Noreen Farooqui, writer, copywriter, behavioural scientist, strategy, strategist, University of Toronto, English, business psychology, behavioural economics

Negritude Portraiture: Part 4

The 1990s: A Return to Minstrel Images
Fresh Prince of Bel Air starred Will Smith, rapper turned actor. After he gets in a scrap in his hometown of West Philadelphia, Will is sent to live with his uncle and aunt in the upscale Bel Air. Will is portrayed as the ‘normal’ black child and his cousins, Carlton, Ashley and Hilary are considered to be far removed from the ‘black’ experience. Will’s role is to remind them of their ‘roots.’ Will is a coon and his cousins are ridiculed for assimilation in ‘white’ society. Carlton is intelligent and ambitious, and happens to adore Tom Jones. He is portrayed as a buffoon. Although the Bankses are rich, the idea this program enforces is that to be a ‘true’ black is to live in poverty and speak a certain dialect. This sends a confusing message to viewers. The assumption is that whites and blacks act in distinct ways, different from each other. Black minstrels did not view blacks as individuals, but by stereotypic characters and attitudes. Fresh Prince of Bel Air is guilty of doing the same.

When Will takes Carlton to the hood, traditional images of blacks permeate the set:

“Before the first commercial break, we are witness to a slew of racial stereotypes associated with under-class African-Americans: a filthy trash-strewn apartment building, several Nat characterizations hanging about, a character who sells fake Korean Gucci bags; a conspicuously placed bucket of fried chicken.” (Coleman 108)

When references to blacks were made in a historical context or otherwise, they were trivialized with a joke, and individuals were allocated to one of two groups: coons or criminals. Fresh Prince of Bel Air lacked the black values and traditions that were relevant in 1980s programs.

With the changing social climate a new network, Fox riddled its schedule with black programming, introducing the world to a slew of predominantly low-quality shows. Historically, advertising was difficult to get for black programs, but now blacks were considered ‘cool’ and Fox conceded that whites would be interested in advertised products since they were associated with blacks.

One of the more positive programs was Living Single, which featured six educated and successful blacks. Although their conversations tended to focus on sex and relationships rather than anything of social significance, the women were intelligent. Maxine was a lawyer and Khadijah, was owner of hip-hop magazine, Flavor. The show is guilty of stereotypic caricatures in the portrayal of Synclaire and Overton, two dim-witted souls.


Martin, by creator Martin Lawrence was the most offensive program to appear on television in years. Minstrel images were introduced to popular media with a vengeance. Tisha Campbell played Martin’s Love interest, Gina. Lawrence played many characters, the most significant, Sheneneh, where Lawrence dressed in drag. Sheneneh was an over-sexualized Nat stereotype with an enormous bosom and protruding behind. She was promiscuous and vulgar.

Gina’s friend, Pam was a constant source of conflict for Martin. They detested each other, and their bickering was reminiscent of black couples in the past. However, Martin had no valid reason for his fights. He demarcated women and Blacks with his comments on Pam’s ‘horse hair’ and references to her physical stature.


Looking Forward
Tim Reid and Bill Cosby have fought hard to improve the image of blacks on television. White writers have been blamed for not understanding the realities of black existence, and therefore depicting a false one on television. But as more blacks gain control of scripts and what images are portrayed, they have the responsibility of improving the image of their race. Unfortunately, once some blacks get in a position of power, they return to familiar stereotypes to aid in the success of their careers, as is the case with comedians Martin Lawrence and Jimmy Walker.

Millions of people around the world watch television, and for some it is their first introduction to another race. Television writers and producers have a responsibility to portray all characters as real people and not stereotypes. This is especially true for minorities whose experience of the world has been tainted by prejudice.

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