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Hollywood must no longer script black lives

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 30, 2002

For decades, black folks complained about the offensive, downright insulting way we were portrayed in the movies and on television. We complained that we didn't see ourselves in the caricatures paraded before us on the screen. We attributed the problem to our lack of creative control and scant participation in the production process.

Now we have more control and visibility.

So why am I still offended and insulted by the black caricatures paraded onscreen?

Why do we still rarely see ourselves in the media?
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
In the decades of segregation in St. Petersburg, black residents made their own world on 22nd Street S -- The Deuces. The street was famous, then forlorn and finally, just forgotten. Where has it been and where might it be going? A special multimedia report.

Why is it that the most true-to-life portrayal I've seen recently was the work of a white man, Jon Wilson, of the St. Petersburg Times. He wrote a comprehensive history of the successes and failures of St. Petersburg's 22nd Street, affectionately called "The Deuces" by generations of black people whose lives remain braided into the community even as it nears its physical death.

He wrote of communal compassion, cooperation, of people who didn't have much but treated what they had with pride and respect. He wrote of resolve that surmounted hardship. He wrote of people whose moral and spiritual backbone was stouter than the physical one they needed to do the emerging city's heavy lifting.

He wrote of a place where a child could walk a half-mile away from home and never stray beyond the range of responsible adult supervision.

He wrote a series of stories that made me homesick, and I didn't come to St. Petersburg until 1989, long after 22nd Street lost its magic. His stories made me homesick, even though he wrote about the city, and home, for me, was in the country. He wrote about Florida, and I'm from Georgia. He wrote about neighbors who lived a few feet apart; mine were acres and miles away.

In writing about a section of St. Petersburg, Wilson captured a feeling that was universal in a culture that now is following the path of 22nd Street and the dodo bird. It is a culture that is being lost through the empowerment of drugs and guns and the glorification of the "'hood's" underbelly.

Black tradition in America, even under some of the most adverse conditions a people has been forced to face, has been built on moral and spiritual strength, pride and an unwavering belief that right ultimately prevails over misguided might. Those attributes made generations of cruel enslavement survivable. They made it possible for generations of people declared second-class citizens by social mores and Jim Crow laws never to see themselves that way. That same character withstood the bombings, lynchings and mad dogs of segregation and sustained the demand for civil rights.

Now, ironically, integration, the linchpin of those civil rights efforts, is often blamed for much of what black Americans and communities like the one that existed around the Deuces have lost. Access to markets and accommodations formerly denied them did take resources out of black communities, and widening opportunities did pull some of the brightest minds away from the streets on which they grew up.

We know those things. We know also that we can't turn back the clock and resegregate the country in hopes of recouping the losses. We can't sprout enough opportunities in those communities to keep all our stars at home.

But we can recapture the culture that allowed black people to survive adversity that by comparison dwarfs today's difficulties.

We can and should reclaim the definition of being black in America.

In our haste to see ourselves in movies and television, we have created a stereotype of ourselves that is every bit as negative as the ones we condemned for insensitivity. We have created a new caricature of ourselves, a modern-day minstrel show.

Today's incarnation of yesterday's dimwitted, buffoonish Steppin Fetchit is the ghetto-dwelling, woman-pulling, luxury-car-driving, expletive-slinging, gold-chain-wearing, formerly drug-dealing street philosopher who is convinced he is the embodiment of black pride.

The tragedy is we have seen him so often in movies, on television and in rap concerts, and he is emulated so often, that his assessment is partially correct: He and his admirers are becoming the norm.

Black children are growing up today thinking that rude, obnoxious behavior is an admirable show of black pride and strength. They grow up thinking that peppering their speech with catch phrases from popular songs is communication. They grow up thinking that driving a Mercedes is a benchmark of success, regardless of how they get behind the wheel.

They grow up thinking that the cultural manifestations that have cropped up during the past couple of decades capture what being black is all about.

Consequently, we have allowed ghettos to become shrines and allowed whatever behavior that can be traced to them to become appropriate, even noble. For example, some assert that selling drugs is an appropriate response to unavailability of jobs.

Those of us who know better have lost the backbone it takes to reject the shift. I have never met anyone who sold drugs because no other jobs were available, but I have met people who sold drugs because no jobs were available -- and because they had no moral bearing.

Individually, those of us who know better may not be able to do much about the availability of jobs, but the other part, the part about moral and spiritual strength, is completely in our hands.

Adults have to regain control over their children and their communities. Adults -- parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors -- need again to lay the groundwork for developing character in our children and stop allowing television and other media to continue doing it.

We do that by our active involvement in their lives and our example. We need to show them that profanity is not okay, even though TV and the movies say it is.

We need to show them that it does matter how money gets into your pocket even though the world around them is shouting that it matters only that it gets there.

We need to show them that it's not okay to wear a permanent scowl even though the hip-hop idol of the day thinks it's cool.

We must tell them, no, we don't know what you're saying when they insist on punctuating every sentence with "Know what I'm saying?"

We must tell them it's not okay to stand sullenly in the middle of the street, defying waiting traffic to force them to move. It's not okay to subject the rest of the world to your loud, often profane music.

We must again teach that moral and spiritual strength still carries the day, that being right is still the best guarantee of ultimate victory.

The way we always have.

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