The Souls of Ivy Folk

Without taking black radicalism seriously, all Dear White People can be is an instruction manual for white liberals on how not to offend their black friends.

In the February 1926 issue of The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois, noted scholar and activist, the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, and a “black face in a white place” if there ever was one, published a short article titled “Opinion of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Questionnaire.” In it, Du Bois took volumes of analysis on black cultural representation and distilled them all into seven simple questions:

  1. When the artist, black or white, portrays Negro characters is he under any obligations or limitations as to the sort of character he will portray?

  2. Can any author be criticized for painting the worst or the best characters of a group?

  3. Can publishers be criticized for refusing to handle novels that portray Negros of education and accomplishment, on the grounds that these characters are no different from white folk and therefore not interesting?

  4. What are Negroes to do when they are continually painted at their worst and judged by the public as they are painted?

  5. Does the situation of the educated Negro in America with its pathos, humiliation, and tragedy call for artistic treatment at least as sincere and sympathetic as “Porgy” received?

  6. Is not the continual portrayal of the sordid, foolish, and criminal among Negroes convincing the world that this and this alone is really and essentially Negroid, and preventing white artists from knowing any other types and preventing black artists from daring to paint them?

  7. Is there not a real danger that young colored writers will be tempted to follow the popular trend in portraying Negro character[s] in the underworld rather than seeking to paint the truth about themselves and their own social class?

Du Bois knew what was up in 1926. His article lays out the relationship between racial representation and the market, something that artists in the contemporaneous Harlem Renaissance dealt with as their patrons encouraged images of blackness that would sell to white audiences. These issues have haunted every facet of black cultural production since.

In his article, Du Bois seems to call for serious depictions of the class that he famously referred to as “The Talented Tenth.” Du Bois himself made an effort, trying his hand at academic fiction with stories like “Of the Coming of John” in his landmark collection Souls of Black Folk, with the serial story “Tom Brown at Fisk,” and with novels like The Quest of the Silver Fleece, The Ordeal of Mansart, and Mansart Builds A School. But even if his exemplary work wasn’t successful in overturning the reductive interpretations black art still receives, he did express precisely what is at stake when black artists have dared to create nuanced portraits of black life that contest the derogatory images of blackness that white audiences seem to hunger for the most. On point as always, Du Bois succinctly articulated 88 years ago what it means to have a film like the new Dear White People be released in the same world where, as its protagonist Sam puts it, “Big Momma’s House 3 exists.” And it might seem a bit hyperbolic, but I’ll write it anyway: Dear White People is precisely the kind of creative work that Du Bois hoped for.

The film also runs up against the well-noted limitations of “The Talented Tenth” vanguard. Dear White People, the first film from 31-year-old director Justin Simien, is about a group of black students at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League institution. Leading this group is Samantha White, a college radio DJ whose show “Dear White People” has become a campus phenomenon. Sam begins each episode invoking her title as an address to her audience, launching into a series of rants about the behavior of the school’s white students toward students of color, including dating interracially to piss off their white parents (as the daughter of the college president in the film does), touching a black person’s hair, or speaking to black students in what they understand to be “hip-hop slang.”

Lifting the name of Sam’s fictional radio show for the film’s title is a clever move, as it allows its inevitable white objectors to be anticipated and dismissed within the film. The Internet is still being flooded with people saying things like, “I wonder what would happen if I made a film called Dear Black People,” a line that gets dismantled within the first five minutes. As Sam argues on her radio show, mass culture is already chock full of material that illustrates what white people think of black folks. In fact, the biggest Dear Black People of all time, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, gets parodied in a satirical film Sam makes for one of her classes, one of many winks signaling Dear White People’s understanding of its own place in a white supremacist lineage of film history.

The opening montage of Dear White People shows off the three most prestigious departments at Winchester: business, media, and history. It’s not an irrelevant detail. What Simien has mapped out with those three departments is the precise intersection where the struggle over black representation takes place, the same intersection where Spike Lee set up his incendiary masterpiece on minstrelsy, Bamboozled, and where black critics have tried to make sense of Tyler Perry’s runaway success. Dear White People argues that this intersection meets on the campuses of the Ivy League, where the future studio heads, writers and filmmakers are cultivated, where the next generation of leaders in Hollywood, Manhattan and Silicon Valley is formed, and where the cultural interpretations of their work will be analyzed by historians and imparted to generations of other students on their way to power.

Dear White People is a remarkable accomplishment that fulfills the vision of an art that reflects the “situation of the educated Negro in America” as Du Bois expressed in Crisis. It won over audiences at Sundance, has hit theaters with an enviable media buzz, garnered hundreds of reviews in its initial limited run in major cities, and continues to do well in its full theatrical run. It’s certainly a flawed film, with uneven pacing, jokes that occasionally stumble, and some questionable characterizations. There are just too many characters and too damn much going on. (One character expresses his love for Robert Altman films, and this picture just shows how hard it is to pull off that Altman ensemble thing.) But it’s also a film of thrilling ambition, and one that illuminates a history of black academic representations in literature and film.

