Thursday, September 8, 2011


As a literary historian and cultural critic committed to understanding how targeted communities survive racial violence, my work seldom focuses on comedy. But, of course, humor has been important for the survival of those grappling with colonialism, slavery, and their many legacies. Without making claims about its ties to these larger historical trajectories, I want to make a declaration: The Mis-adventures of Awkward Black Girl, a comedy series available on YouTube, is one of the few things that has made me laugh out loud in a long time.

What I find most brilliant about this show is its refusal to invest in any sort of propriety. Yet, it is not driven by the cliché premise of Oh, look. I’m being shocking and irreverent! Instead, the web series simply explores everything that its protagonist, J (portrayed by the show’s creator Issa Rae), would find vexing. In the process, hilarity emerges from sheer honesty. J asks questions that many of us have wanted to ask. For example, “What’s the protocol for repeatedly running into someone at a stop sign? (Episode 1). And, “How many fake laughs are acceptable before it becomes too much?” (Episode 1). Or, when unable to escape an annoying conversation, “Did I die and go to simple bitch hell?” (Episode 6).

The refusal to invest in propriety strikes a chord because it enables the show to represent a black woman protagonist with much more complexity than mainstream outlets allow. Perhaps the best example is that which opens the series: J’s voice-over introduces her character, and we quickly find that she enjoys violent rap songs saturated with Ns and Bs. She asks, “Am I the only one who pretends I’m in a music video when I’m by myself?,” and we find her driving while performing along with a song about Ns wanting to sex her from behind (Episode 1). Clearly, this character’s portrayal is not going to be governed by whether or not this is a “positive” image of a black woman.

The music only gets worse—in every way—when J is responsible for its creation! As a coping mechanism, she composes violent rap lyrics. She despises one of her co-workers, and her songs reveal what she would like to do to this woman. No need for viewers to be concerned, though. As J explains, “it’s not violence if you don’t act on it” (Episode 6).

Because the writing focuses on the truth of J’s character, the episodes are all about situations that she finds awkward, and her workplace proves to be a treasure trove. Once again, J’s voice-over offers much of the comedy; her tone is very matter-of-fact, giving the impression that she is simply making observations. J describes the company she works for: “Basically, we sell bulimia in pill form” (Episode 2). Among her co-workers is “The Loud Black Bitch.” Though we only briefly encounter this character, her disregard for others encourages viewers to accept the description. The show is not so scared of a stereotype that it avoids suggesting that a few such people might exist. But, one of my favorite characters is “Boss Lady,” the white woman supervisor who loves to bond with J by speaking slang, wearing her hair in cornrows, and talking about her attraction to black men. Then, of course, there is Amir, the “walking rainbow of racism” who gets away with it “because no one knows what he is” (Episode 3).

The show engages interracial dating in Episode 7, and J’s new best friend (her awkward soulmate, Cece) declares herself “an interracial expert” and gives J horrible advice. Still, non-verbal communication is the most amusing element of this episode. For example, when J and her white date walk into a restaurant, they draw lots of stares. As the camera scans the room, a black man with his arm around his white girlfriend shakes his head and rolls his eyes. There is no voice-over commentary, no additional dialogue to underscore it—just the facial expression and clear message of the gesture. Beautiful! The well executed acting creates a moment that instantly brings to mind every conversation I have had about the frequency with which black men date white women and the very different reactions inspired when black women consider exploring similar options.

This first date with a white man does not go so well, partly because he takes J to a spoken word showcase. Again, we see evidence that this comedy series will not be governed by what “should” or “should not” be said. Via voice-over, J declares, “Rap and poetry had a baby called Spoken Word. I wish I could abort that baby.” And later, “God invented liquor because He foresaw spoken word. Praise Him!” (Episode 7). J’s disdain for the form is not a blanket statement. It has everything to do with the quality of work in this particular showcase—a fact that is undeniable as the episode features some of the performed pieces in their entirety.

You must see the short episodes on YouTube for yourself because there is no way to capture the show’s genius here. There have already been insightful articulations of why people love the series so much that viewers contributed more than $44K to ensure that Episode 7 would not be the last one. I simply wanted to add that the show’s “improper” elements are crucial because they enable a nuanced portrait of the protagonist. This works so well because the truth about people of color is that we are complex and often contradictory, despite the mainstream media’s centuries-long habit of portraying us in narrow and simplistic ways.

These complexities can come through when we can free ourselves, even momentarily, from a bias toward perfection. This is difficult, I know. After all, those whom U.S. society marginalizes are constantly told that propriety is the ticket to social acceptance and full citizenship. Thus, people who are homosexual, of color, and/or poor are taught to invest in standards of propriety and morality that privileged folk can disregard without losing acceptance or basic rights. No wonder we so rarely encounter characters—who are not white, heterosexual, and middle-class—that are allowed to simply be themselves and experience life, whether what they do, think, and say is admirable or not.

When I see J, I am thoroughly amused for more reasons than I can name, but I know that the show’s tendency to avoid shoulds and should nots is at the top of the list. Though I understand the investment in propriety, we need more artists who will let their characters of color have their complete experiences and all of their messy behavior and quirky thoughts. Too often, our stories are all about moralizing, as if there is no room for anything else—as if black communities (especially) are so lost that everything that engages black characters must also come with a guidebook for living. That's not the case. Despite mainstream depictions (including those on the news), we have plenty of strong families in the community that fit the traditional mold. And, we have some that don't fit the traditional mold but are still quite nurturing and full of role models. Healthy, loving families headed by gays and lesbians constitute just one of many examples.

So, I don't believe that every bit of artistic expression involving folk who are not white and/or heterosexual and/or solidly middle-class must offer life lessons. Some can just make us laugh out loud, which The Mis-adventures of Awkward Black Girl does exceptionally well.