Black women are more visible than ever. Now what?
Black women dominate in many areas, but community and accountability are how they preserve themselves
The Undefeated turned 5 this week and is marking the occasion with a series of essays looking at the last five years in Black America.
Lemonade, an album that changed the cultural landscape, takes listeners on an emotional roller-coaster through awareness, anger, disappointment, forgiveness of self and, ultimately, healing. Just in case Beyoncé’s message in 2016 wasn’t resonant enough, she dropped a full-length visual featuring Warsan Shire’s soul-stirring poetry, the Mothers of the Movement shining in the aftermath of tragedy, and generations of Black girls and women walking on water, communing on porches and focusing on healing themselves and one another.
“That album not only showed the multifaceted layers of the artist herself, but it also reflected the complexity of Black women’s experiences when it comes to articulating how complex it is to live within the intersections of race and gender within a culture that is both misogynist and anti-Black,” said Kaila Adia Story, a professor of race, gender, class and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville.
Though Beyoncé’s impact is singular, she was both helping to create and benefit from a wave of Black women staking their claim to truth, to freedom, to visibility, to healing. The roots of that resurgence can be traced to 2012, when Kerry Washington became the first Black woman in nearly 40 years to lead a prime-time network drama, or to 2013, when CaShawn Thompson started the Black Girl Magic movement, or to 2015, with Viola Davis becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama.
No matter its origin, 2016 was the year Black women’s magic stitched itself together in public view: A Seat at the Table, Solange Knowles’ magnum opus, spoke to the weariness Black women felt in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. Simone Biles solidified herself as the best gymnast in history, winning five medals at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and saying, loudly and proudly, she’s “not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps.” Insecure set their timelines ablaze as Black women debated whether Issa or Lawrence was at fault for their relationship’s demise. And Black women showed up and showed out for Hillary Clinton, casting 95% of their ballots for the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination. They were saying that they were here to dominate, and they can’t be stopped.
In the five years since, Black women have emerged as an undeniable cultural force, whether it’s Kamala Harris becoming America’s first Black and South Asian and female vice president, Misha Green helming HBO’s Lovecraft Country, Issa Rae signing an overall deal with WarnerMedia, LaTosha Brown and Stacey Abrams working on ending voter suppression in Georgia and across the country, or Tarana Burke ushering in the age of #MeToo. Black women have had Amanda Gorman reciting a poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, so stirring it would make poet Maya Angelou proud. Naomi Osaka continuing Serena Williams’ unparalleled tennis reign, racking up four Grand Slam titles since 2018. And Williams herself gently ushering her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., into the spotlight, even co-starring in a fashion commercial with her.
Of course, it’s not the first time: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Black women were at the forefront of a cultural renaissance. There was Living Single, Sister, Sister, Moesha, Half & Half, All of Us, Girlfriends, The Parkers and others, but slowly they disappeared until there were few Black women on screen at all. Now, as networks and streaming services recognize, once again, the power of Black viewership, Black women find themselves in a unique position where they are more visible than they’ve ever been — and they’re calling the shots.
“If I look at the cultural landscape of the ’90s, there were incredible shows with Black women as leads and supporting actresses, and then it went away,” said Treva Lindsey, a professor of women’s studies at Ohio State University. “But in the political sphere, there’s this energy that has been amassed. We’re not all thinking the same politically, but there’s a political band that will keep Black women at the forefront of a number of conversations. We have more resources and more platforms available to refuse to be unheard.”
Black women are not just the talent. They’re the creators, the showrunners, the vice presidents. It’s not as easy to extinguish their flame. But that doesn’t mean their renaissance comes without challenges.
As Lindsey notes, hypervisible Black women face considerable backlash by sheer virtue of speaking truth to power. “We’re in an anti-Black, sexist, misogynistic, transphobic, fatphobic society,” she said. “There’s an intensified backlash for Black women who are using their platforms to highlight and amplify what’s happening with Black communities, queer communities and trans communities because we’re not supposed to be here.”
Sometimes, this vitriol takes the form of doxxing — revealing someone’s personal information online without their consent — while other times the violence goes to even further extremes. In 2019, white supremacists targeted bestselling author Ijeoma Oluo, calling the police and claiming a double murder had taken place in her Washington state home. She wasn’t home, but her then-17-year-old son was, and she worried that the police would kill him.
“I was terrified they were going to come in guns blazing. I was bawling,” she told NBC News. “To send cops to the home of a Black person — expecting dead bodies and guns — is really risking someone’s life.”
Black women who are hypervisible online aren’t only facing harassment from people invested in uploading white supremacy. That call is often coming from inside their own community. As Story, the professor at the University of Louisville, notes, Black women are “harmed by folks they are in community with who feel as if their empowerment takes away from traditional forms of misogynist Black leadership.”
