Much of my initial inspiration for developing Black Media Trust was my annoyance with blind faith and obligatory support for people deemed or identifying as “Black” in media. This model of reaction to representation allowed Daddy Obama to coast into office of US President without having to present policy addressing plight of a significant and loyal bloc of his voters. In this essay, I wish to review literature detailing history of US Blacks in media as well as work explaining “representation” as a conceptual framework for that particular phenomena.
Before we add the US Black media history to this discussion, I would like us to visit a few works quickly. What I would like to bring to this topic early are notions that will all be used to relate to representation. These ideas include public sphere, public relations, and public opinion.
One of the ideas that I would like to delve into is Jurgen Habermas’s understanding of the public sphere. Since Habermas is dealing with not only a concept called “public sphere”, but more importantly, how that public sphere transforms and what it transforms into, it is necessary to quote him in large blocks.
According to Habermas there has been a historical and sociological shift in the interpretation of public sphere. That shift in what he is defining as ‘public sphere’ occurs as ‘public sphere’ moves from a space of debate and social critique among the classes of people that do not form the state or corporate sectors to one where ‘public sphere’ is understood as simply a body of consumers and individuals seeking identity in political spaces.
In Black Media Trust, we need to embrace this same sort of understanding to this conception of “the people”. “The People” once implied a similar notion that Habermas’s “public sphere” represented. That is, the people have simply become “the crowd”. However, we are still applying “the people” level benefits and expectations of social responsibility to this crowd.
This difference, or transformation, of public sphere from “the people” to “the crowd” is analogous to a class of attentive, high achieving and engaged university students becoming a thrill-seeking, highly intoxicated and animated night club patronage. One gathers for a good debate that alters social behavior, the other gathers for a good time in the name of socializing.
What Black Media Trust seeks to do with this concept of representation is remind readers that there is a difference between those entities that act with that public, or the people, and those that act on a people, or crowd, in a manner similar to private enterprise.
In a discussing etymological roots in the distinctions distancing “public” from “private”, Habermas writes:
It should be noted, however, that the tradition of ancient Germanic law, through the categories “gemeinlich” and “sunderlich,” “common” and “particular,” did generate a contrast that corresponded somewhat to the classical one between “publicus” and “privatus.” That contrast referred to communal elements to the extent to which they survived under the feudal conditions of production. The commons was public, publica; for common use there was public access to the fountain and market square — loci communes, loci publici. The “particular” stood opposed to this “common,” which etymologically is related to the common or public welfare (common wealth, public wealth). This specific meaning of “private” as “particular” reverberates in today’s equation of special interests with private interests. Yet one should note that within the framework of feudalism the particular also included those who possessed special rights, that is, those with immunities and privileges. In this respect the particular ( i.e., what stood apart), the exception through every sort of exemption, was the core of the feudal regime and hence of the realm that was “public.” The original parallelism of Germanic and Roman legal categories was reversed as soon as they were absorbed by feudalism — the common man became the private man. A linguistic reminder of this relationship is the use of “private” in the sense of “common” soldier — the ordinary man without rank and without the particularity of a special power to command interpreted as “public”.“The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, Jurgen Habermas, pp 6
In the contemporary moment of 2019, these terms and their abstract meanings have been once again integrated to a point of confusion. People of privilege are being confused with and included in definitions of identities traditionally limited to the common, the underprivileged, and the disenfranchised.
From this same strain of thinking, Habermas discusses “representation”:
Sociologically, that is to say by reference to institutional criteria, a public sphere in the sense of a separate realm distinguished from the private sphere cannot be shown to have existed in the feudal society of the High Middle Ages. Nevertheless it was no accident that the attributes of lordship, such as the ducal seal, were called “public”; not by accident did English king enjoy “publicness” — for lordship was something publicly represented. This publicness ( or publicity) of representation was not constituted as a social realm, that is, as a public sphere; rather, it was something like a status attribute, if this term may be permitted. In itself the status of manorial lord, on whatever level, was neutral in relation to the criteria of “public” and “private”; but its incumbent represented it publicly. He displayed himself, presented himself as an embodiment of some sort of “higher” power. The concept of representation can “occur only in public…there is no representation that would be a ‘private’ manner”. For representation pretended to make something invisible visible through the public presence of the person of the lord: “…something that has no life, that is inferior, worthless, or mean, is not representable. It lacks the exalted sort of being suitable to be elevated into public status, that is, into existence. Words like excellence, highness, majesty, fame, dignity, and honor seek to characterize this peculiarity of a being that is capable of representation.” Representation in the sense in which the members of a national assembly represent a nation or a lawyer represents his clients had nothing to do with this publicity of representation inseparable from the lord’s concrete existence, that, as an “aura,” surrounded and endowed his authority.ibid 7
We are discussing a confusion of terms and meanings. We are confusing a socio-economic status with a socio-political activity. We have confounded elite status of visibility with members of oppressed classes giving voice to their social political concerns.
