What Do TV’s Race Fantasies Actually Want to Say?

In a 2017 interview, Color of Change president Rashad Robinson talked to Vox about diversity in Hollywood. “We are looking for representations that are authentic, fair, and have humanity. Where Black people are not the side script to larger stories and are not just seen through white eyes,” Robinson said. “There is a way in which we get the same types of representation over and over again, which kind of decreases the sensitivity and humanity that people receive because the media images we see of people can be so skewed.”

Two years after Robinson’s chat with Vox, in the summer of 2019, Saidiya Hartman spoke at the Hammer Museum about her just-released book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. The book chronicles the lives of Black women in the early 1900s and takes a unique approach to biography, leaning heavily on creative license. It was praised widely for its use of expansive source material, which included case files, old social surveys, photographs, and plantation documents. One critic noted that Hartman was “original in her approach to gaps in a story, which she shades in with speculation and sometimes fictional imagining.”

For scholars like Hartman who tell Black stories rich in sweep, historical records—that is, information categorized as fact—can read like betrayal. Those records, which is to say those stories about Black life, are shaded by all kinds of prejudice: racism, classism, sexism. The powerless remain at the mercy of those who catalog their history. The same thinking applies to how we understand what stories are told, and how they’re told, on TV. Hartman proposes an alternate route with her use of fictional imagining. “What does it mean to try to push against the limits of the archive, to do a certain violence in the context of an archive that’s already violent, but still maintain some kind of fidelity to it?” She worried that to do so, to pledge loyalty, would only freeze us in a static loop. Hartman concluded that “given the kind of violence and power that has engendered this, why should I be faithful to that limit. Why should I respect that?”

Where Hartman’s practice differs from shows like Bridgerton or Hollywood is in her style of world-building. She is attempting to write a history that was erased from the mainstream, to put the pieces back together in some new form, not write a history that never existed. Dickinson, the Apple TV+ series about the prolific poet Emily Dickinson, is one of the more recent shows to tow this line with a better sense of context. Influenced by Hartman’s practice, creator Alena Smith applied her own creative license to the script and took a more imaginative approach by not solely sticking to history’s version of Dickinson. Portraying the young writer in a modern light, the show is more concerned with truth-finding than truth-telling. And more shows like that are in the pipeline, including Underground Railroad, the Amazon Prime limited series by Barry Jenkins set to premiere in May, about an actual below-surface train system that slaves used to reach freedom in the north (the show was adapted from the 2016 Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead).

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Or maybe, just maybe, all of this comes down to something else Hartman said: respect. I think of shows like Los Espookys, like P-Valley and I May Destroy You, and how they register as singular feats because of what little respect they have for form, for an archive, for a Hollywood system that in some sense wants them to always attach their stories to a white cultural body. I think of new shows, like We Are Who We Are and Generation, which premieres this month on HBO Max, two queer dramas about young people that have their eyes forward, that want to make sense of their world in their way. I think of all of these shows and how they challenge us, provoke curiosity and awe, how they make us better in having been exposed to something true and different.

Because what good is world-building in worlds already past, lost to time and ignorance and exclusion, in putting Black faces in white spaces for the sake of a representation that ultimately feels empty? The greater pursuit here seems to be in envisioning the world ahead, the one unfolding right in front of us, the one right at our fingertips.