As a consumer of local content in 2019, I am ready to see bodies of work that focus on the Humanization of Black characters with well-rounded lives that are not solely centred around tried and tested concepts of tragedy, trauma and beating the odds. For the past 25years, South Africa’s creative industry has heavily relied on black narratives that monolithically showcase chronicled experiences of black lives with a blanket focus on themes around our tragic past, disease, poverty, crime, inequality and etc. In as much as these narratives do reflect the reality of many black South Africans, they are not all there is to black South Africa. Such narratives have always been centred as part of the creative industry’s pursuit of a more ‘representational’ imagery in a society where black people never got the opportunity to have their stories featured in the mainstream media. These stories were also a way to give people outside the black community access to our true lived experience in a country were different race groups where not privy to one another’s lived realities because of apartheid segregation and propaganda. But unfortunately, over the decades the industry has failed to move on with the times, over and over again, nuanced stories that showcase varying experiences of black people have failed to see the light of day. The same old cliched and simplified stories are reproduced for our consumption.
The creative industry continues to predominately pursue and celebrate narratives that primarily focus on black tragedy and struggles as though black people don’t exist outside of this paradigm, as though our lives have no real depth and meaning outside the confines of our tragic context. This is not to say that black people don’t experience those things, but in reality, there are other things that happen in the lives of black people that are very regular and undramatic that aren’t showcased as often as they ought to be. The current model of telling black stories heavily relies on the over-dramatization of stereotypes that don’t allow black people and black characters to develop and be nuanced in how they show up in the world.
This is important because creating and telling such stories will be an opportunity that helps condition and socialize young black people to believe that the world is also their oyster. It will create a space where they can imagine themselves out of their own circumstances knowing that there are opportunities for young black kids to explore and do things that weren’t historically exposed to people like us. Exploring alternative stories will also help break the mold and help us as black people reimagine and redefine what we think is a ‘black thing to do’ so we do away with oppressive notions that lead people to believe that there are things and opportunities that are solely reserved for whiteness, therefore shaming each other for ‘acting white’. Creating new kinds of stories that explore unromanticised black experiences around things like black joy, romance, careers, heartbreak, friendships and etc. will serve to humanize black people. More everyday stories are necessary to also show that black folks are regular humans trying to get through life living in a complicated world. That our challenges are not that different, but also that our struggles don’t define who we are. Stories that show black kids who have healthy relationships with their parents, friends and with romantic partners who don’t believe that love is about power.
Black lives, people and culture are not one dimensional, so it’s not enough to do the bare minimum when it comes to the representation of black bodies. There is a need for a more holistically humanized approach to black narratives, it’s no longer enough to just tell surface black stories just for the sake of it. In the age of Afro-futurism, we need to also use our creativity to help reimagine a better world to inspire black minds while serving as a tool that enables young black kids to redefine what it means to be black in the world. One way to explore stories that could help black people reimagine and redefine “blackness” is to look to the Afro-futurist movement for inspiration. The Oxford dictionary defines Afro-futurism as “a movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture” through the black perspective. Essentially, Afro-futurist art defies how “blackness” has historically been defined in opposition to “whiteness,” and challenges creators to explore alternative presents and futures for black characters. The recent film Black Panther is an example of Afro-futurist content because of its portrayal of a sophisticated and innovative African society that is independent of the west and celebrates unique, intelligent, and successful black characters.
Afro-futurist media could help condition and socialize young black people to believe that the world is their oyster. Depicting black characters who are superheroes, or who set about changing the world through their intellect, creates space for black viewers to imagine themselves out of their own circumstances. The Black Panther character Princess Shuri exemplifies this because not only is she, a young black girl, the smartest person in her fictional black world but is also an innovative creator, responsible for making and maintaining the complex tech gadgets the Black Panther uses on his missions. She’s a holistic character: She gets to be an annoying teenager with a sense of humor as well as a genius who is passionate about science.
Artists are uniquely placed to create spaces in which black folks, especially black kids, can feel inspired to reimagine their experiences and their prospects for success through storytelling. We can show kids at an impressionable age that their stories have depth and are worth telling, even — and especially — when they are not solely rooted in tragedy and suffering. Hopefully, films by black creatives will begin to win awards not only when they capitalize on and romanticize the atrocities suffered by black bodies, but also when they celebrate black people as regular humans. The depth and inspiration of black stories need not be grounded in how much a black person has suffered in their lifetime. Our stories should be able to look beyond our trauma to depicting the things that help us push ourselves, that make us laugh and smile, and that inspire our love.
In 2019 I’d like to see more ads and films that win awards not only because they capitalized and continued to romanticize the atrocity suffered by black bodies, that the industry will just as easily invest and celebrate stories that showcase black people as everyday humans. That the depth and inspiration of black stories are not just grounded and equal to how much a black person has suffered in their lifetime. Stories that look beyond our trauma at the little things in our lives that help us continue to push ourselves, in spite of our circumstances. Telling stories of black people laughing, loving, smiling and just going about life.