by Alex Reaves
“This s*** is for us.” This lyric from Solange’s latest release, A Seat at the Table, perfectly captures the new trend of black people reclaiming what’s ours. Her album as a whole is an unrepentant celebration of blackness, an attempt to uplift a people who have been held down. The songs express long held sentiments of black folks, which have had to be buried within so as not to upset the white majority. They finally find release in tracks that vent frustration like Don’t Touch My Hair and Mad. Blues-infused interludes tell stories of dignity and tenacity in the face of struggle. In short, they show the sheer resilience of blackness.
This record is just one of the many products of the new black artistic renaissance. Beyonce’s Lemonade was a call to embrace black womanhood, while Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was a refutation to white supremacy and its consequences. Music hasn’t been so explicitly pro-black since the 1980s and ‘90s, when there were hits such like Fight the Power.
Television has been a valuable medium as well. ABC’s Black-ish often provides sharp commentary on hot topics ranging from police brutality to interracial dating. Worth noting is that it comes from a black perspective, telling familiar themes of black life through black voices. Even more, such issues aren’t watered down until they’re suitable for white consumption. Instead they’re talked about openly and with edge, uninterested in giving comfort to any white folk who may be watching.
Netflix’s Luke Cage is another example of black boldness in artistry. The eponymous character is a bullet-proof black man, a defiant statement to make in an era where the shootings of unarmed African-Americans are regular staples of the news. In an interview with The Guardian, show actress Simone Missick was quoted as saying, “[Luke Cage] highlights a lot of the issues in the black community, and it will, perhaps, enact change in unlikely places. It plants a seed.”
Look towards the big screen and you’ll see blacktivism there too. Take, for instance, Jordan Peele’s upcoming Get Out. A story about a black man visiting his white girlfriend’s family, it functions as a parable of over-assimilation into whiteness. Add the fact that we’ll soon be seeing Marvel’s Black Panther in theaters and we’re left with a burgeoning space for blackness in mainstream media.
Most outlets have focused only on the aspects of diversity in the entertainment industry without looking at the implications. The proliferation of stories created and told by black people give us more agency in how we’re portrayed. No longer are we just tokens used to give white directors pats on the back. No longer are we just stereotypes to be ridiculed and laughed at. No longer are we mere sidekicks for the white superheroes.
Of course black stories have been told before, but when they’re presented to wider (read white) audiences they can often lack emotional elevation. One only has to look at examples like the original Roots miniseries or the film The Color Purple. These products are very good at peddling black tragedies for entertainment, but offer little in terms of black inspiration. We’re reduced to sad stories used to rouse white folks into pity, with little in it for us.
This isn’t to say that black art made by black hands is nonexistent. Writers from Langston Hughes and Richard Wright to Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou frequently show the pains and pleasures of blackness in their work. So too do artists such as Kara Walker and Jean-Michel Basquiat. While all have produced powerful pieces in the name of blackness, their art remains somewhat locked away in the ivory towers of academia.
The renaissance happening now is much more accessible. You don’t have to be an expert in music theory to understand the strifes and triumphs in Lemonade and A Seat at the Table. Likewise you don’t need a background in media criticism to appreciate Luke Cage. The new era of black awareness is for everyone to enjoy, not just an elite few. This includes white people, some who have been blind to black issues. Maybe they’ll be coaxed into literacy now that the language is changing.
But this ultimately isn’t about them. After growing up with my blackness largely un-discussed in public, this turn of events is revolutionary. Being black is suddenly not a burden to be carried or a shame to endure. It’s something that we’re allowed to take pride in, wearing it like a cape instead of a scarlet letter. Hopefully the momentum will continue and future generations will never feel the sharp sting of humiliation because of their skin. Long live the revolution.
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Alex Reaves is currently an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College. In her free time she writes, and has been published in places like Thought Catalog and Affinity Magazine, among others. One day she hopes to be an academic and own at least one cat.