Where are the Black Women? Blackness and Black Female Portrayal

A friend recently informed me about Greenleaf, a show on Oprah Winfrey’s channel OWN that features a predominately black cast. I tuned to the channel excitedly, only to be disappointed to see a pattern consistent with black female representation–a racially ambiguous lead.

Greenleaf stars Lynn Whitfield and Keith David as southern baptist royalty. They are distinguished, poised and messy much like their offspring. The Greenleafs have three daughters and one son. Three of the four children appear to be believable offspring of the Greenleaf parents. However, Gigi Greenleaf appears notably different, not only in complexion but facial features. This difference is because Gigi Greanleaf is played by actress Merle Dandridge— a Japanese actress of black and Korean origins.

Now, Dandridge is both a talented actress and beautiful woman. This post does not function to discount either of these facts. This post also does not function to despute Dandridge as a black woman. This post does function to question why biracial and multicultural actresses are consistently cast as black women? Notably, why are biracial and multicultural women consistently cast as leads in series depicting black life or targeting a black audience?

This query proved quite resonant after actress Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone in a biopic that premiered last year. In response, author Ta-nehesi Coates wrote the article “ Nina Simone’s Face” in which he stated the following:

Zoe Saldana could be the greatest thesbian of all time but no one one consider casting her as Marilyn Monroe.

Coates point is a valid one. Biracial actresses are never cast as white women or even as other women of color.  Saldana only played a Latina role in 2011’s Columbiana after years of playing black women in movies like Drumline, and Guess Who? This is undoubtedly due to Saldana’s brown skin, and African nose—features that most likely deem her unfit for Latina roles seemingly solely reserved for actresses like Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. Similarly, Merle Dandridge (Grace Greenleaf) would unlikely be cast as an Asian woman and would certainly not earn a central role, if cast at all, in an Asian film. Thus, viewing these bodies as central introduces an uncomfortable dichotomy that illustrates inclusion of the biracial or multi-cultural woman into the black collective at the expense of the collective representation of non-ambiguous black female bodies.

Far too many biracial, multi-cultural individuals have earned central placement in representing blackness be it on television, movies, academia, science, or even the civil rights movements. A true test to a racially ambiguous person’s commitment to the black collective surfaces if they are stripped of central and leading roles. If blackness proves less lucrative and accepting, would the racially ambiguous be content with occupying a minor role? If so, then this demonstrates the selective black as willing to accept the marginalization,  not just the benefits, of blackness. A true testament to their affiliation comes in their ability to occupy the background. If outcasted members of other groups can garner fame and fortune from blacks, then blacks are doomed to allow entry to those who will eventually betray our collective to appease the majority–a group in which many spend lifetimes working to enter.

Nevertheless, my stance on the issue remains rather ambivalent. I can support a biracial or multi-cultural woman’s right to identify as black, but I can not support her central placement or feature as a representative of the black collective. Furthermore, it is not the issue of representation that plagues black women.  Rather it is the function this representation serves.  Black female representation serves as a platform to control black women, what we think, what we wear, and what be strive to be. Representation as a shaping tool illustrates that the visible and central black female body, functions as weaponry not entertainment.

However, my ambivalence remains. This ambivalence results from an understanding that blackness is not restricted to skin color, bringing me to the true query that these images provoke:

What is blackness?

Blackness is not limited to a skin color, but it is a state of being, an incomparable experience prompted by skin color, facial features, body type and hair texture. Omitting any identifying attribute allots a significant privilege absent from the lifetime of any black person possessing these attributes in entirety.

I do believe that “black” roles should cast melanated people, simply because the roles written for blacks are few and far between and the sole roles available to those not possessing “crossover” appeal. However, melanin, while a chief component of blackness, does not encompass the totality of blackness. To distinguish between black and melanated is essential to understanding blackness as a collective identity. Most would not consider an individual who does not care for their children a parent, a singer who does not sing a singer, or a writer who does not write writer, thus, blackness must encompass more than just physical attributes to implement the necessary demands to afford the collective functionality.

