[Editor’s note: There’s been a lot of controversy over how The Walking Dead treats its non-white characters. While I was impressed with the number of people of color in the cast, they haven’t always survived the zombie apocalypse in heroic fashion. But everyone dies in a zombie apocalypse, you may say. I saw this essay going around on Facebook, with a knowledge of both the comic and the show, that explains how it may be a little different for the black men of The Walking Dead, and reprinted it with the author’s permission.
WARNING: Lots of spoilers!!!]
My relationship with this show is over. I wanted to love it, but it kept telling me by virtue of its depiction of Black men, I wasn’t its “target” audience. I am a Black man who does not see himself represented well, if at all, on this show.
I have been a faithful watcher of the Walking Dead since the beginning. Part of that appeal had to do with the comic’s grim and unforgiving tone of a world where the dead walk the Earth, the living pray for death, while clinging fiercely to life. Their perspectives skewed by the unending bleakness of a world that will likely never resemble our own and still trying to maintain some degree of civility, some degree of their former humanity.
Oh what a delicate dance this is. And I was there for them. But then I noticed a few things, representative things I had trouble reconciling but would mentally gloss over for the sake of having new speculative fiction to watch.
Things such as: In the Deep South, particularly since this show was set in Atlanta, why was the cast almost entirely white? The American South has the densest population of Blacks in the United States. 60% of Atlanta is Black, but only two of the show’s running cast members are Black. And that number rarely rises beyond two without an immediate cut in numbers an episode or two later.
Having read the comic, I looked forward to Tyrese, a fierce and strong Black brother in the comics. Instead, I got the flavorless and bland T-dog. It wasn’t the actor’s fault. There was no script for him to do anything with. I tried to make due with T-dog but he never became the charismatic character Tyrese was. Then T-dog dies. I tried to feel bad for him but his death wasn’t a surprise.
He dies saving house-frau Carol who will later redeem herself (several times) and become a BOSS in the series, making hard choices, and impressing everyone with her will to survive, by any means necessary.
When a character named Tyrese does appear, he isn’t the man I was looking for. He was moral, centered, emotional and ill-suited for surviving the zombie apocalypse, aside from his incredible strength and strange penchant for using a hammer to kill zombies. (John Henry, symbolism?)
Instead of being a leader and taking charge as he does in the comics, Tyrese, who towers half a head and easily fifty pounds over Rick, takes a savage beat down from Rick instead and learns his place on the food chain. Right behind the strong Black women like Michonne and Sasha.
He will later play second fiddle to Carol when it comes time to handle a problem child. And he will play nursemaid to baby Judith for a time. The writers made him as weak and as inoffensive as possible and I noticed whenever he has a moment of awesome, it’s almost never on camera.
There are two instances where he is overrun by zombies and instead of succumbing, he fights his way clear with nothing but a hammer. Later, when he is locked outside the hut by the redneck, he kills all the zombies outside to protect the child inside.
What irked me about him wasn’t the depiction of his strength. It wasn’t his misplaced morality or his insistence on maintaining a moral framework in a world where such morality no longer has a place.
What irked me most was every time he would have a moment of awesome, where he would be fighting his way free of a crowd of zombies or when he was sent outside to die by the member of Terminus who held baby Judith hostage, his feats were unseen by the audience. Tyrese was never allowed to do what Michonne does, show his ability to protect the group. We are not privy to a singular feat of strength and capacity. He later dies a humbug death bitten by Noah’s reanimated brother. Michonne chops off his arm but he lacks the will to live, unlike the 70 year old Hershel who loses a leg to “rapid amputation” and survives.
To be fair, I wanted to say it was just a coincidence but the longer I watched the show, the more clear it became to me. Black men would not be giving an opportunity to be shown, on the screen, being Black, heroic or pivotal in any way. They would have to settle for being there without adequately representing any heroic characteristics in comparison to the pivotal characters of the show: Rick, Carol, Daryl, Andrea, Michonne and Glenn.
A number of faceless Black men come on and die during this period, barely getting any speaking lines before queuing up for as zombie chow or Governor chow.
Somewhere in here, I began to stop caring.
