For those unfamiliar with Harriet Jacob’s text Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, there is a part of the narrative when Linda Brent, the enslaved protagonist, opts for motherhood autonomous from her overzealous slave master. In a seminar course, my black female classmates, in tandem with my white male professor, vehemently argued that Brent’s actions reflected choice—an assertion I challenged, citing enslavement as duress. In so many ways, this white male advocate of the academy asserted that my contention, not the domestic institution of slavery, robbed Brent of her agency. Here, this situation illustrates white effort to create a pseudo black interiority to veil a racist praxis. Specifically, rather than acknowledge a black interiority that refuses to overlook the circumstances consequential of American chattell slavery, this agent of white supremacy took it upon himself to employ a pseudo interiority anchored in the need to mask white conservatism with the drapings of the white liberal.
I include this anecdote and historical reference to elucidate a subconscious racial praxis manifested in variety. The small screen, in addition to walls of the ivory tower, aggressively use black characters and black people as a ventriloquist veil for a white liberal agenda used to avoid white accountability and assuage fictive white guilt.
Hulu’s original series Little Fires Everywhere, a small screen adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel of the same title, illuminates this poisonous praxis. The visual text, like the recent film Ma, concludes with the burning house, a symbol that alludes to the late Dr. King’s self-criticism on his stride toward integration.
Integration sits at the core of the Shaker community that anchors the visual text. Mia and her daughter Pearl integrate the predominately white community and the all-American white family, the Richardsons, quickly “shaking up” the Shaker reality. Mia, played by seasoned actress Kerry Washington (Scandal, Ray), is the text’s blatant attempt at liberalism. Yes, Mia, with her biting remarks and unimpressed facial expressions “reads” white female neighbor Elena Richardson, played by Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde, Walk the Line). However, the visual text espouses Mia to attributes the western world sees as idiosyncratic to blackness. As a homeless sexually fluid single mother, Mia complies with the expectations the white world has for black women and black people in general. Perhaps one of the most disturbing illustrations of Mia as a caricature is the scene where she engages in sexual intercourse with her sleeping toddler in the back seat. It is no wonder that the character’s name is “Mia,” which means “mine,” because her characterization reflects white possession.
Elena Richardson, an overtly flawed white woman draped in privilege but highly divorced from reality, appears to embody the castigation “liberal” audiences need to consummate their contemporary presence. Her characterization, specifically her relationship with Mia, mirrors what Jacobs exposed in her nineteenth-century narrative. The black woman, as delineated by Jacob’s text, accessed white interiority, exposing the apex of womanhood, the white woman, as rooted in envy and fragility, entities rattled when in close proximity to the black female who encompasses the ambitions of their trajectory. Mia elucidates this dynamic in her position as “house manager” and in her general place in Elena Richardson’s life.
Toni Morrison highlights these points in her essay “What the Black Woman Feels about Women’s Liberation,” where she contends that the plight for white female independence evidenced a desire to acquire a responsibility the black woman has always had. Mia articulates this point when she tells Elena “you didn’t make good choices, you had good choices,” a statement that easily captions the show. Little Fires Everywhere delineates whites and non-blacks as having the choice to monetize on the black experience in a way that black people never have. To clarify, this does not mean black people do not have agency; rather, it underscores how this agency remains compromised, stifled, and asphyxiated by those who insist on talking for the black collective.
Nevertheless, Little Fires Everywhere does nothing to advance epistemic conversations surrounding race in America. Instead, Mia functions as a white-informed non-black person of color’s attempt at black interiority. Mia, therefore, is not a black character; she does not represent black interiority. Instead, she personifies an effort to actualize white liberalism (which is white conservatism in uggs) through black casting. Specifically, Mia becomes the proxy to which whites feel reconciled in their privilege because it is them castigating themselves through Mia. Thus, Washington, and the Mia character, illuminate a veiled ventriloquism the American world mistakes as representation.
Little Fires Everywhere illuminates progressive liberalism, seeking to burn white hegemony black. Thus, this series appeals to those looking for a superficial change, so the series, like diversity initiatives around the globe, changes color.
The series delineates its external use of color to suggest a change in the purpose appointed to black characters. Individually, the roles of color in the series function solely to round out white characters. Therefore, “diversity” in casting only exists in the series and in the novel to illustrate white and non-black effort to season their narrative with a pseudo race or cultural consciousness.
