Three years ago, I made a commitment to watch only television shows that featured Black actors, writers, and directors.
More on that, but first you need to know my backstory.
Saved by the Bell was my favorite television show as a teenager, and Pretty in Pink one of my favorite movies. Although, it was probably Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “If You Leave” on the film’s soundtrack that made me like it more than I might have otherwise. Saved by the Bell’s Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) was definitely my teenage heartthrob. The favorite part of my after-school routine was watching Zack, while doing homework. In my mind’s eye, I too attended the very nice and very colorblind Bayside High.
But Zack wasn’t the first. There was Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox), the fanatically conservative son in Family Ties, and Kirk Cameron’s portrayal of slacker/girl chaser Mike Seaver in Growing Pains, and Silver Spoons’ Ricky Stratton (Rick Schroder), the blonde rich kid with a winning smile.
I often pictured myself outside of my mostly Black life as a love interest for all of these stars. Never mind that not one of the shows ever gave me reason to think that I actually could be.
There was, of course, Lisa, Lark Voorhies’ character in Saved by the Bell. But I think one of her quotes from the sitcom sums up her significance on the show: “I have all these problems, and there’s no one ever there for me. I talk and talk and talk, but no one ever listens.” Lisa was the unseen presence of Blackness. Even so, it was a world I longed for—back then. My all-Black-everything life was something I wanted to escape, and in my teens it was through television and film.
It didn’t matter—at that time—that I had examples of Black excellence and beauty all around me in a predominantly African American city, where the professionals and political leadership were Black. Growing up in Detroit, I had neighbors who were Black, store owners and clerks were Black, the majority of my schoolmates, teachers, and principals were Black, the mayor and most of city council were Black, and my doctors were Black. But in my eyes, to be Black was to struggle. And I didn’t want any part of that—struggling. I’d read about that struggle in the mostly Black women-authored books my mother bought for me: Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, Song of the Trees; Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Heart of a Woman and, of course, her poetry; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, etc. I witnessed that struggle in my own family.
What those television shows of my youth told me was this: To be White—or, hell, just to be around White people—was to be struggle-free, to be happy. Even when you were sad, you’d know that everyone cared enough about you to solve your problems. While that may not have been exactly true for my White counterparts, at least they had a lot of positive representation that portrayed them to be moral, caring, vulnerable.
I was part of a fortunate generation of Black youth who eventually did get to see people who look like me represented positively on prime-time television. The Cosby Show (whose reruns have recently been pulled from networks following Bill Cosby’s guilty verdict in a sexual assault case), A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin. I enjoyed them but took them for granted. The problem was familiarity. Theo (Cosby Show), Will (Fresh Prince), and Martin (Martin), they were like family, cousins. I couldn’t appreciate their significance to my life or to the lives of Black—and White—people.
Strangely, I could imagine that the characters on White shows were depicting something that was real. But what was on Black shows wasn’t real—just mindless entertainment.
So, along with mainstream America, I continued to watch mostly White people living their lives. And a disturbingly consistent storyline emerged: the traditional White male narrative (TWMN). The White man as hero—father, lover, soldier, as creative, as humorous, as resourceful, the problem-solver. The White man as savior with justified violence. The White woman as every man’s desire, sometimes a damsel in distress, sometimes a badass who could keep up with her man.
I’d had enough.
Who can tell our truths better than we can?
My turning point began as I binge-watched the ubiquitous Law and Order: SVU. Endless plots of White female rape victims avenged by the macho Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), symbol of the White patriarchy, was more than I could bear. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), who climbed the rank-and-file ladder and broke through the glass ceiling, and John Munch (Richard Belzer), cynic and conspiracy theorist, were the show’s saving graces for me. Nope, not even Fin Tutuola (Ice-T).
