Divisive racial relations run deep in the foundational makeup of American history and culture. We still have prominent racist features in our government and social perceptions. These perceptions found their footing in the early 1600s, transformed into Jim Crow laws after the abolishment of slavery in 1865 up until the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, and reshaped into the New Jim Crow through mass incarceration that started in the 1970s. History has shown to repeat itself in the intentional oppression of Black American’s as a whole. A system of oppression that feeds off stereotypes of black men as dangerous threats to be locked away or annihilated, and black women as promiscuous welfare queens who abuse the system.
Generally, these stereotypes see blacks as unfit, lazy, rule breakers unless they conform to an approved placement or station. This station, the entertainment of America. Through research, I will look to understand how historically and in the present day, black bodies – the embodiment of Black American culture with sports, music, dance, etc.- are a commodity, a means to entertain America rather than be functioning members of American society. In doing so, I will first look back at slavery and Minstrel shows and how those same schemas translate to black American athletes today.
Most, if not all know that the use of slavery in American history was for economic purposes. Slaves aided in making America an economic powerhouse with the productions of crops such as tobacco and cotton (“Slavery in America” 2009). An entire nation benefited from the exploitative relationship between slaves and masters. Slavery had a strong concentration in southern states such as Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, however, in the north, businessmen benefited from the slave trade and investments in southern plantations (“Slavery in America” 2009). The benefits were not just economic, but alas for entertainment as well. A strange, yet popular feature of this “black entertainment,” came in the form of Minstrel shows.
These were shows that even Mark Twain enjoyed saying, “If I could have the nigger show back again in its pristine purity, I should have little use for opera” (qtd. by Jonah Raskin and Elliot 31). In “Love and Theft: The Racial Unconscious of Blackface Minstrelsy”, Eric Lott discuss this exploitation of blacks for entertainment. Lott sees blackface and the establishment of Minstrels as America’s first, “formative public or institutional acknowledgment by whites of black culture” (23). A show believed to simply be borrowing black cultural for the entertainment of whites and again, for profit, relied on material related to slavery (23). Minstrel shows portrayed slavery as, “amusing, natural, and right” (23). These shows mocked the culture of blacks by imitation of black music and dance, a parody of what it meant to look and be black. Minstrels made the black body into something to be looked at, with portraying black characters with a savage energy with “white eyes roll[ing] in a curious frenzy and their hiccupping chuckles” (28).
Amongst minstrels and the pop culture of the time, the main perceptions that emerged were, “the mammy, the coon, the Sambo, and the Tom” (“The Most Damaging Myths,” 2018). Further, these social perceptions depended on the representation of blacks as, “cheerful, subservient darkies with bug eyes and big lips and, often, with a watermelon never too far off,” as seen in the PBS documentary about blacks and Vaudeville (“The Most Damaging Myths,” 2018). It helped to maintain a message that blacks were happy under the superiority of whites. Simply to quote Frederick Douglass about blackface performers as, “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens” (“The Hutchinson Family”).
Over time, however, as a nation, we surely have moved from such blatant disregard of black Americans through entertainment. So, how is this still relevant to today? Black entertainment in the forms of Minstrels has simply transformed from whites mocking blacks, to blacks in blackface mocking whites who were mocking blacks, to blacks finding their own footing in presenting black culture for what it truly means. Jazz, tap, poetry, art, music, and dance – truly amusing, natural, and right pieces of black American culture, took off when blacks had access to their own shows. Prominent names rose from this transition such as dancers Bojangles Robinson and the Nicholas brothers; musical geniuses Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole; artist like Augusta Savage and Horace Pippin; and poets Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.
There are many other names that expand these categories, but when black Americans begin to come into there own even under the suppression of Jim Crow laws and segregation, blatant geographical segregation by the government which The Color of the Law by Richard Rothstein discusses in-depth that forgotten history – they thrived in the creative arts. It made way for the modern day black American musical artists, poets, dancers, and athletes. There is so much to be said about the exploitative nature of each of these categories, however, I digress in focusing in on sports and black athletes.
