What does Daniel Boone and Animal House, Michael Crichton and Marjorie Taylor Green have in common? The scary black man trope. As always, context is everything.
In an episode of the silver-age television series, Daniel Boone, Daniel’s friend Cincinnatus journeys to sell furs for a group of trappers. However, Cincinnatus becomes intimidated by a group of men intently watching him collect his money. In desperation, Cincinnatus buys a slave.
"But see it's positive inclusion..." said no one ever
Correction, he buys a human, who happens to be black and large and physically imposing. It’s 1960s’ TV so there is a “feel good” resolution that I don’t remember and really doesn’t matter because it was all horseshit. The point is, this was one of the earliest use of the “scary black man” (SBM) trope in television.
Like shrewish wives and incompetent husbands, the SBM trope spread like a gasoline fire—but across genre and medium.
In 1978, Robert B. Parker published his fifth Spenser novel, The Judas Goat. When Spenser gets in over his head with terrorists, he calls his hood-friend, Hawk, for backup. All good, so far.
Hawk is taller than 6’1” Spenser. He is extremely fit and extremely deadly. He is also a black man. Spenser punctuates that he is scary by describing Hawk, waiting for Spensere at the Heathrow Airport. Spenser states that if anyone thought a man wearing a pink jumpsuit was a sissy, they didn’t say it. Because Hawk is big and scary and black. Just in case, you know, you missed the point. Parker would use the same trope for the rest of his writing career.
That same year, John Landis’ first big-budget film, Animal House, debuted. Among drunk-rape jokes and statutory-rape jokes there is a tender moment when Tim Mathison’s “Otter” dupes several sorority girls into joining him and his friends for a date. Then, when they stop to see a favorite band, at a “black” nightclub, they abandon the girls. See, several black men ask to dance with the white girls. The race-rape “joke” is inferred.
But, but, but we’ve grown so much since…
In 1992, Philip Kaufman’s Rising Sun adapted Michael Crichton’s novel to the big screen. Wesley Snipes plays Webster “Web” Smith, against type. Instead of the lone-wolf, meathead cop, Web is a thinking detective. Sean Connery is, well, Sean Connery—different rant, different time. Mostly, Rising Sun is a smart movie for its time and considering the race-baiting source material.
In the second act Web and “John” are fleeing (suggested) Yakuza gangsters. They roll through South Central Los Angeles, (where Web has “ties”) and his ties stop the Yakuza gangsters cold. Oh, did I mention that the “ties” were stereotypical SBMs?
But, but, but black directors…
In Ryan Coogler’s 2018 film, Black Panther, we get a beautiful glimpse of what might’ve been if not for the horrors of colonialism in Africa. We see a prosperous, advanced civilization in the fictional Wakanda, led by a strong, principled T’challa. But even in this original, innovative take on societies of color, we see racist medling. In a council meeting, the main white character, Everette Ross, interrupts M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari Tribe. M’Baku threatens to feed Ross to his children. Quickly qualifying that he is joking—M’Baku et al are vegetarians.
It is clearly Coogler’s subversion of white stereotypes of Africans as cannibals, (a trope that even Heinlein once used in one of his science-fiction stories). But the set up, (that smacks of “notes” from the film company) is still SBM trope.
By the time of his follow up, Black Panther, Wakanda Forever, Coogler had more control born of directing an Academy Award winning blockbuster. M’Baku is back. So is Ross. The racist subtext is gone.
Social-Justice Warrrior-ing aside, what’s the point?
Sixteen-year-old Ralph Yarl is a prodigy. Academically accomplished with an acceptance letter to Texas A&M University’s chemical engineering program. He is also a responsible young man. So, on April 13th, when Ralph’s mom told him to pick up his younger brother from a birthday party, he went. Unfortunately, he went to the wrong address, half-a-block from the party.
Wrong address, wrong house, no harm, no foul, no hurt feelings, right? Sadly, no. Andrew Daniel Lester, the homeowner, shot Ralph Yarl—through the door. And then shot him again for good measure. When arrested, Lester purportedly told officials he feared Ralph Yarl’s “size.”
Ralph Yarl is 5’8” and 140 pounds. Andrew Daniel Lester is 5’11” and 175 pounds.
On May 17, 2023, U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene alleged that fellow representative Jamaal Bowman threatened her. She claimed that Rep. Bowman has a history of aggression toward her and behaved in an aggressive manner toward her. This is the same Rep. Greene, who insisted she would carry her firearm in the Capitol Building. The same Greene who banged on Representatives Omar and Occasio-Cortez’ office doors in blatant efforts at confrontation.
What is so intimidating, so threatening about Rep. Bowman? Is it that he is a former middle school principal? A former teacher? Is that so frightening to a woman who chased an 18-year-old student down the street (to confront him over his views that he should not be shot in high school)?
What could possibly be so intimidating about Jamaal Bowman? Oh. That’s right. Jamaal Bowman is a black man. And, as Bowman said, Rep. Greene, by inferring that he is aggressive—means big, scary, and black—paints a target on Rep. Bowman’s back.
Back in April, Ralph Yarl ran to three houses, crying and begging for help after suffering gunshot wounds to the head and arm. No one would open their door. When police finally arrived, they found Ralph laying in a pool of his own blood, in the street.
Those two examples—I could fill pages with myriad other examples—represent what the “scary black man” trope does to all men of color. So, it’s time to end it.