Hiding in Plain Sight: Dismantling “Tributes” to American Racism

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My wife Leslie is a huge fan of the 80s sitcom, “The Golden Girls,” so much so that she has a collector set of DVDs of all the seasons and STILL manages to watch every episode that replays on TV.

Per her recollection, Leslie began watching “The Golden Girls” when she was still in single digits and would laugh along with the in-studio laugh track, even as her 7-year-old self could not fully comprehend exactly why she was laughing. Of course, as a full grown adult, she totally gets all of the subtle and overt jokes the classic sitcom offers and is regularly uncovering innuendo that her childhood self could not process.

Over the years, I have viewed more episodes of “The Golden Girls” than I ever intended, because you know, quality time and whatnot. If you have never watched an episode of “The Golden Girls,” the show’s premise chronicles the lives of four white female roommates in their senior years navigating romance, careers and family dynamics. The “girls” share the home of one of its main characters “Blanche Devereaux,” and are routinely the audience for her tales of sexual conquests and nostalgia about her Deep South upbringing.

In one of the series most pointed examples of Blanche’s affinity for simpler southern times, she is visited by her childhood “mammy,” an elderly Black woman who seeks to reconnect with Blanche in hopes to recover a music box gifted to her by Blanche’s father. Without going into too much detail of the episode, her “mammy” informs Blanche of a longstanding affair she had with Blanche’s father and offers Blanche proof of numerous love letters written by “Big Daddy” to her. Blanche, who was initially outraged that “her mammy” walked out of her life when she was a young child, forgave her by the episode’s end once she understood that a Black woman, who was in a secret affair with her white Republican father, had no other choice but to leave her subservient job thus abandoning her post as Blanche’s “second mother”.

If the storyline of the episode titled “Wham, Bam, Thank You, Mammy” sounds like it was scripted from the imagination of a “Gone With the Wind” era writer, it was not. It debuted in October of 1990, decades after the characterization of Black women on television as “mammies” had faded into oblivion. By this time, Claire Huxtable had represented Black women as professionals in “The Cosby Show,” or Whitley Gilbert and Kimberly Reese had represented young Black women as college students at an HBCU in the TV show “A Different World.” Somehow, it still made sense for a writer of an all-white show to assign a stereotype of Black womanhood to support the narrative and character development of one of its lead actors. Again, this was in 1990.

Now, fast forward thirty years later and take the following things into consideration: an eight-year run of the nation’s first Black president, the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture, the growth of Black entrepreneurship, #BlackGirlMagic, Black Academy Award winners, a bottomless well of Black scholars and thinkers and creatives emerging to reshape American culture. Sounds like ample progress, right?

So, can anyone explain why after such an impressive timeline, is Black America STILL subjected to racist iconography, establishment names, symbolism and advertisement on streets our taxes pay, in schools our children attend and emblazoned on products we purchase? Does anyone have any idea as to why it took a nation burning to its core for white folks to say “you know, maybe these super public mementos we’ve been cherishing for decades might be a little bit racist?”

As of this writing, major corporate brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Cream of Wheat and Mrs. Buttersworth are JUST NOW considering an actual rebranding of the racist imagery its products have displayed for decades. Aunt Jemima has been on the market for 130 years and changed its packaging six times. Its parent company, Quaker Oats, is just having the epiphany that maybe it doesn’t have to use a fictional character inspired by minstrelsy to sell pancake mix.

You would think that Black people had to be victims of modern day lynchings amidst a global health crisis to inspire this corporate awakening. Hmmm...

But the reason casual imagery of American racism has been able to parade in front of us is largely attributed to what we identify as overtly racist, versus what gets to hide in the shadows of history we forgot or were not accurately taught. When we see burning crosses, swastikas, pointed hats & white sheets, we undeniably recognize it as images of white supremacy and racially motivated hatred.

When we see statues of Christopher Columbus or Mahatma Gandhi, we have to dig beyond the education we were given that lionized the valor of exceptionally racist men. There are neighborhoods, highways and municipal buildings in southern cities named after Confederate soldiers that have existed in the public sphere for generations. Many of these have been met with indifference by the very people that should take the most offense at its representation, and that is largely attributed to a mixture of revisionist history and an intentional erasure of the deeds of lesser known American racists.

However, in this moment of urgent cultural reckoning, several Americans across racial lines are engaging in direct actions to rid streets, institutions and businesses of any form of symbolism that exalts racism. Currently, there appears to be a reframing in the national conversation around race, racism and factors that contribute to the pervasiveness of white supremacy. The more in-depth the dialogue becomes, the more those who are invested in anti-racism will peel back the layers of any and everything that allows the empire to take refuge in its inhumane history. Nothing is more of an indicator of where a society’s values lie than what it champions in the light of the sun.

But it is not enough for American culture to rid itself of reverence of its racist past, it also must practice discernment when choosing who and what to uplift in its future. It is of no cultural value to replace names that personified racism with names that are synonymous with queer and trans antagonism, xenophobia or sexual violence. We are in a uniquely transformative position to critically assess what we choose to amplify culturally. There is too much information at our disposal for us to label monsters as deities and enshrine their likeness into our consciousness.

It is beyond time that America renovates both its exterior and interior foundation. For far too long, it has been a nation of eyesore imagery posing as something regal. Its ugliness must be excavated from the outside in before its people can truly marvel at the beauty of its potential.