Freedom Rider: Uncle Tom Celebrities
by Margaret Kimberley
A young singer who dresses like a bellhop considers himself to be the “new black.” A rapper-actor-songwriter operates under the delusion that racism is like a love affair gone bad. A TV and movie heartthrob invites whites to call him “nigger.” Where do we get these celebrity mutants, and “what good are awards and ratings and record sales if the people who gain these successes stab us all in the back?”
Does the entertainment industry have an Uncle Tom clause for black performers? That certainly seems to be the case, with endless jaw dropping comments uttered by famous black people recently. One may call himself “new black,” another doesn’t mind being called “nigger,” and another says the end of racism depends upon black people showing love to white people.
The days when entertainers were in the forefront of the liberation movement are long gone. It isn’t really surprising, because the era when black people asserted their own politics is also far in the past. There is a generation with literally no way to discuss their experience in a way that truthfully speaks to the reality of black people’s lives. As a result we are now left with coonery and buffoonery from people whose successes may or may not make us proud, but certainly should not be embarrassing either.
Neither the pleasure we derive from popular culture nor the desire to see black people do well, ought to give license to slander and lies. Pharrell Williams’ success shouldn’t allow anyone to forget his bizarre assertion that he is a “new black.” He spoke this nonsense in a 2014 interview with Oprah Winfrey, a setting ready made for foolishness.
“The new black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The new black dreams and realizes it’s not about pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on.” Underneath the Oprahish nonsensical words is an old clarion call. Choose white people for a chance to succeed. Stand with your own people and fall. And by no means never ever call white people to account. That is the death knell for anyone wanting to achieve.
Unfortunately Williams has succeeded commercially and so has rapper, song writer, actor Common. Fresh off of his Oscar win for the Selma movie theme song, Common declared that racism was akin to a quarrel between lovers and that black people should extend “a hand of love” to white people. It is hard to know where to begin in dissecting the danger that comes from listening to such stupid and untrustworthy people.
“I’m…extending a hand. And I think a lot of generations and different cultures are saying ‘Hey, we want to get past this. We’ve been bullied and we’ve been beat down, but we don’t want it anymore. We’re not extending a fist and saying, ‘Hey, you did us wrong.’ It’s more like ‘Hey, I’m extending my hand in love. Let’s forget about the past as much as we can, and let’s move from where we are now. How can we help each other? Can you try to help us because we’re going to help ourselves, too.’ That’s really where we are right now.”
“Me as a black man, I’m not sitting there like, ‘White people—y’all did us wrong, I mean we know that that existed. I don’t even have to keep bringing that up. It’s like being in a relationship and continuing to bring up the person’s issues.”
Even the flawed film Selma makes it clear that black people quite loudly stated they were being done wrong and didn’t put any limits on how often they had to make their demands. Common is perhaps the first person in American history to say that the oppression of black people is akin to a romantic relationship gone bad. As for extending a hand in love, it isn’t clear why black people are the ones who must do the loving. Like Pharrell Williams, Common has chosen sides. He has chosen white people over black people because that is where he sees his bread being buttered.
Does the corporate entertainment industry really require such craven and servile behavior or is there an unwritten rule that these people know they must follow? It seems that no matter how great their success, black people fear they can be taken down at any moment. Academy awards and record sales aren’t protective charms. They can be turned into nobodies as quickly as they were turned into stars and that is why the Uncle Tomism is so blatant.
Movies and music are harmless in and of themselves, they are popular because they give us enjoyment and can produce great artistry. But there is great harm when black people excuse the wrongs done to them and place the onus of justice solely on themselves. Even at this late stage of history the black face in a high place can be an irresistible drug. The Pharrells and the Commons of the world would be ignored and despised if they did not represent the levels of achievements so intoxicating to a people still yearning for recognition.
The television series Empire is the latest popular culture drug for black people. Its star, Terrence Howard, joined the Uncle Tom clique when he said that he hopes the word “nigger” is used on the new hit show. Not content to make this dubious demand, Howard added that he doesn’t mind when his white friends direct the word at him. “Did white people invent this word?” the dim-witted actor inquired. (Note to Terrence: yes they did.)
These stupid, shallow people should not have the last word. What good are awards and ratings and record sales if the people who gain these successes stab us all in the back the first moment they fear that white people will take back what they have given?
If Pharrrell and Common were afraid of offending white people they could just as easily have made bland, neutral statements. It would not have cost them anything if they had not thrown black people under the bus. Instead they decided to unambiguously take sides against black people, their history and their politics in order to gain favor with white people who can make them rich.
In a just world, these people would be rejected by their bosses because they were first rejected by consumers. Ideally they should all know that the punishment for their inexcusable words was a loss of market share. Unfortunately, they have no reason to fear that their fans will reject them. We haven’t heard the last back-stabbing minstrelsy from Hollywood.