By AARON MORRISON – Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — It began with a black man beating another black man on live television at the Oscars, televised worldwide, presumably in defense of a black woman who was being mocked for her hairstyle.
But for many blacks, it was more than a slap or an insult. It was about black masculinity, what is expected of black men in the 21st century – and attitudes towards black women.
The stunning physical altercation between actor Will Smith and comedian Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday has sparked debate about how black men can publicly defend black women against humiliation and abuse.
While many women have long dismissed the misogynist premise that their safety and security is the domain of men, some see Smith’s professed defense of his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, as a principled act of love and a stand-off against those who say black people are Men don’t do enough to protect black women.
Ayanna Abrams, a clinical psychologist and founder of Ascension Behavioral Health in Atlanta, said what protection from a spouse or partner looks like can be different for every woman.
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“For some of us, protection looks like something more assertive when it comes to speaking to someone,” said Abrams, board member of Black Girls Smile, a nonprofit focused on black girls’ mental health.
Abrams added, “For some people, the protection of black women (Rocks) would have been a joke if it wasn’t happening at all. So is the protection of black women and their bodies and how they are perceived in the media.”
But for many observers, protecting black women from verbal abuse ends with physical attacks.
During Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, Smith shocked audiences at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theater and millions of television viewers when he took the stage after Rock joked, “Jada, I love you. ‘GI Jane 2’ can’t wait to see it.”
It was an unscripted dig at Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. The 50-year-old actress has spoken publicly about her diagnosis of alopecia, an autoimmune condition that causes hair loss, and the negative impact it can have on one’s sense of identity and self-esteem. When Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes at Rock’s joke, her Oscar-nominated husband strode onto the stage and slapped the presenter in the face with an open hand.
After returning to his seat, Smith twice yelled at Rock, “Keep my wife’s name out of your (eloquent) mouth.”
Baruch College professor Shelly Eversley said Smith’s language to Rock made her question whether the actor’s motivation for hitting the comedian was an act of love.
“‘My wife’ — keep my wife’s name out of your mouth — is a logic of property ownership,” said Eversley, who is interim chair of Baruch’s Black and Latino Studies program.
“In the history of racial slavery and violence against black women, we can certainly see all the ways in which black women in particular have been treated as property,” she said. “It’s no better for black men to do than for white men to do.”
Black men and women in the United States have navigated gender roles that historians say are rooted in the experience of slavery and Jim Crow, during a time when they championed violence or worse despite being enslaved or in authority. Amidst legal apartheid and systemic racism, disproportionate rates of poverty and mass incarceration, generations of black men have been raised to believe that success in life involves protecting a spouse’s honor and defending one’s family from dangers in a white-controlled society.
And on the surface, that’s not entirely dissimilar to the expectations placed on generations of white American men and men of other ethnic and racial origins.
Nevertheless, times have changed. Today, behavior like Smith’s slap at the Oscars is more likely to be condemned as a result of uncontrolled ego than hailed as a justified defense of a black woman, Eversley said.
“Jada Pinkett (Smith) is not a damsel in distress,” she said. “The idea that Will Smith should somehow be applauded for treating her like she doesn’t have a voice or an agency of her own is also a problem.”
“For him to get away with this kind of violence on national television, go back to his seat, receive an award and then go party,” Eversley continued, “suggests to me that even the tears over his wife’s defense aren’t really there.” what matters is defending his wife, not his own ego.”
As he tearfully accepted his best actor award for “King Richard,” Smith apologized to the Academy and other nominees for casting a shadow over an event that, until it hit rock, was full of historic firsts for People of Color, LGBTQ Representative, was deaf community all taking place in a space where black people have struggled to be represented.
In a statement released Monday, Smith acknowledged his behavior was “unacceptable and inexcusable” and offered Rock an apology that he didn’t offer during his acceptance speech.
“Jokes at my expense are part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s health was too much for me and I reacted emotionally,” Smith said. “I’m a work in progress.”
After the actor’s behavior was condemned, the academy met Wednesday to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Smith for violating the group’s standards of conduct. The academy, which said Smith was ordered to leave after the incident, but denied it, saying disciplinary action could include suspension, expulsion or other sanctions.
Smith has described taking care of loved ones as a kind of lifelong mission. In his best-selling book, Will, which was released last fall, he recalled how his father hit his mother so hard that she fell and spat up blood. Smith was 9 at the time and would long chastise himself for not defending his mother.
“Through everything I’ve done since — the awards and accolades, the spotlight and attention, the characters and the laughs — there was a subtle array of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day,” Smith wrote. “For letting her down at the moment. Because I couldn’t stand up to my father. Because you’re a coward.”
Phillip Agnew, an activist and co-founder of Black Men Build, a national group focused on black men’s empowerment and civic education, said he rejects the racist and media-perpetuated notion that black men are less protective or loving them are spouses, families and communities than others.
But some reactions to Smith’s behavior at the Oscars, particularly from those who saw his confrontation with Rock as an example of protecting black women, are evidence of how low the bar was set, he said.
“Protecting black women absolutely involves how we manage our relationships, both intimate and platonic,” Agnew said.
“However, if your true goal was to protect your wife’s honor and integrity, there were probably better ways to do that,” he said of Smith’s actions.
The Oscars controversy came at the end of a week that saw a different approach to defending a black woman. Senator Cory Booker, a black Democrat from New Jersey, delivered a widely acclaimed speech in which he repelled the fierce questioning of his fellow Republicans against Justice Kentaji Brown Jackson, who is poised to become the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the USA is confirmed.
“They were subjected to insults here that shocked me,” Booker said on the third day of Jackson’s confirmation hearing last Wednesday.
“You deserve this place. You’re worth it. You’re a great American,” the senator continued, tearing Jackson and others who listened with rapt attention.
Black Girls Smile associate director Paige Brooks said there was some merit in talking about the Oscars incident.
“The story of Black women being used as the subject of jokes in front of a predominantly white audience for fun and with no regard for the humanity of Black women and girls is something this country has done for so long,” she said.
“At least that gets people talking, for good or bad reasons.”
AP writers Ryan Pearson in Los Angeles, Leanne Italie, Hillel Italie and Deepti Hajela in New York, and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed.
Morrison writes about race and justice for the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.
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