Imprisoned by Stereotypes

Courtesy of Prezi

Courtesy of Prezi

Britt Alphson '17, Staff Writer

*Disclaimer: I, as a white female, will never experience what I am writing about in this article. However, as a friend and ally of the African American community, I felt compelled to write about three pieces of art that I think are changing the world. Additionally, the particular lives I am touching upon are evidently not representative of the lives of all young black men: obviously every person is singular and cannot (and should not) be clumped together.*

The black high school dropout. The neglectful, absent black father. The black thug. These are stereotypes we’ve all seen portrayed on TV,  film, and other forms of media….and yet:

“More black men are going to college than ever before in our nation’s history. Black men make up the largest share of people of color in the U.S. Armed Forces. And black fathers living with their children are more likely to take on everyday child care duties than fathers in other demographic groups.”

So what’s with this detrimental (and plain incorrect) misrepresentation of African American men? And what is anybody doing to stop it? Read on to find out.

Although many people view Black History Month as a month dedicated to enshrining the past accomplishments of the black community, it is important to remember that black people continue to create beautiful things despite ongoing discrimination and struggle today. This past year, three pieces of art made by African Americans have gained significant attention: Ava Duvernay’s documentary The 13th, J. Cole’s powerful rap album 4 Your Eyez Only, and Barry Jenkin’s groundbreaking narrative film Moonlight are being rightfully recognized for their poignant and necessary deconstruction of black masculinity and criminalization.  

What is black criminalization? D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking film The Birth of a Nation gives a pretty clear example. The Birth of A Nation, a film considered as the first ever movie blockbuster, is a topic covered in US History books and, I guarantee, is taught in every “Intro to Narrative Film” class at colleges across the globe. It’s most notorious scene is one in which a young white woman literally flings herself off a cliff rather than be pursued by a ravenous black man (a white actor donned in blackface). The scene is representative of a falsified image of African American men that has been pushed since the time of slavery: they are beasts, they are animals, they are rapists. That is black criminalization. And The 13th sets that image, and everyone who played a role in constructing it, on fire.

“We now have more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in 1850s.” This harrowing fact, presented by Senator Cory Booker, forces audience members to acknowledge an idea that is elaborated upon the rest of the film: slavery is still alive, but in a different way. Where African Americans were once confined to shackles, they are now confined behind bars. However, one sentiment remains consistent through these ever-changing manifestations of bondage: the mythology of black criminalization and masculinity.

This documentary is as informative as it is purely infuriating. It moves with an unrelentless speed, daring the audience to keep up as America transforms African Americans from “slave to criminal with one Amendment.” Covering 150 years of anti-Black racism, the film provides an ominous and tried backdrop for the current racial turmoil in America. The film traces the link between the 13th Amendment and today’s monstrous prison industrial complex, covering topics such as chattel slavery, the horrific murder of Emmett Till, the Civil Rights Movement, Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs, Clinton’s “3 strike Rule,” and other monumental events that have caused our country to bear a harkening face: prisons are the new plantations, and young African American men are still the ones performing the labor.   

Duvernay’s documentary shows us how embarrassingly easy it is to pinpoint when exactly the mythology of black criminalization began, as it is written down in a Constitutional Amendment: The 13th Amendment states that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States. Basically, African Americans were criminalized as a response to the outlaw of slavery- they couldn’t be enslaved unless they were a “criminal,” and what exactly defined them as “criminals” was up to the discretion of white landowners who viewed African Americans as property rather than human beings. The perfect loophole. And that explains why although African Americans only represent 10% of the US population, they make up 35% of jail inmates…the effects of the loophole, evidently, can still be felt today.

Duvernay stated that her original idea for the film was to expose “the idea that there are companies making millions of dollars off the punishment of human beings.” If that proclamation sounds a lot like exposing slavery to you, it’s because it is. Private prisons receive a stipend from the government that is paid based on the number of prisoners that the prison houses. Therefore, private prisons want to incarcerate as many people as possible in order to make more money. For-profit prisons don’t aim to reform the prisoners and help them re-integrate with society, but rather aim to keep them in prison for as long as possible. It is horrendous that America lets its incarcerated citizens be exploited by companies and treated as slaves: how moral can the private prison system be if multi-billion corporations are making money off of the cheap labor prisoners are forced to perform for them?

Michael Brown. Travyon Martin. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Freddy Gray. Philandro Castile. Duvernay will not let America forget these names. More importantly, Duvernay will not let forget America forget these people. After 100 minutes of angering revelations about why society views young black men in a light so skewed, The 13th closes with a tribute to the side of young black men that society doesn’t get shown: pictures of them laughing as children, graduating from college, marrying their high school sweetheart, holding their newborn baby. Pictures of them being human.

Talking about humans, J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only is not so much a musical album as it is a stunning vehicle to pay homage to one human in particular: J. Cole’s late friend James McMillan Junior, who was shot and killed at just 22 years old, leaving behind his daughter Nina. J. Cole relays to Nina what James never got the chance to, hence the title 4 Your Eyez Only: the messages on the album are meant for Nina’s eyes only. J. Cole takes his audience on a transcendent journey that is the life of his friend James, from his turbulent teenage years to the early day of his marriage to the birth of his daughter. The story isn’t just about James, however, but about the life path that many young African American men go down because of their disenfranchisement: the album brings dimensionality to many aspects of certain young black male’s lives that are shrouded in misunderstanding – gang violence, incarceration, etc.