For Black transgender women, specifically, visibility can cost them their lives. In 2021, at least 17 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been murdered, the majority of whom are Black and Latino, a trend that continues year over year without an end in sight. While Black transgender women are experiencing an unprecedented time in the spotlight, with FX’s Pose delivering the truth about the interiority of their lives week after week, there’s still an imbalance in how Hollywood — and in greater society — treats its transgender siblings.
In a speech during the New York City premiere for the third and final season of Pose, Janet Mock, one of society’s most visible transgender women, called out Hollywood for creating a show on the backs of Black and brown transgender women without paying them equitably. “F— Hollywood,” she said. “This makes you uncomfortable? It should.” She said she’s only making $40,000 an episode as an executive producer — though most executive producers earn upward of $80,000 — and brown and Black transgender writers were brought in to turn the show around. Worse of all, Mock felt pressure to hide her dissatisfaction because she’s so visible. “I was happy because I had to be happy. Because if I wasn’t happy, the girls wouldn’t know that happiness is possible. I’m hurting y’all. I see injustice and it hurts me inside.”
For Black transgender women and Black nonbinary people, this level of visibility can be soul-crushing because it’s used to deny their experiences and dehumanize them, even in their death. “Every year for the past several years we have seen Black transgender women and Black nonbinary folks killed just because their existence troubles antiquated notions of race and gender,” Story said. “So, while visibility is necessary for many minoritized groups, it is also extremely dangerous.”
For all Black women, there’s a sense that being hypervisible comes with a responsibility to themselves, to their community and to the sustaining of their ongoing cultural relevance.
After Black female organizers in Georgia helped deliver the White House and the Senate to the Democratic Party, President-elect Biden said from the stage during his victory speech that he recognized the sustained efforts of Black people, particularly Black women, in securing the presidency and the Senate for Democrats. “The African American community stood up again for me,” he said. “They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.”
Vice President-elect Harris, in a speech on the same night, applauded Black women for their efforts, saying Black women are often overlooked, but so often show they’re the “backbone of our democracy.”
There’s nothing new about this. “Black women have always served as the poster children for any and all progressive movements and yet, many of these movements and initiatives want Black women to remain in this space of using our image to push certain empowerment and diversity agendas. But when it comes to actual structural, institutional or community change, this freer world that they envision do not include Black women,” Story said. Black women’s faces are everywhere, Story said, but “there are no Black women at the table spearheading the change our embodiment represents to so many folks.”
It’s a familiar pattern for the Democratic Party, as Jordan Taliha McDonald notes in a 2017 piece for Bitch Media (the publication where I serve as editor-in-chief). Some liberals have adopted slogans such as “Black women will save us” and “You should have listened to Black women,” but there are no Black women in the U.S. Senate. That’s the reason, as McDonald writes, “Statements like ‘Black women will save us’ leave a bitter aftertaste because these expressions forget Black women’s social vulnerability.” Projecting a savior narrative onto Black women actually dehumanizes them, allowing them to lay the groundwork for progress without ever rewarding them for their work or actually changing the way in which they do their political business.
In this way, Black women’s collective responsibility to themselves and to each other, forces Black women to imagine new, radical futures for their communities where Black women are not beholden to the table someone else has built. Black women can build their own tables where they center Blackness, and as Vilissa Thompson, an activist and writer, notes, consider more than just mere representation, especially when they’re portraying Black trauma and pain, as is the case with Pose. “When you create media or bodies of work, there’s going to be a mixed audience tuning in,” she said. “There’s a mindfulness we must remember as we consider who the audience is, especially if you’re saying it’s Black people. It has to be responsibly done.” It’s not just the depiction itself. Thompson says it’s also questioning how Black women use their positions to open doors and being intentional about the rooms they choose to be in.
It’s undeniable that Black women’s visibility has exploded over the last five years, and it’s undeniable that they’re here to stay. They’re not just the talent anymore. They’re the architects.
“There’s this groundswell and mechanisms and technologies through which we can create visibility that we can demand to be seen and to be legible,” Lindsey said. “So I don’t think we’re turning back from that.”
However, as Black women accrue more visibility, we must continue to prioritize connection and community, holding on closely to each other in the face of unmediated vitriol. They must heed Mock’s warning, ensuring they’re not just on screen for the sake of being there. They must pave the way for those coming behind them. Whether that’s following director Ava DuVernay’s model of hiring all women directors for each season of Queen Sugar or fighting behind the scenes to ensure transgender representation is treated as more than a notion, they must continue embodying, in Lindsey’s words, “a spirit of generosity.”
Sometimes, that takes the form of calling to check in, while other times it’s making sure they take a moment to rest, to breathe, to drink water and to set boundaries.
“Boundary-setting in our workplaces, personal relationships and families is paramount to not only maintaining our sanity and personal comfort, but it is also important because we live in a world that dictates Black women to think of everybody else before themselves,” Story said.
And sometimes, it’s simply greeting each other with the love the world so often doesn’t afford them. “Being compassionate, being loving, being kind, being gentle and giving each other the softness we’re not able to receive from others are the things that matter,” Thompson said. “We are all we truly got.”