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Black Stereotypes in literature, film and television – the Sapphire

The African-American community is large and diverse. While reading my essays & blogposts, or taking my classes at local conferences, please know that my beliefs, experiences & insights are my own. You can find ten other African-Americans and hear ten different opinions. My hope is that you glean something from my experiences which help you write Authentic African-American Characters.

 

The Sapphire is one of the most enduring black stereotypes in literature, film and television. A black woman with a strong will and a strong back. She always speaks the truth – especially to the white people. She gets laughs and inspires courage. Yet her humor masks her truth telling. We love her because she is strong, courageous even, while being heartwarming. Today we see her as an equal (which is a good thing,).

So, what’s wrong with this trope and how can we fix it?

Here are the top four things wrong with the Sapphire trope and the two things we, as writers, can do to fix it.

 

1.) The Sapphire loves the white family – a little too much.  

She cooks amazing meals, is there early and stays late & helps raise the little white children. The sapphire is more than a maid or housekeeper, she is a surrogate mother – and that is the problem.

She does everything for the white children. Literally everything. Doesn’t this woman have a family of her own? What about her kids? What about her husband & family? Yet she is always there for her white employers. Yes, it’s her hard work and nurturing that gives her the moral authority to teach wisdom to the children and her employers. However, what is her status?

The Sapphire is in some kind of limbo where the white children are concerned. Her authority comes from her white employer and not because of her own moral authority or relationships with the child.

Look at Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird, the woman is shown to be hard on Scout, to help her grow up. Scout even says:

    She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why

I couldn’t behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older,

and calling me home when I wasn’t ready to come. Our battles

were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because

Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem

was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could

remember.

Her authority of Scout is only because Atticus takes her side, as the white male and head of the household. The Sapphire is in a kind of limbo because she’s doing the job of a mother – without the job title.

 

2.) The Sapphire emasculates the black man.

Esther Roll & Jimmie Walker on the set of Good Times

Her strength, whether its moral, physical or emotional, is unquestioned. She speaks truth to power. She is a courageous woman. However, in order for the Sapphire character to shine, she has to knock some sense into somebody. In shows like Nell Carter’s Gimme a Break, it was always the white kids who got the lessons about life from the sassy housekeeper. In shows like Good Times, it was Florida’s own children who got the brunt of it.

The character of JJ Evans on Good Times was a clown of the highest order. While later seasons showed him taking his art more seriously, becoming more of a productive citizen, the character could easily be confused with a minstrel show performing jive artists. While the rest of the family struggles, JJ was shiftless, sexually obsessed, lazy and a potential con artist. He always had a plan or a scheme that his mother, Florida Evans (or his father, to be fair,) had to stop.

In many ways, you can’t have a Sapphire without emasculating a black man around him. Go back and watch Mammy and Pork from Gone with the Wind. They don’t have many scenes together, but it’s clear who’s in charge.

 

3.) The Sapphire is a neutered woman.

The Sapphire’s strength is unparalleled. She is virtuous and is the soft spot everyone can lean on. All great story telling. Except, who does the Sapphire lean on? Who’s shoulder does she cry on?

In addition, is the Sapphire heterosexual? Is she a lesbian? We don’t know. Where is her husband? Her wife? Her paramour? Her lover?

Because her presentation to us, as reader, usually involved her being older, with copious amounts of fat on her, she is never presented as an object of sexual desire. Her romantic desires are never discussed.

No one is that strong.

And, while there are people who show no desire to form romantic relationships out there, the Sapphire is continuously portrayed as strong enough not to need a man – or anybody.

 

4.) The Sapphire is All Rage

The Sapphire is righteousness personified. She has no time for foolishness or crap while she tells it like it is. While she speaks the truth her emotions range from irritated to full blown rage. From Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind, to Nell Carter’s Nellie in Gimmie a Break, this woman is angry.

