At Face Value

I’ve always had a big imagination. I was the kid who would pretend to be a Power Ranger or come up with intricate backstories for the Mortal Kombat characters via Barbie dolls because surely, they had lives outside of the tournament, right? If I wasn’t playing make believe, I was writing stories in notebooks with multi-colored pens. Before I knew what fanfiction was, I had some pretty intense Dragon Ball Z tales going on, let me tell ya.

I’d write original stories, too, but they weren’t geeky at all. They were about things I thought black girls were supposed to write about.

Works like Waiting to Exhale had set the stage for strong, black women all across the country. Don’t get it twisted. That’s not a bad thing. Having a no-nonsense black woman at the forefront was, for lack of a better word, badass. She’ll set your things on fire and sashay away from the burning vehicle, complete with a satisfied snap of her fingers. But instead of looking at the bigger picture of Angela Bassett’s flawless portrayal of Terry McMillan’s creation, the media took one moment, bottled it up, and dubbed it as the caricature of all black women. Why go through the entire emotional spectrum of Bernadine Harris when you could simplify it to angry black woman? So that’s the label we got, with no further development beyond “I’m pissed off” or “I don’t need no man.” Our strength was delegated by who hurt us the most, and the revenge fantasy of making them pay the price. 

So that’s what I wrote about.

I took things at face value. Write the black woman the media wanted to see. She didn’t wear glasses, rock multi-colored braces, and sing along with the magnum opus that is the Carmen Sandiego theme. If I wanted people to read my work, I’d have to write a certain kind of black woman: the sassy best friend, the baby mama, the maid, the slave, the woman who’d been wronged by no-good men, and of course, the meme-worthy Bye Felicia. And you know what? There are numerous black women who fill these roles in society. I went to school with them, ate meals with them, and called them my sisters even if we weren’t related by blood.

But that’s not the problem, no, they were never the problem.

The problem was they weren’t given the full picture. They weren’t treated as whole people with lives and personalities. They were reduced to stereotypes that the audience didn’t have to fully process. Waiting to Exhale was an exception. Shows like Living Single and moms like Vivian Banks happened every once in a while. But back then, without even realizing it, I’d internalized what was around me: a handful of fully fleshed out black women in a world where—even if their feelings were justified—they were belittled by their own audience as being too independent, too strong, too loud, and too much to handle.

A handful of black women treated as a niche and not part of the mainstream. 

I settled on the fact that if I wrote black women, I had to follow the rules… or just write about white heroes, because there were even fewer black women in the geek space than there were outside of it. So no, I didn’t grab my pen and notebook to create more superpowered characters like me. That’s the story a lot of people tell, you know? That seeing themselves being represented and realizing the lack of diversity in the media inspires them to create the next black or brown hero. But for me? It never once occurred to me to just, you know, create diversity in the nerd culture I was so invested in. It never occurred to me to be the change you want to see, as they say, because I took things as they were: white was the default in the heroic story while black was the afterthought unless it was a certain kind of role.

That’s why A Wrinkle in Time is such an important movie.

I’m not familiar with the book, though I’m sure I would’ve never imagined Meg as being anything but white. My imagination was an interesting place, but not one that would’ve put a girl like me as the lead for the reasons I’ve already stated. This is why we need black girls in our stories, and we need to be told they’re there. As a writer, I understand the desire to leave things vague so any reader can inject themselves into the tale, but as a black woman who grew up with only a handful of options, it is imperative to let marginalized groups know that they are in the story. You cannot leave diversity up for interpretation because we’ve been playing that game for decades. We’ve been tilting our heads and playing pretend, picking apart character descriptions to find some sort of clue to blackness, and you know what? If you were a kid like me, one who took things at face value, you didn’t even get to the squinting and wondering stage, you just said, “White,” and left it at that.

I think every black girl nerd has a “Wow, it’s me!” moment when she comes across a fictional character who represents her. My very first, “Wow, it’s me!” moment was with Storm from X-Men: The Animated Series. I’d seen black girls in cartoons before, of course, but they usually weren’t the main characters, like the black girl in Rainbow Brite (Indigo) or the “my friends” part of Jem (“Me and my friends are Jem girls, Jem, Jem is my name.”). I’m not saying Shana isn’t magical, cuz she is, I’m just saying the story was primarily about Jem… or Kimber when she, gasp, left the group.

Storm was the first black female protagonist that really made my jaw drop. The year was 1992. Fox Kids was still a thing and it was THE PLACE to be if you were a cartoon-loving kid. Back in my days of pink bedrooms and Super Nintendos, cereal and animation went hand-in-hand, so that epic guitar riff and montage of mutants sucked me in pretty quickly. Storm appears in the very first episode, shopping with Rogue, just a couple of gals hangin’ out at the mall. Suddenly, a giant robot crashes through the glass, in hot pursuit of a “mall babe who eats chili fries.” But Storm ain’t havin’ any Sentinel nonsense and creates lightning from the palm of her hand and treats it like it’s no big deal. It’s just lightning, ok? She can summon it on a whim, all right? My nine-year-old self was in awe of her as she declared herself Mistress of the Elements because, oh my GAWD, she even had a title!

Superpowered heroics, and even grand, storybook adventures, were reserved for the white boys and girls who got to shoot lasers from their eyes or enter the world of the Goblin King. So, seeing Storm with her weather manipulation, complete with theme music and epic speech? That was a big deal to me. And every black girl nerd has one of these characters. Whoopi Goldberg’s is Uhura; mine is Storm. It’s when we realize we can be heroes, too, and ideally, we set off to do that very thing.

Become warriors, if you will.

