Across the top 100 films of just last year, 48 films didn't feature one black or African-American speaking character, not one. 70 films were devoid of Asian or Asian-American speaking characters that were girls or women. None. Eighty-four films didn't feature one female character that had a disability. And 93 were devoid of lesbian, bisexual or transgender female speaking characters. This is not underrepresentation. This is erasure, and I call this the epidemic of invisibility.
The Data Behind Hollywood Sexism by Stacy Smith, TEDWomen 2016
When my mother first was charged with murder, in my grief and in my naiveté I became obsessed with saving her. I thought if I could just try hard enough I could turn back the clock. If I could sit and think about things a little harder, surely I’d come to a solution that would erase everything that happened. I even dreamed that I could maybe somehow make it rich and pay her way out of her story, or at least into a better ending.
Randomly, one sleepless night, I turned on the TV and there was a movie starring Barbara Streisand. She was playing a woman who also was on trial for murder. Just like my mother, this character was mentally ill. As the credits rolled, in my insomniac haze of wishful thinking I was convinced that just like the character in the movie had been found not guilty for reasons of insanity, my mother could receive the same sentence too. I was so convinced by this, that I didn’t want to wait another second to share such good news, and immediately called my mother. I knew that she would also be awake and hoping beyond hope in the dark. “Mommie," I said, "why aren’t you pleading insanity? You’d have a better case. I just watched this movie that was based on a true story starring Barbara Streisand and her character was just like you…” My mother, with so much tenderness in her voice and a bit of pity for me, interrupted me and said, “My Miss Marcie May, Ms. Streisand is playing the role of a white woman in a court room. I am playing the role of a black woman.”
My mother did not plead insanity. She pleaded innocent. She was charged with involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced to serve 8-25 years in the state women’s correctional facility. When I asked her again why she didn’t plead insanity, she said, “Baby, my plea wouldn’t have changed things. I knew what I was up against. Only the Lord could of saved me.”
As much as I am a storyteller, I am also a story hunter. My mother’s words—she is a white woman… I am a black woman—have taught me that the stories of black women are easy to hunt down and catch. You don’t even need a net. Just cup your hand in the air and snag one. They are that plentiful. But you rarely see them displayed in trophy cases or hung above the fireplace as prized possessions.
Just like the world doesn’t know enough stories of black women, Christians don’t know a lot of the stories of many women in the Bible—especially those who are nameless and seemingly invisible. However, I believe that God intends for us to be far more acquainted with His fierce and meek females—beyond Eve and Mary. I believe God generously cast women into His story, not because He felt He should have more women on the set, but because He uniquely created roles that only women could play. You don’t even have to read carefully to see that His story is built on the stories of women throughout the Bible. Just look at Jesus' genealogy in the book of Matthew. Rarely if ever were women listed in any Jew's genealogy. It’s as if God wanted to make it clear that His story existed within the lives of these men and these women.
And whom does Jesus first greet when He walked out of the tomb alive? Women. I think God is saying, “I am telling these women my story and they will tell it to the men.” Perhaps I’m biased, but I can’t help but feel that God has a special fondness for women, especially those who walk and live in the shadows those who are chosen. A mistreated, confused, powerless slave girl named Hagar knew this so well that she calls Him, “The God Who Sees Me”, when it seemed like she was invisible to everyone else in the world.
Most of the statistics for Black women are not great. The less than favorable ones show that we are the ones who are most often victimized, mistreated, passed over and forgotten. Yet, the more favorable statistics show that we are often the most resilient, hardworking and faithful. Put those together and you get a picture of black women who strive with all their might only to catch the wind.
It is amazing—I would go as far as to say that it’s a miracle—that for the past 30 or 40 years, black female hip hop artists have made gold and platinum hit records and sold-out concerts in a male dominated genre that hasn’t exactly been kind or delicate with their stories. It’s even more miraculous that black female hip hop artists have gone onto star in TV shows and movies, win Grammys, get nominated for Oscars, and start their own record labels. Regardless of how we feel about the stories that these women tell, clearly black female hip hop artists are needed. Without them, who else would tell the stories of black females to the rich and the poor, literate and illiterate, across cultures and throughout the world?
If we're honest with ourselves, our negative opinions about how these artists choose to tell their stories, using whatever language they choose, is a total double standard. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Kate Perry, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood tell their stories using the same devices—sex and pissed-offness. They’re backdrops are just set in different neighborhoods and painted with different histories. Yet Nicki Minaj and Cardi B rarely receive passes or parental approval. However, for many young girls and women their stories are the ones that most resemble their own. This doesn’t mean that we each don’t have a right to choose what we feel is appropriate for ourselves. But what it does mean is that we don't have a right to demonize those whose music we don’t relate to, and in most cases haven’t fully listened to. I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of the above charges.
I’m not the first to have noticed the disparity between white female pop stars and black female hip-hop artists. In her song Superstar, Lauryn Hill raps: Now tell me your philosophy/On exactly what an artist should be/Should they be someone with prosperity/And not concept of reality?/Now, who you know without any flaws?/That lives above the spiritual laws?/And does anything they feel just because/There’s always someone there who’ll applaud?
I am surprised at how often the lyrics of black female hip hop artists reflect stories like Hagar’s, Jezebel’s, Rachel’s, Miriam’s, Delilah’s, Sarah’s, Deborah’s, Lydia’s, Mary’s, Leah’s, Rebecca’s, Martha’s, Tamar’s, Ruth’s, Rahab’s, Anna’s, Dinah’s, Elizabeth’s and even Eve’s. In full-color, these artists tell the stories of the victim, heroine, seductress, judge, business owner, mother, daughter, sister, orphan, prophetess, slave, beloved and queen. So why am I so surprised? I had a mother who tried to explain this to me years ago. Only my mother didn’t have a beat or a microphone. She didn’t have a music video to show me that the end of her story would be different because she was a black woman. So, I’d like to thank all the black female emcees who are telling our stories unafraid, unashamed and unabashed, to the masses.
Read Matthew 1:1-17. Google or use a concordance to look up the stories of the women listed in Jesus’ genealogy. When you read their stories and imagine these women, what is their ethnicity and race in your mind’s eye?
Natasha Mckenna, Alexia Christian, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Aiyanna Stanley Jones, Shantel Davis, Aura Rosser, Gabriella Nevarez, India Kager, Kendra James, Kyam Livingston, Alesia Thomas, Meagan Hockaday, Miriam Carey, Pearlie Golden, Yvette Smith, Kisha Michael, India Beaty, Symone Marshall, Jessica Williams, Korryn Gaines, Deborah Danner, Alberta Spruill, Danette Daniels, Duanna Johnson, Eleanor Bumpurs, Frankie Ann Perkins, Gynnya Mcmillen, Janisha Fonville, Joyce Curnell, Kathryn Johnston, LaTanya Haggerty, Malissa Williams, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, Margaret Mitchell, Mya Hall, Nizah Morris, Ralkina Jones, Redel Jones, Sharmel Edwards, Sheneque Proctor, Shereese Francis, Sonji Taylor, Tanisha Anderson, Tarika Wilson, Tyisha Miller
Nada P. Jones, my mother "Mommie", and all the black women she told me about that she met in prison and in psych wards, but whose stories are rarely told and rarely heard.