American Renaissance

Advertisers Exploit Blacks

Star athletes becoming new minstral show to attract buyers

Thad Mumford,, Jun. 12

There has never been a better time to be a black athlete. Moneywise, it is now a sum-of-zeros game. (If only my parents had seen the long-term value of studying Rod Carew’s books on hitting instead of math and chemistry.) African-Americans have turned white football and basketball players into tokens. And while our representation in baseball continues its decline, the percentage of blacks who dominate the game continues to surge. The reign of Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters could lead to a time when country club athletic equipment will be on back order in Harlem’s sporting goods stores. Advertisers now line up to have black sports figures push their products, especially to the audience they covet, with near-liturgical zeal, 18- to 25-year-old white suburban males, many of whom are mesmerized by the idiomatic hip-hop jargon, the cock-of-the-walk swagger, the smooth-as-the-law-allows attire of their black heroes.

Casting shadow

But there is a downside to all this.

The unsayable but unassailable truth is that the clowning, dancing, preening smack-talker is becoming the Rorschach image of the African-American male athlete.

It casts a huge shadow over all other images. This persona has the power to sell what no one should buy: the notion that black folks are still cuttin’ up for the white man.

Any ethnic group that ever found itself on the periphery of equality and acceptance has had to create coping mechanisms. Some who were victimized by bigotry secretly mimicked the prejudicial perceptions of their oppressor with exaggerated, self-deprecating depictions of their behavior, their very private burlesque that gave them brief respites from their marginalization.

For African-Americans, burlesque as healing balm became the essential comedic ingredient of black vaudeville. Comics would strut and cakewalk through now classic routines that savagely lampooned minstrel shows, popular staples of mainstream vaudeville in which white performers in blackface and coily-haired wigs further dehumanized their own creation, the darkie prototype.

Look-at-me culture

But a variety of factors, in particular the canonizing of youth culture, the de-emphasizing of wisdom and the glorification of the boorishness inherent in America’s look-at-me culture, has played a major role in putting black vaudeville back on the boards. The featured attraction? A number of black athletes.

When we see a wide receiver strut and cakewalk to the end zone, then join teammates in the catalog of celebratory rituals, which now feature props, or hear a cackling, bug-eyed commentator speaking Slanglish (“Give up the props, dog, they be flossin’ now!”), we are seeing our private burlesque, out of context, without its knowing wink and satiric spine.

Minus these elements, what remains is minstrel template made ubiquitous by Stepin Fetchit and the handful of black actors who worked in the early motion pictures.

But unlike the Stepin Fetchits, left with no alternative but to mortgage their dignity for a paycheck, who often suffered tremendously under the weight of tremendous guilt and shame, some of today’s black athletes have unwittingly packaged and sold this nouveau minstrel to Madison Avenue’s highest bidders, selling it as our “culturally authentic” behavior, “keepin’ it real,” as they say.

Nothing could be less real or more inauthentic. Or condescending. How can 38 million people possibly have a single view of reality or authenticity? But the athletes who have exhumed the minstrel’s grave keep alive these shopworn condescensions.

White adults, whose knowledge of black life is generally limited to what they see in pop culture, take burlesque at face value. This reinforces what was considered culturally authentic, that black people are funny as all get-out.

But the athletes aren’t the main culprits. That, of course, would be television, which has brought its two major contributions to American culture, sex and excess, to every sport. TV has erased the line that separated sports from entertainment and created a product that encourages the marketing of black burlesque. Call it athle-tainment.

Taking away pride

“We now allow people to take the pride and dignity from our athletes by celebrating them when they play for the camera,” said Al Downing, a veteran of 15 major league seasons, now doing public relations for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It can be a dizzying ride. Today’s African-American athletes have been handled like porcelain eggs from the moment it became clear that preparing for the next game was of greater significance than preparing for the SAT. Then once they become seven- and eight-figure Hessians, they are walled off from the real world, and all accountability, by management, agents and corporate sponsors, who are all blessed with fertile amounts of unctuousness “You rule, bro!”

The word now has become a museum piece. As the football Hall of Famer Deacon Jones once said, “There’s no school that teaches you how to be a millionaire.” But does this mean that athletes who feel the need to pay homage to every tackle with a dance step, who triumphantly crow in the face of opponents after monster dunks, should be excused for not knowing the line between exuberance and bad sportsmanship?