For example, just as Mia exists to expose Elena as cracked china obscured by its showcase, Bebe, the Asian mother who loses her child in her battle with systemic poverty, also functions to illuminate childless white couple Linda and Mark’s selfishness and plight to acquire parental labels by choice. The court’s heart wrenching, yet not surprising, decision to award Linda and Mark Bebe’s child exposes a flawed system, yet exists within a series that employs black and non-white characters to elucidate wrongdoing that only appears wrong in juxtaposition to those relegated to the margins. It is this subscription to binary opposition that stifles the necessary imagination to afford the non-white entity interiority beyond the white gaze.
In this sense, Ng and the white producers and writers are much like Lexi Richardson, who, after deciding to abort her child, puts Mia’s daughter Pearl’s name down on the hospital paperwork. This, of course, comes after Lexi abducts Pearl’s discriminatory story to get into Yale. In both instances, Lexi employs Pearl, a young black girl, as a means to maintain access to a white femininity that remains overtly espoused to the four pillars of womanhood by any means necessary. Here, Lexi proves synonymous to those who, in “creating” the series and novel employ what they believe to be the black female plight to diversify what would otherwise be a yet another visual text on white suburbia.
Additionally, though the series posits Lexi’s behavior as problematic, viewers encounter a similar dichotomy in the love triangle with Trip, Moody, and Pearl.
Moody loves Pearl, but Pearl pursues and attains the more conventional white male Trip to whom she loses her virginity. Pearl tells Mia that Trip is “exactly the sort of guy you’d like to lose your virginity too,” a statement that delineates Pearl’s sexual pursuit as a means to actualize status beyond blackness in an all-white environment. Here, Pearl is much like Linda Brent from Jacobs’ narrative, because while not physically enslaved, Pearl makes “choices” under the duress of systemic and circumstantial white supremacy. As a result, Pearl attains ornamental status synonymous to the lights she admires on the Richardson home.
Ironically, it is Issy Richardson that calls out Moody for his role in seeking to itemize Pearl, but she actualizes a similar praxis with her behavior towards Mia. Similarly, Mia, though overtly relegated to object status as “house manager” to the Richardsons, is also an object to adolescent white liberal Issy Richardson. Issy, the outcasted Richardson, the fourth child who Elena considered aborting, embodies what readers witnessed with Skeeter in The Help, the white pariah who finds purpose among black women. Because Issy a child, her characterization appears an attempt to posit white youth as bearing fruit for a racially nuanced future but the truth is, white supremacy does not outcast most white children. Those who white supremacy does outcast are still white. Additionally, if blackness is what one grabs on their way down, what one sees when set aside like trash, or what one sees after a fire—the white agenda proves itself a flame festered by an early portrait of a white liberal encased in a rebellious white youth.
The series attempts a similar rebel status in the conflicts depicted at the high school, the Richardson home, the Shaker community, and Mia’s clandestine past, all of which function as “little fires everywhere.” These Fires appear to burn down dearth in white accountability, and dissipate in the tears the series incites its viewers to cry for justice never attempted let alone served.
In considering the role of fire in the series, precisely, its function to obliterate the Richardson reign as picturesque upper-middle-class royalty, my mind recalls the bombing of the sixteenth street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, 1963. The explosion, which claimed the lives of four little black girls whose limbs laid on the lawn after the flames dissolved into the wind, functioned to embody a shaken faith. The bombing personified an actualized intention to shake and stir a people and a community. This act of racial terrorism was never about things. The bombing and the flames that followed sought to sever the heart from a collective—to shake and stir communal certainty.
While a house embodies security or a culmination of one’s earnings to some, it is not the sole source of white supremacy; it is not the heart of the matter. There would have to be a global fire to burn down the house of white supremacy, and anything else is a just a cautionary tale to integration at best and an induced natural blackness for white shock indeed. Everything else is only another illustration of assimilatory arson or fire as a means to practice white supremacy, not challenge it. Here, I allude to child arson, practiced by white children, as preceding murderous acts in adulthood. Thus, the racists who killed those four little girls, and blinded a fifth, may have also started fires in their youth, or even set fire to their family homes because they were mad at their mothers.
Nevertheless, the Richardson family fire did not shake nor stir the Shaker community. Instead, the series betrays an attempt to “move” audiences with normalized white narcissism. So, while there may be physical blackness embodied in the fire remnants, it is the white family and white community that remains standing. Yes, there were little fires everywhere, but when the smoke cleared and the fire dissipated, there was not a black person in sight.
Moreover, the white media credits Little Fires Everywhere with “burning status quo,” delineating yet another series credited for doing virtually nothing. However, it somehow makes sense that choice sits at the center of this series, because Little Fires Everywhere as a cultural panacea, reflects a societal choice. The series exposes a societal choice, or preference, for a world that remains confined to white imagination where the white people win, the black people leave, the non-whites take what the white system gives their adversaries, and the credits roll.