An introduction to our new pop-culture columnist.
I was still very young when “A Different World,” the “Cosby Show” spin-off about the student body at a fictional historically black university, debuted on NBC. Probably too young to be watching that much TV, at least. In the years that followed, I came to realize that the brilliant and awkward character Dwayne Wayne, embodied by Kadeem Hardison, would become an avatar for boys like me: black, driven, easily distracted, but ultimately good natured.
As I've gotten older and cultivated a language around media representation and tokenism with images like mine, I feared revisiting “A Different World” as an adult would reveal Dwayne to be a respectability icon. A black man, easily digestible because he was harmless, did things the right way and never posed a threat to anyone beyond being the smartest guy in class (which, essentially, is its own threat as well). But that proved not to be the case, as Wayne had some edge to him, probably from the show always seeming to feature him in episodes where racial conflict arose.
Representation may be a buzz word when it comes to casting for TV shows and movies, but it is still very much a trench war that is nowhere near a cease-fire. Media coffers were so devoid of fully fleshed-out roles for people of color for so long that now every inclusion is under a microscope. It's why for years I referred to a show that debuted in the '90s as my personal projection for seeing myself on TV — decades separated from the flip-up glasses and rolled-up sweatshirt stylings of Wayne. It's why black women still wonder when they will get more than five lines of dialogue in a “Star Wars” film. It's why nerds are vexed about Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese character in a beloved anime adaptation.
Even armed with this knowledge, I wasn't prepared for the show “Atlanta,” which sprouted from the mind of Donald Glover and debuted on FX this past year. Surprisingly, I didn't gravitate toward Glover's own Earn, the smart and enigmatic Ivy League dropout. It was Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, Earn's drug-dealing, rapping cousin I found myself enthralled with.
This is, in part, because Brian Tyree Henry may have given the best TV performance of the year in the role, but also because his Alfred was a three-dimensional person, one who didn't always do the right thing but was always the right person. He was written and performed in a way that suggests a black male character could be both conflicted and evolving in his worldviews, and also a little dangerous without being an omnipresent threat.
Alfred is full of heart, navigating what he wanted to be versus what everyone else expected of him. But we shouldn't be seduced by Alfred's likability and gravitational pull; he is akin to the black man who gets killed and painted as “a bad looking dude” afterward. Were he to be shot and killed, his grievers would lament how good of a person he was while the state painted a different picture, providing unsolicited toxicology screenings to the general public before releasing body cam footage.
It's between these characters — the awkward student and the fame-driven hustler — I find myself, a larger-than-average black man searching for how palatable I am to a hungry audience. Is it simply a coincidence that media publications always feature smiling and laughing shots of me? Or is that disarming, suggesting I, too, am safe, despite my appearance, the way the bells atop a jester's hat signal that nothing harmful lurks this way?
It's worthy of interrogation and debate, but the fact remains, the more images that are present and on display, the more recognizable they become when there is no post-production available.
William Evans is the founder and editor of blacknerdproblems.com. Follow him on Twitter at @willevanswrites and on Instagram at @willtotha. In Another Castle is a monthly column that runs the second Thursday of each month.