Stop The Slave Narrative

No more “all my life I had to fight.” There are other stories to tell.

I don’t ever remember having fantasies about being a princess as a child. Maybe my parents could give a better testimony of my likes, but based on what I remember, I was more into being a Powerpuff Girl or a Cheetah Girl than anything else. Ironically, I didn’t actually fantasize about being a princess until Middle School. The reason for this? Sofia Coppola’s colorful historical drama, Marie Antoinette. Was it historically accurate? Probably not. Was it depressing as hell? Definitely. But 13 year old me (I watched the film a year after its 2006 release) didn’t care about the inaccuracies or the horrifying deaths– that’s a lie, I did cry a little at the end. But I vaguely remember them now. I was far too mesmerized by the beauty of it all. The huge cupcake-like gowns, the frilly desserts, the bright makeup, the baroque architecture, the pastel, brown, white and gold color scheme of the Château de Versailles, the massive gardens with various flowers and gorgeous fountains. This was so much better than the princesses I was used to watching in Disney films. Those were just cartoons. This was the real deal. I later learned that Marie was an Archduchess and not exactly a princess in title, but it was all the same to me. I loved it.

I quickly became enamored with the aesthetic of stories set in 18th (and sometimes 19th) century Europe. Wealthy women wore gorgeous dresses, rode in carriages, went to large balls and gossiped among the other wealthy women in their circle at the opera. They were courted by handsome, rich men, and had beautiful children. They frolicked in meadows by creeks and their problems were mostly consistent of choosing between the handsome aristocrat and the handsome blacksmith with a heart of gold. They were simple in their desires, but everyone loved them because they were clever and kind.

And then I’m hit with the stark reality that in all of these fantasies, the women are white. And that girls who looked like me were being sold at auction blocks. So a part of me feels the bitterness when I pick up Jane Eyre, a book beloved by so many white girls, and realize that they can easily fantasize about it and identify with it because they know it would be realistic for them to be in those situations. All I can think of is, “This is unrealistic, because I’m black, and they would hate me.” I don’t like thinking about that. But I also don’t like pretending that the protagonist is black when she isn’t…just so I can experience a form of escapism that lacks a sense of realism to make it acceptable in the back of my mind.

Like…I’m the one black girl who’s accepted by the massive amounts of white people in this story set in 19th century Europe.

Even though I still love the aesthetic of Victorian Era Europe and Sofia’s interpretation of Marie Antoinette’s short lived romp in France, these aren’t the only genres or themes that seem to be off limits to black girls. Young Adult (YA) Literature is another genre that takes a massive hit when it comes to stories about black girls. I will say that it is incredibly difficult to find YA about black female protagonists. When you do manage to find them, they’re usually about the following:

  • Dealing with growing up in a white supremacist town
  • Overcoming race-related identity crises (the protagonist may be mixed race or an “Americanized” African. Or they may be a “Suburban” black girl with Southern relatives)
  • Dealing with adversity (addicted to drugs, dead parents, druggie parents, pregnant at 15, abusive boyfriend, alcoholic boyfriend, boyfriend/parents in jail, someone’s in a gang, etc.)
  • Slavery

On the incredibly rare occasion that you find stories about black girls that don’t involve any of the above, they are usually about girls who are mixed (not knocking the mixed girls; you guys deserve to be represented just as much as the rest of us. I’m just not mixed), dealing with only white people.

Very rarely do I find stories about black girls falling in love during the summer a la Nicholas Sparks, going on road trips with their friends just because, navigating high school and dealing with typical teenage issues, or even identity issues that aren’t necessarily all about their blackness. I’ll take it one step further and say that I never read stories about rich black girls just indulging in their wealth in the Hamptons, or black girls who live by the beach in California, black girls who practice witchcraft in covens, black girls conquering medieval kingdoms with a mighty sword, or black girls who battle the odds in the Zombie Apocalypse and SURVIVE. It’s black girls doing things that, for whatever reason, society and the powers that be deem to be only for white people. If these books exist, they’re INCREDIBLY hard to find. And this realization put me off of YA novels for so long, that I began diving into my own writing just to get out my frustrations.

I suppose the same can be said about movies as well. Because it seems like every movie with a black protagonist involves:

  • A black man in peril.
  • A black woman being a side character/cardboard love interest/obstacle.
    • And if it’s a black woman that’s the protagonist, she’s dealing with all the various issues in he YA Lit list.
  • Police brutality.
  • Poverty.
  • Slavery.
  • The Civil Rights Movement.

