BLACK UTOPIA: A JOURNEY THROUGH MY TV SCREEN
By Awa Gueye
April 9, 2019
A tip to anyone traveling through cyberspace: bring a scarf.
My first memory was in my apartment, I think on a weekend. My sister and I were lying on our brown couch, the adults somewhere else doing something, in between scolding us to not sit so close to the TV. (They said it would ruin our eyesight and, although I am wearing glasses as I type this and my sister is somewhere in LA sporting contacts, I am still not convinced about that one.) At one point the show we were watching was getting good so I jumped into our television screen to live in it for a bit. I had a nice time visiting that utopia, then I jumped out of the screen and continued on with my day.
With so little we are able to control externally, those of us who are lucky enough to have the privilege to create sanctuary in our homes. We may be numb to them but images and stories of brutality on Blackness still affect us deeply. A remedy that has yet to fail me is art. There are many routes to utopia but I like to take the commute through my TV, a popular choice.
Black creativity has always been exceptional — but now, with more resources than ever, experimental Black art and wacky Black worlds have taken a mainstream spot in entertainment. Cultural hubs like HBO, Netflix and Showtime realize the demand for dynamic Black creators. Black notables like Oprah and Byron Allen OWN (wink, wink) networks dedicated to the Black experience. Creatives like Issa Rae and Pharrell create their own spaces to exist on YouTube. Cree Summers completed our childhoods by showing us ourselves in cartoons.
Historically, our narrative has been controlled by people who never understood us. I know this to be a fact because, if they did understand us, they’d know that to tell our stories authentically we must be in the room. We are the captains of our experiences. Furthermore, our experiences exist not as a subsection to the white experience, but stand tall on their own.
Trailblazers who came before gave us a plethora of Black television that helped build our community’s collective creative experience. We can credit much of our sense of humor to comfort shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, or A Different World. Masterpieces like Soul! taught us that our imaginations are limitless and we can do whatever we want FOR us, BY us. The Wire is still referred to as one of the best dramas to ever exist. The Boondocks reminded us of our ability to resist through humor, like none other. A culmination of all this art has shaped this current generation of television affording us the space to grow into new territories while staying true to our history.
Michaela Coel created her own utopia in her BAFTA award-winning series Chewing Gum. How often do we see council housing (projects, or public housing to us Americans) as anything other than grey and depressing? Coel’s world is colorful, complex and funny as hell. By speaking from her own experiences, Coel has managed to reopen society’s notion of what the projects are like. She has shifted the status quo.
I often refer to shows like Chewing Gum, On My Block, or Atlanta as real-life cartoons. Their worlds are unbelievably expansive, a luxury not often given to people of color. Even Donald Glover compared the second season of Atlanta to Tiny Toons Adventures. It is healing to see Black people run around their neighborhoods being completely themselves. There is a therapeutic liberation in seeing weird Black characters like On My Block’s Jamal, Chewing Gum’s Tracey or Atlanta’s Darius. I am proud to be part of a world in which Random Acts Of Flyness not only exists, but thrives.
Television has always been my utopia. It has made me feel Black and proud and given me comfort in my Black and weird. Black creators have managed to penetrate the layers of trauma the media throws our way daily. They have at times helped me make sense of the world and at other times given me a vacation. I’ve found friends in characters, I mean I constantly invite them into my home! I cannot express enough gratitude to live in an era where I get to visit so many beautifully complex and wonderfully strange utopias.
I’d like to give a special nod to some incredible people in my life who without them none of this would be possible. To my parents: I thank you so deeply for paying for my Netflix account. To my friend (you know who you are): without you, I would have no Hulu, and that is a world I do not want to live in.