The Power of Perception: Ten African American Icons
I detest the phrase “A credit to his race”. The unspoken assumption is that if one can be a credit to their race, others can be viewed as a detriment. Beyond these labels are factors, both real and imagined, which coalesce in our mind to create a lasting image or public persona. Whether self induced, created by the media, or fictional character, these 10 icons cast a shadow that perpetuates a distinct view of African American culture in society. I refuse to be defined by these images; nor do I wish to stand as a representative or role model for my race, my people, my group, my type or my kind. I simply wish to be….an individual.
- El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (aka Malcolm X) – While Martin Luther King Jr. preached integration and passive resistance, Malcolm X was initially a separatist who taught self-determination and demanding one’s rights, “by any means necessary”. Although he underwent a spiritual conversion a few years prior to his untimely assassination, and came to accept the brotherhood of all men, he is most often portrayed as a violent Black radical (America’s worst nightmare).
- Ron O’Neal (aka Superfly) – In 1972, Ron’s character Youngblood Priest ushered in the Blaxploitation movie era. The genre glamorized drug dealing, pimping and homicide as a way to achieve fame and fortune in the urban ghettos of Black America. Superfly may have not been the first Blaxploitation movie, but it was a defining moment in the history of Black cinema.
- Jimmie Walker (aka J.J. Evans) – Norman Lear changed the television sitcom landscape by bringing a host of taboo subjects, including racial humor, into our living rooms. The edgy humor touched on real concerns, but was overdone for entertainment value. Sadly, Norman and his team of writers possessed only a superficial understanding of life in the Black community at best. Yet many outside of the Black community allowed Norman’s fictional characters and dialogue to form the basis of what Black life was all about.
- Sherman Hemsley (aka George Jefferson) – George Jefferson was a fully grown financially successful version of J.J. (enough said).
- N.W.A. (aka Niggas With Attitude) – N.W.A. may not have invented Gangsta rap, but they were the standard bearers who put it on the map. Dr. Dre’s infectious beats combined with the emerging medium of music videos to depict a gun toting, drug dealing, and misogynistic way of life as something for inner city youths to aspire to. An honorable mention goes to MTV for its support in helping to propagate the dress and style associated with Gangsta rap across the US.
- Tupac Shakur – Shakur was a talented young man, who rose to fame from a troubled childhood, only to be murdered due to becoming enamored with the idea of being a bad ass. A mugging in NYC led to a public feud when Tupac accused east coast rappers of setting him up to be shot and robbed. The rift grew as rappers and entertainers from both coasts were drawn into the verbal conflict, which received heavy media coverage. The unfortunate outcome was Tupac’s untimely death at the age of 25, the result of a drive by shooting.
- Reverend Al Sharpton – Rev. Sharptoni is a people’s advocate and civil rights/social activist. He can always be counted on to gather a crowd and draw media attention. He has garnered national attention and shown a public spotlight on many issues. On a few occasions, his impulsiveness has led to embarrassing situations, where allegedly aggrieved parties have been found to be less than truthful.
- Jonathan Drayton Jr. (Flavor Flav) – Flav first came to prominence as the clown prince of rap in the socially conscious rap group Public Enemy. He found a new audience, as a cadre of young females, ½ his age, vied for his affection in the reality TV series Flavor of Love.
- Tiffany Pollard (aka New York) – VH1 was so successful with Flavor of Love, they decided to give one of the more intriguing characters from the series her own TV show (enough said).
- Charles Barkley – Charles Barkley has created a whole new level of sports announcing entertainment. He is, at times, rude, abrasive and antagonistic towards his fellow broadcasters as he questions their perspective and asserts his own brand of logic. The team has won an Emmy award which, in some way, validates Charles’ behavior.