A good example of this is Oprah Winfrey’s character Sofia in the Color Purple. She is all rage and indignation and truth telling. Oprah gives a beautiful monologue about her abuse growing up to Whoopie Goldberg’s character Celie. It is a moving and heart wrenching scene. To Spielberg’s credit, he pushes Sofia to her natural conclusion and has her curse a white woman and slug a white man, which gets her sent to prison.

 

How do we avoid these stereotypes? How do we fix them?

As I have said at conferences before, fixing the stereotypes of black characters involves one major step: show agency.

If the black housekeeper loves the white children she cares for, show her choosing her own family over the people she works for. “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, my own daughter is in a play tonight and I must see her. You’ll have to find someone else.”

Hattie McDaniel

No one will have a problem with this decision because it’s human.

If the Sapphire is emasculating the black male characters around her flip the script. Have those same men honor their mother/aunt/stepmother by taking the responsibilities away from her just once. Have her come home and dinner is cooking, the house is clean, and the men are waiting on her to show their love and respect. (This also has the added effect of eliminating the stereotype of the black male as shiftless, lazy and uncaring.)

Show the Sapphire as an object of desire. Have her talk about her lover, or husband or wife.

Let an older Sapphire have an opportunity to wax poetic about her lovers when she was younger. Let her brag about her figure and bust.

Let her break down and cry. Have her lean on her friends and get a hug. Allow people wait on her. Show her being vulnerable. Show her laughing, good naturedly. Let her have a passionate kiss.

Here is the incomparable Esther Rolle in Good Times showing a strong black woman being vulnerable.

My own Experience with the Culture of Poverty

The African-American community is large and diverse. While reading my essays & blogposts, or taking my classes at local conferences, please know that my beliefs, experiences & insights are my own. You can find ten other African-Americans and hear ten different opinions. My hope is that you glean something from my experiences which help you write Authentic African-American Characters.

 

When I first taught this class at Pikes Peak Write Brain, the thing that resonated the most was my discussion of the culture of poverty. It’s controversial to say this, but poverty, at least in the industrialized world, is also a set of values, assumptions and beliefs about yourself and the world around you. To understand African-American culture is to understand how the culture of poverty pervades and influences our families, our communities, and our greater culture. To do that, I am going to reflect on a personal experience from my twenties.

My mother’s name was Carolyn Ann Walker. She was born at the University of Kansas Hospital, in Kansas City, Kansas in 1942. She lived her early life in Kansas, then moved to Pasadena, Ca in the mid-1950s, along with her extended family and her local church. (Yes, the entire church migrated to California. Another blog, to be sure.)

She graduated from Cal-State Northridge with a B.A. in Psychology. She graduated from Pacific Oaks College with an M.A. in Human Development, and earned an MFCC license. She worked as child social worker for the county of Los Angeles for over twelve years before she died in 1996.

By all accounts, we should have been a well-adjusted and stable Black middle class family in the 1980s. We should have been, but we weren’t.

My mother always had money problems. She was always stressed, upset, or plain angry about something related to money. Why? Let me get to that in a moment.

 

Meeting People of Wealth

I have been very fortunate in my life. I have met and became friends with five millionaires. Now, I’m not talking about the superrich. I’m talking about people whose assets, in total, are worth over 1 million dollars. A couple I used to work for was the first. I met a university professor and her husband, who were the second. A dear friend of mine who I used to play Dungeons & Dragons with, was the third. A public school nurse was the fourth, and a programmer who frequents local geek conventions is the 5th. I have gotten to know these people, asked these people questions about wealth and how to acquire it. They all have one thing in common: They are really cheap.

These people don’t care about fancy cars, or clothes, or dinners out. All of them prefer to cook at home. All of them buy used cars. They are millionaires because they all had relatively high paying jobs (except the high school nurse,) and they didn’t spin their money, frivolously. They were all in their late forties or older when I met them. (Except the programmer.) They all had spent at least a decade saving their money and investing conservatively. They are all very frugal.

This was when I really discovered the difference between a culture of wealth and a culture of poverty. The poor want money to buy things, while the wealthy just want the money.

