“Until white folks say you’re successful, you haven’t made it,” Cece blurted out.
We were having lunch not far from Cece’s 30 floor office building on the westside of Manhattan. Cece is an editor of an iconic publication and has been in journalism for over 20 years. Our friendship grew nearly two years after she was introduced to my work. Dark clouds covered the sky as we chatted inside of the noisy restaurant. I wasn’t shocked by her statement as it’s something that has been said many times over by different people in all fields. In the past year alone I’ve had this conversation at various one-on-ones and networking events with writers and editors. The conversation always went something to the effect of: You must have diverse clips so you aren’t pigeonholed. Black publications shouldn’t be your only focus. And yes, mainstream appeal is how you reach ultimate success.
Of course Cece wasn’t saying you aren’t successful if you remain in the “black realm” of your field. But her point was that a specific type of success only came from crossing over. “You have to crossover,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s sad that it is that way, but it is what it is.”
I get it. There’s a difference between Cathy Hughes vs. Oprah. The former’s audience is primarily black America, whereas the latter’s target demographic is middle class white women. One is rich and the other is wealthy. Would Oprah really be Oprah without the “aha” moments, Dr. Phil and making white folks comfortable enough to invite her into their home five days a week for 25 years?
I abhorred this idea that black success wasn’t enough on its own and somehow needed the nod from our less pigmented counterparts. “What about Tyler Perry?” I retorted. “Forbes reported him as the highest paid man in entertainment beating out Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Steven Spielberg.” “A lot of white folks don’t know who Tyler Perry is,” she replied. “And look how he earned that top spot.” “Coonery,” we said in unison. As problematic as Perry’s product is, he did it his way without the initial support of Hollywood. He knew exactly who his audience was and created with them in mind. Even today, he refuses to pander to mainstream.
Look at Queen Latifah, Cece said to further prove her point. Latifah hit the scene in the late 80s as one of the original members of Flavor Unit. In her first single “Ladies First” Latifah is rocking a Nefertiti hat on some real black nationalism and Pan-Africanism. Statues of black power fists are prevalent, as well as screenshots of the map of South Africa accompanied with images of historical black women who’ve made major contributions to our communities, all persist throughout the video. Fast forward nearly two decades where Latifah is a superstar actress. She has a major endorsement with Covergirl. Besides Bringing Down the House she has managed to land quality roles in both black and white movies. Today, you’d be hard pressed to hear her mention anything that could be remotely interpreted as militant. Going mainstream for Latifah has paid off. And trust, white folks know who she is.
Of course it has to be stated that success is based on one’s own definition. For many it has nothing to do with fame or riches. Terry McMillan would be considered successful by most, yet she can walk down the street without paparazzi sticking a camera in her face. Although her books are relatable to many women universally, it is clear who the target audience is. Bob Johnson, a billionaire, created a television network for us, by us (pre-Viacom days). Does it really matter if white folks know his name or say he’s successful?
I overstand assimilation. So many of us desperately desire the approval of white America, whether we’re honest about it or not. I can’t count the number of articles, books, conversations had by blacks where the premise is basically: Look, I’m not like those black people. I have degrees and stuff. I speak proper English. I have a nice condo. I’m not one of them, damnit. I’m just like you, Jake. But are a number of black folks really defining individual success based on if it’s accepted by white America?
If I never get to the point where “white folks know my name,” but the black community is moved and inspired by my work (and supports it with their wallets), I’m cool with that. Making it with the support of a black audience is still making it. And I’ll take black excellence in any form.
“Power to the people. When you see me, see you.” – Jay
*** People underestimate black buying power in this country, which is $9 billion. Mainstream is one way. It is certainly not the only.