Bob Stookey shows up, a bland wanderer who gets a half-assed bit of a role, but is a weak-willed alcoholic who gets his comeuppance in an interaction with a flooded store, some liquor and zombie-bite sepsis. Literally, his death is precipitated upon his weakness and possible previous addiction for alcohol. For the moralists among you, this is akin to killing teenagers who are having sex in a slasher movie. A way to say: no — this is bad for you kids, don’t have sex, m’kay?
I didn’t care for the Bob, but he had a bit of potential for growth, after all he was a survivor, without a group, no less. He should have been able to be a contender. But he wasn’t. He had a decent run of about ten episodes. But he wasn’t around long enough for anyone to develop any feelings for him. His most notable feat was finding himself on the menu by the cannibals of Terminus. Is there symbolism in his being eaten? He died in bed and was knifed by Tyrese to prevent reanimation (of course he was.)
His replacement shows up as Noah. Young, idealistic, passionate, I thought maybe things were looking up. Here was the Black man who was going to turn the tide and give us a reason to cheer for them. After all, James Tyler Williams was a reasonably popular actor, I figured he would last a while. Noah is injured early on and spends a good portion of the series limping just slightly faster than the zombies behind him.
Noah, like Bob before him lasts only ten episodes before he too is killed. Noah dies one of the most horrific deaths, saving Nicholas who will later turn around, betray and try to kill Glenn. Noah dies getting eaten inside a revolving door. Graphically. Horrifically.
At this point, I’m disgusted with this show. Michonne has been showing up most of the characters of this show with a hard core, getting things done, chopping off zombie heads, arms and anything else that gets in her way, while still managing to retain a degree of humanity. She is seen bonding with Rick’s son and keeping the group on task, inspiring when necessary, leading by example and killing ten times her weight in zombies every week. She only weights a buck twenty and lays out man or zombie alike, without hesitation, sometimes killing two zombies with each swing of her katana.
While Sasha seems more like she is on a collision course with a self-imposed death, she has, in the meantime managed to fight, get things done and keep her crazy to herself, for the most part. Still more vigorous a character than most of the Black men depicted in this show thus far.
Then there is Father Gabriel. Nothing I say can reveal my utter contempt for this character. Spineless, weak, simpering, cowardly…you get the idea. He has betrayed the group more than once, tried to have them killed, nearly gotten them killed with his behavior, not an asset in any way, doesn’t pull his weight, won’t even kill zombies if he can help it, but is rumored to have left his parish to die by zombie. Ugh. Enough.
But I had one last hope. Morgan. Rumors of his return caused me to consider staying with the Walking Dead because he was reputed to be the Black Man we were waiting for. We meet him a couple of times briefly in the series and the first time he was moral, upright and still hopeful. The next time, much less so, but still grieving. His return shows him defending himself against some Wolves, quite effectively, walking a path of bushido, using no more force than necessary to protect his life. Willing even to part with his goods as long as no one got hurt.
I could admire this in principle. His meeting with Rick and the group was ill-timed but this was meant to contrast Morgan’s reverence for life with Rick’s now dedicated efforts to protect his extended family from every threat, real or perceived, with what most people believe is more violence than necessary.
Rick, in my opinion, has achieved peak apocalypse awareness. If it’s a threat, put a bullet it in. Perhaps a bit on the crazy side, but I can agree with most of his decisions, most of the time. Some people say Rick is the problem, bringing death and destruction with him in his wake.
Other say I am discounting the morality of the Black characters who seem to be holding onto their humanity and are thus, not weak; they are moral and in this case stronger than Rick and Carol [who] have lost any sense of right and wrong during this crisis.
When Rick takes the group to the Farm, Rick was the first to suggest it was not safe to be there. He didn’t cause the later destruction of the farm, Shane did by trying to kill Rick and Carl shooting Shane to protect Rick. The later incidents with the prison and the Governor were also incidents I could agree with Rick’s stand, so the idea that the Black characters were more moral than Rick holds no water to me. Morality doesn’t fight zombies. Morality makes shooting other people difficult, but most of the living people the crew ends up shooting, deserve to be shot.
The only moral quandary has been the people of Alexandra: A town of people cowering behind a fortification not knowing anything about the outside world. Rick’s solutions:
— People who don’t know how to fight? Train them.
— People who can’t shoot a gun? Teach them. Arm them.
— Hiding behind walls without sentries? Get a rifle and set up some lookouts.