Now don’t misunderstand me! Rich people clearly buy nice things. However if they want to stay rich, they will never put themselves in a position where the things they buy effects their bottom line. The Rich people I know don’t empty the bank account for a blowout Christmas or birthday party. They don’t buy expensive gifts frivolously.

Where the Money Went

In my mother’s house however, the bank account was empty a week after payday. This was odd because she made really good money. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day we lived like kings! As soon as January 1st was over, we tightened our belts and lived hand-to-mouth.

It was very common for my mother to borrow money from friends to pay the light bill, or make rent. In Southern California we had the St. Vincent DePaul Charity, which gave out free bags of groceries to the poor. Well, we got St. Vincent DePaul at least twice a year, when she couldn’t buy groceries.

I bet you’re wondering where the money went?

My mother had an intense belief in what being middle class was supposed to look like. To her, being middle class meant driving a nice car, living in a neighborhood without violence. It meant her kids wore name brand shoes and clothes. It meant going out to dinner frequently.

Mom used to joke she was going to get me braces. My teeth have always been straight, I’ve never needed braces. Whether I needed them or not wasn’t important – the white kids had braces, so her son was going to have braces, too.

To my mother, being middle class meant have access to the possessions middle class people had. Even if it meant we did without in other areas. It was all about conspicuous consumption. She was trying to access and maintain a social status based on her spending. She was using her money to buy respectability.

Why did money run out?

  • Because my mother bought a G20 Infinity in 1996. (Her car payment alone was other people’s rent.)
    1995 G20 Infinity
  • Because she rented a house with four bedrooms and a swimming pool. (There were only three of us! Also, we would only go swimming in the summer – the water was too cold, otherwise.) A smaller home in a smaller neighborhood would have provided a cushion, financially. But she loved that house – we all did.
  • My mother Never brown bagged lunch. When she worked, she ate lunch out. That meant a local sit down restaurant, not fast food.

 

A Story about School

I got accepted into UC Santa Barbara in 1994. My old Tandy computer from Radio Shak was on its last legs. I didn’t care though. I knew there were several computer labs on campus. I just figured I would write and print my papers in the labs.

Nope.

UCSB

I will always remember my mother coming home from work one day. She honked her horn for me to come outside. When I got there she was in tears. I asked her what was wrong. She said she had qualified for a loan to get me a computer to take to school. She thought this was a miracle.

I never asked for a computer. But that was never the issue. No son of hers was going to go to college without his own computer. Her son was going to be just as good as those white boys.

I shudder to think what the payments were on that computer.

In many ways my mother worked herself into the grave trying to pay for all of this. She died in October of 1996, a few weeks short of her 54th birthday and a few months after I walked.

The culture of poverty tells us that we must consume conspicuously. Everyone must see that new car, the diamond ring, or the 50 inch television. Being middle class, or even rich, isn’t about having the money to travel or take care of sick loved ones, or even securing the future of children. It’s about having the things they have.

  • This is why poor kids will have high end smart phones.
  • This is why everyone has a 40+ inch television.
  • This is why kids walks around in $300+ shoes.

 

I have been fortunate enough not to buy into conspicuous consumption too much. I do have some nice things, but I don’t go overboard. Every day I see more African-Americans who choose not to buy into this culture, too.

 

Next Steps

I hope this has been blog has been helpful to you.

Now, I want to leave you with a little exercise. If you’re writing a novel where the protagonist or one of the supporting characters is African-American, think about the unconscious conspicuous consumption they participate in. Is it a woman who must have the latest Fendi bag? Does he buy a new $500 watch every 3 months on a teacher’s salary?  Does she lease her car? Does he own three video game systems and buys new $60.00 games once a week?

Settle on a spending weakness and figure out why they spend this way. Does it make them feel better? Superior? Is it a form of affection? (Things = Love,) Is it therapy? (an entirely different subject!)  Whatever the reason, figure it out and add it to your character.

See you next month.

 

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