The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
The Black male stereotype happens to be one of the most common stereotypes popular in today’s news and media. They are portrayed as the villainous characters who play with the hearts of their spouses, and then leave their children behind because they aren’t interested in having a family. They throw themselves into gang life and have a lack of interest in making something of themselves. Unfortunately, that stereotype is very outdated and a clear falsehood. And I can see that every day in my father.
The question of who came up with these stereotypes then comes up. For society today, to be convinced that Black men are shaped to be only a certain way, there has to be a history.
The origin of the first Black man stereotype was from the 1880s with the idea of Sambo. This was the falsified image of a happy slave who enjoys serving his master. His character then evolved to be a lazy fool who constantly needed to rely on his master for instructions on how to go about his job. This image helped justify slavery because white people were able to see this as a reason to think that the slaves were happy in their situation. Southern white communities began to embrace this idea of a fat, happy Black man and even after slavery ended, the idea was recycled repeatedly. People started to think that it impacted today’s generation of men. Black men were considered to be lazy creatures who were constantly working for ‘the man.’ I happen to know that this is not true. My dad happens to impress me every day with his devotion to educating students in the less fortunate communities. His hard work has always gone above and beyond from taking the time to help me with my statistics homework, and to teaching other college kids how to create their own mathematical proofs and solutions. In his charity work, he makes the effort to ensure every child he interacts with gets the chance to learn something new, or take better care of themselves and those around them. He constantly puts his heart into each and every one of his activities, making sure that he is not just creating a father figure and role model for the people around him, but that he is creating a person that he can be proud of. And if there is one thing I can take from how hard he works, it is the fact that he does not work for anyone but himself. When he had the chance, he worked hard to rightfully earn his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics to Life and Sciences. He was not going to let anything stand in his way, even when he had to repeat certain classes because the university did not take his degree from his home country. And whenever there is a moment where he is unhappy with his lifestyle, he takes the time off to recenter himself and remember why he is working for his goals. Striving to make the world a better place one step at a time is one of the many things I find myself forgetting to admire about him.
After the time of slavery, there began the era of Jim Crow. This brought in the entertainment aspect of the blackface minstrel, which would be white performers who would darken their faces to the extreme and exaggerate their mouths with red lipstick. One of the most famous performers was T.D. Rice. He would pretend to be a crippled Black man dressed in rags and would perform to all types of white crowds at the time, humiliating the African American community. At the time African Americans were prevented from dancing because it was said to be “crossing your feet against the Lord.” To weave their way around this rule, they would develop a shuffling dance, where their feet never left the ground. T.D. Rice capitalized on their odd dancing and used it as an entertainment tool for enormous crowds. After the image of Sambo, this new Black caricature became a popular image for Black men in the Western world since many people in the North and West have never actually seen Black men. They used T.D.’s performance as a guide to how ‘Black men’ were supposed to look, both in film and real life. Regrettably so, the American western community has evolved from making fun of the Black men used to dance to appropriating their dances. Nevertheless, I know that my dad’s dance moves are not for entertainment, but it is a form of expressing himself. Coming from his home country, Benin, he was taught that each step you perform in dance is a step used to express the emotion that you can feel. You are dancing not just to express emotion, but because you are sending a message. For example, in Benin’s past when there was a death in the royal family, there was a messenger who would dance their way into the market to a specific drumbeat. That dance would be replicated by every passerby who was leaving the market so that the message would get around the country. Since news took quite a while to get around, this dance would be conveying a message so that the rest of the community members could hear and understand the news. Each movement of the arm and stepping of the feet would vary based on the emotion that needed to be projected to the community, whether it was a celebration of someone’s life or a preparation for war. Each dance based on the person dancing, gave off an energy and a message that others could replicate and then project. For my father, dancing is a way for him to bring out the deep feelings inside that he can’t put into words. And although I personally don’t like it when he pulls me onto the dance floor for a father-daughter waltz, I can tell that his dancing is his form of telling me he loves me. It’s his way of giving me all the good vibes and advice he can offer, without forcing me to listen at a moment when I need it most.
After the stereotypic era of Jim Crow came the most popular idea of the savage. The savage was considered to be mentally inferior and unevolved. They were apelike in appearance which made them scary and buffoonish. This idea was populated by the Klu Klux Klan who would ‘tame’ the terrifying, savage African American through lynching. It would justify racial violence and encourage the idea of putting Blacks in their place. In fact, some scientists conducted tests to definitively conclude the place of Blacks in the community. They were set to prove the hypothesis that Black men were built differently and therefore less sensitive to pain. They would deduce ridiculous ideas that Black men had abnormal arm length, the weight of the brain was lighter, and many more assumptions. The idea that they were built in an odd form allowed white people to rationalize the harsh treatment of slaves, and the future murders, tortures, and oppression of Black men. In my father, I can see that this is an exaggerated lie. The idea that Black men are mentally inferior because they don’t have the same physical makeup as white men is an unbelievable concept that I am ashamed to think about. Today, society has evolved to ignore the physical makeup of people, because it tells us nothing about the person they are inside. I think that happens to be very true when it comes to my father. His height may seem intimidating, but inside he is a kind man who would do anything to help those around him. Even when it seems that he is busy, he has dropped everything to talk me through any problem I have had. Coaching me through classes, sports, and even friendship dilemmas, he has never backed down from guiding me through a tough situation. His kindness does not just extend to me. He has spent countless hours driving over to see any relative or family friend who is having personal issues, to comfort and cook for them. I wouldn’t be talking about my father if I didn’t mention his ability to make any food taste a little like heaven. Cooking day after day and night after night may have exhausted him, but he has never shown it. His encouraging nature is something that has stuck with me even as I moved away from home for the first time. In his own way of telling me to go for it (he said not to miss home too much), I was able to step out of my comfort home and experience a whole new life that replicated the futuristic adulthood. If his height has happened to turn people away, that is a terrible pity for them since they are missing out on a lovable, caring man.
Unfortunately, many people still have outdated stereotypes of Black men in their minds. Especially when it comes to cases of police brutality, a lot of people tend to view Black men as savages who are not only physically different but also violent people. But, as seen in my father and the many Black men I have encountered, I can rightfully tell you that these stereotypes are painful lies and tricks that have taken too many things away from people who deserve them. Due to the natural essence of society, stereotypes can’t be banned. But it’s the people’s mindset that can be changed.
I just want to say, to all the Black men out there, these stereotypes DO NOT define you. You can make anything of yourself, and all it takes is a little belief. Your purpose is not to satisfy the thoughts of others, but to make yourself proud. You should always aspire to inspire. I believe in you and I know that many other people out there do too.
And to my dad, thank you so much. If not for going above and beyond in your little ways to care for me, but thank you for just being there. You are one of my biggest inspirations, and I promise your guidance, advice, love, and protection are not in vain. I remember every little piece of advice you have given me and I’m just working on putting it into action. I will always be trying my best to make you proud. I love you!