Although Hollywood has made drastic improvements in the field of diversity and has successfully increased inclusion of Black actors, many of the Black characters portrayed in movies and on television are stereotypes. These harmful stereotypes perpetuate outdated beliefs about Black people and their behavior. Black people are often only represented through a handful of caricatures and archetypes, each with their own ugly history.
Meet Sambo. The Sambo is usually a happy, carefree, lazy, and irresponsible Black man who is incapable of maturity. Sambo characters gained popularity in pop culture in 1899 after the publication of the children’s book “The Story of Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman. The book tells a simple story of a happy-go-lucky Black boy, but includes many blatantly racist stereotypes in the storytelling. The Sambo stereotype has been heavily perpetuated for over a century, and continues to be evident in pop culture. Now, Sambo-like characters are often manifested as the “Token Black Friend” on sitcoms. In modern pop culture Sambos are characters like Michael Barrett from “Zoey 101” and Tracy Jordan from “30 Rock.”
The most common stereotype of Black women in pop culture is the Sapphire, also known as the “angry Black woman.” Sapphire caricatures are the one-dimensional, finger-snapping depiction of Black women that are all over media. It first emerged in a popular 1930s television show called “Amos n’ Andy.” The main characters of the show were supposed to be Black, but they were played by two white comedians wearing blackface. Amos and Andy were often joined by their friend Kingfish, and his wife Sapphire. Sapphire was controlling, sassy, emasculating, and nagging.
After the success of Amos n’ Andy, sitcoms continued to use the Sapphire archetype in their portrayal of Black women and particularly Black wives. Sapphire had gone from being the nagging Black wife to the rude, loud, headstrong black friend. This stereotype is in pop culture as Dionne from the movie Clueless, Nurse Laverne Roberts in Scrubs, and Cookie Lyon from Empire,. The Sapphire caricature is seen all over media, but gives Black women little personality.
To make the matter worse, Black men are often stereotyped as violent and dangerous. This stereotype was first seen when slave owners tried to control their slaves in the United States. Slave owners lived in fear that fugitive slaves would stage a rebellion if not all white people perceived Black men as dangerous, and as a result, made an effort to make sure they were perceived as inherently violent. Perpetuating the stereotype that Black men are dangerous effectively spread fear of Black men in white communities. Later on in the Jim Crow south, lynching in America primarily targeted Black men who were feared to be violent.
In present day media, Black men are still often portrayed as dangerous and violent. Black male characters on television’s storylines are commonly associated with poverty, unemployment, and drug-related crime. Many Black communities do have high crime rates in addition to high poverty rates and poor education opportunities, but the reality is that these problems are direct results of systemic racism. Black people are not more violent than other races, but their circumstances often increase an individual’s chances of being a perpetrator or victim of violence. Coupling Black men and boys with criminality institutes a detrimental societal fear of Black men and perpetuates violent stereotypes.
Media has momentous power to shape ideas and attitudes. When Black people are made into caricatures, it teaches Americans that they are outrageous, comical, and all behave the same way. The “angry Black girl” stereotype perpetuates a culture where Black women’s genuine rage can be dismissed as unnecessary and misplaced. Without media portrayal of different types of Black people, those who live in communities without Black people will more easily embrace media portrayal of Black people and end up with a distorted perspective about them. Unfortunately the most negative impact will be on Black people themselves. Media portrayal of Black people contributes to them internalizing these negative stereotypes.
Although some media portrayals of Black people are positive, it is not enough to offset centuries of perpetuated stereotypes. Black people come with countless different types of personalities, and they should be shown in all of their variation and complexity instead of one-note stereotypes. Black people are not types, they are individuals.
IMAGE COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS