I’m a big deal. Thanks for the reminder.
Just as I was losing hope, I met Laurie. I met her in, of all places, the produce section at the grocery store.
It’s not uncommon for people to recognize and approach me when I’m out in public. So, when Laurie first stopped me as I picked out green onions, I figured it would be another routine encounter. Not today.
This woman was animated! She was fired up! However, none of this was out of excitement to meet me. Rather, I learned, she was being her passionate self, and on this day, she was passionate about something she wanted me to know: “T.J., you’re a big deal.” And, you know what? She’s absolutely right.
I didn’t receive her statement pridefully or arrogantly, but just the opposite. I welcomed it humbly and soberly because I knew exactly what she meant. I’m a big deal, she went on to explain, because I’m the image of a black man that contrasts the omnipresent negative images and stereotypes of black men that we’re accustomed to seeing in news, film, and on TV.
I actually got emotional as this woman described her fears as the mother of a teenage son and reminded me of why it matters that he and other young, impressionable black men are exposed to an alternative. I’ll be honest, I’ve been discouraged lately. I want to fight the good fight. I want to think I can make some kind of difference. But, for every one of me, there seems to be a hundred (fill in the blank). It feels like an uphill battle, one that we’re losing. And, given the media saturation of those other black male images, there’s a temptation to selfishly take care of me (get mine) without regard to the responsibility that comes with my platforms.
Actress Nichelle Nichols who played the groundbreaking role of Lt. Uhura in the Star Trek television series recalls a chance meeting she had with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. right after she had decided to quit Star Trek in the middle of the show’s second season. Nichols said in a 2011 interview:
“I met Dr. Martin Luther King. He said he was my greatest fan. It took my breath away. I told him I was leaving the show, and I was going to miss my co-stars, and he said, “what are you talking about?” He said, “you can’t do that. This is something that fate has given you. You can’t leave. That is an image on there, for the first time, we see, the world sees us as we should be seen … as intelligent, beautiful, qualified people … you have the first non-stereotypical role in television. You can’t leave … this is what we are fighting for, this is what we are marching for … you make a difference.”
Of course, Nichols ultimately changed her mind and didn’t leave the show. But, Dr. King’s message to Nichols more than 50 years ago still applies today: it makes a difference. How minorities are portrayed on television and media shapes perceptions to a wide audience, or sometimes, one teenage boy.
Nichelle Nichols had Dr. King to remind her. I had Laurie … in the produce section.