N. Alysha Lewis
Updated Jun 03, 2020 @ 12:28 pm
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Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC;Colleen Hayes/NBC;FOX

If there’s one thing society can agree on, it’s dictating what Black people are allowed to be, whether it’s in real life or on the big screen. I’ve lost track of all the times someone’s imposed their expectations on me—how I should talk, what I can like or wear, who I can hang out with. As a result, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with myself.

I’ve experienced guilt for being attracted to white men, shame for liking pop punk and alternative rock, and isolation because I painted my nails black. I grew up seeing myself as less than because so many people—from classmates to friends to my own family—implied I wasn’t a genuine Black person. After all, Black culture is monolithic; there’s no room for outliers.

I’ve spent the better part of three decades having this message burned into my brain; Pavlov’s dogs had less conditioning than me. And I’m still struggling to unlearn the misconceptions of “true Blackness.” But something that’s helped me is connecting with Black characters I see on the screen through the pop culture I consume. While I shouldn’t be surprised, considering how much TV I consume, I truly never thought it could have such a profound effect on me—that was until I started watching This Is Us.

Randall Pearson’s childhood desire to be perfect resonated with me in an almost painful way. As a kid, I got a lot of praise for my intellect—so much so that I worried about permanently disappointing people if I messed up even once. You can’t imagine the stress and emptiness I felt, which is why Pearson is a vital representation for me. Watching him dissolve into an empty-eyed shell when things fell even a centimeter out of place is scarily accurate to how I feel in my own life. For instance, I plummeted into a deep depression after my high school boyfriend and I broke up—not because I thought he was The One but because the breakup ruined the carefully laid-out plan I had for my life.

Pearson made me feel seen in a way I hadn’t before. So, I looked closer at other shows I loved to see if I’d overlooked Black characters who personified something I tried to keep under wraps. And wouldn’t you know: They’re everywhere.

The most glaringly obvious example is Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place. I may not be a moral philosophy professor like Anagonye, but I identify with his often paralyzing inability to make decisions. I literally can’t even make a pros and cons list when I’m trying to make choices because my anal retentiveness forces me to make the lists even on both sides. If that isn’t a classic Anagonye move, I don’t know what is. And while I doubt he would really encourage this behavior, it’s still comforting to see a Black character struggle with the same inane stresses I deal with on a daily basis.

However, the kinship I feel with New Girl’s Winston Bishop came out of left field. Though Winston was initially portrayed as a basketball-loving, stoic Black stereotype, a shift began to take place as the show went on. His wacky inner self slowly unwrapped, which led into his series-long evolution into a cat-loving, bird-pattern-wearing weirdo, which resonated with me because, yes, I am too a gigantic weirdo. I constantly sing what I’m doing, à la Linda Belcher from Bob’s Burgers. And about 50% of the things I say are references to Happy Endings, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and obviously, New Girl. I give my dog a French accent when I’m pretending to be her. And I feel confident about it. Because if Winnie the Bish can propose mid-concussion while wearing a bobcat suit on New Girl, why should I hide my eccentricities?

Then, I recently rewatched the ‘90s show Living Single. Y’all, it was a revelation and not to upset the unwashed masses, but it’s better than Friends.

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I love how the ladies of the show—Khadijah, Max, Sinclaire, and Regine—represent a wide spectrum of Blackness. However, I relate to Khadijah the most. She uncompromisingly runs a music magazine, aka my high school dream job. And her unstoppable dedication is something I wish I could embody more. The thing is, there are so many passions I abandoned as I got older. I gave up drawing. I stopped singing outside of my shower. Even now, as I pursue writing, the career I’ve wanted since I was five years old, I’m terrified. I feel fraudulent, like I’m taking up space someone else deserves because I believe their story is more complicated or more recognizable than mine. But Living Single would have me believe that my experiences don’t make me any less valid as a Black woman. In fact, it implies that maybe I should use my voice to bring a sense of legitimacy to any other “unconventional” Black kid who feels like they’re living on the fringe of acceptance.

I never thought I needed to see more Black people on TV to understand who I am. And I would continue to argue that, in order to understand others, it’s important to see yourself in them. But, there is true value in watching someone who looks and acts like me. Because sometimes, it’s nice to be convinced that I’m normal, even if it’s coming from fictional versions of Black people.