Thursday, February 25, 2016

Blind, Deaf & Paralyzed: 16 TV characters that hint at what makes black people less scary to whites

Dem fightin' words: Paco D. Taylor


It was in the late 1990s that a disturbing pattern seen in a character type played disproportionately by African-American actors on TV stood out to me with nauseating clarity. While flipping through the channels one fateful eve, I realized that black actors – limited already to the small number of roles made available in Hollywood – not only often appeared as the token black person on a few different shows being syndicated then, but also as a token black person saddled with a physical handicap.

Some-friggin'-how, from ABC to UPN, on a science-fiction adventure show, on sitcoms and on prime time dramas, the recurring motif of a black character with a disability had come into a sick-n-twisted sort of vogue. But no one else in the country – not even the sharp media critics that crunch the numbers on minority representation in the media – had managed to catch it.

But then, being black in America had long been something of handicap. Historically, it had proven to be more of a handicap in this country than the legitimate handicaps.

Decades before the age of access ramps and automated doors, blackness in this country was the kind of disabling thing that required the use of 'special' entryways into innumerable establishments across the country: the side service entrance or the back door. And that's if one was even allowed entry at all.

Even more, it was a determining factor in which neighborhoods families could live in, which schools children could go to and which jobs working adults could hope to hold. In the South, it even dictated which cemetery – or which section of the cemetery your dearly departed could be buried in.

All this because, from the time of this country's founding right up to even the present, a great number of whites have viewed blacks as invalid2 forms of Americans. Hell, invalid forms of human beings. So, who better to play the role of an invalid1 (wasn't that clever?) on a TV show.


invalid 1 |ˈinvəlid|
noun
a person made weak or incapacitated by an illness or disability.

invalid 2 |inˈvalid|
adjective
not ​true or ​acceptable


Admittedly, though it's certain that the pattern illustrated here was formed through that ol' subliminal™ brand of racism mentioned recently by actor Dustin Hoffman (the brand responsible for African-American actors being overlooked in Oscar nominations two years in a row), either name brand or generic bias seems to have factored in to something that began forming in the mid-1990s. A pattern that often relegated black fictional characters on TV to an all new form of subservience: the limited ability of a blind person or, much more frequently, the diminished stature of a person in a wheelchair.

But, to borrow a classic line from the brother on the Reading Rainbow television show, you don't just have to take my word for it. [Bah-dun-dunh]



1. Geordi LaForge, Star Trek: The Next Generation (UPN) 
1987 - 1994

This pattern begins, innocently maybe, with Geordi LaForge, a character played by LeVar Burton (Reading Rainbow) on all seven seasons of the science fiction adventure series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Geordi was a man born with impaired vision who famously wore a space age visor over his pupilless eyes that gave him artificial sight. Without his Star Trek Shades™, though, he was as blind as President Bush watchin' CNN during Katrina.


2. Julian Wilkes, VIPER (NBC) 
1994

In 1994, NBC's Viper featured the character Julian Wilkes (Dorian Harewood), a brilliant inventor who designed the TV show's namesake automobile, "a high-tech pursuit vehicle built to fight crime in the world of the near future." Wilkes was paralyzed during a shootout between cops and robbers. This was back in the 1990s, though, when the cops only shot at those who were armed and dangerous. Well, unless maybe you were of the genetic heritage of an Amadou Diallo. But now, in 2016, such happenings are a thing of the past. (Sarcasm, yes.)


 3. Carl Lumby, M.A.N.T.I.S. (ABC)
1994 - 1995

On the FOX television show M.A.N.T.I.S., Dr. Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly) was a brilliant scientist and founder of Hawkins Technologies. Dr. Hawkins had the misfortune of being shot by a crooked cop (who was probably racist, too, like a lot of 'em) and left paralyzed from the waist down. Hawkins invented a bulky exoskeleton that gave him the ability to walk again – or his alter ego M.A.N.T.I.S., who fought crime from a hidden headquarters based beneath Hawkins' coastal home near Port Columbia, CA.

When he wasn't fighting crime as M.A.N.T.I.S., Hawkins sat around in his wheelchair looking sharp, and sad.


 4. Marissa Clark, Early Edition (CBS)
1996 - 2000

On the CBS show Early Edition, Marissa Clark (Shanesia Davis) was the blind former co-worker and sometimes sidekick of Gary, the lead character on the show played by Kyle Chandler. Marissa, who bore the red-tipped cane and seeing-eye dog hallmarks of the blind, often played conscience to Gary, because – as we know – white folks have no conscience. If they did, Marrisa would have been written to have fucking eyes that worked, like all the other characters on Early Edition. (I know. I should've written for The Chapelle Show!)


5. Augustus Hill, OZ (HBO)
1997 - 2003 

On the HBO drama OZ, Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau) was in no way a token Negro, reason being that OZ was a show set in prison. As annual incarceration statistics show, the only thing America loves to see black folks in more than a wheelchair is prison. Nevertheless, it seemed that Hill needed to be both in prison and a wheelchair, 'cause too many able-bodied black men make white folks nervous. Well, unless they're down on a basketball court or a football field. Then their fears completely dissipate. Briefly.