Continuing from Habermas’s etymological explication:
Thus the German word privat, which was borrowed from the Latin privatus, can be found only after the middle of the sixteenth century, having the same meaning as was assumed by the English “private” and the French privé.
Let us take time to reiterate my main purpose for discussing representation as it applies to Black Media Trust. I have found that many US Blacks use terms like “representation” to champion US Blacks and Black people of various ethnic and national origins as a means to identify with status and power. This identification comes at the expense of accepting that that status and power typically is a result of proximity or subordination to Whyte power brokers that subsequently, or supposedly, are aiding in oppressive structures designed to curtail acquisition of true power by those very same people seeking to champion those in proximity or subordinate to that power.
US Blacks are caught in a historical objective reality that forces us to make a choice of seeming loyalty to one of a few demanding ideologies. We are constantly forced to choose between assimilation or nationalism of some form. If we choose assimilation we are bombarded with being subordinate to a Whyte corporate model that wishes to squeeze our talents into a gelatinous form capable of appeasing those Whytes whose interests and worldviews define the workplace culture, the neighborhood culture, and the academic culture that we live day in and day out.
If we choose a route that resembles a more nationalistic lifestyle, we are beset with living in a world where even our better choices are connected to an intentionally underdeveloped environment.
Most of us exist along a corridor of both routes. Most resources in our existence are controlled predominantly by a Whyte person or group of Whyte persons. Even if we have decided to live amongst all Black people and operating businesses around all Black people, state resources that are necessary for infrastructure (ie roads being serviced, proper building codes and standards) or even social order are controlled by Whyte state apparati. Even our notion of Honorably Black Universities and Colleges is short-sighted and short-circuited by a reality that no Black people control the Department of Education or institutions that govern accreditation.
All of our championed sources of power are fundamentally symbolic. Our representations must be acceptable in some way to either those Whytes that control capital or those Whytes with collective disposable income to finance our publicity. While social media seems organic and capable of producing reach and exposure,those channels most relevant to that objective are all controlled by Whytes with capital seeking more capital, and under pressure of a government more and more pressured to enforce policy influenced by status quo.
US Blacks are under a dome, metaphorically, of Whyte or European Nationalism, called USA. This dome is connected to, a part of, an extension of the global architecture of European expansion, Whyte Supremacy, or whatever phrase clicks first. In this sort of condition, it is necessary to develop a dynamic(read that as ever changing and updating) system of weighing merits of Black people who have publicity in a world where most publicity is manufactured by Whyte institutions.
US Black representation must always be questioned because Whyte institutions have always found ways to interface US Black culture. What occurs, or what has occurred, is that often US Blacks confuse publicity with culture. Let me say that differently.
US Blacks have a tendency of treating behaviors seen in media across various channels as their actual culture. This allows any Black person who can be given a media platform carte blanche influence.
Alright, enough theory, let us get these history books.
There is a difference between a representative and a promoter. A representative is a product of those they represent. Birth of a Nation was released in 1915. While this film cast Whyte actors in blackface to represent Black figures, it created types that future Black actors and actresses would give life to in Whyte productions after blackface became a cliché and then a taboo. However, these types developed by Whytes as symbols of Whyte nationalism are now considered “representations” by very Black people they were developed to demean and dehumanize.
Representation in our brave new world of post post post-modernism no longer considers purpose of script, impact of role, or origination of writer. All that seems to matter is that a role is cast as a Black person. William Foster may have foreseen this when he wrote in December 20th, 1913’s copy of the Indianapolis Freeman.
In article entitled, “News of the Moving Picture World” under the nom de plume, “Juli Jones, Jr”, Foster implores US Blacks to consider two sorts of gains to be made upon entering this new field. Namely, economic gains and an ability to represent US Blacks in a more favorable light than what Whyte “brothers” had. In his own words:
What is the colored man doing to establish a place for himself in the motion picture world? I am glad to note that he is beginning to move. And when I say move, I mean that he is commencing to weight the import and to calculate the value of the motion picture as a medium for portraying the finer and stronger features of his particular life. Nothing has done so much to awaken the race consciousness of the colored man in the United States as the motion picture. It has made him hungry to see himself as he has come to be. Rather unconsciously it has brought him to a spirit of resentment against the traditional portrait presented everywhere of the Negro. Hence there have been several instances in Chicago alone where managers of picture houses in the colored sections have been obliged to “take off” pictures because their colored patrons protested the traditional caricature of their kind projected on the screen was not true to life. That this is a healthy sign of the times I think all will agree. That it also opens a new field of prospect I think is equally apparent. Everything is ripe for the venture. Our brother in white is both blind and unwilling to see the finer aspects and qualities of American Negro life. His blindness and unwillingness to see, I am glad to relate, is none of our making and should be small cause of our worry. We must be up and doing for ourselves in our own best way and for our own best good.
