How women have used storytelling to fight fear, heal wounds, and cast out demons in 2020
“I’m not afraid to die,” the Instagram user said.
If this were a movie, there wouldn’t be any sunshine pouring through the window of my Southern California office that afternoon. I wouldn’t have been juggling endless deadlines, half-composed petitions, and complaints of clients’ settlements carrying 5 and 6 zeros before the decimal point. No, if this were a film, there would certainly be heavy cloud coverage and aggressively loud rainfall.
But this wasn’t a movie, I wasn’t on a set. I was watching young people being shot at live on Instagram while the heat of the sun beat against my back.
There were popping noises. The screen would alternate from a gritty grayness to bursts of sharp light exposing limbs, some lifeless, some covered in blood. Throughout was the constant assurance that the individual holding the phone was not afraid to die.
I, however, was deeply afraid.
Sadly, this was not the first time in 2020 that my blood ran cold with terror. It most certainly was not the first time tears would water my desk. On more than one occasion, I would open my eyes in the middle of the night and wonder, come morning, would I find a worthwhile reason to get out of bed? Sorrow was a constant companion, grief an unwelcome bedfellow.
For months, I could not publish a single word. No turn of phrase, no cleverly layered discussion could do justice to what was happening to all of us. I couldn’t bear to center myself in a story that is really about our collective and very public trauma.
I can’t promise that this will rise to the occasion, nor will I dare guarantee it will properly capture the depth of emotion that is 2020. What I will promise is honesty, as plain as I can muster. As we wind down this year, ready to close this chapter, I know that the most potent prescription I can offer is the power of truth-telling.
With that, I present to you 2020, in four acts.
Image of Breonna Taylor mural from NY Times
Act 1- COVID-19 and Black Lives Don’t Matter
We all know what COVID has cost us. 1.64 million people as of this publication have lost their lives to the virus. Enough said.
The stench of death has lingered long on this year.
We begin with Breonna Taylor, age 26. Breonna Taylor was a young Black woman who worked as an emergency room technician, an essential employee already on the front lines of the pandemic. On March 13, 2020, Breonna and her boyfriend were asleep in their apartment when police officers used a battering ram to knock down the door, exercising a “no-knock warrant.” Taylor’s boyfriend believed a home invasion was occurring and fired a warning shot from a gun that he owns legally. Police officers opened fire. Eight times a bullet entered Breonna’s body. She went from a restful sleep to an eternal one. The warrant in question- it was for another person entirely. That person lived miles away and had already been detained at the time Breonna Taylor’s life ended.
A few months later the world around me caught fire following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year old Black man who died under the knee of a police officer. As the story developed, we learned that the police were called on suspicion that George had tendered a counterfeit $20 bill. Then we found out that the police officer that killed George knew him, intimately. We heard from family and friends that George was kind and gentle and that to know him was to love him. But George was dead.
Sadly, it wasn’t until George died that we remember Breonna. Just like that, their lives took on a new meaning. Two people I had never met before, started an international conversation about the very real liability of Blackness, and the subtle erasure of Black women.
For me, I kept clocking in. No one at work even acknowledged the world beyond our walls. If the courts hadn’t shut everything down, my employer would have had us at the front lines arguing that we were essential. For them there was no pandemic, there was an opportunity to make money at all costs. Black Lives Matter was just noise in the background, not worth a comment. Certainly, no one was checking in on their only Black attorney to see if she was okay.
Image of Lovecraft Country from NY Times
Act 2- All Aboard the Lovecraft
I needed an escape. My attention was too short to read, and just too erratic to take on a new project. Being indoors all day was seriously bad for my health. DoorDash and I had developed an unhealthy relationship and it would take several months before we would break up.
It was during one of my endless scrollings that I would lock eyes with Jurnee Smollett beckoning me to join her in an alternative universe.
The first trailer for Lovecraft Country would land in my lap at a time when I desperately needed to see just how powerful Black women could be. Protestors were still holding signs reminding me that my Black life mattered because neither George Floyd’s nor Breonna Taylor’s life mattered. Our nation was bleeding, a wound that had yet to heal had sparked a global awakening to the plight of Black people and I just couldn’t watch another pundit, commentator, influencer, or well-meaning celebrity discuss why I shouldn’t fear for my life or that of my brother, father, uncles, and friends.
So, I decided to follow Tic, Leti, Ruby, Hippolyta, Montrose, Ji-ah, and Uncle George as they navigated a fantastic universe full of magic, supernatural creatures, mythical knowledge, and monsters. The show provided a unique framework for unpacking the realities of Black people living life in the Jim Crow South. Ironically, those realities were still a little too relevant 50 years later in 2020.
Through point and counterpoint, Lovecraft Country was also a story about women, recreated by a Black woman- Misha Green. The first lesson in the erasure of Black female storytellers occurred when the trailer came out: many publications centered their focus on the role Jordan Peele played as one of two executive producers and forgot the visionary risk in storytelling was actually being taken by Green.
