I Will Not Collect Dust
— maya richardson —
A pandemic. Combined with mass unemployment. Combined with the wrath of ICE, the inherent filth of white supremacy bubbling to the surface AND a panel of unprofessional, unforgivable bullies running our current presidency? This… ain’t it. It’s crushing, and as young and emerging artists, we are not only living through it all, but watching the world we hoped to dance in crumble before we have had the chance to take our first steps.
I tried to write something about living as a young artist through the state of the current country without letting any of my emerging nihilism seep through, but y’all. Read that first sentence again. It’s bleak out here and I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. Bear with me, though, because I think if we can all agree to pick each other up when we inevitably fall, nurture ourselves and accept the pain rather than deny the pain, I really think we can make it through.
Lately, I have been wanting to do what I usually do when the distress of the world gets too loud - escape into art. Every time I try, though, a couple of things happen. Either I want to read but my eyes are so tired they only see the words float off of the page, the emotion and trauma behind what I am aching to create ends up swallowing me whole, or I try to escape by turning on my television only to remember how white/cis/straight/able-bodied/thin-bodied most stories being and valued told are. Escapism is exhausting when you remember your favorite world of witchcraft and wizardry was created by a giant terf.
Through this second wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, I am realizing how many pieces of art that once soothed the most lonely parts of my soul have now begun to break my heart. I suppose I am just growing up, and learning to look at things with more of a critical eye, but it feels like the rug has been pulled underneath me. I have been making myself pay more attention to what seasoned writers and artists like Heath Saunders, Sonya Renee Taylor and playwright Toni Morrison (only a few examples of MANY) have had to say about unpacking white supremacy in even our safest of corners. I often forget that the arts, though at the simplest form is a free practice for anyone, is a capitalized business first and foremost.
To those who sit atop these businesses, the value of the marginalized body that I live in is less than they have made it out to be. It is mostly a shock when I consider how the arts claim to make space for all. Every day in drama school I was reminded that the most important thing I could be was myself, but they didn’t tell me that myself, in a Black, queer, female identifying body would not be enough. Artistic practices, no matter how based in escapism and filling the soul, are not exempt from white supremacy. White supremacy means not only racism, but colorism, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism, all of it. It seeps into even the places we don’t want to believe it could.
Keep in mind, I am only speaking through my own lens of a Black girl who ached to see a version of her own awkward, silly, power in softness on screen. The heroine that was typically reserved for someone else’s skin. This narrative of aching to see oneself and being denied is told over and over again with every marginalized identity. We only get the smallest of pockets to play in, and sometimes these pockets are disguised in beautiful packaging so we don’t notice that they aren’t as monumental as they looked. The first things that come to mind when I think about seeing a piece of myself in the art I consume is Hamilton, Nabulungi from The Book of Mormon and Missy from Big Mouth on Netflix. Honestly, I consider myself lucky to even have three clear examples of feeling so seen.
Let’s begin. Hamilton is well, Hamilton. I still remember being a freshman in college listening to the cast album for the first time when NPR released it a week early, on the second floor of the library watching the wondrous excitement grow in my classmates eyes as they listened in their earbuds, too. We all knew we were listening to something that would be groundbreaking, beautifully told straight from the mouths of BIPOCs. I still remember crying with a friend in the freshman dorms after watching the cast perform at an award show, her looking at me and saying “look at all of those people, who look just like us, doing something so great.” Nabulungi is one of the only soft Black girls I have ever seen on stage, who got to practice vulnerability and innocently falling in love while dreaming of something better. I remember seeing Missy from Big Mouth, and feeling so joyful to see a a quirky, intersectional feminist, insecure but strong, intelligent and sweet human being living exuberantly on screen.
