By: Simone Drake, PhD
There is perhaps no better litmus test for race relations and the continuing perseverance of anti-blackness in the United States than for a Fox news host to propose President Obama will offer an apology for slavery “and then there’s going to be a major push to get cash. And I’m talking lots of cash.” And there is perhaps no better evidence for U.S. citizens’ pervasive ignorance of history, across racial lines, than to read the “Comments” section of online news sites. Not surprisingly, in a consumer-driven, capitalist economy, the idea of reparations becomes synonymous with cash payouts. Or, perhaps monetary payments is logically deduced because slaves did not earn wages and institutionalized racism has resulted in descendants of slaves, as a group, earning less than their white (and Asian) counter-parts and possessing significantly less wealth.
It could be the entanglement of this logic—wrongs are righted through cash—and this reality—social and economic status of African Americans are inherited from the past—that makes a night time soap opera like Lee Daniel’s Empire appealing to a multiracial audience. Through its undeniable “blackness” and the foregrounding of consumption, excess, and privilege (and black art) the series creates a world in which discussions of reparations is moot. However, I would propose an implicit dialogue about reparations frames the series.
The media has been quick to label Empire a black version of the 1980s primetime soap opera Dynasty. The New York Post, for example, proposes “‘Empire’ feels a bit like early-era ‘Dynasty,’ only with the Carringtons having gone gangsta.” While Empire is a soap opera and not a sitcom, it is nonetheless interesting that media comparisons have focused almost exclusively on Dynasty with only Dick Gregory making a widely circulated comparison with The Cosby Show. Although the genres differ, the predominately black cast of Empire shares significant commonalities with The Cosby Show, as does the fact that both series revived their respective television networks. What distinguishes Empire from both Dynasty and The Cosby Show, however, is the black production of black narratives. Daniels is the executive producer of Empire. Aside from Diahann Carroll (Dominique Devereaux) there is no recurring black character on Dynasty and neither Dynasty nor The Cosby Show had black executive producers (although Cosby did write for all episodes). Black production of black narratives is reparative—it is a cultural reparation.
If reparations is about making amends for a wrong, then black people having the opportunity to tell their own stories and chose how they will be represented is a form of reparations. In this same vein, the way in which, to channel Jill Scott, Daniels is “taking [his] freedom” in an industry that has been central to producing and perpetuating racial stereotypes is doing more than repairing wrongs. The black production of black narratives ultimately provides black audiences viewing pleasure. The need for oppositional gazes disappears for many of the African American viewers who according to Fox make up 62% of the show’s audience aged 18-49 (and this percentage must raise some when you move to the next age bracket up, because my parents were regular viewers). Being able to experience pleasure, even if only for forty-two minutes once a week, in a nation that fosters racial animus and hostility—see online comments on pretty much any subject regarding African Americans and social, political, or economic plight—being able to simply enjoy seeing those who look like you on a screen is reparative. And, bringing the series to network television rather than cable is an inclusive act.
If Lee Daniels is “[p]ulling [his freedom] off the shelf,” then Cookie Lyons (Taraji P. Henson) is Putting it on [her] chain/Wearing it ’round [her] neck.” There seems to be a consensus that Cookie is the most beloved character of the series. Her tenacity, hustle, and steadfast commitment to her children have made 17 million viewers love her. Daniels did not set out intent on casting Henson and Terrance Howard (Luscious Lyons, Cookie’s ex-husband) as leads in this series. It is therefore ironic that these two actors would reunite in a hip-hop-themed series after starring in Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow (2005) together. I have previously written about how Henson’s character (Shug) singing the hook on a rap single only to result in a white woman and black man making a profit in Hustle reflects a failed intersectional consciousness in Brewer’s efforts to “rebuild the South.” Thus, to see Henson and Howard reunite on Empire, it is hard not to think of this being Shug’s/Cookie’s moment to seek amends for not just seventeen years of incarceration but also for everyone but her profiting off of her sound. Whether Daniels will take us there is unknown. His questionable gender politics when it comes to black women makes restitution for Cookie even more questionable. Nonetheless, through her 90s style and channeling of Lil’ Kim, Salt-N-Pepa, and Foxy Brown, Cookie amends the wrong of sexism in hip-hop, as she demands a voice, authority, and power. Daniels better not do wrong by Cookie, because we are #hereforcookie.
this blog was also ran on the NewBlackMan blogspot