The importance of representation
Beyoncé won a Grammy this week, and gave a beautiful speech about the importance of representation. She said that every child, from every race, ought to grow up seeing images of themselves in important places, and realize that they too, can become president, can become CEO, can become anything they could ever aspire to be.
And I love Beyoncé; Lemonade was an illumination for the black woman that I am. I sang Freedom during the whole summer, I almost cried when I realized I wouldn’t be able to afford tickets for her concert in July, I laughed as people became offended because for once, there was an album for black women, by a black woman. But Beyoncé has been accepted for as long as I can remember, and her talent has mostly been acknowledged by the world.
She is beautiful in a way that appeals to men of all races. She is “black, but not too black”, she is “black, with Western features”. She is the type of black woman that even a racist would (internally) recognize as being beautiful, and might even consider dating. She is the lighter skinned woman that you often see in movies or TV shows when the protagonist dates a black woman. Women who look like her are not represented nearly enough, but chances are that if there is a black woman on TV, she will be lighter skinned and have “Western features”. Of course, when you know how little black women are described as “beautiful”, you’re already grateful anytime it happens, even if they never look like you.
“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else, is opportunity.”
On television, and in real life, women of color have been given the opportunity to be singers for a long time. You will see that black woman, who is a bit larger than average and has this amazing singing voice, in all types of movies. Even the ones with racist undertones. Women being maids, being caring nurses, being the funny best friend of the male protagonist’s love interest, being the stereotypical loud older black ‘mama’, being the wise old black woman, are common in all types of movies. So it’s not revolutionary for Beyoncé to win a Grammy. (Let’s not forget that she won the Best Urban Album, not the Best Album)
Which is why it pains me that Beyoncé’s speech got so much media coverage, when Viola Davis’ Emmy speech didn’t. She was the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama series with How To Get Away With Murder. I cried, as I watched her speech, because Viola Davis is not Beyoncé. She is one of the darker black women. She is not tall and skinny and slender, like Naomi Campbell. She is a woman who looks like my aunts, like my cousins, like I might when I get older. She is not “black with Western features”, she is not “black, but not too black”, she is simply black.
The importance of Viola’s award only became fully clear when I started watching HTGAWM last month, though. It was the first time that I saw a leading woman, who was black, who was a lawyer, who was the main character. You see her with her natural hair, you see her wearing a satin bonnet, you see her without make up, and the TV show portrays it as normal. She is independent, she is black, she is a woman, but she is not that stereotypical “independent black woman” who is loud and “don’t need no man” that people have created for some reason. She is vulnerable, she does need a man, she breaks, and she cries. She looks like a regular black woman, yet, she is considered beautiful, attractive, and she owns her sexuality. And to top it all off, she is smart and respected.
I thought black women couldn’t be beautiful
I grew up thinking I wasn’t attractive. I wasn’t considered one of the pretty girls, even if I was one of the “popular kids”, and I never saw anyone who looked like me on TV either. I didn’t think black women could be beautiful, and certainly not the darker ones. I wasn’t attracted to black men, and didn’t think I’d end up with one. I avoided showing my natural hair to people, and when I really didn’t have a choice, I’d warn them beforehand, so they’d be prepared. The few black lawyers on TV were men. The few dolls I ever played with were white. If ever there was a woman who was strong and powerful and respected, she was white (and she was probably played by Meryl Streep). And when I wrote my first book, I unconsciously made my female main character mixed, because I wanted to be able to relate to her, but since I described her as “beautiful”, she simply couldn’t be 100 percent black.
As I watched Annelise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder, I saw myself for the first time in my life. For the first time in my life, someone who looked like I might eventually look like, who talked like I did, who had studied what I was studying, was considered smart, was considered attractive, was respected by all. But more importantly, the idea that a TV show could be about an “average” looking black woman wasn’t ridiculed, it was acclaimed, it even won awards. To me, that was revolutionary.
Because, growing up, I knew I was real. I knew my ambitions were real. I knew the woman I wanted to become was real. But I never saw that woman anywhere. I never saw her in real life, I never saw her in any fictional world. Growing up, without any representation, made me wonder if I was the only black woman aspiring to be a lawyer. Because surely, if there were others, I would see them on TV, right? I would read about them, right? I would see them give interviews on the news, right? But since I never saw them, I started thinking that maybe black women just weren’t supposed to be lawyers. Maybe we were destined to be maids, and singers, and nurses. Maybe other black women had tried, but failed, to be something else. And maybe I would fail too.
“No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”
As a young girl, I didn’t watch the news, or read the papers. I didn’t know about the few black women in political positions. I didn’t know about the few black women who were lawyers, and doctors, and engineers. Because I watched cartoons, movies, TV shows. I read books. I didn’t look up to those successful women who were sometimes mentioned in the news for two seconds, I looked up to those heroes I saw on screen for hours. All of which were white.
And that’s why our new generation of black girls need to know. That they are real. That their ambitions are real. That the woman they want to become is real. That they can be whoever they want. That they’re beautiful, whether they’re light skinned, or dark skinned, and they can be Octavia Spencer or Lupita Nyong’o, they can be Alicia Keys or Nina Simone, they can be Condoleezza Rice or Michelle Obama, they can be Katherine Johnson, or Dorothy Vaughan, or Mary Jackson.
So we need to show them. We need to write non-stereotypical black women who are real women. Who are strong, but also fragile. Who are independent, but also want to have a husband and a family. We need Vivian Banks to be a mother, a professor, and PhD graduate, we need Jessica Pearson to show girls to never give up in the face of racism, we need Miranda Bailey to be a strong, yet sensitive Chief of Surgery, we need Abbie Mills to fight evil relentlessly, we need Bow Johnson to be a wife, mother, and doctor, we need Mary Jane Paul to be an inspiring journalist, we need Olivia Pope to kick ass in the White House.
We’re not the sidekicks. We’re not the “best friend”. We’re not the “love interest”.
We’re main characters, and we’re taking the lead.