor-in-Chief, a Black man, wanted to share my
voice with his readers. My work relationships, personal relationships and familial relationships
with Black men have made me acutely aware of representation of Black men. And, so, today, I
choose to write in honor of the love and joy I have received from my brothers in life and in Art.
I cannot consider Black men and Art without thinking about Hip Hop. Is it possible that Hip Hop
has made us care about the Black male body? There is an interesting dichotomy. One aspect of
Hip Hop has reinforced the idea of the criminal Black male. While another aspect has allowed
us to listen to Black males, their narratives, hopes and cries. The other day, I decided to get all
of Notorious B.I.G’s work. Yeah, it was a huge move on my part because I despise a lot of it. I
have some choice pieces that I listen to but, because I am mapping movement in the culture, I
wanted to listen to his oeuvre. Honestly, most of his Art (yes, it was Art), I can’t take for more
than thirty seconds. But, his “Suicidal Thoughts” caught my attention. In that moment, I
understood, I have to accept all of who he was. When one is coming from a haunted space, it’s
not going to be pretty. I have the right to critique it but, not a victim, I choose to listen to it and try
to understand it.
The marginalized voice unsettles because it disrupts the false narrative that the larger culture
purports. Biggie and Tupac and, and, and, brought the Black male body (because a lot of their
Art was about their body) front and center. “Black and ugly as ever, however,…” So that, now,
when we see Mike Brown’s dead body lying in the street for four hours (longer, if you count the
display of it on TV and in print images), we have an interest in his voice, who he was. Of course,
I’m not saying that Mike Brown and Biggie Smalls were the same in thought. But, we can now
humanize the body, care for it, understand it beyond what the larger culture sees it as.
Whereas, before, I wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I am finding the value in the
river that connects us to where we are. Certainly, Public Enemy and Pharoahe Monch (PTSD is
amazing!) will always be the standard bearers for me. But, we have a range of voices from
Black males in Hip Hop that we don’t get in TV or film. These voices bring us closer to the heart
of Black males, to their narrative.
Yes, there has been an imbalance in the Black male voice in music. We have been subjected to
the “less than conscious” musings by rappers like 50 Cent and Jay Z who put fame and
materialism front and center. I wonder if 50 Cent considers how his voice impacts how Black
men are seen, experienced, interacted with. It is easy to rip into 50 or whoever. But, then I think,
they’ve been killing Black men since we hit these shores. Whether dressed in a suit, naked,
dressed in a hoodie, Black men get killed. So, it’s the culture that devalues Black men. We can’t
lay the horror at the feet of rappers. But, what we can do, is appreciate that many rappers allow
us to grow a compassionate connection to the experience of Black men.
However, there is a type of Black male that is missing from the conversation. I think about this
mainly when I see an unsettling exchange on Twitter. There has been a disturbing trend of
Black male and female derision on Twitter. It seems, when a Black woman mentions Feminism,
the conversation becomes antagonistic. This is odd to me. In my life, the Black men that I know
and love, embrace Feminism. It may not be as deep as I might want but, I see, in my loved
ones, a desire to lift and respect and embrace the thoughts and feelings of Black women. I am
not saying that they are perfect. Nor am I perfect in my desire to understand the plight of Black
men. But, I have seen the evidence of an unfolding. I even see it in today’s Activists.
In the 60’s, the prized Activists were heterosexual, Christian and male. Women and Gay men
were marginalized. Today, it is almost archaic for a Black male to believe that he needs to be
the sole voice, the leader, the one who rights the ills of the Black community. We have suffered
through the Black Panthers and their abuse of women in the Party. Fortunately, in my life (not
speaking for everyone because I know it still persists), I see a change. There is a desire to bring
varied voices to the table. This must be acknowledged. My hope is that we continue on this
Now, what role does Art and entertainment play in this- in our lives as Activists, in our lives as
Artists, in the lives of Black men? To me, Art and entertainment should serve the audience. I
think about it like this, people work hard all day, they deserve a break, some relief, some form of
escapism that affords them an opportunity to replenish, reignite and emerge stronger to go
about their daily lives. The American entertainment industry, instead of being respectful to the
ticket buyers, creates a world of fantasy to exploit ticket buyers and makes them long for things
that are unattainable. Instead of the celebrities/movies/entertainers serving the ticket buyers,
people are encouraged to buy tickets to step into another life, a fantasy, something far and
away from their everyday existence.
This, I would guess, is why we see so many fractures in American life, in American culture. Our
lives don’t fit the fantasy. Our everyday does not resemble what we see on our big and small
screens, therefore, we reject it and try and seek it out in other ways. My world is not filled with a
bouncy White woman running around trying to make a sex tape. My life is so far from that that I
feel odd when I look at an advertisement for a movie with this as a narrative. It’s creates a false
goal. This is a schizophrenia that most Americans have to wrestle with. In thinking about the
entertainment industry as a medium to serve the public: how does it serve the lives of Black
In 2014, the visual is as powerful as its ever been. I am heartened by the Activism in Ferguson.
The visual shapes the culture. We need to see these images. We need to see Black people
loving a Black child enough to stand and fight in his honor. In the age of selfies and wanting to
be seen as part of the group, Activism and connection to community is spreading like wildfire.
And, no, Art and entertainment have not caught up to the Activism.
However, people are understanding the impact of the visual, recording the visual is becoming
the standard. The son who turned on his camera phone to record the interaction with his father
and police was stunning. He moved beyond his fear to document life in real time. The camera
that caught Eric Garner’s murder. The passengers on the highway who recorded the woman
being assaulted by the Highway Patrolman also understood the power of the visual. Their
courage to record what human beings do to one another is the thing that is missing from the
American entertainment industry. These documentaries are free and available to the public. It is
changing us. We are creating the unseen content ourselves. And, it is a thing of beauty. He/she
who holds the camera, shapes the narrative. These individuals are the filmmakers/video
makers/content creators that I favor. And, as we see more of these visuals go viral and become
the standard bearers for truth, it will present a challenge to the Hollywood fantasy. We are being
invited into the struggles that Black men face. This can only open our hearts to their experience.
I would encourage all of us to continue in this vein. Continue to create ways of seeing Black
men anew. Seriously, that is the challenge to you Artists. Go to MoMa (as @CybelDP
encourages me to do), watch cinema from Russia, Africa, Iraq, watch the storytellers who value
humanity. Look at Artwork that seeks to capture the human condition. Art that humanizes
people versus turning them into material objects. We have to push deeper to come up with
imagery of Black males that reflect the Black men we know. Men who are deeply human, men
who struggle with right and wrong, men who struggle with fatherhood, men who are seeking a
new way of doing and being, men who don’t always get it right but are trying to create a
peaceful life for themselves and their families- at the same time that they are being defiled.
May we continue to stand in the strength of the protestors in Ferguson. As Jessie Williams, Nate
Parker, Common, Iyanla VanZant (yes, even her), Talib Kweli, as Artists/Entertainers/Celebrities
begin to bridge the divide between “Hollywood” and “the people”, we are seeing a new day.
Throughout history, the best Artists challenge the culture and understand that we are all in this
together. No one is better than anyone else. Once we get that, once we connect, there will be a
sea change in America. At the same time that I am seeing hatred of Black men in the culture, I
am seeing the love that I know to be true.
Take a break from defiling Black men for the day, for the month. Look at them with love,
compassion and maybe, just maybe, our love will challenge America to love and honor them,
too. And, if not, we will take to the streets until America loves them as we do!