A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Pan-African Pulp exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Arts. This part of the museum showcases art by Meleko Mogosi, a South African painter. Now, his art was nowhere near mediocre. Each piece revealed a different layer of the nuanced topic that is the black experience. Some parts of the exhibit paid tribute to a magazine comic that shed light on the different oppressions that were common across Africa. Another showcased the many black women who have contributed to the progression of the Pan-African movement. Seeing the history and culture of my people depicted so intricately and colorfully caused me to stand in awe. As I continued to take in my surroundings though, the tour guide pointed out one piece of the exhibit that she didn’t give the same in depth analyzation of.
This picture piece (part of which is pictured above) was, in my opinion, almost like multiple paintings in one. One part of the picture portrayed two men wrestling while two others watched. Though I admired the artistic skill needed to draw the detail in their muscles, the connection that these fighting men had to the larger idea of the black struggle wasn’t clear to me initially. Apparently I wasn’t the only one because someone else asked the tour guide for an interpretation. The guide responded with, “I’m not sure, I think it just represents ritual spectator sport, maybe it’s a ritual in certain parts of the continent.” Some might have been underwhelmed by this answer, but I was personally intrigued. This simplistic interpretation of this part of the painting highlighted something that is missing from mainstream visual art – black people just living their lives.
As I reflected on this, I realized that this same sentiment also translates to Black representation in media and film. In the same way in which we are regularly exposed to romantic comedies, fairytale dramas, and action movies starring other races of people, we do not get that same variety when it comes to movies with a predominantly Black cast. Most of the recent movies that have a noticeable Black presence are stories about the struggles of being Black.
When I approached the tour guide after the presentation was over, we talked more about the partial simplicity of this piece. We agreed that while stories about the Black experience still need to be told, it is still frustrating to only be able to see Black people on the screen when we’re “performing our race” and racial traumas for other people’s entertainment. There needs to be a balance. A balance between Black struggles and Black smiles, a reminder to everyone that we don’t always have to be a superhero to be worth the time of day. A sentiment that goes far beyond Hollywood.
In a world that still tells us that we have to be twice as good to get half as much, it would be nice if Hollywood didn’t reiterate the same message. The tour guide told me that contemporary discourse calls the need for more regular depiction of Black people as “the need for more Black mediocrity.”
Though the plethora of recent movies about people of my race overcoming struggles has immensely fueled my sense of hope, I think that we’ll never truly be at a point of holistic, all-encompassing Black representation until we are able to normalize “black mediocrity” depicted in black art.