Jones Jr, Juli “News of the Moving Picture World” The Freeman [Indianapolis] Dec 20 1913: 13. Print.
Mr. William Foster’s writing here is history’s first discussion of US Black representation in film by an actual film maker. Prior to this insightful bit of prescience, Mr. William produced The Railroad Porter in 1912, a short all Black cast slapstick comedy. It is important to reiterate Mr. William’s sentiment here is twofold.
He explores two threads of thought, specifically, financial reward — similar to modern day entreaties to US Blacks seeking more involvement in STEM fields, and an ability to control media representation. This representation is solely based on a corps of Whyte film makers who are “both blind and unwilling to see the finer aspects and qualities of American Negro life.” Representation as a tradition is centered on a concept of controlling US Black images by controlling not just casting, but the entire film production process.
As stated earlier, this contemporary moment has confused representation as a tradition of seeking to control the US Black image with representation as a status symbol situated along a value system that values proximity to Whyteness above US Black Self-Determination. Not only has this form of representation allowed non-US Blacks space to govern US Black images, it has also reduced representation as a socio-political tool of racial uplift to a simply another marketing ploy. Representation is just another publicity stunt in this brave new world of spectacle.
A televisual presence (or even a motion picture presence) is a form of publicity, not a social justice claim. Further, our tradition of representation theoretically established by one of those first to pioneer the industry is a Black nationalist stance. It invites US Blacks to a courageous bout of Self-Determination, not casting couches where crossed arms and barking like animals replaces Black Fists and war cries. I would add here that I find it enlightening to note how Black porn scholar Dr. Mireille Miller Young frames responses to Black Porn stars as a dual perception between US Blacks afraid of Whyte gaze, and that actual Whyte gaze.
Representation is not tokenism. While adding yet another ten dollar word stuffed with abstraction into this essay is daunting, we must address neoliberalism in some form here. Neoliberalism is a child born from corporate reaction and response to regulations primarily developed from labor rights. This conflation of corporate interest and socio-political reform has become a communications nuclear warhead, a marketer’s wet dream. Using images of Blacks in a public facing production does not make that production a force of public uplift.
Black Media Trust recognizes a distinction between representation as status and representation as a voice. In order to be a representation or voice of a group of people, those people must have chosen you to be their voice, as well as you must be accessible in a daily and physical way. Media representation is too often too overwhelming for average persons in a society so given to profit motivations, celebrity adulations, and pandering for publicity to be properly assessed for its actual or assumed empowerment.
Further, and more importantly, to put a bow on this, representation of either form is limited. There are no cure-all’s here, especially in a socio-political and socio-economic miasma over four centuries entrenched. What Habermas points to is a history of critically astute citizenry. It is less about those homegrown or outsider trained representatives, and more about those people being capable of questioning and challenging every aspect of their reality for its improvement.
This necessary body of people implies and thus demands organization. Those members forming that organization are free to discuss and debate how formal or informal their structure should be, how centralized or how spread out their structure should be. What should be central to this body is a process that can handle criticism of traditions, leadership, and popular activities creating a false sense of belonging and direction under a guise of “culture”.
In a spectacle driven, media saturated social order, it is easy to confuse or conflate commodity for culture. In many ways, what we consider culture is only commodity. Our aspirations for economic dominance or proximity to Whyte people can lead to worship of commodities we believe only Blacks have a monopoly on. We celebrate masters of these crafts who have achieved notoriety with Whyte people as though they are representatives of an actual militarized state.
These representatives are often simply individual actors lucky enough to have found an effective and well-connected agent. Their strengths and objectives lie not in the socio-political realm, but in the business and private sector. Their product is tradition as identity, and thus belonging — akin to a premium club membership. Their product is popular forms of social indulgence packaged as “culture”, yet another club membership perk. Their product is conspicuous charity masked as Black uplift and social progress, giving their fan club members an opportunity to sacrifice like Malcolm and Fred Hampton without that smoky after taste of bullets that typically come with actually challenging an oppressive order.
In closing, as shown through literature review and historic document review, representation traditionally implies belonging and selection. In Black Media Trust, representation borrows from this tradition. Representation may seek financial assistance, but never full direction from outside entities, and that representation must be subordinate to group it represents.