Last week I caught up with a friend for dinner. We talk about life, jobs, relationships, politics, pop culture and anything else that may come to mind in 2 hours. At one point during the conversation she asked me if I watched the new OWN Television show Greenleaf.
She covered her mouth reluctant to say what was on her mind but she said it anyway.
“I am so sorry girl, but the main character; You remind me of her so much.” I laughed because I have heard this so many times since the show first came out.
Greenleaf first premiered in the middle of June about a family that runs a successful megachurch. I’ve heard some criticisms of Greenleaf where people have said that it’s too negative on the church and that the storylines are too controversial and the people are unrealistic. As a result, I was reluctant to watch yet another hyperbolized portrayal of the Black church. When my brother texted me to tell me “You gotta watch it,” I took his word for it and binge watched a few episodes On Demand. After watching the first four episodes, I kept waiting to hate it. I waited to cringe at the caricature’s that I’m used to seeing when it comes to Black church culture in entertainment. I waited, but what I saw was quite the contrary. I saw a family in a very public position having to handle the pressures that come with that. I saw a family with real issues that weren’t too exaggerated, but rather pretty common. Even though I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, I was even more surprised by my affinity towards its main character Grace Greenleaf, played by Merle Dandridge.
Grace is the lead character who returns home with her daughter after the death of her sister Faith. Grace isn’t just another family daughter, but rather, Grace was a former Pastor at the church whose leadership and preaching was well received by the congregation. Her father, Bishop Greenleaf had a special fondness for his daughter Grace, which in my experience is a typical partiality that male Pastors tend to have for their biological sons or their “sons in the ministry.” As a result, even this factor in the show is a radical concept. To me, Grace is different. Grace is mild tempered, but passionate and feisty in her approach to truth & justice. Grace approaches ministry with both hesitation and conviction. She seeks out ways to find a voice for the unheard and creates spaces of healing for the broken. When she preaches, she preaches with her own voice and tone. On last week’s episode when she preached her first sermon at the church, she didn’t even have on a traditional robe; she wore what she’d always seemed to wear. Grace is a surprise to me. On television, in theater and other mediums, Black women preachers & Pastors are not typically portrayed for our versatility of style. I typically see women who look like me, but rarely who sound like me, have the same preaching style or even approach to ministry. So for the first time in my life and career as a Black woman in ministry, there is a character on television who represents me. I see myself in Grace. I cannot tell you how significant this is for me.
I don’t take the positions I’ve been in lightly. Whether as a woman in positions of leadership on college campuses or as a Black woman in spaces where there are few minority voices, I understand the responsibility that I have had being a Black woman in very public positions of authority. This responsibility includes understanding how important it is for young women and women of color to see representations of themselves in position of leadership where they may have not otherwise been represented. Their voice is being represented. Their skin is being represented. For some, their future careers are being represented. “She looks like me” is a powerful statement that instills a sense of confidence & empowerment in its witnesses. For others, no matter what the gender or ethnicity, seeing a woman of color in a position of leadership becomes a normative experience.
Representation is important. It’s important for little girls to see women on television and in positions of authority. It’s important for various ethnicities to see themselves and their cultures represented on public platforms. I’ve been blessed to have seen representations of myself in the media, the academy and even in the White House. It wasn’t until I saw the character of Grace Greenleaf on my television screen that I realized how significant it is for me as an Associate Pastor and preacher at a local church to see myself in my profession represented in a genuine authentic way.