Mocha in the Family Latte: Race on American screens

“He should not be here, ” said the fish in the pot. ” he should not be here when your mother is not.” – The Cat In the Hat Dr Seuss (1957)

It is a conundrum worthy of the massive geek brain of The Big Bang Theory’s theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper: Why, apart from the occasional background character or extra, are there no black people in one of America’s biggest and best sitcoms? The question comes up very quickly if you start typing “Why” and “The Big Bang Theory” into Google.

True there’s the Indian guy, Raj, who might be gay. Occasionally he makes jokes about his brownness and having sex with white women  — “ Why not put a little mocha in the family latte?”  But the omission of a main African American man from the bonhomie is increasingly eerie. Historian Timothy Stanley in his recent BBC2 documentary Family Guys – What Sitcoms Say About America Now found a racially polarized American TV culture – very different to the more integrated viewing of the 70s and 80s.One in which it has, instead, become normal to commission a new all white or all black version of a popular show such as Sex and The City.

So watching Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained –about an ex-slave, played by the handsome Jamie Foxx, seeking revenge on plantation owners – is in its own way quite liberating:  It has Samuel L Jackson as the evil “house” slave after all. The screen play is as full of N-words as his previous films, but with a pointed relevance quite different to a bunch of white gangsters throwing it around in the Reservoir Dogs diner.  The KKK are ridiculed as a bunch of dumb fools.  It’s a buddy film with Christoph Waltz playing the kindly German bounty hunter who helps Django in his Wagnerian quest to liberate his beloved “Broomhilda”.

A significant amount of the screenplay’s torture and sexual violence has been eliminated from the final edit, making it much easier to enjoy the humour and the witty wordplay between the film’s charismatic actors. But Django and his wife still spend a lot of the film being abused, or sitting in silence. Fans are loving the transgressiveness of the whole proposition, conveniently protected behind the genre of a retro-style Spaghetti Western. Django caged naked upside down with white people threatening to castrate him might be playing with deep seated white American racial fears of African American male sexuality right before our eyes. But does the long awaited bloody revenge – beautifully shot as it is – quite make up for the extended racial humiliation that precedes it? I’m not sure.

Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania,  Salamishah Tillet, is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination.  In an interview with me on the World Service arts programme The Strand, she pointed out that the finished film actually sanitises the treatment of slave women and Django, who hardly interacts with the other slaves, could be seen, to represent the “exceptional” African American, like Beyonce´ or President Obama, who is above and separate from the masses.

CatInTheHat

In his 2008 paper “The Black Cat in the Hat: Seuss and Race in the 1950s” Philip Nel, Professor of English at Kansas State University presented a fun theory: that the cat with his white gloves and jazz-style improvising ways, who first appeared in print in 1957, at the height  of rock ‘n roll, could be seen as a metaphor for the perceived threat of disruptive black music and culture coming into white middle class homes via the young. Nel thinks the cat visually references the type of a “northern Dandy Negro”. As he puts it: “A black character in a white family’s home, he is both fun and terrifying.  He liberates Sally and her brother from stifling social rules, but brings many dangers — the very real possibility of the household’s destruction, the fish’s death, and mother’s censure.”

Dr Seuss might be onto something there. The alternative is a carefully infantilised black presence: the offensive so-called “magical Negro” trope of black characters who offer spiritual insight to the white lead, in films such as The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Green Mile. Is the alternative only an absence of black characters to avoid the discomfort? Sitcom writer Alyson Fouse in Tim Stanley’s documentary mused on the sad fact that, in her view, black people were regarded in mainstream tv as “scary and dangerous and you don’t want them dating your daughter”.

Tarantino, a Sheldon Cooper geek of the film kind, has written some brilliant roles for black actors such as Samuel L Jackson and Pam Grier. His hero Django ends the films in triumph. And The Big Bang Theory doesn’t deliberately offend. In a recent episode Star Trek The Next Generation actor LeVar Burton, who happens to be African American, made a sweet cameo appearance.  (Incidentally he recently pointed out that he was never allowed a sexual romance on TNG). 36 years ago he became a star in the mini series, Roots, which got a mainstream US TV audience to confront the horror of slavery. Now I find myself wishing for some middle ground – between the N-word extravaganza of a Tarantino revenge fantasy and the unspoken racial segregation at the heart of American TV culture.

A version of this was first published in The Big Issue magazine

Further reading

The Strand Jan 10th 2013  – discussion with Professor of English and Africana studies, Salamishah Tillet of Pennsylvania University on what Django Unchained and Lincoln say about race in America today

Phil Nel Website – on children’s books and popular culture

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – India as one giant Magical Negro

Django Unchained – screenplay

The Cat In the Hat – on Good Reads

The Problem With The Big Bang Theory - Critical post that inspired this:

A Nerd’s Defence of The Big Bang Theory – (Jan 2013)

 

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