Much of modern African-American art is concerned with dispelling stereotypes and stigma surrounding black communities. Two well known examples are Baratunde Thurston’s book How to Be Black and Jordan Peele’s movie Get Out. Thurston and Peele discuss and attempt to dispel stereotypes about black people and lift DuBois’s veil on the black community including the dysfunctional family, the discussion of racial politics between whites and blacks, and how black people are considered to have brawn over brain. Both writers seek to accomplish three goals: to lift DuBois’s veil on the condition of black people in America, to dispel these harmful stereotypes, and to entertain their viewers.
Thurston lost his father at a young age, but the stereotype that this would impede his development is challenged by Thurston. The lack of a father in his childhood did not seem to have any harmful effect on his upbringing as his mother was still perfectly capable of raising Baratunde on her own, and was even very involved in his development. She fed him very healthy food like rice cakes; Grape-Nuts cereal and skim milk (Thurston 37) which all came from a local co-op. She encouraged him to be physically active by enrolling him in an all-black Boy Scout troop and taking him camping, hiking, and biking. She also encouraged him to be be active in his community by enrolling him in a local orchestra program. While the stereotype that many black children grow up without a complete family is not necessarily challenged by Thurston, he does challenge the belief that this somehow robs him of a fulfilling childhood. His father was unfortunately killed in a drug deal, which can add fuel to fears that black people are violent, murdering, drug dealers. However, Thurston feels it necessary to write about the circumstances around his father’s death because it is crucial to not ignore the underlying politics that lead to such violence. Thurston spends so much of his book describing his post-father childhood so that he can demonstrate that a complete family is not entirely necessary in order to have a fulfilling childhood.
Similarly to Thurston, Chris from Get Out lacks both of his parental figures growing up. Chris’s father was not around much and his mother died when he was very young, but despite that Chris appears to have lead a mostly normal life. Chris lives in a very nice apartment, has a successful job as a photographer, and is dating a girl who comes from a very affluent family. Peele similarly shows his audience that while it is not uncommon for black people in America to lack a traditional nuclear family, that alone does not negatively impede their upbringing. The Armitage’s do use his childhood tragedies to subdue him, as the memory of his mother’s death is what initially sends him to the sunken place. This shows how privileged people can not only get ahead with their own privilege, but abuse others for their lack of it. Simultaneously creating systems on injustice, and punishing others for falling victim to them.
The two writers diverge slightly in how they see racial politics as it is discussed among white people and black people. Thurston sees it as a serious, but mostly unharmful, nuisance, and also as white people inserting themselves into something they know little about. White people discussing racial politics among black people in the workplace is so prevalent that Thurston describes it as a second job, for black coworkers. Black coworkers, as Thurston writes, are expected to be a representative for the black community and explain what and why many black people do, say, or think certain things, as though the black community is one hive mind or as though there is a National Black Agenda. Additionally, white coworkers bring up politics around black people in order to insert themselves; they simply want to share their ideas with them because they either seek validation or wish to argue. Overall, political discussions about race are, according to Thurston, incredibly exhausting but mostly harmless.
Peele, however, sees discussions about racial politics even more nefariously. Get Out primarily focuses on the theme of white liberalism and how it can be used to harm black people. When Chris is concerned that Rose’s parents may be racist she explains that her father is a big supporter of President Obama and therefore cannot be, and Mr. Armitage reaffirms this later in the film. Additionally, Rose stands up to a seemingly racist police officer for Chris, and later on Mr. Armitage praises Jesse Owens for defeating the Nazis in the Olympics. The other guests also embarrass themselves by overly praising black people, like how one mentions that being black is now in fashion as opposed to fairer skin. This is all seen as ironic once their true nature is known. Why would the Armitages and other buyers enslave black people despite their constant reassurances that they are not racist? This seeming paradox can be interpreted in two ways: either Peele is saying that even white liberals are not immune from being racist, or alternatively, people can pretend to have tolerant political views in order to disguise their actual beliefs. This is left ambiguous purposefully because racism in real life is very ambiguous itself. Racism is not necessarily unique to any one political philosophy, as even people who are well-intentioned can harbour problematic views. It is possible that the Armitages and the other buyers truly do not think they are racist and exclusively buy black people just because they think they are cool, and it is also possible that they are all massive racists who are just pretending they do not hate black people. In real life, it is also very difficult to distinguish between tolerant liberals who mean well and true racists who simply hide their racism. Peele encourages the viewer to question all the characters’ motives, comments, and actions because racism in the real world can be subverted or disguised, and he encourages the audience to question people’s true intentions more intensely.
