Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Representation Matters. Misrepresentation REALLY Matters.

Perhaps you'll remember that bit Eddie Murphy used to do about the similarities between blacks and Italians. Two bada-bing types walk out of a showing of "Rocky," and figure any black man they encounter is a sucker for a southpaw hook to the mouth. Rocky was so compelling, so immersible, some 5'2" untrained Italian dood leaves the cineplex pretty damned certain he can just sucker-punch brothas. "You can really do that." "He's 6'5". I'm 5'2". He's bigger than me, but I'm Italian." Hilarious, right? This is an instance where representation matters, if only because misrepresentation REALLY matters. This one is funny. The outcome of my man's ignorance is being knocked out by the concession stand at the Cinemart in Forest Hills.

You know how there are a lot of folks who think that watching all sixty episodes of The Wire is enough of a primer to speak deeply on issues of race and class in America?
"Well, it's just like on 'The Wire.' Have you seen 'The Wire?' Oh, my God. Great show. So real. I had no idea."
Deep familiarity of black Americans at large, acquired through binge-watching five seasons of a television show about people from Baltimore. If they stayed with David Simon for HBO's Treme, they're a scholar. If they can go all the way back to Homicide: Life on the Street, whooo lawdy, you have a hell of a cocktail party debate on your hands. Multiple-degreed historians and anthropologists struggle with getting our shared existence in this country right, but you know what's up because you had an HBO subscription and plenty of time one weekend. I listen to NPR in the car, right up until I hear mention of "The Wire," which is just about weekly, and always in relation to someone's professed understanding of black Americans. It's what we do with new insights. We peddle them everywhere and lend them to everyone we can get to listen. It's just human.

Good God, everything is Hip Hop! Sure, some openly lament its traces, if only because its elements and attitude are everywhere. Remove the Hip Hop from ESPN and it's boring, middle of the road, innocuous sports trivia. Hip Hop—black American—speech, attitude, and aesthetics are present in Country and Gospel. So much American cultural output was off the menu until a little Hip Hop was mixed in with the batter. It's everywhere. Can't even keep up with it. Know what? Let me cook your noodle for a second.

Hip Hop is crime fiction. I don't need to parse it. I'm not going to break it down. Y'all get it. Hip Hop is crime fiction more than it is music. You don't think Raekwon actually commits all those crimes, do you? Don't rhyme sayers cleave unto their (largely fictional) biographies as much as crime fiction novelists who enjoyed morally ambiguous reputations, ala Ian Fleming and Chester Himes? Doesn't James Elroy start all his public speaking engagements as his own hype man? Before Hip Hop, folks would figure him just crazy, as opposed to crazy like a fox.

Say, suppose for a moment you're a youngish Latinx police officer in St. Anthony, Minnesota, which I imagine is a place where one is, shall we say, unburdened by the social requirement of interpersonally relating with black folk. We're effectively only ten percent of the US population, after all. There are plenty of Americans who can spend their entire lives without having to look at a black person unless they want to. When we aren't a predominant portion of the population in an area, the black folk one would encounter are likely behaving according to white middle-class social norms. The "he/she's black, but…" types. Joe Biden crystallized this mindset perfectly:
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."
Thing is, Philando Castile wasn't Obama-level storybook. He wore dreads. He regrettably had the worst luck with Minnesota police and cars. His lady was behind the wheel and her respect for the law was negligible. He had a concealed handgun on him. It was all chill, until Castile's admittance of his weapon, permitted and lawful to be carried. In 40 seconds, everything went from "Hello, sir," to casual banter, to dead black man. Former Officer Jeronimo Yanez's testimony included these tidbits:
“I thought he had a gun in his hand.”
Actually, he told you it was concealed on his person, it was concealed-carry permitted, and you told him not to pull out the weapon. You would have seen him pull it out, dawg.
"I was scared because, I didn’t know if he was gonna, I didn’t know what he was gonna do."
He told you. He was gonna get you his ID, which was what you asked for.
"I thought I was gonna die."
From what? Castile's effusive cordiality and compliance?

