We forget that it was Oprah Winfrey who handed black pop culture’s one-dimensional image of black men.
It was 2004 and social media as we know it didn’t exist. The black blogosphere was still in its gestational phases, and online dating for black folks was relegated to hook ups on Black Planet websites and college students who discovered the joys of flip phone cameras to plaster their MySpace pages. And then Oprah Winfrey invited an author by the name of J.L. King who wrote the book On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of Straight Black Men who Sleep with Men to her show and the phenomenon of the “DL black man” was brought to light. At the time, even for me, it fixated my interest because, well, I was in college and some of what became fodder for young minds was evident on the college campus, but it reinforced to yet another generation, the millennials, that “Black men aint shit.” I got into countless arguments and conversations in dorm rooms and at the cafeteria at Fisk during my senior year with black women who said, almost verbatim, “Half of y’all aint shit and the other half of y’all are gay.” I blame Oprah for this.
Only through age and some sense of wisdom that comes with it have I realized that Oprah is not the progenitor of this conversation, it’s something that has been going on for quite some time. But, Oprah at the time that she said it had the weight of pop culture behind it. No longer was it something that was discussed on three-way phone conversations, no longer was it something that black church women tsk tsked about at the afternoon church dinner, it was something worth displaying for the whole world to see on the big screen.
Filmmaker, producer, actor, director, writer and all-around cinematographic maven Tyler Perry found his niche in writing stage plays that was the right mix of comedy, drama and black churchified frivolity. Even prior to J. L. King appearing on Oprah’s show, Perry had received ticket-sale success from the chitlin’ circuit by the turn of the century. While getting his start with stage plays in the 1990s, his box office success came in 2001 with “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” which was eventually turned into a movie and introduced his famous Madea character to the wider world. By this time, Oprah had already invited Perry to her show and his inspirational story of being homeless and pouring his life savings into his work was a success story Oprah glommed on to. It was no turning back for either one of them.
“Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” to say the least was not cinematic greatness. But no one was necessarily expecting it given that it was Perry’s first feature length movie. However, it set the foundation for Perry’s characters throughout his later productions. (I want to list some of the movies that I’m speaking about for the sake of making a larger reference point: “Why Did I Get Married?,” The Family That Preys,” “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” Daddy’s Little Girls”) Most of these movies took stereotypical and archetypical images of black women and placed them into characters that some times fit and some times didn’t. And more often than not, they didn’t. But still, his movies were box office success. Without fail, if a Tyler Perry movie was released, he was going to make his money back in box office sales that was spent on production, and usually with profit. Perry found the right mix of black buffoonery in the Madea character, and finding ways to dispense platitudinal wisdom, making sure that Cicely Tyson or Maya Angelou had speaking roles, so that a wide range of black folks–and white looky-loos–would show up at the box office. It is worth noting that behind all of this Oprah Winfrey was walking directly to the bank.
Oprah’s success model, as she noted herself, changed when she saw the tide of daytime talk show moving away from the Morton Downey, Phil Donahue and Jerry Springer model of confrontation, and moving toward inspiration. At least there was a glimmer of hope that you can be success by appealing to the American public’s higher angels rather than their lust for displays of violence. Oprah rose to the top. By herself. She owned and operated her brand. Her race aside, it’s still a marvel that she was able to do it. The poor black girl from Kosciusko, Mississippi actually made it. Part of me thinks that she backed Tyler Perry as a result of criticism at the time that she, as a black woman in this country was 1) not a real Christian and 2) wasn’t really black.
Seeing the sea change from confrontational to inspirational, Oprah was not shy in having people on her show that spoke of spiritual transformation in decidedly non-Christian ways. Note, not necessarily un-Christian ways, but through modes that would speak more to philosophical metaphysics than through Christian theological methods. This was superbly expressed throughout many of the books that she selected for Oprah’s Book Club, almost culminating with author Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth in 2008.
