Black women in pop culture are “not lightning that strikes once,” but the “hurricane” that returns again and again to crack open and restructure the American cultural landscape.
My first memory of Black History Month was in third grade, when my teacher invited our class to watch The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson. I still remember sitting on the brown carpet in our classroom, transfixed. Witnessing her transformation in the role, a dull pain began to spread across my chest—a mixture of empathy for her character and a yearning that would eventually grow like a rhizome in my body over many years, eventually sprouting into my throat, past my lips, and onto stages around the world.
For years, I consumed anything I could about the craft that Tyson introduced me to. I watched The Love Boat and The Jeffersons with fresh eyes, finally understanding that those people in my television were not real, but actors telling stories. I read magazines to understand how people became stars, and performed in school plays to hone my craft. And I waited, biding my time until it was my turn to shine as bright as Cicely.
And then, in a flash, the sprawling oak tree of my imagination—the one that Tyson’s performance had seeded in me—came tumbling down, in a relatively minor incident that I now realize had an epic effect on my artistic path.
I was walking through the crowded halls of my high school on Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, where my father was stationed. My 9th grade self was distracted, hugging my books and daydreaming about the kind of actor I would become. I decided I would go for the gold—literally—and become an Academy Award-winning actor like Cicely Tyson and Meryl Streep, who I also idolized.
Except Cicely Tyson hadn’t won an Oscar.
I slowed to a halt. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why: Tyson was stunningly talented, with numerous high-profile films and television projects under her belt. She wasn’t an obscure artist either—over 100 million people watched her performance as Binta in the original broadcast of Roots. So why didn’t her work garner the kinds of awards that Meryl Streep’s performances did?
Where was Cicely’s Oscar?
The answer hit me like a brick. In fact, it would be another 15 years, not until 2002, before the first African American woman, Halle Berry, would overcome Hollywood’s fascination with white lives to win a Best Actress Oscar, the industry’s highest honor for female actors. To date, no other Black woman has received this honor.
No Black woman has ever experienced a career trajectory as abundant as Meryl Streep’s—overflowing with lead roles that challenge her to perform across different historical periods, story genres, geographies, class experiences, languages, dialects and character arcs. It would be easy to view Streep’s success as purely a product of rare talent and range, but in truth, it was a powerful mix of her extraordinary gifts, Ivy league training and alumni network, and Hollywood’s bias towards white-centered storyworlds that created the opportunity for Streep’s genius to shine.
I cried hot, stinging, teenaged tears that day, full of sadness and frustration. I wept for Cicely, for me, and for all the Black kids whose childhood dreams abruptly contract when they first—and again and again—meet the stench of American injustice.
Still, I found hope in the class of a brilliant drama teacher who coached me to my first award-winning performance as the Lady in Red in Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls. In college, I studied the pedagogy of white theater icons like Stanislovski, Uta Hagen, and Sanford Meisler. On school breaks, I would choose an actor I admired and watch and analyze every performance in their canon: Cicely Tyson, Bette Davis, Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, and so many others. Again, a teacher—professor Anna Deavere Smith—helped me find my way.
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I launched my professional career determined to be one of the chosen few: the small number of Black MFA grads like Sterling K. Brown and Lupita Nyong’o who each year manage to pass through the gauntlets of the industry to have economic security and something like freedom in their artistic careers.
My ambition suffered its first blow when I arrived on the set of Law & Order: SVU shortly after graduation and realized that the role I had jumped through hoops to book was actually just a poorly written caricature of a prostitute whose purpose in the script was comic relief. Casting directors continued to offer me auditions for some variation on this role for years.
A few months after SVU, I struggled to deflect the advances of a playwright who persistently harassed me while I rehearsed the off-Broadway premiere of his play. In my efforts to evade him when he cornered me backstage during performances, I repeatedly missed my entrance during a pivotal scene, prompting the director to characterize me as “unprofessional and unseasoned.” In just six weeks, I gained 40 pounds in what I now recognize as a subconscious effort to disappear, to escape the male gaze. As a queer woman, I’d done this before.
I found safe haven and great joy in staged readings and workshops, in which theaters bring actors together to test-drive early versions of scripts by emerging writers. I leapt at the chance to give life to the storyworlds and characters created by Black playwrights like Tracey Scott Wilson, Radha Blank, Keith Joseph Adkins and Robert O’Hara. But their artful, timely plays too often languished in developmental reading hell, with most white-led theaters unwilling to back full productions. Eventually, these writers headed west to Los Angeles, finding more options in film and television.
