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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- NOC: Walker Week (thenerdsofcolor.org)