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The Walking Dead’s Ongoing Black Man Problem

I wrote in one post during The Nerds of Color’s Walker Week that The Walking Dead is noteworthy for depicting one of the most racially diverse zombie survivor casts to-date: it features a band of survivors that has included (among others) a Mexican family, an Asian Indian doctor, two Deep South “rednecks” (a pejorative term that the Dixon brothers would probably enthusiastically reclaim), a samurai-sword-wielding Black woman, and one of the most progressive characterizations of an Asian man on television. This is a show where women kick ass just as readily as men, and where the divisions of race and class have largely disintegrated in the face of humanity’s near-annihilation.

It’s ironic, therefore, that The Walking Dead could have such a blatant “Black Man problem,” one so obvious it has spawned a million memes.

(This post contains spoilers of all events in The Walking Dead up to Season 4, Episode 3. Please read on with care.)

Since the first season of The Walking Dead, the show has faced criticism for situating a band of survivors in the outskirts of Atlanta — a city that is majority African American — yet failing to highlight Black characters. In the first season, only two Black characters were depicted — Morgan and T-Dog — both men and neither received significant screen-time. Earlier this month, I noted how the invisibility of Black skin on The Walking Dead even extends to the show’s zombie extras when I asked: where are all the zombies of color?

More specifically, The Walking Dead‘s “Black Man Problem” is a repeated inability to depict more that one ass-kicking Black man at a time.

For 3 seasons, T-Dog was the only Black man alive.
For three seasons, T-Dog was the only Black man alive.

After three seasons, this weird pattern borders on the comedic cliche and show in-joke: a central Black male character can only be introduced if the show’s previous Black man is bumped off, a pattern I (and others) have dubbed the “One Black Man at a Time” rule. The Rule has come into effect no less than three times over the course of The Walking Dead:

No small feat.
No small feat.

1) In the first episode, Rick (having just woken from a coma) is saved by Morgan, a neighbour in his suburban community and a newly-widowed single father. Morgan tells Rick about the zombie apocalypse and helps arm him, but at the end of the episode is left behind when Rick ventures off in search of his wife and son. Only with Morgan conveniently written off are we  introduced to T-Dog.

Thankfully, T-Dog was spared with the Season 2 introduction of Michonne.
Thankfully, T-Dog was spared with the Season 2 introduction of Michonne, because he was still the lone Black man.

2) T-Dog is the only surviving Black man in the group led by Shane, and pitches in as one of the community’s resident muscle. While neither particularly good at shooting a rifle nor beating people up with his fists, he is competent in both areas, and manages to survive for the subsequent three seasons — until in Season 3, when he is killed saving Carol. In this same episode, Oscar (who was introduced previously as a peripheral character forced to live in another part of the Prison) is invited to join the main survival group led by Rick.

One to rule them all.
One to rule them all.

3) Oscar is a surviving prisoner who refuses to help his fellow prisoners claim the Prison cellblocks from Rick and his survivors, choosing instead to shoot his own friends. After joining the group along with Axel, the other surviving prisoner who is integrated into the group, he supersedes T-Dog in serving as the group’s resident muscle. He is killed in the attack against Woodbury, in roughly the same episode that Tyreese (introduced earlier in the season) betrays the Governor and sides with Rick’s group. This opens things up for Tyreese to be invited to join the Prison community.

There wasn't enough room for both Oscar and Tyreese in the same show.
There wasn’t enough room for both Oscar and Tyreese in the same show.

So, let’s recap: Rick’s group inducts three Black men in the form of T-Dog to Oscar to Tyreese — with no overlapping membership in between. Feeling insecure, are we, Rick?

The fact that this meme needs no explanation says it all.
The fact that this meme needs no explanation says it all.

(Also, an honorable mention entry: in one Season 3 episode, Rick and Carl venture off with Michonne to forage Rick’s old police precinct; there they encounter a deranged Morgan who has since the first episode lost his son to the Walkers. In this second Morgan-centric episode, the episode is conveniently written so no other Black men are anywhere in sight.)

Poor T-Dog.
Poor T-Dog.

