The Other Black Girl, Woke, and the Myth of the Carefree Black Person
Do I really want to be a carefree Black girl?
I asked myself this question as I finished The Other Black Girl, a comedy-thriller that explores race, gender, and the workplace. The novel follows protagonist Nella, the only Black person in her elite but low-paying book publishing job, as she struggles to make racial progress in an all-white workplace nestled within a white-centric industry. When the publisher hires Hazel, the “other Black girl” of the title, Nella wonders if progress is on the horizon. But the new hire seems to be vying to replace Nella while, somehow, remaining unfazed by the racial microaggressions and setbacks Nella experiences. Hazel seems, in many ways, to be a carefree Black girl.
I used to think it was possible to be a carefree Black girl. The phrase emerged in popularity a few years ago on Twitter, bringing to mind Black women sipping kombucha, smiling with the wind in their hair, and eat-pray-loving themselves around the world. “Carefree Black girl” was meant to challenge the images of austere, angry, sassy, and world-weary Black women so often present in the media. When many of us heard the term, we thought of Denise from The Cosby Show, Freddie from A Different World, Synclaire from Living Single, and Lynn from Girlfriends,– all women who marched to the beat of their own drums and treated the world as a smorgasbord created for their own tasting.
But a closer look shows that even these fictional women weren’t all that carefree. For one thing, they were problematic. All portrayed by light-skinned women, the characters contrasted with their decidedly less carefree, darker skinned castmates, who were both more likely to be characterized as “sassy” or and to be more concerned with everyday conventional worries like grades, careers, mortgages, and money. The result was the perhaps unintentional suggestion that being “carefree” was the realm of those with lighter skin and a proximity to whiteness.
But even these carefree characters weren’t truly carefree. They were concerned with their Black identity, with race and gender discrimination, with equity and access – particularly as the shows evolved and the characters were allowed to deepen.
Perhaps that’s because a Black person can only seem carefree for so long. Cree Summer, who portrayed Freddie in A Different World, questioned whether being carefree and Black is really even a thing:
I don’t know a single black girl who’s carefree because it ain’t easy being a girl of color, period. God, I wish we were carefree. A lot of political things would have to dramatically change in this planet for a woman of color to be carefree. But I think what they mean by [the phrase “carefree Black girl”] is more of an aware black girl, a conscious black girl. The more conscious you are, maybe the less cares you have and maybe the more cares you have as well—it kind of goes hand in hand…It has something to do with being politically aware of where you stand on this planet and I think it has to do with not accepting the definition that’s been given to you by designing yourself.Cree Summer, who played Freddie in the iconic series A Different World. Quote from Madame Noir.
Summer’s comments ask the question many of us grumbled to ourselves as we looked high and low for carefree Black women in our lives: Can you really be carefree and Black? Can you really travel through life without a care in the world like white ladies in wine movies? And if you do, won’t race come barging in? If not for you when you get passed over for another promotion or when a white person laughingly calls something ghetto right in front of your face, how about when a Black man is murdered by a white police officer for nine minutes or your kid’s Black principal is fired for talking about race? Won’t you cease to be carefree then?
That reality will give you a rude awakening if you attempt to be Black and carefree is a running theme in Woke, the 2020 comedy series that follows protagonist Keef Knight as he shifts his identity from a cartoonist who happens to be Black into a Black cartoonist after being assaulted by a white police officer in a case of racial profiling and mistaken identity. Throughout the series, Keef struggles to come to terms with the fact that he, as a Black man, is under constant threat of aggressions both micro and macro. He also grapples with the responsibility he feels to atone for his past of being an unconcerned Black man.
One simply cannot be carefree and Black and alive, both Woke and The Other Black Girl seem to warn. If you are Black, racial discrimination is part of your reality whether you like it or not. You may free yourself of white supremacist messaging, but you will never fail to see and feel its constraints on yourself and others.
Would I have it any other way?
I kept coming back to this question as I read The Other Black Girl (spoilers ahead). When Nella is confronted with the opportunity to become more carefree by becoming less aware of her Blackness and the discrimination she experiences, she wonders what it might be like to feel unfazed by microaggressions and a daily barrage of anti-Blackness. She wonders what it might feel like to be carefree.
I wonder too. I wonder if it is possible to go on a writer’s retreat, wear Birkenstocks and gauzy dresses, and laugh over a wine glass. I wonder if it is possible to see a border agent on horseback brandishing a rein above a Haitian asylum seeker and not both feel sorrow and a keen awareness of how having black or brown skin makes your existence incredibly precarious in this country. I wonder what it is like to look at people experiencing discrimination without a needling sense that my struggle is bound with theirs, too. I wonder who I would be if these things didn’t bother me anymore.
As Cree Summer said, shuffling off the mortal coil of white supremacist thinking just means you pull on another set of worries about how prevalent inequity is. The trick, if there is one, is to not become overwhelmed by this reality, but to allow ourselves as Black people to experience joy and rest even as we work toward a world that is fairer, safer, and more compassionate.
It’s not quite Black and carefree, but it may be as close as we’re going to get.