Clay Cane is a New York City-based writer who is recognized for his contributions in journalism. Clay is a regular contributor for various print and online publications such as The Advocate and BET.com. He is the author of the highly anticipated novel Ball-Shaped World, which is a fictionalized account of the black and Latino ballroom scene. Also, he is the Entertainment Editor at BET.com and a member of New York Film Critics Online. He can be reached at claycane@gmail.com.


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    Tuesday, April 08, 2008

    Ever since I received a copy of Martin: The Complete Fourth Season on DVD I’ve been watching as many clips of Sheneneh Jenkins on YouTube as possible. Sheneneh Jenkins was the unruly neighbor of Martin Payne, who constantly harassed his wife Gina and especially her best friend Pam. She was known for flamboyant outfits, weave-a-licious hairstyles, catchy phrases (“Oh my goodness”, “I’m a lady”) and darker skin. Martin embodied the character of Sheneneh like she was a real person, she felt like a part of the cast. I would go as far to say if it wasn’t for Sheneneh Jenkins the show wouldn’t have been as popular.

    After watching endless clips of Sheneneh I remembered many people had an issue with Martin Lawrence. The Negro police, also known as Bill Cosby, said Martin was a “modern day minstrel” -- somebody cue Fat Albert! A 1994 article from the New York Times cited Sheneneh and Mama Payne, Martin's mother, as a clear form of minstrelsy: “The female roles in the minstrel show were fixed versions of the vamp, the termagant and the bonehead, and until late in the 19th century they were played exclusively by men. The type was carried into vaudeville and onto television (Amos and Andy's fussy wives and bossy mothers-in-law; Archie Bunker's fond, foolish wife and earnest, dizzy daughter). So was the tradition of female impersonation: witness Martin Lawrence's bossy country mother and raucous homegirl neighbor Sheneneh.”

    Some felt as if Martin was relying on massive stereotypes and the exploitation of minstrelsy with the eye-popping, random dancing and quick mouths. The more I looked, I saw it, but the bottom line was— Sheneneh was funny. I believe you can get away with nearly anything if it truly is funny and skillfully done. Furthermore, I grew up with girls who were damn near just like Sheneneh, for me and many people who lived in urban black environments, she was close to the real thing: the overconfident ugly girl who thought every man wanted her and would be ready to fight at the drop of a hat.

    In thinking more critically, this was also the time when black women were the butt of many jokes, like Wanda in In Living Color. Wanda was a direct offspring of Sheneneh with big lips, big butt and classic lines like, “Oh, no you didn’t.” Wanda was nowhere near as funny as Sheneneh, but I did get my cackle on a few times. Even today, in films like Norbit, black women are used as the butt of jokes.

    The difference with Sheneneh, and Wanda to a certain degree, is that these characters didn’t cross over to the white community like a Step N’ Fetchit or an Amos ‘n’ Andy. Sheneneh was loved in the black community because many of us could relate and saw an overdramatized relation to our neighborhood. Whites didn’t have the same relation with the Sheneneh Jenkins of the world, which is why when Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and David Spade played valley girls on Saturday Night Live, it was found to be hilarious. However, why is Martin as Sheneneh offensive and Adam Sandler as a valley girl not offensive?

    You decide, check out Sheneneh Jenkins’ greatest hits.

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    Posted by Clay :: 9:57 AM :: 12 comments

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