Ethnic Notions.
Tongues Untied
Mainstreams and margins

by Chuck Kleinhans

from Jump Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 108-111
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1991, 2006, 2016

Preface, 2016

I published this piece 25 years ago. I met Marlon Riggs (1957-1994) at the premiere of Tongues Untied at the 1989 Video Festival, American Film Institute, Los Angeles.

It was a brand new work. Today it is a classic. The article later appeared in an online version of Jump Cut without the frame grabs. They are restored and expanded here.

Marlon Riggs' two major videos, Ethnic Notions and Tongues Untied, stand at two very different points of contemporary documentary activity. Ethnic Notions is an Emmy-winning tape using a classic PBS expository format. In sharp contrast, Tongues Untied weaves poetry, performance, confession, and history in a complex pattern for a personal editorial statement. The one is thoroughly conventional, the other thoroughly innovative. Both of them also represent major statements by a black intellectual who works primarily in the medium of video, rather than the traditional media of spoken and written words. At a time when print culture seems in slow but definite decline, Riggs stands among the most talented African American intellectuals choosing new forms of expression to raise critical questions for black politics and for a broader U.S. political culture.

Tongues Untied (1989, 55 min.) describes the situation, politics and culture of black gay men using an intense mixture of styles ranging from social documentary to experimental montage, from personal narrative to lyric poetry. Through daring juxtapositions, it functions as a critique of white racism as well as African American and white homophobia while sounding a call for black gay men to unite. One of the most powerful and effective political videotapes made in recent years, Tongues Untied is formally complex, politically passionate, and unhesitatingly self-revealing. It treats issues revealing the interconnection of race and gender politics with sophistication and in so doing persuades its viewers that these matters are significant and urgent.

Given my own situation as a straight white man, I can consider the tape's obvious importance to black gay men only in terms of the critical discussion the tape has generated. That dialogue makes it clear that Tongues Untied is not merely a report on gay males in the African American community, but a major intellectual intervention that is helping create the terms in which black gay men are collectively thinking and imagining their identity. While originally intended for a primary audience of black gay men, in release the tape has been shown successfully to diverse audiences. It thus becomes an important point of political discourse within the black community in general, in the gay community, and in the straight white culture. How the tape achieves that position can be best understood with a close analysis.

It is tempting to write about Riggs' work by projecting a simple development from the conventional Ethnic Notions to the experimental Tongues Untied. However I'm wary of so doing. Each represents a different strategy for different primary audiences and different issues. And subsequently Riggs produced two additional short experimental pieces —Anthem and Affirmations — while also working on a sequel to Ethnic Notions, tentatively titled Color Adjustment: Blacks in Prime Time, which covers more recent depictions. Clearly he is accomplished as a media maker in both mainstream and marginal discourses.

Ethnic Notions: the logic of mainstreaming

"There is nothing wrong with tap dancing. There is nothing wrong with using your voice, your body, as a musical instrument. It is the laughter, and the music, and the dancing at the exclusion of dramatic images, of realistic images, that is at fault. And it's this exclusion which we hope to dissolve." — choreographer Leni Sloan, concluding Ethnic Notions.

Marlon Riggs' earlier tape, Ethnic Notions (1986) is an hour-long educational documentary on the history of popular culture's demeaning stereotypes and caricatures of African Americans from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. It uses what might be called an almost pure public broadcasting format, reflecting in part its initial production in conjunction with KQED, the San Francisco PBS station. Since its first broadcast the tape has circulated very successfully in the education market. Many teachers have found it exceptionally useful in demonstrating and explaining mass culture racism to white students.

Historian Laurence Levine, author of a major book on African American folk culture, provides expert summary analysis. African American literature professor Barbara Christian discusses the historical evolution of racial stereotypes.

A good part of this effectiveness stems from Ethnic Notions’ use of "mainstream" presentational style. Among independent media producers, "mainstreaming" means accepting the dominant forms and values of conventional media. For those coming from oppressed and marginalized groups — racial and ethnic minorities, women gays and lesbians, the working class and poor, political radicals, youth — mainstreaming means speaking not from one's original position, but constructing a discourse within the already established system of power in order to speak effectively within a larger circle. Fundamentally it serves the goal of assimilation for both maker and group. For the outsider group, mainstreaming implies showing how one is like the dominant culture by mimicking its forms and calling on a politics of liberal pluralism. For the media maker, mainstreaming promises acceptance, larger and diverse audiences, a chance to break into the dominant system, better chances in the grant game, bigger budgets, more prestige, etc.

Ethnic Notions uses an illustrated presentation of an analysis by authority figures. For the most part a balance of white and black, male and female talking heads identified by name and university and shot in a black limbo present the evolution of various stereotypes: the sambo, the mammy, the coon, the pickaninny, the Uncle Tom. An unseen, female, voice over narrator bridges the interviewed experts, and additional voices sing songs and read from various written texts such as storybooks. Key points are introduced with striking examples, elaborated by the academics and illustrated with still and moving images. The essayistic movement from point to point is clear, the authorities don't contradict each other and can sometimes be cut together in smoothly flowing exposition, bridged by cutaways to film clips, still and animated cartoon images, or documentary photos. The main point is undeniable: the United States has a long history of using demeaning caricatures of African Americans in its popular culture and these stereotypes embody and perpetuate racism.

