What was Alessandra Stanley, the longtime television critic of The New York Times, thinking that caused her in that now-infamous article to mis-label Shonda Rhimes, the television hit maker, as the paragon of the “Angry Black Woman” and traffick in the most misguided attitudes about Black artists, Black women and Black people in general?
That was the initial question that immediately blazed across the Twitterverse and blogosphere when the article appeared, igniting another set of intense discussions about gender, race and racism in American society.
The response from Rhimes, from Viola Davis, the star of the new network series, “How to Get Away With Murder” – which Rhimes is executive producer of but did not write, as Stanley contended – and a large cast of White as well as Black bloggers, arts critics and media-watchers (including the Times’ Public Editor) was extraordinarily important in dissecting Stanley’s stunning errors of fact and perception.
Stanley declared in response to the criticism that her purpose in the article was to praise Rhimes. And, in fact, one can readily see in the article that’s what Stanley thinks she is doing – even as she was judging Rhimes and the television characters she has written and what defines “beauty” for Black women and other women of color in the most stereotypical terms.
In fact, Stanley’s piece is a classic example of one reason for America’s “racial divide,” which, as I wrote in a column some weeks ago, is the creation of the White American majority: a lack of imagination. In effect, Stanley in the article creates a “fictional” Shonda Rhimes and the world she inhabits because Stanley can’t imagine that the real Shonda Rhimes (and Black people in general) is a complex human being. Words Ralph Ellison, the great novelist, wrote in his 1960s book of essay, Shadow and Act, apply here: “Why is it that so many of those who would tell us the meaning of Negro life never bother to learn how varied it really is?”
Of course, Stanley is far from unique in her inability to see the complexity of Black Americans. I noticed another dramatic – and far more potentially lethal – example this month that also deserves the question I posed in my opening sentence.
That is to say, what was Sean Groubert, a White American and now an ex-South Carolina state trooper, thinking earlier this month that caused him while on patrol to follow Levar Jones, a Black man lawfully driving an SUV, into a convenience store parking lot, order Jones out of the vehicle, demand that he produce his driver’s license, and then, when Jones, who was unarmed, leaned into the SUV to retrieve his license, suddenly shout, “Get out of the car!” draw his pistol and fire four shots at him? Groubert had claimed that Jones was not wearing his seat belt. Jones says he was wearing his seat belt.
Fortunately for Jones, he was “only” struck in the hip. The State Police have fired Groubert, and he’s been arrested and charged with an assault and battery charge that carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. So, to ask again: What was Sean Groubert thinking when he saw Levar Jones driving his SUV? Who did he imagine Levar Jones, a Black man, was that made Groubert want to confront him and take an imagined opportunity to shoot him?
A great part of the public discourse of the last two months has been focused – again – on considering what some significant number of White police officers think when they look at Black people, especially Black males, that results in those civilians facing situations that can quickly escalate from insult and humiliation to arrest to serious injury and even death. That’s a pattern Sean Groubert’s shooting of Levar Jones easily fits.
But Alessandra Stanley’s unintentional (?) dismissal of the complex humanity of accomplished, self-confident Black women has an enormous value because it reminds us that racism consists of two kinds of imagination: a twisted imagination and a lack of imagination
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.