ABOVE PHOTO: Mural of Ray Charles (AP Photo/CTK, Rene Volfik)
By Malaika Jabali
“It’s frustrating that the movies I want to make I haven’t been able to make… Orlando Bloom was given 15 opportunities after Lord of the Rings. Black men are given no opportunities… They say there’s not an audience for black stars, but that’s because you’re not feeding [audiences] them.”
—Anthony Mackie to Los Angeles Times, 2011
While 2014 saw a string of high profile cases of Black people subjected to grave injustices, 2015 seems to be a clarion call for Blacks in Hollywood to either apathetically address racism or proactively stress the importance of ignoring racism. Unfortunately, ignorance is not bliss for Black Americans who live in legitimate fear that they or a loved one will be targeted by vigilante racists or abusive, trigger happy cops. The struggle in our community is real. So why are a number of successful celebrities of color, who seemed rather quiet through our trials last year, now finding their voice to preserve the status quo?
Though these celebrities may be deemed “New Blacks,” this phenomenon is not new at all. This song and dance is in fact a very old, tired refrain that—if we did not know better—would appear a deliberate effort to derail a moment in our history that could be a tipping point in our country’s enhanced consciousness of violent, institutional, anti-black racism. Though not often discussed, some of our most respected Black public figures, including Jackie Robinson, Tina Turner, and Ray Charles have undermined Black movements precisely at the moment that our fights for power, equality, and resistance gain traction. Some, such as Jackie Robinson, were merely used to counter our advancements while others adamantly prioritized their personal profit over community empowerment.
Unlike its connotation today, “New Negro” described a type of radical Black person that diverged from traditional, accommodating Black leadership of the post-Reconstruction era, as William Rhoden discusses in “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.” Coined in 1919, the “New Negro” resisted White violence and fought back. Rube Foster, the founder of the Negro National League, embodied this rebellious spirit. The League was successful and became both a cultural institution and a base of Black power. While Rube ultimately hoped to see Negro League franchises integrated in Major League Baseball, he fought to keep the Black teams and ownership in tact. Foster feared that if individual Black players were being hand picked by White owners instead of the entire teams being integrated wholesale, White-owned major league baseball “would take what it needed, then crush Black ball to pieces and watch it die.” Major League Baseball found just this opportunity in Jackie Robinson.
At the head of integrating Major League Baseball was Branch Rickey, who proclaimed that “[there is no Negro League as…far as I’m concerned,” resulting in the Negro League being looted for its athletes and effectively leading to its demise. As Foster expected, African Americans were used for their talent and to boost the sales of a slumping White major league, but they were not allowed to sit collectively at the ownership table. Robinson was a function of this system, having been associated with White institutions since junior college and thus more attractive to Rickey. Certainly, Robinson’s presence in itself challenged White supremacy and his acceptance was a symbol for the Black masses bombarded with falsehoods of Black physical and mental inferiority. But the other side of integration that is rarely acknowledged goes beyond this symbolism: Robinson’s role ultimately was to stifle one of the few institutions of Black economic power that, after almost a century, Blacks have yet to reach in any athletic league.
There have been numerous examples of “New Blacks” in the entertainment industry throughout history. One of the most glaring examples of this—and one many people either don’t know or seem to forget—is Tina Turner’s decision to perform in South Africa during the height of apartheid in 1979.
In the midst of South Africa’s brutal apartheid system, vast numbers of Black entertainers and athletes declined invitations to perform in South Africa. While the South African government specifically barred foreign Black performers in the 1960s, the country made a full 180 and began courting Black entertainers to “combat their growing political isolation” from the West and developing countries. As the apartheid system continued, Jet Magazine noted that many black celebrities, including Natalie Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., and Nancy Williams, among others were not swayed by this policy shift and “refused to let dollar signs come before basic principles.”
Tina Turner was not among them.
She performed in the country in 1979 despite its well known system of injustice and anti-black violence. To her credit, Turner has since stated that she regretted the decision. Considering that Hollywood had not yet galvanized under the political coalition, Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid (formed a few years later in 1983), she may have some justification for her proclaimed naiveté to South Africa’s politics. Still, while expert knowledge of the mechanics of foreign political systems likely shouldn’t be expected of our entertainers, a lack of awareness is not the best excuse for an institution that gained so much notoriety for its mistreatment of Blacks that it prompted the United Nations to support boycotts against the country for an entire decade before Turner’s performance.
Ray Charles was another entertainer who ignored the call to action to protest racism and performed in South Africa during apartheid. Unlike Tina Turner, Ray Charles never showed remorse for performing in South Africa in the midst of its widespread institutional and government-endorsed racism. In fact, Charles doubled down. After the UN asked him to apologize and pledge not to return to South Africa until apartheid was abolished, Charles refused and instead “told his detractors that they could ‘kindly kiss the far end’ of his anatomy.” Protesters picketed Charles in 15 cities around the globe, yet he remained unphased. Ray Charles and his team were similarly antagonistic after performing at the inaugural gala for then President Ronald Reagan. While Blacks faced severe setbacks under the President’s free market policies, Charles softened his once critical stance on conservatives. After the performance, for which Charles was paid handsomely, Charles’ manager Joe Adams proclaimed that “for that kind of money we would have sung ‘America The Beautiful’ at a Ku Klux Klan rally.”
Granted, Black celebrities straddle a tenuous line. The Anthony Mackies and Lee Daniels of the world are likely both acutely aware of how racism affects their lives… and driven by the desire to belong and make a living in a racist society. This is no less clear than in their own contradictions, with Mackie once being adamant about enhancing diversity in Hollywood only to later suggest race is discussed too much, or Lee Daniels saying he doesn’t like calling out racism, but keeps his “reverse racism” card on deck.
Though finding profitability in Hollywood may seem at odds with standing upon moral grounds, the two are not mutually exclusive. Dozens of legendary Black celebrities—such as Eartha Kitt, Paul Robeson, and Harry Belafonte—have refused to compromise their principles when even much more was at stake. Despite being formidable stars in their fields, they never lost sight of the fact that transcending certain racial barriers did not mean America had transcended race. While “New Blacks” may be immediately rewarded for subverting our progress, it has been our “old blacks,” by committing themselves to causes far greater than their individual wants, who created a legacy that will endure far into the future.
Malaika Jabali is a regular contributor to For Harriet.
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