Defining Michael Brown - Pacific Standard

Defining Michael Brown

How Harriet Beecher Stowe and D.W. Griffith still define the ways in which America talks about black men.
Author:
Publish date:
GettyImages-459082822

Last month, the New York Times ran a profile of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was shot multiple times and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, setting off a wave of protests. The Times profile, by John Eligon, painted a picture of a normal young man, struggling a little with school, occasionally in minor trouble, but with a loving, involved family, and high hopes for college and the future. Eligon also, however, paused to tell his readers that Brown was "no angel."

The choice of words drew a lot of criticism; to many, it seemed to imply that, since Brown was not perfect (he smoked pot! he wrote profane rap lyrics! he stole some cigars!) he deserved to be shot. As Jamil Smith wrote on Twitter: "I don't advocate lionizing the dead. But when we write about black men who've been killed by the police, ‘no angel’ carries a new meaning." The Times itself acknowledged that the criticism was fair; the newspaper's public editor and Eligon (who is black himself) both regretted the phrase.

But the regrets don't quite explain what the term "no angel" was doing in the story in the first place. Why did Eligon feel the need to explain that Brown was not an angel? After all, as Touré pointed out in the Washington Post, nobody is an angel, so why would anyone assume that Mike Brown was one?

Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and other activists used the conventions of melodrama, and particularly of Stowe's melodrama, to render their actions morally legible, and force an ethical accounting.

If any group of people is always, unjustly pre-judged as un-angelic, that group would be black men. In its 2013 report Transforming Perception: Black Men and Boys, the Perception Institute rounds up a depressing array of evidence about ongoing prejudice and racism against folks who look like Mike Brown, from the disproportionate portrayal of black men as criminals in news and entertainment programming to studies showing that police officers tend to associate black male faces with words like "violent, crime, stop, investigate, arrest." The Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures the speed with which people link white faces or black faces to positive attributes, finds that the wider public—not excluding a significant minority of black people themselves—exhibit implicit bias against black people. In a context where black men and boys are persistently viewed as criminal in the media and viewed as negative everywhere, then, why does the phrase "no angel" come up? Who exactly is it out there who needs to be told that Mike Brown is not an angel?

ACCORDING TO FILM SCHOLAR Linda Williams, one significant historical figure who was convinced that black men were angels was Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In the 2001 book Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson, Williams examines the history of racial melodrama—and the place of black men within it. In particular, Williams argues that Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin derived its power from the way in which it re-worked melodrama to accommodate black men.

Traditionally, melodrama had been built around the virtuous suffering of innocent white women or white girls. Stowe included this traditional melodrama in her book through the agonizing death of the character of Little Eva, which Uncle Tom witnesses. But then, Williams argues, Stowe juggled the tropes. In the second half of the book, Uncle Tom metaphorically takes the place of Eva: He is the innocent beaten and killed, just as Eva had been the innocent dying of disease. In Stowe's novel, Williams says, "African (Americans) whose primary depiction in popular American culture had previously been as objects of fun, suddenly became, in and through this work, new objects of sympathy for whites." Stowe replaced the suffering white woman with the beaten black man as an icon of moral purity and as a sign of injustice.

Stowe's opposition to slavery was rooted in her religion. Uncle Tom's Cabin came to her in a vision of a beaten black man while she was sitting in church. According to her son, "It seemed as if the crucified, but now risen and glorified Christ, was speaking to her through the poor black man, cut and bleeding through the blows of the slave whip." Uncle Tom, then, is, literally, a Christ figure—he is a black man who is an angel. In some sense, Williams argues, Uncle Tom has actually replaced Christ. As rationalism and secularism have pushed Christianity more and more to the margins of culture, melodrama has stepped in to provide us with moral legibility. Melodrama isn't unrealistic, Williams argues; instead, it's an evolving genre, which contrasts the way things are (unjust) with the way they could be, and it encourages us (as Uncle Tom's Cabin encouraged Northerners) to take the abuse of innocence to heart, and strive for righteousness.

The trope of Uncle Tom, of a black man as an angel, became incredibly important to America's righteous self-image—and in many ways, it remains so. Tom continues to be a touchstone in fiction, in everything from the somewhat obscure Captain America series Truth to The Green Mile (which Williams discusses) to 12 Years a Slave.

It has also remained important outside fiction. The innocent, beaten black man as Christ-figure and moral example was, Williams argues, central to the tactics of the Civil Rights movement; Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and other activists used the conventions of melodrama, and particularly of Stowe's melodrama, to render their actions morally legible, and force an ethical accounting. Similarly, the chant at Ferguson—"Hands up! Don't shoot!"—uses images of innocence to demonstrate and highlight injustice.

