The Amazing Tales of Creative, Black Women in Media

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My hands gripped tightly onto Grandma’s. She had just picked me up from school, and we were walking back home. The sounds of cop cars were daunting as they rushed passed us to the other side of the neighborhood. Once I saw the liquor store to the right, I knew that we had arrived. My mom wouldn’t be home for some hours due to work, so it was just Grandma and me. Assuming that I was hungry, she went into the kitchen to fix me a plate. Staring at our entertainment system, I viewed the many players we had; DVD, CD, cassette, and VCR. Looking at the TV stand, it must have been at least 10 years old. I turned on the TV knowing exactly what would be on, General Hospital. And at 4 P.M., Oprah would be on next. After cooking, Grandma would return to the living room with two plates, one for her and one for me. We sat on the couch watching a variety of T.V. shows. I really do miss those afternoons with Grandma.

Growing up, T.V. played a role in my life and the memories I shared with my loved ones. And when it came to music, all I knew was Caribbean and Dancehall. If it weren’t for the radio, B.E.T, and Myspace, I wouldn’t have been exposed to Hip-Hop and R&B. I mention this because media relays a message to society about our identity. For all my life I was called “Little Oprah”, and that would not have been possible without Oprah’s media presence.

In another piece, Why I Hate Being a Black Woman in America, I mentioned that the media in the U.S. uses four tropes to simplify black women into one-dimensional characters. The four misused tropes mentioned were The Sassy Black Woman, The Hypersexual Jezebel, The Angry Black Woman, and The Strong Black Woman. I purposely left out the Mammy trope because it’s more subtle in today’s media excluding ‘The Help’. These misrepresentations or one-size-fits-all characters create societal assumptions about ALL black women. Additionally, they make black women feel less than if they don’t fit into one of these tropes. As a result, I wanted to write about these tropes and some trailblazers who are breaking boundaries in the media industry such as; Viola Davis, Issa Rae, Taraji P. Henson, and of course, Beyoncé.

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First, let’s start with Viola Davis. Viola Davis was born in Saint Matthews, South Carolina but spent her days growing up poor in Rhode Island. Her father only had a fifth grade education and was a horse groomer. Davis, at this time, found herself escaping and falling in love with theater. She majored in theater at Rhode Island College and later attended the Julliard School for Performing Arts. She debuted on Broadway with ‘Seven Guitars’ written by August Wilson, the playwright for ‘Fences’. When Davis first entered TV & Film, she had the ability to make grand impressions using small roles. Davis was known for her character depictions in ‘Doubt’ and ‘The Help’ before ‘How to Get Away with Murder’. Her role in ‘The Help’ fits the Mammy stereotype, and it was a role that she wrestled with playing. Also, if you were not aware, ‘The Help’ was written by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who had charges filed against her by her brother’s black maid for using her experiences without compensation. Davis found herself asking if she was playing Aibileen ‘right’ or according to ‘white standards’. Davis received a lot of praise and criticism for this role. Seen only as a stepping stone, later on Davis became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (‘How to Get Away with Murder’, a drama written by Shonda Rhimes).

“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black,” — Viola Davis

Davis understood that without black people working behind the scenes, complex character types for black women would not be possible. With the fame gained from playing Aibileen, she was able to skyrocket her career and launch JuVee Productions.

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Next up, we have Issa Rae. Issa Rae was born in Los Angeles, California. Growing up Rae lived in Potomac, Maryland, a city that is only 5% black. She ended up finding herself doing ‘white activities’ like swimming, street hockey, and attending Passover dinners with Jewish friends. When she moved back to California, Issa was mocked for ‘acting white’, and soon realized that she didn’t fit into society’s ideal of ‘blackness’. In 2007, Rae graduated from Stanford University in which she majored in African-American Studies. During her college years, Rae met Tracy Oliver who starred as Nina and co-produced Awkward Black Girl. In 2011, Awkward Black Girl went viral. Rae created the web series, ‘Awkward Black Girl’, because she believed that stereotypes of black women in media were limiting and not relatable. Rae has also created many other shows portraying black experiences that don’t exist in today’s media.

