I’m tired of seeing the suffering black body.
The TV screen blinks off, taking with it the image of yet another poor African child staring at me with wide, hollowed eyes. The melancholic instrumental in the background fades, and I am left counting how many infomercials, news stories, and movie trailers I’d seen that week featuring black people in pain. I lose count and give up.
Growing up, I perked up whenever I saw a black or brown person on my screen. With hungry eyes, I tracked their presence, noting their gestures and shifts in expression like a good budding media critic (I used to read movie reviews for fun). I internally harvested each word from their lips and reaped a satisfied feeling of affirmation with each full line. My carefully maintained stores held the Lando Calrissians, the Storms, the Ravens and Tia and Tamera Mowrys on Disney Channel, the Keesha Franklins and Susie Carmichaels on Saturday morning cartoons, and every Will Smith character of the late 90s and early 2000s.
From a young age, I taught myself to find those who looked like me because, for some reason I didn’t understand, we were missing. I saw my Caribbean family, and the black and brown people at my church, and the residents of my abuela’s South Bronx neighborhood….and I saw that all these people were missing from my screen. The movies reigning at the box office and the TV shows garnering acclaim felt empty of their particular wit and wisdom. Later I would question why each major comedy or drama seemed to adhere to an invisible quota of one person of color per ensemble (two if they were especially progressive). When I was eight, I just saw the empty spaces and wondered.
The years have brought change, no doubt about that. When we have shows like black-ish and Empire and How to Get Away With Murder that have become must-see TV and rising stars like the remarkable Lupita Nyong’o and John Boyega and Michael B. Jordan, it’s easy to believe the leaps in representation and celebrate that. Independent producers such as Netflix and Hulu now produce their own content with increasingly diverse casts, extricated from the expectations of cable networks, and there is a new generation of social media-savvy youth keeping media producers accountable by pointing out problematic racial tropes and portrayals. The soil for equity is richer for these changes.
Outwardly, the conventional skin of our screens has darkened. However, beneath it perpetuate other disturbing trends and deeper gaps lying unacknowledged. While there have been increases in the number of characters of color in media, according to a 2015 UCLA diversity report:
73.1% of the actors in the 100 top-grossing films of 2014 were white
Film studio heads were 94% white and 100% male in 2013
Television studio heads were 86% white and 55% male in 2013
Minority film writers were underrepresented by 3 to 1 in 2013
More than half (51%) of moviegoers were minorities in 2013
2016 has seen only incremental changes. With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that brewed this year, highlighting the industry-wide racial disparities in media, and more articles pointing out the high volume of minority ticket-buyers as well as the predominantly white nature of film and TV agencies, “diversity” in media is once more a hot topic. When minorities comprise roughly 40% of the U.S. population, with numbers steadily increasingly, these statistics point to a stagnation at odds with the demographic trends of the country. Where you are seeing minorities, particularly black peoples: “ethnic-targeted” films produced by directors of color, independent films, and sitcoms. Where you see black people recognized in mainstream spaces: when they are suffering.
Out of the 88 years of its existence, the Academy Awards has awarded 14 black men and women for their film roles. That number rises to 32 when you include awards for producing, best picture, writing, music, and sound mixing (the latter two of which actually represent 37% of the awards). 95% of nominations up to this point have gone to white actors and actresses. Black individuals were nominated for roles spanning from historical figures such as Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, musicians (Dreamgirls and Ray), soldiers (Glory), and slaves or servants (Gone With the Wind, The Help, 12 Years a Slave). More disheartening was the overwhelming number of nominations given for roles that fit into what has become an all-too-familiar narrative of black people fighting against adversity or mired in destitute and violent situations (Hotel Rwanda, Monster’s Ball, Precious, The Color Purple, Captain Philips, Blood Diamond).
These performances deserve praise. The men and women populating them are exceptional. What bothers me is that stories with black people in them receive praise often within the particular bounds of a narrative of suffering. Our streets are presented as crumbling, our children as sullen and silent, our women as beleaguered and broken. We are framed amidst a context of waning, either necessitating a coded white savior or some other inspirational means of fighting the Villainous Ensemble of Slavery, Racism, Poverty, and Prejudice, often represented by white characters meant to be the blatantly immoral antagonists (only mean people are racist after all). We are the ones positioned as lower from the outset, requiring deliverance and the audience’s tears.
