I stated that I would not write another review on reality television shows featuring African American women. That task would undoubtedly require that I do something that is very difficult for me to stomach: make a mental investment into programs that commercialize negative images against Blacks as a form of entertainment. However, since we are celebrating Black History and slowly moving into a month that honors the contributions of women, I thought it would be fitting to pen my contempt for these types of shows.
To begin, African Americans have had a troubled history in the United States, one that is riddled with maltreatment -as victims and co-conspirators. For centuries, our lives have been negatively put on public display in order to propagate erroneous messages about our culture. These types of messages originally became widespread during the 1820s when “black face” minstrel shows became popular. According to Professor Blair L.M. Kelly, in an article written for The Grio, these types of messages shifted focus away from the true injustices against Blacks. She states, “Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to the horrors of chattel slavery. These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree? Even the violence of enslavement just became part of the joke.” Minstrel shows made it acceptable to make a mockery of Blacks and taught generations of people to equate buffoonery with artistry. I contend that minstrel shows are also responsible for sowing the seeds that are now growing as trees of self-hate in Black communities. No other species has eaten more from the tree of self-hate than the Black woman. Our ancestors ingested it from the roots; so much so, that Black women of today are still trying to unearth the layers of degrading images that have tried to bury our femininity.
Early minstrel shows consisted of Whites in black face depicting Black women as fat, loud, unattractive, dirty, nappy headed, and uneducated. Today’s minstrel shows are packaged differently. Today, Black women are in black face depicting Black women as uncouth and characteristically unattractive. Yet, their physical appearance has been glamorized. Today's Black 'black' minstrels have traded in their “kinks” for long, luxurious tracks. They've added “bling” to what was once considered unattractive, and they have repurposed what was once considered loud. It’s now affectionately called the turn up.
The problem is that the minstrel shows of yesterday were easy to recognize. The name itself gave us a warning and with the warning, we could mentally prepare for the humiliation. Today’s minstrel shows are more subtle. We don't always see them coming. We are bamboozled by their names: Love and Hip Hop, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Married to Medicine, Basketball Wives, The Next 15, Hollywood Ex’s, Sorority Sisters, Love Thy Sister, The Quad, and Hollywood Divas. These shows trick us into believing that they are showcasing Black America's finest. Yet, despite their grandeur, these reality shows only remind us that we have a long way to go. The same types of misleading messages that spurred the minstrel shows of the 1800s are still being broadcasted today through these shows.
Take The Real House Wives of Atlanta as an example. The show currently follows the lives of six prominent African American women. Ironically, only one of the ladies on the show is actually a house-wife and that occurred years after she first appeared on the show. Four of the other ladies have gone through very public divorces; but even if we overlook their personal angst, the title of the show still misleads viewers into believing that it will showcase the lives of real housewives. In and of itself, the term “real” seems rather innocuous. However, to a modern day conspiracist like me – the term real subtlety invokes a message that makes a comparison to other housewives, as if to suggest that these women are an elite group and Black women should emulate them.
Now, I'm not trying to imply that these women are not accomplished. That's part of the problem. These Black women are very accomplished, and one would assume that the show would depict something legendary in the making. After all, we are talking about a show that features: a former Miss U.S.A, a music mogul, a former model, an attorney, and the granddaughter of a former civil rights leader. Yet, these women are made to appear like they are more concerned with "making paper" as oppose to making history.
Truth is, Black reality shows like the ones named here do not depict the crème de la crème of Black life. In years to come, we won’t remember anything legendary about the women in these shows in the same way that we remember Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Madame C.J. Walker, Maya Angelou, Mary McLeod Bethune, or Mae Jemison. This is because minstrel shows had and still have only one mission. That mission is to make a mockery out of Black folks while distracting people from the real problems plaguing our race.
I'm afraid that in the future we will only remember these shows for showcasing some of the most atrocious cat fights in history, adolescent gossiping, degradation of other women, questionable conversations in the presence of children, bullying, and ladies using some very objectifying language in their conversations that can only be described as lyrics from a “Trick Daddy” video.
Yes, I loathe these shows because I know African American women who are real housewives, moguls, sorority sisters, entrepreneurs, educators, mothers, lawyers, doctors and just every day trailblazers whose lives attest to the Black power movement and to the fallacious lie behind the minstrel shows. I just hope that one day the Black women on these minstrel reality t.v. shows open their eyes and realize that their "turn up" is not real entertainment. It's oppressive and degrading.
Years ago, I had a very brief but poignant conversation with acclaimed author and poet Sonia Sanchez. She introduced me to a phrase that would take nearly 20 years to form a visual in my mind. The phrase is "idiot box", and it encapsulates a portion of what television has become. Perhaps, there is still hope. According to Dr. Cornel West, “The sleepwalking is slowly but surely coming to a close as more and more fellow citizens realize that the iron cage they inhabit –maybe even a golden cage for the affluent – is still a form of bondage.”