Don’t hold us to some unattainable level of perfection.
A few months ago, I shared an article on Facebook about Lee Daniels claiming that he cast a white lead in his new show Star because white people needed to feel good about themselves (if you want to hear my thoughts on this, click here). Someone I know commented that they were disgusted by everything Lee Daniels produced because he portrayed purely negative representation and puts black emotion on display as if our emotions are being auctioned off. They continued to express that they felt that all we see on TV from Daniels is pure negative, that no one fears this representation even though it questions the perception of all people of color, and that there are just no more positive TV shows for people of color. In the midst of the comment, they cited Empire as an example. This commenter wanted to know why the youth can’t be presented with images of people of color doing something greater, like in the movie Hidden Figures. According to this same person, the abundance of negativity is not good to the psyche, and the entertainment industry continues to use the pain of people of color as entertainment. I questioned their definition of negativity, and they explained it as always portraying hyper-sexuality, drugs, killings, and dysfunctional families. This commenter wanted to see black people in the same high standards as other races, where they are educated, smart, genuinely in love with someone, nicely dressed, and engaging in interesting dialogue. They also pointed out how “the struggle” is always told and that it’s time to see some positivity.
While I recognized that this is one way we can look at Lee Daniels’ work and the work being done by other black entertainers, specifically the hit show Empire, I respectfully disagree with this sentiment for a multitude of reasons. Also, to say that there are no positive representations of black people on TV shows is definitely a reach, but I’ll address that in a sec.
Also, sidebar: I’d like to make it abundantly clear that I agree with the idea that too much negativity can mess with a person, and black mental health is extremely important. Moving on along, though…
While I think Lee Daniels’ comments are utter nonsense and I question his sanity, I appreciate his showing of black emotion because we usually don’t see complex black characters on television, especially not on a show as huge and popular as Empire (and just because I’m talking about Empire doesn’t mean I don’t recognize Insecure, black-ish, Atlanta, etc., but Empire is going to be the example used in this instance). I fully comprehended this person’s ideology that showing black people on television with fierce emotions and in negative situations made it seem as if our pain was put on display for white people, but the thing is, if we’re not portayed with emotion, that’s how stereotypes of black people being super strong, impenetrable, and almost inhuman with no emotions are developed and perpetuated. This is also how we fail when it comes to mental health representation, as well. Black people are not these always-stoic characters who are able to handle everything that is thrown at them, and let’s be real: representation matters. Not only do we need racial representation for black audiences, we need mental and emotional representation for black audiences. This means showing a wide range of emotion, as in, ALL of the emotions, even the ones seen as negative that we want to run away from. This fear of other races looking down on us because we have emotions is something that is so deeply ingrained in the black community and something that we use on ourselves, but it is imperative that we move past the fear of being seen as vulnerable and weak – there’s nothing wrong with black people having emotions on TV. Simply put: there’s nothing wrong with black people having emotions at all, and I could write a whole damn thesis on how older black generations’ styles of parenting have stifled our emotional growth, but I digress…
Now on to the issue of “negativity.”
One of the reasons I enjoy Empire so much is because it shows the negative, the positive, the love, the anger, how positivity and love and loyalty can come from negative situations, how families are often complicated, and basically everything else that can and does happen in life. I appreciate Empire characters because they’re whole and complex people, and I am able to recognize this, whether I agree with their decisions or not. To be quite frank, most of the time I don’t agree with their decisions, but I’m able to understand why they are making these choices and sympathize with their reasonings. I do agree that often the industry (read: white people) uses black pain for entertainment, but I also think that to eradicate black people producing projects that include “negativity” would be leaning in the direction of portraying black people as happy-go-lucky frolickers. In the long run, it’s detrimental. This presents a whole different issue that reminds me of the happy-go lucky Uncle Tom slave character that used to be portrayed in our country’s pop culture media not too long ago. This is what would happen if we strive to erase the “negativity” in the stories surrounding black characters. It is much more effective to see black people on TV as characters making strides, having families, being complicated in the wake of negativity instead of pretending it’s not there. Once again, this leads back to the black community’s grasp on mental health and how we have been forced to see ourselves.