I’m making a sweeping generalization, which holds some truth and has been widely held belief over the years – blacks (Americans, those from African countries, etc.) have a superior physic which makes them more apt for athletic success. A physical aptness was acknowledged during slavery to determine which slaves were better for breeding the next generation based on age, sex, health, temperament, skill, and other factors (“A Fus’ Rate Bargain” 2015). This aptitude for athletics seems apparent not only in physic but also in the rhetoric amongst the black community who want to “make it big” in professional sports, even though the margin for doing so is low. I have experienced such rhetoric and my answer to not playing sports in a waste of height.
Why is no one asking about school or encouraging college degrees? It is not unheard of to push those in the black community towards sports but why? Statics showcasing a high number of black athletes will speak to this quantitatively, however I believe there is a stigma in the community that if you can conform to the social majority, specifically white members of society and pass yourself as a “safe” citizen i.e. through sports, you can make it out and be better off. The Institution for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) collects data, which keeps track of, “the diversity of players, coaches, assistant coaches, team management, league management, and ownership by race, ethnicity and gender in several sports league,” for which I will discuss the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL), leaving out Major League Baseball (MLB) due to such low representation (“Major League White” 2014).
The report graded the NFL with an F for having no women or people of color represented in the position of CEO and President (10). The data is interesting in that an overwhelming majority of the money makers are non-people of color and those who make them money are an overwhelming majority of people of color, specifically blacks. These statistics play a glaringly obvious role with athletes kneeling during the national anthem or basketball stars speaking out about political issues. Collin Kaepernick shook tables across the nation in kneeling for the injustices seen with police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
A new wave of anger immerged with him being the face of the 2018 Nike ad. “When It Comes to Race and Sports, Who Owns an Athlete’s Opinion,” Karen Bates discusses this idea that the athletes are for entertainment only, not a voice. She quotes Amira Rose Davis of Penn State University, “…you are good as entertainment, but once you have a voice, I don’t want to hear you. You need to shut up and play” (“When It Comes,” 2017). Kaepernick did not shut up and play, and as a result, his contract was not renewed and no team picked him. Standing for something put his career on the line but why? I can agree with Davis in that sports have been a way to discipline black bodies and because professional athletics is so visible, “if you can discipline a black body in this space, it sends a message to disciplining black bodies across the nation” (“When It Comes,” 2017).
In kind, the response from the unhappy clan of white American’s changed the rhetoric to disrespect for the army and flag and vowed to boycott the NFL. Others decided to burn Nike shoes and apparel they already owned. The league responded by stating players could kneel but in locker rooms and there would be repercussions for kneeling during the anthem on the sidelines. What these responses are saying is not anger with the actual injustice but anger when “black bodies don’t conform to what white spectators and consumers want them to be or say.” By diverting from this role of conformity, these black players are considered “spoiled, rich, undeserving brats,” rather than brave leaders standing for what is right and just in our country (“When It Comes,” 2017).
As a nation, we have traveled from a blatant disregard for black Americans to a subtle yet clear disregard for black Americans. People seem to understand the absurdity of blackface, well that is questionable around Halloween time, yet some people seem to not understand the injustices that arise through systematic oppression. Rather than see the truth in kneeling and athletes speaking out, they are discredited by being unpatriotic and un-American.
Many blacks could not be successful during the period of Minstrels because they would not conform to wearing blackface over their already dark skin. This translates to the backlash of black athletes when they do speak out. For example, when a newscaster told Lebron to “shut up and dribble,” after expressing his views about current political issues. It seems that the job of black athletes is to shut up and play, if you find a voice and you are ostracized because there are many players on a wait list to fill your position. We may have by law and some social perceptions come a long way of treatment of black Americans, but we still have a way to go in seeing this community as people who matter with a voice and have value in America.