In many ways, this reflects a reality where black Americans are still underrepresented among professionals and over-represented among the incarcerated. Racism and the pervasive impact of past imperialism and current corporate exploitation continue to foment poverty and division on a global scale. We are still positioned as lower, and the media we watch reminds us of that everyday.
I hesitantly scroll past the slavery documentaries on Netflix and leave a powerful performance of the play Eclipsed with a heart anchored in grief and guilt. I know these stories matter, that people are suffering, and I must wake up daily to that reality…but I am also in a thwarted position as a black American. My American privilege may protect me from the unrestricted rape and grisly warfare of other places, but my black marginalization carves paths that signify fewer opportunities for me-despite my status as a college-educated woman-and it reminds me that I am susceptible to racial violence and discrimination. My body in the the land of the free awakens in confinement.
I am weary of these realities being outlined as the crux of my story and the stories of black people. I read about them and write about them and learn more about them because there are lives at stake besides my own, but that is a hovering cognizance that will not leave me. I don’t need Academy Awards to remind me that racism is evil, and my veins contain more than just the assurance of marginalization. I thrift shop at Goodwill, spin poetry while bouncing to Motown tunes in Central Park, screw up a final paper in procrastinated glory, sway to bachata on crowded streets, binge on Netflix, memorize Star Wars facts and elven genealogies, rant for hours with friends about singleness, pinch my extending curves with sighs, practice curly hair conditioning after consulting YouTube, blubber when I watch The Sound of Music.
The vibrancy of these details, these nuances, collected in a life not solely defined by a trampled experience needs to be inhaled to refresh our visions of black people of all socioeconomic classes and countries and colors. These details transform a stereotype into a breathing person with a distinct story. They offer the complexity of being thoroughly seen rather than pitied. They give flesh to the bones of our tropes. Why doesn’t mainstream media allow black people to be organic beings rather than skeletal frames. Our scripts run with suffering or slapstick, sorrow or sass.
As British blogger Nikesh Shukla puts it: “I realized that white people think that people of color only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences.” His declaration suggests that people of color are asked to resonate with white superhero gangs like the Avengers, with freedom-fighter Katniss, with the countless interchangeable leads in Nicholas Sparks love stories, but when stories of people of color emerge, they are relegated to the niche market. Our superheroes and freedom-fighters and romantics are apparently not relatable. Our stories are drenched in our otherness and therefore reserved only for people who inhabit our skins.
While there should always be a space for media oriented towards people of color, that is not mutually exclusive from white people taking the time to seek out, watch, and affirm black people in media. Just because it’s a story I can relate to better as a black woman doesn’t excuse a white media consumer to avoid films that feature predominantly black casts, dismissing them as “black films” and thus unnecessary to include in their personal canon. Though our specific experiences of race and color inevitably shape us, we are not built of archetypes like LEGO blocks. We are human and resonant yet unique and diverse in our laughter and weeping–and we should all be seen. I’m thankful for the good black films nourished in the niche market, for the black writers and producers fighting to bring our stories to the screen. But we shouldn’t settle for nesting in the niche; we should take wing to the heights.
The state of blackness in media represents a stringent tension because I need to know of black suffering, especially the types I have never experienced. I need media like Eclipsed to remind me of what goes on outside of my neighborhood, and my heart needs to be broken over what God already grieves for. I may be tired of the suffering black body, but I can never afford to avoid suffering black people, not because “they’re my age” or any resonating feature that brings them close to my experience, but simply because they are human beings that demand my acknowledgment and merit dignity in accordance to the ways their Creator formed them.
At the same time, we can acknowledge black suffering without romanticizing it or conferring it as the only definition of black life. Black stories transcend the impetus to white guilt and the assumption of progessivism. We can put my father on the screen. My friends. My church members. My co-workers. Not to be mocked, not to be side-kicks or servants, but to display the complicated, detailed brilliance of themselves. To afford the privilege of being realized as dimensional beings with mistakes, wounds, quirks, and little triumphs rather than quotas to fill or tokens to appease audiences of color.
I need to see what wanes, but when I wax like the moon and cradle shadows in my craters, I want you to see all of it.