Officer Jeromino Yanez is trained, armed, has supervision available via radio. His partner is chill and trying to get him to chill. Nothing about the situation is escalating. Yet, within forty seconds, a man who was, by all accounts, affable and well-intentioned (and probably a little dumb) was dead and a cop was accused of murder, and anti-blackness. He said he was afraid he was going to die, despite all his weaponry, training, back-up on the scene and no visible presence of a firearm other than his own. What was the source of his fear??

Well, here's an image of Philando Castile.

And here is a photo of Omar Little, that death-defying, bulletproof, sexy/dangerous, antihero, supernigga from The Wire.

Take the glasses off of Philando. Add some THC-derived chillness. Make it the first real-live black person Yanez has seen in a while, and the only one he's seen with the balls to admit he's carrying a gun. The only one with the balls to carry a gun while sitting in a car with a woman who has her own well-documented troubles with the law. Philando Castile's dumb ass is sitting in a car with a loaded gun when he's a cop magnet. Over sixty cases for anything and everything vehicular. I wouldn't go anywhere near a car were I Castille. You got to figure he's at least a little crazy, like crazy Omar Little, who defies death.

And what young police officer in a place where not much crime happens hasn't seen The Wire? How many young police officers, soldiers, teachers, etc. are exposed to crime fiction and the filmed entertainment adapted from them? How much of this crime fiction have they enjoyed before it became necessary to do their adult jobs without preconception or bias? I'm just asking.

Okay, okay. I get it. I got Tarantino first week, then Black Panther. Now I'm going to take down The Wire? Not at all. My point is that culture informs, and it misinforms faster. Folks get all lifted over Omar Little, they want to have their own Omar Littles in their novels and television shows, same as how Hip Hop goes in the goddamned milkshakes and apple pies at McDonald's. It becomes so common, it's archetype. A staple. A standard. Culture helps us navigate through the parts of our world we have yet to directly experience. And if you don't have a chance to make up your mind before fear sets in, culture will make your moves for you. The way I suspect it did Officer Yanez.

There is something about fallacies and the human heart. It tells the brain, "Yo, don't go sayin' that shit. You know it ain't true." To look at another human being in different skin than you and regard them as some inferior variant requires conditioning and constant reinforcement. Cultural reinforcement. Crime fiction has the fastest pipeline to the entertainment industry. If it's romance, then crime fiction runs a close second. Once ideas and conventions leave the pages of a book, they're pushed through the Hollywood mill where all but the broadest strokes are ground down.  Blackness is many distinct cultures, each with their subcultures, but on television, we're only ever Omar Little or, say, Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, with very few gradations between.

What's any of this have to do with anything? Well, my Eddie Murphy example serves the point that misrepresentation gets people hurt. My Hip Hop example hints at what happens when the legend becomes standard. My example of The Wire is to help y'all see that individual black folk's show-and-tell is trumped by what someone saw on television the night prior. If folks are printing the legend, and people with institutional or situational power believe the legend, a black person on the business end of a crisis situation has to be more compelling than the Apollo Creeds, Omar Littles, and Raekwons. Right there, on the spot. Or else power is justified in its fear.

I'll end this with a little W.E.B. Du Bois:

“Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of black Americans?”
“I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.”
- W.E.B. Du Bois, "Criteria of Negro Art" October 1926

Du Bois dropped that on us ninety-two years ago. It's safe to say the next eight years likely won't see a cultural shift. Stephon Clark. Danny Ray Thomas. Killed by police within days of each other. Everyone is so afraid of black folk, even well-armed police officers. Even when a black man is in his grandmother's backyard.

"Oh, my God. Have you seen that show "The Wire"??"

Yeah. I've seen it.

"It's so real. I had no idea, ya know?"

Yeah. I know.


Sandra Ruttan said...

