Lena Waithe: Why We Can't Keep Telling Stories About a Singular Black Experience


Writer and actor Lena Waithe believes in honest storytelling. (See her deeply personal coming out episode on Netflix’s Master of None—yeah, she won an Emmy for it). Now, with The Chi she’s turning the camera towards her hometown, Chicago.

Back in 2015 I was seeing all these news reports and profiles coming out about the gun violence and the shootings in my city, Chicago—and many were by journalists who have never broken bread with the people who live there. I remember thinking, I know these stories, and not all black people in Chicago are a monolith. We don’t all walk the same, talk the same, or think the same. We have different dreams and goals and hopes. I’m a black writer who was born in Chicago.

If it’s not my responsibility to tell our story, whose is it? I felt the same way about the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None, which was based on my own personal coming-out experience. I wanted to be honest to my memory of what happened: the humor and the missteps. For people to embrace a queer black girl’s story the way they did says a lot about where we are in society. We’re a lot further than we think. But for that reason, we can’t keep telling stories about a single black experience.

THE CHI

PHOTO: Parrish Lewis

The Chi, my new series for Showtime, is about being black and human and trying to survive on the South Side of Chicago. For me, growing up was all about hustle, grind, and fighting for what you want. There weren’t drive-by shootings and sirens every night. I know that might have been some people’s experience, but that wasn’t my perception at all. My grandmother was part of the Great Migration. She left the South and came to this city looking for a better way of life. I have that history in my blood and in my bones. My sister and I grew up in the same house that my mother grew up in. Mom always had two jobs. We earned everything we had. These are the people I had in mind when I created my characters. I named them after people in my family and kids I grew up with.

I wanted these characters to be three-dimensional and shown in an honest light—sometimes negative, sometimes positive. I wanted to explore why people, particularly young black people, make the decisions they make and what their lives look like before they step out the door and onto the street corner. I’m from Chicago, but so are Chance the Rapper, Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, Kanye West, and Jennifer Hudson. It’s where Oprah found her voice and where Barack Obama decided to start his political career. Where I’m from is something I never want to forget—whether that means wearing Jordans or my Bulls T-shirt or sticking my chest out and holding my head high like my grandmother taught me. It’s a legacy I carry with me like a backpack. —as told to Simone Kitchens

Lena Waithe, 33, is an Emmy-winning writer and actor. Her new series The Chi premieres on Showtime this month.



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