In the start of Season 4, The Walking Dead producers attempted to rectify this problem with the introduction of Laurence Gilliard Jr. as the racially cross-cast character, Bob Stookey (a character whose similarities with his comic book inspiration appear to extend only to the name and a struggle with alcoholism). This would seem to be the solution we were all looking for, right?

Unfortunately, probably not.

Bob Stookey as he appears in the comics (left) and in the show (right).
Bob Stookey as he appears in the comics (left) and Laurence Gilliard Jr. as D’Angelo Barksdale on The Wire (right).

While Bob Stookey’s character is a refreshing change from the muscular, physically capable Black male trope of seasons past — T-Dog, Oscar, and Tyreese — the show has also taken great pains to emphasize Stookey’s general incompetence. In the first episode of Season 4, Stookey is taken along with some other survivors to forage a virtually untouched grocery store; there, they are ambushed by Walkers and Stookey is pinned beneath some toppled alcohol displays (oh, the irony!) and must be saved by his compatriots. In episode 3 of Season 4, Michonne and Daryl are discussing whom they will take on their mission to get medical supplies from a local clinic; they virtually dismiss Stookey as a candidate, and instead immediately jump to the idea of bringing Tyreese, even though their requirements for inclusion on the mission at the time are “anyone not showing signs of the infection” (which includes Stookey). Later, Stookey is brought along, but explicitly only because of his ability to read big words. When the band of survivors are ambushed by the Walker megahorde, Stookey defends himself with his gun (just barely), but his lack of physical prowess is contrasted against that of Tyreese who (as I noted in my recap) goes all Oldboy on the Walkers in the same scene.

In short, even though we now have two Black men on The Walking Dead, we still have only one conventionally masculine, powerful Black man in the character of Tyreese. While our second Black man diversifies the image of Black men in The Walking Dead universe — not everyone must be a poor man’s Luke Cage stereotype — the fact that Stookey is barely capable of doing anything more than read still leaves the depiction of Black men on the show woefully unempowered and wanting: there’s still no room for two Black men with any sort of power or agency on the show.

Furthermore, the fact that all the strong Black men in the show are still expressly depicted as physically inferior to our White male protagonist — in two separate scenes in two separate episodes, Rick subdues a hysterical Morgan and a hysterical Tyreese with his fists — results in the show remaining little more than a regressive and problematic reinforcement of existing White male power fantasies over Black masculinity.

Again, I say: all this scene needed was some nightsticks.
Again, I say: all this scene needed was some nightsticks.

Certainly, the introduction of Stookey has done little to challenge the “One Black Man at a Time” Rule: we are still only allowed to have one physically dominant Black man at a time in Rick’s survivor community.

In summary (and with much love to Laurence Gilliard, Jr): Bob Stookey, you're kinda sucking right now.
In summary (and with much love to Laurence Gilliard, Jr): Bob Stookey, you’re kinda sucking right now.

All that being said, two things are true: 1) we’ve had less than three hours worth of episodes with Bob Stookey’s character (and one in which he was pretty much absent), and so we don’t have any idea where his character is going. It’s possible that Stookey will become more capable and less of a resource drain with time. And, 2) the problems with the show are partially symptoms of the problems with its inspiration — the comic book. While many minority characters in The Walking Dead comic by Robert Kirkman are progressive, Tyreese (and a similar character, named Tyrone, who may have inspired the characters of T-Dog and Oscar) are both brutish Black men who originated in the books. To be fair, Chad Coleman’s Tyreese is pretty true to his comic book counterpart, even if it results in some pretty damning stereotyping on-screen.

This IS the dude who nonchalantly offed an entire cafeteria's worth of Walkers by himself.
This IS the dude who nonchalantly offed an entire cafeteria’s worth of Walkers by himself.

Again, only time will tell if The Walking Dead has more to say on its “Black Man” problem. But, right now, things are looking pretty dim.

142 thoughts on “The Walking Dead’s Ongoing Black Man Problem”

    1. Yeah Atlanta is majority black, but could you imagine the backlash if the majority of zombies were black?? Its hard to make sure minorities aren’t offended in this day and age. There is just no way to not offend some.

      Also, I read somewhere a long time ago that they didn’t type as the major roles. The current actors just won out in auditions….

