It’s a difficult thing to see how others look at you.
W.E.B. DuBois recognized this in his landmark essay on “double consciousness,” a term the writer and civil rights activist first coined in the Atlantic Monthly piece, “Strivings of the Negro People.” DuBois would later expound on the concept in the 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, and his writings hold an eerie relevance today. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” DuBois wrote. “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Minstrelsy made the evils of slavery feel less sinful, even harmless.
DuBois was writing at a time of widespread minstrelsy, where the black body was a site of commercial exploitation and parody through theatrical performance. “Blackface minstrelsy first became nationally popular in the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin,” the Grio’s Blair L.M. Kelley explains. “Wearing tattered clothes, the performances mocked black behavior, playing racial stereotypes for laughs.”
For many white spectators, however, the show served as their first introduction to “what black people are like,” while making the evils of slavery feel less sinful, even harmless. By making black folks seem ridiculous and often stupid, it reaffirmed the natural order of things. This is why it made sense that the later Jim Crow laws, which enforced segregation in the Reconstruction-era South, were named after one of the genre’s most popular characters.
While it’s often assumed that minstrelsy died out by the dawn of the 20th century, things hadn’t changed much by DuBois’ heyday. While Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was notable for bringing “talkies” to the mainstream, one of the film’s most infamous scenes depicts Jolson in blackface for a musical number, “Mother of Mine, I Still Have You.” The reaction was the opposite of a scandal. The success of The Jazz Singer earned Jolson the title of “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” as well as a follow-up film where his Mammy character, who was developed during his time as a vaudeville performer, took center stage. That movie was, of course, called Mammy.
Minstrelsy was so popular that everyone was getting in on the act, from Judy Garland to Bugs Bunny. During a performance of “Camptown Races” in the 1942 short “Fresh Hare,” a black-faced Bugs turns to the audience and tells, “Fantastic, isn’t it?” Not exactly, my dear mammal.
The Al Jolson-style minstrelsy is a thing of the past, but the mockery of black people for popular audiences is alive and well. On Thursday night, the term “How Many Stars on the American Flag” started trending months after a November Vine of a woman incorrectly guessing the number of stars on the U.S. flag went viral. In the segment, the woman reasons: “OK, we’ve got 13 colonies, so 13 minus 50.” She then comes up with “47.” Now shared on Twitter over 137,000 times, typical comments include and “Can’t believe that chick didn’t know how many stars were on the American flag” and “This bitch needs to be smacked.”
Like those old Jay Leno man-on-the-street pop quizzes, designed to make you feel smarter than people who don’t have a basic understanding of geography or astronomy, the Internet loves to mock those we perceive to be unintelligent or uneducated, and there’s an added pull when the person is poor and black.
The Internet demonstrated this when a trio of “hilarious black neighbors” received the Auto-Tune treatment: Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown, and Charles Ramsey. You’ll remember Dodson as the flamboyant fellow in the bandanna urging us to “Hide your kids and hide your wife,” and Brown as the bronchitis victim who coined “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Ramsey saved three kidnapped young women’s lives in Cleveland, after they had been held in captivity by Ariel Castro for a decade, but you likely know him as the guy who couldn’t stop talking about McDonalds.
Ramsey was a particularly interesting case because of his overtly self-deprecating comments about the realities of race in the 21st century. As Slate’s Aisha Harris put it, what makes Ramsey’s news interview so powerful is his comments “about the way racism prevents us from seeing each other as people.” Ramsey told reporters in 2013, “Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.” His interviewer quickly turned away when he heard that statement, and it likely got lost in the rush to make Ramsey an instant meme.
In a blog for NPR’s Code Switch, Gene Demby wrote, “On the face of it, the memes, the auto-tune remixes and the laughing seem purely celebratory. But what feels like celebration can also carry with it the undertone of condescension.” Ever self-aware and intelligent, Ramsey knew what was up. In a Reddit AMA from last year, he referred to himself as the “scary-looking black dude.”
While race might not have been at the forefront of viewers’ minds when they shared the video of Ramsey’s interview with friends on their Facebook page, Demby explains that his skin color is crucial to how we view Charles Ramsey, as well as Brown and Dodson. “[R]ace and class seemed to be central to the celebrity of all these people,” Demby writes. “They were poor. They were black. Their hair was kind of a mess. And they were unashamed. That’s still weird and chuckle-worthy.”
