By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
Let’s get one thing straight from the start, brothers and sisters. We are NOT the descendants of slaves.
Our proud lineage included kings and queens, scientists and mathematicians, philosophers and writers, healers and those fighting for justice, generals and statesmen, giants of industry and masters of invention, educators and talents that span every sport to every art form.
How dare anyone try to reduce a legacy as rich as ours to a single circumstance. The calculated omission of everything else our people have experienced and accomplished is the perpetuation of a lie, the nurturing of a myth the concoction of a strategy to instill a feeling of superiority for some and inferiority for others.
Let’s take it a step further.
There is no such thing as a slave – never was and never will be. The fact is, there were men and women of color who for hundreds of years were brutally ENSLAVED. But to accept that hateful designation is to acquiesce to the oppressor.
Not even in shackles and beaten and scorned and abused beyond imagination should the oppressed assume the identity designated by the inhumanities of the oppressor. Self-definition is a victory of the spirit.
Americans of African descent were never slaves. They were men and women, families and individuals, kidnapped from their homeland – with the shameful complicity of those who sold out their own kind – much like some disgraceful African Americans in positions of authority are doing still today.
In case you wonder what inspired this diatribe, let me explain. It was the announcement this week of the new television series, “Underground” – produced by Oscar and Grammy winning recording artists John Legend. And the astonishing actress Viola Davis is set to portray Harriet Tubman in an HBO movie. No matter how well done, or noble the intentions – the timing of these productions is just bad. And the greater issue continues to be ignored.
Over the past few years, we have been inundated with the subservient roles in movie and TV production; “The Butler,” “The Help,” “Django” (however defiant, it was another tale of the enslaved), “12 Years A Slave” and on and on and on. I have come to the conclusion there is no such thing as a good slave movie or production.
It’s the ultimate oxymoron.
Some will argue that telling these stories is a constant reminder of the nation’s greatest atrocity; the holocaust of Black America, if you will.
I will counter two points. First, such productions invariably focus on the horrible suffering of the enslaved rather than the system that enabled their pain. That gives the creators and maintainers of the system far too great of a pass. Secondly, when there are inadequate alternate perspectives of Black life that put the African American experience into a truer context – these movies reduce us to a monolithic stereotype.
The suggestion that there is a shortage of compelling narratives for positive depictions of Black American insults our intelligence. There are too many to mention.
Where is the story of Robert Smalls, Dorothy I. Height, Christian Fleetwood, Ida B. Wells, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis H. Latimer, Mary Church Terrell, Daniel Hale Williams, Percy Julian, Benjamin O. Davis, Mae Jemison, Ernest Nathan Morial, Vernon Jordan, Johnetta Coleman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ralph Bunche, and Shirley Chisholm?
Why can’t television and movies depict the vivid and important stories of African Americans like Mahalia Jackson, A. Phillip Randolph, James Baldwin, James Cleveland, Lorraine Hansberry, Curtis Mayfield, Maya Angelou, John H. Johnson, Paul Robeson, Gordon Parks and Langston Hughes?
Too many stories remain until. And too few seem to care. They know we will just take whatever they dish out.
So in conclusion, until this nation widens its lens focused on Black America, I’m done. I refuse to watch any more movies where African American lead characters are enslaved or cast predominantly for similarly degrading roles – happy ending or not.
Do I expect my position to influence conventional wisdom? At least readers can no longer say they never heard of an idea for such a protest. Do I expect others to join me? Probably a few. Too many Blacks love entertainment and hate risk taking. So why then would this message be written – shared?
Because it needed to be said. Because enough is enough.