Media & Black Adolescents Series: A Look at the Tragic Mulatto in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn

By Bryce Wyles

This blog post is the second in a Media & Black Adolescents Series by youth analyzing movies that reflect the experiences and identity development of Black adolescents. For more posts, please visit our blog. Special thanks to Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass for her support of this series and the youth in her classes. 

Highlights:

  • Undergraduate students taking a “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity” college course were asked to critique movies and television series, analyzing the media content and applying theory or research. 
  • This Media & Black Adolescents Series reflects on a spectrum of experiences for Black adolescents that are grounded in racial and media socialization reflected in the movies. These blogs address racial stereotypes as they relate to contemporary social issues and the identity development experiences of Black youth.
  • For this second of five posts in the series, the youth writer reviews “Crooklyn” a movie following the Carmichael family in a neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, and examines the tragic mulatto and reinforced internal racism.
Song straightens Troy’s hair (Lee, 1994, 1:13:11)

For parents or educators who may choose to use this movie as a teaching/learning tool, here are some possible discussion questions:

  • Why might “socially ascribed blackness” be more influential in socializing Black children than their own perception of race? Does that perception even take root before socialization begins?
  • Viola does not visit Brooklyn, though she wants to. How might her perception of “Crooklyn” differ or align with Troy’s view of Song’s home?

Crooklyn

Chasing her children out of bed at 4 AM, scolding them for failing to clean the kitchen as she had asked, Carolyn Carmichael exclaims, “This ain’t no plantation. I’m not a slave…and I certainly am not a play thing!” (Lee, 1994, 12:50). The Carmichael family—Carolyn, Woody, and their five children—is the heart of Spike Lee’s 1994 movie Crooklyn. Occurring in a neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, Crooklyn sees the Carmichaels, alongside their friends and relatives, navigating the quarrelsome, blurred difficulties of the personal and the political:

  • The personal: raising five children on a low income; feuding with neighbors, drug addicts, school bullies; interacting with aunts and uncles that either nurture or lay judgement. 
  • The political: piecing through the social connotations of welfare and food stamps; opposing and affirming the politics of gender and sex roles; witnessing casual racism in Brooklyn and suggesting institutional racism at large. 

In what may seem a lighthearted digression in Lee’s career, the iconic director uses the Carmichaels to dissect life in America—the ups, downs, lefts, and rights—for a struggling Black family.

Lee’s film walks both a comedic and serious line. Themes of racism and poverty are striking, yet you can’t help but burst out laughing when Aunt Song’s poor dead dog flies out of a foldout futon. That scene truthfully captures the entirety of the film: it’s dark, undoubtedly, at times, but somehow it keeps Lee’s satirical charm. Crooklyn’s characters—most of them, at least—are loveable, funny, and relatable. Recalling Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, it’s clear that his filmmaking is distinct, and iconic, in its blend of humor and commentary.

The Tragic Mulatto

One of Lee’s most telling portrayals in the film is that of Aunt Song, whom Troy, the Carmichaels’ daughter, goes to stay with at one point in the film. Song immediately juxtaposes the Carmichael family—her affluent lifestyle contrasts the Carmichaels’ small apartment and low income. Her first remark to Troy, though, suggests a juxtaposition beyond just affluence; seeing Troy’s hair, Song belittlingly asks, “All those little tiny braids and things, what y’all call that?” “Braids,” Carolyn responds, with a painted smile, aware of Song’s distaste for Troy’s hair (Lee, 1994, 1:07:44). 

Other scenes at Song’s household include an array of White dolls adorning Song’s adopted daughter’s dresser. We see Song take out Troy’s braided hair in favor of straightened locks, in one scene commenting, “Don’t tell me you got the nerve to be tender-headed with these naps” (Lee, 1994, 1:12:59). Whether knowingly or not, Song has delineated Whiteness as an ideal, through the dolls she buys her daughter Viola and her insistence that straightened, flowing hair garner praise over braids and beads. Song could be said to have already answered the question as to whether “she should accept her socially ascribed blackness or reject it in favor of a more privileged whiteness” (Jackson, 2006, p. 33). This dilemma is one Jackson (2006) ascribes to the Black character archetype of the tragic mulatto. Jackson (2006) identifies the tragic mulatto as a Black woman who enters an identity crisis as she grapples with her morals in association with her race, often light-skinned enough to pass as White (p. 33-4).

Read more from this critique by downloading this PDF.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.


Author Bio: Bryce Wyles is a second-year student at the University of Virginia majoring in English and Media Studies. He enjoys viewing and analyzing media ranging from Netflix shows to classic literature to press publications. Originally from Chesapeake, Virginia, he currently lives in Charlottesville, where he also writes for the student-run newspaper The Cavalier Daily.

Media & Black Adolescents Series: An Unjust Law is No Law At All

By Jamie Kang

This blog post is the first in a Media & Black Adolescents Series by youth analyzing movies that reflect the experiences and identity development of Black adolescents. For more posts, please visit our blog. Special thanks to Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass for her support of this series and the youth in her classes. 

Highlights:

  • Undergraduate students taking a “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity” college course were asked to critique movies and television series, analyzing the media content and applying theory or research. 
  • This Media & Black Adolescents Series reflects on a spectrum of experiences for Black adolescents that are grounded in racial and media socialization reflected in the movies. These blogs address racial stereotypes as they relate to contemporary social issues and the identity development experiences of Black youth.
  • For this first of five posts in the series, the youth writer reviews “The Great Debaters,” a true story centering around the debate team from Wiley, a historically Black college (HBCU) in Texas.
Source: Youtube, User Danille Desiree Mae
Video Reference: Video depicts the final debate of the film on the topic of civil disobedience which is referenced throughout the blog.

