What is your image of a troublemaker?

Here’s to the Crazy Ones, the Misfits, the Rebels, the Troublemakers, the Round Pegs in the square holes, the Ones who see things Differently.

So, when STA told me about the Think Different commercial (which I just wrote about in this entry, he pointed out something curious (and troubling): the different descriptions of “think different” correspond with particular images of individuals who embody them. For example, the Crazy One is Einstein while the Rebel is Bob Dylan. Now, here comes the troubling part: when Richard Dreyfuss says “Troublemaker” this is the image that we get:
Martin Luther King, Jr. (at 10 seconds).

Now, they could have easily used his image when Dreyfuss says: the Ones who See Things Differently or, even, the Rebels. So, why use this image with that word? Reflecting on this question, I was reminded of a kid’s book that I discussed at length earlier this summer (here and here and here): The Book of Timeouts. In this book, the author offers 14 different examples of troublemakers who behaved improperly and were punished with a timeout. In my earlier entries, I argued that these examples are meant to serve as moral lessons for kids on how not to behave and why they should try to stay out of trouble. As I was doing a close reading of the author’s examples, I remember being troubled by the one about Louis Armstrong.

Entitled, “The Horn Player That Nearly Blew It,” Lucke describes Louis Armstrong’s stint as a troublemaker:

One upon a time Louis Armstrong was just a poor boy looking for trouble. It found him, on New Year’s Even in 1912 in the city of New Orleans. A short while after that, the police showed up. He was hauled away in a paddy wagon and put in a ‘home’ for wayward children [juvenile hall aka prison for minors]. He thought it was the end of the world. But it turned out it wasn’t. His time out changed everything. While he was there he learned how to play the cornet.

Among all of the examples, which I have listed here, this story about Louis Armstrong is the only one about an African American man (And, why is it the only one? What about Martin Luther King Jr or Malcom X, for example?). The only one about a juvenile delinquent/criminal/street thug–who by nature (at least according to the author) seems to up to no good. And the only one that doesn’t offer any specifics about what exactly Armstrong did wrong. Instead, the description, “a poor boy looking for trouble” seems to be all that is needed (along with the illustration of a black boy) for the reader to understand that Armstrong was a troublemaker and criminal who really deserved a time out. Why didn’t the author provide any more specifics as to why Armstrong was in trouble? What exactly did he do that made him deserve a time out? In all of the other examples the author offers some witty connection between the behavior of the troublemaker and the misbehavior of a child (Cleopatra couldn’t share, Richard the Lionhearted cut through people’s yards, Napoleon took other people’s things). As I mentioned above, these connections are meant to reinforce moral lessons: Don’t be like Cleopatra, learn to share with others. Then you won’t get a time out. What moral lesson are we meant to learn from Armstrong? Don’t be born black or poor because then the police will find you and put you in jail?

The author’s (perhaps unwitting) linkage of poor, Black and young with criminal, deserving of prison, and troublemaker is very disturbing. It invokes a very problematic equation that influences a lot of thinking about and visualizing of troublemaker as someone who disobeys/breaks the rules: troublemaker = criminal/delinquent = black male. For more on this equation and why it is a big problem, see here or here.

This equation is also present in the Think Different ad when the image of MLK Jr pops up on the screen as Dreyfuss is saying, “troublemaker.” The image of Martin Luther King, Jr. as troublemaker should be empowering and inspiring and another example of the virtue of troublemaking. But it could also be seen as just one more image reinforcing the ideas (1) that troublemaking is bad, (2) that it is a form of criminal activity, and (3) that black male troublemakers are all criminals.

Thinking about this problematic link between black men, criminal activity and troublemaking reminds me that any revaluing of troublemaking, as something good and virtuous, also requires a deracializing of the troublemaker and a decriminalizing of the troublemaking activities of breaking the rules and disrespecting the status quo.

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