But the final decision to ditch TWMN television came from another CBS cop show, Blue Bloods. Amid the country’s real-life police brutality and killings of unarmed Black people, Blue Bloods has consistently perpetuated a narrative that police violence is overblown and racial bias is manufactured. As the show’s Reagan family explained the Blue Lives Matter side of police violence to their children over dinner—an episodic refrain—I was reminded, yet again, of how damaging TWMN is. A narrative that dismisses White collusion and excludes the lived experience of Black people. A narrative propped up by half-truths and outright untruths about this country.
So three years ago, I made the commitment. I turned to shows that I believe told the truth, or at least a more realistic version of the truth when it comes to social issues—and Black people, period. I would only watch shows created by filmmakers of color or shows featuring Black actors navigating their TV world similarly to the way in which we navigate our real world. Because who can tell our truths better than we can?
I don’t always like the decisions and actions of many of them (Scandal, Being Mary Jane, How to Get Away With Murder), but I relish the complexity of each of those leading actors—a powerhouse political fixer, a television anchor who challenges mainstream narratives, and a kick-ass attorney/law professor who pulls out wins for her clients and looks out for her students. All single, all brilliant, all attractive—and all brown-skinned, often with natural hairdos to boot.
Each of these programs depicts the struggle of Blackness, but they show the why and how.
The current lineup of Black shows on network, cable, and internet television has given me plenty to choose from. I’m grateful now for shows like Cosby, A Different World, Living Single, Girlfriends, and other ’90s sitcoms like them that paved a way for the shows I watch today: Queen Sugar, Seven Seconds, The Quad (although it’s been canceled), 13, Greenleaf, Atlanta, Insecure, even Black Lightning and Luke Cage, Empire and Power.
These shows offer a true representation of Black people as complex, competent, desirable, witty, accomplished, eccentric, quirky, funny, angry—human. They are families and friends who look out for each other.
Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar drama series on the Oprah Winfrey Network captures Black family dynamics in the story of the Louisiana Bordelon family fighting to keep their inherited land. Land—the lack of it, the struggle to afford it and hold on to it—is an uphill battle for many Black farmers today.
Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) is the business mind of the family. She is a mother, a manager for her NBA player husband, and an overbearing, controlling sister who believes she has all the answers. Nova (Rutina Wesley) is a journalist and activist. While she pulls no punches, she is the peacemaker of the family. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), who was formerly incarcerated, is struggling to find himself while raising his young son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison), as a single parent with the help of matriarch Aunt Violet (Tina Lifford). With her wisdom, love, and I’ve-died-and-gone-to-heaven cooking, she represents so many grandmothers who hold Black families together.
These women are not loudmouth, promiscuous, or asexual stereotypes. These are shows in which I am affirmed, in which Black women, Black people—Blackness—are affirmed.
The messages I get from watching these shows are many: I know I can be a successful Black woman without a White male partner—or a male partner—or a partner at all, if I choose. I can see my beauty on the screen, as well as my capabilities and inspirations. Each of these programs depicts the struggle of Blackness, but they show the why and how.
When I reflect on the role media, specifically television, have played in my life, I recognize that I’d been programmed to value Whiteness and devalue Blackness. And if I can feel this way as a Black person, then, of course, White people can, too.
We’ve all been programmed for Whiteness. I think it’s high time we all deprogram ourselves.
Try my experiment yourself. See the fullness of Black lives.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield is the former executive editor at YES!, where she directed editorial coverage for YES! Magazine, YES! Media’s editorial partnerships, and served as chair of the YES! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. A Detroit native, Zenobia is an award-winning journalist who joined YES! in 2016 to build and grow YES!’s racial justice beat, and continues to write columns on racial justice. In addition to writing and editing, she has produced, directed, and edited a variety of short documentaries spotlighting community movements to international democracy. Zenobia earned a BA in Mass Communication from Rochester College in Rochester, Michigan, and an MA in Communication with an emphasis in media studies from Wayne State University in Detroit. Zenobia has also taught the college course “The Effects of Media on Social Justice,” as an adjunct professor in Detroit. Zenobia is a member of NABJ, SABJ, SPJ, and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English and AAVE.