Tracy Jordan’s stereotypical behavior does not go unnoticed and he is forced to leave the show and the city of New York and goes into hiding because a group of prominent African American figures is going after him in the twentieth episode of the first season of the show. Tracy Jordan is being followed by a fictional group of influential African Americans called the “Black Crusaders” who monitor him because they claim that “Tracy Jordan has made a career out of exploiting black stereotypes” and that “he is an embarrassment to African-Americans.” According to Tracy, the “chief mages” of this group are Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey who want to get rid of his public persona (“Cleveland”).
The “Black Crusaders” group is a parody of a group called the “Dark Crusaders” which, according to an anonymous author, is a group of powerful African American, whose members are Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert L. Johnson, and Oprah Winfrey, who allegedly targeted an African American comedian David Chappelle who “reinforce[d] negative stereotypes and need[ed] to be censored” and forced him to leave the entertainment industry, this conspiracy theory is called “The Chappelle Theory.” This theory “offers no concrete evidence and could be someone’s zany joke on America’s thirst for conspiracy theories” (Carpio 114).
Nevertheless, the “Black Crusader’s” claim that Tracy Jordan became famous by reinforcing racial stereotypes is valid because some of the films which made Tracy rich and earned him the status of a celebrity were exploiting the old stereotypes. A film “Honky Grandma Be Trippin”’ for example presented Tracy in a cross-dressing character (“Pilot”). In “Honky Grandma Be Trippin’” Tracy appears in drag to play a female character, which reinforces the old exiting stereotypes. African American men were emasculated during slavery and were denied “the social ability to be viewed by society as men despite their biological sex” (Bush 49). African American men have been emasculated because they “have historically been blocked from enacting both the traditional African and traditional American mainstream gender roles of provider and protector” (Lawrence-Webb, Littlefield, and Okundaye 628). Any African American “man who wanted to stand up and be a man—according to the Western patriarchal definition, meaning leadership—was isolated, killed, beaten, or ridiculed” (Bush 50). Therefore, dressing as a woman may be viewed as shameful and as undermining African American men’s masculinity14. The only African American writer on the fictitious TGS, James Sperlock, informs Tracy that dressing as a woman is demeaning for an African man because it evokes the stigma of emasculation African American men had to overcome in the American society. James tells Tracy that “drag is a way for Caucasians to emasculate you and make you seem non-threatening” (“The Break-Up”). Historically, young African American men “were seen as a possible threat” and only when they were portrayed as “constantly laughing and clowning, or when [they were] contained to the worlds of entertainment and sports, they were easily accepted” by the dominant society (Ginneken 109-10). Therefore, entertaining audiences by dressing as a woman is a good way of making Tracy seem non-threatening. Tracy also starred in a movie called “Black Cop/White Cop” which directly points to the “black and white” buddy practice of the 1990s. Tracy Jordan’s filmography further contains titles “Who Dat Ninja,” “Black Cavemen,” “Fat Bitch,” or “Death Bank.”
The Restrictions of the Entertainment Industry
In the fourteenth episode of the first season of the show the GE executive Jack Donaghy invites Tracy to join him on a GE charity golf tournament to secure a place on the CEO’s team because Tracy is the CEO’s “grandchildren’s favorite movie star” (“The C Word”). Jack’s plan seems to be well-thought out but Tracy starts asking the CEO, Don Geiss, about the small number of African Americans being present at the event: “how come you don’t hire more black people around here? Black people can’t make light bulbs?” Tracy expresses his disappointment over the lack of African American presence by remarking that there are only two African American men present at the event, him and “Carlton15”. Don Geiss feels offended by Tracy’s remarks and Jack Donaghy loses his much wanted place on the CEO’s team.
Tracy’s behavior embarrasses Jack who tells Tracy that he “wanted [him] to entertain these people, not publicly humiliate them” (“The C Word”). Tracy starts to realize that Jack invited him at the tournament only because Jack wishes Tracy “to just be a funny black man who says funny things.” Tracy decides to give Jack what he wants and starts to behave as the stereotyped character which Jack sees him as and asks the bartender to bring him “Mustang Melon and a bag of barbeque chips” and later goes on to say that he “studied fried chicken at the school of hard knocks.” Tracy is aware of the image Jack wanted him to present in front of the executives and is deeply offended by it so he is bringing the exaggerated stereotyped version of this character to life. When Tracy is referring to “Mustang Melon” and “fried chicken” he is pointing to very old stereotypes which survived till the present day. African Americans are said to love watermelons and fried chicken. According to Claire Schmidt, the myth of African Americans loving fried chicken “started with Birth of a Nation [sic]” in a scene in which “[A] group of actors portraying shiftless black elected officials acting rowdy and crudely in a representative hall […] Some of the legislators are shown drinking. Others had their feet kicked up on their desks. And one of them was very ostentatiously eating fried chicken.” According to Schmidt, this “image really solidified the way white people thought of black people and fried chicken” (qtd. in Arit). Theodore Johnson explains why watermelon are stereotypical: “Just as the undesirable leftovers of farm animals, such as pig intestines and feet, are linked to the slave diet, watermelon is the food most associated with the 19th and 20th century depictions of blacks as lazy simpletons […] lazy blacks, and watermelon still remain today” (qtd. in Arit).
