I’ve wanted to interview Dr. Todd Boyd for many years now and I’m honored to finally get the chance. I caught up with him yesterday and we kicked it for about an hour and twenty minutes. With this interview, I decided to highlight another perspective of what we talk about here daily. I also wanted to overstate the importance of having more diverse Black voices in journalism. It’s my opinion that some are threatened by a Black voice here or a another Black voice there. What they don’t understand is that by having more objectivity on any given story, history will be affected in a way teaching us all and advancing the thoughts and minds of our youth more readily. Sal, put some brothas up on the wall! No one wants to take over. I could care less about jacking someone’s job because I personally know no one can do it like me and I don’t profess to do it like anyone else. I just want to do my thing and watch the microphones get a little closer frame by frame, game by game despite knowing another name will always get the fame just the same. We don’t get into that in the first part. We talk about Dr. Boyd’s early walk…how he eventually ended up at USC as the the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts (Damn Doc, that’s mouthful bruh). Check out his blog. Oh, did you know he co-wrote The Wood?
Michael Tillery: What was your opinion of race before undergrad?
Dr. Todd Boyd: I learned about college by watching college sports…college football and basketball. Nobody in my family had gone to college, so it’s not like I grew up with educated people. To be on the other side of that and I’ve been on the other side for a while now, I always see guys missing out on a great opportunity. Obviously the objective of going to college is to graduate and do well in life, but not everybody graduates.
The exposure…maturity that you’re getting is important. For me, it was all bout expanding my horizons by being exposed to different ways of looking at things. The nature between ball and college life impacts me personally. It’s always been there…it’s just grown over time and influenced the way I think about a lot of these issues.
MT: So, that brings up an interesting point about how we as Blacks view education. Do you think that’s a prevailing theme in our community? Do we learn about college through sports? is it necessary for us to view college the way the mainstream sees it? Not the culture, but the educational value.
TB: It’s a little different now then when I was coming up. I always laugh when I hear…for instance…guys…when you ask what they are doing…and they say they are a rapper. I always find that funny. When I was coming up that wasn’t a job title. That came about over time. I say that to say…I was in college…Jordan and Barkley and those guys are a year older than me…Patrick Ewing…a year ahead. So I was in college as the game was changing. Ten years later when you get to the 90’s and KG, Kobe, McGrady came straight out of high school and started having a lot of success. This was something I saw as it’s evolved.
When you think about college in terms of the Black community, if you can play ball…or if you can’t…college is about going beyond where you are. It’s about learning how other people live, how other people think and how other people do things. It can only help you.
When I think of a lot of Black people…for a long time the focus was on getting money. Unfortunately, when people are desperate, they need a quick buck or fast money.
Going to college is slow money in a sense. It’s like you are making an investment and over time the investment will really pay off but, it’s not something you can cash in right away. Of course, to be in a position to think long term, you need to be fairly comfortable, but if you’re not, you are wanna go for the fast buck.
When I was in college, a friend of mine pulled my coat and told me something I never forgot. We were sitting outside drinking, smoking and doing what we do. Often in moments like that you seem to come with your most profound insight. My man pointed over to the library and said they can kick me out of school but I still know how to use the library. I thought wow that’s me. It’s like somebody gave you a tool to use and transform your life if you are actively going after it.
Without education, where are we? I can’t see anyone hatin’ on consciously getting an education. Everyone has different circumstances so people do what they need to do, but how can you hate on education? Maybe you don’t have the opportunity to get an education or afford to get an education, but the point is you can’t hate on it. That knowledge allows you to build and evolve and have an impact. I’m not saying you can’t make it without that knowledge in life…it just makes it easier. Another way to look at it if you are playing basketball and all you can do is go left, then you are easier to guard at a certain point. You need to be able to go to your right, put the ball on the floor, create your own shot and play defense. We praise the ball players who have a versatile skill set. If you are only able to do one thing, you aren’t going to be that successful. Dwight Howard…he can play defense, but on the offensive end all he can do is just dunk.
College is just adding another element to your arsenal. That’s the way people need to focus on it as opposed to this either or situation.
MT: How did you end up at the University of Utah?
TB: I went to University of Iowa for grad school. I went for three years. After three years I needed to eat. I laugh about it, but I kinda did my own hardship (part 2 upcoming) thing. I left after three years and when I left, I hadn’t finished my PhD. I finished up a short time afterward but leaving early, the only place I could get a gig was the University of Utah.
So I look at it as the Utah Jazz drafted me in the second round thinking what’s to lose? After being there for a year and demonstrating my skill set, I was able to make the move to come to USC. I wouldn’t be at USC if I hadn’t left Utah early because when I got to Utah I got people to see me as a professor as opposed to a graduate student. It was the only opportunity I could get at the time. I was hungry enough to go to Utah, but I didn’t care. I looked at it like they had an NBA team, how bad can it be? It was pretty bad, don’t get me wrong, but I was willing to go anywhere and do whatever it took to get to that next level.
MT: How did the educational eyes viewing you as a professor change from the culture of Utah to the culture of Southern California? Was it a major difference how they view and interacted with you?
TB: When I got to Utah in the early nineties, the Utah Jazz had five Black players: Karl and Jeff Malone, Blue Edwards, David Benoit and Tyrone Corbin…maybe one or two more cats. That was a different era. Being in Utah was difficult. It is a predominately Mormon culture…overwhelmingly White and conservative. I was young. That’s why I say that stuff speaks to me. I was 27 when I got my PhD. and only came out of the streets a couple of years before that so I stil had a lot of deeper energy. I really wasn’t paying much attention to how they looked at me or responded to me. It wasn’t my concern. My concern was how was I gonna get my shot off basically.