Similarly, Oprah had one of the most damning ontological charges levied against her: that she wasn’t black. Most of her in-studio audience were white women. And frankly, very few television shows across the board become number one solely off the viewership of black viewers; even “The Cosby Show” was made number one because the majority of viewers were white (honestly, I think “Empire” on Fox might be one of the few if not only that’s been able to do this). And Oprah received a lot of criticism through the Oprah’s Angel Network, the charity arm of her vast empire started in the late 1990s, for donating to schools in South Africa and seemingly turning a blind eye to the poverty and schools in her backyard of Chicago. It seemed as though Oprah started going out of her way to build homes and do for black women in visible ways on her show. One of the most famous clips of Oprah building a house for a single black mother made its way to the movie “Ocean’s 13.” All of that combined, I speculate, fueled Oprah’s alignment with Tyler Perry, but she didn’t stop there. And neither did Perry.
As The Oprah Winfrey Show was wrapping up in 2010, she announced the launch of her own network, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) in 2011. The network predictably struggled, but has essentially found its footing in the present. But the network was buoyed by, wait for it, sit-coms and drama productions by Tyler Perry. Perry had already produced “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” for Atlanta-based networks and then for TBS, but later worked out a deal for scripted shows for the then-new OWN network. “Tyler Perry’s For Better or for Worse” was picked up by OWN after cancellation on TBS, and “Love Thy Neighbor,” a sit-com and “The Have and Have Nots” a soap opera-esque drama were specifically designed for OWN. Essentially, the writing and depth of the characters is flat. The one-liners of the sit-coms appeal to niche brand of entertainment that edges up to shuck-and-jive adjacent; the drama shows are melodramatic: imbecilic in one line, stark histrionics the next. All the while employing the same tropes of black women and black men. What do I mean by that? Many of the Perry characters singularly embody a trope. Where one single woman is the Mammy character, one single man is the Buck, and one single woman is the Jezebel, so on and so forth. It’s a failure to understand not just the complexity of humans, but unique complexity of black life in America. All of which, seemingly is supported by Oprah Winfrey of all people.
I think when I had this revelation, connecting all of these problematics of Perry’s characters throughout the years to Oprah, it was a bit disturbing. I wasn’t so much concerned about how Perry portrayed black women, usually because they obtained some type of moral victory in the end, but I couldn’t help but wonder Was this how Oprah viewed black men? Obviously, this is all a theory, pure speculation, but I can’t help but imagine Oprah sitting… wherever someone as rich and wealthy as Oprah sits… disconnected from so many parts of black life positing what she wants to green light as far as production. I don’t have a vantage point into the lives of the rich and famous enough to honestly know how these decisions get made and ultimately carried out, but its worth noting that this, this connection from understanding the black man as this sexually violent DL man–or just “ain’t shit”–was perpetuated by Oprah! She had him back on the show and some of that dichotomous rhetoric was tampered, but as everyone knows, it’s no point in closing the barn door once the horse has left. Also, without going down the rabbit-hole of Lee Daniels and his artistic interpretation of black life, it’s no secret the projects in which Oprah decided to align herself with post-2004 certainly flattened and narrowed the concepts of black masculinities to the point of detriment to the larger conversations that happened on morning talk-radio and even at the family reunions.
By 2017, our concepts on sexuality and sexual orientation seem light years beyond what I understood in college and what the collective country has understood. Even though we all know, it bears repeating just how unfathomable it would have been in 2004 to imagine that same-sex marriage would be legal and that it would exist as a mandate from the Supreme Court. Our conversations on sexual orientation and sexuality have grown to include transgender individuals, again something we couldn’t imagine. Yet, our conversations around black male sexuality, sexual orientation and black masculinities in general seem to be moving at a glacial pace. For black women, there’s elasticity around being attracted to both women and men; concerning black men, to be attracted to both men and women is simply to be “gay.” Granted, this is not helped by the ankh-left and the more Hoteppian perspectives of current black culture that seem to ascribe to an idea that homosexuality was something introduced by the “white man” to destroy the black family, it’s also a real undercurrent in black culture. This was exposed in Issa Rae’s “Insecure” television show on HBO when one of the ancillary characters noted that he had had a sexual encounter with another man and the black woman was absolutely repulsed. The double standard was real. While “Insecure” was clearly trying to force the conversation and challenge the narrative, Perry’s Oprah-supported productions of nearly a decade enforced so many bad cultural norms around heteronormative patriarchy and tragic Christian values that I can’t help but wonder do we owe our slow collective progress around black masculinities to Tyler Perry and Oprah?
