Why Do Black Women’s Lives Only Matter When We’re Entertaining on TV?

The success of television shows such as Empire—starring Taraji P. Henson as the inimitable, indomitable, and downright inspirational Cookie Lyon—and How To Get Away With Murder—headed by Viola Davis in all her stony, complex wonder—has demonstrated irrefutably that the public is interested in tuning into stories driven by and exploring the many-layered lives of Black women. The ratings for the former did the impossible and grew without fail every week of its first season, an accomplishment that would be notable even if it didn’t star a Black woman and feature an almost entirely Black cast.

The renewed enthusiasm for television that actually reflects the demographics of the U.S. has been taken by some as demonstrative of the way in which we are close to, or are currently living in a post-racial society. (I say renewed enthusiasm, because the golden age of television for Black folks was arguably the 90s and early 2000s, with shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha, Keenan & KelSister, Sister, and My Wife & Kids.) Obviously this is wishful thinking of the highest order, and if anything the increased appetite for Black women as entertainment is indicative of the continued use of Black women as means to an end, rather than us being viewed as ends in ourselves.

The fact remains that white people (and sometimes Black men) are happy to see us grappling with drama and despair on television, and will get emotionally invested in our fabricated narratives, but are unable to transfer this sympathy and depth of feeling to the actuality of our lives. These shows are not the problem, and their existence is imperative for Black women who are starved of decent representation, but their popularity in the context of a society that is racist and patriarchal and deeply unconcerned with the health and wellbeing of Black women feels like a small kick in the teeth.

The truth is that whatever happens to Black women, it’s just never given the same attention as is garnered by white women and Black men. The only people continually rallying for Black women are other Black women. That’s the way it is. In my most maudlin moods, I increasingly understand that this is the way that things will always be. It doesn’t seem to matter how much we shout, scream, cry, and plead; our humanity is just not recognized and respected.

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