Modern Minstrels: The Value of the Black Entertainer

Dr. Dre. Oprah. Michael Jordan. These are some of the examples of African American wealth in our country. They have reached the upper eschlon of status: the billionaire. With a goddamn B, bitches. I should be happy and proud, right? Here are some examples of a post-racial society, black people can achieve a social status only previously achievable by white Americans or oil-rich Sheiks. So, why does the title seem demeaning? I read an article (that I unfortunately cannot find or was unsubstantiated) that there is no person of black American descent who has made their fortune outside of the entertainment sphere.

The term minstrelsy, according to Wikipedia, is “an American form of entertainment developed in the 19th century of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music…especially after the U.S. Civil War, by black people”. In layman’s terms, black people acting buffoonish for the delight of a white audience. It was a hustle that quickly boomed. There was a specific niche of audiences who loved to see a minstrel show; they were the same who harbored deep resentment in the Antebellum times. The black man could be free, but don’t think for a second you are better than me. In turn, if a young and talented black person wanted to make a living wage in something other than what amounted to indentured servitude, you became a performer. You hitched up yo’ britches, put dat corncob pipe in yo’ mouf, and danced for da white mens. And it worked like a charm. Nowadays, we may look at those performers as poor, uneducated, disadvantage folks who deserve our utmost sympathy.  Bringing up their mere memory would be insulting. No. If it were not for these talented and driven humans, many things would be different.

Take the actor Lincoln Perry, in my opinion one of the greatest character actors in American history. You may know him as Steppin’ Fetchit. Steppin’ Fetchit was a character created by Mr. Perry and quickly became one of the most beloved characters in America at the time. So much so that its a little known fact that Lincoln Perry was one of the first black millionaires after the character was featured in many movies in the early 1930s. What is sad is that Mr. Perry was marginalized by both races as the exemplified version of what white people thought we were—lazy, slow-witted, lecherous, etc. So it must have been a damn Catch-22 to be Mr. Perry. An extremely successful character actor, yet hated by your own people and an idiotic clown to others. I think what’s even more depressing is that Mr. Perry died nearly penniless. Little is known about how he lost his riches but I can assume that he had horrible management (if any) and his earnings were squandered and/or stolen outright.

Am I comparing Oprah, the Queen of Daytime TV to a singing, black-faced clown? Yes and no. Until she and others like her were able to achieve their own monumental success, they essentially were Lincoln Perry; those folks did as the white folks dictated. I recall doing a paper in the 6th grade on her and reading that she, once hired by a major news outlet in Chicago, had to chemically straighten her hair. The chemicals were too strong and the stylist was inexperienced with dealing with her texture of hair. Her hair was damaged to the point where she had to wear a wig for years. As a billionaire, she can rock her natural curls, no problem. But, for some odd reason, that was a big no-no. Too distracting? Who knows. It is easy for me, a black woman, to see how one has to shape-shift in order to not intimidate white people. I am a simple blogger; I’m not deep into the entertainment sphere as a career so I feel I can be “myself” in a way. I also have supportive friends, male and female, black and white, who love and support me as an individual, which is really invaluable. Oprah did not. She had to alter her appearance for the good of her image. As an entertainer, your image, not your personality, is your selling point. You are a product to be bought, judged, and sold. Sound familiar? Entertainers are chattel; perhaps that is why there is quite a bit of overlap with black people. Unfortunately, many black Americans believe that the only way to achieve massive wealth is to drop beats or bounce a ball. And, are they completely wrong?

The value of the black entertainer in American history is something that is apparent yet, not closely studied publicly. There is not much emphasis on the cultural value in entertainers. They really do shape society. Beyonce. James Brown. Michael Jackson. Diana Ross. Prince. Quincy Jones. Beverly Johnson. Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Steph Curry. Denzel Washington. The Johnson Family. These people are invaluable and highly influential to all Americans. Whether you are a fan of their talents or not, recognize that they have significance. They may just bounce a ball or sing a song but, they are the ones entertaining you. And they deserve the wealth they receive in equal proportions. The “modern minstrels” of today, whether or not you like that moniker, are the ones that influence others in a big, BIG way. And regardless if you believe they are stunting or furthering the “good of the race”, they aren’t going anywhere. It is up to you, the consumer, to stay informed and not be so sueded by everything you see. You can be a fan of Fetty Wap’s music and not emulate his behavior. You can own Jordans and not play basketball.

Entertainers: please believe that you, as a human, are valuable even if you would like to share your talents with the world for monetary gain. You are a person first, and your career is second. That is why, though I don’t necessarily consume mainstream rap or hip-hop music, I steadfastly believe that the Lil’ Wayne’s and T.I.’s have value in our society and will be known as key players in history. They just will; in the future, people will debate the cultural significance of Nicki Minaj’s butt. And, what a butt it is. I know my Anaconda don’t want none, though.

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