And I don’t know why. There are so many stories to tell and yet Hollywood and publishers keep pushing the same stories over and over. I’m tired of it. I know that black people were slaves and I know that we deal with racism every day of our lives. But sometimes I just want to read a story about a 17 year old black girl on a road trip to Florida with her best friends, who also gets into some hi-jinks along the way. I’d like to read a story about a girl with dark brown skin and dark kinky hair being woo-ed by a boy (or girl) while she vacations with her family in…I don’t know…England. Because there are billions of black girls in the world and while a lot of us do share some of the same troubles, we don’t all have the exact same stories to tell. My story is going to be different from the black girl who was raised by fisherman on the Louisiana coastline. And her story is going to differ greatly from the girl who was born in Nigeria but moved to France when she was four. And HER story is going to differ greatly from the girl who was born and raised in Jamaica, but her parents moved there from Cuba.
I understand that it’s important for us to know our history, because it definitely shapes who we become in the future. But come on. Do publishers/filmmakers genuinely believe that all Black people do is sit around thinking about our ancestor’s troubles while doing drugs, drinking, getting pregnant, and getting arrested? Do they not understand that black women experience other feelings besides pain and misery? Do they know that we can be dainty…and ethereal, and heroic, and vulnerable, and proud, and scared, and wanted, and sexy, and innocent, and artistic, and intelligent, and determined to do great things?

Or do publishers and filmmakers do it because they want awards and know that tugging on the heartstrings of Americans (who read about what racism was like in those times) will achieve this? Are they just sooo lazy that they know writing about how awful America/Life was (is) for black people will guarantee them awards and recognition? Like it’s some new secret, just sprung onto America’s innocent eyes for the very first time?

I don’t want to be America’s source of pity. And our stories don’t always have to be incredibly deep and moving or a testament to the power of Black Survival. Because Black Survival (TM) is so much more than just protesting and learning about oppression. It’s honestly just being able to enjoy ourselves like everyone else; which the powers that be consistently deny us, while outwardly wondering how we’re “still suffering” after aaaaall that progress during “the slave times” and “the Martin Luther King times”.

It’s like kicking someone, filming it, sharing it with everyone, and then refusing to give them an ice pack after.

And every time another Civil Rights movie, or a slave movie, or even a movie like Precious comes out and gets handed 500 Academy Award noms, you’re actually kicking me in my shin 50 times.

I just want good, young, mindless fun. Not misery.

I want a movie about regal black girls who shade each others’ custom made, designer gowns at the latest high-society mixer. I want girls who are intelligent and articulate and sly and boy-crazy like MOST teenagers are.

I want a Gossip Girl-esque series about black and brown teenagers being rich and stupid and reckless with their money, while keeping secrets and gossiping. No! Not The Real Housewives: The Book. I don’t want drink throwing. I want clever subplots about Black!Blair trying to knock Black!Serena from her throne through charm and manipulation. And I may think it’s silly at 21, but I know that some 16 year old somewhere will find it completely entertaining.

It’s not realistic? Neither are kids running around pointing sticks at each other and muttering Latin. But that was embraced. And also highly inaccurate (England is incredibly racially and ethnically diverse, and everyone in the main cast is white? No way).
In fact…
I want a story about a girl growing up in a house full of witches, who learns how to control her powers in the modern world where everything is captured by technology and posted on social media.
All I want is a black girl who runs around in plush green meadows, in flowing white dresses, to The freakin’ Avett Brothers, while wearing a damn flower crown and writing poetry about nature and the meaning of life to a 14 year old.

I just want stories that aren’t about racism and death and hate. The real world is awful enough, I don’t want to read about it, too.

20 thoughts on “Stop The Slave Narrative

  1. susanhbenton says:

    Valid, very valid points!
    A shining light-Shonda Rhimes….(Scandal, Greys Anatomy…(so much more)) has created strong characters of all races, sexual preferences, ages, religions, – well developed, strong, and believable.

