Is asking for more from Black art asking for too much?

black hand holding a television remote

I watch less TV now than I ever have. Especially when it comes to network television. I’ve wrestled with this fact for a long time, wondering if entertainment just wasn’t my “thing” anymore, or if I was losing my very identity. The truth was that I wanted more from Black art than I was getting.

For years, I yearned for a world where I had options that reflected the range of Black life. The faces weren’t enough. The recognition wasn’t enough. The chastisement of stereotypes, tropes, and one-dimensional casting options wasn’t enough. I wanted real representation, but all we’ve got is the illusion of it.

All I have ever wanted was for Black lives to be accurately reflected in entertainment. Since the dawn of film, we’ve fought for simple representation. And from where we’re standing, I don’t think that is going to change. The next step would logically be for representation to turn in to actual diversity of characters, to include a variety of experiences, life situations, and desires.

And now, for the first time in forever, Black faces are everywhere on TV. They’re on top-rated shows. They bring in big salaries and diverse audiences. They have longevity. There was a time when I thought the white people making the big money decisions would never let Black art thrive like this. But it’s happening, and a reversal seems unlikely.

And yet, I am unsatisfied.

Big names like Kenya Barris and Shonda Rhimes seemed to be the harbingers of a new era of television that would realize my dreams of real representation. They brought landmark shows like black-ish, grown-ish, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder to TV. Each of these shows were met with critical acclaim, received backing from major television studios, and undoubtedly raised the profile of all parties involved (especially the shows’ stars). These were major accomplishments, proving that Black-led series could not only thrive but appeal to non-Black audiences. Unfortunately, the promise of diversity through Black art seems to have turned monochromatic.

“Diversity” vs. Representation

While these shows have done a lot to change the look of who is on TV, I don’t believe that these shows are actually doing much work to change how we are represented in media.

Realistically, most Black-led shows don’t do the work of fully representing how the lives of Black folx are actually led. If you take a hard look at the history of Black television, almost every show can be slotted into one of two categories: the “hood” drama or the affluent talented tenth. It feels like these same characters and storylines that have been the hallmark of Blackness on screen are being regurgitated at us, but presented under the guise of diversity. They are being hailed as proof of progress, but can we really call more of the same a win?

The whole point of the movement for diversity in television, and in media in general, was for representation. So how are we supposed to be happy with an entertainment landscape the largely ignores an entire swath of our community?

The Promise of Queen Sugar

The only show in recent memory that I can remember bucking this trend (albeit only slightly) was Queen Sugar. I was blown away by the immaculate way melanated skin was showcased on that show. The show sought to portray the South in a way you never see, full of pride in the face of struggles and rooted in a rich history. One sister was rich, one brother poor, and one sister clearly middle class. The show tackled topics of queerness, misogyny, interracial dating, addiction, and the list goes on. The family was the epitome of diversity, and that felt like a revolution.

I thought it would be emblematic of what Blackness on the screen should be like. But as the show continued on, it veered away from its promise. Suddenly a show that was tied so closely to the brilliance of Blackness turned into little more than a modern soap opera. Relationship drama and the intrigue of Southern business deals began to take precedence over what had set the show apart from the beginning. The culture. The history. The legacy that the current generation is charged with bringing forward.

And if that mantle isn’t actually being carried, can we really call it a revolution?

Waiting for the Black Art Revolution

After years spent as a force to protect, criticize, and advocate for Black art, I’ve grown tired of having the same conversation over and over again. There’s only so many times you can point out that awards shows don’t honor Black folx like they should before you realize that change is a leaky faucet and not a downpour.

But what I’ve come to realize is that I’ve grown tired of waiting for the revolution to arrive.

The revolution I was waiting for was a full representation of Blackness. But the more I look around, I see that beautiful Blackness, with all of its nuance and uniqueness, being watered down and steered towards what is universal. Like there is a need for people to be able to see themselves in everyone Black instead of appreciating the differences. It’s that dedication to the infinite uniqueness of the Black experience that I have been yearning for, and have still not found.

I can’t help but wonder if asking for more is a dreamer’s folly. If these are just childish hopes and not realistic goals. But my love for Blackness won’t let me give up hope.

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.