You know that excited feeling you get when you come across an opportunity? When you see an audition, a call for artists, a request for score submissions – I could go on but you get the point. You feel a rush of emotions and little flutters of butterflies. Your eyes light up as you quickly read through the information to make sure you are the ideal candidate…and then you come across something that gives you pause. A moment where you think to yourself, I can still apply and be a good fit, but perhaps I should make space for someone who would be perfect.
A few weeks ago, I came across an announcement for Netflix. It was a call for female writers for an animated series. As a lifetime lover of animation, I was over the moon about the entire project and immediately wanted to apply. The best part was, the show is going to be their first original African animated series. What could be better than that?! Absolutely nothing! So, why did I find myself hesitating? What was it that gave me reason to pause and consider whether or not I am the best candidate? Deciding to put this on the back burner until I could give it more thought, I shared the call and my excitement on social media. Within minutes, a close friend of mine saw my post and commented, “apply!”. Now I had a choice to make, listen to my friend and my initial instinct or use this as a teaching moment and a chance to practice what I believe to be right.
Let’s break this down. The call was for female African writers. In her eyes, and the eyes of many others I’m sure, I fit the bill, right? Not quite…I am female and I am African American, not African – an important nuance many people do not understand. The animation was created by Zambian writer Malenga Mulendema and the show tells the story of four teen girls living in the neo-futuristic African city of Lusaka, Zambia. My ancestors are from Africa, my roots are African, my heritage is African but I do not have a direct personal connection to the continent. My immediate family is from the United States, my closest friends are from America, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. My experiences and traveling adventures have not yet taken me to the motherland. Upon acknowledging this, I decided it would be best to make space for someone who would be a much better fit than myself.
I know that I could do research, visit Zambia, and learn about their customs, however, none of that would equate to someone who has lived there, whose family migrated from there, who regularly visits loved ones – who has lived outside of Africa but grew up in the culture. Thinking through this lens, would my voice be authentic to this show? In my opinion, no. For me, applying would have been similar to the issue of white-washing and colorism we so often discuss in the entertainment industry. How many times have we seen characters whitewashed? Or artists of color who are of a lighter complexion cast in roles that were originally written as dark-skinned characters? Knowing the outrage I felt upon learning that Zoe Saldana (although I am still a fan of her work – don’t judge me) accepted the role of playing Nina Simone, I could not turn around and do the same thing. I am confident there are a plethora of fabulous female African writers who are chomping at the bit for a chance like this and I could not take this opportunity away from them for my own artistic gain.
Instead, I want to call on my creatives of color and ask them to begin taking this important moment of pause. While we are fighting for equity in the arts community, for marginalized voices to be heard, for all cultures to be celebrated – let us not forget to be equitable and fair to one another. When an opportunity arises that you could do, but you know someone else would do better… pass and keep looking forward to your next open door. By empowering one another in this way, we are able to take another step towards putting ourselves at the helm of telling our stories. If light-skinned actresses decline to play Nina Simone and African Americans choose not to apply for a call specifically for African writers, it is another way we can fight for the right artists to tell our stories with authentic voices. Then we are not only opening, but holding open doors of opportunities for those who otherwise may have been shut out.