From Black Panther grossing over $218 million in its first weekend to black talent winning big at the 2018 Golden Globes. It is fair to say that black people are not only breaking barriers but also cultivating positive representation of the black community.
This uphill climb to have ourselves heard seems like an ever-present one, and, for Black women, this climb is much steeper. Despite various modes of oppression, Black people have stood strong and are making their mark on society at large. In this article, I want to explore the historical context of Black representation in the media and how the strides made can have a profound effect on Black and brown people.
When it comes to well-known media, the portrayal of minorities is oftentimes skewed to the perception that the gatekeepers may have. So where did this negative one-sided perception of Black people come from?
America is a country that was built on the enslavement of Native Americans and Black people. Families were torn apart and sold away for economic gain. Centuries of traditions were lost due to the whitewashing of slaves’ minds, generation after generation. Not having a say in their futures, slaves toiled the fields and tended to the needs of their owners. They weren’t allowed to do the things that we sometimes take for granted such as reading and writing. For Black people, this position relayed the message that they are less than and don’t matter. These sentiments were socially constructed into the minds of many white people whether they owned slaves or were bystanders.
Perceptions don’t change at the snap of a finger, and this was evident after slavery was abolished. Despite the strides former slaves made during Reconstruction such as Black men voting and Black literacy surpassing Whites in some areas, they lived lives filled with terror and unfair treatment. This was a result of the Redemption movement led by white supremacists, businessmen, and politicians to slow down the progress of Black people in the South. Using scare tactics and a clause in the 13th Amendment (below), the Redeemers found a way to have a hold on Black people’s progression.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Thinking the media didn’t play a role in this effort is absurd. The media furthered this agenda through the way it presented Black people in film and television. From the coon caricature to negative stereotypes, Black people have been misrepresented in the media. This is due to the majority of the media gatekeepers not being Black. Although this was the case, Black people slowly but surely have made strides in media.
Either seeing false representations of yourself or not seeing yourself at all can have negative effects on you. For Black people, this was the case and, in many ways, still is. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To help change the narrative of Black people in media, trailblazers stepped up and created it.
Taking the stage when there wasn’t a stage for them at all, some of the most notable Black people in media put their talent into action by not accepting no as an answer. They founded magazines, networks, and record labels. They starred in TV shows, plays, and films. These trailblazers covered magazines, wrote Broadway shows, and won awards. Despite the resistance that was sometimes put in front of them, they made it happen.
- 1940 – Hattie McDaniel was the first Black person to win an Oscar
- 1945 – Essence Magazine was founded by Johnson H. Johnson
- 1956 – Nat King Cole was the first Black person to host a nationwide show
- 1959 – Motown Records was founded by Berry Gordy, Jr.
- 1959 – Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun became the first drama written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway
- 1963 – Cicely Tyson was the first Black person to star in a TV drama (East Side/West Side)
- 1964 – Sidney Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor in Lilies of the Wind
- 1970 – Gail Fisher became the first Black woman to win a Primetime Emmy
- 1971 – Beverly Johnson was the first Black woman to grace the cover of a major magazine (Glamour)
- 1972 – Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was the first cartoon with an all Black cast
- 1980 – Black Entertainment Television Network (BET) was founded by Robert Johnson and Sheila Johnson
- 1983 – Vanessa Williams became the first Black woman to win Miss America
- 1984 – Oprah was the talk show host for AM Chicago, which was renamed to the Oprah Winfrey Show and became syndicated nationwide
- 1984 – Russell Simmons formed Def Jam Records
- 2001 – Proud Family was Disney’s first cartoon with an all Black cast
Seeing more faces that look like you can have a profound effect on your psyche. It can make you feel like you belong and matter. For many Black people and minorities in general, having representation in media means a lot. It provides an example, a path to follow, and a legacy to continue. One person can inspire many, and many can inspire many more. This domino effect of influence has shifted the paradigm of representation in media. We are not a monolith; rather, we have various perspectives and do things differently. Having multiple representations in media gives Black people, especially Black youth, more courage to be their authentic selves.
As we embark on a time in which we see the influence of representation on the culture entirely, the narratives of Black people are being heard at an all-time high. Specifically, for Black women., Their stories are being shared more than ever. Being a double minority (Black and female) has made it difficult for them to be heard. Race includes Black men and sex/gender includes white women, so they oftentimes don’t have a platform to themselves. The intersectional experience of Black women is unique to the Black experience. This level of discrimination can have negative effects on Black women, but more representation in the media for them opens up more opportunities for us to be heard. As the tide shifts in media, Black women are leading the charge.
Thinking about the strides made in media with the history that Black people have had in this country, it speaks a lot to the persistence and dedication of those before us. Being able to see many more faces that look like us compared to generations of the past, helps fuel our individual voices. Experiencing multiple representations of Blackness helps us take control of our stories and not put them on the backburner. As we embark on this new frontier of representation in the media, we must continue to shift the paradigm and use this momentum to create the future we want to see holistically.
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