The Exhausting, Endless Black Trauma-Art Feedback Loop
Learning to opt out of creating art that perpetuates depoliticized Black trauma narratives
Ekemini Ekpo (she/her) is a Nigerian-American actor/singer/song-writer/former Twitter fiend. She also writes on occasion. For more, check out her website, her Medium, or her IG: @e.u.ekpo
We love to see artists in pain.
I think when this idea is framed so bluntly, it becomes really difficult to acknowledge the sadistic relationship that art consumers have with art makers. But upon further interrogation, we might admit that we all kinda believe that the best art comes from the emotionally tortured. Many of the traits we vilify in “regular people,” such as substance abuse and mental illness, we venerate in artists. At best, these eccentricities become part of their mystique; at worst, we retcon them into integral elements of their creative genius. When I think of this phenomenon, visionaries such as Basquiat, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Robin Williams come to mind.
As a theater-maker myself, the formula seems simple, albeit masochistic: pain + artistic talent = a career. And my depression and anxiety present a deep well of unfortunate feelings and circumstances to pull from. But when I remember that I'm Black, what seemed like simple addition starts to look like a delicate calculus.
On one hand, pain sells. On the other hand, threats to the status quo do not. And much of the heartaches that I have experienced in life were a direct downstream consequence of being Black in an anti-Black world. To add insult to injury, as a Black woman, my pain, both physical and emotional, is easily delegitimized.
In general, the extent to which artistic expressions of Black pain or suffering are tolerated is directly tied to the ease with which that art can be incorporated or co-opted to serve various mythologies. Even art that ostensibly critiques American racism must have the potential to legitimize American racial capitalism. Take for instance Nina Simone’s rendition of Feeling Good, acknowledged as an anthem for Black female emancipation, and its repeated use in commercials, including an advertisement for a new Kardashian TV show.
Despite the fact that we (Black people) are not (no longer) commodities in the strictest, most literal sense, we (Black artists) are compelled to commodify our traumas in ways that legitimize the very structures that oppress us.
“The number one rule about making art about racism is that you must always obscure the true sources of the problem.”
Now, not all Black art is struggle art; not even close. Just off top, the TV shows Insecure and Pose emerge as significant examples of art that does not rely on Black trauma. But to focus on Pose for a moment, despite its wealth of masterful performances and nuanced view of what it meant to be an LGBTQ person of color in the 1980s, the show was continuously under-acknowledged when it came to industry awards. Oftentimes, the feel-good movie about racism is the easier sell. You Can’t Stop The Beat, after all.
So how do we produce struggle art that sells? Class is in session, folks.
The number one rule about making art about racism is that you must always obscure the true sources of the problem. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but some of the greatest hits include: the White Savior, the One Who's Not Like the Others, and the Inexplicably Violent Radical.
Probably the most common way to make money making art about Black pain is through the lens of the White Savior. The trope posits that because Black people cannot free ourselves, we must rely on white benevolence to experience anything that even gestures towards liberation. It presupposes that everyone in the world can be neatly placed into buckets of "good" and "bad." And it allows individuals to avoid considering their similarities to the Bad People in favor of projecting themselves onto the Good People, therefore avoiding self-reflection. What's more, this trope suggests that the system is simply and solely the people who constitute it, and if we all are just nicer, then racism will end. Some media that falls into this trap? The Blind Side. 12 Years a Slave. Glory. Green Book. The Help. And that's just off the dome.
Arguably, the One Who's Not Like the Others is the Black counterpart to the White Savior. They are the Black character who succeeds where others fail. Because they are special. Maybe they're intellectual savants or athletic feats of nature. And instead of considering how the odds could be so stacked that only a genius could possibly succeed, the once-in-a-generation talent is held up as a legitimate ideal to aspire to. The Blind Side fits here, as does Hidden Figures.
