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.

For Youth, COVID-19 Changed Everything, but the National Response Movement Gave Me New Purpose

By Isabella, a 16-year old in Oregon.

Highlights:

  • My name is Isabella and I am a 16-year old junior who wants to share more about my COVID-19 experience.
  • During COVID-19, I joined the Mikva Challenge National Youth Response Movement (NYRM) and after 8 months I have some advice for others.
  • In this youth-led group, myself and others like me encouraged youth to share their experiences from the pandemic, did social media takeovers, developed policy recommendations, and organized a national roundtable discussion.

As a junior at one of the largest public high schools in Portland, Oregon, I have always cared a lot about my education, and have attended school everyday. From the age of four I have been dedicated to dance and have taken classes 3-6 days a week after school. Through dance, school, and other activities over the years, I have developed multiple different friend groups I’m equally close to and whom I rely on.

The pandemic changed everything. In less than 24 hours, every constant that I once had in my life had been taken from me, and from everyone I knew.

Life in the Pandemic & an Opportunity

For the first few weeks of the pandemic, I no longer had school, dance, or access to my friends in the way I had always known. It felt like someone just flipped a switch and nothing would ever be the same again; I felt panicked and anxious. To fill my days and distract myself, I took up running, I started reading more, and taking more time for myself. 

A couple weeks into the stay at home order, my Mock Trial teacher sent me an email telling me that he was choosing me to be one of his three nominees for the Mikva Challenge National Youth Response Movement. I was honored when I saw that email and knew I wanted to be a part of this, I wanted my voice to be heard. To my surprise, two days later I was notified of acceptance from Mikva Challenge, changing the way the rest of my year and summer would go. 

The Youth Response & Community

The National Youth Response Movement (NYRM), is a national group of 19 high school and college students from 14 states. Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we gathered virtually to share our experiences and concerns for youth during this pandemic. We created a series of projects and initiatives for the spring and summer:

  1. Our first project as NYRM was to encourage youth to share their experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. In creating this project, we wanted young people to share the issues that were most important and pressing to them during this pandemic, and then also create a call to action on how something could be done about it. This way, youth could be part of the national conversation about the next steps. 
  2. Our second project was focused on destigmatizing mental health and making virtual mental health resources more accessible to youth, since this is one of the major issues that we recognized was impacting young people during this pandemic. In order to do this, we held a social media takeover week on Mikva Challenge’s Instagram and my colleague Jennifer and I co-hosted an Instagram live to facilitate a conversation about mental health and self-care for youth. 
  3. Later in the summer, our team shifted focus to making schools more equitable, just, and student-centered. To accomplish this, we sent letters (which other youth can still do using the template provided in the previous link) to elected officials across the country about the importance of Social Emotional Learning in schools. We also held discussions on racial injustice and forms of activism with experts and other youth organizations, and created policy recommendations which we shared with stakeholders (like school board members, principals and teachers, and decision makers across the country). 
  4. As a culmination of our work, we planned and held a National Youth Policy Roundtable with 3 current and former members of Congress, 6 influencers, and a grand total of 91 youth participants from across the country who got to hear from and engage with these national decision makers about the quest to make schools more just, equitable, and student-centered places. 

We accomplished a lot this summer as NYRM, and have made our voices heard by many! 

One of the most amazing things about being a part of NYRM was the sense of family and community we accomplished through using Zoom. The tremendous amount of support and encouragement that everyone gave, along with the amount of fun we had, created a bond between us all. What made this NYRM family even better is that we’ve had each other through this time of uncertainty. We’ve had each other’s support, shoulders to cry on, and we are each other’s support system. This is what made NYRM so special.

Now more than ever, this sense of community and family is important for youth, whether it’s at home, with family, school, friends, or anywhere else.

Even if there was not a global pandemic, a support system is extremely important to have in one’s life, one’s mental health, and wellbeing. The really special thing about our NYRM family is that we share common goals and similar values. Working with such driven people inspired me. They empowered me, built me up, and they continue to do this for me today. 

Living during this pandemic has changed my life, and not necessarily in a negative way. There are many challenges that I am still experiencing, especially as we go back into the school year. If it weren’t for this pandemic, NYRM wouldn’t exist so I would have never had the opportunity to be a part of it. I have another family now, I know other people who share the same values I do and who will have my back no matter what. This has sparked a passion for activism in me that I have never felt before. The experience with NYRM has inspired my colleague Shanthi and I to start a local steering committee within our school called the “Youth Advocacy Coalition.” We will work with our principal and school administrators to implement more avenues for youth voices within our school community and district. 

Advice for Others

One lesson and word of advice I would like to share with schools, administrators, teachers, and parents/guardians regarding the development of youth during this time, is to take the time to really listen. Listen to young people, listen to your students, listen to your children, because the best way you can make change or help them is to pause and hear what they are saying.

To listen isn’t only the act of listening, but also the responsibility for action, like asking questions or advocating on the behalf of youth. Listen to what youth have to say, and then find out the actions you can take to help make said change.

I believe people underestimate youth. We are paying attention to what is going on, we are keeping ourselves informed around what is going on in the world, and we care about how this pandemic is going to impact our lives in the future and possibly forever. Right now, finding solutions to racial injustice and the importance of the upcoming election are more important than ever. Right now, action from the people, local and federal state leaders, and community members is necessary. Young people are the leaders of today and of the future, and our voices matter.


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: Isabella is a junior in High School in Portland, OR. She has had a passion for youth advocacy since elementary school. During the spring and summer of 2020, she was 1 of 19 student steering committee members of Mikva Challenge’s National Youth Response Movement team. They began as a response to COVID-19 addressing issues important to young people and raising awareness of these to local and federal decision makers. She is passionate about photography as an outlet for creativity and storytelling, and she loves spending time with her two dogs!

Voting: Video Blog from a Charlottesville Freedom School Scholar

Highlights:

  • In the summer of 2020, the Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES) launched the first Charlottesville Freedom School.
  • Third to fifth graders from the greater Charlottesville area participated in a virtual summer school that on focused on topics of voting, oral histories, and civic engagement.
  • In this video blog, one student scholar shared more about what she thinks adults should vote for, why it is important, and what young people can do.

CRPES launched Charlottesville’s first Freedom School in the summer of 2020! Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Freedom School was virtual and had 70 students from the Charlottesville area participating. This year’s Freedom School focused on topics of voting, oral histories, and civic engagement.

Safalani was one of the outstanding 4th grade students. She created a poem or essay about what she wanted adults to vote for on her behalf. It was so fantastic, the National Freedom School staff chose it to be presented during the Children’s Defense Fund’s National Day of Social Action Pep Rally. The Charlottesville Freedom School was honored to have her as a scholar and can’t wait to see the incredible future she has ahead of her!


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.