Experiences like mine are utterly, excruciatingly, common for Black women in Hollywood and the American theater. When Tessa Thompson, Tracey Ellis Ross, Jurnee Smollett and other Black actresses created the Women of Color network within the Times Up! Initiative launched in 2018, they did so because legions of Black actresses, from Cicely Tyson to Viola Davis, have created searing, timely portrayals despite rampant discrimination, sexual harassment and violence.
Overtime, these experiences can become so prevalent, so normalized, that storytellers begin to sentimentalize them, turning real emotional harm into more palatable narratives of triumph in the face of adversity. These “inspiring” stories often arrive center stage during Black History Month, but truthfully, it no longer brings much satisfaction to revive them.
Perhaps sensing the exhaustion of Black people after years—and so many Februarys—narrowly focused on Black trauma, the Movement for Black Lives launched “Black Futures Month” in 2015, expanding our collective imagination to include the free and liberated worlds beyond the horizon present-day injustices. With Afrofuturist films, Instagram Live talks, and virtual gatherings, this year’s observance speaks to those Black people who, like me, have little interest in claiming a seat at a table built by white supremacy and patriarchy. We are aiming, as Faith-Marie Zamblé wrote in Sojourners, for “a seat on the moon.”
For much of my early career, I believed I could convince, cajole, even trick Hollywood into loving me. As in any abusive relationship, the process of extricating myself from this goal was long and hard. I left the audition circuit and formed a production company. I won fellowships and awards to research and produce a play I loved, Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, in the U.S., South Africa, UK, France and Croatia; and collaborated with social justice leaders to tell stories and advance cultural strategies to shift how people felt about issues ranging from human trafficking to police violence.
Slowly, I embraced a new goal: to get free. And today, as CEO of the Pop Culture Collaborative, a multimillion philanthropic fund supporting the pop culture for social change field, I work to create pathways to freedom for other artists and activists whose efforts to express their creative genius, joy and vision have been undermined by unjust systems and cultural norms.
The future looks bright: All across the industry—from movie sets and writers rooms to boardrooms and production offices—Black women, transfeminine and nonbinary people are rejecting the narrow field of possibilities the old Hollywood has relegated us to. Instead, we are working to ensure that BIPOC people, women, queer, trans, nonbinary, immigrant, and disabled people are not only represented in pop culture stories, but writing, directing, producing, and distributing them.
They are also helping us see the unjust systems at work in our society, as Ava DuVernay has done through artistic projects focused on policing and mass incarceration like When They See Us and 13th; and creating solutions to overcome inequities in Hollywood, through tools like the ARRAY Crew database for BIPOC below-the-line crew professionals.
Black women are telling stories to help us imagine what real accountability and transformative justice could look like, as Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors has done through her memoir When They Call You a Terrorist and her recently announced overall deal with Warner Media Group. They are showing us how joy and heartbreak can co-exist in stories of Black life, as Issa Rae does in Insecure and Mj Rodriguez in POSE. They are reminding us to act—and dance—even when we are afraid, as Nelini Stamp of the Working Families Party has done in co-creating the Joy to the Polls election day performances, which brought Black music and the Electric Slide to polling sites across the U.S. in 2020.
Black women are cultivating faith in our collective power, as Stacey Abrams did on the ground in Georgia and in the documentary film And She Could Be Next. And they are demonstrating why Black cis and trans women and nonbinary people are natural stewards of America’s future, as Regina King does in The Watchmen, Imara Jones in The Future Is Trans, and Victoria Mahoney will surely do in her forthcoming adaptation of Octavia Butler’s futurist novel, Dawn, for Amazon Studios.
Cicely Tyson never won an Oscar for any of her dozens of stunning portrayals of Black women—though the Academy did attempt to remedy this injustice by presenting her with an Honorary Academy Award at age 93, more than 60 years after she first appeared on film. But her victory was more significant than any gold statue: For more than half a century, she helped Black women and girls like me imagine a world where our lives and artistic work could be nuanced, complex and enduring—expansive and reflective of the power of Black creativity, resilience and love.
Her longevity proved, as youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman says, that Black women in pop culture are “not lightning that strikes once,” but the “hurricane” that returns again and again to crack open and restructure the American cultural landscape.
As Black Futures Month comes to an end, let’s set our sights beyond the horizon and focus on getting free. We deserve this, and Ms. Tyson, she expects it.