THIS DECADE OPENED with the triumph of reality TV. It was a bad time to be a viewer, but it was an even worse time to be a Black actress. What few scripted TV roles available to women with melanin were pushed off the screen by the wig-snatching, baller-chasing, champagne glass–flinging casts of reality TV shows like Basketball Wives. The one-dimensional lives of these “real” Black women fell flat for many us (#NotAllBlackWomen). What about those of us whose goals went beyond social striving in a bandage dress?
Enter Issa Rae. In 2011, in response to the onslaught of negative images of Black women on reality TV, Rae created the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. In her recently released memoir of the same name, Rae asked, “How hard is it to portray a three-dimensional woman of color on television or in film? I’m surrounded by them. They’re my friends. I talk to them everyday.” As it turned out, the answer to Rae’s question was, “Not that hard at all.” Rae’s series featured a cast of fully developed people of color. Links to her web series were passed from young Black woman to young Black woman across social media platforms, like lifelines to a different, better world. She was speaking to an ever-growing circle of women, the series amassing more than 20 million views.
Rae’s close-shorn natural hair and sneakers were a stark departure from the mermaid-length weaves and stilettos “reality” TV shows would have you believe are the everyday uniform of the metropolitan Black woman. It took Rae’s fictional character J to get at the real truth of our lives. She worked a job she hated, just like the rest of us. Floundered in love, just like the rest of us. And often said the wrong thing, just like the rest of us. But more importantly, Rae proved with her indie web series that Black women were in the market for more. She found partners in Pharrell William’s creative venture, i am OTHER, and the Black & Sexy TV YouTube channel, and went on to launch several other successful web series.
In her memoir, Rae says it was the colorism she experienced while trying to pitch her show that led her to launch her series on YouTube. TV executives had suggested that instead of starring in her own show, Rae should cast a light-skinned Black woman, such as, as Rae calls her, “actress/video girl/Lil Wayne’s baby’s mother, Lauren London,” to play the lead role.
Colorism wasn’t the only challenge Rae faced when trying to bring her series to life. She also airs out her frustrations about the boundaries of Blackness in television:
Girls, New Girl, 2 Broke Girls. What do they all have in common? The universal gender classification, “girl,” is white. In all three of these successful series, a default girl (or two) is implied and she is white. That is the norm and that is what is acceptable. Anything else is niche.
Rae faces similar limitations in the literary world. Despite the fact that Pew Research has shown that “the most likely person to read a book — in any format — is a Black woman who’s been to college,” Black women are as significantly underrepresented in literature as they are in television. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl is only the third memoir of note to be released by a young Black woman in the past five years. A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life by former Essence magazine relationship advisor, Demetria L. Lucas (2011), and Bitch is the New Black, by journalist Helena Andrews (2010), both precede Rae’s memoir by several years. If the success of Rae’s web series is any indication, there will be demand for her memoir. Her audience, largely composed of college-educated Black women, is just as eager to see their lives reflected on the page as on the screen.
Rae’s life reads like the real life, female equivalent of Paul Beatty’s 1996 novel The White Boy Shuffle, the seminal tome on Black awkwardness. On the cusp of her teen years, her family moved from Potomac, Maryland to Los Angeles, where like Beatty’s protagonist, she struggled to successfully navigate Black culture in South Central. On the eve of a school dance, Rae pondered the merits of freak dancing:
I hadn’t even seen a guy’s privates before, and now I was required to put my butt on some random boy’s junk and gyrate in an attractive way while he stood there? For the benefit of whom? Looking back at some of the dances we did in middle school and college, I realize they resembled animalistic mating calls. I can easily imagine Morgan Freeman narrating some of my high school dances. And with the same voice pointing out that my particular mating dance was unappealing to the entire male high school population.
There’s an entire generation of Black women that are thankful Rae not only survived those awkward years, but that she turned them into creative fuel. Many readers will recognize themselves in Rae as she suffers embarrassment after embarrassment during high school, finds her calling in college, and comes into her own in her late 20s.
Black women in TV are also coming into their own, and Rae has been an important catalyst in this change in entertainment. One year after the launch of Rae’s Misadventures and its noticeable success, Shonda Rhimes brought Scandal to our Thursday nights, and with it Kerry Washington as the fast-talking, all-about-her-business (and her President) White House fixer Olivia Pope. Just a few short years later, in 2015, Viola Davis and Uzo Aduba snatched up SAG awards for their respective work as leads on How to Get Away With Murder and Orange is the New Black.
Oh, it is a wondrous feeling to flick through the channels and see Black women, of many different skin tones, portraying high-powered lawyers, doctors, police lieutenants, and even villains. There are still a few reality TV stars, too, but the norm has changed. Black women have moved beyond niche roles. I look forward to Black women experiencing a similar renaissance across all industries, from the boardroom to the bookshelf.
Rae is now making the move from web to TV, as she is partnering with Nightly Show host and In Living Color writer alum Larry Wilmore to bring a new series to HBO. The awkward Black girl has transitioned into successful Black woman: behind the scenes, on the screen, and in the pages of her memoir.
Minda Honey is an MFA graduate student at the University of California, Riverside. She is writing a memoir, An Anthology of Assholes, about her time spent out West squandering her youth on the wrong men.