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This is an article that I published a couple of years ago on what was then a web portal called Africana dot com, but which was bought by AOL, becoming AOL Black Voices. It also has the distinction of being my first paid article! Even though I fought with the Editor, who did make substantial changes and cuts from my original text, I'm still proud of the end result, and so I'm sharing it here, for posterity's sake, and also because no black person has won Survivor since! Enjoy!
Bet on Black — the New Survivor is a Sistah!
By Mark A. Rockeymoore
|Earlier this week CBS aired the final episode of Survivor: Marquesas, bringing to an end what could be viewed as the best season this series has ever had. From a black perspective, that is. The victory of Vecepia Towery, a 36-year-old office manager from Portland, Oregon, was a first for African Americans, who have previously all been expelled from the game long before the final tally of votes and the entry of the Survivor Jury into the lying, traitorous and back-biting fray. |
Too bad it comes when nobody is watching the show any more. Survivor has become a negligible player in water-cooler workplace discussions of our latest television addictions, a comedown from its status at the top of the pop-culture heap when it debuted in the summer of 2000.
The vicarious thrill of watching everyday people compete in physical and mental challenges, as well as the intimate portrayal of the contestants during the course of the game, made it the show a smash with voyeuristic American audiences. It was The Real World without luxury, played for money, with the ultimate prize of a million dollars bringing out the best, and the worst, in the contestants.
The contestants' seemingly irresistible urges to lie and vacillate, to form alliances and break them according to one's own selfish agenda, resonated with audiences who face the same challenges — albeit in less rustic surroundings — on a daily basis. Nor did it hurt that each Survivor cast included a 4-to1 ratio of young hotties to cute old curmudgeons, bringing a raw generational battleground flavor to the most mundane of activities, from building a fire to pitching a tent.
Everything about the show was pitch-perfect Americana — including its perpetual weirdness about race. A concise history of the African American presence on Survivor:
Until now, the first season of Survivor was the most-watched among African Americans, primarily because of the presence of Gervaise Peterson, a youth basketball coach from Philadelphia. Also representing was Ramona Gray, a chemist from Edison, New Jersey. Ramona was voted off the island in episode four because she had been sick since her arrival and was unable to compete. Gervaise lasted until episode ten, despite the constant assertions of his teammates that, like Ramona, he was lazy, refusing to perform general maintenance around the campsite.
The second series, Survivor: Outback, featured Alicia Calaway (a personal trainer) and Nick Brown (a Harvard Law student). Alicia and Nick were voted off, respectively, in episodes eight and ten, Alicia because of her strength and dominant attitude, Nick because of his media-enhanced laziness and the closing ranks of the competing alliances. Both interacted relatively well with their tribe, although some of Alicia's personality traits were among those considered stereotypical of African American females, i.e., neck-rolling, finger pointing and shouting, all of which were demonstrated during a heated argument in episode five, in which she lambasted a cringing white Survivorcast member who vacillated about killing a chicken. What's amazing is that Alicia lasted three more episodes after making the white girl cry.
Survivor: Africa was the show's third installment. African Americans who traveled to the motherland with the franchise, Clarence Black and Linda Spencer, could not find common ground with their teammates. Linda was voted out of the game in episode four due to her refusal to compromise her ethics and spirituality. Clarence was voted out of the game in episode seven, because he was the strongest member. Very uncomfortable racial attitudes were brought to the surface during this season, with venomous and hateful remarks being made by a number of the cast members regarding Clarence's perceived narcissism and, again, laziness.
African Americans on Survivor have almost always been placed in the same tribe (one of the show's more obnoxious conceits is the arrangement of contestants into "tribes" with fanciful foreign names). Ramona and Gervaise were both members of the Pagong; Alicia and Nick pledged their allegiance to Kucha. Only in Africa, on the third Survivor, were the black players split, with Linda representing Samburu and Clarence in Boran. It's hard to know whether togetherness helps African Americans get through Survivor, but during the recent season, Vecepia Towery owed a lot to her black tribe-mate, Sean Rector.
The season began with Sean and Vecepia as members of Maraamu tribe, where they were subjected to the same stereotypes applied to African Americans in previous seasons: they were lazy, they whined, they didn't help out enough. Maraamu lost the first three immunity challenges, resulting in increased tension within the tribe. In the most marked difference from previous seasons, random contestants swapped tribes in episode four, with Sean and Vecepia moving, together, to Rotu tribe. Their relationship grew stronger. When the tribes merged, the new tribe, Soliantu, was dominated by an alliance of four led by John Carroll, a registered nurse from Omaha, Nebraska, with both Sean and Vecepia among the first targets for dismissal.
Sean, a junior high teacher from Harlem, kept his cards above the table, letting everyone know exactly where he stood, causing friction with nearly all the other contestants, who openly wanted to vote him out of the game. His friendship with Vecepia made them look like a package deal, an alternative alliance, attractive to others marginalized by Jon's alliance.
After dispensing with John and his cohorts, Sean and Vecepia proceeded to play the game to win. Sean even won a truck during the final reward challenge — a mixed blessing, as one of the show's consistencies has been that whoever wins the vehicle loses the game.
As a new twist, the winner of the immunity necklace — which enables a cast member to protect him- or herself from being voted off — was allowed to give it to another contestant. Sean begged Kathy, a real estate agent from Burlington, Vermont, to give him immunity in exchange for an alliance, but she refused and Sean was dismissed.
Vecepia then proceeded to make and break alliances, resulting in her inclusion in the coveted Final Two, along with Neleh Dennis, a student from Laton, Utah. Vecepia's skillful management of relationships and power resulted in her grudging acknowledgment as the Ultimate Survivor, by a vote of four to three.
No previous Survivor season has combined so much honesty, spirituality and luck with such raw deviousness, lying and conspiracy. Scenes of Sean and Vecepia leading prayer for their entire tribe and giving thanks for small favors were often intercut with the more regular back-biting and vindictive commentary of the other contestants. Throughout, though, Sean's candor was refreshing and real, as was Vecepia's. Just like in real life, white cast members' reactions to them were initially based on stereotypes, but for the most part slowly transformed into real and sincere relationships.
Vecepia Towery was, and is, truly, the Ultimate Survivor. She played the game better than anyone else ever has, beating all of the odds, to include those determined by the viewers themselves — as the network's official Survivor website points out, only 9% of voters thought Vecepia would win. The season was marked by upset and unexpectedness all around. But it emerged as a refreshing antidote to the usual dismal fate of black characters on reality shows.
As Sean told John when voting him off in episode eight, "Check mate. You thought you had me, didn't you? Next time you go to Vegas, bet on black."
|First published: May 24, 2002 |
About the Author
Mark Rockeymoore is production coordinator at Conquering Books, a black-owned and operated publishing company in Charlotte, NC. He has written two books, Temple of the Sky and Black Hole Soul.