Harlem and the Hoax of Representation


One glance onto the current media landscape reveals countless shows featuring all black or predominately black casts. The current lineup is seemingly a representational dream come true, with more black faces than ever before dominating the small screen.

As elucidated with the Obama campaign, and most recently through elected officials like Eric Adams and Kamala Harris, representation, or black faces, are often nothing more than a tool of psychological warfare. This truth that is perhaps most evident in the fact that the shows appease ocularcentrism but lack the depth to engender contemplation. Instead, the black faces that inundate streaming platforms and prime-time television across various networks employ representation a tool to spew complacency among the black collective.

The surge in black “representation” elucidates an effort to satiate the consumership ship of African people while relegating serious black issues to the caricature of entertainment. This is no small feat as this dynamic is a form of violence that brings us to our collective knees while convincing us that we are on top of the world.

What we see on media mirrora what has habitually ornamented history and what has come to decorate America’s charade of democracy. Specifically, when I think about the democratic choice to select Baraka Obama over Hilary Clinton, they knew that Obama would do for the black collective (and the world) in image, what Clinton would seek to actualize for the white woman. This selection offset a deception via representation to be socially reproduced in manifold in the years to follow, but perhaps more overtly on the small screen.

At first glance, Amazon’s Harlem is alot like Insecure, and Insecure is alot like The Game. The series implemements Issa Rae’s series as a successful formula for twenty-first century portrayal of the thirty-something black woman,

Issa Rae’s Insecure (2016) received the praise that The Carmichael Show (2015) should have received. Both are television shows, but the former meditates solely on image and the latter planted seeds of contemplation for black people and the black experience. Rae’s HBO hit also delineates how shows seemingly geared toward a black audience are merely nuanced ways to entertain white people. The show engaged blackness with the strings of contemporary culture and even had an under-discussed level of passing taking place (consistent with continental Africans who make it big in American culture, ie Idris Elba and The Weeknd)…but that is a topic for another post.

Like Amazon’s new series Harlem, Insecure focuses on physically black women trying to navigate the white world. An interesting similarity between the two series, aside from being written by black women, is that feature consistent colloquial use of the n-word by black professionals. The non-contemplative use of the n-word seems progressive to many but underscores racist expectation for colloquialisms amongst black people and posits the use of the word as an intra-cultural constant that circumscribes black people and black culture to a stereotype. But amidst the occasional relatable moments like the overly stern black superior in institutional settings, a gentrified city, and medical racism, Harlem, like Insecure, illustrates the same ole story at a different point in time.

Cognitive Bondage, or Karen?

A scene that disturbed me in the series was where a distressed Camille and Quinn break out in an expletive-filled rant during a yoga class. The expletive of choice: the n-word.

The women are eventually ejected from the space, but they precede their exit with an n-word chant that seemingly marks their ability to do what they want despite pushback. The issues here are plentiful, but a prominent one is that the “freedom” that so many believe separates them from their enslaved ancestors leads them to fight (in bondage) for oppressive behaviors like using the n-word and pursuing interracial relationships.

Hotep, the slur

Additionally, something that disturbed me about the series was using the word “hotep” as a pejorative term. Camille, the series protagonist, is an academic who uses the term. Specifically, how could a person who has a research degree in culture implement such oversight when it comes to a cultural term that literally means peace? As a budding academic, I know that this form of cognitive dissonance inundates the professoriate, but this feature seemed yet another diversity footnote to dissent from a separatist agenda.

“Passing” Black Americans

Additionally, I found myself very disturbed by the portrayal of a non-migrant African in America as seeking to “pass” as Caribbean to secure employment. Firstly, as every New York native knows, you do not have to look far to find a Caribbean person in New York City. Secondly, the issue isn’t those who descended from those who built this country as passing for migrants, but the universality to which the term African- American functions.

To be clear, my point is not to be divisive, but to underscore the persistent effort to cast America as a space of immigrants. To those whose ancestors remains lie in unmarked communal graves throughout America—this distinction remains paramount.

I also write this as a member of a collective who is consistently portrayed and represented in the media and the world by those who do not share my experience. Thus, this portrayal is not only inaccurate, it constitutes a glaring oversight to the realities of the non-migrant African in America.

Having to be three times as good or replaced by a migrant counterpart.

This part was hard to digest because it happens so often, but pairing this depiction with a protagonist who appeared more dedicated to her romantic life than her professional one posits this occurrence as warranted.

Being forced by skinfolk to apologize in the face of injustice

This is another moment that accurately reflected the complexities of being black in this country while underscoring that even what appears to be “in the wake” (to employ Christina Sharpe’s phrase) are bound to the weight of white sensitivity.

Honorable Mentions

Copy and Paste: Caught between two lovers

::Sigh:: It is the quintessential rom-com plot. Woman caught between two lovers, one who links her to a nostalgic past and another that bears promise for the future. I’ll avoid the whole gender based discourse that censures the constant focus of women on men, and say that the low bar of representation makes this recycled plot feasible.

What I mean here is that this banal plot is what we see in films that feature of those of majority. So black stars acting along this trajectory provides cause to perceive these actors/actresses as melanated re-presentations of white interest. Therefore, shows like Harlem who employ this plot to center the series, provide cause to question whether they employ black actors to universalize the human experience.

Interracial “Love”

I may be on an island here, but interracial relationships do not deserve a space on so-called black sitcoms. Their presence on the series proves a space for diversity hires and a means for the show to dissolve any claims of a separatist agenda.

Many of the biggest blockbusters in this nation have no black people (Titanic comes to mind). So in the call for representation, let’s start there.

Hyper-Sexual, Raunchy, Plus Sized Friend

This nuanced caricature is not just present in fictional series (like Angie from Harlem or Kellie from Insecure), but is also consistent with black female presence of talk shows (ie Loni Love).

This character does not graduate the full figure women from her historical (and paradoxical) asexuality. Rather, this recurring character elucidates that it is impossible to emerge from bondage when still cognitively bound.

In closing, the series comes at a time when the black community and the black colleges are in the painful process of gentrification, making the complexities of our experience imperative to understand. However, Harlem, like the countless other media representations and the political presence of the legally black, underscores that re-presentation is a tool of oppression, not liberation.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Thelma Black says:

    It has been a while but whew I thank you for this read. I write as a hypocrite and one of the afflicted cause I do consume all these programs. But when I take in the food jewels you provide,it’s easier to not get swept up in “these programs are for me”. Unfortunately it feels like Black American culture is always up for grabs for anybody but our own. Love your words and points!

  2. I wrote on this subject when I poste shows that Black Women Would Love but I couldn’t pass the opportunity to speak on where I’m glad to see content for us it is conflicting on how it’s being done. It makes you feel as though you want to support because we don’t have many outlets but it has it’s (for lack of a better word) “cheezy” commercial way of doing things.

  3. Journey says:

    I love this piece! You brought up a lot of great points on both Insecure and Harlem. Although, it is great to have representation we must think through exactly what kind of representation is this presenting to our culture and to the masses! You allowed me to see things through a deeper scope, again thanks for a lovely post!

    1. C. says:

      Thanks for reading, Journey! Thank you for your salient point as well.

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