So while it is certainly nice to see someone who resembles you on the outside, it is imperative that a conscious blackness takes precedence over physical appearance. Failure to do so results in accepting shows like Greenleaf with open arms and not a deserving scrutiny.

On the surface, Greenleaf appears to encompass the attributes necessary for a successful sitcom— a black cast that is as easy on the eyes as they are talented. The show also gives a behind the scenes view of one of the most consistent beacons of the black community—the black church. What does not meet the eye is that this predominately black cast brings  roles created by a white man to life—an opportunity created by none other than Oprah Winfrey. Thus, those monologues that speak to your soul, and that character that reminds viewers of loved, and not-so-loved ones, does not reflect a collective understanding but the black collective as a studied subject exploited by an oppressive gaze for profit.

For this reason, I am not sure that there is much purpose in having a black- owned network if this network does not serve as a platform for black talent and creativity. Every aspect of the western world functions to tell all blacks who their heroes are and what to think about their own people. OWN illustrates the difference between melanated and black, as a black space omits European influence, and a melanated state employs black bodies as a means to implement western oppression. Furthermore, Oprah resembles many black women externally, but legitimizing a white male’s effort to capitalize on black female profitability is not in the best interests of the collective and thus discounts Winfrey from possessing anything more than a melanated complexion. Moreover, OWN is not a black owned network, but a network owned by a melanted individual.

In acknowledging the series creator, it becomes obvious that Dandridge’s casting was not for us as a collective, but against us. Her casting illustrates who the western world wants the black pysche to see as central. Her placement deems the black body a supporting element in their “own” space, a subversive dose of inferiority force-fed to blacks in their perhaps most unassuming state–in front of the television.

However, it is when subject to casual forms of influence that the black body must be ready for combat. It is through television, music, and other mediums that implement black eyes and ears as means to reinforce ideas of black inferiority. It is through the subconscious that the western world defines blackness for black people nurturing the confusion necessary to maintain a fictive white superiority.

All things considered, I am reluctant to say that blackness is not a skin color because to do so opens the door for the Mark Stebbins and Rachel Dolezals. However, these individuals and those resembling them in appearance and action, often walk through doors opened by melanated individuals who lack a black mindset. Nevertheless, blackness and bearing a melanated complexion are disparate identities that the conscious community need not use interchangeably.

So to ask where are the black women,is not a question answered by examining an individual, her skin color and facial features, but in examining her image in its totality. The image must originate and resurrect from consciousness in order to fully epitomize what it means to be black and female. To settle for anything else is to settle for a ruby when you’re seeking a diamond.

For instance, Kerry Washington’s portrayal of Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal physically resembles many black woman throughout the diaspora. From the small frame, to dark hair and eyes, and brown skin, Washington portrayals a form of black beauty consistent with many black mothers, cousins, aunts and sisters.  However, this portrayal lacks the collective black female consciousness in creation and execution essential in permitting the world to not only see our brown skin and full lips, but the strength and beauty of our ancestors. Thus, if these images do not evoke the black psyche of Harriet Tubman, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Assata Shakur in execution or creation,  they are shallow portrayals that do not even scratch the surface of what means to be black and female.

The late and great Fredi Washington may not resemble what many believe to be the average black woman, but her activism and choice not to pass when she could have, illustrates the strength of her origins. Thus, despite her fair skin, her blackness exceeds much of what is absent from black female portrayal today. But perhaps her fate, a dead end career due to her inability to personify the caricatured images of her oppressors, has scared many away from the courage needed to encompass blackness and consciousness in popular settings. This fear, while occasionally aligning with the melanated demographic, is simply incompatible with the black state of mind that accompanies a collective consciousness.

In closing, if we as a collective fail to disable images of ourselves created by our oppressor, we are doomed to demand the subjectivity of physical blackness without consciousness. This shallow act results in empty portrayals and an ultimate reversion from pseudo diversity to homogeny, due to the interchangeability between white and black mindsets infused in popular portrayals. .