— Surgeon’s a wifebeater? Tolerate him? Hell no. Throw him out, post-haste.
Rick and I would get along during the zombie apocalypse. I believe in dealing with threats when they are small and manageable. It’s my military training, I suspect. But I think my time with the Walking Dead is done.
Morgan’s behavior in the latest installment was uncharacteristic of a sane man, during a major crisis. Bushido does dictate using as little force as necessary to resolve a problem. But it has limits, too. As a former military person who has seen combat, I can understand Morgan NOT wanting to kill when it can be avoided. Killing is ugly and damages you in a way you don’t want to think about.
However, a real soldier understands when an enemy attacks you at home, kills those who are under your protection, honorable behavior (treating life as sacred) falls underneath the primary duty of protecting your group and ensuring an enemy never returns to be so bold again.
When Morgan sees the wolves hacking and chopping people apart, seeing no interaction for the sake of negotiation, he realizes they don’t have guns, this should have been an instant reaction to neutralize such a murderous threat, with the same sanction you would a rabid dog making a beeline for your only child; with extreme prejudice.
I am unsure why these writers continue to paint Black men in such a passive and uncommitted role instead of as men of action who recognize what needs to be done in this new world. Why keep painting them as people who can’t adjust to the world they are living in, unable to bring themselves to this new morality?
Actually, I do understand. It’s about keeping Black men from appearing effective in any circumstance possible, which explains why the most effective male characters die almost as soon as they arrive, while less effective ones linger, fail, undermine the story and take up precious screen time being WEAK, PITIFUL and PATHETIC shells of real men.
What’s with the Morgan on a chain scene? Was that really necessary? Was there subtext there? Does anyone here ever consider what they are doing while they are writing the scenes for this show? After Morgan’s awesome fight scene where he argues fruitlessly with homicidal maniacs who entered town by setting a man on fire, killed a dozen others with axes and knives and yet feels compelled to let them live, this for me was the last straw.
Others have tried to convince me this scene brought depth to the Morgan’s character because he didn’t kill the Wolves, he was struggling with his internal moral compass and this makes for compelling television. I say thee, nay! Any man this conflicted will be dead the first time he faces someone with a gun and a complete disregard for HIS life.
After that scene, I can only conclude three things:
(1) Carol will die. Likely by the hands of the Wolf who ran off with a gun.
(2) Morgan will leave unwilling to deal with the responsibility of shepherding such a violent group through the apocalypse or he will be killed in ten episodes or less. (Holding true to form so far.)
(3) Someone vital has to die to give that scene significance. There is a writers’s trope called Chekhov’s Gun. If you place a gun in a scene, you have to be prepared to use it as soon as possible. Otherwise the scene wasn’t necessary.
Carol, having been shown with more balls than most of the men in this show, started an older housewife whose husband was an abuser, has evolved into an action-directed, thinker, leader, and overall terrifying character when she wants to be, with little room left to develop, in my opinion. At this point, her balls are so large, they are starting to chafe. Homicidal? Perhaps, but surviving, just the same.
Her battle with the Wolves could be her swansong and while people would weep her passing, she would have had a complete heroic character arc worth of a Viking pass into Valhalla.
Alas, we can’t say the same for a single Black Male character on this show. Not one. As for Morgan: I had hoped for so much more, than this simpering little whiner they have given us. Yes, he has morality, just like T-dog. Just like Tyrese. Just like Bob. Just like Noah. And if history is any judge, his morality will be the death of him.
Perhaps it’s time for me to fold up my tent and go.
If you are a Black man watching this show, these Black men are inscrutable to you. No one you know acts the way they do. The writers, who are most assuredly white men, may want to imply the Black men we have seen to date are dying because they have retained their humanity, but in a world like this one, humanity is not a reasonable perspective.
When you try to be reasonable with unreasonable men, it’s the same as if you were trying to pour water uphill. It’s impossible and makes you look stupid. No sane Black man I know would be taking this perspective. We would fight for our right to survive, just as hard as Daryl, and Rick and Carol and Michonne.
But it’s clear, if you are a Black Man on this show, YOU ARE THE WALKING DEAD, it’s just a matter of time before your spiritual weakness, physical weakness, or your emotionally weakness results in your death.
And if your morality is intact, in a world without morals you may as well BE DEAD, because your humanity will count against you when you need to take an action which will keep you alive.