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  1. It seems you can’t be satisfied- first, no black people. Then there is always a black person, but only one, then there are more than one black people and it’s not good enough because one is not strong enough, then you completely discount the samurai black woman who has been on for quite a while simultaneously as other black characters. There’s always an issue…

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  2. It’s very true and very noticeable that there is only one black man on the show at a time (especially noticeable since it’s not even the same black man!) but I do at least think that the show would pass an adapted Bechdel test – there is more than one black person on the show, and they do speak about things other than the white people around them. I’m seriously sad about the characters who’ve now died, and it will be interesting to see who ends up replacing them.

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  3. “In the first season, only two Black characters were depicted — Morgan and T-Dog — both men and neither received significant screen-time.” Wrong… Apparently Jeryl Prescott (Jacqui) is not black??? Chad Coleman (Tyrese), Lawrence Gilliard (Bob), Seth Gilliam (Father Gabriel), Tyler Williams (Noah), Lennie James (Morgan) all in this season in multiple episodes… Has it come to this??? Counting how many black characters vs white characters die and how many African American , Asian, Hispaninic, and Caucasian zombies are depicted? Give me a break.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow this seriously is a joke, like someone else said, blacks will never be happy. I even joked recently like damn there are a shit tons of blacks on this show. Thanks affirmative action. Oh, we need blacks for this position, not the best person, just gotta meet that black quota so NAACP doesn’t come knocking at our door.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. lol they did it again! This is too funny. Soon another black guy will be introduced and the preacher will die off. I dont think he even had any lines in “Forget”. Well, he was non canon so its not surprising. They are all eventual red shirts.

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  6. That is every show not just Walking Dead. Just watch your tv and movies. I love walking dead but I am loving the show EMPIRE more.

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  7. For one, I don’t quite agree with black men being seen as inferior because Rick Punched the crap out of Tyresse. It did take 2 white guys for Rick to get his licks in.

    It’s obvious that Rick, Daryl, and even my FAVORITE character Glen are virtually impervious to death on this show. You can tell by actors speaking roles and scripts that they’re not going to make it any father. Even Chris Hardwick said that he knew Noah was going to die because he expressed a hope. Tyler Williams is such a popular actor and you could see it in his face that he wasn’t content with dying off. Father Gabrielle is technically black and he is the highest prospect to die off. Not only are his speaking roles terse, but he’s also a very unpopular character now. Morgan’s role never sufficed because he really just does his own thing. He can be the king without having much time on the show at all.

    The white women in season 2 have had their fair show of dysfunction and outburst, so I’m not going to pass much judgement of Michone and Tasha’s dysfunction and aggression.

    It’s no doubt that black on this show are the most dispensable. I don’t care how many white people say that there have been a buttload of blacks on the show anyway, there aren’t on the show for very long and it’s dreadfully predictable if you’re not ignorant. This is indicative of how blacks have always been represented in hollywood. Glen, an Asian man, was suppose to have lasted long just based off of his script and first encounter with Rick in season one. After combining his very essence with a white woman he’s become white by association and has become invulnerable.

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  8. I believe you are looking for problems where there are none. The Walking Dead should be unanimously praised for how diverse of a show it is. The show treats every type of person equally, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The Walking Dead simply creates rich characters, casts strong actors for those parts, and runs their respective arcs.

    It’s foolish and just as much of a problem to see characters by their diverse qualities and make them strong, stay alive long, etc. simply for that reason. I believe we have a show that is run by people who simply see people and make a great show.

    Try to be on the side that just sees people, because that’s where we need to be. It does no one any good if we keep a closer account of those like us and scrutinize the writer’s motives. For example, why are you not upset that there aren’t an equal amount of Asians? They have made white comic characters black, but haven’t made any black comic characters white for the show. Are you upset about that? They’ve made male comic characters female, but they haven’t made any female comic characters male. Is that something we should be upset about?

    Get it together, guys. I know this happens often in Hollywood, but it’s not happening here.

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      1. Wow. Very thoughtful retort. Care to expound? Care to actually address anything I said? I feel like I have made a lot of carefully considered and very valid points, to which you responded basically nothing at all. If you’re just an angry black man, just say so and spare people like me the time we take to engage in the conversation.

