Posts Tagged ‘coming of age’

Lost Boys of Integration

In Entertainment, Lifestyle on June 21, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Welcome Home Roscoe JenkinsI was pleasantly surprised to learn that “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” had premiered on USA Networks this past weekend. It is rare to see mainstream attention awarded to African American films that don’t involve drugs, crime or poverty. Perhaps Hollywood is turning the page on how African Americans are portrayed in media.

I first saw the movie when it was released in theatres in February 2008. Despite negative reviews from Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, it ranked #2 on its opening weekend and earned $16 million. So it begs the question, how did so many critics get it so wrong?  My motivation for seeing the movie was three-fold. First but least importantly, I support black filmmakers. Second, I am a fan of Malcolm D. Lee and his parents, who live across the street. I enjoy chatting with or getting chatted up by his mom and dad from time to time; I wouldn’t want to risk being caught having not seen a work of their son. I catch enough hell whenever I miss one of nephew Spike’s films and can’t imagine what might happen to our friendship if I missed one of Malcolm’s. Third, Malcolm (I call him Malcolm) tells stories with which I can relate and WHRJ was definitely one of them.

Malcolm D. Lee“Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” is a coming of age story for RJ Stevens (played by Martin Lawrence). He’s a southerner who escapes his humble beginnings in pursuit of a better life in Los Angeles. To reinvent himself, he loses the name Roscoe Steven Jenkins in favor of RJ Stevens and alters his diet to exclude certain Southern delicacies, amongst other changes. When the transformation is complete, he finds himself atop the talk show ratings with all the accoutrements of mainstream success. It is only when he returns home for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary that he learns that no transformation had ever taken place. Instead, the boy from Georgia learns that his once suppressed childhood anxieties can’t stay hidden forever.  I call it a coming of age story because, despite being a grown man, RJ Stevens’ transition from childhood to manhood doesn’t occur until he faces his demons and insecurities during this visit.

The story of Roscoe Jenkins is all too common for boys/men of my generation. I was born in 1965 and represent the first wave of a new generation of Americans, Generation X. After segregation was abolished, my parents emigrated from the Caribbean and I grew up fully expecting to inherit America’s promise of equality. For black boys of that era, achieving that dream required us to depart from commonly accepted stereotypes as we forged a new path. Some of us did, many of us didn’t. The end result was the forming oWhites Only Drinking Fountainf a rift within black communities that served to divide us from each other. This is ultimately what happened with Roscoe Jenkins.

By the time I turned 5, my family had moved to the suburbs and we lived amongst the Jews and WASPs of Dix Hills, Long Island. Education was a big thing in my community and our public school system was probably ranked better than most private schools in America. Every few Sundays after church, it was a ritual for my family to jump in the car to visit relatives in the Laurelton section of Queens, which is where many Haitians bought homes. While my  parents chatted with aunts and uncles, I played with my favorite cousin Louie and his friends in the neighborhood. While I spoke differently from them, we communicated just fine. I probably acted like a know-it-all so it doesn’t surprise me that I earned the nicknamed “Professor” at the ripe age of eight or nine (ironic, huh?). The moniker was a term of endearment but I didn’t feel endeared to Louie and his friends. I always felt that the nickname was their way of telling me that I wasn’t one of them. I am in the books, they are from the streets. This is a theme that played itself out many times throughout my life. In high school, the students from the junior high school south of the Long Island Expressway used to call me an Uncle Tom or a sellout because I socialized with different people and in different ways from them. As a student at Dartmouth, a fraternity brother dubbed me WBLI. It is a radio station not far from where I grew up but what he really meant, though, was White Boy from Long Island. Other names that hurt just as much include “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) and Incognegro (or incog for short).

Have a twinkieI have since come to learn that intra-cultural divides are common across all races. Asians who integrate within the mainstream culture are often called “Twinkies” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). Even worse is the term reserved for Indians, namely “coconuts” (brown and hairy on the outside, white on the inside). I chuckle now when I think about it but, at the time, it was no laughing matter. They say “sticks and stones can break your bones but names will never hurt you” but I disagree. I can recover much faster from an ass-wooping than I can from an assault on my identity. Physical wounds heal, emotional wounds linger. Just ask Roscoe Jenkins.

While I believe men of my generation comprise a segment called the “Lost Boys of Integration,” our childhood was not all bad. Much of my identity was forged from within the diversity of images seen on television and cinema. I rejected the Lamont and Rollo characters from “Sanford & Son” but connected with the original Lionel Jefferson (played by the late Michael Evans) on “All in the Family.” What I appreciated most was that his character was authentically black but not stereotypical, confident & engaging but neither arrogant nor offensive. I thought he was a better foil against Archie Bunker’s ignorance than was flower-child son-in-law Michael Stivic (played by Rob Reiner). When the Jefferson family was featured on its own show, I had hoped more stories would be developed for Lionel’s character. What actually happened was event better. Michael Evans left the set of “The Jeffersons” to write for “Good Times” which featured a character named Meet the Evans FamilyMichael Evans (played by Ralph Carter) whose innocent defiance is the trademark of a certain confused enthusiast we all know. In fact, my best guess of President Obama’s personality growing up leads me back to episodes featuring the “Militant Midget.” My most admired portrayal of a black man of my generation, however, was Denzel Washington who played Dr. Philip Chandler on St. Elsewhere. In one episode, he uttered his frustration about being “too black for my white friends, too white for my black friends” and, for the first time, Hollywood wrote exactly what I felt.

Throughout the 1980s, the images of African American men was that of a fish out of water. Whatever gains were achieved in the 1970s were quickly undone. In “Trading Places” Eddie Murphy played an outsider who momentarily looked into the world of Wall Street. On “Different Strokes” Willis & Arnold were exceptions to the rule, not the rule itself. No two movies did aWhatjoo talkin 'bout Willis? better job of telling African American men they didn’t belong than “Strictly Business” featuring Tommy Davidson and “Livin Large” featuring a young Terrence TC Carson. I might also have pause to complain about the Steve Urkel character on “Family Matters” were it not for the character being based on me or someone strikingly like me. If you don’t believe it, check out this picture of me in 1986, three years before the show first aired. I was Urkel before there was Urkel.

All in all, the journey of African American men of Generation X (aka “Lost Boys of Integration”) comprises a unique collection of stories worth telling via television, cinema or online video. Malcolm D. Lee gained notoriety with the short film “Morningside Prep” about an African-American male teen caught between black and white culture. His most prominent films “Soul Men,” “Undercover Brother” and “The Best Man” continue to explore the journeys of black men, as does the story of Roscoe Jenkins. If you missed the airing last weekend, you can catch WHRJ in July and August when it gets re-aired on USA Networks. The film is also available to rent via Netflix.

With Barack Obama in the White House, America is beginning to recognize that black men don’t fit the Hollywood-controlled stereotypes anymore. Like all other people, we come in many different shapes, sizes and archetypes. I applaud the works of Malcolm Lee, Chuck Stone III (“Paid in Full“, “Drumline“), Mario van Peebles (“Posse“) and many more who have aspired to broaden America’s embrace of its black male brethren. Their contributions help make my journey easier and they render my limits endless. For them, I am truly grateful. Well done!