As of the publishing of this article, four of the six top Twitter trends in the United States are about O.J. Simpson being granted parole. We’re living in the golden age of O.J.-adjacent media, and as much as that might sound like a statement in jest – there’s no escaping the “Uncle Juice” memes, nor should there be – the cross section of gender, race and celebrity underscoring the most famous court case in recent history makes for the perfect conversational jumping-off point for contemporary America, a media-saturated social landscape where real-world racial violence is constantly front & center. FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story dramatized the events of the trial, turning every character, every perspective and every new piece of evidence into its own weekly lightning rod, whereas ESPN’s O.J.: Made In America chronicled the entire life of Orenthal James Simpson in documentary format, contextualizing every highlight against the broader social context that was its catalyst.
Enter Part III in what has inadvertently become its own O.J. trilogy, a four-minute music video directed by Jay-Z’s new album 4:44 that uses the famous football player in its title, but only has a single explicit reference to him. That reference however – “I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” a statement often misattributed to Simpson, but one with which he has since become synonymous – may as well be the linchpin for both American Crime Story and Made In America (the line features in both), just as it forms the thesis for The Story of O.J., a song that touches on historical and contemporary commonality within black American identity despite its experiential diversity, and an animated accompaniment that expands on the concept by leaning heavily in to African American media history through a lens of whiteness.
There’s a lot going on here:
So much is said without really needing to be, owing to the pervasiveness of black stereotypes in western media. Even if one is unfamiliar with the specific references being made, images like the “pickaninny” are so ingrained in the collective consciousness that what’s being done here is hard to ignore, even for folks who don’t normally spend their time parsing images in the media. It suits even an instinctive absorption; a willing return to the degrading and often animalistic portrayals of African Americans (why not take the approach to its logical conclusion and turn black people into flying elephants?) in the black & white, 4:3 cartoons of yesteryear, trading in the frivolous for real-world landmarks of black struggle and suffering, all while set against the chipmunk-soul backdrop popularized by the likes of Kanye West – here employed by No I.D. as he channels the great Nina Simone.
The sample used is Simone’s “Four Women” (Simone herself appears in the video, caricatured in the style of Warner and Disney shorts from the 1930s), a textual predecessor to The Story of O.J.’s edgier chorus. It tells the tale of four African American women with different skin tones, embodying four different racial stereotypes: Aunt Sarah, an enduring slave, Safrona, an unwanted mixed-race outcast, Sweet Thing, a prostitute presented as palatable to white sensibilities, and Peaches, an angry black woman carrying the weight of her parents’ enslavement. In Jay-Z’s generalized yet more streamlined version, light and dark skin, house and field slaves, rich and poor black folks, and those who lean in to their “blackness” and those who reject it, are all part of the continuum that exists within the shadow of these cartoons – a seemingly innocent extension of the same culture that produces white supremacy en masse – but also within the light that is the raised fist and the progress it represents.
Jay-Z is our window to this world, walking us through it like a Greek chorus. Appearing within Warner Bros. title circles associated with the likes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig (once again attacking the subtext of old-world African American caricatures, placing them directly in the role of the animal), Jay-Z assumes the role of “Jaybo” – a play on the name “Sambo” – in what is perhaps the video’s most explicit reference to a specific work, one loaded with its own complications vis-à-vis racial politics.
The Story of Little Black Sambo by Scottish author and illustrator Helen Bannerman has a complicated place in history, seen as both a step forward for presenting a dark-skinned children’s hero in 1899, as well as the originator and purveyor of a whole host of racist stereotypes. “Sambo,” already the name of a character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had been a racial slur for dark-skinned people well before Bannerman’s book (the character’s parents are named Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo, which certainly doesn’t help matters), but what complicates the issue further is the fact that, despite its connection to African stereotypes in the annals of history, the book is about a dark-skinned Tamil boy living in India.
The 1935 animated short Little Black Sambo retains vaguely Indian elements of the story (such as tigers and coconut trees) but leans all the way in to the African American “mammy” stereotype for Sambo’s mother, turning the whole affair into a strange mix of specific racism alongside interchangeable blackness:
The degree to which the short’s white creators are so removed from anything resembled African American or South Indian realities is a marvel in itself (eight decades on, the idea that someone thought of dark-skinned people as so alien that they used black talcum powder is hilarious for all the wrong reasons), but the incorporation of Sambo, the specific character riding some invented line between black African and dark-skinned South Indian – a genetic connection that goes back well over 50,000 years – and “Sambo,” the general slur which has its origins in mixed-race African and Native American ethnicity, is its own statement that expands on the video’s thesis, regardless of intent.