6. Jake Malinak, Becker (CBS)
1998 - 2004

On the CBS sitcom Becker, Jake Malinak (Alex Desert) was a blind dude who ran a newspaper & candy concession stand inside in a busy Bronx diner. He served as the reluctant confidant and regular foil of Dr. Becker (Ted Danson), a cranky physician who frequented the joint to share his privileged-white-doctor views on how crappy everything is in the world. And this is ironic, considering reports that show that the blind black guy lives in a world where simply watching the kinds of shit on TV (like Becker) not only kills his self-esteem, but has countless other destructive effects.


7. Reese Benton, ER (NBC)
1998 - 2009

In season 5 of NBC's primetime drama ER, emergency room surgeon Peter Benton (Eric LaSalle) learned that his young son Reese (Matthew Watkins) is hearing impaired. Contrary to how it looks, this wasn't a diabolical plot twist. Watkins' impairment was real, and actually helped add depth to Dr. Benton's character, in terms of the relationship that he had with Reese. No, the diabolical plot twist came when the writers of ER put Dr. Benton in a relationship with a blonde co-worker. It nearly caused America congenital heart failure.  


8. Stevie Kenarban, Malcolm in the Middle (FOX)
2000 - 2006

On the FOX sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, Stevie Kenarben (Craig Lamar Traylor) was an intellectually gifted black kid beset with bad eyesight, a horrendous case of asthma, and the curiously inescapable wheelchair. And oh, what absolute fun the 'wascasly' writers on Malcolm in the Middle must have had coming up with a character like Stevie, who confirmed the existence of those who can derive much amusement from the sight a black kid gasping desperately to keep adequate amounts of oxygen in his lungs. 



9. Claudia, Bob Patterson (NBC)
2001

On the short-lived NBC sitcom Bob Patterson, Claudia (Chandra Wilson) was a "klutzy" secretary who, like so many others here, was wheelchair bound for some uncertain but undoubtably perverse reason. Claudia worked for Bob Patterson (Jason Alexander), America's so-called "No. 3 self-help guru." But there was just no amount of help (or pity) a sista in a wheelchair could bring to this show. It was gone faster than Jason Alexander could say, "I haven't had steady work since Seinfeld." Wilson, however, thanks to the television goddess Shonda Rhimes, found a much better job working (and walking) on ABC's Grey's Anatomy.


10. Eli Cartwright Goggins III, Ed (NBC)
2002 - 2004

On season three of Ed, Eli Cartwright Coggins III (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell) was hired on as a new face at the Stuckeybowl bowling alley. Nothing really negative to say here, though. In 2001, Mitchell suffered a spinal cord injury that actually requires him to use a wheelchair today. Still, Ed watchers were shocked to learn that Mitchell's being in a chair wasn't part of some 'Eli' act. If they'd had a subscription to Ebony magazine or Jet at the time of his accident, though, they would've known. Just saying. Also, if Mitchell hadn't had the accident, some casting director would probably have asked him to play the part as a paraplegic because, as this list clearly indicates, that's just how they are.


11. Jimmy Brooks, Degrassi: The Next Generation
2004 - 2007

Case in point. Jimmy Brooks (Aubrey Drake Graham) from Degrassi: The Next Generation. For the first four seasons of the show's run he was skipping and playing in the halls just like the fifty or so Caucasian kids in the cast. But the show needed some edgy drama, and where did those cliché-minded fucks turn? Yeah, to the black (okay, half-black) kid who's pulling all the honeys with his basketball skills, bedroom eyes, and pimp-daddy-mack "The Thinker" pose. Jimmy gets shot in the back on some wannabe Columbine crap and spends the next three seasons in a wheelchair. But thank gawd for Drizzy's present music career, 'cuz now he's prolly richer than err'body who worked on Degrassi put together. "Started from the wheelchair now we're here!" Bitchez.


12. Todd, Committed (NBC)
2005

RonReaco Lee is sitting pretty here, but he was sitting in a wheelchair like so many other brothas and sistas during his tenure on NBC's short-lived Committed. Like the CBS sitcom Becker, Committed actually had two African-American actors in the cast, the other being Darius McCrary (Family Matters). But you already know the deal. Just as on Becker, one of the two black characters had to be disabled. I mean, what world do you think we live in where all the black folks get to look as healthy as the white folks? Health is a privilege reserved exclusively for them. If you don't believe me, just ask a Republican.

Yup, fuck all those ACA / Obamacare haters and fuck that Uncle Tom-ass Ben Carson. Fuck Clarence Thomas, fuck Stacey Dash, fuck everybody at FOX News, fuck... Oh, wait – wrong blog post. 

