Blackness Visible, Part I (Superbowl Sunday)
Tony Dungy (right) and Lovie Smith
One of the privileges that comes along with being the group in power is the ability to determine when and how other identity groups are seen. Such is certainly the case when it comes to the visibility of poor and working-class people in the U.S. For the most part, representations of economically disadvantaged folks are created by the economically advantaged. Such is also the case for women, whose representation in the mainstream newsmedia, in literature, in the alternative newsmedia, in the music, television, and film industries, in Opera, and in fine art are defined by the perceptions of men (even by men’s perceptions of how women would like to see other women depicted).
Today I am especially interested in the way that the interests of whiteness and the actions of the non-Black majority have limited the ways that African Americans and Blackness become visible in the U.S.
Superbowl Sunday was an interesting day for Black visibility. Some might say it was a good day. After all, for the first time in history Black men were not just the speed and muscle of the game, they were also the brains.
Unfortunately, these moments in which African Americans get national attention for how they use their minds are rare; and when they do occur, any momentary transformation in how Blackness is perceived is quickly undermined by the majority’s greater interest in depictions of Black people’s actions and words during our — shall we say — less transcendent moments.
In the case of football, the strategic mind and/or recruiting genius of the African American head coach is counterbalanced by, among other things, a greater public interest in reports of those Black NFL and college players who have found themselves involved in the criminal justice system. On Superbowl Sunday, for example, pre-game coverage of the Phil Simms All-Itron Team depicted players across the NFL who had taken it upon themselves to make a positive different in the lives of others. Pre-game programming also included brief reports on the historical significance of the first appearance of Black head coaches in this most-watched of all annual sporting events. Unfortunately, this special coverage had to share space with a report on the ignoble antics of Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson. Amidst a morning of upbeat and sometimes moving depictions of Black NFL players rising above the stereotypes associated with their role, the coverage of Johnson’s legal troubles felt like a 10-ton weight dragging the image of the Black athlete back down to earth.
This is the reality of Black visibility today. On those rare occasions when the media depicts those African Americans whose actions, thoughts, and words defy the stereotyped categories that we have come to associate with U.S. Black identity, the public’s obsession with a handful of Black roles — the athlete, the criminal, the jezebel, the clown, the mammy, the welfare queen, the underachiever — leaves the achievements of Black intellectuals and artists, poets and writers, historians and humanitarians, astronauts and engineers, scientists and strategists (like Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith) underreported, quickly forgotten, or — most often — completely ignored.
Posted by Ajuan Mance