Photo by Debra Lopez
sorry, viola, but i am enraged by this notion that u need to ask permission to express who you are: the sooner we lose it, the better...
the act of rejecting the notion that u need permission is the single most revolutionary act of survival u can make.
when i first heard this video, i was appalled, then enraged and had to figure out why. i refuse to teach another black girl child this nonsense. teaching my clients that the only way through is to continue auditioning for bullshit that everyone else thinks is so "amazing" but really is just stick figure imitations of black women, is not on offer.
the premise of the argument is that u start out w/less unless u define urself by the limited notions of others, namely the storytellers in our industry. so the only way to success is to try and fit into what the industry is writing while squelching ur unique expression. if u buy into that, of course, u will explode. bec u were not put here to be an object of some silly writer's notion of an unattractive, sad black woman waiting on more pain to be heaped upon her head as the whole world deems her unloveable. the more u play that, the more you become that...
this is at the bottom of the entire plantation system of acting: the only option u have for success is the stereotypical long suffering roles handed to u. and while u continue chasing that toxic shit, it eliminates the possibility that u write the story of your fully released soul's song. the time it would take to figure out what a full expression of urself would be is eaten up by the chase for these small versions of humanity u regurgitate in auditon after auditon. (god save me from that torture)
so then u only do roles that are applauded by the mainstream to get a cheap network paycheck (bec since uv decided to accept the stereotypical role, the network has decided to pay u less than than the white super heroes ur acting with) and of course, u accept it thereby confirming, u need their acknowledgement to feel worthy and the size of your paycheck tells you exactly what they think u are worth. they're just getting as much as they can for as little as they can and u believe that you can only get the little slice. see how that works? u can say "no" and focus on learning how to tell the story of the magical layers of you, but out of fear, u take the cheap, easy, self-esteem eroding role.
it's a recipe for depression and a sense of worthlessness. and it's not just white writers, producers, directors who write this crap; it's black ones too. why? bec no one is going to write the largest parameters of ur soul's song than u. working for the industry is a distraction from giving critical attention to who u are and why u are here. there are many an oscar winner working in roles smaller than them, taking abuse from men, squeezing themselves into these small visions of their womanhood. but, hey, the red carpet looks in designer dresses & diamonds, press lights flashing and magazine covers make it worth it.
ask thandie newton what she's had to tolerate onset to remain a star or how viola was being paid less than all of her fellow series leads for years; monique gets slammed for calling it out and blacklisted: this is what happens when ur waiting for permission. fuck that....
when u don't wait for permission; like danai gurira, coleman domingo, lupita nyongo, issa rae, michaela coel & brit marling (who has been paving her own intellectual path on her own terms for years); u run the risk of making a lot less money and getting a lot less fancy awards where u get to make speeches thanking people for permission to act. however, when u write ur own shit, the sense of worthlessness dissappears bec u have struggled, committed to the story of u and not been distracted by the lure of flashy jobs that are not abt u and ur purpose as an artist.
perhaps, at first, the self-made artist may make less money, but they are in control of their story, their careers, their self worth. the industry looks at the work they've written and figures out that they gotta come better than these small roles and formulaic writing to get their attention. people treat u the way they see u treating themselves...
something abt this video made me so mad. accepting someone else's terms about who u are is something i was told never, ever to do. so my entire life; my great grandmothers cleaned floors, pistols in their housecoat pockets and then ran four businesses at night in Florida to own their own property and send their girl children to college. they believed that they were more than what was on offer and demanded i never ever accept less. the world of white men was wrong and they were right and they had a pistol on hand to make sure everyone was clear about who they were. i better not come home asking anybody for permission to be who i am and my best bet was to learn how to demand what i need. my grandmother would walk me back to that school and expect me to clarify for any teacher, student, customer service rep who thought they were dealing with a "nigger" who they were really dealing with. that exercise taught me more about who i was going to be than any other.
that's my measuring stick for what's acceptable. perhaps, i'm not famous bec most of the shit presented to me as "great roles i had to take" were the same small shit on offer over and over again. each role screaming ur a victim, ur a sidekick who only speaks ebonics and needs you to find them noble. everything on option for a black woman is sadness, racism and abuse from white people and black men. accepting that and playing out that story over and over again wears your soul down and u start believing that shit.
then i hear my great grandmother's voice from her hospital bed w/her pistol in her house coat pocke asking me to sing "eye on the sparrow" for her. then she grabbed my hand and said:
"whatever happens when i get up out this bed, u make sure u get back on that plane and carry ur ass back to school. cuz all these muhfukhas gone be right here going to jail, having babies and believing these white folks til the end of their days. u know better. u knew better since u were reading those books on the playground. there is more out there for u to take and be. u aint got to ask nobody for nothing. u know who u are, now go get it."
then she let go of my hand and said
" now go to that soda machine and get me my co'cola."
when i came back, she was gone, the nurse was disconnecting her from the machines. i never understood why she was saying that bec i had never lived my life any other way. but she knew i was in acting school and they were going to try and come for me. they were going to try to tell me who the fuck i was and what i was worth. and that's exactly what happened. i entered my MFA acting program knowing i was always going to have to make my way and they were going to spend 3 years teaching me how to be less than i was. so i set goals: master the technique, play the great roles so u master acting and learn how to make your own work cuz these here mofoes ain't got nothing to offer u.
every lesson the industry taught me was to accept roles that were smaller than who i was and be grateful for it. and every little win is going to happen bec u r better prepared than anyone else. u will be always be perceived as the raw, round long-suffering, unattracive darky. no part of me was ever in sync w/this. every time i broke this rule, the kickback was vicious from my white counterparts as if i was taking something from them as opposed to the fact that i worked 5 times harder to get a part. i expected it and told them
"my reality is that i'm not expected to win, so i came in more prepared than u so fuck off."
they never got it or came back years later apologizing about not understanding...fuck that...once a privileged racist, always a privileged racist. i have a mission and it is not to convince u of my worth, journey or struggle. one of the same actresses who said some shady shit to me in school was also the actress who told me that during an acting exercise, she saw a black woman with a crown of two braids wrapped around her head, standing behind me in the chair with a halo of lavender light around her just observing me from behind. she had no idea that was how my grandmother wore her hair in the 40's when she was healing women and teaching them how to use sponges as contraception in her boarding house. that lavender was the color of the powder she kept in listerine bottles to mix healing elixirs for women. lavender was her color for healing and gardenia was her scent. that white actress had no idea my great grandmother was coming back from the grave to school her on how much she did not know about where i come from. i got steps and steps of pistol packing healing brujas standing behind me waving their fists and demanding what's ours. my grandmother wasn't there for me in that moment, she was there to give that white girl a warning.
my great grandmother was right and she was checking in on me to see if i was going to uphold the promise. i don't/didnt have a pistol but i used my intellect, relentless work ethic and vision like a smoking 45. anybody who got in my sights standing between me and my goal was going to get a cap put in their ass. bec i'm working over here w/no wealth, no white skin in a skinny body, a high caribbean forehead and a wide african mouth that was not on order in my industry. i would never be what they wanted, but i would always be greater than what was on offer. my concept of self had nothing to do w/the outside world. i was the sum of the stories of the people who made me who thrived in a world that demanded a permission that my mothers would never give.
April Yvette Thompson