Notes: I recently posted this on my personal blog but now that I moving this blog beyond a collection of links and into the realm of critique and commentary, I thought I would cross-post it here as it touches on the performance of blackness in the virtual world – a subject that is central to my proposed dissertation topic:
I recently read a wonderful summary of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s definition of coded racism that describes it as:
“new racism that entails individuals saying and doing things that perpetuate racial stereotypes and inequalities, but they do so in such a way that the offender is able to deny being explicitly racist.”
The definition emphasises the privilege of deniability that coded racism bestows on the offender, however it does not fully articulate the impact coded-racism has on the “victim” of racism. The ambiguity present in coded-racism that allows an offender to deny their wrong doing is the same ambiguity that makes it difficult for those on the receiving end to actually call out well-disguised racism. Feeling uncertain about whether something/someone is racist, or if someone is using code words, and if so how to address it, is an uncomfortable and lonely place to be. Yet that is exactly where I find myself every time I watch another Thug Notes video.
Thug Notes Trailer
On the surface of it, the premise of the channel and its videos is very simple. Each video features, a male African American literary scholar, Sweet Sparky, PhD who provides a summary and analysis of a popular English literature text; a York Notes (or Cliff Notes for those across the pond) for the digital age. However just like any classic work of literature one cannot ignore Thug Note’s subtext; and it is this subtext that I suspect is the cause of my unease.
Despite Sweet Sparky being the only person you see and hear in each video, Napkin Note Productions, a company that aims to create films that “tickle your brain and warm your heart”, are responsible for Thug Notes. Sweet Sparky is played by actor-turned-comedian Greg Edwards who is supported behind the scenes by a crew that includes Napkin Note founder Jared Bauer (credited as Show Creator, Writer and Executive Producer). The rationale for the project is that, “if education was funny, more kids would want to learn.” Through this project Napkin Note want to “deliver intelligent summary and analysis of classical literature” and “… to spread the gospel of literature.” Clearly a significant amount of thought has gone into the creation and execution of this project and while not wanting to take anything away from this, I’m still left with some lingering questions regarding Thug Notes.
For instance were the creators aware of the on-going debate surrounding the use of the word Thug as a racially coded-word? Whilst I am not 100% certain that “Thug” is the new N Word and thus should be considered off-limits; I am of the opinion that some words cannot be understood without exploring their contextual basis. In trying to establish context within Thug Notes, both as a project and as a YouTube channel, I was immediately drawn to its tagline; “Classic Literature, Original Gangster”. The phrase “Original Gangster” often abbreviated to ‘OG’ has its roots in late ‘80s, early 90s Hip-Hop. Thus my inference is that Thug Notes use of the word “thug” is in some way related to hip-hop’s use of the word; a word that the late rapper Tupac Shakur passionately defined as:
When I say ‘Thug Life,’ I mean that shit. Cause these white folks see us as thugs. I don’t care what y’all think I don’t care if you think you a lawyer, if you a man, if you an ‘African-American’. If you whatever the f*ck you think you are. We thugs and n*gg@s to these motherf*ckers… (Transcript via Political BlindSpot)
I think one of the reasons I am uncomfortable with “thug” in the context of Thug Notes and its tagline is that one could very easily replace “lawyer” in Tupac’s statement with “English literary scholar” and the meaning of Tupac’s explanation would remain the same. At the very least, what is apparent to me is that there is a degree of racist stereotyping that I am certainly not at ease with and none of this is made better by the visuals that accompany Thug Notes.
Sweet Sparky addresses his viewers from what may just as well be Jane Austen’s reading room. Hardback books fill the shelves behind his period drama style armchair, a decanter of some brown, presumably alcoholic, liquid rests on the side table to his right; and then there is the man himself. More specifically his clothing; a do-rag on his head; an oversize gold chain hanging from his neck, a sleeveless shirt exposing muscular arms, and bare-legs sitting in lace-less high-top shoes. Irrespective of the creators’ intention the visual presented by Thug Notes creates a juxtaposition that perpetuates racist stereotyping i.e. the modern day black brute in an environment that one does not expect to find him in. It relies on long-standing falsehoods that have positioned black people as intellectually inferior; forgoing the library in order to live the gangster life. If this is supposed to elicit some sort of “oh, that’s clever!” reaction from the viewer; it had the opposite effect on me. I wasn’t pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t surprised. I felt the same old “hmm…I don’t know…” feeling that so often accompanies instances of coded-racism.
As if Sweet Sparky’s appearance is not enough, how he speaks is designed to reinforce his status as an Original Gangster. Sentences are punctuated with ‘Na’mean?’ (You know what I mean?), and the occasional ‘bitch’ is thrown in for good measure. If I were being generous I would say Thug Notes is Rap Genius’ distant cousin; in that Rap-Genius interprets rap music in to English literature style “prose” and Thug Notes interprets English literature into rap style speak. In this limited definition both do an excellent job. The meaning is not lost and there is knowledge to be gained. However, I cannot watch Thug Notes without being reminded of the example bell hooks gave in her book, ‘We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity‘ of a
“middle-class black who had never spoken broken English or a black patois was being forced to assume a “ghetto rap” that signified to his co-workers that he was really black.”
I don’t know Sweet Sparky’s back story but what I do know is that the Napkin Note team decided that best way to make learning funny was through the performance of blackness that relies on stereotypes of black male intellect and masculinity. Thug Notes explicit purpose may be beneficial and Napkin Notes ‘explicit intentions may be benign and from a social media numbers game perspective, with over 130,600 YouTube subscribers, 10,000 Facebook fans and 3,900+ Twitter followers, it is a success. However, for me, I still cannot shake away that feeling of unease and discomfort that I get whenever I find myself confronted with coded-racism.