Who is arts journalism for?

From Dragon Ball Z’ to Us’ to the newsroom: Finding my place as a Black writer

6 minute read
A maker of "Black art"? Jordan Peele, director of 'Us,' at SXSW 2019. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
A maker of "Black art"? Jordan Peele, director of 'Us,' at SXSW 2019. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

A few weeks ago, comedian Kev On Stage posted a viral tweet: “Do white people have classic movies that if you don’t see them other white people take your white card?” Curious, I reposted the question on my Instagram and got quite a few responses.

It was an interesting experiment: folks listed many movies as necessary “white card” viewing, but as a Black person, I’ve also gotten surprised responses from people who learn I haven’t seen any of those films. Oh, you haven’t seen The Big Lebowski? You’d love it! Maybe I would, but essentialism is a weird thing for me, and it has so much to do with the kinds of conversations I’ve had (or haven’t had) around art.

Coming to life

I’m picky about the pop culture I indulge in. People raise an eyebrow with surprise when I tell them I’m not into either Marvel or DC. Sure, I loved the X-Men cartoon back in the ‘90s and was as avid a reader of the Uncanny X-Men comics as one could be back then, when there was no Internet and the only comic book shops were downtown or in University City—two places I didn’t venture out to much (and still don’t).

I liked that Magneto and Professor X were allusions to MLK and Malcolm X. My favorite characters were Storm, Psylocke, and Jubilee—three women of color. I was often alone in that sentiment until I got older. I didn’t get to talk about the X-Men (X-Women?) that I really cared about, and I didn’t get to work out why I liked them so much.

Soon after my Instagram conversation, I was at a good friend’s birthday party and found myself in a room full of strangers and distant acquaintances. I’m an introvert, so small talk is a challenge for me. Especially when it’s a lot of people in the room, it’s noisy, and it’s hot and humid? It was quickly becoming a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.

Until someone mentioned Dragon Ball Z. And that’s when the room came to life. Seeing a diverse group of folks bond over a Japanese anime was heartwarming, and I felt something that I so rarely get to feel around other people: at home.

Let’s talk about art, baby

Many of the conversations I have with people are around art. Let’s be real, I’m a simple dude. All I ever want to talk about is books, music, anime, and video games, and I can go on for hours in discussions about writing, narrative, and storytelling. Unfortunately, it’s not something I can indulge in as often as I’d like, and even though I can also read about these things, I’ve long felt that my relationship with pop culture, media, and art have lacked something. It took me years to realize that I just wasn’t finding voices like my own represented in arts journalism. When that clicked, I actually found myself becoming more reclusive about my interests and my perspectives.

Arts journalism needs more diverse voices. There aren’t enough people of color, not enough women and nonbinary and LGBTQ folks and others, at the forefront of arts journalism.

In a survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) in 2016, in 737 news organizations, people belonging to racial minorities made up about 16 percent of the daily print workforce, and 23 percent of the online-only publication workforce. Eighty-seven percent of all newsroom staff leaders were white. Among the small group of minority leaders in the newsroom, 22 percent were Black. Look to newsrooms’ top three leadership positions, and the numbers of minority folks remained very small.

The numbers are going up. I’m living proof of that. But that doesn’t mean we can stop advocating for diversity in arts journalism.

On my podcast, I talked with my cousin, filmmaker Jesse Torres, about how ‘Dragon Ball Z’ informed our identities as artists and as family. (Image by Jesse Torres.)
On my podcast, I talked with my cousin, filmmaker Jesse Torres, about how ‘Dragon Ball Z’ informed our identities as artists and as family. (Image by Jesse Torres.)

The story about Us

When I saw Jordan Peele’s Us, I was obsessed with it. I still am. It clings to me in ways that few films do. I get that with one movie a year, if I’m lucky. I even did a whole episode of my podcast about it. But when I was doing my research for the episode, and then again for this essay, the discourse I found was dominated mostly by white men, and many of the articles focused wholly or in part on Us as a Black film. Or writers compared it to Peele’s 2017 Get Out and its themes on race. One subheader even read: “In Jordan Peele’s first movie, he took aim at white liberals. In his follow-up, no American is safe.”

This is the part where you insert three or four facepalm emojis.

For non-POC, Us and films and art like it are called Black art because they’re made by and center Black people. There are certainly nuances that separate Black characters from others, and those are the things that I can pick up on more than others—just like the nuances of a film like Coco and its representation of Mexican culture are going to fly right by non-Latinx viewers and reviewers, including me. And it’s little things, like noticing the intention behind a character’s chancletas, that elevate those nuances.

Digging deep

Sometimes things get really dark, like when T’Challa has to slay his cousin Killmonger in Black Panther or how Luke has to kill his adopted brother Stryker in Luke Cage. How are white reviewers going to handle the quandary of that message?

You know, the one about how Black Panther and Luke Cage can be seen as advocating the ill-informed discourse on Black-on-Black violence—which is brought up most often by white people?

I picked up on that because of a review written by a Black person. A review I had to find linked in another essay about arts journalism. Finding anything by a nonwhite writer about Us, Black Panther, Luke Cage, Coco, or many others means you’re going to be digging deep into the Google search results.

All it takes

At that party’s talk about Dragon Ball Z, I kept thinking about an essay I read by Gita Jackson at Kotaku. She wrote about the Black experience, particularly for Black boys and men, and their love for Dragon Ball Z. I’d never thought to put into words why that Japanese anime was so important to me, and how it helped form my perceptions of brotherhood and familial love, while also being vital in cultivating new and stronger relationships with other Black men and men of color. But when I read Jackson’s piece, it made perfect sense. When I got to interview the voice actors of Dragon Ball Z at New York Comic Con last year, I wasn’t the only Black journalist at the roundtables. That was huge for me.

For a long time, I’ve wondered about my place in journalism. It’s one thing to talk about these things with the homies on those summer days in your friend’s backyard. It’s another thing to write thorough discourse on a platform, and share and interact with others’ ideas on other platforms. It’s important for arts journalism written by diverse people to be more visible. There are readers out there who are at odds with their identity and their sense of place. All it takes is that one essay that puts one of your favorite works of art into perspective that can shift the way you engage with the art itself, its audience, the people in your life, and most importantly, with yourself.

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