  2. Jamila says:

    I know what you mean Little. I didn’t want to read the American Girl story with the little black girl because she was a slave. Then in films the black people are always sidekicks. Why can’t a black person be the hero while living in the suburbs? I like the show Black-ish because it shows a family that is different, but it’s true the mother played by Tracee Ellis Ross is mixed race. I’ve noticed on tv, producers are making efforts because I’m seeing more people of color on tv, but again they are either light skinned or mixed race. Even in the new Annie remake, Annie was a little black girl, but I noticed she had a looser curl pattern. Why couldn’t she have box braids or locs? In the movie Dope, the girl had light skin but the main characters were nerds, which you don’t see too often. Black people are usually portrayed as coming from an inner city background and needed saving, they come from the deep south and thick southern accent, or if they are a wealthy character, they tag along with all the white people. I feel like when different people are accurately portrayed it will be a few years, but things are slowly changing.

  3. TT says:

    I’m so happy I found your blog. This is literally the issue that I’ve been thinking about so much. After Lupita won for 12 Years A Slave, I thought to myself, are these the only movies that a predominantly black cast can get recognition for? I think well made slave/civil rights movies are very important however they are not the only stories worth telling featuring black people. I listen to a podcast called Brad N Laremy On Movies and I actually sent them a voicemail a few years ago on this topic after reading an article. And one of the host said “the victimization of minorities is a huge theme in movies” and I totally agree.

  4. TessyJacques97 says:

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much I LOVE the word choice, and what you say behind the things you say. There is so much bluntness about it. And truth behind every opinion being written. I totally agree with you. While, I do find those plots, and series quite silly even at 17, I don’t want my little sister or child growing up seeing the only plots that include black people are those involved in race. How can she grow up expecting anything else than that in real life? I truly love this piece. Please, keep writing.

  5. Rebekah Miller says:

    I completely agree that lit, especially YA lit, needs more black characters doing all things. I grew up very poor and in an abusive home. Although I’m white, even I found most YA characters completely unrelatable. How can you relate to a princess when you’re family can barely afford to feed you? How are you supposed to read Baby Sitters Club and relate to those characters when, at 10 yrs of age, you are your 5yr old brother’s primary care taker? Surely we can do better.

  6. csinalaska says:

    I want to see more black actors starring in action-hero movies! More black actors in romances, more adventures, more sci-fi, more everything! Skin color shouldn’t dictate whether or not you are a successful person, the character of a person should.

  7. lacelle white says:

    Wow! That was really positive and I appreciate your level of introspection. I think that doing the work of making folks aware of the missing black presence is the first step in the right direction. Your piece is doing just that.

  8. darab86 says:

    Great read! When casting the role of slaves and gangsters we always seem to be the “perfect fit”. However, when casting for the roles of African Kings and Queens, actors who are not of African descent always seem to be chosen. Why should they be the given the opportunity to re-enact the lives of my ancestors?… I would never be casted as one of theirs #brainwashed

  9. Sarah Smith says:

    YES. I have grown up around people who are either bigots and racists, or the complete opposite spectrum where they like to remind everyone of everyone else’s struggles every chance they get. While it’s great that people are trying to bring light to these types of circumstances, they always seem to miss key points like yours. There is a presence missing. Everyone wants to be the first to share a compelling story involving slavery, but won’t say anything when every movie they see or book they read has only minor black characters. It’s so important to every different race, ethnicity, or “minority” to start being equally represented in American culture. I tend to put minority in quotations because that’s a huge part of the issue- white people are now technically a minority in America! We are not the biggest race here, but we sure do think we are. great article, definitely will be sharing.

  10. Anayleetical says:

    This is a great read. Black lives shouldn’t be portrayed as being hard and miserable, or just fit for survival. Black people also live well lives too! It’s hard to see such representation in novels and films and it is quite frustrating. Growing up I loved reach teen novels, from gossip girl to the clique to pretty little liars, and none of them as far as I can remember featured any black characters. Though it is good talk about all kind of lives lived through black people, films and novels only seem to pick up on the hard lives of those who deal with single parent hood and drugs and crimes, not realizing they are millions of black families all over the world who come from good homes, who hang out in the suburbs, who do their homework and go to college, and there on. Why isn’t this represented in mainstream media? This reminds me of when someone told Donald Glover he couldn’t play Spiderman because they are no black people who live like Peter Parker. When Donald heard this, he made a video on how awful it is that people really think that black people can’t live simple lives doing things Peter Parker would do, such as have crushes and take photography and be into science. More films and novels need to be created with more diversity in their cast that doesn’t revolve around race, so people can humanize black people. There is a large amount of people that fail to see us as humans and only see us as criminals and second class citizens and this needs to stop now, and media and film will certainly help a lot.

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