Will Promoting A Clair Huxtable Lessen The Negative Impact Of A Mary Lee Johnston?

Here we have Clair Huxtable the now-iconic image of upper-middle class African-American motherhood. Some rejected the idea that there were black women like Claire in real life and insisted she was a figment of someone’s imagination.

Here we have Mary Lee Johnston the egg donor of Precious, a character who is embraced as gritty and authentic. The actress that portrayed her has been given numerous accolades and won prestigious acting awards.

Clair is well-adjusted, educated, physically fit, demure, intelligent, accomplished, cultured, married and a mother. She is loved and supported.

Mary is none of the above even though she has given birth to a daughter.

One woman is supposed to be fantasy while the other one represents a “realism” many feel comfortable with. Why is that?

Negative imagery has become the new normal.

Positive images can begin to counterbalance negative ones according to veteran advertising executive Thomas J. Burrell. In his book, Brainwashed: Challenging The Myth Of Black Inferiority Burell asks “why so many blacks still think and act like slaves”.

Burrell makes valid points and doesn’t blame it all on the go-to excuses of slavery and white supremacy. Blacks are also responsible – even more so for the negative imagery we’ve allowed to permeate our culture today. We have people who are still debating whether movies like Precious and The Blind Side are in fact inflammatory and why. It isn’t about promoting a false utopia but a balance of experiences that’s sorely lacking. When a movie like Monster was released, based on the life of serial killer Aileen Wuornos it won awards for certain. I didn’t however see a steady parade of blacks in the media on the talk show circuit discussing how it as a “must-see” film as whites have for the others. Nor do I recall it being marketed with, “We Are All Monsters”  the way Precious was. I certainly didn’t hear white youth ridiculing each other by calling themselves Aileen. It seems as that those who’ve been directly impacted by some of the worst behavior need to see it reflected to validate their experiences. Others know how demeaning it is and promote it for their own personal agendas.

It should also be noted that in all of these stories the black father is an oxymoron. He is abusive, ineffective and absent. Why is that accepted? I’m not even going to get into skin color prejudice.

Burrell has also started The Resolution Project in an attempt to counterbalance the negativity. I certainly applaud any efforts towards reconciling non-beneficial thought patterns but have my own critiques to follow. Here’s an excerpt from the Q&A about the book:

Q. How do propaganda and brainwashing fit together? Why did you choose such a strong term?
A.
Propaganda is the outer layer of this brainwashing onion. In the marketing world, propaganda is the first tool of persuasion. Brainwashing is the outcome, but propaganda got us here, and its continued use keeps the inferior/superior mind game in play. Instead of using torture and other coercive techniques, the stealthy, media-savvy propagandist uses mass media and other forms of communication to change minds and mold ways of thinking. I have no intention of shying away from the term propaganda. I say we use it—take what was thrown at us, shuck it off, and replace it with “positive” propaganda.

Q. Many of the events covered in your book took place hundreds of years ago. Aren’t you encouraging readers to wallow in the past?
A.
The Black Inferiority campaign has left us with centuries of unresolved trauma. We can’t move forward as a collective until we have honest and detailed conversations about the painful influences of our past and the connections to the present. Until we are fully cognizant of the triggers that enable social, political, familial, and personal dysfunction we will be forever trapped in a counterproductive cycle.

Q. Didn’t the media brainwashing that you speak of die in the wake of the Jim Crow and the civil rights era?
A.
While some might argue that racist media practices died with the end of the Jim Crow era, a few thousand folks stranded for days on sweltering rooftops or in neck-deep, toxic floodwater in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 might disagree. We now know that many of the 24/7 news accounts of black-on-black sniper attacks, mass murders, and the rape of women and babies were largely unfounded. As if stuck in a vortex, mainstream news outlets today still heavily focus on the negative aspects of African American life while ignoring or downplaying our positive contributions and efforts.

Q. You say that “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.” Explain.
A.
Too often blacks and whites live in different worlds. My point is that black Americans, because of our heritage and history, have a unique culture that could best be reached through strategies, words, and images subtly or overtly related to those historical and cultural factors.

Q. What are some of the lessons you learned about black Americans during your tenure in the advertising business?
A.
Burrell Communications’ research of the 70s and 80s showed that African Americans have distinct psychosocial needs, desires, fears, hopes, and aspirations, all born of the circumstances arising from slavery and a history of racial oppression. We discovered, for example that:
• Black preference for high-end status brands was driven by the need to compensate for feelings of low self-esteem.
• Our penchant for a lopsided spending/savings ratio grew out of our need for immediate gratification, based on a chilling pessimism about an uncertain future.