I can't speak to this. In Canada I had many friends who were black. I went to school with Native kids. And the "black" accent affect that is presented in the states doesn't represent how the black people I knew in Canada talked. The talked just like everyone else. I had friends from church and camp and no frame of reference tha associated anyone with crime in my experience, except for this one white girl who was always stealing my stuff at school.

So I've seen Homicide. Best detective is Pendleton. And I've seen The Wire. All of it.

And I have worked in Baltimore City Public Schools. The American experience is different. The American reality is different. Now I know highly educated black Americans who are more Bunny and Pembleton than Omar. But I also had the crap kicked out of me by a couple black students and I've left work and seen the boys lined up along the sidewalk with the handcuffs on and I've worked with students who were shot by rival drug dealers and...

The bottom line is that I don't think it's about misrepresentation. I think it's about emphasis. Not every Irish cop is a drunk asshole like McNulty but I'm not offended as a descendent of an Orangeman and an Irish Catholic grandmother.

The reality is that people make judgments about others based on their appearance. And I don't think it has much to do with The Wire or any particular book. Most teachers I worked with hadn't seen The Wire. We didn't need to. When you worked in certain schools you weren't able to disassociate by telling yourself it was fiction. I know kids who've been gunned down. When I worked in ED programs the failure rate was 90%. 90% would be dead, in jail or in a psych hospital by the time they should graduate.

That fourth season of The Wire.. It's really close to home.

But you know, as a woman you get judged every day for what you wear and it's the same thing. Skirt's too short so you must have been asking for it. Do all the hookers and loose women in fiction impact how someone treats me? Only if they're an idiot.

I will say that at one school I worked, every adult in the community told this one student to mind me and listen to what I said. On the other side of town at a different school the adults told the kids they didn't have to listen to no cracker.

And that first school was in the "bad" neighborhood.

Meanwhile drive 10 miles and the schools have drinkable water and the kids don't have to wear uniforms (enforced in BCPS because of gangs) and there are more reasources, better facilities...

There was one white student who came into the first ED program I worked in. He was racist.

Oh and I lived through an active shooter situation at a school I worked in near Curtis Bay.

I don't think The Wire misrepresents. I think it emphasizes a specific group of issues and people because that's what the story is about.

I'm also not convinced the majority of cops have seen The Wire. It was one of the lowest rated HBO shows in its day. Could be wrong but I certainly wouldn't wager on the majority of teachers in the country watching it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

And all of that to say... I didn't understand the racial problems in the US before marrying an American. The history is different in Canada and the realities are, I'm sure, very different in different parts of the US even. I think crime fiction is best when it does give social commentary and it can only do that if it shows realities, even when they aren't pretty. I couldn't stand that white kid because he thought he'd just hang around me and mouth off everyone else while hiding behind the white woman. I didn't like his views or his behavior. Nothing else mattered to me.

Dana King said...

Interesting timing, as The beloved Spouse and i are finishing up a re-viewing of THE WIRE tonight.

To me, THE WIRE isn't about teaching white people all they need to know about inner-city blacks. It's about making us want to learn more.

Bob Mueller said...

Thanks for this. I'm gearing up to start a crime series next year, and this is something I'm sweating. I grew up in SE Ohio, in a town of about 12,000. The non-white population of my 900-student high school was probably 2%. Now I'm in Oklahoma (where the series is going to be). Black. White. Native American. Hispanic. I want to be realistic, and I want to get it right, and I'm not sure how to do both yet.

Thomas Pluck said...

I'm writing about Louisiana now, and I skipped most of Treme. I only have one or two scenes in New Orleans. I know people who grew up there, white and black, from Monroe to Baton Rouge to Ville Platte, and they are my go-to. But I'm still reading Ernest Gaines and Jesmyn Ward, to see their perspectives.

Castle's murder was one of the most egregious. Oh wait, Stephon Clark. As writers we can be complicit if we're not careful. Pushing the superpredator myth, deciding what our "scary bad guy" default is... how many cartoon villains have I read, where they were naturally violent and of low intellect, but their cartoonishness was excused because they were urban black males? Too many.