Examining our history in the black literary arts and looking at where we are today versus fifty years ago is rather interesting. I was born in 1976 – thinking about that era when blackness was revered, Marvin Gaye penned a track entitled: What’s Going On. As an African American writer and art librarian, having been exposed to African American history and the African Diaspora through reading and traveling within the states and abroad, I find that each generation is to blame for the demise of its culture. Malcolm X proclaimed, “A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.”Generation X has taken on the role of pop-culture prostitutes in America – pimping out invisible post- blackness in a society that is consumed by self-indulgence, money, and fame. Looking at film, literature, journalism and the plight of black culture, I too ask the question: What’s going on?
Historically African Americans in film have been portrayed as an inferior people, mocked, and given subservient roles. There is a plethora of actors and actresses that made a conscious decision in previous generations not to defame their heritage and legacy, in hopes of paving a way and setting forth a working methodology of how to be in the world of Hollywood but not of the world. One woman that comes to mind that was the consummate example of how this was successfully implemented was Ruby Dee. The actress, activist, writer, journalist and poet was born in 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio. Most will remember her acting in the play, A Raisin in the Sun and the movie American Gangster, but when you carefully look at her body of work – she accepted roles that uplifted and highlighted the struggles of black women from all walks of life. In like manner, Ruby Dee was active during the civil rights movement alongside her husband the great Ossie Davis. So in essence, she understood the importance of dealing with the issues that plagued her people – they were the characters that she portrayed. When you look at the current generation it is a different story. I believe that Kerry Washington is a great actress and activist, but would Ruby Dee have played the role of Olivia Pope?
Black women in Hollywood in the 21st century have more leverage to choose a variety of roles on screen, via television, and on stage. Take for instance the film career of Kerry Washington. The actress was born in The Bronx, New York City, in 1977 and was introduced to the importance of her heritage at a very young age. Both of her parents were educated and she was raised in a middle class household. She graduated from college and acting school, and now in her thirties, she has amassed a status in American society that many can only dream about. Let’s be clear Kerry Washington is the second woman in African American history to portray a black woman in a leading role on a major television network. When I first watched Kerry Washington in Scandal, portraying Olivia Pope, an African American crisis intervention specialist in the White House, I thought her character was refreshing. Then it became all too clear that Olivia Pope was a set-up waiting to happen. The producer-creator of the show is Shonda Rhimes, a black woman that thought it was/is okay to glamorize and pimp out power, sex, and lies to seduce the minds of many into thinking that it’s okay for a black woman to be a mistress and utterly powerless to a man. Some might say, why criticize the television show because it’s all fiction? I respond back with the words of Ruby Dee from her poem, Calling All Women:
Calling All Women
Calling all sisters. Calling all
Calling all women. To steal away
To our secret place. Have a meeting
Face to face. Look at the facts
And determine our pace. Calling all