I can’t abide another episode of watching Black men being presented as ineffectual, moralistic idiots who don’t possess the will nor the skill to survive.
I’m out. This show is dead to me.
A response to the varied commentary:
When I first published this essay, there were many people who were telling me I shouldn’t be looking to television to find representative role models of heroic behavior. They also said, if I were looking for positive role models I shouldn’t be watching Empire, Scandal, BET, reality television or Sports or listening to rap because those forms of entertainment don’t depict Black people in a positive light either.
I don’t look to television to tell me how to be heroic. I am already well-versed in what it takes to be a good Black man and a hero in this modern world. Nor do I consume any of those media outlets or forms of media. No sports, no rap, no reality television, no negative depictions of people of color. The message such shows promote is a toxic one; serve and remain subservient, don’t aspire, consume, follow, protect assets that are not your own.
I am the quintessential American: Ex-military, hard-working, highly-educated, I am not confused about the role of Black men in American society for the last four hundred years. We have no role. And I recognize television will reinforce this perspective as long as people of color are not allowed to write on television, to create new media which is more accurately representative of how we think, feel and behave.
The models being presented are those created primarily by the white writers rooms whose staff is 78% men and 80% white. There shouldn’t be any mystery why television, not just The Walking Dead, has a love affair with strong Black Women and almost no roles for leading Black men. Television like history, wants as little to do with presenting strong black men unless they can make them subservient, weak, and unable to control their destiny, in the same fashion slavery did.
There will be plenty of people who will read this and say:
“I don’t know what this brother is talking about? Black men aren’t mistreated on television or in movies. They have roles as sidekicks, bartenders, wingmen and other supporting positions. People come to movies to see white heroes because the audience is mostly white.
The roles People of Color play are subservient roles because that is what our customers want to see (or the ones we have conditioned them to want). We are giving the customer what they want. If People of Color want roles as heroes, you have to wait until you have your own production companies before you can see this happen. Besides how we depict you has no effect on how your should see yourselves.”
If media didn’t affect people’s perspectives and choices why would Rupert Murdoch have spent billions on news services, newspapers and other media agencies? Why is Disney’s marketing machine one of the most powerful in the world?
If television has no effect on how people think, how they see themselves, how they perceive their roles in life and in relationship to other people, why is there a $600 billion dollar and growing advertising industry, eagerly buying up every second of air-time it can get on every platform it can find, television, cable, streaming services, smartphones and radio?
Because while White people don’t want to admit it, media is one of the most powerful mind-altering drugs on Earth. And in this drug of choice, being White is the best role anyone can have.
Because media matters. Because representation matters. Because perspectives matter. Because people seeing themselves in a positive light, in a heroic light, in a light which shows them achieving their dreams, fighting against impossible odds and winning (hell, even losing) can alter the perspective of a person, a child, an adult without hope, helping them to aspire to feats of greatness they might not have ever achieved without seeing such things.
Isn’t this why White media is always showing itself, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year as the savior of humanity, no matter what the threat: land, sea, air, space, future, past, at the center of the Earth, on the Moon, on Mars, in the distant future, lording it over the historical past? You paint the picture of the White man as the ultimate expression of good, power and mastery over everything else in nature. No problem that can’t be solved, no good that cannot be delivered.
So don’t tell me, media images don’t matter. Don’t bother telling me Morgan has had a decent arc so far and it can only get better. Because from where I sit, Black men have been emasculated, eviscerated, eaten, and disrespected pretty much since speculative fiction started being distributed in any form of media. Ever.
From Ben surviving Night of the Living Dead only to be shot by the police the following day, to watching the Walking Dead, nearly fifty years later, nothing has changed. There is no future that welcomes Black men.
And I don’t expect it to get any better, any time soon.
Thaddeus Howze is a California-based technologist and author who has worked with computer technology since the 1980’s doing graphic design, computer science, programming, network administration and IT leadership.
His non-fiction work has appeared in numerous magazines: Huffington Post, Gizmodo, Black Enterprise, the Good Men Project, Examiner.com, Science X and Astronaut.com. He maintains a diverse collection of non-fiction at his blog, A Matter of Scale. He is a contributor at The Enemy, a nonfiction literary publication out of Los Angeles. His work can be read on his website Hub City Blues.