19 Apr

What We Can Learn from “Buckwheat”: Contextualized Language Dissemination in the Promotion of Racialized Stereotypical Imagery as Depicted in Mass Media Alignments

Posted by Obiora N. Anekwe

Words are powerful, but they are also transformative in nature and deed. But when put to music, words can expose, educate, and even help eliminate myths and stereotypes about a people who are human, but, more often than not, subject to indispensable injustice and value-ridden hardship. Recently, I was reminded how words are literally more potent than sticks and stones. I often refer back to past injustices and their related symbols in order to address many of our current issues of injustice because, quite frankly, history just keeps repeating itself. And more troubling than before, the repetition of history’s racial injustice through language is constantly justified through laws and policies that are immersed in racial biases that permeate society.

Today’s racial practices are more evasive, but still deadly because they are normalized through the effective means of using language that indirectly signals discriminatory beliefs often coded in New Jim Crow polices and procedures. Immersive and deliberate practices such as mass incarceration, high-stakes testing, neighborhood schooling, and justifiable homicide conducted by law enforcement are just a few means by which racialized language is actualized in order to castrate black and brown populations. In my opinion, the most effective attribute of modern day racism in the era of the New Jim Crow is the blatant denial of racism and the visceral practices of its tenets.

In musician Garland Jeffreys’ consciously provocative song, “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat” (1991), he vigorously critiques racial stereotypes purposefully formulated from hostile language normalized through repetitive vocalization. Jeffreys confronts the notion of “Buckwheat” head-on without hesitation in his lyrical content. He often refers back to the positive affirmation that he, as a black man, refuses to be referred to as “Buckwheat,” who signified the embodiment of negative black male imagery intentionally promoted to emasculate one’s identity, intelligence, and actualized performance.

Historically, William “Billie” Thomas , Jr. was the original African American child actor who portrayed the character of “Buckwheat” in Our Gang (Little Rascals) short films from 1934 until 1944. In later years, after the show ended, “Buckwheat” was often criticized as portraying elements of the "pickaninny" stereotype.    

In 1935’s Mama's Little Pirate, William “Billie” Thomas , Jr. began appearing as  “Buckwheat.” Although he was a male actor, his character was regularly portrayed as a female dressed as a Topsy-esque image of the black "pickaninny" stereotype with bowed pigtails, a worn, over-sized sweater with similarly oversized boots. Eventually, the “Buckwheat” character slowly evolved into a boy, first referred to as a "he" in The Pinch Singer (1936). Similarly, contemporary attempts to effeminate the black male through contextualized language and demeanor have arguably been successful in helping deconstruct black male masculinity in order destabilize the traditional black family structure.

Even today, labeling a black male as “Buckwheat” implies that one is dumb or incompetent. Most recently, in a Spring 2015 commencement speech by First Lady Michelle Obama at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, she made reference to how caricature images of herself as a monkey were initially harmful during President Obama’s first term in office. Similarly, verbal attacks and caricatures by opponents of President Obama’s health care reform bill were met with visceral opposition to the extent that one republican congressional hopeful, Corey Poitier, referred to the President of the United States as “Buckwheat.” 

So what can be done to rectify and bring reconciliation to an educational system that so-often negates to address issues of stereotypical language prevalent in society and rarely confronted in educational dialogue? If this is an issue in your class/school what might be some ways to sensitize students and teachers/administrators to create a more respecting and empathetic environment? What are some creative and practical strategies/practices you might employ?

First and foremost, in order to change human behavioral practices, a recognition of such behavior must be acknowledged. It is critical that audiences are cognizant of stereotypical negative imagery and language that demeans and degrade human existence. In order to counteract and encourage the systematic disengagement of subversive attacks on black male identity, for example, a proactive approach has to be implemented in order for these negative psychological frameworks to be dismantled. If we, as educators, fail to dissolve negative racial overtones, a climate of resistance to racial harmony will continue to permeate our society. As such, we have to also aggressively re-evaluate how we, as a people, directly or indirectly sponsor and support racial injustice through corporate sponsorship by monetary means. In other words, music, television, and film media projects that promote negative racial imagery and language should vigorously be boycotted by viewing audiences who oppose such visual images and linguistic practices. By petitioning, voicing concerns, and not purchasing products by advertising sponsors who financially support media productions that degrade vulnerable populations, viewing audiences can make a lasting and profound impact in how language and images are framed in the mass media.

As teachers, we can play one of the most critical roles in helping eliminate racial overtones portrayed in the mass media by creating and developing culturally responsive lesson plans and activities that educate students on language and imagery that affect how we often view the human dignity of others. These powerfully enhanced teachable moments are the tools and weapons by which racial stereotypes and biases are deeply probed and critically analyzed through civilized and humane discourse. But furthermore, we can make the best impact in our students’ learning by practicing what we so often preach. All in all, we must be actively engaged and willing to highlight these teachable moments in order to finally put an end to racial discrimination and inhumane injustice.

Lastly, we must also be willing to re-educate ourselves about the racialized and stereotypical language we internalize in our daily teaching practices. In such cases, I refer back to our nation’s most prominent linguist, Professor Noam Chomsky, who vigorously advocates for a constant re-evaluation of how language and the placement of its contextual framework affect our belief and action systems. In the end analysis, we, as educators, have to come to the vital realization that language and its placement through stereotypical imagery found in “Buckwheat” and other modern day caricatures pervasively serve as weapons of mass distraction intent on promoting war-torn humanistic values and erosive prejudicial practices.

Ethically Speaking,

Obiora N. Anekwe

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