I was seven years old when I first saw someone who looked like me portray a character in a movie. In 2009, my dad took my older brother and me to our local cinema to see The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s most recent princess film. While my brother, who’s five years older than me, couldn’t hide his disinterest in the theater of having to watch a princess movie with his little sister, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
For me, Princess Tiana was not only the first Black character I saw become a princess, but her drive to reach her dreams was something that even 21-year-old Siobhan could not help but admire and seek inspiration from. Her goal in life was to work hard, be independent, and ultimately achieve her dreams with her loved ones pushing her along the way. Throughout my childhood, Princess Tiana was a role model for me and one of the few examples of positive Black representation I witnessed.
As I grew older and entered high school and now college, I noticed an overabundance of Black-led television shows or movies, with the main context or primary subject of the story focusing on Black main leads or their side characters dealing with moments of grief, loss, suffering, and overall conflict – a stark contrast to The Princess and the Frog.
It seems that the bulk of Black-led programs aimed at a more adult audience prioritized the theme of Black trauma over anything else.
While it’s difficult to create a story and make it entertaining without introducing conflict into the plot for the main characters to overcome, it becomes a different story when characters only ever experience conflict without much growth or success in their journey. Instead, much of the media I saw depicted Black trauma. Black trauma is a subset of racial trauma, also known as race-based traumatic stress, which is defined by Mental Health America as “the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias, ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.”
Racial trauma is a very real experience for many communities of color, and it is sometimes portrayed in the media through television shows and movies.
Additionally, Black trauma does not have to involve a character experiencing a racial interaction to be defined as such; it could also stem from instances in which the character is dehumanized or becomes a glorified account of a person’s pain.
Swarm, a 2023 Prime Video original, comes to mind as a series that fits this description. If you’re unfamiliar with the show’s premise, it revolves around the character Dre, an obsessed fangirl whose crazed devotion to a pop artist leads her to have a thirst for blood and on several killing sprees. The show, produced by Donald Glover — best known as rapper Childish Gambino — delves into the problematic aspects of stan culture and chronic online behavior.
Dre is a problematic representation of Black women as Swarm mocks her character’s decline in mental health following the loss of her sister-like best friend Marissa who was the only support system she had. The show portrays Dre as having animalistic qualities, reinforcing the negative “Sapphire” stereotype that many Black women face in today’s society. “Sapphire” is a satire of Black women that depicts us as sassy, emasculating, and domineering, as well as aggressive, loud, and angry.
Glover even revealed his character direction for Dre in a March 2023 interview with Vulture, stating that when guiding actress Dominique Fishback, who plays Dre, he told her, ‘Think of it more like an animal and less like a person.’” He continued, “It reminds me of how I have a fear of dogs because I’m like, ‘You’re not looking at me in the eye; I don’t know what you’re capable of.’”
Glover referred to Dre as “it” rather than a person, emphasizing how Black women can be dehumanized and labeled as “others.” It disappointed me to witness another Black person’s storytelling cause damaging stereotypes and misogynistic implications that further drive us apart as a community.
While many of my friends enjoyed watching the show and were intrigued by the social commentary it was attempting to convey, it left a sour taste in my mouth given that it simply reinforced the concept of Black trauma and reduced Dre to a caricature rather than a multidimensional individual in her own leading story.
I decided to take a break from present-day Black-led shows and instead focus on those from the 1990s. The majority of the Black-led material I enjoy viewing currently are family sitcoms from the 1990s to the early 2000s, such as Moesha, Girlfriends, A Different World, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The plots of each program differed, but they all revolved around community and family dependency. Every show had its fair share of challenges and hardships but highlighted that there’s always a way to get through the grief. The Black-led shows of the 1990s and early 2000s had a healing aspect to them.
Even when shows from the 1990s, with their humorous concepts, are revived in today’s society, they continue to fall victim to our focus on Black misery and struggle. While I love the new edition of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Bel-Air, the 2022 show reimagines Will’s life in Bel-Air and takes a darker approach than its predecessor.
The show focuses on racial tensions and the struggle for acceptance in white spaces, as well as wealth disparities among Black Americans. The show also goes into darker themes such as gang violence and drug use. While these topics should be recognized and aired more openly in public, they remind me that there cannot be programs in which Black characters can just be happy.
That is why I love series like Abbot Elementary, which is making its way into contemporary Black media. The show is presented as a faux documentary sitcom, following a predominantly Black ensemble of teachers and school administrators in an underperforming Philadelphia elementary school. Each character is committed to helping their students thrive regardless of the odds as they go through everyday situations.
Of course, some elements of the show are overdramatized or exaggerated due to its comedy factor, but the show doesn’t follow another character battling drugs, a gang, or struggling to cope with grief — it’s just them and their identity.
I believe it’s important to address issues affecting the Black community that are not widely discussed. However, I think there should be more focus on content that highlights Black love, joy, and the overall positives of our unique identity rather than falling victim to the constant cycle of our stories being told through the lens of grief and Black trauma.