How Black women in media and beyond are shaping the future

Since the start of this country, Black people have transformed their lived experiences into beautiful art that challenges societal and cultural perceptions of what it means to be Black in America. They’ve found light and joy in oppressive spaces through art forms like song and film. Their influential presence is felt throughout the world, ushering cultural change in an industry that has historically silenced their voices for speaking truth to power — as was the case with such legends as Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt.

During the 2018 BET Awards in June, Strong Black Lead — an initiative spearheaded by Black employees at Netflix — released an ad called “A Great Day in Hollywood,” which invoked the spirit of “A Great Day in Harlem” (a photograph depicting popular jazz musicians of the 1950s). The 47 Black entertainers featured in the Netflix ad inspire future generations of Black creatives to trust their visions, despite the industry standards reinforcing society’s message of unworthiness: “We’re not a genre because there’s no one way to be black. We’re writing while black. Nuanced and complex; resilient and strong.”

Black women who appear in the ad, including Lena Waithe and Ava DuVernay, are examples of our culture’s creative legacy. Waithe and DuVernay utilize their art and platforms to educate viewers about political and personal issues, like the lived experiences of queer individuals and those suffering from mass incarceration, respectively.

When people of the African diaspora are represented in media, perceptions of Blackness can transform and challenge viewers to initiate social change.

Increased representation of Black experiences, as seen in the record-breaking films Black Panther and Girls Trip, has shown the world that Black stories and voices matter. The intergenerational composition of the Netflix ad speaks to this larger cultural movement where Black creatives shape media narratives of their own lives and communities, continuing the historical innovations of artists before them.

This is also an accessible Black media movement where audiences can engage in conversations around Black popular culture through social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Young Black creators like Issa Rae, Quinta Brunson, and Franchesca Ramsey have transformed their social media presences into successful careers. Through skillful and humorous storytelling, this movement uplifts and supports work that exposes the harsh realities of being Black in this society.

In a way, this type of media brings to life the Afrofuturist dreams of author Octavia Butler — birthing a future where Black girls and women are given ownership of their lives and stories.

This movement spans beyond entertainment, too. Yes, we have Lena Waithe paving the way for Black women screenwriters, Beyoncé Knowles taking space at Coachella to celebrate Historically Black colleges and universities, and Janelle Monáe defining what it means to be a pansexual “free-ass-motherfucker.” But we also have Tarana Burke, who is advocating for Black women sexual assault survivors and helping get their voices heard by policymakers. We have elected representatives like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, as well as community organizers like Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and BYP100 National Director Charlene Carruthers. When it comes to social justice, countless Black women are leading the charges in their own fields.

Angela Davis, the mother of Black feminist academic thought, said, "Black women have had to develop a larger vision of our society than perhaps any other group. They have had to understand white men, white women, and Black men. And they have had to understand themselves. When Black women win victories, it is a boost for virtually every segment of society."

And thanks to the visions of today’s artists and activists, Black girls are growing up in an era when they can see Black women reclaim power structures that have long impacted their lives. Following the footsteps of elders who broke barriers before them, they are ensuring the future leadership of young Black girls across the world.

I believe there is an unspoken language and sisterhood among Black women. It’s evident in the magic of our voices and our desire to uplift each other, and it’s time for the world to not only hear the voices that have always spoken up — but to affirm and magnify them.

So to Ava, Lena, Beyoncé, Solange, and every Black woman changing the world through art and activism, this is a love letter to you. I — and so many others — see you, hear you, thank you, and celebrate you.

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