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Meet the Black _________

The problem with racial equivalencies

Roger Kisby / Getty Images

The first lines of Issa Rae’s new memoir, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, let readers in on a little-known fact: Her full name isn’t Issa Rae. The 30-year-old Senegalese-American writer and actress was born Jo-Issa Rae Diop, the pronunciation of which caused her endless trouble when she was younger.


“Oh, it’s pronounced ‘Jope,’ as in ‘rhymes with hope,’” I would say with a smile.

“But . . . it’s spelled D-I-O-P. ‘Dee-op,’” they would say with confused indignation. “Yeah, I know. It’s still ‘JOPE.’”

“Oh . . . kay,” they’d hesitantly resign.

In 2008, an exasperated Rae finally settled on what would become her stage name.

Rae was born in Los Angeles but spent several childhood years in Senegal, her father’s homeland, before her family settled for good in America, where her African American mother grew up. This dual nationality accounts for much of the titular awkwardness she describes throughout The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. In another anecdote, an underage Rae attends a nightclub in Senegal, then sneaks off in hopes of sharing a covert kiss with a local crush—only to be interrupted by an armed security guard. A more serious story describes her father’s infidelity and her parents’ divorce, which Rae’s mother attributed to “cultural differences.”

This complexity may surprise fans of her Web series of the same name. The awkwardness of J, the African American character Rae plays, stems not from cultural code-switching but the usual sitcom mishaps. She gets tongue-tied in front of potential beaus. She’s clumsy. She can’t think of witty rejoinders when she’s been insulted. She raps badly.

That description could apply to any number of sitcom characters, but none more so than Liz Lemon, the bumbling TV producer on “30 Rock” played by Tina Fey. Indeed, Rae set out to create “the black Liz Lemon.” In 2011, the year the series launched, she told New York magazine, “When I saw an article in [Clutch] magazine called, ‘Where’s the Black Liz Lemon?’ it caused me to just go ahead and do the Web series. When ‘30 Rock’ started, I really appreciated it because Liz Lemon is awkward, and I identified with her. But it was frustrating that there were no characters like her that looked like me.”

This is the right instinct—we desperately need to diversify our cultural archetypes—but it sends the wrong message. Framing characters or performers of color as “the black or brown” version of a white one not only undermines the artist’s originality and narrows the lens through which audiences see a character. It also assumes that audiences of color want a mere facsimile of a famous white performer—or, for that matter, that white audiences only want performers of color who resemble white performers. Tina Fey has black fans without trying to portray, say, the white Wanda Sykes. So why can’t Rae have white fans without having to create the black Liz Lemon?

Issa Rae’s memoir proves that she didn’t need to resort to pop-cultural shorthand to market herself, and that she undersold the fascinating ways in which her biculturalism has influenced her worldview. But this is also a tried, if not always true, strategy. “The black ______” is an old and enduring shorthand, long used by agents and publicists or adopted by the artists themselves. A forgiving interpretation would be, “If you like this recognizable white artist, you’ll also like this artist of color.” Less forgivingly: “If you can’t relate to this artist because she’s black or brown, here is a white artist whose work hers most closely resembles.”

In the 1950s, jazz singer Joyce Bryant was billed as “the black Marilyn Monroe,” despite the incongruity of the comparison—Monroe was primarily an actress, and Bryant was a musician. Bryant didn’t seem to resist the descriptor, but it also didn’t launch a career as prominent as Monroe’s. After Elvis Presley rose to fame, soul singers Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson were each called “the black Elvis,” despite the fact that their careers started before his did. A young Richard Pryor was marketed as “the black Lenny Bruce,” a title he rejected.

Presumably, once black artists have established themselves in mainstream culture, they can shed the white shadow. But there’s little proof that using whiteness as an initial hook has much merit anyway. The crossover successes of Cooke, Wilson, and Pryor owed to the inimitable performances they honed through years onstage and in studios.