One of the more harmful stereotypes about black Americans is that they are more brawn than brain. This contrast is drawn much more explicit with Chris and the guests. Chris’s personal space is constantly violated by them as they like to touch and prod him. For example, one lady feels his arms and uncomfortably asks Rose, So, is it true? Is it better? (Get Out). Another guest brags to Chris about playing golf with Tiger Woods and asks to see Chris’s form in order to examine his athletic ability. Most importantly, at the climax of the film Chris defeats the Armitage’s by outsmarting them, not by outmuscling them. After being tied up in the basement, Chris comes up with the idea to shove cotton stuffing from inside the chair’s arms into his ears to prevent himself from being incapacitated. By doing this, he is able to trick Jeremy into thinking he is unconscious. He does not dramatically rip his arms out of the chair with his bare strength; it is much more satisfying to see him outsmart his opponents. When Chris attempts to escape through the front door he is ambushed by Jeremy and put into a chokehold. He tries to open the door twice, only to have it kicked shut each time by Jeremy. After realizing this, Chris purposely opens the door a third time knowing that when he does Jeremy will extend his leg and leave it in reach to be stabbed by Chris. Chris does not overpower Jeremy because he is stronger or faster, but because he outwitted him. Rose originally outsmarts Chris by tricking him into thinking they were in a relationship, but Chris outsmarts Rose at the finale of the film. The grandfather attempts to outmuscle Chris by wrestling him to the ground, but Chris uses his phone’s flash to bring back Walter from the sunken place, saving himself. Finally, Rod acts as the deus ex machina by conducting his own personal investigation into Chris’s whereabouts. Peele purposefully has his black characters outsmart the antagonists in order to dispel the harmful stereotype that black people are not clever and can only brute-force their way through problems.
Thurston also dispels the stereotype that black people are only brawn over brain, though much more implicitly. Unlike Peele, he does not directly compare his athletic abilities to his academic ones. Thurston attends two extremely prestigious schools, Sidwell Friends and Harvard, and also had the option to attend Yale, Northeastern, and MIT. Most people never have the opportunity to attend any of those schools, dispelling the stereotype that black people are doomed to be academically underachieving. Thurston has it explained to him at Sidwell that an Oreo is somebody who’s black on the outside and white on the inside (Thurston 54), referring to a thin nerdy black kid. To this student, being nerdy and unathletic literally makes a black person white as though it is impossible to be both black and smart, but Thurston meets many intelligent black students at Sidwell and Harvard that challenge that belief. Also, Thurston’s roommate at Harvard covers his furniture in a large Afrocentric flag and Thurston regularly wears African clothing, showing how a black person does not have to let go of their blackness in order to be smart.
Both How to Be Black and Get Out are effective at dispelling black stereotypes and lifting the veil on being black in America, but use different strategies to do so. How to Be Black is a detailed memoir about the many experiences Thurston has being black, and because of this he can go more in depth into the many different thoughts and feelings he had about those experiences. Thurston can give his own nuanced takes on race and offer advice based on what he has done and seen. Get Out, on the other hand, is shorter in length, and so has very little time to give nuanced perspectives. We also cannot listen to Chris’s thoughts like we can Thurston’s, and so all the audience has is their own thoughts and feelings. This, along with actually seeing these interactions acted out, allows viewers to project themselves onto either Chris or the guests, and possibly reflect on times when they were in a similar situation. Thurston has much more time to discuss many stereotypes in his book, whereas a movie can only thoroughly tackle several. Also, being a memoir, Thurston can discuss being black in many different settings and across many years. Get Out, alternatively, only tells one short narrative across a few days, with only a few flashbacks to Chris’s childhood. Chris is also a much more relatable character than Thurston. Thurston went to Sidwell Friends and Harvard, is an extremely well-accomplished writer and journalist, and is very affluent, making him very unrelatable, even to a black audience. Peele, in Get Out, chose to make his main character a relatively average person with an average life.
When discussing the common experiences of black people in America, it is more effective to make the main character somebody who has those common experiences. Finally, both entertain their audiences through comedy. Thurston uses sarcasm and dry humor, whereas Peele uses awkward situations and a comedic relief character for humor. Both employ humor because it allows for a far less uncomfortable discussion on race. Both pieces attempt to educate their viewers on common experiences among black people in America, and both succeed using wildly different techniques.
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