Sometimes I feel as if black folk’s self-worth teeters on the impetuous and hateful razor’s edge of racist white institutions. Like the protagonist in Beauty and the Beast, we’ve fallen in love with our captor, and somehow it has become our responsibility to humanize him. I have now lived through enough Oscar seasons to have a grown weary of the “sometimey” and shitty treatment of white institutions.
The same country that sanctioned the murder of an unarmed teen named Trayvon Martin just four years before the date of the Oscars, is the same country that owns and operates the Oscars. Let me ask you this, would Moonlight have been any less tender or important a film if it had not received an award from this majority white voting body? Is Malcolm X not still one of the most resonant and interesting biographical films ever put to celluloid? Did Denzel Washington become brilliant after a majority white voting body gave him the award for a film that suffers in comparison to Malcolm X almost 10 years later?
Every year our captor threatens to become human, and every year like someone who has received repeated blows to the head, we dress up and show up to what in many ways is a humiliating family dinner designed to reinforce the hierarchies that have us so desperate for approval in the first place.
“There’s always work at the post office.”
I’m not the first person to put forward this idea — the line above is in Robert Townsend’s brilliant Hollywood Shuffle, (1987) — but I may be the first to put it in print in this manner: why is it that black actors seem to be the one profession where money and fame outweigh notions of integrity? Black actors do not have to participate in demeaning and abusive workplace environments. That includes the sets of blockbuster films, or the meeting offices of production companies that question their right to exist. It seems that black actors are the one profession where people put up with outrageously bad treatment, and their surrounding community never says, “Get another job.” The rest of us black folks justify the demeaning roles, and being looked over for more lucrative positions as payment for the rare opportunity to inhabit the 2-10 “honored Black star” spots.
If this were teaching, healthcare, or the law profession, we would at least advise our loved the one to open their own school, clinic, or practice.
Of course, film isn’t the only art space where black creatives (or every creative who is not white for that matter), are forced to compete for accolades from majority white institutions in a sick game of gotcha that goes like this:
It’s [insert year here] and [insert brilliant black work here] has won!
Majority white voters: “See, we’re able to see your brilliance and give it our award which will translate into more jobs in our institutions and more money! We know we do this rarely, so spend a lot of time seeing it as a watershed moment for your whole culture, okay?”
It’s [insert year here] and [insert brilliant black work here] has NOT won!
Majority white voters: “See, we’re NOT able to see your brilliance and give it our award which will translate into less jobs in our institutions and less money! We know we do this often, so chalk it up to your art having something wrong with it. Definitely don’t build your own institutions or fund your own projects, okay?”
A quick google search gave me this definition for “Stockholm Syndrome:”
“Stockholm syndrome is a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy during captivity.”
There isn’t enough time to parse out how this is particularly resonant for black folks, since we were literally captured by white folks.
The genius poet, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote: “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
We’ve got some work to do. It’s time to forge a new alliance with ourselves and other artists of color. Let’s break the bond with our captor and re-connect with each other.