Harris agreed, “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.” Charles Ramsey might be funny on camera, but would you say hello to him in public, unless you were running away from a kidnapper? Would you even look him in the eye?
What was particularly troubling about the Ramsey, Brown, and Dodson videos was the way that laughing at them masked harsher realities about poverty and violence. In an article for Clutch magazine, Tami Winfrey Harris reminds us how not hilarious Sweet Brown’s story really is. “When bad things happen to poor, country, uneducated, stereotypically black people, is it not still a tragedy?” Harris asked. “Or just funny? Because what the folks who forward this video to you probably won’t add is that the fire at Brown’s apartment complex burned five units and left 44 without electricity. The Red Cross has set up a shelter for residents. No laughing matter at all.”
Similarly, Antoine Dodson was being interviewed because an intruder attempted to rape his sister, Kelly, but it’s hard to even remember that when it gets turned into a catchy song. (That track even landed on the Billboard Hot 100.)
In the case of what we’ll call #FlagGate (because isn’t everything a -gate these days?), laughing at its subject for missing an obvious question is more depressing than comical. That young woman lives in a country where black men are vastly overrepresented in prison yet underrepresented on college campuses. A commonly cited statistic is that black men are more likely to go to prison than college; while this is untrue, its widespread belief speaks volumes about the state of black education in America and the lack of opportunity for those who are a product of a failing public school system. While about three-quarters of non-black students obtain high school degrees, black graduation rates remain low, around 53 percent. The average black graduate reads at an 8th grade reading level.
The problem gets even worse the more you look at the numbers. A 2013 survey showed that 80 percent of New York City public school students “lack basic skills like reading, writing, and math,” leaving them unprepared for the demands of a university education or a competitive job market. According to Inside Higher Ed’s Megan Rogers, “about 35 percent of black adults and 43 percent of Hispanic adults score low in literacy, compared to 10 percent of white adults.”
Deemed “functional illiterates” by California State University’s Dr. David L. Horne, those affected by the education gap are unlikely to break the cycle of poverty. Among blacks and Latinos, poverty rates are nearly three times as high as for white Americans; while just 9.9 percent of whites are in poverty, those percentages shoot up to 27.4 percent for blacks and 26.6 percent for Latinos.
The kneejerk response is to blame parents for not pushing their kids harder, absentee fathers for being incarcerated, or students for not trying harder, but that’s Cosby logic. In 2013, the Chicago Public School district shut down 54 schools, which experts claimed was “the largest number of closings at any one time by any school district in recent memory.” While CPS claimed the shutdown was due to “underused” schools, these closings primarily affected the South and West sides of Chicago, where a majority of the students are non-white. “Ninety percent of the students in the closing schools are black, though African Americans make up only about 40 percent of the district’s entire student population,” wrote Sarah Karp and Rebecca Harris for Catalyst, a Chicago website reporting on the city’s public education.
Systemic racism and its role in public education is far more difficult to grasp than a “dumb black girl” getting a question wrong.
The cases of New York and Chicago’s failing schools are hardly unique, but systemic racism and its role in public education is far more difficult to grasp than a “dumb black girl” getting a question wrong. Just as minstrelsy assuaged white guilt over slavery, reactions to FlagGate place the blame solely on the individual for her lack of education, instead of the system that created the problem.
In an essay for the Broad Side, Deb Werrlein argues that what makes it so easy to laugh at Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown, or others like them is the audience’s own lack of empathy and understanding. Werrlein writes, “[M]any white people laugh at black vernacular because they think it’s ignorant, when in fact, it’s actually white ignorance about black vernacular that lies at the heart of the joke.” While Sweet Brown might have a unique way of expressing herself, her manner of speaking is, thus, deeply rooted in African-American history and culture.
While we may be lampooning those perceived as “ignorant,” it’s us who need to be schooled on our own lack of knowledge. If DuBois told us that being black in America is to constantly see yourself as an Other in the funhouse mirror of white mockery, these videos should cause us to take a moment to look back at ourselves. Seventy-three years after Bugs Bunny wiped off the black paint, the image is anything but fantastic.