Dear White People revolves around four main characters. Sam, the resident black radical and new leader of Armstrong/Parker House, the black student house on campus; Troy Fairbanks, the dashing upwardly mobile son of the Dean of Students who loses the house election to Sam; Coco Conners, a rival to Sam who is jealous of Sam’s popularity and striving to create her own media presence as an assimilated respectable Negro, but who is also hiding her modest background; and Lionel Higgens, the geeky black gay writer who feels he doesn’t fit in at Armstrong/Parker, or with the white kids, or anywhere else. There is also a colorful cast of secondary characters including Kurt, the son of the President of Winchester, who edits the campus satire paper and is a smug, vocal critic of Sam and what he sees as overly-sensitive black students; and Reggie, Sam’s militant compatriot and principal backer of her campaign to lead Armstrong/Parker.

This is a college film with a black female lead, and with that we are already in rare territory. Academic novels and films often feature the clichéd white man behaving badly, usually while having a mid-life crisis and taking up with that seductive young temptress in his Short Story Writing class. While there are a handful of narratives with black female professors or students as lead characters, they are only a handful.

Of course now we have Viola Davis as law professor Annalise Keating in Shonda Rhimes’s ABC hit How to Get Away With Murder. Professor Keating joins a small cadre of black female characters in academic fiction alongside the writer and professor Suzanne Alexander in Adrienne Kennedy’s somber play The Ohio State Murders, or the professor Nikki Chase in the Ivy League mystery novels by Pamela Thomas-Graham, or college student Meridian Hill in Alice Walker’s Meridian.
 The main conflict of the film is over the makeup of the historically black Armstrong/Parker House. The President has initiated a plan to integrate all of the campus residences, and the black students feel strongly that their black-only house is an important institution, a place of refuge in an environment where they face all kinds of microaggressions from white classmates. One group of white students, led by Kurt, insists that this historical arrangement is discriminatory. Kurt and his buddies try to have lunch at Armstrong/Parker’s dining hall only to get run out by Sam, who flips over his tray and forces them all to leave. Troy and his friends find her actions unnecessarily confrontational and embarrassing.  However, Sam’s militancy is undercut by her anxiety about her black radical bonafides. Her father is white, and she is in love with a white guy, a relationship she keeps secret from her classmates.

And so we see that Dear White People is also a film willing to deal with the complexities of black identity. This is what the people who criticize the title of the film without seeing it will never get. Black artists are more than capable of self-reflection, self-parody and self-criticism; in fact, this is as much the subject of the film as the accusations against white students. Even Spike Lee’s films, often accused of racism, never settle on the pious innocence of the black characters. The famous riot at the end of Do The Right Thing is instigated by the black kids who Sal let in for one last slice at his pizzeria that night. There’s a similar moment of black culpability that comes at the end of this film as well.

Dear White People's convoluted plot culminates in a racist hip-hop-themed party where white students show up in oversized clothes, afros, and blackface. The backstory that unfolds about the invitation to the party feels like a contrivance that doesn’t really work, and which has echoes of a similar plot from the college film Spinning Into Butter, where it turns out a black student is behind the incidents of racial intimidation happening on a majority-white campus. The closing credits of the film contextualize the party with a montage of real images from actual white college parties in recent years, ugly images of white students in blackface and stereotypical black clothing gleefully hamming it up for the cameras. That montage gives the film another powerful Dear Black People moment, clearly illustrating white America’s constant practice of telling black people how they feel about us.

Ultimately, this struck me as a film about access to power. That access is what the black students at Winchester came there for, it is what Sam as a budding black filmmaker is seeking, and what Troy is seeking with his calculating plot to cozy up to the president’s son and try to write for the campus satirical newspaper, which has direct lines to TV writing rooms and all the biggest publishing outfits. It would be easy to write off these students as a bunch of bourgie striving-ass Negros out for themselves--and the film does not shy away from that interpretation--but if we’re going to keep it real, we know that these institutions have incredible power and it takes compromise to get access to it. Institutions like Winchester are where the senators, judges, CEOs, and editors make their connections. Even the famous dropouts, like Gates or Zuckerberg, made it to them first. Dear White People pushes us to think about the cultural products that these elite spaces produce and how that relates to what we see on our screens.

One way to interpret Du Bois’s opinion in Crisis is that it is a statement about class representation, that his comments are representative of a particular kind of class grievance coming from educated middle and upper-middle class blacks who feel that they are underrepresented in popular media. The Cosby Show and its college-themed spinoff A Different World, set in the fictional Hillman College, are also important influences on Dear White People. (Co-writer Lena Waithe’s Twitter handle is @hillmangrad.) These shows were celebrated for their representations of college-educated blacks with successful careers, and were seen as providing a welcome counternarrative to stories where blacks were depicted as social problems, or criminals, or reduced to buffoonish caricatures. Certainly a part of what academic fiction accomplishes is to normalize images of black characters in educational settings as students and professors, and more than a few folks in my generation ended up at HBCUs because of A Different World.

