From May until August, I woke up every morning at 7 to take the Orange Line to Ballston for a summer job. As part of a mass of worker bees making their long and weary journey to make end’s meet (or in my case, train to make end’s meet), I saw every shade of American on my journey, brushing knees with mine on the metro or skipping by me to catch the next train.
One woman in particular caught my attention. She also took the orange line to Ballston, her three young children orbiting around her legs. Her stop was Mcpherson Square, close to her kids’ school. I didn’t need to ask what her early mornings were like to see the stress of getting both her and her kids ready for the day still playing across her features, her quick, deliberate steps burdened by any number of anxieties a single mother of three carried like the purse on her shoulder.
No, she didn’t tell me she was a single mother. She didn’t have to. Edward P. Jones did. The woman — Marvella Watkins is her name; her kids are Marvin, Marcus and Avis — is a fictitious creation from the author’s Washingtonian mosaic of the black middle class “Lost in the City.” In the story, “An Orange Line to Ballston,” they meet a handsome young man with dreads. The children talk easily with the man; like a cute puppy, kids are expert ice breakers, and they have the added ability to speak English, in that special way in which they seem to take joy in a word’s every syllable. The man is laid-back and playful with them, and this obviously impresses Marvella, who hasn’t been with a man in quite some time. But this attraction never takes another step. It never goes beyond the daily routine of watching the man amuse her children on the orange line. Soon, and without warning, he stops showing up. She never sees him again. She never even got his name.
This small drama of fleeting moments and lost opportunities seemed to exist not only on the page but right next to me. Marvella had a voice, a mind, body and soul, as much flesh and blood as the commuters around me. I could hear the giggles of her children, small feet trying to keep up with hers. Jones’s work (two short story collections and his 2003 masterpiece “The Known World”) has this effect. You feel like you could bump into his characters on the street and strike up a nice little conversation. They have the ring of truth, of actual lived experience.
Jones is not alone in this ability. The deferred dreams of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson’s characters are our own. The agonies of Toni Morrison’s young protagonist in “The Bluest Eye” break your heart as if she were kin. With each new installment to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, I feel like I’ve gotten back in touch with an old friend. Time and time again, the written word has given us black characters that resemble people we could meet in real life. It is the visual mediums, television and film, that still woefully lag behind.
In the age of Shonda Rhimes, we live in a time of black divas. Olivia Pope on “Scandal,” Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away With Murder,” and Cookie Lyon on “Empire” are the current TV queens of black female dominance (there’s also Jada Pinkett’s criminal queenpin on “Gotham” and Angela Bassett on “American Horror Story”).
On the one hand, these soapy entertainments have distinct storylines. On the other hand, they all say the same thing: You go, girl! These black goddesses rule the show. They are the show. The sassy, servile mammy of decades past has been replaced by, to quote another black diva in pop culture, a boss ass bitch.
Seeing the glorious Viola Davis tower over her puny cast members in “Murder” is like watching Lebron battle the Golden State Warriors by himself in last year’s NBA Finals. Watching Taraji P. Henson strut her stuff in “Empire” and picking the scenery out of her teeth with a toothpick is an exhilarating high akin to watching Serena Williams blow through the competition this past Tennis season.
These women rule. They’re larger than life. Which begs the question: is life alone not good enough? It’s an old question by now. As far back as 1947, Zora Neale Hurston was plagued by what white publishers won’t print: “For various reasons, the average, struggling, non-morbid negro is the best kept secret in America,” she observed with bitterness.
Almost 70 years later, people are still keeping their mouths shut. Literature has done better since, but film and TV still struggle transcending the big, broad stereotypes Hollywood’s been hawking for a century. It says something that even celebrated black filmmakers like Spike Lee and Lee Daniels make black characters fit more for the stage than the street.
Even the lovable family on ABC’s “Black-ish,” which gets better and bolder with each episode, sometimes struggles to not present itself in quotation marks, to simply exist, instead of provide social commentary. Recent films like “Dear White People” and “Dope” don’t do much better, which have a preachy, insecure self-consciousness about them that seems to cater specifically to white people who want to be “down.” The film critic Wesley Morris aptly described “Dope” as “black shit white people like.”
The problem is, these addresses to white people seem reflective of a Conversation on Race that seems to swing from the bewildering racial politics of Rachel Dolezal to the terrible violence of the Charleston Massacre or Ferguson. There is no middle ground, the ground I and other students walk on Howard’s campus. For American culture, the African-American is still much like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, “surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.”
These deceptive, grotesque images affect blacks and whites alike. I cling heartily to the rare images that are clear, like Barry Jenkins’s lonely lovers in “Medicine for Melancholy” or Dees Rees’s awkward adolescent in “Pariah.” I know those characters. I go to class with them and live next door to them. It’s those people we need to see more of on screen. Authenticity is not merely about the facts. It’s also about what we can recognize as emotionally true, what we can touch with our hands. I will gladly bow before the greatness of Olivia or Cookie. But when I ride the metro, I know I will not find them there. I can reach out for them, but my fingers will only meet a screen.