The Strong Black Woman is arguably a sub-trope of the above, with an extra splash of “mammy.” This trope is characterized by the ideals of, “independence, emotional restraint, and self-sacrifice” in the interest of defending oneself or others against the world. This trope not only robs Black women of full humanity but reifies our perception of Black women as perennial caretakers. And for this reason, it is particularly insidious. Take, for instance, the musical Caroline, or Change. Caroline is an emotionally stunted maid to a white, middle-class Louisiana family. When a conflict over money that was hers to keep comes to a head, she prays for God to remove her Earthly desires then continues to work in a job that forces her to raise her own children in absentia.
Finally, the premise of the Inexplicably Violent Radical is simple: delegitimize a legitimate political position by locating it within a character that nobody can actually get behind. In recent memory, perhaps no character fits the bill more completely than antagonist Erik Kilmonger of the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther. Kilmonger's endgame (excuse my pun) was the cessation of anti-Black oppression worldwide. He rightfully questioned why Wakanda stood idly by as Black people the world over were subjected to all sorts of violence and harm.
But because his ends would necessitate (from the audience) an interrogation of the long-term impacts of colonialism, both with respect to the relationship Black people have with non-Black people and those which Black people have with one another, we had to make his means as messed up as humanly possible. Kilmonger comes in hot from the very beginning and never cools off: he murders his girlfriend in service of a double-cross, he callously discards ancient Wakandan traditions, and murdering children is part of his game-plan for Black liberation. By the end of the film, anything useful he may have had to say about pan-Africanism and principled struggle against colonialism and imperialism is overshadowed by sociopathic rage and violence.
“We are incentivized to package that pain in ways that do not endanger the status quo.”
The qualities of the work that tends to get elevated suggests that Black artists are trapped in the Black Artist Feedback Loop. Like anyone else, we experience pain and trauma moving through the world. And as artists, we are expected to recall, reproduce, and repackage that pain in the form of some sort of artistic expression, both for financial solvency and recognition of craft. But because we are Black, these traumas are often racialized. And because we are Black and subject to the bevy of stereotypes, ranging from invulnerable to inhuman, these traumas are rarely recognized. As a result, we are incentivized to package that pain in ways that do not endanger the status quo, namely this particular brand of American racial capitalism. And when we opt-in, we are helping to legitimize the very system that traumatized us in the first place.
I can only speak for myself. And as myself, even the notion of this self-perpetuating cycle is exhausting. Being an artist is already hard. It's stressful. It's expensive. You are constantly battling rejection. And when you receive an elusive "yes," it is almost always accompanied by the caveat that you should never complain or assert yourself because you should just be happy to have been invited. Considering how all these stressors are only further compounded by my race is bleak.
But as long as we are making art under capitalism, these are the pressures that Black artists will experience. And for me, the idea of not making art-making a centerpiece in my life only invokes feelings of dread. So now what?
“The problem was that I didn't try to write because I had something to say. I told myself to write out of my pain because I thought that was the best way to propel myself forward as a Black creative.”
About a year ago, I was experiencing a major depressive episode. I was walking around as though I had emerged from a Zoloft commercial (namely, the first ten to fifteen seconds, before the cartoon rock is freed from the rainy cloud hanging over their head). I was an even-earlier early-career theater-maker than I am right now. And given that I was somewhat marooned in my largely non-theatrical hometown due to Covid, I felt like I needed a way to convert the angst I was experiencing into artistic capital that could help launch my career.
So, I tried to write a play. The problem was that I didn't try to write because I had something to say. I told myself to write out of my pain because I thought that was the best way to propel myself forward as a Black creative. I only wrote a scene.
Around the same time, I picked up songwriting. I came to that artistic practice as a way of expressing my feelings in my own words. I often did not have to find myself searching for something to sing; I could be doing anything and then a melody might appear in my head. And unlike the play, which was fundamentally a capitalistically-driven enterprise, I wrote these songs imagining that they might never see the light of day. Knowing that I was only creating for myself made it easy to to express these feelings that I would keep hidden away in all other circumstances. I still write music now.
I know that we can't all just start plunking out chords on a Yamaha and everything will be fine. But we operate in an industry that is constantly asking us to give everything to our art, and often rewards us for doing so. We are moving through an industry where the parameters for presenting Black pain are narrow. But despite all this, in service of our safety and our artistry, we must keep some of ourselves for ourselves. We have to find ways to opt-out.