Q. Did the “black pride” feeling of the 60s and early 70s weaken the Black Inferiority brand?
A
. Yes and no. During that exciting time in our history, we paid lip service to being black and proud, but the sudden conversion was not supported by the necessary psychological machinery to make the change permanent. Even today, we have no permanent cultural mechanisms to undo what a 400-year marketing campaign has achieved.

Q. Have you had first-hand experience with race-based inferiority issues?
A.
I’ve experienced race-based lack of self-esteem first-hand. It was not based solely on low income or poor education. As upwardly mobile as I was, that programmed sense of innate inferiority climbed every rung of the ladder of success right beside me. Over time, I’ve learned that the root of the problem wasn’t what was being done to me—it was what I’d been brainwashed to believe about myself.

This is a very important admission that fuels the actions of many “successful” black males. In fact any woman seeking viable relationships should examine her own ways of navigating through life but make certain she’s partnered with someone who is confident with resolve.

Q. Your book stresses that whites as well as blacks have been influenced by the Black Inferiority campaign. If that’s the case, why don’t you have tools and/or suggestions to help whites overcome this toxic mindset?
A.
My expertise is with African Americans—our history, our motivators, and our behaviors. I wouldn’t presume to offer effective solutions to counteract the effects of brainwashing on whites and other ethnic groups. However, I submit that positive propaganda, like negative propaganda, has the potential to not only change how we see ourselves, but how others view our race. I want to be a part of a movement that flips the script and promotes a truer picture of our potential and our contributions to society.

Q. What are some of the disturbing brainwash messages that black adults often unconsciously pass on to children?
A.
At a very young age, black men and women are inundated with messages that they cannot trust or depend upon one another. Children hear comments and jokes about lazy, greedy, irresponsible, or otherwise flawed black adults. They are warned to be tough, trust no one, and always, always be prepared for the doomed relationship. It is not really a revelation that incompatibility, lack of love, and oftentimes violence become the inevitable conclusions of these tainted individuals’ relationships.

I agree with much of his analysis but as noted he has years of experience shaping images professionally. The book cover has a photo of a black male by himself. Why the exclusion of women and children? Wouldn’t a group photo have been more effective at conveying how this brainwashing (indoctrination) impacts everyone? It seems to me because Burrell is male his focus is still on racial discrimination and its impact on males by whites. Which is the same argument that’s been made by black males historically who by their actions show they are only interested in their elevation. Yet the language of the book indicates that “we’re all oppressed and in it together” trick whereby black women get suckered into sacrificing their needs for the male collective in disguise as helping the dead “black community”.  I may not be famous or have a Ph.D. in psychology but I certainly spot the same BS being bandied about! If we are not dark-skinned white people with our own culture and have specific needs as Burrell so profoundly states then neither are the needs of black women and men the same. An acknowledgement of our own struggles and specific solutions must also be examined and vetted.

I’ve also noted the book is published by Tavis Smiley who is problematic to say the least. After a decade the only success his Covenant book and the annual State of the Black Union produced was in increasing his personal fortune and career trajectory. He wasn’t in the trenches doing the grunt work as set by the example of Newark Mayor Cory Booker offers in contrast. The Smiley Group is also publishing a book by R(obert) Kelly. So I cannot encourage financial support of this release per se but it is an adequate exploration of the themes mentioned that other males and male-oriented females might find useful. As long as these books on indoctrination do not specifically address the ways that gendered racism is enacted against black women by black males they are incomplete. Or how those males who have unexamined feelings of inferiority have abandoned or are otherwise destroying what’s left of themselves and the collective. Nor do I really expect it to be covered in any meaningful way except by those of us with a vested interest in our individual elevation separate from a collective whose population is too far gone. Still it’s something to consider. Take what’s useful and toss the rest.

Solutions demand two things to occur. There needs to be a policing of standards with appropriate consequences for violators. People need to stop supporting depravity. Reclaim the family structure and the self-esteem will mend. Meanwhile creatives need to forge alliances with key influencers and utilize technology and every available avenue to create new projects to replace the muck. Then people need to support these other projects. All it will take for most is a similar promotion and reinforcement of belonging. Enacting standards is a challenge when core values have deteriorated so much and depravity is like fast food. Many will follow a shift back to something more meaningful as long as it’s what everyone else is doing. Rocket science it ain’t.

