Tanita Davis, what do you imagine for Black girls?
“Diahann Carroll,” my mother murmured, her voice giving the name capital letters and italics, “Diahann Carroll was the first one who we really saw.”
I heard a litany of other names – Juanita Moore, Ethel Waters, Cicely Tyson, with whom I share a differently spelled middle name. But it was Diahann Carroll who was the big name that my mother brought up repeatedly when I was a kid, because it was Ms. Carroll who was the first to focus my mother on seeing and being seen as a Black woman.
Running from 1968-1971, Julia was the first network television sitcom depicting a Black woman in a non-stereotypical role. Not a mammy nor a maid but a nurse, navigating widowhood, single parenthood, and workplace politics, Diahann Carroll was the portrait of a lady; rarely flustered, smoothly elegant and successful.
Until I saw the show on TVLand decades after its final season, I wasn’t quite sure what the italics were about. Sure, the actress was pretty, and the historical aspect was nice, but I discovered the real draw was the relationships she depicted as Julia Baker: with her son, her neighbor, her employer and her patients. Julia’s son and his best friend Earl were silly and marginally disobedient – just like regular six-year-olds. Her neighbor was wacky and forgetful – a 60’s stock character. Her boss was irascible and grumpy and sexist – also a stock character. Diahann Carroll wore nice heels and dresses, just like Donna Reed, or Carol Brady. Her hair was coiffed, her lashes lush, and there was little, if anything, exciting or ground-breaking about the show. It was just a Black lady, acting …like a person…
…which was, in itself, groundbreaking.
Diahann Carroll was the one who helped my mother see that Black women were, and could be, just like anybody. The media message, though short-lived, was clear: Black women could step up and take their places in the working world, briskly navigate interpersonal relationships, dating, and parenthood, and come out on top.
“There is possibility in “average.” There is room there, to be unsure or challenged, afraid or confused, timid, or lonely.”
In subsequent generations, the same message was repeated via Claire Huxtable and Khadijah James. We could be good mothers and shrewd lawyers; we could be sharp-tongued wordsmiths and excellent friends. We could be impeccably turned out and know how to swagger. We could excel. We could succeed! We could be… average.
Aren’t we living in the world of #blackgirlmagic? Who are we, if we’re not… magical?
That, to me, is what my mother’s italics were about. When she spoke of Diahann Carroll, she reflected warmly on her affection for the first show in which she saw the potential to be herself – educated and determined and successfully navigating a white-dominated world, sometimes without the help she needed, and always on a shoestring. Diahann Carroll as Julia Baker wasn’t much of a Civil Rights Activist, though, just by showing up, in a small way she was showing Black people having the right to be basically low-key and busy getting on with things. Nothing terribly “important,” just… average.
…Which is as magical as it gets.
There is possibility in “average.” There is room there, to be unsure or challenged, afraid or confused, timid, or lonely. There is room to be both boring, and exciting. The myriad possibilities are themselves magical. And that’s what has shaped my imaginings – my very average story against the narratives of a wider world. We live in a world that privileges “important” stories, “important” movements, and decides what flavor of the week is the “important” issue. A world struggling toward social consciousness eagerly gets behind those “important” issues, hoping to be on the right side of history, and to lend themselves the patina of respectability by appearing sensitive and sympathetic to the right cause. But, into my hands is placed the responsibility to voice the narrative for those who feel less important, who are, perhaps, less seen in media, by featuring in my writing people who are my kind of “normal” – feeling things and doing things and trying hard to just get by. Getting on with life, doing homework, making ends meet – like everyone else.
Maybe someday someone will talk about one of my stories in those loving italics my mother uses. Perhaps one of my tales of normal life will strike a chord with someone and make them feel important – important enough to privilege their own story.
tanita s. davis is the award-winning author of six novels for middle grade and young adult readers, including Peas and Carrots, Happy Families, and Mare’s War, a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book. A California native fond of imagining never-ending stories, tanita’s mother in desperation begged her to “just write it down.” It still seems like a reasonable idea.