Tokenism

Tokenism
Tina Ddamulira

The 90s would be considered the Golden Age of black entertainment. Rap artists were celebrating Afrocentrism through their musical craft. The colours of the pan-Africanist flag were incorporated on album covers. Sitcoms seemed to be shifting the landscape as they tried to reach out to the black audience. We had Sister Sister, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Cosby Show, and Family Matters, just to name a few. These shows had a pre-dominantly African-American cast that would portray the upper-middle or working class family, so as to rewrite the black narrative of being poverty-stricken. Black actors and actresses were no longer only playing the roles of the static and stereotypical best friends, the angry black woman, or the thug. Yet, have we now taken a step backwards?

Towards the end of the 90s, Afrocentric rap somewhat disappeared into the shadows once gangster rap took over the hip hop and rap scene. Themes of materialism and misogyny were interwoven into catchy beats. Hip Hop has been brought to the television as seen in the hit family drama, ’Empire.’ This is a television show which is centred on a black family who has left the ghettos and have found success in the music industry. Yet, is ‘Empire’ the typical “Rags to Riches” narrative?

Empire’s matriarch, Cookie Lyon, is sassy and quick-tempered. During the pilot episode, she is seen beating her son with a broom, so as to ‘beat’ out the lack of respect he shows her. One might argue that Cookie is merely doing what many black mothers do when punishing their children for bad behaviour. Some critics have viewed Cookie as just being another stereotypical angry black woman. However, as the television show progresses, one sees Cookie's complex motherly love, as she defends and protects her gay son from his homophobic father. Moreover, in the beginning of the first episode, one discovers that Cookie spent 17 years in prison due to her ex-husband, Lucious’ drug deal which went wrong. During her time in prison, Lucious went from being a drug dealer to being a wealthy hip hop mogul. Perhaps, one could view Cookie as being self-sacrificing.

Then there is Cookie and Lucious’ first born son, Andre. At first, he might be viewed as a sell-out. He attended an Ivy League school, is married to a white woman, and seems to be detached from black culture. In South Africa, he might even be slapped with the derogatory term, "Coconut” or called a “Vanilla Killer.” However, one soon discovers that Andre is bipolar. Firstly, mental illness is something of a taboo in black communities and secondly, one sees how Andre’s white wife, Ronda, has remained loyal towards him despite his mental illness. Here, his interracial marriage to Ronda is seen as a source of unconditional love and support.

One should note that Lucious is not accepting of his son’s mental illness. It is later revealed that Andre’s grandmother also suffers from bipolar disorder but Lucious decided to put her in a senior home and tell his family that she is dead. Lucious could be seen as a symbol of the intolerance and denial of mental illness in black societies.

Empire is an example of a show that begins with stereotypical characters. As the show progresses, one realises that the characters are complex and multidimensional. They are no longer tokens but are being humanised. We are mass consumers of television series, and it is important that we become active viewers. As Deggan says, we must ask ourselves: does the stereotypical characteristic of this character’s race define who they are or is their race a part of who they are? Do the black characters sacrifice themselves in order to comfort the white characters? Are they somehow isolated in a pre-dominantly white world, without a family, friends or lovers?

Most importantly, no single show represents the narrative for all people of that ethnic group.

Happy series watching!