The film explains the established pattern throughout the 19C of white men playing in blackface on the minstrel stage: a massively popular musical entertainment from before the Civil War (though mostly in the North) through Reconstruction and after, into the 20C.

Voice over narrator (Esther  Rolle—her voice familiar to may at the time from her starring role on the black TV sitcom Good Times) says: “When blacks finally began to play themselves, they faced a tragic dilemma.”

Leni Sloan, Choreographer (in frame) says:
“By the time blacks came to the minstrel stage, they had to perform in blackface. And so you had black men darkening their already dark skin with soot and widening their mouths and portraying themselves.  Reuben Crowler was a black man from the Midwest who by the time he came to the minstrel stage had to take an Irish name because most minstrels were Irishmen performing black characters.  What you have here is a weird warping of the American fabric: when a black man takes an Irish name and then impersonates the impersonator, impersonating himself.”

High production values and clear presentation make Ethnic Notions easy to follow. As a result, the tape has been extensively used in black studies, popular culture, and communications courses in high schools and colleges. Teachers find its examples memorable and thought provoking for students. Many white students today are not familiar with the material and find the historical review informative. Many black students can recall seeing similar examples or derivative stereotyping in their own experience. Discussion following the screening is usually lively and raises many pertinent points.

Toward the tape's end several sequences are introduced with bold intertitles that recapitulate the preceding exposition of racial slurs: black is ugly; blacks are savage; blacks are happy servants. This emphasis is just the sort of thing that in a classroom situation would start the students note taking. But in addition to its excellent organization, there are some other reasons why teachers find the tape so useful. First of all, it flatters liberal and moderate sensibilities by having both white and black experts delivering a lecture on racial stereotypes with many examples that very few white students would fail to find appalling, or, minimally, socially unpleasant to tolerate — at least in classroom discussion. Ash trays shaped like human heads that hold cigarettes in grotesquely exaggerated lips, supposedly comic postcards showing alligators threatening pickaninny children, and animated cartoons of happy coons devouring watermelon slices present images which are easily marked as offensive. As with much liberal media work, the tape makes the media the main culprit: if we could just get beyond negative images and kitsch caricatures in popular culture, it seems to say, we could achieve racial harmony and equality.

Unmistakable irony marks certain passages, as when a song about happy slaves on the plantation is illustrated with a photo of extensive scars from whippings on a slave's back. In this way it has a strategy that is rather typical of PBS historical documentary: something unpleasant from the past is shown, the present day audience can be appropriately distressed at how bad it was, and then at the end we can all feel good that it isn't like that anymore.

Because it centers so much attention on kitsch objects and entertainments such as minstrel shows and vaudeville, the tape also invites a rather easy scorn from middle class and middle class aspirant students. So obvious, so overcoded, virtually vomiting stereotypes, kitsch as the low end of popular culture consumed by aesthetically uneducated people, is always open to dismissal from a higher class position.[1][open notes in new window] The more subtle racism of middlebrow entertainment considered progressive in its own time, such as Show Boat or Porgy and Bess, and artifacts such as "tourist art" African masks sold to decorate "buppie" apartments or highbrow art such as modernist appropriations of "primitive" art goes unspoken. And because the tape displays past kitsch whose racial caricature seems even more noticeable because dated, the objects are easy to dismiss without seeing the connection to contemporary examples.

The tape is undeniably effective, and especially so in classes concerned with racism in the media and commonplace racial stereotyping. Yet by its specific focus, it doesn't deal with many related issues which could be addressed. The nature of caricature and stereotyping in mass culture is not considered in depth. Doesn't mass culture always simplify and stereotype? Isn't Arnold Schwarzenegger's star image a caricature? Or Dolly Parton's? Or Spike Lee's Mars Blackmon? Should we therefore be "against" caricature and stereotyping of all kinds in art? What about high art? Isn't it also racist in its presentations? Would the history of U.S. literature or painting reveal a distinctly different ideology than the popular culture examples do? (The tape does discuss Paul Robeson's film portrayal of the Eugene O'Neill play Emperor Jones, and notes its continuation of the savage stereotype.) These questions, and others that could be raised in extension of ideas touched on briefly in the tape, do not invalidate it. In fact, in a teaching situation they would be welcome additions to a discussion and would lead to a more complex analysis by the audience.

Anti-Reconstruction propaganda used cartoonish stereotypes. After Emancipation racist propaganda was based on the previously established stereotypes.
The narration is built on a montage between racist imagining and realistic documentation of terrorism such as public lynchings. After the Civil War popular culture created and sustained a mythological Ante-Bellum past of contented slaves, kindly masters.

