I Did Not Feel the Need to See People ‘Like Me’ on TV or in Books
I didn’t know that I wanted there to be Band-Aids for Black people. There are now, in a nice range of shades. Crayola has also put out a set of magic markers that includes an array of un-Caucasian skin tones, and I love those. When I was a kid there was no way to draw myself with a realistic-looking color — the browns and tans and umbers all fell far from the mark. But Band-Aids? Not only did I never expect them to “look like me,” but I always kind of liked the contrast between the beige and my lightish brown.
It reminds me of how many people complain that they don’t see “themselves” in movies, books, etc. When I was growing up, I didn’t much either — but I can’t say that it bothered me. By the 1970s, Black people in general were by no means rare on the tube, whether it was “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons” or “Roots.” But I still saw little of Black people like me specifically — as in, a comfortably middle-class, bookish Black teenager slightly on the weird side. It was nice to see a “me” on TV now and then, as in one episode of “The Facts of Life” (yes, I watched it — remember, there was less to do before the internet and prestige television!) that had a guest character who was a Black girl given to standing up and proclaiming passages in Latin.
But that kind of character was rare. For the most part, I had to be satisfied with the gawky, squeaky Steve Urkel nerd character on “Family Matters” as the closest thing to a representation of me on TV. (I lost count of how many times people compared me to him, thinking of it as a compliment.) But what I enjoyed about TV was seeing something other than myself. I liked it as a window on the world, not as a look into my own life.
It was the same with books. The last thing I expected when growing up was to read about myself. There were plenty of books about Black people, but they tended to be about poor or working-class Black people, and often depicted Black lives proscribed by discrimination and inequality. I was aware of two instances of myself in fiction of the time. One was the nerdy teenage middle-class Black girl in Louise Fitzhugh’s “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change.” Then there was “Sarah Phillips” by Andrea Lee in 1984. That one was a near-sacred experience for me, in depicting a middle-class Black girl who grew up outside of Philadelphia, went to Harvard and then moved to Europe. Here was someone I could have been, a variation on some people I had known. She might as well have been any number of Black kids from my neighborhood of Mount Airy — in Philadelphia — or who went to the Montessori and Quaker schools I was sent to.
But I neither needed nor sought out more such books. How much “me” did I need? I read to learn about what I didn’t know.
Recently a linguist made the understandable mistake of assuming that the reason I became a linguist was to study Black English. It’s easy to think so, given that I comment often on the dialect in public venues. But in fact, when I started my graduate study, I explicitly did not want to study Black English. It was too close to home. What fascinated me, and still does, are languages utterly unlike the one I grew up with. This is what I do my academic work on. I am happy to write about Black English, but I do it out of civic duty. What first hooked me on languages was hearing someone speak Hebrew.
This idea that one, if brown, is to seek one’s “self” in what one reads and watches gets around quite a bit. I remember an African-American studies major, a Black guy, telling me in 1994 that if he couldn’t study things having to do with himself, he wouldn’t want to go to college at all. Now, he didn’t mean solely his very self — his main interest at the time was the Négritude school of thought pioneered by Francophone intellectuals in the 1930s such as Aimé Césaire.
But still, the idea that a Black person is deprived in not exploring that which they already “relate to” is not as natural as it sounds. This position is rooted, one suspects, as a defense against racism, in a sense that learning most meaningfully takes place within a warm comfort zone of cultural membership. But it’s a wide, wide world out there, and this position ultimately limits the mind and the soul. I question its necessity in 2023. The etymology of the word “education” is related to the Latin “educere,” meaning to lead outward, not inward.
It can be especially ticklish to hear white people taking up the idea that a Black person strays from their “self” when taking up things beyond blackness. The Black cabaret pianist and singer Bobby Short spent a glittering career of several decades performing the lesser-known songs of Broadway’s “golden era.” I have every single recording he made; generations of fans of the Great American Songbook learned the B-side corpus of this genre from his work. He often seasoned his renditions with a bit of soul, but the overall tone of Short was tuxedos, the haut monde Café Carlyle where he played for eons, his friendship with Gloria Vanderbilt — an ongoing affectionate salute to a bygone aristocracy of manner.
In the mid-1990s I attended a showing of a documentary about James Baldwin, in which at one point Bobby Short visited Baldwin in France and the two of them played some blues at the piano. I chatted with one of the film’s contributors afterward, a white woman, and mentioned that it had been neat to see Short in the blues scene. To my memory, she said something along the lines of, “Yeah, maybe it helped bring him back to that.” Hmm. Back to it. She seemed to mean that the blues was where Short “belonged” and that his career doing Cole Porter and Noël Coward had been an act, not the real him, and perhaps even a little suspect or regrettable.
Now, it was just something she said in passing, and she probably assumed that I, as a Black person, would agree with her. But I couldn’t help thinking that by my reading, I do not believe that Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright or Lorraine Hansberry would have seen Short’s career in that way — and Baldwin clearly didn’t. I seriously doubt that anyone ever ventured such a thought about, or to, a Black man with a similar career a generation before Short’s, Leslie Hutchinson. (He appears to be a model for the Black singer in later episodes of “Downton Abbey.”) Rather, I sense the idea that real blackness means ever seeking “yourself” in your reading and viewing is a post-1966 thing, to refer back to what I wrote here last week.
W.E.B. Du Bois had no such idea. He wrote: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”
Du Bois adapted these “white” works to his own needs and predilections. Even the naked racism he lived with daily did not lead him to draw a line around “white” things as something alien to his essence. Rather, he insisted that these works were, in fact, part of his self regardless of how wider society saw that self or how figures like Shakespeare and Aristotle would have seen him.
Du Bois, in this, was normal. Today I sit with “Succession,” Steely Dan and Saul Bellow and they wince not. I see myself in none of them. Yes, Bellow had some nasty moments on race, such as a gruesomely prurient scene in “Mr. Sammler’s Planet.” But I’m sorry: I cannot let that one scene — or even two — deprive me of the symphonic reaches of “Herzog” and “Humboldt’sGift.” What they offer, after all, becomes part of “me” along with everything else.
It isn’t that I don’t engage with books, films, television and theater by and about Black people. And the truth is that characters I can see as “me” are now not uncommon on television in particular. Andre Braugher’s Captain Holt on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was about as close to me as I expect a sitcom character ever to be, for example. That was fun. But honestly, I didn’t need it. I live with me. I watch TV to see somebody else.
In any case, I did buy some of the brown Band-Aids. I used one recently. OK — I get it. It’s kind of swell that one shade matches my color. I guess there’s something to its being a little less obvious that I have the Band-Aid on. But I’m also always going to keep some of the old beige ones around. I like the contrast.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”