Allow me to share a BougieTale from Wednesday afternoon:
Michele Grant sits on a conference call with her agent (a self-described Jewish New Yorker) and two representatives from a west coast film production company. They are interested in optioning my book for a film. The problem is we want to keep the integrity of the story; otherwise we could just sell the option, take the money and run. But very rarely are first-time unknown authors giving the opportunity to stay involved. Now I still may take the money and sprint but first we thought we'd try to see if we could keep a little artistic control. We have met with two other companies. This is our third of five meetings and we are hearing the exact same thing. So much so that my agent and I are on Yahoo Messenger keeping each other sane. Here is the latest:
Them: "Your storyline is compelling but your heroine is ethnically ambiguous."
My Agent: "I beg your pardon?"
Them: "We mean… we know she's black… African-American… but she doesn't really act like it."
Me (thinking Oh Really Now?): "I see."
Them: "And your hero, can he be a little more blue collar?"
Me (thinking for the last time – He's an ARCHITECT): "umm, er-"
Them: "And then we'd like you add in some scenes that are more colorful."
Them: "Less mainstream. Something more suit to a wider Black audience."
Me: "I'm sure I don't know what you mean." [I knew exactly what they meant but I just wanted them to say it.]
Them: "Well you have a barbecue scene and a night club scene and a church scene – those are great but maybe you could expand those and have more quintessential ethnic moments?"
My agent (affronted): "Quintessential ethnic moments?"
Them: "We're just going to speak plainly and we don't want you to take offense. Okay?"
Me (already offended but resigned): "Sure, go ahead."
Them: "It's almost mainstream enough to crossover but your best idea is to appeal to a black base. And right now, it's just not black enough."
Me (slowly through gritted teeth): "Not. Black. Enough. I see."
Agent: "Thank you guys, I don't think it's a fit."
Them: "Well but-"
My agent started apologizing to me, I cut her off. I told her it was the story of my life. Just black enough to be considered black, but quite black enough… whatever the hell that means.
Later, as I recounted the story to a friend of mine, she got angry. She told a story about going out on a sales call with her manager. She was flattered and surprised to be asked since she was the junior sales executive and new to the company. As they drove towards the sales visit, she realized that they were heading to a black part of town. She began to wonder if this was why she was chosen to attend. Her suspicions were affirmed when he turned to her as they pulled up and said, "Hey, I'm going to let you take the lead on this one. But do you think you could "black it up" a little in there? You come across kinda white bread sometimes. You know, drop your g's some, get loose." [say it with me now... LASER-BEAM SIDE-EYE]
She said two things stopped her from going off – she was in the middle of a neighborhood she knew nothing about and she needed the job. But after winning the account, she waited a few days and then sent an email detailing the incident word for word and cc'd his supervisors and Human Resources. She dropped in words like "tokenism" and "emotional distress." Shortly thereafter her supervisor was transferred but she got the stigma of being "a troublemaker" (read Uppity Negro) and it stayed with her until she left the company three months later.
Le Sigh people. It's 2010. Do we really need to tell people that euphemisms like "colorful" and "ethnic" are not a very well-disguised? Do we really still need to give someone the side-eye for using a term like "black it up"? Diggity-damn, do I really need to prove my "blackness" to sell a script? Just what the feazy is "quintessential ethnicity" anyway? Let me dig around in the stereotype files.
Ah here we go: Should my characters enter each scene carrying some form of cooked chicken parts? Should they discuss weaves vs. natural hair at the drop of a hat? Should I go into more details about rims and chains? Should I have one character who adds, "Know what I'm sayin'?" to the end of every sentence? Should I place a scene in a check-cashing store, barbershop, or nail salon? Should someone be an aspiring rapper/professional athlete at the age of 35? Should I make sure someone has a black velvet picture of Malcolm X, MLK, Biggie and Tupac with angels' wings hanging up in the living room? Should a fight break out over blue Koolaid? Is that blackity-black enough?
Okay, I've vented. Moving on. But I'll say this one thing: Obama is in the White House but we are still generations away from true post-racism.
Hmm, that was a kind of white bread closing to this post, let me "black it up" a little: We still 50-cent short of a dolla dolla bill, ya'll. Ain't that right, BougieLand? Ya'll keep it real and greasy fo' sheezy, ya dig! Holla at cha girl! I'm out. Deuces, truces and nan-mo excuses! Peace! [drops mic and exits, stage left]
But that did get me to thinking - just how black am I? I came up with a completely offensive quiz full of our worst stereotypes. Please take it in the super-snarky spirit in which I created it:
Thoughts? Comments? Similar experiences?