Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Modern Minstrel Show

What are your thoughts on gangsta rap, television shows like Flavor of Love, and others portraying gangsta culture?

I was reading Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, and came upon her arguments drawing the parallels between black performers in the minstrel shows and the images we see of black, gangsta culture on television today.

To paraphrase, she points out that,
"Psychologists have long observed that when people feel hopelessly stigmatized, a powerful coping strategy - often the only apparent route to self-esteem - is embracing one's stigmatized identity."
In regards to mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, she observes that gangsta rap did not become popular until after the War on Drugs was in full effect and young, black men were suddenly being swept off the streets and into prisons.

Before the War on Drugs, we had "Rapper's Delight" and "My Adidas" not songs about pimps and 'hos. (I might be dating myself.) However, you have to admit; the timing is certainly interesting.

Alexander equates prevalent negative images in the media today to the minstrel shows of the slavery and Jim Crow eras, both of which are for-profit enterprises established to portray the worst racial stereotypes of African-Americans. Further, like the minstrel shows, today's audience is primarily white. White, suburban teenagers are the largest consumers of gangsta rap.

Alexander goes on to question,
"It seems likely that historians will one day look back on the images of black men in gangsta rap videos with a similar curiosity [to the minstrel shows]. Why would these young men, who are targets of a brutal drug war declared against them, put on a show - a spectacle - that romanticizes and glorifies their criminalization? Why would these young men openly endorse and perpetuate the very stereotypes that are invoked to justify their second-class status, their exculusion from mainstream society? The answers, historians may find, are not that different from the answers to the minstrelsy puzzle."
Her answer is that they are embracing the stigma placed upon them by the War on Drugs. Like the minstrel show it "has its roots in the struggle for a positive identity among outcasts."

What are your thoughts?

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