Updated: Oct 2
I can point out a clean handful of times in my life where I realized I was not, in fact, the main character.
That sounds horribly self-deprecating. Let me explain.
I’ve always sort of known who I am. I claim to suffer from identity crises at least once a month, but thinking about it now, I don’t think that’s actually true. When it comes to my place in the black diaspora — yeah, I’ve got a problem. But when it comes to who I am, deep down: I think I know, and I think I’ve always known, because I know the kind of person I want to be. Someone good. Someone kind and universally adored. Someone opinionated, and secure in their opinions, but still palatable (being adored is high priority, obviously).
If you haven’t noticed yet, I am describing a main character. Someone you can plug seamlessly into almost any story because that character almost always looks the exact same. There is usually a physical criteria for a main character, and in case you also haven’t noticed: I don’t typically fit the bill. It never occurred to me that the character I wanted so badly to play had already been cast and that she always looked a lot like Meg Ryan.
Options are decidedly more limited when you’re black and a girl (in the movies as well as in real life). We are, apparently, not very palatable — neither are we universally adored. But none of this stopped me — or even seemed to dawn on me — when I was younger. No part of my existence really felt like that much of an intrusion. It did not feel unwelcome in the spaces I took up at all. Sure, I’d get weird looks when I dressed up as Princess Leia or Arwen from Lord of the Rings — but it was more because I was loudly reciting elvish chants in broad daylight or trying to whack my dad with the broom I’d insisted was a lightsaber. (Don’t come at me talking about “Leia didn’t have a lightsaber till recently” unless you’ve picked up a Legends book, thanks.)
I like to think I was a romantic before I became whatever I am now. And I like to think it was cinema (she said without an ounce of pretense) that made me a romantic. It was through cinema that I found an alternate reality, somewhere I could be as wild and as dramatic as I wanted to be. I first saw myself in the protagonists of the action and sci-fi my dad would let me watch. I couldn’t physically go on the adventures I loved so much, but I could make room to rewrite them in my mind.
What started as mere wish fulfillment evolved into actual story-writing the second I could string a coherent thought together. There was always a girl driving the narrative — though in my first attempts she would have pale skin and dark hair like Leia, like Arwen, like Sarah Connor. It’s not that I felt like a black girl didn’t belong in the stories I was writing. Those were just the women I admired the most, the ones I saw the most often.
That feeling would come later, though.
There’s a phenomenon that occurs very often in the lives of people of color, whether they consume copious amounts of western media or not. If you’ve read the works of Frantz Fanon or James Baldwin, you probably already know. There’s just this thing that happens when you grow up exclusively watching white heroes — especially in older movies that are no longer politically correct, older movies where the hero has to face off against The Savages™ on a regular basis. You grow up watching Harrison Ford and you’re like “cool, I totally see myself in Indiana Jones — he is so me.” And then suddenly, Indy is juxtaposed with a brown dude, a dude you could easily be related to — and he shoots him point-blank. Doesn’t even think twice about it.
It feels like betrayal the first time you notice it. It feels like the you that you imagine yourself to be is killing the you that you are aesthetically, the you that shares your skin. It’s really the first time that you realize you’re different. And when I say “different,” I really mean less-than.
That realization only opens the door for more betrayal. It gets hard to watch the movies you grew up loving, not without thinking “why couldn’t that be me?” each time Keira Knightley pops up on your screen. It feels almost impossible to find someone like you. It’s a strange thing to come to terms with, one that is difficult to understand unless you’ve lived through it.
So we’ve established that I’m not the main character. Very sad and devastating, I know.
When I first started really writing, my heroes were all the same. They were good. They were kind, universally adored, opinionated — and they were black. Always black.
I did it less because I wanted to and more because I felt like I needed to. I am a very reactionary person. Also, a lot of what I do is borne from spite. Not very protagonist-y of me, but it’s the truth — and I’m okay with that because my spite is the motor that moves me out of “woe is me” and into “what am I gonna do about this thing that’s bugging me?”
