As a child, when watching an Our Gang (The Little Rascals) 1933 episode entitled “The Kid from Borneo,” I lacked knowledge about racial tropes relating to black people. In my ignorance, I laughed as John Lester Johnson, a black actor, portrayed an over-the-top depiction of a “wild man” who enjoyed candy.
My older sister and I mimicked what we saw by chasing one another around and repeating, “Yum, yum! Eat ‘em up, eat ‘em up,” just as Johnson’s character, Bumbo—a man mistaken for “Uncle George,” was heard saying. Despite maintaining black ancestry, I had a lot of fun with that bit.
Noteworthy, Uncle George was described in the episode as the “black sheep of the family,” and this description led children to conclude that Bumbo was related to them. Surprisingly, one black child who was part of the gang stated of Bumbo, “He looks like a gorilla ape to me.”
Blacks participating in stereotypical racist portrayals of themselves date back to minstrel shows of old, such as the Brooker and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels. Apparently, some people are unaware of black participation in these minstrel shows.
Of this, I’m reminded of when in 2006 I visited military friends in North Carolina (NC)—one, a black man—and they told me how much they enjoyed eating at Bojangles, a fried chicken fast food restaurant. I couldn’t make this up!
In such disbelief about how the namesake of black minstrel Bill Robinson, nicknamed “Bojangles,” was apparently used for a friend chicken eatery—presumably associated with a black stereotype—I had my friends take a photo of me in front of the restaurant so that I could prove its existence to people back in Texas.
At the time, I couldn’t comprehend how it was possible that others didn’t know—or perhaps care—about a stereotype KRS-One addressed in “My Philosophy” when he stated:
Some MCs be talking and talking
Trying to show how black people are walking
But I don’t walk this way to portray
Or reinforce stereotypes of today
Like all my brothers eat chicken and watermelon
Talk broken English and drug-selling
See, I’m telling and teaching pure facts
The way some act in rap is kind of wack
And it lacks creativity and intelligence
But they don’t care, ‘cause their company’s selling it
Back then, I lacked understanding about the concept of common knowledge in game theory—believing others know what we know, also referred to as the curse of knowledge. Now, I understand how minstrel caricatures—even those depicted by black people—may be largely misunderstood.
Was I a racist when mimicking Bumbo’s “eat ‘em up” line as a child? I simply enjoyed something I thought was humorous at the time. Were my NC friends racist for liking a friend chicken establishment named Bojangles?
By today’s standard, should my friends or I be judged harshly for what we didn’t then know? Does retrospective intolerance allow ignorance (lack of knowledge) as a justifiable reason for participation in racial tropes?
Was Johnson perpetuating racist imagery while portraying Bumbo? One presumes he voluntarily played the role and was compensated for it. Given the current societal climate, must Johnson receive retrospective retribution?
Was Robinson contributing to racism by shuckin’ and jivin’ as Bojangles? One imagines he, too, was compensated for his participation in a historic role. Considering modern times, ought Robinson’s involvement to be stricken from memory?
Who is allowed to determine what should, must, or ought to have been done at a historical point when contrasted with existing norms of today? How might we today treat others who currently perform overgeneralized caricatures of groups that were once marginalized and oppressed?
In 1995, DJ Quik released an album entitled Safe + Sound, featuring a track called “Can I Eat It?” and which contained Bumbo’s sample, “Yum, yum! Eat ‘em up, eat ‘em up.” Though the song references nonparticipation in vaginal oral sex, the anthem’s use of content regarding a historical trope raises questions.
Setting aside abstention from cunnilingus, one wonders about males who simulate the presentation of being female. For instance, is it socially acceptable to dress in drag when women have at some point in history been subject to mistreatment?
If caricaturized performances of black people manifested in the form of minstrel shows, and given today’s sociocultural climate such shows are considered morally reprehensible, how is it acceptable for men to depict farcical representations of women?
In a 2000 essay referencing this matter, one writer plainly stated, “Drag performers—gay or straight—plagiarize the appearance and behavior of women, just as minstrels plagiarized the appearance and behavior (or some facsimile) of African-Americans.” To some, this critique warrants consideration by those advocating one form of imitation though not the other.
At this point, you may wonder, “Where is this going? What do Bumbo or DJ Quik’s rebuke of eating out women have to do with anything?” I invite the reader to keep an open mind as I sort through thoughts in this poorly written blogpost.
When I was in the military, the term “ate up” described “a service member overly concerned with following regulations to the letter, without looking at the context of the situation.” I met many Marines who were ate up with standard operating procedures.
As was the case with my ignorance associated with Our Gang, and my NC friends’ lack of knowledge related to Bojangles, I wonder about how many people who condone dressing in drag are so ate up with advocacy that they perhaps lack the ability to distance themselves from bias long enough to think critically about this matter.
Personally, I don’t care who dresses in whatever manner they do. I’m not here to tell a man what he should, must, or ought to wear. Likewise, I have no interest in telling a woman what she shouldn’t, mustn’t, or oughtn’t to wear.
Likewise, I’m not making a statement about the culturally explosive topic related to drag queen story hour—whereby minors are said to be exposed to males personifying the likeness of females, purportedly with an emphasis on sexualized activities. This post isn’t about that.