Later in the episode, Jack Donaghy explains to Tracy that he did not try to use him and that Tracy should “play the game with [him].” Jack explains to Tracy how the dynamics work and tells him that men like Don Geiss are important because they “run everything” and therefore, Tracy should consider calming his temper down and being more friendly with Geiss and not get into any quarrels if he wants to be successful and be offered more roles in movies (“The C Word”). Bell Hooks observes that becoming successful usually brings a great amount of sacrifice for African Americans, she states that “One of the tragic ironies of contemporary black life is that individuals succeed in acquiring material privilege often by sacrificing their positive connection to black culture and black experience” (Black Looks: Race and Representation 19). This is exactly what Jack Donaghy asks Tracy Jordan to do. In order to be more successful, Tracy has to sacrifice his commentary on the underrepresentation of African Americans in the GE managerial positions.
At the end of the day, Tracy understands Jack’s point and gives a serious speech on diabetes in front of Don Geiss and other important people at the tournament to earn their respect. Although Tracy’s speech is made up, it achieves its goals and Don Geiss asks Jack and Tracy to join him on his team. Jack Donaghy is satisfied with the way Tracy presented himself to the executives and tells Tracy: “Welcome to the grown-up world” (“The C Word”). Jack’s remark indicates that he viewed Tracy’s former behavior as childish and that a grown-up man should know how to present himself.
Ernest Cashmore in his book The Black Culture Industry (1997) observes the dynamics of the relationship between African Americans and the entertainment industry and he claims that African American “culture has been converted into commodity, usually in the interests of white-owned corporations” (1). Cashmore explains that “What was once disparaged and mocked is now regarded as part of legitimate culture” and that African Americans “have been permitted to excel in the entertainment industry only on the condition that they conform to white’s images of blacks” (1). At the golf tournament, Tracy is asked to conform to his bosses’ images of him and is forced to realize that his role is to entertain people and not to point at their mistakes or faults. Tracy is asked to give up his dissatisfaction with the social positioning of African Americans in the interests of succeeding in the industry.
Tracy Jordan is a commodity himself in fact. It is important to note that even the reason for hiring Tracy to the fictitious TGS was based on him “bringing the black back to NBC” (“The Aftermath”). Tracy is hired into the cast so that The Girlie Show can increase its viewership. Jack Donaghy is the one who makes the decision about hiring Tracy since Jack is the one who represents the power figure and is the one who makes most of the decisions concerning the show. Jack Donaghy’s main concerns are the TV ratings and to make TGS profitable because his market research on The Girlie Show revealed that the show is missing male audiences between the ages of 18 and 49 and therefore, a new cast member was needed to improve the ratings (“Pilot”). Tracy Jordan is not an employee of the show, but a “product” to be sold because when Tracy Jordan became a cast member of the show, the whole “Tracy Jordan business” joined the show as well (“The Aftermath”). And the Tracy Jordan business is built on a certain image Tracy has created for himself and which he was forced to create in order to become successful.
The problem is that the entertainment industry refuses to take Tracy seriously. After Tracy discovers he is Thomas Jefferson’s descendant, he is willing to make a serious movie about Jefferson’s life but is not able to obtain funds for the movie to be made. Don Geiss, the CEO of GE, would be willing to sponsor the movie only in case it would be a comedy, not a drama. When Tracy tells Geiss about his intentions in the first place, Geiss is excited about the project thinking that Tracy is willing to make “the movie version of The Jeffersons” but is disappointed to find out what Tracy’s real intentions are and tells Tracy to make “Fat Bitch 2” comedy movie instead (“Corporate Crush”). Tracy is a “subject to narrow casting by the dominant culture who still constructs comfortable images […] as well as stereotypical images of black men to feed white society’s fear of black masculinity” (Brown 81). The industry is willing to see Tracy as the comedian who is “shucking and jiving [his] way in the society” (76) rather than a serious and a respectable man.
The whole staff’s tendency to undermine Tracy’s competences and his intelligence is revealed frequently. For instance, in the twenty-first episode of the fourth season, Tracy introduces his illegitimate son Donald to his co-workers who all come to the conclusion that Donald is too old to be Tracy’s son and that he is only using Tracy to give him money. The staff assumes that Tracy is not aware of the fact that Donald is actually older than him and that he cannot be his son. However, Tracy reveals, to everyone’s surprise, that he has known this the whole time and he states: “I may hug people too hard and get lost at malls but I’m not an idiot.” Tracy is only trying to help Donald because he reminds him of himself. Tracy never forgot where he came from and by giving money to Donald, he is helping the underprivileged people from the community. With Tracy’s help, Donald is able to open a community center for urban children (“Mamma Mia”). However, nobody thought Donald’s and Tracy’s intentions were good and Tracy’s capabilities were undermined because everyone views Tracy as the “funny black man who says funny things” (“The C Word”).