Also, on the point of citing Hidden Figures: every piece of art with black people in it shouldn’t be trying to reach this moral high ground. This perpetuates the idea of tokenism, that the only way to be featured and important is to be the “one good blacks” doing something right. That’s how you perpetuate the ideology that in order for our lives and our stories to matter we must always be doing something great, spectacular, and revolutionary.
That’s also how we spread the ideology that some black people (and their stories) matter and are more respectable than other black people. We matter whether we’re sending men to the moon or dealing drugs to support our families.
Plus, if we were take these high standards the commenter presented in rebuttal to the negativity they think is so very prevalent and apply them to Empire, would they not match up?
Lucious and Cookie run a business – a multi-million dollar company, and you can’t do this if you’re not smart, educated leaders. You don’t need a college degree in order to be smart and educated. Does it help when you need a job? Yes, of course it does, but a college degree does not validate your intelligence (plus, I could also throw in there that Andre, their eldest son, has a college degree and uses it, as do many of the other supporting characters). I’m also not saying that we should not attend college. What am I saying is that our society places such a high value on the very expensive privilege of going to college, and we have to realize that college is not always an option (or even a desire) for everyone. The fact that we can have black people who succeed (maybe not to the grandeur that is shown on Empire) without a college degree is, in and of itself, a positive thing when you have an entire society telling you that you’re not smart unless you take on a $100,000+ debt, do your 4+ years, and then get a degree.
On the point of being nicely dressed (which is what, exactly?): for the love of God, when are we going to stop associating the way a person dresses with how respectable (or positive) we consider them? Let’s be real: if it’s late at night, a cab will still pick up a white guy in a hoodie before they’ll pick up a black man in a suit. Dressing nicely is only seen as a positive attribute because we live in a world where some white dude way back whenever had to create a way to distinguish the high-class white people from the black people stuck in poverty who could not afford a basic suit. We wear dress clothes and business attire because the white mainstream tells us that this is what these white businesses want us to wear in order to be accepted into their companies. And, so, because people got bills to pay and lives to live, we take it in stride and pull out our business best, all while convincing ourselves that those who do not adapt to this standard are somehow lesser.
Any show that centers a black family or black-led cast is going to touch on “the struggle,” no matter how big or small, because the struggle hasn’t gone anywhere. You can absolutely have positivity while also touching upon the struggle. Negativity and positively are not mutually exclusive; they exist in tandem (also, this is just how you make good, interesting television). I do believe that we need more and varying stories on TV, but we should not be measuring our stories with the ruler that’s been handed to us by a white supremacist society that only wants our stories if they’re drenched in respectability politics (i.e., qualifying our characters based on education, language, appearance, relationship statuses, etc.).
To say that we want a wider variety of stories about black people is one thing, but to compare this variety (the more “positive” stories) up against the stories that are already being told and shame those stories is another issue, especially if we’re using respectability politics to do so. We have to remember that these stories and characters do resonate with people (hence why they have audiences and a following), and when we shame these stories because they don’t live up to the ideals of respectability and worth that white people have placed in front of us, then we in turn shame their audiences. We are telling those audiences with those same stories that they are not worthy of being seen or heard. We help silence them. That isn’t progressive; it’s exclusionary.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
I’m on Twitter (@_AhtiyaL_), Instagram (@_AhtiyaL_), and Facebook (Ahtiya L). Follow my accounts and like my Facebook page! Check out my latest YouTube video here. And if you support the cause of promoting and showcasing bloggers and vloggers of color, follow Bloggers Of Color (@POCBloggerRT) on Twitter! Please and thank you!
Don’t forget to check back in 2 weeks for another article!