Nothing like being surrounded by amazing artists to wrap up a great night, right?  That was me a few days ago, listening to great music, talking to some friends, and having a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, for you snobs out there) when I noticed a woman sitting down next to me; she was tan, boy-cut hair, stylish glasses, louder than anyone in the band, and a smart-ass grin on her face–clearly, my type of woman.  She was preparing to take a shot of tequila with a beer back while I was preparing a clever comment, probably something about how I love a woman who starts out her night with Patron, I can’t remember now.  We ended up engaging in conversation the rest of the night though, and before I knew it, we were outside and she was staring me in the face with those drunken eyes, like buoys bobbing aimlessly in the sea, starting out a sentence with the infamous “don’t be offended, but”…I live for that sentence.

“What is it about you? There’s something really weird, I mean, you aren’t like normal black guys. You smile so much and your face is so ‘expressionate’, what’s the deal with that?”  Several thoughts ran through my head at that moment: should I have just taken the drunken rambling of this former heroin addict for exactly what it was–the drunken rambling of a former heroin addict?  Or should I have taken it personally and meditated on it the next day?  Well…obviously, the latter response is more in line with my character–I am so “expressionate”, after all.  But seriously, it made me ponder one of the more irritating stereotypes of black males that seems to have gained prominence in the last 25 years or so.

It is clear if you look at any Rollingstone magazine with a rapper on the cover–black males are not supposed to smile.  In fact, we are supposed to be stone-faced, silent, statuesque, even frowning, long before we smile.  There’s even a term for it; ‘mean-mug’.  I’m serious, that’s an actual term, as ridiculous as it sounds! So because of this false standard, there’s something ‘off’ about a black male smiling at a stranger and showing more emotions that just anger, something more involved than intimidation.  This is what we’ve come to, My Fellow Members of Society; rejoice at our progress!

Joking aside, it’s alarming to me that this trait of feigned aggression or complete lack of emotion is encouraged and even celebrated by mainstream media.  It’s not just in African American culture, I realize that, but that is certainly where it is most evident.  As a black man, I can’t help but be offended when not only does the media force this stereotype on me, but I’m actually questioned for not conforming to it on a night out.

How did this stereotype even develop?  I suppose it came from a combination of things: oppression and fear finally being met with an equal amount of aggression and bitterness, a non-verbal “I’ve been screwed with for a long time, so you need to realize that you can never mess with me again” response from some members of a minority group.  I’m sure part of it has to do with what’s become of hip hop culture, how so-called gangsta rap came into play and changed the complexion of things–it was dangerous, the rappers had all seen friends die on the street for letting their guards down, and had done what they had to for money.  The same cold, hard veneer they put up on the streets was now being translated to videos and magazine covers.  That was the new ‘cool’; baggy pants, a sideways hat, and a pissed off frown making it clear that the artist was not to be disrespected.

I can understand the synthesis of it.  What I hate though, is that it is still perpetuated.  A rapper who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars will still put on his angriest face when photographed.  I’m willing to wager that he and all his family are doing quite well now, and there’s really nothing left of the ‘hood in his life except memories and the occasional phone call–and even if he does feel some need to stay close to those roots, he has the means to help improve conditions there.  Mos Def smiles all the time.  Black Thought of the group The Roots smiles, Questlove from the same group smiles–but these aren’t the figures in hip hop that we see on the magazine covers.  Expression is a huge part of traditional African American culture.  Take a look at the Harlem Renaissance for one very small example.  We laugh, cry, mourn, celebrate, well would you look at that?  I think of Data from the Startrek series–”I am fully capable of simulating human emotion.”  Imagine that; now let’s put that imagine in the media for everyone to see!

I don’t buy into the need to put up a front for the world.  I’m happy.  I have my health.  I’m not rich, but I can take care of myself and my friends when they need it.  Have I seen tragedies?  Sadly, yes.  Suffered at all?  As sure as I sit here.  But in general, things are good.  I’m breathing.  I can turn to a total stranger and smile and strike up and awkward conversation that leads to me writing a blog about it.  I really do hope that the next stranger I meet and talk with, laugh with, stand in front of with an open posture, will respond in kind, not with a look of consternation.  I feel like the Dodo during its species’ last stand on this planet, like some rare, antiquated thing that people look at and think “Jesus, how did that survive?”  Hey, Crazy Girl from the bar–there are plenty of black guys who smile and laugh and do all sorts of things other than frown.  Quit buying every stereotype you’re sold.

Any thoughts?