HBO’s Insecure and the End of Black Love

What Issa and Lawrence taught me about the end of my parents’ relationship

Occasionally, during the mornings when I found myself awake before my mother came to wake me, I would slide out of my bed and tiptoe down the hallway. If I was lucky and quiet enough, I could climb on top of the sofa and peer outside the window to our front porch to find my mother and father sharing a moment together, both of them unaware of my looking.

In the dew and dull light, they’d talk softly about something I’m sure I didn’t care about at the time, and eventually, my father would pull my mother toward him as she wrapped her hands around his back. They would stay like this for a while, holding each other close with their eyes trained on the other. Somewhere distant, the sun pushed higher into the sky and I watched as they watched the light reveal the small details on each other’s face.

The morning slowly covering a pair of shoulders, my parents standing in the fading darkness, and me, perched on a couch, watching the scene through what light poured through the glass of a window — this is how I first learned of romantics and what it might look like when two black people are in love.

HBO’s Insecure is of course, on its surface, a wickedly funny show, but what it truly excels at is its storytelling. What makes its stories worthwhile, I think, is Issa Rae’s (Insecure’s creator, head writer and lead actress) and the other Insecure writers’ ability to craft whole, layered black characters. Instead of characters that are tertiary to the story or characters that are shallow and one dimensional, Insecure’s ensemble runs deep with complexity: each character craves multiple things and is, at the same time, eager and somewhat clumsy in their efforts to achieve what they think will make them happy, whether it be success, independence, or even each other.

There is a magnificent and particular kind of magic that occurs when black people get to watch other black people fall in love, fail, and then fall in love again on television. When the stories are told thoughtfully and with earnest, we, as a black audience, get to imagine ourselves in a similar kind of love. I watch Molly (Yvonne Orji) both stumble and triumph through her dating life and I turn to a homie sitting close by and notice how her eyes are wide and glued to the screen, and then smile as she tells me she’s never seen herself quite like this before. I watch Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) love each other and hurt each other within the same minute and feel as if it might be familiar, like I’ve maybe been through a similar kind of difficulty in a previous relationship, or at least, perhaps, I’ve seen this kind of story unfold before.

There is a photo of my mother that I believe was captured sometime during her secondary school years, in tenth or eleventh grade maybe. In the photo, she is in her school uniform — a white button down shirt lays beneath striped overalls — and a pair of large, shimmering earrings are fastened into her ear lobes. Her afro, surely kneaded with grease or a variant of pink lotion, is picked far into the sky and a small sliver of it is dyed blonde in a way that might have been popular in the 70’s. A smile has made its way across her face and her eyes are wide and pointed toward the man at the opposite end of the photo’s frame. I’ve known my mother, all my life, to be rather reserved and her expressions to be controlled and intentional. She did her best to shape the world for us as kids, to bend its light so it always seemed kind and incapable of causing us harm. That process, I think, has made her seem consistent and almost curated, and so I had believed I had seen and memorized all manners by which my mother could smile. But here, in the photo, the expression on her face seems sudden and unfiltered. Here, my mother seems a little mischievous — young and coy, and maybe even flirting.

In another photo, taken at some other place during some other time, my father stands at the top of Fort Charlotte in Nassau with his back turned to the camera. He seems to be admiring the view of the large and endless ocean in front of him. His arms are spread wide as if attempting to capture the shoreline and his head is slightly tilted to the left. The photo is showing me that my father had swagger in his thirties. The photo is telling me my father thought the entire Atlantic and everything beyond was his, or could be his, or would be his someday. At his funeral, after finding his body quietly asleep in his casket, through tears, I open his obituary and discover the photo for the first time. It is the first time I see my father so young and so reckless.

Depending on the scene in Insecure, Issa might enter the frame with her hair styled in a small, rounded afro. And in these scenes, if I squint, I can imagine that she is actually my mother. In a similar way, when Lawrence is at his most gleeful, offering a dap to his boys or spreading his arms wide to feel the wind rush across his chest, I see a version of my father somehow brought back to the world of the living.

Yes, these characters are a few steps away from what I think my mother and father looked like when they came together, but Issa and Lawrence’s story is the closest I’ve come to seeing, with my own eyes, what might have blossomed between my parents before my birth some twenty-seven years ago.

Once, on a trip to Malibu, Issa, Molly, Tiffany (Amanda Seales) and Kelli (Natasha Rothwell) all come clean to one another. In an act of vulnerability, they share what heavy weight is pressing down on their chests. It’s a helpful exercise for them, to have a brief, safe moment to share, without filter, whatever it is they are currently dealing with in their lives. After returning from the trip, Molly and Issa decide to incorporate the value of that space into their common, shared language, and agree to say “Malibu” to preface any opinion or thought that they wish to share plainly. It is their way of indicating that they want to be real and vulnerable with each other, if just for a moment.