I felt like my voice was missing, and the voices of other people that I really respect and admire and want to see in the mainstream are missing. — Issa Rae

In 2013, Rae began to draft the pilot with Larry Wilmore for Insecure. HBO then picked up the pilot in 2015. This made Rae the first black woman to write, produce, and star in an HBO original series. Rae received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in Insecure. In Essence Magazine’s May 2015 Issue, Rae expressed her desire for more people of color working in production behind the scenes to make a lasting impact in the television industry.

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Then, there’s Taraji P. Henson. Taraji P. Henson was born in Washington D.C. In 1995, Henson graduated from Howard University with a degree theater. In her third year of college, Henson became pregnant with her son, Marcell. Even during her pregnancy, she urged her professors not to bench her. In 1996, Henson moved to L.A. with only $700 in her bank account and gained her first professional gig as a recurring role in ‘Smart Guy’. In 2001, Henson received a starring role in ‘Baby Boy’ and once again in 2004 for ‘Hustle & Flow’. In 2008, Henson plays Queenie as a supporting actress, somewhat fitting of the Mammy archetype, in ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which she earned the Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award nominations. In 2015, Henson began to star in ‘Empire’ in which she received an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe award. Recently, Henson starred in ‘Hidden Figures’, a movie depicting the black mathematician, Katherine Johnson, who did the math for the first lunar landing. Hidden Figures outsold Star Wars in box office sales the weekend it premiered.

“I have been told my entire career, ‘Black women can’t open films domestically or internationally. Well, anything is possible. Most importantly, this proves that people like good material.” — Taraji P. Henson

During Henson’s acting career, she has played characters fitting ‘The Angry Black Woman’ stereotype such as in Tyler Perry’s ‘I Can Do Bad All By Myself’ and ‘Not Easily Broken’, but her contribution to Hidden Figures depicts an inspiration for future generations and that movies starring black women, outside of the tropes mentioned, can perform well.

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Finally, we have Beyoncé Knowles. Unlike those previously mentioned, Beyoncé’s career in media mainly rests in the music industry. So what about her? Beyoncé was born in Houston, Texas. At a young age, she competed in many talent shows. Later on, she formed an all-girls group with her cousin, Kelly Rowland, and two other classmates. The group, Destiny’s Child, landed a record deal in 1997. Destiny’s Child became a popular R&B act, but they came to an end in 2004. In 2003, Beyoncé had already released a solo album, Dangerously in Love. Beyoncé had become a huge success. In 2008, Beyoncé married Jay-Z, but that didn’t stop her from releasing I am…Sasha Fierce in the same year. In 2010, Beyoncé won six honors at the Grammy Awards, the most wins in a single night for any female artist. In 2011, Beyoncé released her father, Matthew Knowles, as her manager and released her first album without him, 4. In 2013, Beyoncé released her “visual album”, Beyoncé, with no promotion; the album broke records. It sold over 800,000 copies in the weekend it was released. In 2016, Beyoncé released Lemonade, a conceptual film and album. Lemonade debut at №1 making Beyoncé the only artist in history to have all of her first six studio albums reach the top of Billboard’s album charts.

I wanted to sell a million records, and I sold a million records. I wanted to go platinum; I went platinum. I’ve been working nonstop since I was 15. I don’t even know how to chill out. — Beyoncé

Beyoncé is an artist with a vision. Her work depicts feminism, blackness, family, marriage, and love. Beyoncé collaborates with remarkable people like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Warsan Shire, and Melina Masoukas, who are all black women.

To sum it up, there are tropes and stereotypes that exist in today’s media that negatively impact black women. But as Rae said, to make lasting impact or create change in this industry, there is a need for people of color working behind the scenes. For the narratives of black identities and black women, there needs to be more black feminism and LGBTQ in production. Because although white people are more likely to portray these tropes, other people of color, specifically men, has also portrayed black women negatively. For all the black identities and black women who work or are considering theatre, film, and production, I hope that this piece inspires you to continue and to understand that your contribution is important. The necessity to change an industry rooted in whiteness and prejudice by bringing diverse perspectives and authenticity is truly appreciated.

Thank you for reading this piece! I always say at the end that I’m not necessarily a great writer, so I’ll appreciate any feedback regarding the writing. I’m also in the process of creating a platform for black identities and black women to share their legacy work. If you’re interested, email contact@redflowers.co and check out: http://bit.ly/2iCoWz5.