Tom, Sarah, & Mandingo

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WARNING: This post is NSFW.

During its tenure as a comic strip and TV series, The Boondocks based its comedy and commentary on current-day race relations.  Its concept and basis of its humor was crafted from the point-of-view of being black in a white supremacist society.  Our black protagonists, the Freemans, moving to the white suburb Woodcrest is a microcosm of that very concept.  I have gone into detail about that before, but I want to use this post to talk about the Freeman’s neighbors, the Dubois.

One of the many parts of The Boondocks’ satire of race relations is with the character Tom Dubois, who is a black man married to a white woman named Sarah, and they have a child named Jazmine.  His name, Tom Dubois, is a play on the idea of a black man who desires to whiteness as a way of indicating his own higher social status to other black people and a play on W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay The Talented Tenth, which refers to, what he believed at the time, one in ten black men has the potential to rise up as a leader or intellectual elite.  Tom Dubois himself is a uptight, bourgeois successful district attorney and is one of the only other black people besides the Freemans who lives in Woodcrest.  A running gag in the comic strip and TV show is that Tom is more out-of-touch with popular black culture than his white wife Sarah.

Another running gag about Tom and Sarah is that Sarah is sexually frustrated and that Tom doesn’t quite fulfill all of her sexual desires.  Tom is painfully aware of it.  Tom gets jealous and insecure when Sarah brings up how big of a fan she is of the R&B singer Usher, President Barack Obama, or a Chris Brown parody named Pretty Boy Flizzy.  A lot of other characters in the show all seemed to be aware of Tom and Sarah’s issue (not unlike how everybody in Hank Hill’s neighborhood and work knows about his narrow urethra for some reason) and mock Tom for it.  The episode “Pretty Boy Flizzy” shows a breakthrough for Tom where he begins the process of resolving his issue with Sarah by learning how to be less meek and apologetic and more forceful and domineering.

In these jokes and storylines about Tom’s and Sarah’s relationship troubles, Tom is always the butt of the jokes or viewed to be at fault.  But how about Sarah?

Those three men I mentioned before that Sarah is fond of have certain things in common.  The first is that all three of them are black men.  And that isn’t the only thing…

mandingo-poster

Mandingo is the name of a novel written by Kyle Onstott in 1957, which was adapted into a feature film in 1975.  Due to its depiction of sexual relations between black slaves and white slave owners (I’m focusing particularly on the interaction between the black male slave and white female slave owner), Mandingo has since served as a term for the way society defines black male sexuality.  Under this definition, black men are seen as powerful, dominant, and sexually virile.  This definition of black male sexuality largely goes unchallenged because it is often seen as a desirable attribute.  However, positive stereotypes are just as pernicious and need to be challenged as much as negative stereotypes.  Viewing black men as sexually dominating and voracious is just as problematic as believing all Asians are good at math.

The “Mandingo” stereotype of black men is derived from the slavery-era stereotype about black men being sexually animalistic and uncontrollable, particularly around white women.  The supposedly more sexually desirable “Mandingo” is also based on the idea of black men as animalistic and uncontrollable, except the animal’s power and savagery is re-contextualized as a sexual fantasy for white women instead of a threat to them.

That system of slavery doesn’t exist anymore, but that view of black men is still quite strong on our collective self-conscious.  These days, the “Mandingo” stereotype flourishes particularly in porn (this is where the stereotype of black men having large penises comes from; it’s a comparison to horses or animals like that) and pornified view of black men filters into the rest of society.  This view of black men is glorified in music, movies, television, other novels, and any other form of media you can think of.  It’s very important for me to note how systems of oppression affect the oppressed and oppressors psychologically.  Our society never properly exorcised or even properly addressed that aspect of slavery (which, may I remind you, included mass dehumanization, rape, molestation, force breeding, flagellation, mutilation, violence, coercion, debasement, humiliation, exploitation, etc.), so those views and ideas about blackness and whiteness continue to shape how we see each other, including what is collectively seen as sexually attractive, what an individual person may or may not find sexually attractive, and why that person is sexually attracted to what they are sexually attracted to (which that person may not know the reason to themselves).  I think a lot of liberal-minded people that have an “anything goes after consent” attitude towards sex don’t consider how this plays a role in current-day sexual appetites, fetishes, and assumptions when shaping their point-of-view about it.

