Earlier this year I wrote a post about the sufferation of black women on screen. Fatigued by the incessant portrayals of black women as beasts of burden and strife, I lamented the stories of the black women characters in media were a “little more fiery, a little more brimstoney than the hell reserved for other women.” I might have spoken too soon as 2016 has proved to be a year where more black women than ever before have appeared on screen in TV shows and behind the camera as writers, directors and producers, saying that I am glad I did speak because we must never forget there was a time just 12 months ago when you’d be hard pressed to see so many black women in the forefront of shows.
This year we have been sandwiched in between Micheala Coel’s runaway smash hit Chewing Gum and Issa Rae’s long awaited triumph Insecure. These two shows couldn’t be more different if they tried, expressing the diversity of blackness and the varying experiences of black womanhood; most importantly Coel and Rae have achieved this without denigrating and degrading black women. It’s a miracle what can happen when black women are capable of achieving when given the reigns to control our own narratives. I draw attention to Coel and Rae because as well as being the leads in their shows, they are also the writers. You can see clearly how important autonomy over our own stories is- while the stereotypes of black women (angry, sassy, strong) are prevalent throughout Chewing Gum and Insecure they are nuanced and explored and explained. To quote (again) from Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie the problem with “stereotypes is not that they are untrue” but it is when they are presented as the singular representation of black women they deny us the depth and wealth of our humanity. Black women want to see ourselves as whole characters beyond the two dimensional shackles those who are not us impose on us when when they arrogantly assume they understand what it’s like to be us. Black women want see versions of ourselves fuck and be fucked, cheat and be cheated on, love and be loved the same way everyone else is and here we have upon us a new age where we are equipped to forge forth with our own views of the world and what it’s like being in it.
Black women have been able to access to roles they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to secure because of this slow journey where blackness is being normalised. White creatives are being forced to analyse their casts and crew and writing teams, taking note that if they are not making space at the table for people of colour and black women specifically they are part of the problem. And don’t conflate the issues- black women haven’t begged to be acknowledged, we’ve worked for it- Issa Rae and Micheala Coel created their own platforms before TV took notice of them. Coel toured with her play Chewing Gum Diaries and Issa Rae ran her channel on YouTube consequentially spending years in development with HBO before releasing Insecure. This evoltution of the representation of black women on screen has been a long battle, not for the faint of heart and we still have further to go.
This doesn’t mean that we can rest on our laurels now that we are beginning to see change. We must make it impossible to return to the dark ages of the early 2010s when pervasive lies were touted that black women didn’t have the gravitas to be included let alone lead TV narratives. Here in Britain, we are always on the precipice of falling back into a TV landscape where the stories that are told on screen are exclusively white. It is a distinct possibility given Culture Minister Karen Bradley’s decision not to appoint an unnamed BAME (Black, Asian, Minority or Ethnic) woman to the Channel 4 board despite her qualifications instead choosing to keep the entire board solely white in an highly unusual move. We will only continue to see more diverse television if the decision makers, the channel controllers, channel commissioners, channel board members also reflect the diversity of society. I support David Lammy's demands to find out why Karen Bradley made this decision. Unlike Sir Trevor McDonald, I believe in the need for diversity quotas in these media institutions because left to their own devices white people like Karen Bradley have proven themselves incapable of instituting change and only paying lipservice to more diverse representation on and off the screen.
We have such a long way to go, but how glorious this renaissance feels- to have options. If you don’t like Crazy Head, you can watch Black Mirror, if you don’t like Queen Suga you can watch How To Get Away With Murder, if you don’t like Scandal you can watch Insecure, if you don’t like Chewing Gum, you can watch Ackee & Saltfish- but this list is finite. La luta continua- as my mum reminded me this morning.
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