After her initial separation from Lawrence, Issa tries her best to bounce back. In reference to Lawrence, Molly says, in a prompt to Issa, “Malibu? Bitch be honest.” And Issa replies, “I just want us to be cool, I dont even want him back,” as she lines up a terrible sequence of dates with new prospective partners — new partners that she hopes will help her move on. But instead of moving on, while on one of those dates, she looks into the eyes of the forgettable man sitting across from her, blinks, and then imagines she is looking into the eyes of Lawrence. In that moment, Lawrence forgives her and asks her to get back together. And a split second later, as if someone far away snapped their fingers, Lawrence disappears and she is back to looking into the eyes of someone who isn’t him. Later, when talking to Molly again, she admits it. “Malibu? Of course I want my man back.”

As I got older, the relationship between my mother and father became sporadic: sometimes on, sometimes off. My mother made it clear, even to me, that she always wanted to marry my father, but there was only so long that she was willing to wait. Soon, their relationship was called off and never rekindled. Over a few years, my mother began to move on and tried seeing new people. It was a progression of events that my father never saw coming.

Months before he died, he and I spent a few hours on the phone together one summer evening. For at least half of the conversation, my father wept in a way that could only be caused by a profound kind of grief. I had never seen or heard my father cry before, but there he was, falling apart over a phone pressed to my ear. It’s a surprising thing to witness your parent in the midsts of such hurt. I wonder, even today, if my mother ever saw him this vulnerable, this distraught. Through his tears, I could hear his heart splitting open, wider and wider.

Malibu? In the midst of such potent grieving, I think my father saw my mother in everything he touched.

If season one of Insecure was meant to show what it can look like when two black people — Issa and Lawrence — are in love and further meant to catalog the events that may push the bond of that love toward breakage, then season two is where we watch the pieces fall as they may and then watch two lovers as they stand in the middle of the wreckage to look each other over a final time. While season three of Insecure is scheduled to premiere in just a few days on August 12th, instead of waiting in anticipation, it is this final look, this final scene between Issa and Lawrence that I have considered and returned to numerous times this past year: once or twice when I felt the world and all I had tried to build inside of it was crumbling around me, and a few more times during the terrible and lonely nights when I found myself missing my father the most.

In the scene, we find Issa and Lawrence inside their old apartment, empty now of all their belongings. It seems the perfect place for them to talk one last time — the same place their relationship unfolded, cleared now of what had accumulated in its crevices. They exchange words and apologies, both admitting they wanted the world for themselves and each other, both admitting their regrets and how they wish they could have been better.

At the end of the scene, Lawrence stands outside the apartment while looking at Issa who is still standing inside the apartment. After a long season of fighting and then avoiding each other and then fighting again, at this point, they have both been broken open and are both reeling. They know this look is the final look they will share with each other. They know that here, at last, their relationship can be put to rest.

With pain in his face, Lawrence bids farewell to Issa and then walks out of frame. But for a split second, Issa imagines this final interaction entirely differently. In her version, it turns out Lawrence doesn’t want to move on and, instead of leaving, he falls to one knee and asks her to marry him. Then, mere seconds later, in the quick haze that dreams are known for, we watch them fall into the couch inside their apartment, the pieces of their furniture returned and all of their belongings restored; Issa in a wedding dress and all her teeth showing. Then, suddenly, they are in the throes of ecstasy while making love again, clawing their way through each other like only lovers can. Then, in another shift, Lawrence presses his head against Issa’s swelling belly, both of them eager in anticipation. Then, at the dream’s final stop, Issa is giggling and staring into the face of a new child; a child that would grow up to have her smile.

Abruptly, the visions end and we are brought back to the still empty apartment where Lawrence does, in fact, say goodbye before walking away. What we were shown wasn’t real. It was all Issa’s attempt at holding close the dreams she had of a life with Lawrence before the final chance at those dreams walked out of her life for good.

When a breakup is made final, either through an uncontrollable progression of events or after a person disappears and is never seen again, I imagine the dreams and memories of that relationship don’t disappear. They must live elsewhere, filed away into a corner of our memory perhaps, but still accessible if a moment of recall so requires them.

Based on the way my mother spoke about my father, and the way my father spoke about my mother, I think they always held hope that they’d get back together someday. And so, at his funeral, when my mother looked into the open mouth of my father’s casket, I imagine a whole world flickered back to life. Their courting, the summer nights they must have shared in the shadows — a ring still fastened on my father’s finger while my mother hoped for a ring of her own. I see them giggling softly somewhere no one could see. It’s clearer now, the small trouble they must have found themselves in, my mother’s palms moving slow over her widening belly. I can see that morning their trouble was born and given a name. I can imagine them reliving what future they dreamt for themselves each time they looked at their trouble’s face.

We get the time we have with our loves and nothing more. I know it may never be enough to hold each other close, to say what we want to each other. I know it may never be enough to work through our hurt. But I at least want to try:

Malibu? I’ve watched two people love each other dearly and still they parted ways with regrets hanging over their heads.

Malibu? Love will build us up and wreck us all the same.

Malibu? I don’t think we’ll ever get over the ones we love. The ones who are still here or the ones we may never see again. I don’t think we’ll get over any of them.