Donald Glover, Ava DuVernay and Issa Rae are making TV great again. The beauty of Atlanta, Queen Sugar, and Insecure respectively being on air with shows like Scandal, Empire, Being Mary Jane, and Power, is it removes the burden of one show representing every Black perspective and truth. It’s reminiscent of the golden TV era of Black representation that lasted throughout the 1990s.
At the very start of the 90s, shows like the Cosby Show solely featured archetypal wholesome Black families: the Huxtable men held contests to see who loved their wives more, while the children struggled with growing up and breaking curfew. We would still have two more years of the Huxtables lovingly eating dinner together and having tough talks about drugs and alcohol before we saw more varied portrayals of Black American life on TV. The spinoff A Different World showed young Black American college life – a previously not oft-explored genre – and its influence cannot be understated.
When we talk representation it’s not about just checking a box. It’s not about hitting the sweet spot for Number of Blacks on TV. It’s about the seeds that are planted of the existence of a reality we never imagined. Yeah. It’s about inception. It’s about an entirely new league of possibility. It’s about the subtle but omnipresent sweatshirt or line jacket in background shots of A Different World that introduces people to a world of Black Greek brotherhood and sisterhood. It’s about Martin Lawrence rocking historically Black college gear on Martin, making higher education a foregone conclusion. In as much as representation is about discovery, it’s also about affirmation.
The representation of Black teachers in The Fresh Prince‘s Aunt Viv and The Steve Harvey Show‘s main cast are as impactful as the images of Dr. Huxtable and Mrs. Huxtable, Esq. It’s as much about raising a family as it is about seeing a young Black couple and their friends just navigate life, as we saw in Martin and the Jamie Foxx Show. Representation is about exposing your reality to the world. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Is the un-aired life worth living?
It’s about recognizing your plight in others. Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man and it’s my jam. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It’s the literary enactment of what it’s like to be Black in the United States of America. To be both a myth and a constant threat. “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids– and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” That. That feeling of affirmed being is all about representation. Because trust me if you saw us, how beautiful we are, you’d be ashamed not to represent us. We, too, are America.
Representation is a Black existentialist need. To be sure that one’s place and path in the acceptable range of Not Fucking It Up. Shows like Scandal and Being Mary Jane invite us into the world of women who have it all but still not enough. Insecure promises to represent us super awkward Black girls trying to navigate dating and working in what they really wanna call a post-racial America. Queen Sugar lets us in on the lives of members of a Southern Black family. Only two episodes in and Atlanta is providing another unique perspective: young Black, living in Atlanta, trying to provide for your family and find your place in life. Each of these shows is strengthened by the existence of the others. Atlanta with its all Black writers room and the power duo of Ava and Oprah are able to be so authentic and great because they don’t have to represent everyone. When there is not enough representation, every representation becomes The Representation. These shows fight against that.