The Grammys, the Oscars and the prison of the white imagination

OPINION: Every year, these white supremacist institutions do the exact same thing, sprinkling a few wins for Black folks to give the illusion that the door to the ultimate white validation prizes is still open. And every year, Black artists get the door slammed in their faces. It's time to do something different.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The Grammys played in Beyoncé’s face again. After putting out not only the best album of the year but also her career, she was once again snubbed by the Recording Academy in favor of yet another mediocre Brit (I said what I said!), breaking the hearts of the masses, and on Black History Month, no less.

A few weeks before that, the Oscars nominations came out, and once again, Black women directors were shut out. Once again, Black women’s performances were shut out, breaking the hearts of the masses who believed, somehow, this year would be different.  

We know that radical queer AF Black art like Bey’s “Renaissance” album is not going to be rewarded by anti-Black, white supremacist institutions, right? We know, but we still show up to the tweet party, we still turn on the TV with our fingers crossed, hoping against hope — only to be reminded of what we already know.

Take some time, lick your wounds, but please, my people, stand up. 

Every year, these white supremacist institutions do the exact same thing, sprinkling a few wins for colored folks here and there to make believe that the door to the ultimate white validation prizes is still open. And every year, Black artists pour their hearts into their art, breaking records and literally creating the culture that makes every industry move, only for the door to be slammed in their faces.

It’s been 65 Grammys ceremonies, 95 Oscars ceremonies; what is it going to take? 

And I’m not asking white people how much harder we need to tap dance for their love. The point of white supremacy, after all, is to be and remain supreme. There is nothing we can do but be beneath them, living or dead, as far as white supremacy is concerned. So, I’m asking us, my people, what is it going to take for us to get off their self-defeating, goal-post-moving hamster wheel of white supremacy?

Step one is acceptance, and that’s always the hardest. Wouldn’t it be easier if white people just stopped being racist? If they uprooted the systems of power that keep them in control of resources to the detriment of every other group of people that isn’t white? Sure. But at what point in history have they ever just stopped of their own accord? 

There was an entire war fought over slavery, so, they didn’t freely stop back then. For about six months in 2020, white people and their institutions pretended that the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by police was enough to change entire systems, to uproot the historic rot of anti-Black racism that had been their playground for actual centuries. But I’ll remind you, it wasn’t the snuff video of his brutal murder that brought about even the pretense of change; it was the masses who took to the streets around the world and the protestors who burned the Minneapolis Police 3rd Precinct headquarters to the ground in the name of Floyd that incited governments and corporations to act.

65th GRAMMY Awards - Show
Beyoncé accepts the Best Dance/Electronic Music Album award for “Renaissance” onstage during the 65th GRAMMY Awards at Arena on February 05, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Now the backlash to even the tiniest movement of the needle has been so swift that our society has literally regressed in all areas, as white people have put their New York Times best-selling anti-racism books back on the shelf, never to be seen again. Ron DeRacist has made it actually against the law in Florida to teach white people their own abhorrent history. We’re back to denying that white supremacy and anti-Black racism are systemic systems of belief that control entire industries around the world. So no, my people, they are not going to just stop — not on the big stuff, like the system of policing or education, and not on the more subtle stuff, like the systems of creating and validating the images and sounds that shape our daily lives. 

Your album won’t make them do it. Your movie won’t. Your talent won’t. You may wind up being in the handful of Black people who won a big one, who made history as a “first,” who gets invited into all of the rooms, who gets a seat at their table. But these industries only work by continuing the illusion that anyone can succeed in them if they work hard enough. Any success you get within their industries will not only be used against you when you hit the Black ceiling, but also against every other Black person who never even makes it through the door. No amount of Black success within their institutions will ever uproot the anti-Black reasons for which these institutions were created in the first place. 

They were created to hoard wealth. They were created to seize power. They were created to quash organizing and rebellion of the working class.  

As the evil Oscars architect himself, Louis B. Mayer, once said, “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.” 

The Grammys were literally created by white record executives who were upset about the impact of rock and roll on popular music and culture, with the goal of controlling the standard for what “quality” music is. 

This is what the white imagination does; it stifles everything around it, keeping us in a loop of bland mediocrity, as they sit as judge and jury over the “quality” of our inherent right to create. The architects could not have been more explicit in sharing their nefarious purpose. Subsequent generations could not be more explicit in their intent to enact their nefarious plans in perpetuity. 

Mother Toni Morrison once said, “the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. … None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” 

We’ve tried begging. We’ve tried shaming. We’ve tried being more excellent than the white imagination can ever hold. But there will always be one more thing. The white imagination is a prison. It’s past time for us to tear it all down. 

Their awards shows would crumble without Black talent in the audience, on the stage and in the virtual audience making them relevant. Let them crumble. But we cannot stop there. 

In its place, we must not build the same institutions with the same white supremacist values, as we’ve seen time and again Black institutions upholding colorism, transphobia, queerphobia, ableism, capitalist exploitation and misogynoir, like good foot soldiers for white supremacy. Instead, we must get liberated from the white imagination that says we can’t be as boundless as we were created to be. 

In the world that we artists create, there will be no anger and heartbreak over white supremacist snubs because the art we create was never for them and their rubrics and their judgment in the first place. We must reimagine ourselves as artists unchained by the desire for their distraction trophies. 

We need the radical imaginations of the artists to create outside of these systems of oppression. If they’ve created systems to squash collective power, then we already know what we must do. We must organize the financing for our art. We must organize its production. We must organize our own distribution. Let’s pour our collective power into this work, into building the artists’ world, where we are free to work and create in safe environments for livable wages. 

When we march and tear down and rebuild, let it not be for the goal of a VIP suite in their prison or a cell with a view; let it be for our total liberation from the limits of what they’ve said is possible.

Brooke Obie is an award-winning critic, screenwriter and author of the historical novel “Book of Addis: Cradled Embers.”

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