Why We Need Real Black Characters By Real Black Artists

Earlier this month, my husband and I went to see Queen of Katwe, the new Lupita Nyong’o movie about a Ugandan chess prodigy, and I was fighting back tears every few minutes. It’s definitely a tearjerker, as an older Quebecois gentleman remarked to his wife and the other couple rounding out their double date. But it was so much more. It was the color — of the earth, of the bird, of the clothing and of the characters. The light.

Literally, the light. The fact that the film was lit for dark skin. That black faces weren’t shadowy the way they’ve been so many times onscreen, eyes and teeth standing out like they were Cheshire cats because the camera was really meant to capture someone whiter standing beside them.

It was the truth of their manner of speaking. Of their gestures, their expressions, their dancing. It was the tears, the comforting, the holding of children’s faces as you do when you know someone is precious, and you want them to know it too.

The movie follows one story in Katwe, one community in Uganda. Uganda, one country in Africa. Phiona, one girl of a group, many of whom went on to succeed — secondary characters who were developed enough to remind us that they have stories, too. It was a story that didn’t fall into exploitation, that didn’t chase a bias with confirmation. It felt authentic from the first shot because of the color on both sides of the camera, because it was spoken with overwhelmingly native voices, and because home was shown to be a community fraught with need and brimming with love — exactly as we know it to be. There was no poverty porn, no close-up shots intended to tug at the heartstrings and reinforce the viewer’s privilege.

It was everything.

***

I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, and while there were some pretty groundbreaking shows and films, and definitely a lot to be proud of, there seemed to be whole segments of entertainment that didn’t feature black people at all. The suggestion of race-bending (which wasn’t a term I’d ever heard growing up) or inclusion was ludicrous. Huge blocks of whiteness were perfectly acceptable, and if that wasn’t your cup of tea, there was always the token trend. Outside of The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and especially in the animated shows I watched, lone black characters were set adrift in a sea of whiteness, dispossessed of anything remotely cultural or treated as caricatures.

Whether or not I knew it at the time, the tokenism that existed on the screen was probably a good indication of the writing room. How could those characters speak to me — let alone soothe or recharge me — when they were written by someone who looked nothing like me? But to refuse watching in protest would have meant having two or three shows to choose from for my entire childhood. The consensus seemed clear: black kids didn’t need more than a couple of characters who looked like us, and they didn’t really need to live like us. Black families on television were remarkable or tragic, destitute or wealthy, without normalcy or middle ground. And, pioneering as showcasing an upper class black family was, it was inevitably used by some to reinforce unsavory beliefs — that there was a single “right,” “respectable” way to be black. As is always the problem with limited representation, even the good bore too great a burden.

I went to an unarguably podunk junior high in Northern California. I chose it — I was the only one of my siblings to stick with music after beginner piano lessons, so my dad made me captain of my own destiny. Unfortunately I also was a 12-year-old contrarian and the basis of my decision was a flimsy two facts: my two older sisters hadn’t gone there, and the school referred to their recital band misleadingly as an “orchestra.”

It would be cliché but perfectly understandable to have hated those two years, and I had plenty of reasons. The principal, Ms. Jackson, was black, and there were black kids at the school, but all the other students in the gifted track were white. I was the only black girl in all of my classes, and when a black boy named Norman came through in 8th grade our classmates alternately cast him as my brother and my boyfriend. The tall, lanky boy I liked told me how pretty I was, but dated other girls. At a birthday party, spin-the-bottle was going swimmingly until it landed on me, and then there was some misunderstanding about whether I was actually playing or not. (Apparently, I was not, and the bottle was re-spun.) A boy took to calling me Whoopi, and after I made the mistake of wearing my hair in a multitude of braids one day, argued with me for the rest of the year over whether they were dreads. (They definitively weren’t, but he knew better.) And then one morning I came to school to find “Ms. Jackson Is A Nigger” spray-painted across the front.

But the truth is, I didn’t hate junior high. After all, I’d been black my whole life. In private school, in church, in general. I can’t remember how those moments impacted me because they just were. They were things that happened, that didn’t surprise me, and I went to class and did my work, and back at home, I sang and danced and laughed with my sisters and my sister-friends. I watched the Huxtables and the Bankses and generally had a healthy ownership of myself. Literature was a bit trickier, but I read Pen Pals instead of Sweet Valley High because one of the main girls was Asian, and I only chose Babysitter’s Club books that featured Jessi. I was a pretty uncompromising preteen, and it was a blessing. But culture is unrelenting by design, and I was only 12.

Eventually, something triggered a debilitating shame, and it wasn’t the nebulous abyss that is puberty or the minefield that is junior high. For a while, I couldn’t even figure out what it had to do with real life. It certainly wasn’t one of the million microaggressions I’d faced without blinking. It wasn’t the impassable divide between me and the regular-track children of color at my junior high school. It wasn’t even the time a “friend” stole my diary and locked herself in my bathroom to read it while I beat the door with my fists and begged her not to invade my privacy.