A lot of my “early work” (again, without a shred of pretense) was reactionary in the sense that it all felt like a cheap rip-off of my favorite childhood films. There was a dystopian short story whose premise was very clearly lifted from the Terminator saga. I also wrote (to completion!) a novel that I described as “Avatar meets Naughts and Crosses” — I am sure I’ll cringe if I read it today, but in high school, I swore it’d be the next YA sensation. There were also countless drafts of sci-fi pieces inspired by Ender’s Game, Never Let Me Go… all with black heroines, which made them pretty fricken’ groundbreaking on that point alone.
It felt good writing them at first. But the idea of sharing them with anyone embarrassed me to no end. I was writing stories I didn’t think anyone would ever want to hear, stories that only satisfied my need to see myself somewhere. It felt so masturbatory, so narcissistic. And this was where I really started to doubt myself. Even as I began to realize I wanted to write for a living, I felt the need to justify my works and explain why black women were at the center of them all. I still do. And that’s the real tragedy because I’ve strayed so far from the self-assured girl I was when I was still a romantic.
Representation is much more polarizing than people realize. People really get mad when a person of color mentions they want to feature people of color in their work. I wish that statement only included the pasty white incels calling people slurs from the safety of a troll account. But this type of statement seems to bother everybody. It’s like pulling teeth to get the general public to “allow” more diversity in film. As if it affects them personally.
And for the record, it doesn’t. But you wanna know what does affect someone personally? Witnessing a wave of vitriol against minority filmmakers for catering to their own experience. Day after day. Without an end in sight.
This lens, this whitewashed bias, affects everyone whether they like it or not. You can read someone’s script and picture that archetypal pale-skinned woman at the center of it because that is literally all anyone ever sees. White is the default setting. We are conditioned to see it always, even in our imaginations. And it’s exhausting (read: dehumanizing!!!) to go out of my way to describe a character’s race to prevent any white assumption. It’s exhausting to worry that your work won’t be understood by “the majority.”
I think I talk about this sensation more than I talk about anything else. When I say this, I’m really saying I talk about it too much. I’m saying that I’m self-conscious about how often I talk about it. Which is horrible, because it is a massively nuanced problem that requires — no, demands — reform. And I want to be able to enjoy things without constantly noticing the erasure of black women in film. But when it feels like you’re the only one who cares about it, compared to everyone else who seems so vehemently against it (or worse, indifferent to it), when so many people seem to be saying that your stories don’t matter, it gets harder and harder to disagree.
So much of what I do is rooted in insecurity or shame because of this. Which is such a bummer, complete and utter bullshit, really — because I am literally so cool and smart and valid, and I can still remember the time when I believed that unequivocally. I think your departure from the innocence and confidence of youth is inevitable, but that could just be the nihilist in me talking. The real world has a way of eroding all your sharpest edges, chipping away at the strength of your heart, your fire. But while loving myself and my stories and my mind does not come as easily as it did when I thought the kitchen broom was a deadly Jedi weapon, I still do, because I have no choice not to. The real world has tried to chip away at me, but the girl I used to want to be is still nestled safely in my heart. She’s still alive, still kicking, and she still drives so much of what I do — shame and insecurity be damned.
She’s the girl I always write. She reminds me to be kind, and stick to my guns, and to not be afraid. I love her so much I could cry. I adore her, and that stops me from worrying whether people adore me. Whether people will “get” what I’m trying to convey with my damn work.
This is the closest I’ve come to loving myself again. This is the closest I’ve come to eradicating that other, shameful voice in my head. Creating stories for black women, that’s the last thing I should be ashamed of. If anything I should feel brave for trying. Granted, it only feels brave because I know these stories are not common. They’re hardly ever solicited.
But even if Hollywood doesn’t always want me, at least I want me. If my stories never see the light of day, I won’t be (that) mad because I’m not doing it for anyone but me and that girl inside. If anything it makes me want to write so much more, without the burden of having to apologize for something that brings me joy. It’s the greatest exercise in self-love I’ve found thus far, the easiest for me to do, the one that solves so many of my problems. When I see injustice or garden-variety bigotry, when I want to write (or rather, fight) my way out of depressive despair: I just close my eyes. And I think about that girl. And I think of a story. And I do.