Drug dealers, gang bangers, fatherless, welfare-dependent prisoners are some of the images that the media bombard us with. When faced with these images daily, many of us begin to accept them and have lower life expectations of ourselves. In essence, we are letting the stereotypes of others define who we are rather than defining ourselves. The positive images of African Americans is often that of athletes and hip hop stars, implying that there are limited roads to success within the African-American community. Protest against social injustice by African Americans stars is spun as unpatriotic and done by individuals who are fortunate that society has given them so much. Notice I said given, not earned, because, for many, the thought of the African American working hard and earning their position in society is a foreign concept. As Carter G. Woodson said, “to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.”
1984 brought us the Cosby Show centered on the lives of the fictional Huxtables obstetrician Cliff his lawyer wife Claire, and their children Sondra, Denise, Vanessa and Rudy, and son Theo. The show was unique in that not only did it depict an upper-middle-class African American family, we had seen that before on shows such as The Jeffersons, but one that not one but two professionals headed the family. They were portrayed as merely a family residing in Brooklyn, not an African American family, merely a family. They were not the exception to the rule; instead, they were just another successful family. The Huxtables showed us that African Americans could be successful and be mothers and fathers who have children who attend college because it isn’t that what all kids do when they graduate high school. They were the embodiment of what all American families, white and black, strive to be.
2008 brought us Barack Obama, who, against all odds, became America’s first African American President. Something many of us believed we would never live to see. He was a highly educated man of color and a dedicated husband and father. While in office, some media outlets looked to marginalize his accomplishments, question his citizenship and disintegrate his character. Still, thanks to his magnetic personality and superior oratory skills, President Obama overcame media attempts to downplay or mischaracterize him. He represented himself with a class and dignity rarely seen by a politician and won respect and admiration not only from Americans but worldwide. His wife Michelle, a strong, educated, beautiful woman of color, so much so that the thought of her running for President today does not seem out of the realm of possibility, was also at times a victim of certain media outlets attempt to paint the Obama’s in a poor light. But like her husband, she too possessed a magnetic personality and superior oratory skills, which easily allowed her to deflect any negativity aimed at her. The Obama’s represented what is possible for all African Americans. No longer was it a fantasy to tell your child they could grow up to be President because it has been accomplished and accomplished with dignity and class.
2018 brought us the hugely success Marvel movie Black Panther. Movie theaters were packed with people of color, young and old, men and women, some who hadn’t been to a movie in years. They left the theater not only entertained by the film itself but with a pride of their culture. Wakanda, after all, was undeniably African. Its citizens are highly educated, and its women are depicted as strong and beautiful, its men strong and dedicated to family. Wakanda forever became a calling card of many because the imaged world of Wakanda represented a look at what African Americans could be. That we could fly above the clouds and achieve greatness.
One cannot quantify the impact the positive images of these fictional and non-fictional African Americans have had on the African American community. Still, it has no doubt allowed some of us to dream of possibilities to consider what we can accomplish regardless of our skin color. This begs the question of the responsibility of successful African Americans in giving back to their community. For many successful African Americans, success is often measured by moving out of their community into a predominantly white neighborhood. Leaving behind many of those they used to associate with in exchange for new friends who are predominantly white, rejecting much of the culture they were raised in to fit their new surroundings better. They reject African American businesses citing their supposed inferiority to that of businesses run by others. It as Carter G Woodson said, “Negro banks, as a rule, have failed because the people, taught that their own pioneers in business cannot function in this sphere,
Ironically, Harlem, one of the bastions of African American culture, has in recent years seen a renaissance not as the result of successful African Americans returning but to an influx of white people. Unfortunately, as this great community strengthens, African Americans are pushed out.
So is it truly the responsibility of the thriving African American too, as Lebron James said in his 2017 ESPY awards speech, “go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them.” In this writer’s opinion, the answer is an unequivocal yes. As each successive generation serves as positive role models and mentors, invests in the building of a prosperous and robust infrastructure that employs those in the community and affords the children of those adults the opportunity to attain a quality education, the foundation is put in place where success is not seen as the exception but the norm. The perception of the African American image within ourselves changes from one that is not worthy to one who is exceptional and has unlimited opportunities before them. As Fredrick Douglas said, “The soul that is within me no man can degrade.”
The building of this thought process will not come easy as Carole Mosley-Braun so pointedly put it “Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face” and as Malcolm X once said, “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” The African American can not wait for others to “save” us, build up our communities, employ our men and women, educate our children, and, most importantly, pass down the history of our many accomplishments. The African American must act from within to achieve these goals. We must set the groundwork so that. Each succeeding generation grows up with the belief as the 1970’s slogan said Black is Beautiful. That they shout from the mountain tops what James Brown once sang, I’m black, and I’m proud. That they define themselves and not let others define them.