Anywhoo, one remarkable segment from an episode of Committed actually recalled those bygone-n-beloved days when blacks couldn't go into various establishments in America. But it's thinly veiled in the whole handicap angle. Todd and his white friend Nate make a trip to a local record store, but upon their arrival, Todd realizes that he can't go in. "Oh, I see you don't have wheelchair access," he limply admonishes the store’s owner from outside. 

Nate, however, not at all being the type to turn aside his privilege, walks right inside. "No worries. No worries. I'll just wait out here," fumes Todd. Then the skies turn gray and a delude pours down. From outside the door that he cannot enter, Todd pitifully asks if anyone inside would be kind enough to yell out the names of some of the records on the racks. Oh, the spook who sat by the door, indeed.


13. Chill Trainor, Brothers (FOX)
2009

In a nation where unemployment for blacks is twice that of the national rate, I can't front on my man Daryl Mitchell continuously finding work...even if it seems to be connected to a twisted-ass fetish. On the 2009 FOX sitcom Brothers, Mitchell shared the screen with former NFL player Michael Strahan (who I met as he was promoting the show at the San Diego Comicon that year, really nice guy), CCH Pounder and Carl Weathers. Mitchell earned himself a prestigious NAACP Image Award for his work on this show that...I never actually watched.


14. Carter Poole, Blue Bloods (CBS)
2011 - Present

Despite his being able bodied when first introduced into the prime time cop show Blue Bloods, Mayor Carter Poole (David Ramsey) was hit by several assassin's bullets meant for police commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) in the TV drama's Season 2 finale. The injuries left him paralyzed from the waist down, proving yet again that too many guys in the Writer's Guild have either a fucked up fetish or an inferiority complex that can only be satisfied by the image of a black man in a wheelchair.

Or perhaps it's something far more Freudian, a manifestation of a subconscious need to see black men neutered, so to speak, by harming their bodies in such a way that they no longer function properly below the belt–eunuchs by way of disability. And there is a historical precedent.

During the time of slavery, black men and even young boys who were forced to work in the households of slave holders were typically castrated to make them eunuchs due to the "dangerously" close proximity to white women such labors would place them in. [.....]

Mayor Poole, as it happens, is also married to a white woman on Blue Bloods, historically  recognized to be the most primal motive for white men wantin' to neuter them a Negro. But that too is an over-redundant TV trope: black male characters in interracial relationships. As with the all too present wheelchair, this to renders them subordinate to the deeply biased perspectives of whiteness (see: numbers 1-16 of this list). 

And folks wonder why I stopped watching TV.


15. Robert Ironside, Ironside (NBC)
2013 

Speaking of things that I never actually watched: NBC's Ironside was such a lame idea that the show was cancelled after the airing of only three episodes. It served NBC right for putting a pimp-ass sex symbol like Blair Underwood in a wheelchair. Those producers could have brought a detective show like Shaft to the small screen using a smooth, cerebral brother like Underwood, but no. Ironside reeaally seemed like the way to go. Simps.


16. Garret, Superstore (NBC)
2015

You really have to give it to NBC. Since 1994's Viper, this network has established itself as the undisputed home of N.W.W. (yup, N****z With Wheelchairs). The most current incarnation is the character of Garret, played by Colton Dunn on the sitcom Superstore. With three other minorities in the cast, it stands to reason – using an insidious kind of logic – that the black character would get the wheelchair. But health is a thing of privilege, and all three white cast members of Superstore can walk.


In a better America, this blog post might have been written to make a warm-n-fuzzy statement on the representation of people with disabilities on TV. But, as only one of these fine actors actually uses a wheelchair, and the doling out of roles depicting people with disabilities seems rather fucking disproportionate, a different message has been made fairly clear: whites seem to have a hidden penchant for liking black folks most when they can't see, can't walk or – like brothas who sell loose cigarettes on the street and the asthmatic kid on Malcolm in the Middle – can't breathe.

(We now return you to your regularly scheduled program)

Author's note: Absolutely no animals were, but some people's feelings were probably Super Butt Hurt™ in the making of this satirical bit of cultural criticism. Sorrynotsorry.

7 comments:

  1. X tremely insighful, funny as hell!! Laughed to keep from crying.

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    1. When your profane satirical essay makes your own mother laugh, you know ya dun good.

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  2. Just FYI: People in wheelchairs can still have sex lives. Obviously, your focus was the gimmicky placement of differently able Black folks, but IRL those folks have sex lives. They could have included that in Ironside, which would have added depth to a shallow trope. Daryl Mitchell could have found (more) work as a consultant.

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    1. You've made some great points, Stacey. I never bothered to even try watching Ironside; Ironically, I wrote this and I haven't really watched TV much since the late 1990s! But it's difficult to imagine Blair's version of Ironside being just as 'neutered' as the 1960s-70s original...

      No, no. It's not.

      When I wrote this post, Daryl Mitchell had *just* been added as a permanent cast member to one of CBS's NCIS shows. I thought about including it in the list, but it seemed like overkill. My point had already been driven home (with a sledgehammer). And I'm genuinely glad he gets work.

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