“Sleepy Hollow” star Orlando Jones. Image via Crave Online.
Pop culture is a window into our lives and, while clumsy, USA Today did hit on something of a phenomenon. Representation of non-white people has increased, and it is noticeable because of how utterly abysmal it was before. “Scandal,” the show of the moment, earned its star the first Emmy nod for a black woman in 30 years. In the case of “Sleepy Hollow,” an interracial duo fights crime and monsters to win one of the hottest premieres of the season. Its producers credit the chemistry of its stars. But major press outlets forget to mention Nicole Beharie, the black female lead, at all. The omission is made more glaring by the fact that the overall diversity of the show has been one of its selling points. Orlando Jones, who plays Captain Irving, took to Twitter to note the gap.
Black Twitter, as both a player and a phenomenon, has been front and center of most of these discussions. As a member of “Black Twitter,” I’m conflicted about the moniker. My participation in feminist, geek or New York Twitter have yet to receive the same level of scrutiny as my membership in Black Twitter. At the same time, there’s joy in the name. Black. Twitter. Using the same social media everyone else is, this cultural movement has been a repeated source of insightful analysis, hilarity and virtual support that affirms the shared and diverse experiences of being black both online and off. One in four black people who are online at all is tweeting, using the platform to offer instant feedback on the news of the moment.
Shannon Gibney is a professor of English and African diaspora studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). When that’s your job, there are a lot of opportunities to talk about racism, imperialism, capitalism, and history. There are also a lot of opportunities to anger students who would rather not learn about racism, imperialism, capitalism, and history. I presume MCTC knows that; they have an African diaspora studies program. Back in January 2009, white students made charges of discrimination after Gibney suggested to them that fashioning a noose in the newsroom of the campus newspaper—as an editor had done the previous fall—might alienate students of color. More recently, when Gibney led a discussion on structural racism in her mass communication class, three white students filed a discrimination complaint because it made them feel uncomfortable. This time, MCTC reprimanded Gibney under their anti-discrimination policy.
Elevating discomfort to discrimination mocks the intent of the policy, but that’s not the whole of it. By sanctioning Gibney for making students uncomfortable, MCTC is pushing a disturbing higher-education trend. When colleges and universities become a market, there is no incentive to teach what customers would rather not know. When colleges are in the business of making customers comfortable, we are all poorer for it.
Years ago, an actor/writer working on a pilot episode for Fox told me she suspected a 2010 session just led producers to transform tertiary white characters into ethnic minorities, with no change in the scripts to acknowledge the shift in race or culture.
But then came this fall’s sleeper hit, “Sleepy Hollow,” Fox’s tale about the modern-day adventures of Ichabod Crane. Ichabod somehow awakens in modern times after a 250-year sleep. The story unfolds like “The X-Files” meets “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (except the Yankee moves forward in time rather than back). Crane teams with a young cop to tackle supernatural weirdness related to the return of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
And the young cop, Abbie Mills, is played by Nicole Beharie, an up-and-coming African-American actor who made a splash as Jackie Robinson’s wife this spring in the film “42.” Suddenly, the show was anchored by a strong black woman who gets to kick down doors, tote a trusty sidearm and play skeptical Dana Scully to Ichabod Crane’s witchcraft-wise Fox Mulder (for the uninitiated, that’s an X-Files shout-out).
When the show featured a storyline centered on Mills’ sister, we got to see two black women in an action/adventure setting, fighting the bad guys instead of waiting to be rescued or seduced. It was exactly the kind of diverse casting I had been waiting for since 1999, when the issue hit a crisis point as the broadcast networks offered a fall slate of new TV shows without a single character of color.
We have been here before. Our history becomes our present so often it becomes difficult to distinguish the two. Politicians and cable news hosts and the naïvely colorblind ask us to forget, most of the country obliges, and black people, again, are left to piece together the fragments of history, suffering, rage, and pain so that we may have hope for something better.
Again we advocate for justice. Again we question what justice would even look like. Again we demand that black life be valued. Again we wonder why it never was in the first place. Again we weep, we pray, we march, we raise our voices. Again we prepare ourselves to be let down. And again we ask when will the moment come where we won’t have to go through this again.
When Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen simply because she wanted to gain an education it sent shockwaves around the world.
The Western media took up the issue, Western politicians and the public spoke out and soon she found herself in the UK. The way in which the West reacted made me question the reasons and motives behind why Malala’s case was taken up and not so many others.
There is no justifying the brutal actions of the Taliban or the denial of the universal right to education, however there is a deeper more historic narrative that is taking place here.
This is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. Flown to the UK, the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalised. Journalists and politicians were falling over themselves to report and comment on the case. The story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her.
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World