21 July 2013

We Are Wild Animals; Treat Us As Such

William Heirens, a 1940s Chicago serial murderer, became known as 'the Lipstick Killer' after using it to scrawl on a victim's wall: 'For heaven's sake, catch me before I kill more, I cannot control myself.'

The infamous Zodiac Killer of San Francisco made a similar plea in a 1969 letter to police: 'Please help me, I can not remain in control for much longer.'  We commonly attribute such a sentiment to sociopathy.  But it has now sprung up again in a more unlikely place.

The recent criminal trial around an Afro teen's shooting death by Floridian George Zimmerman has gripped the nation.  The lesson to be drawn, say the pundits, is that young black men are akin to dangerous wildlife:  One cannot approach them, even innocently, without implicitly inviting them to beat one's head into cement.  'If only Zimmerman had stayed in his car,' the chorus sings, 'none of this would have happened.'

We are to understand, then, that Afros are telling us, 'We cannot control ourselves.  Approaching us, looking at us, just getting in our space, can push us to spontaneous violence--for which we cannot be held responsible.'  In a word, 'We are wild animals.'

It is a curious line to take, in an advanced society.  The message is that though you may believe yourself in a city of civilized men, you are in fact no different than an Indian villager at constant threat of leopard attacks.  Your life en ville is a sort of urban safari.

It is as though Black Americans are telling us that in their presence, we should follow the advice given to visitors by car to, for example, Namibia's Etosha National Park:

'Also remember to give a wide berth to elephants and rhinos which may become agressive if they feel threatened. Never get too close, never approach them too fast and never honk the horn. They can both outrun the vehicle if they decide to charge, so better not mess around. But if you are respectful and careful they will see you as part of their surroundings and will behave very peacefully. Warning signs that an elephant is annoyed is the raising and flapping of the ears whilst looking directly at you - retreat slowly and immediately.'

If Afros really want us to treat them this way--as dangerous wildlife--then we can only examine some case studies to see if simple guidelines could indeed change tragic outcomes for non-Afros.

07 July 2013

Mad About Minstrelsy

                                  "If I could have the nigger show back again in its pristine purity,
                                         I should have little use for opera." -- Mark Twain

Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled follows the tale of a disgruntled black TV exec who tries to get himself fired.  Like the two Broadway scammers in The Producers, he picks the most shocking premise possible—a modern-day minstrel show—and is horrified to see it succeed wildly.

In 2000, then, it is understood that minstrelsy is the most odious entertainment imaginable. Why?

    Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical. … Racial integrationists decried them as falsely showing happy slaves while at the same time making fun of them.

Mel Watkins, minstrelsy scholar:

So this was not advertised as a stage show. It was advertised as a peephole view of what black people were really like. To that extent, it affected all of society because those people who didn't know blacks, and there were many places where there were very few blacks, assumed that those characterizations, those depictions, those foolish characters on stage, were real black people. And so it had an immense effect on the way mainstream society thought about blacks.