Skin Color, Stereotypes and 'Flavor of Love'

How does the hit reality show Flavor of Love play on black America's long war on racial stereotypes? Commentator Mark Anthony Neal is an associate professor in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University and author of The New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

So rapper Flavor Flav has this dating show. See, Flav used to be the hype man to Chuck D, a man who coined the phrase rap is the CNN of black America. Well, Flav's show might be the CNN of whack booty calls. His VH1 show, "Flavor of Love," has enchanted and disenchanted a whole bevy of viewers. All commentator Mark Anthony Neal asked is that we look at this from a historic perspective.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: The recent success of VH1's "The Flavor of Love" has again raised concerns about the images of black folk that circulate in mainstream media. For many black audiences, "The Flavor of Love" is too much of a reminder of the racist and stereotypical depictions that blacks were forced to endure on television and in film for much of the 20th century.

Thirty years ago, it was comedian Jimmy Walker's portrayal of J.J. Evans Jr. that raised the ire of black viewers. In the early years of the post-civil rights era, Walker's on-screen behavior disappointed many because of the belief that unlike the many black actors and actresses before him who had little choice but to take on often demeaning roles as butlers, maids and Sambos, he in fact had a choice to take on more positive roles.

When Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award playing a maid in "Gone With The Wind," famously quipped, I'd rather play a maid than be one, she perhaps spoke for a generation of actors and actresses such as Stepin Fetchit, Butterfly McQueen and Mantan Moreland. The intense popularity of so-called Sambo figures like Flavor Flav or Dave Chappelle's character Tyrone Biggums have justifiably created new anxieties among some black audiences who deal with the fact that there are far fewer examples of black humanity available to us on television and in film than one might have thought at this point in history.

But far too often our reaction to these images is to curse and complaint about the actors, actresses and others who felt compelled to take on these roles. The world in which a black actor like Bert Williams was forced to put burnt cork on his face to earn a living is very different from the one in which the average American has access to hundreds of television channels.

Ironically, many of these stations are owned and run by a small group of conglomerates like Viacom, Time Warner and News Corporation.

The lifelines to these conglomerates are product advertisers, who believe that the audiences for any given network represents potential customers for their products. As a community, we must stop simply complaining about programming we dislike or find offensive and start being more activist minded in our exchanges with mainstream media, including boycotting their programming and more importantly, the advertisers who largely underwrite such programming.

These are lessons that we could learn better from organizations like Industry Ears, or even the ultra-conservative Focus on the Family. As we witness the Nancy Gracing of mainstream media, blackness has been reduced to the examples of Oprah Winfrey, thugified rappers like 50 Cent, the black women as stripper pole adornments that accompany the videos of said rappers, first-one-on-my-block characters like Isaiah Washington's Dr. Preston Burke on "Grey's Anatomy," and of course the lazy, shiftless NBA baller.

This is the case largely because mainstream corporate media believes that these are the only images that audiences are willing to consume. Criticism aside, it's going to take a real effort on our part to hold television networks, film studios, record companies - often one and the same - accountable for the images that they circulate. But far too often, it's simply easier to take Sambo out in the back then shoot him.

CHIDEYA: Mark Anthony Neal is associate professor with the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

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