With sweeping yet specific strokes, J. Cole defines and redefines what it means to be a young black male trying to survive in a world that makes it incredibly hard to do so. The album kicks off with the haunting song For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which James prays to God: “But what do you do when there’s no place to turn? /  I have no one, I’m lonely, my bridges have burnt down. / Lord, Lord” (Cole). From the first song, J. Cole has sympathized his apathetic audience to James as a young man who is genuinely afraid of death. Immortal explains how at just 17 years old James got roped into drug dealing, and the deep emotional toll it takes on him: “Numb the pain ’cause it’s hard for a felon / In my mind I been cryin’, know it’s wrong but I’m sellin’ / Eyes wellin’ up with tears / Thinkin’ ’bout my friends dead in the dirt” (Cole). While most members of gangs are portrayed in media as heartless and toughened men, Cole takes the time to show how most members are young, impressionable teens looking to make a livelihood in a society that provides them few options: “They tellin’ us, sell dope, rap or go to NBA, (in that order) It’s that sort of thinkin’ that been keepin’ us chained / At the bottom and hanged / The strangest fruit that you ever seen / Ripe with pain, listen…” (Cole). With a nod to legend Billie Holiday, Cole poses the question: how are young black men supposed to untangle themselves from societal ropes that claim their life aspirations are as limited as they are grim? Ask yourself- when was the last time you saw an African-American doctor, scientist, entrepreneur, or teacher represented on any type of media?

And although Cole did become a rapper, he reflects on how society’s perception of him as a black male has not changed despite his affluence and immense success in the music industry. A couple of years ago, J. Cole purchased a house in a wealthy (and predominantly white) neighborhood of North Carolina to serve as a recording space for himself and other Dreamville artists. Neighbors suspected Cole and his fellow artists of growing and selling copious amounts of drugs and had the police launch an investigation complete with a SWAT team that busted don the door and searched the entire house: only to find a recording studio. Cole sings: “Every man feel like a candidate / For a Trayvon kinda fate / Even when your crib sit on a lake / Even when your plaques hang on a wall / Even when the president jam your tape” (Cole).

The riveting album ends with the tragic song 4 Your Eyez Only. James, despite his best efforts, fell into the traps that were set for him before he was even born. Cole raps directly to Nina, from the point of view of James: “At a glance, I’m a failure / Addicted to pushing paraphernalia / But Daddy had dreams once, my eyes had a gleam once / Innocence disappeared by the age of eight years /My Pops shot up, drug-related, mama addicted / So Granny raised me in projects where thugs was hanging.”  Cole continues, earnestly, “With that said, the only thing I’m proud to say, I was a father / I dedicate these words to you and all the other children / Affected by the mass incarceration in this nation / That sent your pops to prison when he needed education” (Cole). Cole gives Nina her final instructions “For your eyez only / Do you understand?” (Cole). But this album, evidently, was not for Nina’s eyes only. It’s for all our eyes too. J. Cole dedicated an album to make America see what’s right in front of us: racism is alive.

The 13th informs us why there is black criminalization, 4 Your Eyez Only shows us the traumatizing effects it can have on real people, and yet  Moonlight gives us hope that things can change…

Inspired by the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight tells the story of sensitive and lost Chiron in three parts: i. Little, ii. Black, and iii. Chiron. The film unfolds in Liberty City, Miami during Reagan’s presidency (which was characterized by a vocal War on Drugs and a silent stance on the AIDS Epidemic),  a place where it is safe to presume being a queer black boy wasn’t easy. At the beginning of the film, Little lives in public housing with his drug addicted mother Paula. It is clear from the start of the film that Little is different from other boys his age. In a scene where a bunch of neighborhood boys rough house in a field, Little stands out. He doesn’t mean to, he doesn’t want, he just does. Kevin, a confident friend of Little, lectures him that he needs to stand up for himself against the other kids. Kevin and Little’s relationship unfolds romantically as the film progresses (but I don’t want to spoil anything!), providing Little with heartache at times and hope at others. One day when running away from bullies, Little finds shelter in an abandoned house. Juan, the local drug dealer, finds Little there and takes him in.

Jenkins doesn’t try to match, or even defy, our expectations of what Juan is supposed to be like as a drug dealer: Juan just is. He’s no stereotype or anti-stereotype, rather he is a person with contradictions and complexities.  Throughout Juan’s time with Little, the audience wonders “when will he abuse this boy? when will he wrong him?”  That time never comes. Juan gives nothing but love and hope to Little, so much so that the entire equilibrium of the film is thrown off when Juan exits the narrative. Jenkins shows us that Juan, a physically “masculine” drug dealer who eternally dons black do-rag and drives a Cadillac, can be kind and empathetic and accepting.

Juan takes Little to the pale Miami beach to teach him how one must first drown in the reality of their identity before learning to swim. As Juan gently helps Little float among the pull of the waves, he tells a story where an old lady proclaimed that “black boys look blue in moonlight. I’m going to call you Blue,” to which Little asks “Is your name Blue?”

Juan’s response is one for the ages, one that sets generation of James McMillan Juniors free from the oppressive box that society has caged them into: “Nah. At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”


Works Cited

“13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

“Ava duvernay.” Tumblr. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Berger, Dan. “Mass Incarceration and Its Mystification: A Review of The 13th.” AAIHS. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Cole, J. “Immortal.” Genius. N.p., 02 Dec. 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Cole, J. “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Genius. N.p., 04 Dec. 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Cole, J. “Neighbors.” Genius. N.p., 03 Dec. 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

“Moonlight.” Tumblr. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

“Target : Expect More. Pay Less.” Target : Expect More. Pay Less. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.