How A Lack Of Black Excellence In Pop Culture Affected My Sense Of Self As A Mixed Girl Growing Up In The '90s

boy meets world
ABC

Wonderful shows featuring Black people in lead roles that aren't the token best friend. A movie with a Black cast (that isn't about slavery) killing it at the box office. Countless Black musicians rocking their natural hair. 

When it comes to pop culture, Black excellence is alive and well in the Year of Our Lord 2018. I only wish I'd had all of this back in the '90s as an insecure mixed kid who often cried on the bathroom floor over her nappy hair and brown skin.

Don't get it twisted: The '90s weren't without some wonderful Black culture, from Living Single to Martin to In Living Color. (Okay, so maybe Fox was the only TV network other than BET doing it up for Black people — although UPN did a decent job too, considering it was the channel that broadcasted the likes of Girlfriends, Moesha, and One on One.) 

ABC
ABC

For the most part, though, I wound up sticking with ABC's "TGIF" lineup. Everyone at my school was always talking about it, and my 8-year-old self wanted to be hip, so I did too. And for what it's worth, Angela from Boy Meets World was a crucial part of my childhood self-discovery: She was a smart Black girl in love with a white boy from the trailer park — my reality in a nutshell. (I also happened to love me some Shawn Hunter.) 

Still, Angela was just one character in a sea of so many white ones that filled my childhood. Other than Hangin' with Mr. Cooper and Family Matters, Black folks had little representation in the TGIF lineup — or on almost any channel, for that matter. For every Black character on TV in the '90s, there were at least ten white ones.

To my younger self, that lack of representation implied that anything I ever did was never going to be enough — and it if it was, it was only going to be matter to Black folks.

But now? We have so many Black characters, and they're all so well-rounded, from Scandal to How to Get Away with Murder. (Shonda Rhimes isn't the only creative genius bringing Black leads to the game, to be sure, but she is one of the best at it.) Even in movies: Black people. And our stories no longer always revolve around slavery. Thanks to the likes of Kevin Hart and Taraji P. Henson, we're getting movies with Black leads that span many genres. 

Oh, and I can't not mention the force that is and was Black Panther. Kids today will never know what it's like to live without a legit Black superhero. (Sorry, Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four — the title says it all. Four people paid to see that movie.)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

On the flip side, more than four people have made the likes of SZA, The Weeknd, and Solange Knowles household names, each of them representing with their natural hair in the way paved by Lauryn Hill and Macy Gray. But for me, what makes these modern artists different than ones of the past is the same thing that separates today's Black TV and movies from ones from bygone years: More mainstream acceptance.

CBS
CBS

Growing up, it always seemed like anything related to Black people was only viewed and respected by the Black community. I'll try and talk to white people about Living Single and they'll say they watched Friends instead; Saturday Night Live over In Living Color. Their parents wouldn't let them see Boyz n the Hood. But now? They know everything there is to know about Insecure, saw Black Panther its opening weekend, and cannot wait to see SZA at Coachella. Black culture is in many ways heading toward mainstream acceptance. Perhaps that's what I needed as a kid: I needed to see Black accepted — not just by white folks, but by the world, to feel as if I, too, were accepted.

Growing up a little mixed Black girl in a small town that could've been the backdrop for Breaking Bad, I didn't see people like me being celebrated at the level people of color are celebrated today. To my younger self, that lack of representation implied that anything I ever did was never going to be enough — and it if it was, it was only going to be matter to Black folks. But had I grown up with Issa Rae and Donald Glover, the women of Wakanda, and natural hair queens who sing songs that hit you in the gut, I doubt I would've thought that. Black excellence would have just been my norm. 

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