Opinion: In times of racial trauma, Black death shouldn’t be commodified

back tragedy and trauma in media

Star Trek Deep Space 9 has been one of my favorite series for years because of how it incorporates futurism and sci-fi, and includes Black leads in important roles. The same can be said about the Star Wars franchise and how, even if the focus is an intergalactic space war, Black characters get to exist in these settings without serving a minor purpose in the narrative.  

That said, I can’t help but notice the lack of diverse narratives in our creations as Black media is being produced today. Black media was once more free and diverse in both settings and story, but over time our most famous shows and movies have begun to strictly mirror real life and past tragedies faced by our community. With police brutality being a constant plight within the Black community paired with daily reminders of racism and white supremacy, it is clear where much of the inspiration comes from.

Understandably, it is important for Black people’s struggles to be recognized by both Black and non-Black people alike. Television and media have always been powerful tools in bringing Black experiences to life and remember our history, and the sacrifices of our ancestors. From early masterpieces like “Roots” to more modern hits like “Moonlight,” the big screen has always been able to artistically showcase versions of the Black experience so society can witness what we, as Black people go through. 

 

However, there is a thin line between televising our history for creative and/or educational purposes, and displaying our struggles and traumas in ways that have little impact. It can be argued that some of this is to increase the shock value of non-Black audiences. During times of heightened police brutality when Black people worldwide are accustomed to seeing widespread trauma and Black death, it is hurtful and almost disrespectful for our plight to be used and depicted in such normalized ways that does nothing to heal our communities. This is even true of such narratives created by Black people.

 

In times of racial injustice and political unrest when Black people must face harsh realities of white supremacy, the last thing we need is to see such narratives recklessly rehashed. History is important, but not if it is opening wounds of trauma without offering a solution for healing. Black people deserve escapism, fantasy, sci-fi and other narratives without consistent instances of racism slipped into them.

As a sci-fi fan myself, I couldn’t have been more excited when I heard that Lovecraft Country was making its way to HBO Max. I was prepared to be thrust into a narrative that well-handled its Black characters, as a lover of Star Wars and Star Trek for its use of Black characters in important roles in futuristic and sci-fi narratives. But while I thoroughly enjoyed the graphics, the characters, and some aspects of the storyline, I couldn’t help but feel almost tired during my initial viewing. Despite sci-fi and fantasy being two of the main genres, using them as depictions of violent racism and anti-Blackness as a “shock” factor was off putting to me. The story was great, the lore and addition of space, aliens, sci-fi and magic were amazing yet–even with the inclusion of Black characters in starring roles, the film still heavily relied on racism and Black tragedy. It even went as far as killing one of the main dark skinned Black characters at the end of the season. Here I was, excited to see a Black narrative in realms usually denied to us but suddenly felt robbed of the aspect of escapism. Yet again, violent anti-Black racism took the center of a highly anticipated TV show, and Lovecraft Country was simply the most recent example.

I still kept my hopes up, and was excited when two new and more recent announcements of Black shows and movies, Them and Two Distant Strangers. Both had aspects of sci-fi, fantasy, and even horror which I deeply enjoy and don’t find often. Yet similar to Lovecraft Country, violent racism and the brutalization of Black characters was the forefront of both of these productions. There were other elements that enticed viewers, but overall the main themes were racist-driven trauma, rehashed violence that is real for Black people always, in all ways.

All this has made me think, who exactly are these shows meant for? What audience, at a time like this, wants to consume such depictions of Black bodies being subjected to intense violence when we are already experiencing equal and worse struggles in reality? This does nothing to help the Black community, and in fact, seeing our trauma so readily consumed and commercialized by the media can have harmful effects. Black people deserve escapism, and we deserve to see ourselves in narratives that do more than mirror bleak realities. 

That said, it’s important that Black creators and consumers turn to more positive depictions of Black life and celebrate it in ways that are denied to us by the mainstream media. We all, especially Black youth, need to see that Black people can exist as superheroes, wizards and witches, and magical people of all kinds without having to always expect racism and brutality to heavily impact the narrative. 

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There are some programs that ideally capture this idea within the sci-fi space and outside of it. The NBC series Good Girls follows three women on their journey to finding financial stability while all they really encounter is trouble. Of the three women, Ruby is the Black character whose narrative, much like the other girls, expands into multiple plots. As none of them involve police brutality or racial tragedy, Ruby gets to exist in a fun, complex, albeit dangerous narrative alongside her non-Black co-stars. Netflix’s kids adaptation of The Craft Legacy introduces fantasy and magic through a group of young girls including Tabby, one of the main characters who happens to be Black. Tabby’s narrative isn’t focused on police brutality, tragedy, or family trauma but instead centers on how the girls form a bond and learn to master magic. Lastly, an old favorite of mine is BBC’s Merlin. This show demonstrated that not only could Black women exist outside of the binds of racism, they can be queens in fantasy settings as depicted through Guinevere’s character. 

These are just a few examples of shows that work to intentionally and positively portray a Black experience in diverse and complex ways. During these troubling times of racial injustice, such media is truly what can help our community have a positive outlook on the future. All of this isn’t to say that narratives that depict racism and history should never be produced. However, there is a time and a place—a difference between educating others and mass producing traumatic media. Black people shouldn’t only exist within the confines of tragedy and white supremacy, we deserve to escape through compelling imagery just like everyone else. 

 

Avery Oliver is a 24 year old Black writer from Texas who specializes in writing politics, media, entertainment, social justice.

 


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