The new and refreshing crop of domestic dramas, comedies, and independent films presenting a nuanced portrait of Black life that have debuted over the last year herald a bold new vision of what popular culture can do. For the first time I find myself with almost more good television or streaming shows showcasing Black folk and Black life as complex, and terribly beautiful than I can watch.
Black Life Interpreted
The new shows like Insecure On HBO, Queen Sugar and Greenleaf on OWN, Atlanta on FX, Underground on WGN, the first show that gave me hope Being Mary Jane on BET, and independent films like Moonlight and Birth of a Nation reject the idea that Black life has to seen and interpreted through and for “the white gaze.” All these narratives assume that Black lives are complicated yet redemptive and extremely interesting. Mainstream television has generally simply not gone there. This is what a T.V. revolution looks like
Black folk already know, we fall in love, succeed, fail, we are more than history, statistics and we are flesh and blood and our stories are addictive.
We are a long way from Amos and Andy and Beulah, (stereotypical Negro comedies of the fifties) and even Good Times and Different Strokes (stereotypical Black comedies of the seventies and eighties). For most of the history of African Americans on television we have had to be either funny or furious. Shows featured tyrannical overbearing Black women, deadbeat shiftless absent dads and much ghetto pain. Of course The Cosby Show and A Different World were groundbreaking exceptions that literally changed Black viewers, especially young Black viewers, aspirations and dreams.
These shows (notably all those I cited are on upstart independent smaller networks or on cable) reinforce what Black folk already know, we fall in love, succeed, fail, we are more than history, statistics and we are flesh and blood and our stories are addictive. The shows and movies I have cited have an enthusiastic and committed Black following and I feel they should be required viewing for White Americans. At a time when studies show that as a nation we are more segregated in our neighborhoods and schools and in our patterns of socializing than in 1965, segregation is why White kids from affluent homes come to liberal colleges and end up calling their Black classmates the N word. It’s too easy to demonize what you do not know. Popular culture matters!
Let’s look at these shows, tweet about them, discuss them and let the networks and streaming platforms know we want more. This cannot be a fad. It has to be a new day.
Marita Golden is the author of 19 works of fiction and nonfiction. She is Co-founder and President Emerita of the Zora Neale Hurston/ Richard Wright Foundation. As a teacher of writing, she has served as a member of the faculties of the MFA Graduate Creative Writing Programs at George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University and served as a Distinguished Visiting Writer in the MA Creative Writing Program at John Hopkins University, and at the University of the District of Columbia. She has taught writing workshops nationally and internationally to a variety of constituencies and is a writing coach, workshop presenter, and literary consultant.