For parents or educators who may choose to use this movie as a teaching/learning tool, here are some possible discussion questions:

  • This film has a mainly Black cast, do you think that contributes to the less stereotyped depictions of the characters? 
  • Why do you think the filmmakers chose to make this film (set in 1930) in 2007? What aspects of the film are still relevant today?

The Great Debaters

For this blog, I watched the 2007 film “The Great Debaters”. The movie, based on a true story, centers around the debate team from Wiley, a Historically Black College (HBCU) in Texas. Led by their debate coach Melvin Tolson, the team begins to gain traction after they beat other Black colleges in the area and  go on to have an undefeated season. Their goal is to debate teams from white colleges, and they eventually advance enough to beat the reigning champions at Harvard, winning the national debate championships. In the movie, the team contains four students, but one member drops out part way through the season due to Mr. Tolson’s involvement and leadership in the rebellion of sharecroppers, which led to him being targeted by the police.

In this blog, I will mainly focus on two characters: the team alternate James Farmer and his father who is a professor at Wiley. At just 14, James is the youngest member of the team; mainly a researcher, not succeeding in actual debates until the end of the film. His father, Mr. Farmer becomes central to the story when he bails Mr. Tolson out of jail during his unjust arrest. Through their relationship, the film examines the racial socialization process. It also touches on important issues facing America during the 1930s, such as the deep racism in the Jim Crow South, lynchings, unionization of sharecroppers and workers. The movie centers around themes of civil disobedience, often spouting the famous quote “an unjust law is no law at all” which is still relevant today.

Civil Disobedience

I loved the film, especially as the questions surrounding the morality of civil disobedience as a weapon in the fight for justice feel very salient in today’s times. In the film, Mr. Tulson was risking his safety, career, and even his life to help the sharecroppers organize and fight for their rights. He received criticism that he was too radical and still involved himself in a fight that wasn’t his own. When faced with these judgements he responded “A hungry negro steals a chicken, he goes to jail. A rich businessman steals bonds and goes to congress. I think that’s wrong, now if that makes me a radical, a socialist, a communist then so be it” (Washington, 2007). In today’s world, we are still fighting some of the same injustices that existed in the 1930s. Jim Crow laws may have been abolished, but they never fully went away.

Racism and injustice are embedded in our housing and education systems, our policing, prisons, and more. Moreover, when people take a stand against these or other injustices they are sometimes labeled as radicals, socialist, and/or communists much like Mr. Tulson was in the film.

The film’s final debate on civil disobedience feels incredibly relevant in the wake of the nationwide protests in 2020 as part of the Black Lives Matter Movement. During the debate, one of the Harvard students tells a story about his dad, a police officer whose partner was killed in the line of duty. He comments “nothing that erodes the law can be moral, no matter what name we give it”. In his response, James explains “there is no rule of law in the Jim Crow South. An unjust law is no law at all. Which means I have a right, even a duty to resist. With violence or civil disobedience” (Washington, 2007). There is so much power and truth in his final arguments, especially in the context of today. I would echo his sentiment that it is our duty to take a stand against these injustices.

Civil disobedience and even violent protests are not any less moral than the way in which our system is currently structured.

According to Psychology professor A. Wade Boykin and writer F.D Toms, many Black people in America face a “Triple Quandary.” They explain that, “the Black experience in America is distinguished by the fact that qualities attributed to Blackness are in opposition to the qualities that are rewarded in society,” (Boykin & Toms, 1985). This is some of what James referenced in his argument. These examples help demonstrate how prevalent the themes of the film are in our contemporary society.

Read more from this critique by downloading this PDF.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Jamie Kang is a third year student at the University of Virginia from Arlington Virginia. She is studying Psychology and Youth and Social Innovation, but has varying interests including media and politics, and she enjoys working with children.

Series: Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes And Black Adolescent Identity

 
This is the first post in a series based on Professor Valerie Adams-Bass‘ UVA class, “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes And Black Adolescent Identity.”

Introduction by Valerie Adams-Bass, Ph.D.
TV talks. The characters we view on television shows and in movies speak to us through the written scripts and through the physical bodies of the characters. Media socialization—the exposure to mass communication (television, radio, internet, newspapers) messages, which teach people socially accepted behaviors that have: (a) a direct influence on cognitive ability and behavioral functioning, and (b) a mediating or facilitative indirect influence on learning (Adams & Stevenson, 2012), has been identified as a notable factor during adolescence. Arnett, 1995; Lloyd, 2002; Strasburger, Wilson & Jordan, 2014). Students in EDHS 3100, Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity, are learning about the scripts that are associated with black media images and discussing the impact on African-American adolescents. Their blog entries reflect an understanding of the scripts viewed in television sitcoms, drama, reality shows, or movies and the potential impact of exposure to theses media images on viewers.


The Parkers, “That’s What Friends Are For”
By Alysa Triplett, UVA student

The Parkers is a sitcom about an African-American mother-daughter duo in Los Angeles, California who both attend a local community college. In this particular episode, both mother (Nikki) and daughter (Kim) prepare for a final examination for a class taught by professor, and love interest of Nikki, Stanley Oglevee. Just a few days before the exam, Nikki’s high school friend, Flo, arrives in town for a charity walk and stays with the Parkers. Flo’s presence proves to be a hindrance to Nikki’s studies as she repeatedly convinces Nikki to go out instead of studying, even the night before the test. On this particular night, Flo leaves Nikki at a party, which eventually results in Nikki getting arrested and missing her morning exam. On Kim’s side of the story, she and her [musical] band (with friends Stevie and T) book a lot of gigs in the days leading up to the exam. This leaves them with little time to study and thus they resort to cheating. Continue reading