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  9. I’m black and and this is one of the main problems black people have especially in the south east. I mean it’s some one’s creation. If they want to see more black people on the show maybe they need to make their own show instead of bashing the original show

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  10. Here’s one for my true science nerds:
    This phenomenon should be called “The Law of Conservation of Color”, in analogy with say thermodynamics.
    I actually mentioned to a friend the fact that at the beginning of season 5 there were a reasonable number of central black characters, and his response was “Oh shit, you know their gonna clean house soon cuz the Law of Conservation of Color can’t be violated”. And sure enough, the house got cleaned! Bob, Tyreese, Noah in quick succession.
    SPOILER: On another note, Morgan is back now and he’s a bad-ass samurai. I assume that his arc is going to be very important for next season. So, I predict he and Michonne will both play a significant role in what’s to come, which is great, but I do find it odd that for a black character to have real agency in the show s/he must essentially be a superhero. This reminds me of how some black people who have become successful express that they had to be twice as good as their white counterparts to succeed since they always felt highly scrutinized.
    The modern situation here in the U.S. with regard to racism is complex and nuanced. Overt racism is now relatively rare, I mean, compared to the times when KKK memberships was socially acceptable. But, statistical patterns of racism still exist. It’s not hard to find evidence of it, a notable example being sentencing patterns in the courts. The tricky thing is that these patterns are not always caused by malicious racism, but sometimes happen in a de facto way. For example, I offer the following explanation for the treatment of black characters’ in the writing of Walking Dead: The white writers don’t feel comfortable writing black characters. This leads to stagnation in the roles themselves. Once a role starts stagnating, it’s a candidate for the chopping block. Somehow the writers do feel comfortable writing black characters as larger than life samurai superheros, hence the longevity of Michonne and presumably Morgan. This looks to me like some evolved version of the “magical negro”. You know how when you have someone in your life that you don’t get along well with and don’t really trust, but you have to see them on a day to day basis? And in an effort to keep things on an even keel, sometimes you end up behaving in stupid awkward ways? This is how blacks and whites behave toward each other collectively.

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  11. Marky, I appreciate the response. My views have totally changed as a result of your well-crafted argument.

    On a more serious note now, to those who actually care and put thought into this conversation…

    Justin, that’s a very interesting point of view. I completely agree that there lacks a presence of overt racism here; however, your thoughts regarding the writers is plausible.

    I would also like to point out that the characters living and dying in the show are characters that live and die in the comics, they just seem to swap out who dies in different ways. Here’s an interesting thought as well, as I gracefully lie my head on the chopping block…

    The areas we’ve seen so far in the show are Atlanta and DC. After doing a bit of research, you’ll find that the percentage of blacks well below the poverty line and living in more close-quartered housing is staggering; around 75%. In a zombie apocalypse, these heavily congested areas would be quickly consumed by the zombie infection, taking the vast majority of blacks out of the running for central roles.

    Now, the problem this causes is something that was addressed in the post: where then would all of the black zombies be?

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  12. I’m white and I noticed the one black guy at a time dying off and being replaced phenomenon and thought it was kind of lame. Main thing I want to know is why does anyone listen to Rick? He’s a complete idiot.

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  13. Its a no win situation. There will always be complaining and bickering no matter how many black people are in the show. And if there are too many black zombies then its racism or being prejudice. Quit whining.

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  14. I don’t understand why race is even brought up in this. It’s not like more black people have been killed on the show than white people. And the black guys that died (with the exception of Noah) have been much more heroic deaths. Tyreese’s death scene was beautiful and ultimately comforting. Plus it took up an entire episode. As far as having more whites in the main cast, I think it makes the most sense. Demographicly, most minorities, not just black, live in the cities. Most whites live in the surrounding suburbs and rural areas. I mean, honestly, who would have the better survival ratio? As for “where are all the minority zombies” (kinda seems racist of the poster to exclude them), personally I’d say wtf if the show was about a mainly white cast killing minority zombies. Even though that would be more realistic. By the way, racism goes many ways here in the US. It’s not just against black people. BET is the most racist thing I’ve ever seen. Try being the only white waiter in a Waffle House. Ever had someone demand you pay for their meal for reparations? In my personal experience, black people are pretty racist. I can understand resentment of the past, but damn. It needs to be squashed.

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