Looking back on it, I made a lot of enemies and there were a lot of haters, but that’s the way it goes. When I got to USC, This was like 1992 so, I was in the midst of it. You had The Chronic, Doggystyle, the riots and Death Row Records. This was that moment in time when I got to LA. I was a year out of grad school at the top film school in the world and I was also close to the center of the culture at the time where all the energy was being generated. It wasn’t like I was watching it on television, I was right in the middle of it.
I remember at the time you would go to spots and see Snoop and Suge (Knight) and Dre. This was really before any of those cats were known on a national level even though it certainly changed a short time later.
The difference for me was being in LA in a more permanent environment and a larger more diverse community.
USC was the perfect place for me to be. Utah was a stepping stone. This was Boyz in the Hood. This was Menace II Society…and incredible moment in the culture. Jordan was on top of the world. I was able to maximize all that being in the center.
MT: What was the idea behind The Wood? Obviously that’s how we view each other as Black men in terms of loyalty and relationships but what was your inspiration coming out of the culture of the early nineties to co-write a movie such as that?
TB: If you grew up in a Black community like most of us have, there may be difficult times and challenging circumstances but, it’s not like it’s 24/7 that cats are dodging bullets, running from the police and mean muggin’. That’s not realistic. There are times when we all laugh, enjoy life and celebrate whatever we are celebrating. The Wood was basically speaking to those who knew the culture that yeah, we do this too. We get married. We get nervous before we get married. We aren’t getting all of our people together and there’s 2000 arguments…sometimes it’s love. It was putting a human face on a lot of things that were going on at the time. Not to diminish some of the other more pressing images we had seen but that’s why you had a character like Stacey in the film who shows you that even these thugs and these so called gang bangers…even these people have connections to regular life. We are human. The film was about showing a Black humanity. A lot of people who didn’t know or who didn’t grow up that way wouldn’t think that way of life existed.
If you look at The Wood, you can find something there that speaks to you. Our experience is a universal experience. It grew out of Hip Hop as well. It grew out of LA and what was happening in the country.
It’s like if you saw Cooley High. That’s still a classic. We were hoping as time went on that people would see The Wood as the same kind of film. It was about friendship, conviction and bonds and again, Black humanity.
MT: That was a great time because there was a lot of creativity that came out of what was (Ironically, as I type this a Ghetto Bird is hovering nearby.) a very influential era. Was there almost an evolution of the Cosby era to show America that we do have and do everything you alluded to earlier? We saw ourselves as equals and so should everyone else?
TB: Well Cosby certainly was popular and visible back in the eighties. I think a lot of people refer to Cosby as a landmark example of popular culture but what we were trying to say is that Black people are broad and complex. In other words, you can’t just pigeon hole Black folk as all doing the same thing, thinking the same way…we have broad diversity in our community.
It’s not often that people outside of the community come to recognize the diversity that exists. You can have a Black middle class with an aspiring thug like Stacey in the family. You talk to any Black person and you don’t have to go far in the family before you find someone incarcerated or on probation.
People wanted to say the Cosby show represented all Black people and it didn’t. Nothing does and that means The Wood, the Cosby Show or Boyz in the Hood.
We have different thoughts and ideas and controversies. When people think of us as broad and complex, then it’s difficult to reduce us into something simplistic.
MT: With our site we are trying to show mainstream America just what you said. There is no monolith. Maybe this is generalizing, but I want to hear your answer, but why do you think America doesn’t get that we do have depth as a people? Why can’t they see the depths of our soul and want to make it mind comfortable?
TB: Most people outside the community have very little interaction with the Black community. Maybe they watch sports on television or Hip Hop videos or whatever images that may be circulating in the media. There’s a big difference from watching something on TV or in a movie or listening to music than dealing with real people.
Unless you’ve had that interaction, how would you know?
Using the media to determine your thoughts about a group of people that’s a pretty limited example. How would you know? You just can’t make this up.
There’s more now than it’s ever been (interaction), but even that is pervasive. I also think that people tend to think and act based on their own self interests. You start to question someone who pigeon holes and stereotypes an individual, but what is that saying about how they view themselves and their relationships?
In other words, all you have to do is look at the way some people are looking at the election of Barack Obama.
People are quick to say that look how far we’ve come as a country and they celebrate this as a celebratory statement. What people don’t say is that in order to get to this point, there was a lot of wrong done and that wrong didn’t just disappear.
You have an African-American in the most symbolic position in the country. A lot of it has to do with people trying to control the narrative to see how it applies to them. I think it’s easier to see Black people as monolithic.
You don’t have to work and we have a lot of intellectually lazy people in our society…Black, White and otherwise.
MT: On the other hand, do you think we see White America as the monolith?
TB: I think some Black people do. Again, if you don’t interact with people, then how are you gonna know about them? I’m someone that’s quick to say there are broad degrees of differences in White culture. You see that representative in the media. I always say if the only representation of White people we have is the Three Stooges, then we would think of White people very differently. Come up with a more contemporary example…say a Jack Black, Will Ferrell or Chris Farley. If they were the only images we had of White people, coonin’ and tommin’ and jeffin’ then we would have a different view. That’s not the case. We have a broad view at any given time so you don’t take one image for more than it’s worth. You see it in a context. I think that’s the problem you don’t have a myriad of Black images contradict the few images that seem to define us.
Yes, there are some Black folks who see the “White Man” if you will.