I was looking for myself on television, but didn’t realize it until I didn’t see myself. At four years old, my favorite show was Moonlighting starring Bruce Willis and Cybil Shephard. Family Ties, Punky Brewster. Small Wonder. All shows I loved. Looking back, I realize the first time I saw some version of myself was in the four episodes Rosalind Cash appeared as Dean Hughes on the series A Different World. Four appearances, across three years. A silver-haired, long locked, regal, sophisticated dean at the fictional Hillman University. She made quite the impression on me. The image of an erudite African American woman with hair texture like mine must have superimposed itself into my pscyhe. I ended up being a professor at a primarily White institution proudly wearing my long locks. But even as I look at her now, I don’t see myself.
While Dean Hughes was an expression of my aspirational self, I don’t think I really felt like I found myself in a character until I met Joan Clayton in Mara Brock Akil’s Girlfriends. Joan was quirky. She too was a sophisticated African-American woman. So focused on developing herself professionally, she compromised the gifts that fulfilled her and missed the mark with men relationally. Like many professional Black women in America, It felt like my story, but still not quite.
But when Barack Obama contended to be president of the United States, and discussions buzzed on national television about the authenticity of his blackness, I felt the resurgence of an inner-conflict I had shunned for years. A part of me that simultaneously felt entitled, yet estranged from all the parts of my national, ethnic, and racial identity. In Barack’s case, he was Black, African, and White and neither at the same time. But having grown up in America most of his life, and never knowing his African father, he still didn’t come close to my struggle. I was an American born to Nigerian immigrants who persuaded me that I was not a color, but a culture–a way of life. I was more American, but not quite Nigerian, not quite Black, yet all of that at the same time.
Recently, a slew of people like me, first and second-generation Americans, have emerged on entertainment platforms. To be clear, there is nothing new about immigrants in media, but what I have come to appreciate is the way these creatives have used their platforms to almost boast about their ancestral heritage and engage with these conflicts between their ancestral and host cultures. During a time of anti-immigrant rhetoric and white nationalism, these storytellers use their platforms and whatever power they have to color the monolithic Black vs. White narrative. It’s bold. It’s beautiful. It is the American story.
This blog honors them.
The game changers. The producers. The writers. The political commentators. The musicians. The artists.. The comedians. Those who have found themselves on the world’s stage to poetically proclaim to that person feeling isolated for not fitting in a box: I, too, sing America. I ,too, do not fit in these static socially constructed categories, and it’s ok.
This blog honors us.
The in-betweeners, and not belongers. The claimers and disclaimers. The ones ok with not having to choose, and the ones who feel they need to. Doesn’t it feel good to hear your story in the cacophony of narratives presented to us daily? Entertainment can help us escape, and it can lead us into deeper explorations of ourselves. It can take just one story, for us to feel free enough to be unapologetic about our awkardness. And I believe hearing and seeing our stories gives us the boldness to purposely live to counter the master narrative of what it means to be American.