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Oct 17, 2013

Thursday is for Thinkers: Sho Baraka

Sho Baraka shares some insights on race and stereotypes in American entertainment. |
Thursday is for Thinkers: Sho Baraka
Image: Courtesy of Sho Baraka

A man from the crowd asked, "How can I relate to the Cosbys? The families in my neighborhood don't look like that." A wise man said unto him, "If a man only knows the darkest and most defiled corners of his city, how then will he know that there is light elsewhere lest someone shows him?" The wise man continued with a parable:

"There was a young man who came from Philadelphia. Some would believe that his neighborhood was among the most degenerate and nefarious places in the country. Amidst the immorality and marginalization, this young man decided he would not allow the darkness to consume him. The young man believed there was light beyond his surroundings. Better yet, he believed that there could be light in his circumstances."

"The young man would soon recognize the gift of comedy that was bestowed onto him and use it as a means of satire and joy. He would soon blossom from a part-time jester to a full-blown comedian. This comedian would soon use his gift to bring light to dark situations. He would use his platform to educate, inspire and enlighten. Many were challenged and encouraged by his work, while some are still consumed by the dark recesses of disbelief."

As the wise man concluded many were amazed that a man could use such a lowly occupation to create hope. However, others departed wearing the burden of skepticism. If only these skeptics could see past their own obstacles and evaluate the social implications of his work, then they too would realize that having a prophetic voice is not confined to their current context.

The Comedian understood that hope and perseverance were non-negotiable variables in transformation. Why should he be limited to the worldview of his surroundings? Does an engineer only repair what is broken and leave innovation and creativity at the door? Why should the comedian only create in the bubble of despair?

The Comedian soon became an international star. His most illustrious creation, The Cosby Show, transcended economic status, racial associations, and even language barriers. It was a breath of fresh air to all who prayed for a healthy representation of African-Americans on primetime TV. But you could still hear the rumblings, "They don't represent families in my hood!"

Why does all this matter? Allow me to give you some historical perspective.

Giving African-Americans the platform for performance has never been an issue. Ever since the inception of Hollywood, Black people have been given the space to perform. Black entertainers shared a part in the history-making film, Birth of A Nation, which was a propaganda film that fueled the racial tension in America and exalted the Klu Klux Klan. Yet, in this film many African-American entertainers were given opportunities to showcase their talents and craft to audiences worldwide. This illustrates that for the most part the concern has never been are we represented but it's been how we are represented.

The how is especially troubling when you're a minority and you don't control the conversations in the boardrooms. As a result, America was now introduced us to numerous Black caricatures in Hollywood form. Here's a short list of the monolithic characters you can find in many historical and present day films: The Mammie, Coon, Buck, Uncle Tom, Tragic Mulatto, and Magic Negro.

In 2013, even though there are more opportunities in music and film, do we feel like we have escaped the derogatory clutches of those earlier stereotypes? It is safe to say that these characters have evolved some; however, you don't have to look far to bump into one these reformed farces.

The man in the crowd stated he doesn't relate to The Cosby Show. I will follow his statement with my own disclaimer. I don't relate to much of the African-American representation on TV today.

Are these images really true representations of Black people?

I don't relate to the lack of variety in the Black families seen on TV and in the movies. When was the last time we saw Will Smith or Denzel Washington actually have a love interest of dark complexion? When was the last time Morgan Freeman was more than simply the second fiddle to a White counterpart that he helped achieve some great goal?

Are these images really true representations of Black people? Did art create reality? Are Hip-Hop and Hollywood "keeping it real"? Was The Comedian not in touch with reality? Of course he was! But he also believed that Hollywood's landscape could use more color in the garden. Why should The Comedian only paint a picture for the near-sighted?

Why have we not seen much progress since The Cosby Show? Was the Comedian really that much before his time? Are we imbeciles to think that there would be more dynamic representations of Blacks on the screen? It's much easier to promote stereotypes than to create characters with depth. Hollywood's monolithic formula creates a factory line of consistency. That consistency created malnourished consumers on both sides of the tracks.

I've experienced the work of The Comedian. As a child I sat at his feet with great expectations every Thursday night. Twenty-five years later my 8-year old daughter finds herself enjoying the work of this same Comedian. My daughter and I have regressed to old programming because contemporary entertainment doesn't fit our family dynamic. The man in the crowd said he couldn't relate to The Cosby Show. Well my friend I can't relate to you. I've yet to find my space in this entertainment world.

When Jesus spoke of this new Kingdom that he was bringing, he often spoke in parables. He attempted to create an illustration of truth in allegorical form. He knew that some needed the idea painted before them. This is the Parable of Cosby. The Comedian created a world beyond the typical norm to express a healthy picture of family. The Comedian simply created his Hollywood version of Dr. Charles Drew, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Dr. Vivien Thomas, or Dr. James Smith. Many will walk away distraught, for they don't have ears to hear or faith to believe that this Comedian created the parable so that we will know that it's possible.

I believe. Even in the dark corners of my city.

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Posted:October 17, 2013 at 3:00 pm


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Thursday is for Thinkers: Sho Baraka