Do you remember that “Three Fictional Characters Challenge” that was popular on Facebook a few years ago? The point was to post a photoset of the three fictional characters you think are the best representation of yourself.
At the time, the three characters that I picked were Hermione Granger, Leslie Knope, and Wednesday Addams. Very accurate, if I do say so myself.
…but do you spot the problem? Because I didn’t.
And then a few days ago, I happened to be watching John Leguizamo’s one-man Broadway show Latin History for Morons, and something clicked for me. (By the way, I highly recommend that you give it a watch.)
The main conflict of the show revolves around John Leguizamo trying to help his teenage son think of a Latin hero for a school project. It’s surprisingly difficult to find any mention of Latin heroes in their school textbook, or to even think of any that are both well-known in American culture and interesting to an 8th grader.
At one point, after complaining to his therapist about the difficulty he’s having helping his son with this project, Leguizamo is asked to play a word association game. The therapist will say a word, and John will say the first name that pops into his head.
“What about Marc Anthony?” asks the therapist.
“Meh,” says John.
“It’s gotta be Spalding Gray.”
“Do you see the pattern here?” asks the therapist.
Not until the therapist follows up by asking, “Who’s your Latin hero, huh? How do you expect to have a hero for your son if you don’t have one for yourself?”
That was an incredibly eye-opening moment for me.
I realized that I probably would’ve failed this exercise in exactly the same way that John Leguizamo did, and furthermore for the same reason- because we grew up in a culture that basically sets us up to fail that challenge.
Even if someone told me to specifically list Black heroes I can identify with or look up to, I’d first immediately think of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ruby Bridges…you know, the obvious ones. The ones that we read about in school during Black History Month and literally no other time of the year.
Digging deeper, I’d then probably add Nichelle Nichols, Michelle Obama, Janelle Monáe, Naomi Campbell, Stacey Abrams, and even more recently Amanda Gorman.
But if you told me to list the Black heroes who were relevant while I was growing up, I can pretty much only think of Venus and Serena Williams. I guess maybe Oprah, if you’re going to make me scrape the absolute bottom of the barrel.
This is something I’ve always kind of been aware of- but now, for the first time, my mind flashed back to the Three Fictional Characters Challenge and I realized….oh, wow.
Not only could I not think of a single Black character that I identify with, I didn’t even notice that I hadn’t thought of one. Someone had to point it out to me. (And at the time I was annoyed at him for pointing it out! Can you believe that shit?)
But unfortunately, that only makes sense. I’m struggling to think of Black fictional characters that I identify with even now, let alone ones that existed when I was an impressionable child. Penny from the Proud Family, I guess? Raven from That’s So Raven? Barbie’s friend Nikki? Cinderella, but from only the 1997 ABC Family version with Brandy?
Almost every character that I identified with in any way as a kid, or cared about at all, was white. Why wouldn’t they be? Growing up in America in the 1990s, almost all the media I consumed assumed a white audience, or otherwise didn’t bother with representation- I’ll give shoutouts to Gullah Gullah Island and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, but that’s slim pickings, don’t you think? A couple of shows out of hundreds? Thousands?
I never really thought too much about how this affected me, until I watched Latin History for Morons and realized that it’s the kind of societal othering that’s damaging across generations.
Representation is important. I realize that now.
How am I supposed to feel good about myself as a Black person if I’m walking around with the impression that there aren’t any Black people, fictional or otherwise, worth identifying with? How is John Leguizamo supposed to teach his son to take pride in their Latin heritage if neither of them can even name a Latin hero worth celebrating?
I’ve discussed before how it took me a long time to start thinking properly about my Black heritage, by dint of being raised by, and entirely surrounded by, white people for my entire life. I’m realizing now that there’s still so much more to unpack.
I bought a couple of books about Black History in both America and the world. But I feel like just educating myself now, as an adult, might not be enough to undo all of the bad radio I’ve picked up over the years.
Like, I’m writing a book right now- and although a few of the characters are non-white, none of them are Black. I’m starting to feel weird about it. Should I? I dunno.
Representation matters, but it’s still really complicated.
Sometimes I just want to write the story I want to write. But sometimes, I feel like I need to write something for little Black girls to read.
Mostly, I feel bad that the kind of story I want to write isn’t the kind of thing that little Black girls would read to feel included in society.
I just find it really sad that I’ve been so ethnically brainwashed by a predominantly white culture, if you will, that I was almost thirty years old before I realized that it’s weird that I never had any Black role models- and that even with that realization, I still have basically no idea how to fix that problem.