Swag as a Commodity

Nothing like the beginning of consistent warm weather to bring out my favorite things; basketball shorts and wife beaters on a well defined man. This season has already been off to a great start; with the summer blockbusters on the big screen, the NBA Playoffs on cable, and the brothas on the block, there is an abundance of sheer masculinity everywhere I turn. I’m not complaining… So of course, I couldn’t help but notice the increased presence of men of color; a trend that personally brings nothing but smiles.

What began with the popularity of actors like Will Smith and peaked with the presidential election of Barack Obama, the public perception of the black man has made a great shift in recent years. Gone are the days of the sidekick, the laughable coon, and the magical negro… usher in the HERO. It was a trajectory that can be easily identified in movies; which led to a lot of the commentary following the opening of Fast Five last month, being less about the movie and more about the skin tone of the cast and its lack of the blonde haired, blue eyed action stars people are used to seeing.

One of these things is not like the others....

Where I have noticed the biggest surprise shift was in advertising. I consider myself an astute tv watcher and lover of pop culture my whole life, so commercials and print ads are always something I notice. Just this year alone, the number of black men I’ve seen in ads portrayed in a positive light has been amazing. Even during the NBA playoffs, with a sport that has long been dominated by men of color, the number of brothers getting endorsement deals and major commercial time has increased. I remember growing up when ads simply featured  MJ or Magic, and we were happy.  Now every popular black figure can be found filling commercial time slots.

Today I wanted to share my observations with you and take a walk down memory lane to celebrate the positive acknowledgment of the strength, power, and beauty of the black man. It’s great to see them get their chance to shine.

In the beginning, there was the Cream of Wheat Man, Rastus. I know we all shudder when we see the old ads depicting black men featured in a position of subordination, often talking with the pidgin more akin to African American Vernacular English (that’s the new name for Ebonics in case you missed the its political correction). The black man as the butler, attending to his superiors, who were generally depicted by a white person, even worse when it was a young girl or animal, followed this.

As time progressed and the black population garnered more social status, people started protesting the media portrayal. The new answer became the black man everyone liked to laugh with; the loveable sidekick. Recently this has been revisited with the Bacardi and Cola ads. It sent the message, that they were acceptable in moderation paired with a more dominant Caucasian counterpart if we could be funny.

After the rise of rap and the evolution of the black sports figure as a public figure, the hyper masculinity of black men became the standard. Fulfilling every belief about the Angry Black Male and reinforcing the idea that they should be feared. Depictions of black men as thugs or hardened became the norm. During this period, ads tended to highlight this phenomenon by using popular hip- hop artists as models. The more thugnificent, the better, extra points for hard time and/or bullet wounds. As the urban style, slang, and lifestyle took flight and became more popular, the hypersexual black male became the media darling. Similar to King Kong, they were depicted as a threat to their female counterpart or as oversexed, playboy lotharios. This undermined ideas that they could be faithful, trusted, loving partners.

Amongst all this came Will and MJ, representations our community welcomed with open arms. They were safe, adored, and accepted. Most importantly, they changed the game. While each faced their own media identity struggles, what they overcame was even greater. Will managed to get parts that were not written for blacks and own them. Thus began the movement of the racially ambiguous male model. Mike became a brand on his own and made the lucrative endorsement the norm for black athletes. Athletes were expected to use their personality and physicality to market products based on their athletic prowess. After them, the power balance shifted. We began to see black males making the decision to have some control over how they were depicted. It also became more desired to see them portrayed in a positive light.

With “post- racial” America or the Age of Obama, the black man has been elevated once again. Following our leader, the many traits that were previously countered or downplayed are idolized. Swagger is a commodity. Now, black men are depicted as the cool guy you want to be. He’s got the great job, the impeccable style, and the girl you wish you had.  Mass media has bought into it and it is spreading everywhere.

Gone are the days of the servant, bad boy, and the player and for that I thank black Jesus #seewhatIdidthere. I am happy to pick up a magazine or change a channel and see a depiction more akin to the people I know in my life and I look forward to seeing what is coming next.

Progress has been made.

Hennesey's new ad campaign gets it right.

I’d like to leave you with a few of my favs… just to bring it home of course ;).

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About Tya W.

Tya Winn: architect, urbanist, designer, cultural connoisseur, and the next great thing! View all posts by Tya W.

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