It was a movie we watched in Language Arts class. The image of a young man whose features I could barely make out started my palms sweating, made my guts curdle, made me want to collapse into myself and disappear.

It was Alfonso Ribeiro on the small screen set high in the corner of the classroom. He was already famous at this point — he was Carlton. He was also the only black kid in whatever movie we were watching. He was sporting a Jheri curl, if memory serves, and surrounded by straight, fine hair occasionally shellacked into era appropriate swoops and side-ponies. He was also cracking everyone up without telling a single joke. While I stared at my desk, only occasionally glancing up at the screen, my classmates snickered every time he was in view. Every time he moved — despite that he wasn’t doing his signature dance or much of anything really — the laughter bubbled just loud enough to reconfirm that it was due to his presence.

I have no idea what the movie was about, or even whether it was a very special PSA or an actual film. I can’t remember any of the lines or the plot or why we were watching it. I just remember that it took two class periods. Two days of wanting to be sick. Two days of feeling humiliated and not knowing why. Feeling ashamed that a black face was turning me inside out. It would be years before I understood.

***

It’s 2016 and in the past week I’ve watched Luke Cage, Queen Sugar, Atlanta, and Queen of Katwe. As someone learning to accept that America’s years-long campaign against black bodies has changed me, it has been simultaneously the hardest time of my life and the most soothing. My quality of life has dipped. My mental health is noticeably impacted. And yet, closing Twitter, drawing the blinds on the trolls and the proud white supremacists, and pushing play feels like settling into a nice hot bath. My muscles uncoil themselves. My mind settles. The tension releases.

I feel at home again.

Hidden Figures is coming soon, and Black Panther. In 2017, there will be more black girls in young adult literature than before, more black women authors debuting than last year, more own voice representation. More love letters to the generation coming up behind us.

No more one per generation.

No more one at a time.

No more plucking black children, women, and men, and placing them against a backdrop of whiteness as though they have no stories of their own.

I have a 7th grader now. I watch him while we watch Home for the millionth time, because Tip has hair just like his and because she’s good at math and because she drives a car through the sky. Together my son and I sing the entire soundtrack of last year’s televised production of The Wiz, and then we watch the film, too. In that way, our childhoods are similar, and I feel like I’m carrying on a proud tradition, curating a special curriculum to show him how much he matters. But somehow it feels like more.

It feels like the landscape is finally changing, and it’s hard to miss when it brings so many hateful people out into the open. In some ways their ludicrous, frothing anger at the sheer number of visible black stories and characters makes the shift even more evident. They troll and melt down and lash out because they can’t stop the land changing beneath their feet. They can’t stop us claiming ownership over ourselves, our stories, and even this country that belonged to all of us all along. We’re laying claim to our imaginations, to superheroes, to the future as well as the past. We are building on the art and the work that came before us, and centering ourselves in a way we weren’t when someone else was writing our lines for us.

And then I imagine having known this as I sat in 7th grade Language Arts. I imagine having known that the problem wasn’t me. That given the context, the rigid default of normative whiteness, of course a plucked Alfonso was too dark. Of course his hair was funny. Of course he wasn’t a viable love interest, or even whole for that matter. I imagine myself hearing complete stories from the very beginning, seeing fully-realized black characters all my life, as a natural and constant part of the landscape. I imagine having read stories about my interior life, that didn’t require me to travel back in time or reimagine myself as having a strong, Southern identity. I imagine having been placed at the center of a science fiction universe where adventure was inescapable. I don’t think it would’ve made a difference — I know it.

If I am what I eat, how could I not have been anemic, weak from a steady diet of exclusion with the occasional garnish of exceptions, tokens and stereotypes? It’s a wonder I didn’t want to disappear long before junior high.

I’m going back to the theater to see Queen of Katwe again. I’m going to watch my son watch the screen, and fight back tears again. Instead of shrinking, I’m going to keep growing larger. I’m going to keep taking up space, and speaking with my own voice, and writing love letters to my people. Because there’s power in it. There’s healing in own representation, in witnessing content creators who’ve stopped asking permission, who refuse to come in single file. They might feel the barbs and hear the hateful shouting but they know why they’re going on, and so do I. Even when I think no excitement or breakthrough in my literary life can counter the weight of hopelessness I feel with each new hashtag, with every new straw that isn’t the final one, I’m going to slip into this broadening oasis and be replenished.

During the film, I couldn’t help but look around the theater at the diverse audience there to watch it with me. Our stories are ours, and they’re universal. They’re for us, and they’re for the world. We are better because they exist, and so will the world be.

***

Lead image: Screenshot via Vimeo

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