“Too often, our needs, concerns, struggles, and triumphs are diminished and subordinated to what is believed to be the more pressing concerns of others.” — Dr. Dorothy Height

4 comments to Will Promoting A Clair Huxtable Lessen The Negative Impact Of A Mary Lee Johnston?

  • Hidi

    Will Promoting A Clair Huxtable Lessen The Negative Impact Of A Mary Lee Johnston?

    You know, I think promoting all aspects of black women will lessen the impact of a one-sided story. Let me explain. I do not just want to see a Clair Huxtable and Mary Lee Johnston. We are diverse. Not all black women are the same. We all come from different backgrounds and speak different languages. It is boring telling the same story all the time. We need to see different images. I am not against Mary Lee Johnston and Clair Huxtable, but we are more than these two characters. Where is the woman who chooses to live a happy single life? Where are the travelers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, artists, dancers,beauticians, gardners, etc.? We are soo much more, so much more. :)

    • Faith

      Hidi: Thank you for your input but the arguments of "we are diverse or not a monolith" don't address when there are intentional sustained negative attacks of the image of black women. Also there is NOTHING wrong with Clair Huxtable. If there were more real life examples of BW who had full lives like Clair for the collective blacks wouldn't be in such shambles as a community. Your personal choices are not the topic of my essay.

  • there are many facets to this issue, a major one being our focus on 'how we've progressed since slavery' -- but 'progression' isnt the issue, it's 'power'. those who controlled power 100 years ago still control power today, it isnt as much about race as it is about society, wealth and privilege (issues which once included doctrines of racial superiority, but but now focus on primarily on class -- where issues of race are embedded, but are easily side-stepped by those controlling media, business and education)

    america has decided that its okay for its 'minorities' to openly protest, but what it prohibits is ORGANIZING because knowledge with a physical mass is a threat to structured power.

    the poor, black and disfranchised can blog and post videos to their hearts' content while tangible knowledge is removed from our communities: black bookstores, black laundromats, black newspapers, black schools and any other independently owned black business or agency has vanished from our neighborhoods reducing the influence they could have on our younger (and older!) generations.

    african americans today have more access to education and financial ability than we have at any other time in our past… as a whole, we are the wealthiest segment of black people on earth -- even our poverty levels far exceed the annual incomes of black folks anywhere else on the planet. we have freedom, but we no longer have cultural independence -- an aspect lost as we assimilated into 'the melting pot'.

    the system that once shunned us now controls how we view and celebrate black history; there are no longer any newspapers thrust into our hands detailing our status in america, we must now stumble upon it online to be linked to and debated about but STILL online. where do we go to meet outside of our homes to discuss who we are and what we want? the huffington post can write an online editorial and then have someone physically address someone else face-to-face for comment or rebuttal

    while those who are disenfranchised take their outrage to facebook or blogger.

    avatars have replaced activists, which suits the holders of power (white or black) just fine.

    in this day and age of black presidents and oscar winners, million dollar athletes and talk-show hosts, we have PROGRESSED about as far as being powerless will allow us.

    now, its up to some of us to take a few steps back,

    see what worked and what hasnt and then formulate a way to put knowledge into action.

    this wont alleviate all our social ills, but it will definitely give us a better landing place to start from when discussions of who we are as a people rage out of control only to be worked out in resolution centers we do not own or operate.

  • I get so tired of how everything seems to harken back to slavery when black men need us to get in on the bandwagon. Usually it turns out to be all about the benefit of the black male. This just gets me. Like AOF said if you do read the book or books and info like it take what works for you and forget the rest. I don't understand the whole blaming the media all of the time either. Yes it does have influence, but it's mostly family, friends etc. The people who are closest to you that have the most influence. As for media you can create your own media. 1.) People can choose what they want young children to see and hear, especially when they are little. 2.) We can choose what we want children to see. That means that you might have to get rid of cable and become netflix's or some other movie sites best friend. 3.) Do this with books as well. 4.) In this day and age when we can make movies on dv and even film we could have an industry by now.

    Also people stay away from the news. Get what you can to know what's going on with your local news and even watch some world news like BBC Worldwide, but then stay the hell away from the news.

    In other words if you see something is against you then by all means distance yourself from it. You will be much happier in the long run.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxtIhaADTtI http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vt3xWLrq39A