I didn’t realize when I was watching Hamilton I was watching Black bodies on a stage that weren’t actually telling a Black story from a Black perspective with Black LIFE. It isn’t so much the history aspect many keep discussing, this is a musical about rapping founding fathers and slave owners so we should KNOW it won’t be the most accurate of history lessons. It is what we are doing with Black bodies on stage. I didn’t realize when I was watching the endlessly hilarious Book of Mormon, the Mormon boys were funny because they were quirky and sweet. We were laughing at the heightened ridiculousness of their charming qualities, but the Ugandans were only funny because they were dirty and senseless. Africa is always, somehow, the butt of a euro-centric sense of humor. Nabalungi was only sweet because of how outlandish her ideas were. She wasn’t someone portrayed intelligently or someone to take seriously. As for Missy, the feeling of empty disappointment still hangs in the back of my chest when I remembered the first time I looked up who voiced her, and it wasn’t a fresh, young Black voice actor like I hoped it would be. It was — you guessed it — a white woman.
Sometimes I wonder, if to white animators, maybe even to white voice actors, we are no more than a brown colored marker they decided to pick up one morning. Maybe to help the ratings. Maybe to prove they were inclusive. Jenny Slate, along with a few other white actors who participated in this digital blackface have since stepped down from playing these roles. Even so, why was I so quick to shower Jenny Slate in praise for stepping away from playing Missy, the half-Black, half-jewish character on Big Mouth (Jenny thinking it was okay because Missy is “only half-Black..” which is something I, a half-Black woman will get into unpacking just how that is problematic another day) BEFORE recognizing that non-Black actors shouldn’t be voicing Black characters in the first place?
I didn’t realize how much we have been settling for the bare minimum in representation. No more. It’s that moment when you’re twelve and LIVE for the one gay storyline of the side character that may provide one sweet, gay romantic glance in your favorite movie, because everything else is painstakingly heteronormative. We deserve more than one cis-straight white queer love story. We deserve more than another magical-Negro trope to save the day. We deserve more than one feature character in a wheelchair to “teach us about disabilities” in one episode for the entire season. White, able-bodied, cis, straight, thin-bodied people are not the only one’s with depth. Of course those of us who inhabit the other bodies know we have depth, but a reminder is important when it feels like since the beginning, we’ve been told that we are the side characters of our own lives.
The fact that today, a person who was once mesmerized by something like Hamilton, (don’t get me wrong, I still am. Have y’all SEEN Leslie Odom Jr.???) is now able to critically examine a piece of art and examine WHY it isn’t enough anymore is something to be celebrated. Oftentimes I would have to deem even the slightest bit of representation exempt from critique, an untouchable piece of art, only to protect myself. I needed to protect the rare, magical feeling of truly seeing oneself reflected back. We don’t have to do that anymore. We have to see our worth. Feel our worth, so we can be unafraid to demand more than the bare minimum. Not that I think Hamilton is the bare minimum, it is incredible and I could tell you a million reasons why, but the point is how incredible for us to ask for something even more. The ground may be splitting underneath us, but now we can start to see the light through the cracks.
Does it mean that these things, Nabulungi and Missy included, were not just as special at the time? Absolutely not. They were all important, and they still are. Does it mean that we can’t go back to producing these seemingly-revolutionary but still harmful characters, and must do the work to create the world we want to see? Of course it does. We cannot look back.
Our generation may be anxiety ridden, depressed, afraid to ask for extra sauce at the restaurant AND living through a collective trauma surrounding too many things to count... we are also clever, persistent, inventive, hilarious, resilient and we are going to grow out of this together. We are HEALING. Grab somebody’s hand today if you see them fall on the way out of this mess, and hold on.
No matter how overwhelmed I find myself, no matter how many times I have felt my soul shatter because of another agonizing yet not so shocking headline, and no matter how much I want to close my eyes, and sleep in the darkness that cloaks the ache in my chest, I will not lie still. I will not collect dust. I will not let anyone or anything take away my spirit, the very thing that makes me an artist. I will break apart, but I will pick up the pieces every time. I will examine them carefully, one by one. Forgive each scrape, scratch and imperfect edge, and I won’t be frustrated at them for falling off in the first place.
I’ll leave you with a final thought, and let this one marinate in your mind.
I want you to run with it and only look back to tell me the tale someday.
Think of how badass your origin story will be.
A young artist emerging from the depths of a pandemic in a horrifying structure designed to slowly destroy all marginalized people that is currently being ruled by a literal clown?
And you SURVIVED?
I am so proud of you.
I can’t wait to immerse myself in your story, no matter what medium of art you choose to tell it.