Black Sambo 2.0?
New Media Technology and the Persistence of Racist Representations
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
New media technology is changing the landscape of television. At one level, the emergence of web-based television, along with platforms like YouTube, provides a space for historically ignored themes and silenced voices within popular culture. I previously wrote about the potential during a discussion of The LeBrons, which “highlights how new media technologies provide modern black athletes (among others) tools to define their own image and message, partially apart from those ‘restrictive script,’ yet bound by the dominant discourse and accepted images.”
Reflecting on this cultural and technological shift, Aymar Christen Jean argues that the golden age of black television has ended. He notes further that the potential afforded by new media technologies are significant in challenging the white hegemony of American television culture: “In this early stage, the writing and production values are uneven. But when you throw in social-networking possibilities online, the emergence of original Web programming can only be good news for black art and expression.” Writing about the brilliant and rightly celebrated The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, Britni Danielle highlights the transformative potential residing in Web 2.0. “It’s official, the best shows featuring Black people are not on BET, TVOne, NBC, or any other TV channel. The best shows featuring interesting Black characters are on the web,” writes Danielle. “In times like these, when TV shows and films featuring interesting Black characters are missing from most mainstream outlets, it’s nice to see that many (and I do mean many) are taking matters into their own hands and making their own way.”
While clear, from The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, The New 20s, The LeBrons, Kindred, and Road to the Alter, that the web is emerging as the promise land for the production of black-themed shows and the dissemination of counter-narratives and representations, the frontier of new media technology is also littered with dehumanizing shows as well.
The advance of new media technology, whether on YouTube, I-Tunes, or the totality of the Internet provides a space for the dissemination of racist shows of yesterday, narratives, stereotypes, and episodes that artists fought long and hard to remove from public consumption. William Van De Burg, in New Day in Babylon, documents the ways in which organizations, like the National Black Media Coalition and Black Citizens for Fair Media, fought the continued dissemination of racist imagery. They, along with Asian Americans for Fair Media and others, worked hard to counter those racial images that represented “an explosive psychological force that warps human relationships and wreaks havoc on one’s personal dignity” (Wei, 1993; 51). While movements of the 1960s and 1970s were successful in challenging the presence of dehumanizing representations within network television, the advance of new media has proven to given life to many shows of past generations.
On YouTube, you can find a number of cartoons from the mid-20th century, some of which are explicitly labeled as racist (or banned/censored) cartoons, while others lack specific marking. These cartoons bring into wide circulation the otherwise put into the grave racist televisual moments of yesteryear. For example, on YouTube, “Southern Fried Rabbit” where bugs sings, “I wish I was in Dixie,” also depicts the South as a beautiful oasis in juxtaposition to the barren wasteland of the North. In this episode, Bugs Bunny is presented in blackface, ultimately impersonating a happy slave. At one level, this particular episode is keeping “past” images and narratives alive (the happy slave is clear in circulation as evidence by “pledge”); at another level, it facilitates a space where commentators can rehash and deploy their own racial narratives and ideologies. Claims about permissibility of racist images back then, that it was just entertainment, and simply kid’s stuff are commonplace on YouTube. Likewise, in this episode and in countless others found on YouTube, the history of blackface, of imagining and depicting blackness through dehumanizing imagery is evident.