Like the commonality of African American experience despite the intra-racial diversity in both appearance and perspective, nebulous “blackness” is still the lowest rung of the racial ladder in the eyes of a world built on white supremacy. The specifics may vary, but the origins of these stereotypes are so jumbled and messy because the history of dark skin in general has similar connotations when it comes to oppression, in both pre and post colonial contexts.
Jay-Z narrates his repeated list to the rest of the world amidst global monuments, from the Taj Mahal to the Great Pyramids to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as they swaying whimsically like classic Fleischer creations. The narrative of blackness on a global scale in the eyes of white supremacy is functionally similar to the perceived homogeneity of the African American experience despite its massive diversity (dark-skinned people of other national and ethnic origins in the U.S. are often lumped in), but despite the anti-blackness that still exists in many corners of human society, it is absolutely the specifics of the African American experience, those lived by Jay-Z and by most black people in America, and those the rest of us have either only lived adjacent to or experienced through art – skewed by whiteness in mainstream visual media; portrayed more honestly by less filtered outlets like Jazz and Hip Hop – that The Story of O.J. is primarily concerned with.
In the video, Jay-Z’s character re-enacts a scene similar to Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat (1941, pictured above), with watermelon-as-racial-signifier taking center stage. While many food-related stereotypes are inoccuous, some, like that of the fruit in question, have a deeply troubling history that no longer comes up in association with the actual trope; imagery so ubiquitious at this point that it’s almost instinctual to know there’s something amiss when the watermelon is connected to black people, though just as easy to defend as not having any racial connotations at all.
Once a symbol of the freed slave, who farmed watermelon as a means of self-sufficiency, the fruit was soon corrupted by white southerners to take on a more sinister meaning, as an indicator of African Americans’ laziness or uncleanliness. But so common is the idea that “watermelon + black person = racist” that its origins as a white twisting of black freedom has been lost in the milieu. Here, it finds itself nestled among images of lynchings, white hoods, burning crosses, slave auctions, and black angels with bullet wounds rising to the heavens.
It is reclaimed – not as a positive image, but as the very weapon it was once intended to be, with” Jaybo” spitting out its seeds like a Tommy Gun. It is still part of the continuum of black experience, a continuum of imagery that is collapsed here following the appearance of the scrubbing “Mama” froma Boogie Beat, with Jaybo driving bales of cotton in modern New York as a tribal African child hitches a ride, adorned with a headpiece made of bone. A child cannibal, in the parlance of racial caricature. Those bales are eventually processed in a modern factory, and what comes out the other end is a slew of hood-wearing white supremacists, the fruit of black labour (as literal labour, and as success in popular culture) having given a simultanous push to both industry, and the very scorn that keeps blackness down.
Jay-Z has had money on his mind since his debut album (“Dead Presidents II” is arguably the finest track on Reasonable Doubt, his 1996 classic) and with The Story of O.J. he celebrates credit as a road to success in America, even conflating it with objects of sexual desire, as if an instructional on how to achieve the kind of success Jewish people in America are known (and stereotyped?) for. As his success grew over the years his lyrics often became more focused on his net worth, not not often without reason. Here he talks about owning art and incresing its value, as the paitning presented the video becomes more abstract, moving further away from any recognizable image of blackness, as so much of popular art needs to in order to be accepted by the mainstream.
Yet with The Story of O.J, Jay-Z and Mark Romanek (who collaborated with Beyonce to bring positive black images to the screen in Lemonade) and their team of animators refute this very idea by steeping their statements in black imagery immediately recognizable to most, placing all its ugliest forms front & center and aligning the perspective of those who smiled at black lynchings with those who smile at these ape-like depictions of real people and their real culture.
A reclemation of history by shrugging off those who refuted it, refuting those who tried to define it, and offering million dollars worth of game for $9.99.
For a longer list of the specific animation references, and for the video's full credits, check out this great article by Cartoon Brew.