Last week Maine’s governor, Paul LePage used some rather colorful language to describe the type of people he believes are responsible for the drug trade in his state, the following were his public comments.
“These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty—these types of guys—they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home,” LePage told a large crowd. “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”
As one would suspect, the comments were derided by the press, presidential candidates and social media for being insensitive or racist. Governor LePage’s press secretary offered a clarification instead of a retraction and the news cycle moved on. There were a lot of chuckle inducing memes that focused on the nicknames the governor used to describe drug traffickers. I read the comments, and saw yet another gross characterization of the mythical, hypersexual black man. This is a an ugly, misogynistic, racist stereotype that simultaneously robs people of color and women of their agency. First, a bit of historical context.
The concept of black men as possessing subhuman(or superhuman) qualities permeates history and was traditionally used as an excuse for racism. There are numerous examples in all media of dehumanized black males but one that is particularly applicable is the film, “Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffin. The film chronicled white citizens being harassed and oppressed by freed slaves. In one of the film’s seminal moments, a thuggish freed slave and Reconstruction era captain boorishly suggests he wants to marry a white woman She jumps to her death to the escape the black captain’s advances, dying in the arms of brother. Having founded the Ku Klux Klan, our white protagonist hunts down and lynches the black captain who caused his sister to jump. As the adventure (and the Klan’s body count) unfold, our protagonist kills another overzealous former slave who kidnaps and tries to marry his former fiance. Ultimately, the Klan succeeds in defending virtuous white women from the advances of former slaves.
“Birth of a Nation” is considered the first motion picture, and the start of the industry. It was heralded for its revolutionary cinematic techniques, to the degree that it’s preserved by Congress and considered one of the most influential films ever made. It also inspired thousands to join the Ku Klux Klan, spurring its renaissance in the early 20th century. Released in 1915, the film was used regularly for at least the next sixty years as a recruitment tool for the clan. Reportedly, a young David Duke used the film as a recruitment tool, early in his career as a Klan organizer.¹
There are many other examples from popular culture and the media. There is the Mandingo, characterized in the novel of the same name as the sexually aggressive, physically powerful black slave who lusts after white women (and is murdered as a result of his indiscretion). Or Stagger Lee, the real, flamboyant black pimp from folklore who murdered another man for stealing his expensive hat. All of these racial stereotypes have a common thread, that of black men as possessing an unbridled sexuality that is almost animalistic in nature, combined with a great capacity for and comfort with violence. Couple this with the aggressive physical characteristics of the “big, black buck”, yet another stereotype. There is a common thread, that this disturbing archetype of the black male is perpetually antagonistic to white males and predatory toward white females. (The ways that black females are portrayed can be equally gross and certainly need to be identified as well).
Take a century of this racial narrative and unpack it along with the comments that Governor LePage made and the parallels are stark. One could almost imagine someone waving their hands in the background, yelling “they’re coming to get us”. The presumption is clear, that black men disregard the law, have felonious motives and actively defile white women. Against this background, D- Money, Smoothie and Shifty take on a sinister tone as everything that’s wrong with society, not merely as the comic relief of a meme. By speaking in such general, uninformed terms the trio become all black men and by proxy a threat to white safety. From this narrative we arrive at the superthug, the Michael Brown’s of the world who were unfazed by bullets or the Trayvon Martin’s, whose preternatural strength and ferocity forced George Zimmerman to defend himself. Yes, this is preposterous as racism often is.
All of this should be of concern to anyone who believes in sex positivity. As I stated earlier, racism and misogyny objectify and rob people of their agency.
“Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”
By inferring aggressive black hypersexuality, the governor robs black men of human dignity, and weaponizes sexuality when it comes from a person of color. He also strips white women of their agency, by turning their bodies into a commodity. By falling victim to black hypersexuality, these women lose value and become a burden to society by becoming pregnant. This is an equally insidious inference, that women lack control of their bodies and desires. The memes and jokes don’t seem funny when you realize they have years of reinforcement, that sometimes causes people to lose their lives.
If we consider ourselves sex positive, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and not allow sex to be used as a racial weapon. Don’t support archaic stereotypes like the hypersexual, threatening black man and the utterly clueless white girl, whose value is tied to her possession as daughter or girlfriend. Instead, allow people the agency they are entitled to without presuppositions.
Sometimes, you have to call bullshit. Take care of each other family and always keep it kinky.
¹”100 Years Later, What’s The Legacy Of ‘Birth Of A Nation’?” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2016.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
Mandingo(1975) /Robert Fleisher / Dino De Laurentis Paramount Pictures
Featured Photo: TV’s first interracial kiss, which aired in the UK, takes place between Lloyd Reckord and Elizabeth MacLennan in a TV play You in Your Small Corner. It was first shown on ITV in June 1962.