However, this has sometimes devolved into intra-racial class warfare. Cosby himself has been engaged in that fight, especially with his infamous “Pound Cake Speech” that led to a series of “callout” meetings in black communities around the country to address social problems like teenage pregnancy, fatherlessness, drug use and sagging pants. As he put it, the black lower class was “not holding [up] their end of the deal.” A few days after I saw the film, social media was abuzz about a recent standup performance by comedian Hannibal Buress, who skewered Cosby by referring to the well-known accusations of sexual assault against him and telling him he might want to pipe down on the respectability lectures. We already know that Cosby had an adulterous affair and fathered a child outside of his marriage, and plenty of black commentators have called Cosby out on his hypocrisy. And just this week, in a spectacularly bizarre move, Cosby (or his social-media team) posted a picture on his Twitter account begging to be memed, and the Internet delivered on the invitation with a torrent of JPEGs tagged with commentary on rape culture, on the allegations against him, and further lambasting his hypocritical respectability politics. I have no idea what he or his people hoped to accomplish with the meme, but it has clearly backfired into a collective expression of long-held frustrations and resentments at Cosby's pompous lectures.

Dear White People isn’t exactly Cosby-friendly material. It does flout the politics of respectability a little by showing frank sexuality and drug use. In one scene Sam receives oral sex from her boyfriend, and throughout the film characters jump in and out of bed with each other. Lionel’s sexuality is presented with matter-of-fact frankness, and he carries on a flirtation with the editor of the campus newspaper. In other words, this is not exactly the film for those uptight church folks who rushed out to buy Cosby’s Come on People and made the teenagers in their Sunday School class read it.

But there’s still a privileged frivolity to the whole thing that left me uneasy. If we accept the Du Boisian idea of the educated Negro as a representative of the race, and if those who share his desires are meant to empathize with or be gratified to see Sam, she’s an unstable avatar of their dreams. Her black militancy is just a brand that she can shed at will. In fact, that's precisely what she does: The film concludes with her refusing to be "just another" black activist, and instead becoming an “anarchist” to stir up the kind of trouble that will bring the whole system crashing down. I'm sorry, but that was a cop-out, and it reduced black militancy to a mere triviality that one transcends on the way to maturity and enlightenment. Not to mention the hokey ending was slightly less than an anarchist coup.

As for the rest of the kids of Armstrong/Parker House, it feels like they are just play-acting at black radicalism with nothing really at stake. The film was missing a good “town and gown” moment, a staple of college films like Good Will Hunting, Breaking Away, and School Daze. These scenes serve to check the college students’ privileged pretensions, snapping them back to the reality of the world outside of the cloistered campus, a world where people struggle and where conflict and identity have real consequences.

The limits of that approach have their own consequences for the way the film is able to treat its characters who come from different class backgrounds, and Coco represents its missed opportunity to talk about class and color consciousness. It’s implied that the dark-skinned Coco came from Southside Chicago, and this puts her striving in perspective. Sam, the light-skinned, half-white rich black kid was the one who was the most militant, while Coco is doing whatever she can do to have a financially secure future. These dynamics don't get treated with as much attention as the black students' relations with white people. Not much is said about financial aid or affordability of the school at all. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s just a comedy, and I’m asking too much from a movie already overloaded with plot lines, but this is an important aspect of the black experience at majority white institutions, and giving us more of the complexity in Coco’s storyline could have unlocked this film's ability to skewer class and privilege, too, which it is sorely missing.

I admit I am a bit old-fashioned about all that responsibilities of the black intellectual stuff, and I’m as hard on myself about it as anyone else. I did grow up with that burden of representation hanging over my head and I eventually went to Morehouse College, where representing the race was drilled into us. Maybe those responsibilities really are irrelevant for assimilated black Ivy Leaguers. Maybe I should accept that this film is only meant to be a story about that particular class, and has just as much in common with character studies of the over-educated white upper class—like the movies of Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach—as it does with School Daze or Higher Learning.

But watching the hijinks in Dear White People made me think that maybe what is needed is a “Pound Cake Speech” for the black upper class, a clarion call for them to take all that power that they are clamoring for and use it for something greater and more important than telling their white classmates not to touch their hair. Because without that critique, all that a film like this can amount to is an instruction manual for white liberals on how not to offend their dear black friends. Maybe, as Du Bois put it, this film really is the black elite “painting the truth about themselves and their own social class.” And maybe, in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and Marissa Alexander, and Ferguson, I’m finding that truth unacceptable. Maybe these characters really are representative of the black elite who are presumably on their way toward access to the levers of media control, and really just want a piece of the action. Just forgive me if I don’t have any confidence that they’ll do anything meaningful with it.

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