Black history, to me, means my Mississippi mother was right after all. She often told me that “Any room you walk into, assume you belong there.”
Ironically, I’m not sure my mother– a domestic, sharecropper, and factory worker for much of her life– ever fully realized that feeling for herself. However, she certainly believed that I, as a Black man raised in urban spaces, had a right to exist, matter, and thrive. She wanted me to know in that unshakeable place that I belonged in any room I entered. I thank her for the gift of that feeling. It is one I seek to pass onto my own children.
I’m also quite sure that Vice-President Kamala Harris’ parents raised her to believe that she belonged to any room that she entered. This is one reason why her recent Vogue cover photo was irritating and offensive to so many. The choice to present the first woman, Black woman, and South Asian to be elected Vice-President of the United States in a photo featuring her in jeans and sneakers remains deeply problematic. The caption to the cover might as well have asked “is it okay if I have this powerful position?” Yet, anyone who has had the chance to observe Harris or has been in a room with her, as I have, can safely tell you– there is nothing apologetic or benign about this history-making figure. Kamala Harris is a formidable woman who knows that she belongs– even if you don’t.
But this flap over the image of VP Harris is instructive. It reminds us of the importance of Black history being centralized in the American narrative. Why? Because I believe Black history is America’s under-acknowledged superpower. It is our north star that bends us towards greater justice for all. Personally, it is a spiritual passport that I carry with me everywhere I go. I do so not so much because I want to, but because I must. If I didn’t endeavor to bring personhood informed by my history with me into every room I enter the sad reality is I wouldn’t have a career in arts and entertainment because I would’ve been convinced long ago that I did not exist. Literally and figuratively.
Twenty-plus years ago I was recently graduated from USC and I was a young, working stage actor who was increasingly auditioning for television and film. And repeatedly being told that I “did not exist” by white casting directors and producers. “You are not from the South Side of Chicago,” I was told over and over again. Anita Dashiell-Sparks, a young, talented Broadway actor and my new bride at the time, was told to her face by the head of an agency that they couldn’t represent her because they believed her too “upscale” to play a “crack ho.” That’s a direct quote. I suppose I THEN seemed like I was from the South Side of Chicago when I rolled up on that agent later that day and asked him why he felt he could talk to this young Black actress that way.
What’s odd is that we recognized that these people were actually trying to compliment us. They were saying that I was too intellectual and comfortable in my own quirky skin to represent what they thought young Black men to be at that time. I could have chosen to be flattered and embrace being exceptionalized — except to do so would confirm the lie of Black stereotypes and kill my soul. It would also have required that I ignore the bulk of Black history and what it teaches all of us every day.
Black history suggests that a career in arts and entertainment can also be an act of resistance and nurturing. Black people were brought to this country to do physical labor until we died. Therefore, I believe that creativity in Black artists is the height of intellectual, cultural, and moral labor, for it harnesses that which we do not see in order to manifest, shift, and make evident the lie of any American history that rests on denying full sentience to my African ancestors.
In conclusion, Black history, to me, means that every word Black creatives and artists write, every nourishing image we produce, every thought and action our work engenders, is doing multi-level work. Yes, it entertains. But it is also striking a blow against the logics and legacies of enslavement and its destructive twin, structural racism.
Anthony Sparks hails from Chicago’s South Side and has worked in television over the last 19 seasons. A strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in television, theater and film, Sparks is in his third season as the Showrunner, Head Writer, and Executive Producer of the critically acclaimed OWN/Warner Bros. Television drama “Queen Sugar.”