Lena Waithe’s Use of The Chi to Show the Fight In Black Women is Sheer Brilliance
In a time where a global pandemic is unfolding concurrently to a generation of people fed up with the status quo and are challenging social inequality, there lies screenwriter Lena Waithe. Between being the first Black woman to win an Emmy for writing in a comedy series (Netflix’s Master of None) and the success of 2019’s Queen and Slim, Waithe is continually demonstrating that giving a Black queer woman a rare space in Hollywood is the recipe for bringing a diverse visual representation of all aspects of being Black in America. Understanding there is only a split second before the attention span of the audience shifts to the next big thing, Waithe is taking this moment by storm and is using her access and influence to reinforce the idea that the shift needed to propel the country towards equality cannot happen without mother Earth’s most precious resource: Black women.
As writer for the Showtime series, The Chi, Waithe has masterfully used the hour-long program, now in its third season, as the vehicle to display not only the current issues facing Black women in America, but how much the Black woman endures and the weight many Black women carry from past trauma, unhealed wounds, unfaithful lovers, and the burden of maintaining the family structure. As the name indicates, The Chi is set in the city of Chicago, where there is no shortage of drama, drugs, and drivebys, but contrary to seasons past where the focus has centered around a male character being caught up in the hood and the pressures that come with it, Waithe’s shift this season to address the nationwide issue of missing girls in the Black community is timely and necessary.
This season’s storyline has focused primarily on Keisha (Birgundi Baker), a promiscuous 18-year old girl who suddenly vanishes from a bus stop one evening without a trace. Though her brother and parents search for her, leads turn into dead ends. Rumored to have run away and judged by the neighborhood as “not really missing” due to her raunchy reputation, Keisha’s disappearance grows colder. After two months of captivity by a local jogger named Omari who is discovered to be obsessed with her, Keisha is found only blocks from her home by homeless family acquaintance Ronnie (portrayed by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who rescues her and assists Keisha in fighting off (and eventually killing) her abductor. While Keisha has returned home, the most recent episode finds her lost, scorned, confused and struggling to resume a sense of normalcy.
Keisha’s story, while fictional, is unfortunately the story of many young women in America. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there were 613,000 missing cases reported last year and roughly 64,000 of them were Black women and girls. Yet, Amber Alerts and television systems weren’t ringing off the radar with the faces and names of these melanated sisters needing help. In fact, studies show African American missing children cases are underrepresented in national television news compared to their actual rates of incidence, and even more disproportionately than non-people of color. Waithe’s writing brings attention to not only the troubling lack of concern for missing Black women and girls, but also the harder and more gut-wrenching truth that those who do survive the experiences are oftentimes suffering in silence. For many Black women, this process of burying hidden trauma is common.
Waithe’s brilliance continues to seep through the screen upon watching how the characters examine internal conflict when dealing with pain. In episode 8, three characters, all who have suffered abuse at some point in their lives, but are also at different places in their recovery, reinforce the notion that strength and resiliency, even when there isn’t necessarily someone to help guide you to that point, are almost natural characteristics for Black women post traumatic experiences.
Jada (Yolanda Ross), a friend of Keisha’s stepmother Dre and the mother of Keisha’s ex-boyfriend Emmitt, who was sexually assaulted by a family member, has seemed to have faced her demons. She provides a nurturing spirit to the scene and tells Keisha it’s possible to overcome devastating experiences, but know that it changes you and that change can inspire better. Jada shares with Keisha that her past assault is the reason why she chose the life of a social worker, so that she may grant the comfort to others that she was never given on her journey to find peace.
There’s also Nina (Tyla Abercrumbie), Keisha’s mom, who discloses that she too suffered some form of abuse, but unlike Jada, Nina has yet to tackle her own personal battle. She chose the path to just let it go and move on; however, it is in this inability to confront her past that she has no idea how to advise Keisha on how to figure out how to move forward. Waithe exposes that consequently, some Black women are often groomed to be so strong and so brave, that their mental health is compromised, which can hinder the ability to show a different road to recovery for our daughters.
And finally Keisha, who near the end of the episode sets her provocative clothes on fire, saying “Maybe I wouldn’t have got kidnapped if I hadn’t been wearing this s–t.” Nina reassures her that no clothing choice gives someone the right to violate someone else, but that scene, both empowering and infuriating, forces one to see that too often Black women take the blame and responsibility for outcomes that are not our burdens to bear. The episode ends with Keisha, Dre and Nina heading to therapy, allowing Keisha to seek the help she needs to process her pain and adjust to her new normal.
From the raw emotion to the display of support and even the guilt that was felt from all the characters in the latest episode, Waithe’s projection of Black women and the issues they face in The Chi is just furthering the conversation on how important it is to remind the masses that Black women are tired of being overlooked in mainstream America. Just knowing that it’s been 153 days since Breonna Taylor’s murder and the officers are still unarrested is evidence to how the world views us, aside from the lack of urgency in caring for our mental and physical well-being.
Waithe’s dedicating the use of her platform to discuss this topic and show this side of our community among the many stances she could have chosen solidifies her as this generation’s John Singleton, telling the untold stories and
elevating the unheard voices through art. So let’s listen to her: protect Black Women at all cost.