A Love Letter to Black Women on TV

I started Hollywood the Write Way in 2008 to talk about my love for television, movies, books, and broadway. Television in particular took the lead immediately, as anyone who knows me knows this is not at all surprising. The world has since gone completely buck wild and so… to go back to basics here and just sit with myself and the things that I love, I want to share a love letter of sorts to the Black women on television who shaped me.

Full disclosure, this is also an edited excerpt of what could have been the introduction to my nonfiction pop culture book about the history of Black women on TV had publishers decided to pick it up (which they didn’t because, well, publishing.).

Here we go…

Hollywood in Color

I used to daydream about which twin I was on Sister, Sister. I longed to be—and on the rare occasion I even was—the energetic, outgoing, lights up a room when she walks in, Tamera. But deep down, I embodied the quiet, more responsible Tia.

When Tia started dating and became love sick, we saw the tables turn as the personalities of the twins blurred. In this, I discovered that there are boxes we put each other and ourselves in but we are not one dimensional caricatures. We are so much more.

With every episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air I devoured, I deliberated over what I would do if I were in the privileged shoes of the Banks daughters. Would I be as confident and naive as Hilary?, I wondered.  Would I be empathetic and patient like Ashley? I hoped so. My blackness is seen an issue in the real world, no matter which way the pendulum swings. How would I deal with that? How will I?

I realized that I had internalized society’s issues with blackness onto myself. And no amount of money in my family’s bank account would ever make that right. In every episode, the glamorous and tender lives of the Banks sisters helped me carefully unpack what it means to accept who I am.

I rooted for the success and happiness of Laura Winslow on Family Matters and I wondered what she, a fictional character, was doing long after each episode aired. The college years and young adult life mesmerized me when I watched A Different World and Living Single. Not much of a romantic myself, I was none the less constantly entertained and moved by the romance between Martin and Gina on Martin. And like most Black girls, I was more emotionally invested in the characters on Girlfriends than any other show at that time that celebrated women, friendship and sisterhood. I was unhappy in my own skin but I was safe in all of theirs. I trusted the creator, Mara Brock Akil, one of the first Black female television writers that I became aware of. She had the ability to authentically portray and help me understand and accept my identity as an unapologetic Black girl soon to be woman.

The characters, the actresses, the words of the Black writers that I and so many other Black women followed, epitomized the seed of the voice I had and longed to grow into. It’s okay to be smart. It’s okay to have natural hair even when it’s not “in.” It’s okay to not conform. It’s okay to have emotions, to let them out, even when I’m angry. It’s okay to demand to not be ignored. It’s okay to pursue my dreams and be just as shameless as anyone else pursuing theirs. It’s okay to strive to be my best self despite the road blocks society has set out for Black women. It’s okay to be me.

This is the message that Black women behind and in front of the screens have set out to affirm over the years and this is what I want to celebrate.

Only in the past few years have Black women in fandoms actually felt like we can be just as openly proud of our obsessions and fangirl just as loudly as anybody else. Since social media hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlsRock began to make waves on the internet, Black girls everywhere have been inspired to embrace their beauty and worth and rock that confidence as they go onto their own extraordinary journeys. That newfound confidence, which has always been waiting within us to break free, is what inspired me to write this.

I began to look into the women who made the biggest impacts on me, like Shonda Rhimes, an inspiration to all aspiring Black female television writers. From there, I continued to peel back the layers of history that led up to these extraordinary women.

The more I learned about the history of Black women in Hollywood, the more fascinated I became with all they’ve overcome to break into an industry which has long perpetuated the idea that minority work isn’t beautiful and doesn’t sell. I was spellbound by their faith and persistence. More so, while I knew it in the back of my mind, I hadn’t fully realized until researching, just how much of what I saw on the small screen framed what I saw when I looked in the mirror. Media impact how we see ourselves and the world. A reflection of ourselves on the small screen is not a privilege but a necessity. It is a safe space to understand and dignify both the majority and minorities.

Before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement, syndicated shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Diff’rent Strokes normalized diverse characters and the lives of minorities on a national platform. While watching the classics and present day lineup, I was able to see on a bigger scale the progression of representation and acceptance both by society’s standards and our own.

These Black women behind and in front of the camera beat great odds as they went down every traditional and nontraditional avenue to Hollywood.

What were the first footsteps made by Black women in TV and how did each footstep pave the way for Debbie Allen, Viola Davis, and the many Black creatives and actresses that we know and love on television today? How does the past influence the diversity we see today and will see on the small screen tomorrow? I urge you to explore the journeys of these women and see how they broke into the industry, made names for themselves, defied Hollywood standards, and moved up the ranks. I urge you to recognize the decades of sculpting and molding of complex Black female characters as well as the rise of successful Black women in the TV industry.

This is about acknowledging that TV shows featuring Black women matter. This is about chronicling the experiences of the Black Hollywood collective on the small screen. This is about moving past the trending news headlines and soundbites and really taking the time to recognize the unsung Black women in the business.

For decades, Black women walked onto studio lots as the token minority on the set, in stereotypical roles, often with one or few lines to speak of. Today, Black women in the industry occupy some of the highly coveted number one positions on the call sheet, and are the voices of compelling three dimensional characters. Simply being in the TV industry and on the small screen has changed how entire generations view Black women all around the world. Most importantly, Black representation impacts how Black girls see themselves. It is an affirmation, an anchor to our identities.

There is a great wealth of history of Black women in Hollywood creating and fighting for a space to succeed within the television industry. It must be accounted for. It must be affirmed. Hollywood. In color.