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.

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

    1. Last night (3/13) they showed Father Gabe (Black) go tough but after all of his past simpering weakness it really didn’t register that much. More results-oriented TWD.

  1. ridiculous. Look at the tons of whites killed off all the time…good guys and bad, main characters and fillers…and the little white kids never survive except Carl & Judith. Look at all the main characters that are white who have been killed off. But let me guess, that doesn’t count. Why? Because you’re too busy counting black deaths and thinking ALL black characters should never be killed off. Let me guess again, you’re bringing your racist #blacklivesmatter into a tv show for entertainment. lol It figures: We got 2 main black guys now, Morgan and Gabriel and (don’t be sexist too!) Sasha who is one badass black woman along with the biggest badass on the show, Michonne, yet you get riled when any black character dies and claim it’s racist.
    Come on now. Turn your tv to black & white so you can actually enjoy the storyline maybe?

    1. I doubt this missive was written by a Black “:Back TWD fan” but whatever. Despite being set in Georgia, Blacks were always in the minority on TWD so when they cast and then killed off the few Blacks that they featured on the show, yeah, TWD had the classic revolving door…THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE policy for Black men on TWD. They wouldn’t dare kill off the Black women lest they miss a chance at being the bedwarmers for the white males on the show like Rick and Abe. And, the few Black men that they did cast were usually emasculated and shown as weak or inept (Father Gabe, Morgan) or convicts in a prison. Total stereotypes. The white guy always has to be ON TOP and in charge and even capable of beating up a non-glass jaw Black man who weighs almost 100 pounds more and towers over him. (Ty v. Rick).

      I salute you:
      Theodore Douglas
      Bob Stookey

      Other Black Men Down:
      The Prison Crew including: Andrew, Oscar and Big Tiny

      Heath is a weasel. Scott is so rarely seen and was last seen in the infirmary and Morgan has been shunned.

      BRING ON EZEKIEL AND THE TIGER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Why does everyone have to make everything about race. Its not just racists that are prejudice against minority’s but its also people like this. There is no such thing as race but you make it a thing. A guarantee that the creators dont put this kind of thought into it. Only you do. We are all biologically the same. You can sit here and talk about cracker problems but do you here me talking about black problems? No because there is no difference. Its people problems, jackasses.

    1. No on is making “everything about race” as you put it. Astute people cannot help but to notice these ongoing themes, tropes, and stereotypes that result in patterns and practices to the extent they become national and societal jokes/punchlines often referred to as: The Ongoing Black Man Problem, There Can Only Be One or the Highlander Phenomenon. LOL! (The practice is so ridiculous you just have to laugh at the sheer gall and utter stupidity.)

      It’s real. We’re not living in the Matrix. But, maybe you are, based on your comment.

      I think the biggest reason for the problem is a lack of diverse representation in writers’ rooms. It’s a despicable practice that happened all the time In the past and is till with us today as evidenced by The Walking Dead, wherein these writers see fit to “develop” cardboard characters that are devised only to move the story of the white hero forward.

      When faced with a dangerous situation, the Black character or Character of Color became the bait (Hmm, Walkerbait?) or the sacrifice that enabled the white hero to survive and get the girl. Characters of Color were typically the first to get killed or the only to get killed and when one compares the ratio of “minorities” to the white majority in these flicks and TV shows, it was inherently unfair that CoCs were:

      a. Token Minorities;
      b. Used to help the white hero by using their own skills or magic or supernatural ability.
      c. Killed so the white hero could survive and carry on with life.

      The same thing is often done to women and the term is called FRIDGED (as in: women in refrigerators) and it’s just as despicable, especially in 2016. The Walking Dead pulled the tactic when they killed off Beth Greene to enhance the Daryl Dixon story arc.

      The Walking Dead is just not with the program in 2016.

      1. From a statistical perspective (and I only offer this because I’m bored, hungry, have nothing better to do, and really like stats) as of season 6, out of approximately 127 important/named character deaths, 16 were black, or about 13%. This number is close to the actual US demographic ratio, and is slightly less than the total percentage of TWD actors who are black, which is around 15% as far as I can tell. Out of the 42 “main” character deaths, 4 were black (haven’t updated yet for all of season 6), which is around 9.5%. Mathematically, TWD does not kill off black characters out of proportion – in fact, they have a lower mortality rate than the show’s myriad expendable white characters. So that argument doesn’t hold up. You can, however, argue that since the show is set in Atlanta, it should have a higher proportion of black actors than the national level. I would hazard this is most likely due to setting oversight on behalf of the producers – they hire actors from all over the US, and don’t seem too concerned with actually making them reflect an accurate Georgian demographic. A far more valid argument, in my opinion, is why the show considers black men to be far more expendable than black women, who are apparently un-killable save by their own hand.But that’s probably more because of network television’s problem with showing violence against women in general and less a conscious director/writer bias, in my opinion.

        As for the poor plot development of black characters, TWD is basically a soap opera now. “Character development” doesn’t seem to concern them near as much as showing gory zombie deaths.

  3. The Walking Dead is one of my favorite shows but I agree with you 100%. As a black woman I’m worried about the depiction of black men on TV and in movies. They’re either completely absent, written as stereotypes or written as totally insignificant; having said that, I think it’s often a subconscous thing. After all these shows are written and produced by privileged white men, based on a comic written by privileged white men and that’s the context within which the show is made. What’s really needed is diversity at all levels within the industry. Only then will things change. Until that happens I’ll continue to enjoy TWD and other shows with a critical eye.

  4. MichaB I just cannot let TWD off that easy whether it was 2010 or 2016 and yes, even Frank Darabont bears culpability. I think he meant to flesh out Morgan as a character, but as you know, he got axed. There is no excuse for how underdeveloped T-Dog was as a character. Had T-Dog been more richly drawn at the get go maybe Mazzara and Gimple might have managed better, but doubt it based on the work I have seen from them. We knew Carol was a domestic violence victim and that Andrea had a sister and that Glenn was even a pizza delivery guy but nothing was known about Theodore Douglas except that he was an all around good guy.

  5. Holy cow. What a freaking minefield for an (olive skin colored) writer with southern European heritage, living in western country. There seems to be no way to escape one’s own inherited privileges, and the influence those privileges have on one’s characters. A part of me loves writing stories with diverse characters, but after reading some ‘White writers who write diverse characters’ articles, another part of me thinks it would be easier to avoid the landmines if I just whitewashed my stories. I feel like I have to choose between writing diverse characters (badly), or not including them at all (unless they come from my genetic part of the world). Uuurgh, as the second option is worse (in my opinion), I’m going to have to go with the first option and deal with the criticism, and then do my best to edit out my bias.

  6. I feel the writer of this article, and agree with those who see what has been pointed out. I’d also like to say this: what do you all feel is the solution? In my opinion, this situation will change when WE (people of African descent worldwide) collectively decide to write, direct, produce, distribute, finance, and above all , INDEPENDENTLY OWN AND CONTROL what is shown and seen. Yes, it is blatant how in a show set in the ATL that we aren’t represented accordingly. Yes, it is blatant how Black Male characters keep being offed and are only allowed to exist one at a time. These blatancies are not exclusive to TWD, nor are they exclusive to the zombie genre. In closing, if any of you would like to embark on what I suggested, hit me up. I have abilities in writing, video production, video editing, and digital artwork. Let’s BUILD. Thanks for the article and for the space to comment.

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