Similarly, while Atticus sits at the center of the story primarily because he begins the show looking for his father, and then the truth of his mother’s lineage, the story, to me, is really about the power of women. We are called to examine the tense relationship between sisters Ruby and Leti who sit at counterpoints on a scale of femininity. Both women present qualities that appear at odds with their physical appearance. Ruby, a voluptuous, dark-skinned beauty, is a sensual woman whose real desire is to obtain power, even if it means shedding the skin she is in. Meanwhile, Leti, the petite, lighter-skinned damsel, spends much of her time physically fighting monsters and putting herself in the line of fire, trying to prove how unlike her late mother she is.
Image of Hippolyta from Hollywood Reporter
Mother Hippolyta is a genius whose abilities are stopped not only because she is Black, but because she decides to step into her role as mother and wife in a way that she believes requires sacrificing her incredible intellect. As we have seen women do for centuries, Hippolyta’s journey is a heartbreaking counterpoint to her daughter, D’s, violent coming of age. When the mother seeks to find herself again and does, her daughter is left to fend for herself and suffers dearly for it.
In Christina, we explore and examine the toxicity of white feminine fragility. The rage of being overlooked, counterbalanced with the proximity to racial power. Depending on your vantage point, Christina is the kind of villain we have not really seen on television before. She makes no apologies for the terror she inflicts on others and expects to win at all costs.
The ancestors, Tic’s mother, as well as the mysterious slave woman who started it all, play a powerful role in shaping the lives and decisions of those who are to come. Lovecraft Country shows how powerful, nuanced, and complex the inner lives of women can be. Even as they are weighed down by their respective ‘anchors’ there is a fierceness and a commitment to living their individual truths no matter the consequences.
The great irony is that several major outlets found Lovecraft Country a failure.
To the New York Times:
The critical community struggled to see the value in the story crafted by Misha Green and executive produced by Jordan Peele and JJ Abram. Despite the negative reviews, Lovecraft Country, by the season finale, garnered 1.5 million views across all platforms, outperforming the season 2 finale of Succession, and was the number one streamed show on the HBO Max platform.
For many, myself included, Lovecraft Country allowed us to discuss how we were truly feeling, as Black people, and as women. Fantasy, horror, science fiction, these are worlds that have historically been closed to people with a little too much melanin. In 2020, the door cracked open just in time for us to grapple with realities that seem much stranger than fiction.
Image of Feminist Coalition Logo from feministcoalition2020.com
Act 3- A Coven of Feminists
There is an opportunity in entertainment to create an alternate universe, to test out our assumptions about life, love, leadership, and power. In Lovecraft Country, they could examine the trauma and triumph of being a Black woman inside the safety of a scripted universe.
Sadly, in the real world, women live with those consequences, whether they deserve them or not. In Nigeria, specifically, what it means to be a woman is complicated but not always in a good way. Then again, despite the sometimes heavy burden of femininity, women have been a consistent and powerful force in Nigeria.
Women fight for the soul of the nation. Women fight for what is right. From Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, to Margaret Ekpo, to Gambo Sawaba, as well as the women of the Aba Protest in the early 1900s, Nigerian women have been leading powerful movements, constantly changing the narrative of a nation that some argue was never meant to be.
It should come as no surprise, then, that amidst the tumult of 2020, when shots were fired and blood flowed in the street, women would once again rise to lead the charge.
October 3, 2020. Ughelli, Delta state. A young man wearing a bright yellow T-shirt and black joggers is laying in the middle of the street. If it wasn’t for the location, and the blood trailing on the side of his face, you might have thought he was asleep. Instead, he became the symbol for a revolution.
That afternoon, members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a special police force active in Delta state, shot the young man in front of Wetlands Hotel. Eyewitnesses described seeing the man shot and operatives jumping into the victim’s waiting white Lexus, then driving off. Within moments, by-standers went to check if the man was alive. Sadly, he was gone.
As far as the youth were concerned, this was unacceptable.
For nearly one whole month, close to 200 protests took place around Nigeria. At each event, protestors received food, water, masks, power banks, and supplies to make signs. Medical assistance was dispatched for the injured, and legal aid for those arrested.
The transparency, efficiency, and consistency were facilitated by one entity: The Feminist Coalition (FemCo). A once-anonymous group of women took charge. As a self-appointed agency, the women raised ₦147,855,788.28 ($387,869.32) funds internationally in local, foreign, and digital currency. Through Twitter and Instagram, FemCo was able to coordinate with protestors on the ground, resolving ongoing issues, established a helpline for legal aid, and partnered with various medical facilities to provide life-saving medical aid. Then, at the end of each day, an accounting would be published. How much was raised, how much was disbursed, to whom, where, and for what reason? The smooth machine of activism continued until it met its ultimate test.
On the night of October 20th, young people protesting at the Lekki Bridge in Lagos, Nigeria were shot at and killed by military personnel because they dared to demand more of their government and their leaders. With those acts of violence, and in one night, Nigerians around the world, connected by the power of the internet and social media, were plunged into a collective nightmare we have yet to emerge from.
That was what I was watching an ocean away on my iPhone in my office. People were dying, and there was nothing I could do. I had also been following the efforts of the Feminist Coalition. I had marveled at their efficiency, their dedication, their willingness to put their lives on the line. As I sat in my chair, frozen in place by the violence on my screen, I wondered- how could we heal from this?
