During assembly on Tuesday, February 26, senior Elle Harris spoke about her dream to be seen — for all Blacks to see themselves in literature and movies and mainstream culture and know that they are valued. Here are her remarks:
I babysit almost every weekend and almost every weekend at about 7:30 when one of my kids is curled up in my lap, after choosing a book out of their most recent library haul, I open it to find a multitude of races, people of every single color staring at me from the 30 or so pages. Yes, it is a little improbable that a Black mother and a White father would have an Asian kid, but hey, at least they’re trying. And when the three-year old points to a random kid in the story who doesn’t look remotely like me and says, “Elle that’s you” instead of being offended, I am in some way grateful. The book and the child see me.
Reading is something highly valued in my family, and because of this and my mom formerly being a stay-at-home mom, I started reading at three years old. By the time I was six and reading chapter books like The Secret Garden, I found at a young age the harsh reality of the society we live in. The Black individuals who were so highly present in my children’s books suddenly disappeared, and were replaced by large hordes of White people. It’s hard to feel empowered when you grow up wanting to be the Katniss’, the Hermiones, the Annabeths, but instead having to accept that our society did not see me as anything more than the Black harsh security guard flippantly referenced in the text. And when authors finally put a Black character in a book, they have to be in some way exotic. Throw in some green eyes, a sharp nose, but give her tan skin so we can call her Black. However, with my very stereotypical black features, my wide nose, currently straightened curly hair, and full lips that racially ambiguous girl in no way captures who I am. I am no longer seen.
This phenomenon isn’t something only seen in literature, but also expands to film as well. Watching movies is definitely my favorite past time, but Black people in film are so few and far between that my sisters and I play an informal game of “spot the black person” while we’re watching the TV screen. Some of my favorite movies are The Departed, Inception, Moonrise Kingdom, Good Will Hunting, The Royal Tenenbaums, Jerry Maguire, Inglourious Bastards, The Dark Knight Rises and The Incredibles. Out of these nine movies, there are only six Black people in prominent speaking roles and half of them are in Jerry Maguire. Sure, it’s possible that I am choosing the wrong movies, but these movies aren’t just random films. When you consider the fact that out of all those nine movies there are a total of 41 Oscar nominations and 14 wins, you can see how pathetic it is that, if you omit Jerry Maguire, there is an average of less than half of a Black person per movie.
Where are we? Even though today about 13% of actors are Black, as seen with my example, they aren’t on the big screen. Brooks Barnes in his 2008 article for the New York Times “Race and the Safe Hollywood Bet” says quote “many studio executives worry that films that focus on African-American themes risk being too narrow in their appeal to justify the investment. Major studios want assurances that film projects have the potential to attract a significant white audience.” The sad truth is Black people are not valued and when we finally are in a widely acclaimed film such as The Help, Twelve Years a Slave, or Black Panther, we are playing Black characters. We can’t simply be in a film as an actor or an actress who is just playing the role but instead we have to be an actor of an actress who is playing the Black role. I can’t relate to a domestic servant or a slave. Even though it is an intrinsic and crucial part of my history as an African American that is not who I am today. Even more than that, after being in this country for a couple 100 years, my family has no more ties to Africa than many of you have to Europe. Even though I am grateful that Black actors are being more widely employed in films such as these, it still doesn’t solve my and pretty much any minority in the US’ problem. We don’t see ourselves.
Of course there are exceptions; some of you are probably trying to search for as many movies with prominent Black people as you can, but I am talking about the general issue here. We are celebrating Black History Month and the amount of progress we’ve made, especially over the last 100 years, but the sad thing is our society still does not accept us as equals. We throw around buzzwords like civil rights and change and equality when talking about the 60s, mentioning prominent people such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and events such as LBJ passing the Civil Rights Act, as if in that decade, hundreds of years of suffering and disenfranchisement and brutality and hatred magically disappeared. However, when you consider the fact that at the 12th Academy Awards Ceremony in 1940, Hattie McDaniels, a Black woman took home the Oscar for best supporting actress for the movie Gone with the Wind and as recent as 2016 there were no Black actors nominated for the second year in a row, how far have we actually come?
Yes, overt racism is not as prominent today. My family has never woken up in the night with a cross burning outside our window, and I have never been called the n-word by someone outside of my race, but I have definitely faced microaggression after microaggression over the years, eating away at me, causing me to question my skin tone, question who I am. I think today’s racism is definitely less harmful and less violent but still possibly more dangerous than the racism of the 60s because it’s harder to point it out, harder to see beyond the words equality to the see the letters i and n that precede it. It is time that we are valued as more than someone to drive up the diversity percentage at a school, as more than rap music, and great track runners but just as people, not simply lumped together in the blanket category of Black people but simply individuals with darker skin tones.
We cannot do it for ourselves because we are already sitting here, trying our best to show the world what we have to offer, but we need others to see us for all we are, for who we are, for all we can do. Change is not a thing of the 60s, it’s a thing of today, a thing of ten years from now. I dream a dream that 25 years from now, I don’t have to assume the role of every Black mother and father, to tell my kid over and over that they are Black and beautiful and should love their skin because as they are flipping through a magazine, watching a movie, or reading a book, they will know they are seen and they will know they are valued.