In the 1990s, TV shows with predominantly black casts were compared to predominantly white ones: “Living Single,” a sitcom intended to serve as a star vehicle for Queen Latifah, was referred to as “the black ‘Friends’”—despite having premiered in 1993, a full year before “Friends” did. As Westword’s Jef Otte wrote in 2011, “Back in the ’90s kind of world when people liked ensemble comedies that featured groups of twenty-somethings living in incredibly well-appointed Manhattan apartments, ‘Living Single’ was known as ‘the Black “Friends” ’—but let’s be honest: It was better than ‘Friends.’” Similarly, Keenen Ivory Wayans’s early ’90s sketch-comedy show, “In Living Color,” was dubbed “the black ‘SNL.’” In a 1993 Scripps Howard interview, cast member Alexandra Wentworth said, “We’re known as the black ‘SNL.’ But we have more license. … We have a tendency to tackle racial issues and hit the jugular with a lot of things. And I’m sometimes surprised by what we can say. Every time we have a sketch, we get notes from the network censors.” The hip-hop sensibilities of “In Living Color”—a disc jockey and dancers played the show into its commercial breaks—and its commitment to racial satire ensured that it was nothing like “Saturday Night Live.”

As a rhetorical device, “the black _______” does more to segregate media and entertainers than to bridge audiences of diverse cultural backgrounds. And by making proximity to whiteness a black artist’s main selling point, it ignores the diversity of black experiences and perspectives, instead treating blackness as a monolith. As Rae writes in her memoir, “The gamut of blackness is so wide. So very, very wide. … Barring strong innate familial traits and twins, blacks are not the same.”

It’s as wide, at least, as the gulf between J and Jo-Issa Rae Diop. Growing up as a Senegalese-American, Rae felt like an outsider in the black community. In one chapter, she recalls bragging to classmates about her dancing skills—of which she had few. “Being the only American girl in my Senegalese elementary school, I was asked: ‘Jo-Issa, teach us what they do in the States!’ Being one of the few African American girls in a gifted, nerdy elementary school in Potomac, Maryland, I overheard: ‘Jo-Issa knows how to do the running man, right?’ I don’t think it was until I met my first friend in Los Angeles that I realized I didn’t dance the way some of the other black girls in my school did.” Jo-Issa tries to teach herself to dance like her peers, then unveils her new moves at a party: “Determined to make an impression, I swung my braids back and dropped to the floor on all fours, arching my back in the literal bad-bitch position… And then came the flash of cameras.” In this moment, she’s been doubly betrayed by her cultural inheritances: Neither her Africanness nor her American blackness have endowed her with an ability that both cultures consider innate.

In February, HBO ordered a pilot from Rae and Larry Wilmore (as the host of “The Nightly Show,” no stranger to “the black ________” appellation). Variety describes the proposed series, “Insecure,” as “a half-hour comedy about the awkward experiences and racy tribulations of a modern-day African-American.” That’s familiar turf for Rae, but her memoir should put to rest any worries that she’s aiming to create, say, “the black Leslie Knope.”

What can we expect? For inspiration, Rae should look to another actress from “Parks and Recreation”: Retta, who plays Donna Meagle. American-born to Liberian immigrants, Retta transcends the cultural establishment’s expectations about femininity, blackness, and body type. In a 2012 interview on Conan O’Brien’s TBS talk show, she told a story about driving around Los Angeles, blasting music with the windows rolled up. She stopped at a red light alongside a car with older passengers. “All they could hear was the bassline,” Retta said. “The woman on the passenger side looks across at me and she’s like, ‘Ugh. It’s that rap music again.’ So that’s when I rolled down my power windows.” Retta ended her story by belting out Vivaldi: She had been blasting classical music in the car.

Retta, that is, doesn’t take kindly to being pigeonholed, which her “Parks and Recreation” fans know well. Were this show set in another era, a full-figured actress like Retta might be expected to play a maternal figure to the other characters in her office. Instead, Donna is a nerdy, self-possessed woman who regularly shocks her predominantly white co-workers with tales of the many men she has loved and left. “Use him, abuse him, lose him,” she tells Ann (Rashida Jones). “That’s the Meagle motto.”

Neither Retta nor her character could be confused with anyone else of any race. Rather than selling herself as a black version of, say, Melissa McCarthy, Retta has built a following by breaking the mold. Let’s hope Issa Rae, with her memoir and upcoming HBO show, is beginning a similar endeavor. It’s been wonderful watching “the black Liz Lemon” on YouTube, but it’s great to finally meet Jo-Issa Rae Diop.