The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl ended its first season last week, disappointing throngs of viewers across the globe that — finally — got a chance to tune in to a different representation of Black culture that’s funny and engaging. Though there’s a slight hesitation to label and confine a way of life to a race, I understand there is a sort of accessibility that comes with it.
The term “Black culture” is curiously direct and broad. You know it when you see it, yet “it” is undefinable. In the early 1900s, after World War I, there was a jettisoning of an “old” culture and an ushering in of a fresher one marshaled by the likes of James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale, DuBois, Langston Hughes and countless souls that make for today’s required secondary school reading.
We know the name for this movement. The city that played host to this is endemic to the DNA of any learned person of pop culture. It gave shelter to James Baldwin, but it also hosted Diddy. It oversaw the rise of Bumpy Johnson and Nicky Barnes as well as Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Cam’ron and ASAP Rocky. The spectrum of humanity rests in Harlem, varied and all, staring us in the iris.
It was this spirit that came over me after I devoured all 12 episodes of this show created by Issa Rae. A wave is upon us. Like the aforementioned cultural shift, the wave will be unfurled by a forward-thinking, disgruntled, irreverent and precocious group eager to liberate perceptions from the staid shackles of mainstream culture.
Unlike the aforementioned movement, it isn’t centralized or even literary in nature. The bedrock of this form of storytelling is digital. The leaders of this movement are at home with HTML and ‘@’ symbols and character constraints along with ideations that reflect previously suppressed aspects of culture. The disruptive force known as the World Wide Web has rendered a loner from, say, Bismarck, North Dakota capable of creating a one minute video that captures millions.
Awkward Black Girl started as a 3:40 webisode, and ended with a big enough following to be in network sitcom talks. The amazing part is that the protagonist “J” (played by Rae) is, physically speaking, far from the industry norm. Her show is successful on the strength of compelling everyday stories. Did Tim Berners-Lee conceive this effect when creating this Frankenstein?
Few could imagine the Interwebs becoming a viable tool of democracy upon its inception, even when purveyors of such ideals threaten to curtail it. Media and publishing companies (Marvel Entertainment, Sony Pictures, Viacom to name a few) decry the globalizing force and low barriers to entry (piracy?) the Internet provides, and for understandable reasons.
These reasons directly relate to the dominant perception of “Black culture” (term just rolls off the tongue) in modern media. If the world is force-fed monolithic, fatigued images of a certain way of life, then the Web is a medium that can renovate the kitchen — or at the very least balance the menu.
Black people are a multidimensional lot. Enjoying Seinfeld, Martin and punk rock simultaneously isn’t a foreign feat, a sentiment that’s lost on mainstream media distributors. The gate to the portals of Sony Pictures, Paramount and Lionsgate (which ironically is same company that disseminates Tyler Perry films) remain locked for the foreseeable future.
The gate to the portals of YouTube and Vimeo, on the other hand, are welcoming. Its only discriminating tool is access to low-cost equipment (a feature-length video can be shot on an iPhone and iPad) and the whims of the marketplace. For the cost of Wi-Fi and a crappy camera, a brand can be created. New stories can be told.
George Lucas recently divulged his dismay with how difficult it was to finance Red Tails, a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. If Lucas — George Lucas — has a hard time pushing through a film with a Black cast, then the wall’s writings are in billboard font.
Issa Rae and the cast of Awkward Black Girl showcased it to the world.
Anyway we look at it, human patterns of Internet consumption aren’t changing anytime soon. If the problem is mass diffusion of limited stories — or stated another way, limited distribution of heterogeneous stories — then the online digital medium is fecund territory to sprout something anew.
Remember when folks could be picky when it came to TV shows with Black casts in the 1990s? That may never happen again, but if you know how to type in a url, that time may come once again…in another outfit.