So I wrote a bit about Maya Angelou earlier this month, and one of the things I said about her is how quotable her words are. There are probably thousands of quotes of hers that are meaningful to me, and I could probably write a post about each of them, but today, I’m going to write about this one:
And I’m going to write specifically about how this quote changed the way I consume, evaluate, and enjoy media.
When I was early in my college career, I was all over the place in what I wanted to do. I started out pre-med. I still love science, particularly biology. But medicine wasn’t where I really belonged. I thought about a host of other focuses of study…sociology, psychology, history, literature, philosophy, journalism…I finally landed on Political Science, but I made significant stops at all those stations before I finished my degree, and I had by far the longest love affair with literature. I attended college at a big state school, but the faces I saw on campus were still mostly white; the professors who taught me were still mostly white; and the media I consumed…even the books I so loved studying…were mostly white. And I didn’t know better then, when I was young, that my human experience was limited by my media selection. I thought I was doing pretty well as far as (I’m an old person…this wasn’t even a word used when I was young that I know of) ‘wokeness,’ because I read books with anti-racism themes…written by white people. I watched movies starring black main characters…largely written and directed by white people. And there are some classics in this category that I still adore, and I think they are still relevant, important reads:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; Huckleberry Finn and The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain; Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
And then I remember reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and watching the film, directed by Stephen Spielberg (I love Stephen Spielberg…really), and thinking how forward thinking he was to want to make that film. (Spoiler: He got the film because it’s harder for African Americans to become directors, and when they do, it’s harder for black directors to find work on major motion pictures…still…even films about black people.) And I remember reading books for book clubs like Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (books about the experiences of black people written by white people), and liking the books alright…they are fine books…good stories…but something always felt off. (Spoiler: It’s that while authors can and should write diverse characters into their work, it’s hard…maybe even impossible…for a white author to adequately capture the lived experience of a non-white character, particularly regarding *race.*)
So now, I know better. I’m an adult. I have a more diverse base of people I regularly interact with, and I’ve learned from them that my media consumption has to (HAS TO!) include content from diverse creators. Instead of taking Barbara Kingsolver’s word for it about imperialism and missionary work in Africa in The Poisonwood Bible (this is an AMAZING book…but it’s written by a white person about white experiences in Africa…so I had to look farther into it), I also read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (another AMAZING book, written by a native Nigerian about imperialism and missionary work from the native African perspective…a TOTALLY different voice). That’s a more accurate, complete picture.
I watch more films by black writers and directors. I’m addressing my white readers here…read some books by black authors, and other non-white authors. Watch Spike Lee and Jordan Peele and Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler films. (Black Panther is by FAR the best superhero movie I’ve ***EVER*** seen, and this is coming from a girl who loooooooooves Captain America. See it. If you don’t understand something in it…look it up.) Consume media from diverse CREATORS. It’s not enough to read work with diverse characters, but still exclusively written by white people. It’s not the same. It’s incomplete. And now you know better.
And I won’t watch Green Book. Because it feels ‘off.’ I don’t care that it won Best Picture. Because now I know better. So I have to do better.
I recommend watching Moonlight instead if you want to watch a recent Best Picture (written and directed by Barry Jenkins).
Watch and read and listen to content from black creators. ALL YEAR LONG. And when you consume media starring black people…check on who wrote it. I’m not saying white people can’t or shouldn’t write non-white characters (I think they should, and I do myself). But particularly if a work is specifically addressing *race,* use some healthy skepticism about the point of view if it’s coming from a white writer. There are creators with authentic experiences behind their work who are also writing stories. And those stories deserve to be read and seen and heard without being retold or edited with a white lens. Let’s do better.