This March saw the Home Office turn to the creative agency FCB Inferno to commission a series of hard-hitting real-life stories warning young people against knives. The £1.35m campaign targets 10 to 21-year-olds on social media and digital TV channels. The campaign featured the real-life stories of three young people, two of them black.
Youth knife crime is horrendous and the government is, at least, trying to do something to beat it. Sure, they have played a part in the massive problem many urban communities face most urgently today: devastating government cuts. Over the past few years these have contributed greatly to the problem. Go to a grassroots organisation in any deprived borough in the UK and they will nearly always tell stories of how the slashing of local youth services have left children with very few places to go – it’s no wonder then that some find themselves in the wrong circles. But knife crime is very complicated and there is no single reason why young men want to go about stabbing, mainly, other young men.
It is not just the slashing of grassroots services, or the reduction of the police on our streets, poor parenting or even Drill music. But one thing which is rarely spoken about within this recent epidemic of youth knife crime is the role played by cartoons including the likes of The Simpsons. F Scott Fitzgerald said, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” The creators of cartoons such as The Simpsons appear to work along the lines of, “Show me a black character and we’ll fetishise their ‘cool’.” Cartoons often don’t feature a black character and when they do the character often lives up to the stereotype of the ‘cool’ kid. Black and cool have become almost inextricably linked. Bart Simpson even credits his ‘1⁄64th black’ as his reason for ‘being cool’.
Children are enthusiastic about cartoons from as young as age two or three and the fact is, it is these same children who are stabbing each other. They have grown up watching The Simpsons. Let’s take a look at the main black characters in The Simpsons. Firstly, Sergeant Lou is possibly the smartest and certainly the coolest police officer in Springfield. Unfortunately, Lou is a broken character (lacking even a last name – apparently he’s like Cher): a divorcee and father of a son who lives in Baltimore, not Springfield. Then there is Carl Carlson one of Homer Simpson’s closest pals and fellow worker at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Carl is rarely seen without Lenny so they are somewhat of a double act. Neither Carl nor Lenny have long-term partners and, despite the former supposedly playing ‘hide the baguette’ with the first lady of France, Carla Bruni, he doesn’t have a steady partner. Drederick Tatum is a World Heavyweight Boxing champion complete with groupies. Dr Julius Hibbert is a positive role model, in that he is a doctor with a family, unfortunately, his career is probably out of reach for many boys and girls. If anything he serves to remind young black children that they have to be exceptional.
“Why complain, you’ve got the cool characters” I hear you hastening to add. Therein lies my point. As black people, we do have the cool characters who know when to spout out the very coolest phrases. Forgive me but I won’t thank the animators just yet.
It is deeply troubling when characters like Sergeant Lou are cool but can’t hold down relationships or like Carl and Drederick they have no long-term female love interest. It’s perplexing to think that Chief Inspector Wigan, an exceptionally rubbish Head of the Springfield Police department, somehow managed to find himself a wife and child. The non-black characters do pretty well in terms of attracting a wife and family e.g. Homer Simpson, Kirk van Houten and Ned Flanders. Richard Sennett observes how former residents of Cabrini Green (a notorious Chicago housing project) were recruited to give pep talks to the generation of disaffected youths currently living in the project. Whilst the youths found an electrician and secretary relatable as mentors, they were riled up by a young doctor exhorting them to strive. To borrow from Sennett, Dr Julius‘s brains constitute a provocation to youths who doubt they can reach his dizzying heights.
Although the government’s #Knifefree campaign targets 10 to 21-year-olds, perhaps, like sex education, primary-school age children ought to be made aware of the seriousness of knife crime. As demonstrated by The Simpsons, even cartoonists have to step up and stop stereotyping young black characters as cool. Statistically, you are more likely to go to university if you are black. Maybe, instead of spouting the coolest words, black characters should be shown constantly looking at pursuing higher education, as the facts support.
When I was 17-years-old and carrying a knife, I lacked the acuity of mind to comprehend the seriousness of carrying a knife and the consequences had I used it. The reason I carried a knife was for protection or, more precisely, to avoid getting beaten up by a boy I didn’t get on with. When young men say they carry knives for protection they primarily mean to avoid losing respect in the eyes of their friends. The loss of respect is a cardinal sin because, as cartoons (and films) constantly tell us, black boys and girls are meant to be cool and cool boys don’t suffer embarrassment— possibly a fate worse than death. It is then rather ironic, that I chose to protect myself with an instrument which could have caused the death of someone else. What more could you expect for young black boys to protect their cool?
I’m no longer 17 but I suspect the feeling of being publicly shamed still remain today. In my view, most youths don’t plan to kill somebody: scare them, yes; inflict a little pain, possibly. But by and large I suspect the sheer visceral fear of being robbed of one’s coolness plays a large part in encouraging people to brandish a knife.
I was one of the lucky ones, able to leave the chaos of Chapeltown (Leeds) behind me and mostly avoid trouble in Lambeth, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. Eventually, I was lucky enough to read for an International Studies MA at SOAS and stay #knifefree. Sadly, not everyone is as fortunate as me and, today, in a world where social media is used to denigrate someone’s coolness, young boys feel even more of a need to carry a knife in order to protect what we hold dearest.
So if you really want to tackle knife crime, you’ve also got to make characters like Sergeant Lou and Carl Carlson preoccupied with a family and or a love of education. Since few cartoons have been on our televisions for as long as The Simpsons (almost 29 years), I say we start with this iconic programme.
By Nigel Gordon
26th April 2018 @ 01:10
Copyright © 2018 Nigel Gordon
Nigel Gordon, born in Leeds and raised in London, is a published journalist. He has written for The Voice and ilaph’lam African Fashion Journal. In 2016 he graduated from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) following the completion of his master’s degree in International Studies & Diplomacy.