We were all watching a glimmer of hope die. For the first time, this group of young Nigerians saw that it was possible to have transparency, to have accountability, and to enact change without dedicated leaders or agendas. Protestors were marching peacefully; vendors were providing food and beverages to those standing on the front line; celebrities were amplifying the message - and everything was coordinated online. No physical headquarters exist, no logistics maps that need years of painstaking research and development to develop. This young rambunctious generation so often mocked for their Twitter Advocacy had used the platform to do something seemingly impossible.
What FemCo started was brave, and powerful but you could argue it was bound to happen. Over the last decade, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has been capturing the attention of the tech community because of the promising young talent trained and deployed by companies like Andela and written about in publications like Tech Cabal and Techpoint. Impressive tech companies like Piggyvest, Flutterwave, and Paystack have revolutionized the way people buy and sell on the continent. Combine these tech innovations with the decreasing cost of the average smartphone, you get a very young population with growing smartphone penetration and significant online engagement. Currently, Nigeria has 24.59 million active social media users and growing rapidly.
Now that nearly 62% of the population consists of people under the age of 25, much of everyday life is lived online. So, when @AfricaOfficial2 tweeted into the void on October 3rd, the speed of the internet and social media took over. What FemCo showed us is that you can take the energy of the internet and harness it, mold it into action. Like bending light, it takes careful skill, focus, and attention to make the impossible, possible.
No matter where Nigeria goes from here, something magical happened this October. This generation has learned a valuable lesson about governance, activism, and the role women play and have always played in bringing about change in the world.
Video of Vice President Kamala Harris
Act 4- Gladiators in the White House
Somehow, we wake up each day following a major tragedy and find the will to continue. It isn’t always easy, but we do. For me, I have my family to think of. What kind of example do I set if I give up? If I say I can’t take another step? That is not what gladiators do.
Shonda Rhimes knows a thing or two about gladiators. For several years she shepherded Olivia Pope in her journey as a fixer in Washington DC. Many were held enthralled as Kerry Washington delivered eloquent monologues about power, about gladiators, about wearing the white hat. Pope held space for powerful women who had real problems, who tried desperately to juggle their public superpowers with their private failings. She didn’t teach us that we could have it all, she taught us it was ok to want it all and negotiate for what we needed and deserved.
Then should we have been surprised that the fight for the soul of America would be predicated on the success of the former Vice President Joe Biden, and Black/Southeast Asian woman Kamala Harris? To be a gladiator is to put the state of the nation above all else. Gladiators know that at the end of the day, you have to roll up your sleeves and work to deliver real change. They know that as the screen fades and the credits roll, everyone may not like you, but they should respect you.
The era of President Trump has exposed a chasm in the U.S. and much of the world. The deep discontent and discomfort the nation has with shifting demographics are evident in subtle and not-so-subtle discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are all dancing around what it means to be an individual at various intersections of identity and sometimes privilege. We just don’t know what to do with the continuing social experiment that is the United State of America. A democracy that is driven by citizens who are all, fundamentally, from everywhere else in the world but here.
With so much pain and fear driving our actions, it was a relief to have Gladiators back in the office.
Walking across the stage in an all-white pantsuit, Kamala Harris represented so much of the nation: A woman with fierce ambition, courage to be who she is, and go after what she wants; The child of an immigrant who made sacrifices and lived a life she hoped her Southeast Asian mother would be proud of; A human being, who seeks to be respected for who she is and how she shows up in the world.
From Breonna Taylor to Misha Green and the women of Lovecraft Country, to Feminist Coalition, and finally to Kamala Harris, the stories of women who have been counted out, written out, and ignored seemed to be the very stories that changed the world.
Epilogue: Back to the Future
2020 has certainly been a year of immense disruption. Most people have been affected by the drastic ways in which our everyday lives have changed. While we have seen significant changes in how we tell stories, the people telling the stories are also different.
Even though the unforeseen consequences of a global pandemic have set women back by decades economically and socially; even though in our enlightened age, women still only make $0.81 on the dollar compared to men; and even though globally, the percentage of women in government positions still hovers between 20-25%, the stories I have seen and laid out here give me hope. Despite these disheartening statistics, women have been on the move.
It is hard not to feel like writing those words is a declaration of some sort. But fundamentally, the world as we know it is shifting. We are slowly erasing the idea of a homogenous identity. No one group of people think the same despite commonalities in their histories or lived experiences. We can no longer say all women, all Black people, all Latino people, all Asian people in the cavalier way we once did. That is why the need for understanding, for deep human connection, is vital.
The future of powerful content and culture-defining storytelling exists in meaningful connections. The work that will resonate is the work that respects the dynamism of the lived experience. It is in knowing that we all stand in our truth, and what we respect more than anything, who we root for when all is said and done, is the individual who stands in their truth, unapologetically and upright. That is who we connect to. Those are the characters that will command our attention. Those are the stories that will capture our hearts.
If we are to build a world where content has true power, then it will be through stories built from authenticity for human connection. No matter the culture, no matter the language- that connection will always be universal.