On the NAACP Image Awards and Needing Our Own Spaces for Celebration

by Diana Veiga

In 2013, I won the Go On Girl! Book Club’s (the largest book club for Black women) Unpublished Writer’s Award for my submitted story, “Neighborhood Watch.” I was invited to attend their annual convention in Atlantic City to receive my award and say a few words. While at the podium I looked out into the crowd of Black women from all over the country of varying shades, ages, and backgrounds. Among all these differences, one thing was clear: they were all beaming back at me with pride.

My short story, “Neighborhood Watch,” is about an older Black woman, a native Washingtonian who has watched her neighborhood become more and more gentrified. Throughout the story she has a clear disregard for the younger white residents who are moving in and changing things. As the story progresses, she has a choice to help one of those neighbors and what she does shocks many. When I workshopped the story in my mainly white writers’ group, an older white woman wrote, “Why does the main character have to be so mean and racist?” I wanted to snap back, “Oh, I’m sorry she couldn’t appease your white guilt and sensibilities.”

However, that weekend in Atlantic City with hundreds of Black women in the room, many who could relate all too well, they came up to me and thanked me for my story. They got it. They were my audience. They appreciated not just the truth in my story, but the storytelling that reflected their own experiences. I, in turn, felt accepted and genuinely admired for my work. This was a safe space. For me, winning that award was just as prestigious as winning any mainstream award for new writers.

With the recent Grammy, Golden Globe, and SAG nominations, we realize once again the necessity of safe spaces like the NAACP Image Awards where the work of hard working Black actors, musicians, and writers can be celebrated, congratulated, and loved up on something fierce. Sure, there have been some bright spots with these recent award announcements– Ava DuVernay is the first Black woman to receive a Best Director Golden Globe nomination for the movie ‘Selma.’ That’s huge. There were even new names like Quvenzhane Wallis for ‘Annie’ that hopefully signal possibilities the future might hold. But on the flip side of that, it seemed to be business as usual since you could count the people of color nominated on both hands.

And Iggy Azalea with a Best Rap Album Grammy nomination? Yeah. OK. We need our own spaces.

Not only does our best work often tend to go unnoticed in mainstream spaces, but even when we win, there is the potential disrespect to our faces. When Jacqueline Woodson recently won the National Book Award in the Young Adult Category for her memoir, ‘Brown Girl Dreaming,’ the MC, Daniel Handler said as she walked away with her award, “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.”

When Woodson penned a response to this affront in The New York Times, there were some harsh comments criticizing her for calling out Handler (who she wrote she had considered a friend) in this manner. Why would she treat her friend like this and embarrass him publicly? Couldn’t she take a joke—because after all, that’s all it what it was: just a bad joke, not a racist one? This is where all kinds of side-eyes must be heaped. ‘Brown Girl Dreaming’ has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award and should Woodson win, I’m sure she won’t have to deal with these kinds of comments. And neither will any of the other nominees.

And that’s the thing with the NAACP Image Awards (and similar awards ceremonies): they allow for there to be more than one nominee of color. Oftentimes the mainstream industry will only allow one. Maybe two. Sometimes if it’s a good year, you might get a handful. But never more than that. DuVernay has been making the press rounds for the movie ‘Selma’. In a recent interview, she and star David Oyelowo did for The Washington Post, he touched on ‘the only one’ idea:
It’s about linking arms and knowing that we cannot buy into this idea of 'there can only be one'… Hollywood’s going to try to do that to Ava now, and isolate her. She’s now the priestess, the prophet, the poster child, and what happens when you’re isolated is that you can get picked off. What needs to work is that she is now [supported]. So that if for whatever reason she engages in an artistic endeavor that isn’t ‘Selma,’ it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of [her] career.
When Hollywood and other mainstream outlets only let one or two in at a time, it puts a stamp on what they determine to be quality, important work and dismisses the rest. I’m sorry, but I can’t buy what they’re selling. Chadwick Boseman did an incredible job as James Brown for ‘Get On Up.’ His work should be celebrated by somebody and if it’s the NAACP (he received a nomination), then so be it. That award has just as much merit, just as much value as a Golden Globe or an Oscar. And maybe five years from now, Boseman will do something the Academy deems “worthy.”

It’s funny because what tends to happen is that Black entertainers usually have to toil and build a fan base with a Black audience first before they are plucked out of “obscurity.” When white outlets write about stars like Queen Latifah, how many times does her story start at the movie ‘Chicago?’ Like we don’t know her from her rapping, ‘Living Single’, and ‘Set it Off’ days. How many times does Terrance Howard’s story start with ‘Hustle & Flow’? (What about ‘Sparks’, anyone?) Or Mo’Nique’s with ‘Precious’ and not ‘The Parkers’?

Black artists put out quality work for years that are enjoyed by predominantly Black audiences. We celebrate them first. And it is usually done with so much genuine love and appreciation. Why would we want to stop that? I would love for the mainstream to recognize us more, but in a world where, as Chris Rock recently explained, Hollywood would never hire a Black man with some bass in his voice and Black women are practically nonexistent on-screen and rarely considered for quality roles, it doesn’t seem like things will change anytime soon.

I am all for disrupting the system and the status quo and getting more than one or two of us through the door in a single year. But in the meantime, why not go where we are celebrated, not tolerated? Go where we are loved. Go where we are applauded and told that our work, our stories, and our lives matter.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Diana Veiga is a Spelman woman, a DC resident, and a freelance writer. Of course, she’s also on Twitter.

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