It was around the time when the world was introduced to Princess Tiana where I started to ask black representation questions… kinda. I was excited to see her, and I’ve even cosplayed her, but… why did it take so long to get a black Disney princess? Good question, right? And one I never asked when I was a 90s kid. Well… I didn’t exactly frame it that way. I was safer about it because I didn’t want to make it sound like I didn’t appreciate her inclusion in the Disney Princess lineup, so I simply said, “I’m happy to finally see a black princess.” And… that’s it. I didn’t push any harder than that, I didn’t even express my disappointment over seeing her natural curls in the concept art be replaced with a neat bun because whatever, right? It is what it is. Take things as they are and be happy with what you have.

I took things at face value. Again.

It would take being harassed online for cosplay, of all things, before I started becoming more vocal, but even then, the things I was vocal about weren’t race related. Not at first. Body shaming, queer acceptance, those were things that a white audience could relate to. Race? Representation in the media? That would take an entire black cosplay movement for me to finally start saying the word black more often—shout out to #28DaysOfBlackCosplay. Seeing others like me encouraged me to step out and be more true to myself. That’s the power of representation, whether you realize it or not.

So, seeing Storm Reid on the big screen was a big deal—though I feel like that’s stating the obvious. We can talk about the “Wow, it’s me!” moment she’ll give to little girls, but I feel like the movie does more than just reinstate the importance of representation. In a way, it doubles down on it. It’s not just Meg herself and the fact that her story is the primary focus of the movie, it’s the treatment of Meg throughout the entire picture. Not only do we have a black lead, a lead of mixed race with natural curls and glasses that aren’t treated as a hindrance of her beauty, she is literally told to be herself.

There’s a particular scene where this really hit me, a direct punch to the heart that had me crying in that IMAX theater (ok, so, there’s a couple, but this is the first “Bri cries a bunch” moment). Throughout her journey, Meg is skeptical and not 100 percent on board with the whole “Let imagination be your guide” premise. At one point, Meg stops and has a heart-to-heart with Mrs. Which, commenting on how the things that she should be enjoying during the journey are more of a painful chore than a moment of magic and wonder. That self-doubt is hitting, hard, especially since her companions (little brother Charles Wallace and classmate Calvin) are getting a kick out of the adventure. She thinks there’s something wrong with her, but then Mrs. Which says, “Do you realize the amount of events and occurrences that had to occur to lead to the making of you, just the way you are?”

That. That right there. That is exactly what black girls need to hear.

I immediately wondered how things would’ve shaped out for my creative side had I heard something like that as a child writing in notebooks, back when I assumed I had to write a certain kind of black woman or settle on writing white characters because they were the accepted, common occurrence in geekdom. Would it have taken me until my thirties to create a book series full of girls like me? Girls with magical abilities and attacks similar to the likes of Sailor Moon? Of course, it’s not like I grew up without a goddess-like black woman encouraging me—thanks Mom—but hearing that reassurance in a mainstream, big budget fantasy story is worlds different than your mama. That big budget fantasy movie? Where the entire world is watching a black girl being treated as important, and necessary? That leaves an impact, especially when you fancy yourself a writer of color. It’s the ultimate validation: you can tell a story with a character that looks the way you did back in junior high. You can let that character be a hero, and you don’t have to change a thing about her.

And I realized my tears weren’t just over the representation, but over the fact that my younger self never had this kind of moment. She had black women, but not black girls being reassured about themselves before tackling the literal darkness of the universe.

And the movie continues with that theme, constantly encouraging Meg until she finally comprehends the message. She even faces off against a quote, unquote, perfect version of herself, one without flaws and, more notably, straightened hair, cool clothes, and no glasses. My girl Meg rejects her, though. She shoves “perfect” her off a cliff and embraces her flaws, listing each of them off like they’re a superpower akin to the lightning and rainstorms I loved from Storm decades ago. And this showdown against the It? That universal evil that even the Misses have no power against? Meg does it all by herself. The Misses aren’t there to tell her what to do. There’s no Calvin to team up with or a stranded Dr. Murray standing by her side. And when Meg wins, finally ready to take her place as a warrior, she expresses pure joy because all the pieces have finally come together for her.

Having representation is amazing, and absolutely necessary, but for the black girl who takes things at face value? For my past self sitting in that pink bedroom in the middle of the suburbs of Chicago? She’s going to need a bit of a harder push, even if she’s someone who treats the playground like Medieval Times or writes fanfiction in her dad’s basement. For her, it’s not enough to see black women, she has to be encouraged to be as amazing as those women are; more importantly, she has to be reassured that she’s beautiful just the way she is.

As someone who often speaks about the importance of representation, this piece is a truth that’s hard to admit to. I didn’t immediately run out and decide to create the next iconic woman of color, even if I craved more representation. I actually decided, for the longest time, that it was best to stay in my lane and not rock the boat. A Wrinkle in Time is the extra step in the representation message. It’s a movie for those of us who wanted more diversity, but assumed they couldn’t ask for it and had to wait to be thrown a bone every now and then.

It’s Black Girl Magic, at face value.

Briana Lawrence

Briana Lawrence is a freelance writer and self-published author who’s trying her best to cosplay as a responsible adult. Her writing tends to focus on the importance of representation, whether it’s through her multiple book series, or the pieces she writes for various websites. When she’s not writing about diversity, she’s speaking about it at different geek-centric conventions across the country, as she’s a black, queer, nerd girl at heart. After de-transforming from her magical girl state, she indulges in an ever-growing pile of comics, marathons too much anime, and dedicates an embarrassing amount of time to JRPGs. Find her online at Twitter @BrichibiTweets; website: magnifiquenoir.com; or on Facebook for both cosplay and her book series.

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