Maturing Black Masculinities
Growth and maturity happen for all. Irrespective of age. The so-called light bulb moment can happen at 15 or even happen at 105; the genius of wisdom is able to dispense even unto death. Jay-Z released his latest album 4:44 and in an eponymous track, he spoke of his own maturity directly related to his relationship with his now wife, Beyoncé. On the track “4:44,” he apologizes for the ways in which his own immaturity hurt her, but in a slightly later-released video clip, he plunged a bit deeper into the recesses that fueled his immaturity. On a documentary-style 11 minute clip of who’s who of black male celebrities, Jay-Z hosted a discussion around black masculinity and the “invisible wisdom” that had been dispensed on to them as black men living in the American empire. Will Smith spoke of the wretched advice he received from an elder, not his father, on how to interact with women that spiraled down a drain of absurdity culminating in the u-bend of a violent display that seemed lifted from a 1940s Hollywood gangster movie. Kendrick Lamar spoke of the “hardness” that he was taught to have; Anthony Anderson stared off into space lamenting his emotional selfishness; Jesse Williams displayed impassioned anger at how he had been reduced to words in innumerable think-pieces.
Perhaps, just perhaps, we’ve entered an age where we can discuss the complexities of black manhood. Maybe even Oprah has progressed herself. As Ava Duvernay has produced and director “Queen Sugar,” a story of three siblings struggling what it means to carry on their father’s legacy as a sugar cane farmer in the rural South as well as manage their own personal lives, there’s a glimmer of hope around telling the narrative of black masculinity that isn’t toxic, that isn’t flat, that isn’t one-dimensional. And the fact that Duvernay is able to do it without compromising the central narrative of the black women as well seems to be a feat unheard of before. And all of this is on the OWN network. Specifically (spoiler alert somewhat), there are three (and-a-half) black male characters, Ralph Angel (one of the siblings), Micah (the son of one of the siblings), Hollywood (the beau of the sibling’s aunt), and Blue (Ralph Angel’s grade school son), and all of them have the stinging portrayal of reality. These are complex black male lives that are much like the black men who we all encounter on a daily basis. As Ralph Angel vacillates between protecting his son’s agency to play with a Barbie doll and still call Micah “soft” illuminates a complexity and depth that I’m not convinced Tyler Perry could ever pull off and one that Lee Daniels wouldn’t be interested in advancing.
Ralph Angel’s character is where many American black men are existentially. Negotiating just how emotionally vulnerable do we want to be and how emotionally vulnerable do we need to be. We play the game of navigation at our jobs, with our girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses, live-ins, with the people at church and sadly even on the street: how do we manage our authentic selves and people’s perception of us. Some would argue that’s what it means to live in modern society. That may be true, but when the perceptions are almost wholesale negative that makes a difference. If the perceptions of black men are “half of y’all aint shit and the other half are gay” what does that do to the trust and communication of a relationship between a black woman and a black man? Or even that black men have a predisposition to violence–how does that effect a black man who’s 6’2″ and 220lbs and he chooses to be impassioned in a meeting at work and all of his colleagues are white?
We can’t undo what Oprah did 13 years ago, and unfortunately we can’t unsee all of the Tyler Perry movies and him running around in drag as what should have been a cartoon character on the Disney Kids network (think Suga Mama’s character from “The Proud Family”) and what that’s done to how we see black women and also how we see black men. My only hope is that as black cultural art forms on TV and the silver-screen seemed to rise to greatness under the Obama-era (think: “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Get Out”), I hope that the divergence that the likes of Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight” and Duvernay with “Queen Sugar” have provided will be the new norm.
Finally, I hope more black men are encouraged to do what Jay-Z did: sit around with each other and talk about their emotions. And not at the barbershop. The performance of black toxic masculinity needs to be shed in order to have a real conversation. One where we can bear our souls to each other. I watched “Footnotes of ‘4:44’” and I wished I could hand each of them a referral to see a therapist. All of them spoke with a vacant look in their eyes, staring off into space as much of them, like Ralph Angel’s character, simply lacked the vocabulary, the blueprint, with which to construct an emotional structure of their own lives; just pieces of their soul scattered on the ground of their life lacking the tools to put it back together. It seemed as though the only forethought most of them had was that those pieces were theirs, and that it should be a way to put it back together (or simply construct it to begin with), but no one had showed them the way. Ever.
My hope and prayer is that somewhere, somebody is doing the work of making sure that black men know that they are enough.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL