Shades of Gray: The Color of Aaliyah

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In recent weeks, there has been a bit of controversy surrounding the casting of Zendaya Coleman as the star in the Lifetime biopic of Aaliyah Dana Houghton, seemingly regarding her biracial heritage being at odds with Aaliyah's "pure black" roots. After outcries from Coleman's family regarding the TV-movie treatment of the late star, Coleman officially backed out of the project, putting Lifetime's filming schedule on hold.

Many may be asking what is going to happen to the movie now that the young star has backed out, but it's times like these that make for good opportunities to take a community's pulse.

There are two related issues at play here. The first is the significance of heritage relating to the accurate representation of a character of cultural significance. The second is the power of a character's voice that represents a community on a public stage. Both of these ideas are tied back to core principles of honor, reverence, and fairness - social ideas that can often put the stars of a historically oppressed people on a dangerous pedestal. One of the King of Pop's most striking and intimate songs, "Childhood", subtly recounts how his life on the road to stardom had lasting ramifications on his ability to simply "grow up":

Before you judge me, try hard to love me,
Look within your heart then ask,
Have you seen my Childhood?

Zendaya Coleman, age 18 this coming September, is a child star in her own right, having been on the scene since 2009. As a young star coming into her own, acting in Shake It Up! and landing the lead for K.C. Undercover, she has tread quite familiar ground to reach where she is (Disney seems to always find young talent and cultivate it - see: Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez...). When it comes to her resume and employers, she is in the company of megastars that went on to have successful, albeit quite varied careers in the entertainment industry. Overall, she seems to be in a good position to grow.

So why all of this fuss?

Well let's back it up to the megastar herself, the one plucked unexpectedly from our world and our lives: Aaliyah.

Miss Houghton's career is no mystery to anyone in the know: found at an early age on Star Search, worked with R. Kelly on her first of three platinum albums, enjoyed her first major acting role in Romeo Must Die and played the iconic Queen of the Damned, tragically passed away in a plane crash after leaving the Bahamas. Like Coleman, her talent was recognized by her family and the industry at an early age, and in the coming years she would become one of the youngest faces in the black community with the star power to get on stage with the likes of Gladys Knight and shine. She was incredibly gifted, and the world saw it. 

The world, in a sense, is what is keeping her on a pedestal that she likely never asked for. As an R&B star, she represented a style heavily associated with the American Black experience, and in turn, she unwittingly spoke to that experience to the entire world as a cultural liaison of sorts. This idea is not new: R. Kelly, P. Diddy, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and many more megastars young and old in the black community have shared their life experiences as an African-American in the US to the world through their art form. This, in turn, sets expectations on these stars from their rather nebulous community, as demonstrated in the Jay-Z-Harry Belafonte controversy

One could argue that we want our stars to represent us and to demonstrate our greatness as a community, sometimes at the detriment of a star's sense of independence from his or her community. We may look at our stars with both pride and jealousy, knowing that our circumstances do not allow us to sit on the same throne as they do - often not realizing how much of that throne was made by their own hand.

We look at our stars, like Jay-Z or Aaliyah, and we not only have expectations for them but we also have expectations of how they are represented to the world. Some of us may look with pride at Neil deGrasse Tyson while simultaneously distancing ourselves from Richard Sherman. We want to control the narrative around how our stars represent us, instead of encouraging the great variety that they provide to our story as a people: one with passion, one with heart, one with courage, one with all peoples.

When we look at a biracial young woman with talent, we don't come together to support her as she takes on the daunting task of representing one of our most iconic singers. We would rather cut her down to size, accusing her of "muddying the gene pool" as it were. When a privately owned corporation that measures success in dollars and cents is willing to lay down the money to tell a story that's "One in a Million", we become haughty and push back, demanding the silver screen treatment.

We have a mistaken sense of honor, reverence, and fairness. We think that these ideas are validated by the perception of the world at large, rather than our own collective perception. We believe these concepts are external, rather than internal. We believe that it is our duty to protect these things from a hostile world, when we should really be protecting them from the only ones who can truly rob us of them - ourselves.

Zendaya may have moved on from this project, but my hope is that she does not walk away from the community that needs her more than it realizes. I hope that, as a people that has experienced scorn and oppression due to our heritage, we can recognize that the only solution for true equality is an invitation to celebrate our differences as well as our similarities. I hope that, one day, the world will look at us and see an example of a community that has chosen unity, rather than separation, as our legacy.

Because race ain't nothing but a color.

This piece contributed by Kasai Omar.