Instead, I use the skills developed through my approach to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) to dispute beliefs held about drag shows—herein, as they relate to adult performers for adult audiences. More specifically, I wonder about how it is a person may perceive minstrel shows as bad though drag shows as good.
Reader, are you able to sit with discomfort long enough to tolerate these questions? Perhaps you’re someone with low frustration tolerance and you simply refuse to challenge preciously maintained beliefs.
Per one source, “Working specifically through excess and repetition, drag deconstructs and reconstructs gender identities, challenging and reifying the materiality of the phallus as a distinguishing marker just as minstrelsy subverts and affirms the logic of essential race differences and other attempts to link physicality to identity.”
The author of the aforementioned resource essentially goes on to argue in favor of drag, as it apparently serves as a form of flattery whereas minstrelsy functions as mockery. In this way, meaning derived from art is in the subjective eye of the beholder.
Supportive of this argument, a separate source manifestly states:
Drag is not blackface. It is not based on depicting women as comically subhuman for the delight of the nation’s majority population. It is not a vestige of a century of vigorous punching down by the powerful against the powerless. If anything, it’s the opposite – an expression of individuality and freedom from a population that has itself been historically powerless.
As I’ve expressed herein, I don’t have a performer in this show. It matters little to me what consenting adults choose to do with their lives, as long as no laws are broken—and even at that, one suspects there are too many legislative policies in existence as is.
Nonetheless, I can appreciate that some people aren’t so ate up with this issue that they are able to freely discuss their positive, negative, or neutral positions. This is how I approach the practice of REBT.
When presented with a moralizing argument (e.g., Drag shows shouldn’t exist), that’s a dish I don’t want to eat. I have no control and little influence over the lives of others.
In fact, and as my stepmom used to say about the Bible, “I didn’t write the book and it’s a good thing I didn’t.” If I were in charge of society, undoubtedly there would be some who would suffer. Decisively, I don’t want to cause needless suffering.
Therefore, without rigidly demanding that others must do as I command, I merely assess moral arguments, determine whether or not I want to abide by such dictates, and adjust my behavior accordingly. Moreover, I challenge myself not to become ensnared by the trap of overgeneralization.
As I think one source accurately suggests, “[J]ust because some drag queens partake in misogyny individually does not make the entire art form inherently misogynistic—and this is where the blackface comparison breaks down.” Not all drag queens are morally reprehensible, just as not all black performers who depict blacks in a particular stereotypical fashion are disgraceful.
Similarly, not all people who enjoy drag are bad, just as not all people who laugh at Bumbo are immoral. Perhaps you disagree.
Maybe you’re so ate up with what you believe about racism or sexism that you can’t fathom a psychotherapist arguing for representation of minstrelsy or drag shows. Keep in mind that it isn’t what I’m saying that bothers you, though what you believe about what I’m saying with which you disturb yourself.
You may be so ate up with bigotry—irrational attachment to a belief with intolerance to the opinions of others—that you refuse to consider that the minstrel-like depiction of Bumbo, from a black man, is in any way similar to Winston Duke’s representation of M’Baku (“Man-Ape”) from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
In the 2022 film, M’Baku and his tribe make ape noises while donning garb which depicts black people’s supposed affinity with or similarity to apes. How is this any different than a black child in 1933 stating of Bumbo, “He looks like a gorilla ape to me”?
If your belief about black people portraying roles as savages or apes leads to your irrationally-influenced emotions or behaviors, it isn’t black representation that is the problem. Rather, it’s what you believe that leads to unhelpful consequences.
Likewise, if grown men dressing in drag is what you think causes emotion related to disgust and behavior with which you protest such depictions, I have news for you. It’s what you believe that results in unhealthy consequences.
Personally, and without disturbing myself, I can watch content I consider to be overtly racist. Also, I can observe flagrant representations of caricaturized feminine traits without experiencing discomfort.
This is because I don’t maintain unhelpful or unhealthy beliefs about what I see. After all, maintenance of such irrational attitudes would render me a bigot. Who wants to be ate up with that label?
In my youth, I enjoyed the racist depiction of Bumbo as he devoured candy and repeatedly said, “Yum, yum! Eat ‘em up, eat ‘em up.” During the year I graduated high school, I also liked DJ Quik’s sample of Bumbo in relation to scrutiny of cunnilingus.
As an adult, I learned of the term “ate up” and how it related to people who were overly concerned with following regulations and without consideration of contextual matters. This phrase fits well with the topic of racism and sexism addressed herein.
The alienating topic of whether or not drag shows are akin to minstrel shows isn’t near or dear to me. Still, it serves as an opportunity to highlight my approach to REBT, as I’m not ate up with bigotry when assessing the matter.
Understanding that people’s beliefs about a topic—and not the matter itself—is how they disturb themselves, I use caution when approaching the dichotomous trap of Team This or Team That. Able to do this with issues of no concern to me, I can also perform this technique in regards to affairs about which I actually care.
Would you like to know more about how to reduce your level of self-disturbance concerning such matters? Are you ready to challenge yourself by turning towards discomfort and growing from the process of belief-disputing? I may be able to help.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, and hip hop head from the old school, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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