It was a summer in Barcelona. A dream come true. Ever since my teenage self had stood in front of the television, singing along to the Cheetah Girls’ Strut, Barcelona had made it to the top priority on the bucket list.
Barcelona is a beautiful city, and as imagined, my trip was an exciting one, full of discovery. From Las Ramblas to the Sagrada Familia (home girl stood teary eyed in front of the monument girll), Barcelona did not disappoint!
One thing stood out from my trip though…By stood out, I mean jumped right in front of me: Where were the black people in the city? Bishh Where??
My sister and I made it our game, to count the amount of black people we ran into everyday we were out an about in the city, occasionally running into a group of black tourists and thinking “What’s good fammmm”! ^^
The reason I am recounting these events is because, three days into exploring the city, I started feeling kind of strange. As crazy as it may seem to some, I became a little anxious at the thought of being seen, in a city where very few people looked like me.
Coming back to the apartment from a shopping trip, (yooo! 5 euros sandals, 15 euros bags, yasssss), I lay on the bed and browsed videos on YouTube. I fell on "Black girl magic", the Empire, season 3 song, featuring Sierra Mcclain. I could not have fallen on a more perfect video to heal the feelings of discomfort I had been having. “Queen so divine from the holy land, darker than the berry that’s that Melanin” “A history of beauty and strength yeah that’s all me”!
It is precisely at that point, more than two decades into my existence on this earth, having lived my entire life on The Continent, that, more than understanding, I felt the importance of representation on screen, for people of color.
You see, I grew up in Africa, and here, it was never really evident, how important it was to see people like me on screen. I mean, I grew up surrounded by Africans. In this sense, very rarely did I feel like the odd one out. I also saw people like me on screen, but I was more exposed to western television, than anything else, even on the continent (think all the French television adverts, all the French shows I watched when living in the Republic of Congo).
When I realized how much seeing Black girl magic on my screen in Barcelona that evening had helped, it slowly unraveled, just how much I had been affected by the lack of exposure to black screen representation, all this time!
For instance, to my fellow black women, do you remember role playing with your friends or cousins, and putting a t-shirt on your head, to mimic the sleek hair of some Caucasian ladies? Or daydreaming that you would marry the blond guy with the blue eyes in your 3rd grade class, because, you know, black boys weren’t nearly as appealing? Those behaviors and thoughts, to name only these ones, can partly be explained by the lack of representation on television.
Growing up, my father was an exemplary dad! ‘Sans meme devoir lui parler, il sait ce qui ne vas pas !’ (Without having to speak to him, he knows what’s wrong – From Stromae’s Papaoutai). But, as a young girl, I never once thought, ‘ohh I’m going to marry someone that looks like him when I grow up”. Okayyy, it would have been strange of me to think of marrying someone like my dad that young, but bottom line is, I preferred the blond, with the blue eyes, because, they were the ones romanticised on screen, not their curly haired, dark skinned counterparts.
Little did I know, this very fact had a big impact on my life, because, as my cousin Karmen says in her masters’ thesis, television is a socialization media. What we see on television, or don’t see for that matter, we talk about, we form collective opinions about. Television as we have it today, widely perpetuates white standards, of beauty and culture and by perpetuating these, normalizes these standards, making other beauty or cultural traits, ‘not the norm’.
Another example of the importance of representation, is my mother. Growing up in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, she wanted to be a lawyer. She told me however, that she didn’t think that dream possible, until, at the age of 19, she saw the Huxtables on television. My grandmother had already been a successful woman herself, working in the educational system and supervising teaching standards as far as in Eastern Europe. But it was not my grandmother that made her dream possible in her head (of course, the fact that she was educated, and ahead of her time influenced my mother a lot). It was seeing the Huxtables on television. When she saw this charismatic, educated black couple on television, it suddenly clicked. It was not impossible for a black woman to pursue a career in law, or any other sector for that matter. The television made that idea possible. Across borders. A kind reminder, that her too, grew up on the continent, surrounded by people who looked just like her!
Representation matters, and I especially urge my African brothers and sisters to keep creating role models on screen, that the young ones can look up to.
When I think of role models on screen, I think of Moratiwa (played by Nomzamo Mbatha) in the movie Tell me sweet something”, Directed by Akin Omotoso, and starring my crush, Masego Maps Maponyane. Moratiwa, is an intelligent, and confident aspiring author, struggling to write the Great African Love Story. Watching Moratiwa on screen made me believe that I too, had a valid dream in becoming a writer.
We have more work to do on the continent, so let’s create some African screen heroes!
Until next time,