Stop Calling Art ‘Unapologetically Black’

The phrase falls short of describing what has made some of 2016’s best TV, film, and music so dynamic.

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Complex Original

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American pop culture is still very white. CBS, for example, is so white that it gave Kevin James another sitcom. Friends, perhaps America's most beloved sitcom, was so white that it ran for 10 seasons without one major character of color—a show based in New York City, mind you. And don't get me started on the Oscars and Grammys. But because whiteness is assumed neutral and everything else marginal, American pop culture products are rarely called out for what they are: unapologetically white. The phrase “unapologetically black” is everywhere, however.

"How well are we engaging works of art by black creators and about the black experience if we’re threading their various components and dimensions through one narrow buzz term?"

Unapologetic blackness is a useful concept. It speaks to just how pathologically anti-black America is and the extent to which embracing blackness is a rebellious act in our society.  A Seat at the Table, Luke Cage, and Insecure are all "unapologetically black” and that’s important to call out. The term falls short, however, as critique of those complex pieces of art and is, frankly, starting to border on cliché.

The sentiment has existed as early as Langston Hughes’s writing days ("Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro—and beautiful") but “unapologetically black” has become something of a go-to phrase in this era of Black Lives Matter wherein a stream of ambitious works of art have reasserted the richness and beauty of black culture. The phrase has been used to describe Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and the recently departed Nightly Show. More recently, it has been applied to Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Solange Knowles’s A Seat at the Table, Marvel’s Luke Cage, and Issa Rae’s Insecure.

Yes, Luke Cage is unapologetically black, but that phrase doesn’t help describe the way the show pays homage to the blaxploitation genre. It also offers nothing to the beautifully layered background vocals throughout A Seat at the Table and Atlanta’s naturalism. “Unapologetically black” fails to account for Lemonade’s Southern Gothic aesthetic and womanist themes.

How well are we engaging works of art by black creators and about the black experience if we’re threading their various components and dimensions through one narrow buzz term?

"In fact, from some To Pimp a Butterfly think-pieces to the Insecure press train, 'unapologetically black' has essentially been used to say, 'Here is this very black thing of note.'"

Indeed, reviews that lean on a work’s blackness rarely rise to the level of legitimate critique. Instead, they usually amount to perfunctory shoutouts to the Black Lives Matter zeitgeist that exists in America today. In fact, from some To Pimp a Butterfly think-pieces to the Insecure press train, “unapologetically black” has essentially been used to say, “Here is this very black thing of note.”

To be sure, there’s a place for “unapologetically black” in critique. Art made by black people and about the black experience are, indeed, impossible to consider without also considering black culture and political thought. Writer Michael Arceneaux pointed to this fact in his review of A Seat at the Table.

“The term is better for something like ASATT, because on this album, Solange centers Black people, Black feelings, and Black culture,” Arceneaux writes.

Indeed, and it could also be argued that A Seat at the Table’s blackness extends beyond the stories it tells to its sound—Knowles's use of black vocal styling and Funk, Neo Soul, and 90s R&B production. A single term can’t adequately capture those dynamics, however, especially not one as overused as “unapologetically black.”

The nation is currently in a movement moment fueled by unapologetic black consciousness. Black artists are responding to this moment with multifaceted and, in many cases, innovative work that explores the black experiences and modes of black expression. Given that, “unapologetically black” as a descriptor isn’t necessarily inaccurate; it’s just remarkably incomplete. 

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