In November of 1979, I was a senior in high school when Iranian students overran the United States embassy. One of the first acts of the Iranian students was to release the embassy’s African American personnel. They explained that they recognized that the U.S. Black population was an oppressed national community and as such could not be held responsible for U.S. imperialism in the same way as white citizens of the U.S. At the time, there was no great outcry about this turn of events. In fact, discussion of this move, if I remember correctly, was quite muted. We, my Black friends and I, all teenagers, felt that the students were correct. Even if they had released the U.S. Africans to make political points, it was still the right move. In the next several years after I had moved on to college, I continued to meet U.S. Africans who applauded the Iranian release of the Black personnel.
There was, as there always seems to be, one Black man who chose to stay, wanting to demonstrate his loyalty to his white co-citizens. For him, his American identity trumped his African identity. He was the U.S. propaganda answer to the Iranians’ public act of solidarity. The ideological struggle that ensued has been waged ceaselessly, and unevenly. The U.S. state and its civil society, especially its media, launched a campaign seemingly designed to convince U.S. Africans that they are Americans, despite their ongoing experience of exclusion and repression in U.S. society. I once referred to this media practice as the over-determination of African Americans as citizens in the representational practices of U.S. American mainstream film and television. By over-determination of African Americans as citizens I mean the practice of casting Black actors as police, prosecutors, judges, military personnel, FBI and CIA agents, political office holders – including the U.S. Presidency – and teachers, roles associated with a tacit, and sometimes explicit, acceptance and defense of U.S. legitimacy. These are characters engaged in the defense of the U.S. system, and the extension of supposed U.S. values.
Of course, the emergence of the Loyal Black in U.S. visual media has a long genealogy, predating the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. But let me start there. Already in the mid 1960s, Bill Cosby and Greg Morris were playing spies on television, the former in I Spy and the latter in Mission Impossible, their characters doing their part to win the Cold War for the West. The characters were distinguished by their technical intelligence, genuine geniuses, traits the Black viewing audiences were prepared to embrace after so many decades of Step-n-Fetch-it buffoonery. In the early 1970s, The Rookies included George Sanford Brown’s character, a young, first year LAPD officer needing to show himself and his captain that he could be loyal to the force and to law and order, not to the demonstrators in the street. Not long after, Starsky and Hutch showed up with their overwrought Black captain played by Bernie Hamilton and their own Black pimp informer, Huggy Bear, played by Antonio Fargas. At a time when U.S. federal, state and local police agencies were engaged in the violent – and illegal according to their own laws – repression of the Black liberation movement, these television series worked to legitimate U.S. authority in African minds.
While the CIA was busy destabilizing and overthrowing revolutionary and progressive Black governments and organizations in the world, Bill Cosby was being used to make us think that the political plight of Eastern and Southern Europeans was the central contradiction with which we should identify. While the FBI was infiltrating and assassinating Black Panthers, we were led to believe S.W.A.T. was the last defense against anarchy, and that the Black members of the team were the models we should follow. So when the Iranian students released the U.S. Africans, shivers went through this country. U.S. Africans still enjoyed an international reputation for commitment to justice, for righteous struggle, for principled solidarity. The Iranian action represented a foreign policy victory for the Black Liberation movement despite the political and military repression. U.S. white power, with the enthusiastic aid of the U.S. Black petty bourgeoisie, could not let this stand, and with the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency, the re-inscription of the U.S. mythology was well underway.
The Loyal Black character must remain committed to the project of the United States. When racism emerges in the lives of these characters, it is construed either as an aberration in U.S. society or the problem of individuals who have lacked exposure to non-whites and thus could not develop the requisite tolerance, or individuals of color unwilling to leave the “mistakes of the past” in the past. These characters overcome obstacles through their own intrinsic abilities, including the moral fortitude to overlook the petty prejudices of unenlightened whites. There connection to community stops at their families, a common theme of alienation from the Black community at large being a characteristic trope of these narratives. These characters have made it out of the ghetto or small Southern town (Only hip, white characters can have transformative and healthy relationships in communities of color.). These characters make white America very comfortable.
The last ten years have seen a proliferation of these characters: the CSI franchise features Black characters in all its versions, criminologists and medical examiners lending credibility to police work for Black viewing communities, as has Law and Order through the 1990s and into the new century. Dennis Haysbert went from playing a presidential candidate and then the president on 24 to playing a commanding officer in the popular military drama The Unit. On 24, he was followed by D.B. Woodside who played his brother, his chief of staff and eventually the president also. L.L. Cool J now plays a naval criminal detective in NCIS: Los Angeles. The contradictions that exist between the U.S. national African community and U.S. police agencies and other government agencies remain absent from most of these stories. If they should ever appear, for example an episode about the shooting of an unarmed Black person, more common in life than on television, the story tends to revolve around the justifiability of the officer. The investigators’ integrity is not to be impugned, and community reaction is represented as unreasonable and too quick to accuse racism. The police are generally vindicated and the Black community chastised. When the police are explicitly corrupt, for example in The Shield, their characters are still drawn with complexity and compassion, allowing the audience to sympathize with their difficulties if not approve of their choices. The Black criminals rarely exhibit such depth. There can be no sympathy for them. An independent, Black humanity must be discouraged. A life apart from white people must be rendered unthinkable.
I bring all this up, because there is a new spy drama premiering this fall on NBC in the U.S. Undercovers features a husband and wife spy team, featuring Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mba Tha-Raw respectively. As the U.S. currently wages a global war against so-called terrorism, a global offensive looked upon with widespread skepticism by the majority of African Americans despite the vociferous support and belligerent policies of Barack Obama, we are presented with beautiful spies to remind us for which side we are supposed to cheer. Young, intelligent, attractive, and hip, Kodjoe and Mba Tha-Raw are the latest players deployed in the struggle for the hearts and minds of U.S. Africans, especially youth. U.S. media bombard African youth with these images of successful, economically solvent Blacks in the service of U.S. policy, domestic and international. The media images reinforce the message put forth by Black elected officials, pop stars, celebrities and athletes: the U.S. is uniquely situated for individual Black achievement.
Of course, the working class girl living in the projects is not the real target. It’s that young woman who earns decent grades and has been identified as one who can make it out. At all costs, she must be convinced to use her natural talents and learned skills in the service of the empire, not in the service of her community, the place she needs to escape. She too can be a spy for the U.S., or a cop, or a teacher who will insist her students recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag. Why wouldn’t she when the only heroes she has seen and for whom she has cried work to save America from the people who hate freedom, terrorists and gang bangers? Ain’t nobody making TV movies about Fred Hampton, or about how Assata got down to Cuba. And when Spike tried to tell Malcolm’s story, the mainstream quickly reinvented Malcolm as a militant civil rights activist, not the Black Nationalist who showed us the way to freedom. That’s the power of money and access. That’s why this ideological battle has been waged unevenly. Black revolutionary forces don’t have the resources of the mainstream, and those Blacks who do have resources, Oprah Winfrey for example, are committed to the empire. Oprah is on record. She thinks the U.S. is the greatest country in the world ever. She has learned to love America. If it wasn’t for conditions of our lives on the ground, I suppose more of us might learn to love America too. And if another U.S. embassy is captured, will the Black personnel be released in a show of solidarity? Now that President Obama, General Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, and the myriad pro U.S. Black characters exported with Hollywood product have become our international face, that prospect may be less likely. That would be a foreign policy victory for the Black petty bourgeoisie and U.S. Empire.