This was a tough year for black culture in America—one of scandal, shame, senseless killings, and flat out stupidity. 2014 often felt a reminder of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “two Americas.” While unemployment is on the decline, the housing market is recovering, and gas prices have fallen below $2.00 for the first time in years, such prosperity often feels incomplete for so many black Americans who are routinely left out of the country’s economic upswings. Politically and socially, 2014 is ending on a low. Police shootings and the lack of indictments have made the black community feel like a place where it’s always winter and never Christmas. But 2014 was also a time of challenging the status quo. Social media has been one of the most powerful outlets to oust a racist, demand an apology, and express a grievance. What’s different this year, is that the strongest weapon of 2014 was not the sword, but the tweet. Here is a recap, featuring the highs and lows of political and pop culture in black America.
12 Years a Slave wins best picture
Ellen DeGeneres joked the night could end in one of two ways: “Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins best picture…Possibility number two: You’re all racists.” Either way, given the history of awards in entertainment, most black Americans are always prepared for black actors and films to lose—if they are nominated at all. So yes, by giving 12 Years a Slave the best picture award, Hollywood liberals can pat themselves on the back and claim that they are not racists. But what would have given that idea at least a shred of validity would have been to nominate Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station—and have it win. Nothing would have shown more that black lives matter.
Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice
“Hands up, Don’t Shoot!” “Black Lives Matter!” “If I can’t breathe, you can’t breathe!” These are the chants of protestors in practically every major metropolitan city, infuriated by the shootings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. What’s tragic about this year is that the victims are just the representative few of 76 men and women that have been killed by the police from 1999 to 2014. If there is any silver lining, it’s worthy to see how protesters are united across color and class lines from traffic shutdowns to blacking out Black Friday. If real changes are made as a result, this won’t be a moment, but a movement.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations” was posted, tweeted, forwarded and read around the world. Some called it the best article in the last 10 years. Over 15,000-words long, the essay discusses not just what it would take to even the playing field, but just how uneven the playing field is in America. He might have just said, “Dear Pharrell, there is no ‘New Black’ and ain’t nobody ‘Happy!’”
Kara Walker’s A Subtlety
Kara Walker is a genius, and not just because she is one of the youngest people to win the MacArthur Fellowship. Few exhibits can bring people to form lines out the door and down the street for blocks as hers, inside the Domino Sugar factory. Over 35 feet high and weighing over 40 tons in processed sugar, Walker’s Mammy Sphinx paid homage to “the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens.” Viewers of the exhibit ranged from pensive to the perverse and revealed that how we look and who’s looking is equally important. Unfortunately, our fetishes of the black woman’s body are just the tip of the Sphinx.
If there was ever a time in which Solange Knowles outshined her sister Beyoncé, this was her year. Let’s be clear, Jay Z and Beyoncé were sure to make bank with their “On the Run” tour. But when TMZ aired the elevator footage scene of Jay Z taking a beating from lil’ sis, it was nothing short of epic. Oh to be a fly on the wall… And then six months later Solange struck again, this time with her wedding to Alan Ferguson in the Big Easy that was so fresh and so clean it made you wish you had supported her from her days in Bring it On: All or Nothing.
Chris Rock nailed it—this year we lost three huge comedians: Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, and Bill Cosby. Regardless of whether the near 20 allegations of sexual assault are true, Cosby’s reputation for pudding pops and as “America’s Favorite Dad” is soiled, and likely unrecoverable. If there is anything to take, aside from the fact that the truth only has legitimacy out of the mouth of man, it’s that the gift is not the giver. We have to be able to separate who people are privately and what they contribute to society publicly. Cosby is not Cliff Huxtable. In all of history, show me a saint and I’ll show you a scandal. Meanwhile, 7th Heaven dad Stephen Collins admitted to child molestation and already we’ve moved on. Even in a scandal, whiteness is privileged.
Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson
Nothing put domestic violence on the map more than the video of Ray Rice’s knockout confrontation with his wife, then fiancé, Janay Rice broadcast for all to see. On the heels of this, Adrian Peterson admitted using excessive force when disciplining his four-year-old son. The NFL took a beating as well, banishing both players in a fast attempt to save its spiraling credibility in the face of its own concussion crisis. In this wake, Twitter erupted when women around the country began hashtagging “Why I Stayed” and “Why I left.” The brutal honesty of social media served as an unlikely source to give both women and men the courage they need address what is a painful and private struggle.
Say what you will, but no one would have predicted that the first black republican woman elected to congress would be a Brooklyn born, Haitian-American, who converted to Mormonism and rose to prominence as the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah. It will be interesting to see what she will accomplish: If there were to ever be another black woman candidate for president she could be the one, but sit tight grandma, this ain’t your Shirley Chisholm. When asked if she would join the Black Congressional Caucus, of which Chisholm was a founding member, Love said, “I would join the Congressional Black Caucus and try to take that thing apart from the inside out.” We shall see.
Many thanks to Shonda Rimes for producing outside of the box. Rhimes is the creator, head writer, and executive producer of the successful TV dramas Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and her newest, How to Get Away With Murder. When Viola Davis joked that unless she wrote it herself, you weren’t going to see her rolling around in bed with Bradley Cooper, Shonda thought, I’ll write it—freeing Davis of her single down-trodden typecast. Yes, Thursday has become National Shonda Rhimes Appreciation Day. And, despite a tone-deaf New York Times critique that stated Rhimes was an angry black woman, it’s clear that the only thing that can slow Rhimes’ momentum is Rhimes herself.
Donald Sterling, NBA
Donald Sterling represents both the epitome of white privilege and the consequences of racist rants. When the former owner of the Clippers was caught on tape stating to V. Stiviano, that he didn’t want black people attending his games, coaches and players from around the NBA began demanding his resignation and threatened a possible boycott. Apparently, trash talking black people while owning an NBA team equals a ban for life—and a $2 billion check for the sale of the Clippers. Lesson here, racism is often a profitable endeavor.
Misty Copeland becomes the third African-American soloist in over twenty years to dance in the American Ballet Theater. Bravo!
D’Angelo releases Black Messiah, his third album in 15 years. Finally. Let the church say Amen!
Alia Atkinson of Jamaica becomes the first black woman to win a gold medal at the swimming world championships in the 100m breaststroke. Who’s afraid of the water now?