I’ve always had difficulty understanding where I fit in Black History Month. What do I represent? What communities do I belong to? And are they reflected in the narrative of the celebration? I think about the many unsung Black women who’ve paved the way throughout history, like Pauli Murray who spoke up for civil rights and the rights of Black queer women specifically. The truth is that only recently have Black women been given the space to be seen, heard and valued, which is why it’s now more important than ever to celebrate the fullness of what it means to be a Black woman.
A huge part of my struggle to own and reconcile my identity as a Black woman stemmed from how I saw myself through theater, TV, and movies. I grew up in a predominantly white household where I consumed all the classic films of my generation: Disney animated movies like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron rom-coms, and, of course, “Harry Potter.” Of all the things that I watched, the clearest and most diverse representation came from animated films. It wasn’t until “The Princess and the Frog” that we got a Black Disney princess, and even then, this wonderful character spends most of the movie in the body of a frog. I remember thinking as a young girl: “We are full, realized people with stories to tell!” I asked myself, “Can beautiful Black and brown women be portrayed on screen as ourselves or must we appear in animal form? Are we allowed to be something besides the sassy best friend? Are our stories not as worthwhile?” We’re having more conversations nowadays about representation and harmful stereotypes in entertainment, but as a kid, all I had were my questions.
When I discovered Debbie Allen and Vanessa Williams, things really started to change for me. Not only were they Black women who played iconic, fully realized characters in which I could see many parts of myself, but they were also true performers in every sense of the word — singing, acting, and dancing — something I, at the time, could only dream of doing professionally. Vanessa’s movie “Dance with Me” particularly resonated. Her character Ruby Sinclair was a single parent, like my mother. Her son was biracial and probably would have been deemed Afro-Latino today. When I saw that film, I truly saw myself in a way I hadn’t been able to see myself onscreen before.
This type of representation meant more to me than I could have known. It helped me uncover parts of my identity as a Black woman that I hadn’t fully explored. It would take me even longer to recognize that I could be both Black and Latina at the same time, something that I’m still searching for in TV and film to this day. But it is something that I am proud to embody. You’d be hard pressed to find five leading or supporting roles, fully realized characters, that can be identified as Afro-Latina. If I’m honest, my Anita is the first character that I’ve seen onscreen that I, Ariana DeBose, can relate to in her entirety.
If only I had fully understood as a little girl that all of these beautiful shades of Black and brown that are represented in the rainbow inclusivity of the Black diaspora are ALL part of the mosaic of Blackness. There’s not one way to be Black or Latina. In my adulthood, I have begun to understand that no matter how much melanin is in your skin, Black is Black. It’s the thing that ties us together and creates community.
So, during this month of Black History, I look to celebrate our unsung heroes, the Black women who didn’t get the opportunity to be heard or heard in the fullness of all that they had to say. I also honor that we are taking steps in the right direction — Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, I speak your name as a trans, Black Latina. It’s thrilling to see her work celebrated and it is my hope that she will not be the last. Black History Month is a celebration of diversity, of multi-dimensionality and of infinite possibility.
Ariana DeBose is an actor, singer and dancer whose stage and screen resume includes “Hamilton,” “The Prom” “Schmigadoon!” “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” and “West Side Story,” for which she’s been nominated for numerous honors and won the Golden Globe award for best supporting actress.
Throughout the month of February, Variety will publish essays from prominent Black artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of Black entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.