Comedian, writer and filmmaker Jordan Peele recently offered the hope that the success of his low-budget but high-profit film, Get Out, would convince Hollywood producers that “black voices … tell good stories like anyone else.”
It is, frankly, startling that after two centuries of the African-American presence in theater, film, television and music, black artists and their “black stories” are still somehow assumed to be less “good” than white ones.
That Peele needs to reiterate in 2017 the impact of “black stories” on the U.S. cultural and psychological landscape is, at the very least, puzzling. Given the feats of everyone from James Baldwin and Billie Holiday to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison, the need to validate black stories becomes downright baffling.
The debut Saturday on HBO of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, backed by and starring Oprah Winfrey, speaks to this conundrum: While Winfrey is a media giant and perhaps, along with Shonda Rhimes, the most powerful woman of color in media, it was white journalist Rebecca Skloot’s version of Lacks’ exploitation that became a best-selling book—not the one written in 2008 by PEN Oakland award-winning African-American writer Harriet Washington (Medical Apartheid), whose work also won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Skloot’s well-meaning and best-selling attempt to tell the story of Lacks, a black woman whose death from cancer also led to the use of those defiantly persistent cancerous cells for medical breakthroughs, still leaves The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, lacking.
Yes, most everything Winfrey touches turns to gold, so the small-screen version of the book may also prove successful. In addition, if you consider the financial successes of the hip-hop musical Hamilton, the horror flick Get Out, and Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and Tony Award contender, Sweat, the disconnection of the value of black stories to the universal narrative seems inexplicable.
While all of these stories, with the exception of Hamilton, can be considered “black” stories, their collective impressive successes with nonblack audiences indicate that they resonate with a wide range of audiences.
As a Northwestern University professor who researches, teaches and publishes on minority art, I have found that minority voices often tend to tell richer and more inclusive stories.
In Physics of Blackness, I write that rather than being “niche,” the best minority art shows how we are all webbed together, in both nuanced and obvious ways.
Nottage’s Sweat has been astounding critics with its prescient understanding of the economic forces that led not only to the rise of Donald Trump but also to the current complexity of our sociopolitical—and multicultural—landscape. Whereas many pundits and politicians have incorrectly focused on working-class white men as the central actors in the recession, Sweat demonstrates that the economy actually connects all of us even as it seems to drive us apart.
Works like Sweat correct, I hope, the many ways that black bodies are misused by white artists, in which the complexity of our humanity is frozen into a simple symbolism of victimization, and we are meant to be pitied, perhaps wept over, but always viewed, somehow, as “other.”
For example, Dana Schutz’s recent submission for the Whitney Biennial, Open Casket—a painting based on the open-casket photograph of Emmett Till—says more about racial blindness and white privilege than the racial story of the United States.
In both the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Open Casket, the black body is a corpse, a tool for an argument being made by the white auteur.
In contrast, Hamilton imparts an incredibly complex history of the formation of the United States, embracing racial and gendered issues and all of their paradoxes.
To be sure, Hamilton does not tell everyone’s story when it comes to the U.S. colonial history—most painfully and ironically, that of the Native Americans; and yet, despite its flaws, what Hamilton forcefully argues is that the story of this nation cannot be told today without a central minority presence, as seemingly counterintuitive as that seems.
In his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes wrote: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” How stunning that nearly a century later, those words must still stand as our battle cry against an establishment that continues to question our ability to tell our stories—and, really, the stories of this nation.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Michelle M. Wright is a professor of African-American studies and comparative literary studies at Northwestern University and a Public Voices fellow through the OpEd Project. She is co-editor, with Jodi A. Byrd, of the Critical Insurgencies book series.