By: Isabella Ntigbu
When watching television as a child, I always tried to find the character that looked like me; black and female. I knew doing so would be hard because the sea of pale faces always overshadowed the colored ones.
I made such an effort to find any black female character to provide myself with a source of self-identification and a way to feel like I was a part of the show too. Because I attended a predominantly white elementary school, most of the examples I modeled after were white and I thought there was no way my golden-brown skin could match the ivory color of my eurocentric peers.
I thought my long box-braids could not compare to a white girl’s long, silky hair. Then, I met Susie Carmichael. I couldn’t believe it: right on my screen was a fellow brown sista’ confidently sporting her braids, singing her soul out, and outshining her blonde best friend with her flawless work ethic.
Susie defied every single black female stereotype I knew. Her locs were portrayed as beautiful, her intellectual superiority was praised, and her parents held highly-esteemed professions that included a physician and a television writer. Finally, I saw a young black girl that not only looked like me, but shared similar characteristics and worldview as me.
Watching Susie on the screen was a confirmation that I, too, am the face of America. Throughout my childhood I had the liberty to meet other melanated cartoon sistas as well: Numbah 5 from Codename: Kids Next Door taught me that black females could be bad-ass without being labeled as the “angry black woman.” Penny from The Proud Family reminded me that I could have both swag AND a 4.0 GPA. and that a Black person does not have to be defined into only one category.
Cartoons were not the only facet of media where I received my archetypes for black girl magic. Pre-teen/teen sitcoms like That’s So Raven and True Jackson VP pushed me to strive for excellence no matter what the age or race. That’s So Raven, introduced me to many issues that females face such as body image, discrimination, and harboring big career goals where black women are not well-represented.
The episodes of the show ranged from Raven speaking out against a fashion show that claimed she must be at least a size 2 to walk down the runway, to always working hard to pursue her dream as a fashion designer. That’s So Raven made me realize that I did not have to conform to society’s ideal of a perfect “image” and that my dreams were valid, no matter what color I was.
True Jackson VP was a show where I saw what it was like for a black woman to really be running the show. Seeing True become the Vice President of a highly prestigious fashion company made me realize that there are black females who are capable of handling the big corporations where society would usually think is only fit for the role of a white male. TV programs like That’s So Raven and True Jackson V.P. broke racial stereotypes and normalized black females pursuing big dreams.
In addition to the influential television shows I came across, there were a few poignant films that helped to form my racial identity growing up in American society. The Color of Friendship and Akeelah and the Bee are two examples of these. Piper from The Color of Friendship inspired me to embrace the “angry black girl” stereotype. Her unapologetic/unwavering attitude about racial injustice, especially pertaining to South African apartheid, helped me realize that there is no shame in being politically and socially conscious.
In the past I would hold my tongue on racial issues due to my fear of offending others. But after watching The Color Friendship, I knew that in order for situations to change, people had to vocalize the issues.
Akeelah and the Bee was a movie that really encouraged my academic talents as a black woman. Being that I was never that kid who had sports/dance/theatre lessons after school, my literary/writing interests were the only thing I could say I excelled at and wanted to pursue. However, the media seemed to only praise the black kids who were shining in athletics or the music industry. I saw a complete 180 degree turn from this stereotype after watching Akeelah and the Bee.
For once I saw a black person, female at that, being recognized for her superior intellectual abilities. Akeelah’s community encouraged her to rise in her spelling talent and make it to the National Bee; the same way a community would be rooting for the town’s star ball player. This film validated the importance of black people pursuing their academic talents as much as they would their athletic/performance talents.
Fast forward to my high school career, I realized that almost all of the TV dramas I loved (Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, 90210, etc) lacked people of color as the protagonists. Couldn’t black people lead their own show and embody all of the qualities that makes someone the TV hero/heroine? Then, I tuned into Scandal. Olivia Pope, the protagonist of Scandal, was nothing short of powerful, beautiful, daring, and BLACK.
I had never witnessed a black woman carry such a commanding role in such an influential show. The most amazing aspect of Ms. Pope was that she was a super-woman. She could do it ALL, and her blackness was never a barrier, but an asset. Shonda Rhimes’s creation of the show did not only provide me with a model that has furthered my career aspirations to inspire and change those around me, but made me realize that Rhimes, herself, has opened the doors for people of color to shine in their own respective right. In an entertainment industry dominated by white people, it is important that people of color create opportunities where all shades of skin can be properly represented in the media.
Due to the inspiration of these black, female personalities, I aspire to be an entertainment news correspondent/anchor that will integrate more awareness and appreciation of diversity in the media. I hope to promote and discuss upcoming/ongoing films, TV shows, music, and even books that are highlighting characters of color, so that I will be able to share that same sense of pride I experienced when viewing programs that were a direct reflection of me.
I will forever be grateful for having the opportunity to view these programs and films that have ignited that fire within me to break barriers for people of color, and to know that the media broadcasting people of color is only the beginning to a more “colorful” television, and nation.
Do you have a favorite black female TV/movie character who taught you something about your blackness while growing? If so please share in the comment section below.