In America perception and image are everything. The image of an individual, organization, or nation can change in a matter of years, weeks, days, or in extreme circumstances, seconds. Changes like these are both often positive and negative. Sometimes these transitions of image are forced by consultants and sometimes they are the products of a genuine process of maturation.
One image has been prevalent throughout our history: the thug. There are white thugs, black thugs, and thugs of all races. Another fact about America is that the nation as a whole has been fascinated by the “white thug image”. The county has loved to love them and hate them. Some are actual criminals and some are legit but advanced through extra legal means. John Dillinger. Al Capone, Jessie James, Billy the Kid, Andrew Jackson (Yes, he was a thug.), and James Cagney (I have no proof that he was a thug, but I’m saying.) all at some point held America’s attention for one reason or another. For the most part these men did not change because they didn’t have to because “white privilege” whether real or imagined even extends to common thugs.
Black thugs generally don’t have that luxury. A black thug may be famous or infamous but there will come a time when they will have to go legit to truly realize the American Dream Nightmare. Some are dogged by their detractors and the eras they inhabit (Google Jack Johnson.) and some come to a point in their lives where they revamp their pasts and move forward. Black America is filled with men who have made this transition both quickly and quietly. Below are some notables.
Before George Foreman was a cherubic grilling impresario, he was “Big George” Foreman from the 5th Ward of Houston Texas. Growing up Foreman was an admitted bully, mugger, and all-around troubled. As he began to box, he left his criminal ways but to the world Foreman was a big, black man who was becoming adept at using his hands. He would go on to win the Gold Medal in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The image of Foreman waving the American flag after winning the gold is probably the second most famous image of the year’s summer games. After turning pro his punching power would soon find Foreman as one of the top heavyweight fighters of his time and eventually champion. During all of this he was still not viewed as “friendly”. (Check out the documentary “When We Were Kings”.) As he grew older and quit boxing for the first time, Foreman would become a Baptist minster, find a second, third, and fourth career by returning to boxing, selling the electric grill to everyone, and as an announcer for HBO Boxing. For the most part America doesn’t remember this guy, or this guy, but they’ve bought a grill from this guy.
O’Shea Jackson went from a member of a rap group known as N****rs With Attitudes to a man who puts out family /feel good films. Whether or not he was an actual thug or not from about 1989- whenever he mouthed off to Lonnie Lynn Jr. Ice Cube’s public image was rather menacing to the uninformed members of the American public. He was a rhyming scowl with a curl, and a major label record deal. Now he’s pitching films like “Are We There Yet?”, “Are We Done Yet?”, both “Barbershop” films, and a documentary about the Los Angeles Raiders for ESPN. He even rhymed on BET’s Hip Hop Awards recently… with his two sons.
Ray Lewis it the best NFL linebacker since Lawrence Taylor. Instead of Dean Winters, Allstate should have used him to personify “mayhem”. Simply put, he is hell on legs, wearing football pads. On January 31st, 2000 Ray Lewis and two companions were arrested for murder following Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. Lewis would later testify against his two companions so that the pending murder charges would be dropped. Lewis would cop to a misdemeanor for obstruction of justice, pay a $250,000 fine levied by the NFL, and serve probation for his “involvement”. The very next year Ray Lewis’ scary-a** would be named the Super Bowl MVP, and become one of the faces of the NFL. Along with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and T.O. Lewis to this day remains one of the most recognizable players in the league and the fact that he was once charged with murder is never mentioned. Ray is living proof that wins solve everything.
Ice – T
“What is “Cop Killer” Alex?”
These would be the two words you would utter if playing Jeopardy and one of the categories was “Most famous songs by TV stars”. I don’t know if Tracy has ever committed a single felony but “Cop Killer” put him on the map of the establishment ranging from Bush 41 to a lowly LAPD rookie. Somewhere between W’s daddy and the rookie cop laid a few Senate hearings and a FBI probe. Now he’s just Odafin Tutuola and I’m willing to bet that many of the people who deemed Ice a threat tune in every Wednesday at 9 o’clock to watch.
Mike Tyson has been many things throughout his life: Heavyweight Champion, stick-up kid, rapist, woman beater, and a mess of a man. Tyson’s troubles have been well publicized so there’s no need to rehash. When the Hangover came out in 2009 Mike Tyson added the words “comic foil” to his resume. Coupled with a recent documentary about his life Tyson isn’t as nearly as feared as much as he used to be, but he’s most certainly pitied.
If you can, name a few other thugs who have worked their way into America’s hearts and minds despite their pasts.
Vaya con Dios.