Today’s post was not intended to be about Issa Rae. After writing about the season finale of Insecure last week, I wanted to move on to other topics for discussion. But then, at last night’s Emmys, Rae, in a moment of candor, found a way to make all her fans proud to be a part of the #IssaHive. When asked who she was rooting for, she responded, “I’m rooting for everybody black.”
There was nothing shocking about this statement to anybody who has grown up black and rooted for damn near anything in their life. It is a mantra for any of us who have watched any competition in which one of the competitors looks like us, sounds like us or is familiar to us.
I remember as a kid watching shows like Family Feud, Double Dare and even American Gladiators, competitions in which there were absolutely zero stakes for me, and if there was a black competitor, I was rooting for them. Back then, I never thought deeply about this sort of fan appreciation. My rationale was simple: Black contestants, even on shows like the ones I mentioned, were rare, and therefore, rooting for them was done more out of a feeling that if I didn’t do it then, I probably wasn’t going to get another chance.
But in hindsight, I realized that part of my thinking was programmed by the way I would learn about black history.
The way black history is taught to us in school is through the guise of firsts. From a very early age, most of the black people we learn about are put under a lens of exceptionalism. We learn about a black person who overcame a system of oppression and racism to become the first black person to accomplish everything from being the first African-American world heavyweight champion (Jack Johnson) to sitting at the front of a bus (Rosa Parks), and even those stories are sometimes distorted (shoutout to Claudette Colvin), but I digress.
It’s this sort of conditioning that lends itself to our cheering for our own out of solidarity. As Scoop Jackson once said, anytime you hear about a first black person winning or accomplishing anything of note, it is a reminder that racism exists. Issa Rae’s statement last night exemplified that.
Already there are people who took Rae’s words as racist, but in fact, her comment was rooting against racism. When Issa said she was rooting for everybody black, she was rooting for a new history to be made. She was rooting for Lena Waithe (Master of None) to be the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. She was rooting for Donald Glover (Atlanta) to be the first black person to win for comedy-series directing. She was rooting for Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) to be the first black actor since 1998 to win for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
So for the same reasons I grew up rooting for Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, Barack Obama and any black contestant I saw on Jeopardy, Issa Rae was rooting for Donald Glover, Lena Waithe and Sterling K. Brown. There are so few of us in spaces like the Emmys that we rarely ever get the chance to root for us. So when we see us in those spaces, we may not know the full backstory, but we do know the history, and we’re rooting for it to change.