That brings me back to Sarah Dubois.  She’s a socially conscious, liberal woman who loves her family and is involved with her local chapter of the NAACP.  But based on her frustrations with Tom and her fondness of black men like Usher, Obama, and Pretty Boy Flizzy, it’s quite apparent that she has a “Mandingo” fetish that Tom doesn’t live up to.  In the episode “The Return of Stinkmeaner”, the spirit of the deceased Stinkmeaner possesses Tom and make him act out.  In one scene, the possessed Tom greets Sarah after coming home from work and forcefully asserts that he want to have sex.  Sarah is taken by surprise by Tom’s forwardness, but absolutely loves it.  Pretty Boy Flizzy behaves in much the same way as Stinkmeaner, and Sarah is a huge fan.  She is also a huge fan of Usher, who isn’t as boorish as archetypal “Mandingo”, but…

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Barack Obama is actually a lot like Tom, but a much more powerful and charismatic version of Tom.  Sarah explicitly tells Tom in “Pretty Boy Flizzy” that she wants him to be more dominating and less conciliatory.  None of this is to say that Tom’s insecurities are completely excusable and he’s 100% right.  His insecurities have led him to embarrass Sarah and himself more than once, especially because Sarah never actually slept with, nor had the intention to sleep with the other black men she’s so fond of.  But there is already enough societal pressure on black men to be that “Mandingo” and views those black men who don’t live up to that with scorn.  Tom was likely insecure about this long before he even met Sarah and it doesn’t help that his own wife piles on his insecurities.  It’s more disconcerting that Sarah’s fetish is never challenged or questioned by herself or Tom.

The show itself never challenges Sarah’s fetish either.  The show only frames their relationship as Tom being a loser for not adequately pleasuring his wife.  Their relationship didn’t improve until Tom started becoming more dominating and violent at the end of “Pretty Boy Flizzy”.  His protective attitude towards Sarah and fight with the eponymous R&B star greatly aroused Sarah after her initial shock.  Sarah’s “Mandingo” fetish and the show’s mockery of Tom’s failure to measure up to that are glorifying a version of toxic masculinity.

Unfortunately in its dissections of blackness in a white supremacist society, The Boondocks TV series and comic strip were strictly from a hyper-masculine black male perspective that was quite toxic at times.  Female characters were largely absent or have minimal roles in The Boondocks.  Although it was quick to criticize the violent machismo of gangsta rappers or the Bush Administration, it still at its core believed the same ideas of manhood that those other two examples embodied extreme versions of.  Tom’s affable and placatory personality was often mocked by other characters as womanly and the jokes other characters made about his marital issues always framed Sarah as something that belongs to Tom that he has to protect.  Male-on-male rape was only seen as something to laugh at.  Granddad called himself “Bitches” as a nickname and most third and fourth season episodes revolved around him dating women half if not a third of his age.

This oversight is particularly surprising considering they particially addressed this issue (albeit in a less intimate manner) with the Cindy McPhearson character.

This post isn’t an admonishment of interracial relationships nor is it saying that all white women in relationships with black men view or desire their partner to be a “Mandingo”.  This post isn’t even saying that Sarah Dubois doesn’t actually love Tom or view him as a full person.  But this is a view of black men that our society continues to perpetuate to this day.  Outside of her second-rate Don Rickles insult jokes, a lot of comedian Lisa Lampanelli’s material is about her sexual encounters with black men, which all bask in toxic stereotypes about black men.  Even a self-described progressive-minded woman like Lena Dunham revealed her own entitlement to black male sexuality in her statements about Michael B. Jordan and Odell Beckham Jr.  This pernicious stereotype has and continues to limit our collective imagination on what black male sexuality could be and robs so many black men of authentically discovering what that is for themselves by enforcing this standard on them.

P.S. It’s also worth nothing that from the white male gaze (speaking in cinematic terms), white women having sex with the “Mandingo” black man is typically framed as a way to also debase the white woman, the idea (particularly in porn, but outside of it too) being that the woman is being defiled by being penetrated by this figure thought to be comparable to an animal.  But’s thaaaaat’s another conversation with lots to unpack, too…

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Tom, Sarah, & Mandingo

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