Part of the problem here is that by having such a rich array of historically based materials, the tape presents most of this as a problem of the past rather than of the present. Actually the voices bring us up to the present, but visuals to cover recent material (for which it would be difficult and much more expensive to gain copyright permission) are rather spare: two tracking shots across various publications and posters at the end are supposed to suggest the continuity to today. Many might give an easy assent to Morris Day, Mr. T, Eddie Murphy, or Redd Foxx (as Sanford).[2] But would we so readily agree that Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Prince, Run DMC, and Grace Jones (to mention some of the figures shown) continue these stereotypes without significant change? And among works not shown how would we evaluate satire such as Spike Lee's chock-full-of-stereotypes School Daze? Or the TV show In Living Color? Does comic caricature differ somehow or significantly from simply demeaning propagandistic caricature? If so, how, and how can and do oppressed groups use humor within the context of such caricature?[3]

Riggs addresses some of these issues briefly in Tongues Untied, referencing homophobia in Eddie Murphy's standup comedy and Spike Lee's School Daze. In a more recent article, he argues that current media representations of black gay men by black film/video makers, performers, and Rap musicians present repackaged versions of the Coon (now the Snap Queens seen on In Living Color) or the Brute (as in the AIDS-infected homosexual Convict-Rapist in Reginald and Warrington Hudlin's House Party).[4] The result, he concludes, is to validate an "Afrocentric" Black Macho myth by creating a "Negro Faggot" Other within the black community's consciousness. In the process actual black gay men are denied their existence, their masculinity, and their blackness.

Comic stereotypes used happy coons and “pickaninny” black children menaced by alligators. 

Extreme exaggeration of  already distorted types was used for comic household items such as ashtrays.

A further related problem of the PBS style is that Ethnic Notions offers a restricted discussion of how past change took place. It marks large changes such as the ante bellum period's portrayal of happy plantation slaves changing to the Reconstruction image of savages, and it explains changing power relations as a cause. While it shows clips from The Birth of a Nation, it doesn't mention that the NAACP spent an immense amount of its early organization efforts in criticizing and organizing against the film. In fact, the NAACP was criticized at times by other African American and anti-racist organizations and individuals for putting so much energy into media pressure group work to the neglect of other forms of political organizing. The question of priorities must always be addressed in media organizing. To use an image from Ethnic Notions’ parade of stereotypes: How important, given scarce resources, is it to try to change Aunt Jemima's picture on the pancake mix? What change occurs if she turns out slimmer and lighter skinned?

The tape explains that the Civil Rights movement drastically changed the public and popular image of black Americans and that this ended the period of extreme caricature. The tape doesn't mention that this was also the period when the black professional athlete became a major part of U.S. sports entertainment. Surely having many mass culture images of physically strong and skilled African American men also shaped public consciousness. Ethnic Notions doesn't indicate effective strategies and tactics for today in addressing mass culture racism. Two experts indicate that there is little change in the 70s and 80s: mammy figures appear in TV shows, black comedians continue the minstrel and buffoon tradition, and black men in action films are shown as more violent than white men. But this is stated, not illustrated. And the question of how black audience members understand and use mass media images is not explored.[5]

In using the PBS style, there is a limit to how many major ideas you can effectively present. It is fundamentally a linear style which uses orthodox exposition to make its points: dramatic opening examples, summary of the main points to be introduced, sequential progression though each section with a recapitulation of topic points at the start of each section and a summary conclusion at the end of each section, and a final summation. The primary structuring line comes from the verbal soundtrack: it is an illustrated script. This style and organization is very familiar to the audience. Its foundation is the expository essay taught in high school and college; it remains the dominant way educational and social-political documentaries are organized. It also produces a viewing experience which students find easy to take notes on, since their notes reproduce the general outline of the argument. And it is fairly easy to remember, thus gratifying the teacher who judges the pedagogical merits of the piece by student's ability to remember and repeat the tape's major ideas. But there is a limit to the number of major ideas a mediamaker can present this way: perhaps one every ten minutes or so, or about the same that a good college lecturer would offer.

There is another level of analysis in Ethnic Notions, one that is more complex and subtle, though it remains subordinate and fully emerges only in a few places. This argument is about cultural contradiction. It is stated most succinctly early on in the tape when racist caricatures are explained as stemming from the paradox of a nation founded on granting freedom to all while maintaining slavery as an institution. The tape argues that popular culture images, through accumulation, shape "gut level feelings" or beliefs, or "the perception of reality," or "part of our psyche."[6] Doubtless this is the most important first thing to say about such images. But it begs the questions of power and pleasure which shape the production, circulation, and reception of such images. On two occasions critic Barbara Christian mentions that African Americans come to believe in stereotypes of themselves, which become part of their psyche. But the point is not pursued or illustrated. And because all the authorities speak in the third person about the reception and effects of racist caricature, it seems that "other people" absorb cultural racism while the authorities (and we viewers as attentive members of the audience) are inoculated against its influence.