THE IDEA OF BLACK men as angels, then, has been around a long time. But so has the equal, opposite, and ugly reaction; the insistence, in the manner of the Times, that black men are not angels. Tom generated not just copies, but opposites. Williams points to Thomas Dixon's viciously racist The Clansman and its equally repulsive film adaptation, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, as a particularly iconic and influential instance of anti-Tom. Stowe had replaced the innocent white woman with the beaten black man; Dixon and Griffith, for their part, revived the innocent white woman, and positioned the black man, not as her double, nor (as in pre-Stowe days) as a figure of fun off to the side, but rather as her attacker. Whiteness becomes the menaced victim; blackness becomes the menacing injustice which must be pushed off-screen in a righteous wave of white. Williams points to the evil mixed-race Silas Lynch in Griffith's film, a character "whose very name ... turns black victims of lynching into aggressors." She also quotes William Walker, a black viewer who described having seen the film on its release, and who recognized its genocidal import: "You just felt like you were not counted. You were out of existence."

Since at least Birth of a Nation, then, Tom and anti-Tom have co-existed as a kind of terrible gestalt blot, each setting off, and transforming into, the other. Black nationalism, Williams suggests, is in part a kind of anti-Tom rejection of victimization, an embracement of the idea of black men as powerful and dangerous. (James Baldwin suggests something similar about Bigger Thomas in his famous essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," when he writes, "Bigger is Uncle Tom's descendant, flesh of his flesh.") On the other hand, Spike Lee's "Magical Negro" trope is simply an updated Tom; a vision of a pure black man (or sometimes woman) whose purpose is to help white people recognize morality.

And often, Williams argues, Tom and anti-Tom are applied to the same narrative. In the Rodney King case, supporters of King saw the beating of a black man on video as a clear moral indication of injustice, in the tradition of Stowe. Supporters of the police, on the other hand, working from an anti-Tom meme, were unable to see King as anything but the aggressor. An ambiguous interaction with a white police woman was in fact the excuse white male officers used to precipitate their orgy of violence. Similarly, in the O.J. Simpson trial, the anti-Tom narrative of black man as violent attacker of a white woman (in this case Simpson's ex-wife) was rejected by a mostly black jury in favor of the Tom narrative, in which the Los Angeles Police Department victimized an innocent Simpson. And, predictably, in the arguments about Mike Brown, the chant of "Hands up! Don't shoot!" has been met with narratives that demonize Brown, presenting him as a looming thug, and portray officer Darren Wilson in the position of both the white woman and the white man of melodrama—endangered and terrorized, with no choice but to rescue himself with maximum violence.

But again, stereotypes of black men in our society are not just about demonizing or criminalizing them. They're also about sanctifying them—and, contradictorily, about sanctifying them as a prelude to criminalizing them. The Perception Institute's report on black men and boys has a brief description of a forthcoming study by Phillip Atiba Goff which indicates that police officers who feared being considered racist were more likely to use violence against black men and boys than police who had explicit, or implicit, bias against black people. Fearing an image of themselves as racists beating Uncle Tom, the officers adopt a sort of anti-Tom reaction, in which black people are demonized, and violence is necessary.

THE VISION OF UNCLE Tom as Christ figure, and of black men as victims, can have, and has had, a powerful transformative effect. Uncle Tom's Cabin is widely considered an important factor in swinging the North toward anti-slavery, and, as mentioned above, it arguably was one important image used in the Civil Rights struggle as well. But Uncle Tom can also backfire. Whites have, historically and still today, rejected the image of victimized black men, and, without logic or justice, but with great symbolic force, placed themselves as victims, endangered by blackness, and justified in hysterical extremes of retaliatory violence. That's why racism today tends to express itself as anti-anti-racism—and why slavery has given way to mass incarceration and a militarized police force.

The Perception Institute argues that, to end stereotypes of black men and boys, "we must work toward developing a more accurate portrayal of Black men and boys in the cultural domain." Linda Williams' work suggests that that accurate portrayal has to reject not just anti-Tom, but Tom as well. We don't just need positive portrayals of black men and boys; we need portrayals that get away from the positive/negative, angel/no-angel dichotomy that makes black men icons of good or evil without ever letting them be fully human. It seems like this is what James Baldwin argued when he wrote that the failure of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom's Cabin in particular, "lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended."

Ironically, Eligon's profile of Michael Brown seems to have been trying to do just that—to show Brown as a human being, with dreams, hopes, loved ones, and some flaws, rather than as a martyr, deserving of sympathy only if, or only because, he was holy. "We wanted to tell the story of who [Mike Brown] was, the deeper story," Eligon told the Times public editor, and added that he had wanted to show that Brown, "despite his challenges and obstacles, was someone who was making it." Eligon wrote that Mike Brown was "no angel" then, it seems like, to emphasize that Mike Brown was a person, not a Christ-like Uncle Tom. Unfortunately, the melodrama of Tom/anti-Tom isn't so easy to escape. The two continue to circle each other in a bleak, blind dance between victim and victimizer. Their footsteps are so loud that we can't seem to hear black men like Mike Brown taking other steps, and dreaming other dreams.

Related