I Wanted to See a TV Show About Black Women Living Their Best Lives—So I Made It

Perform the world premieres on Starz on Sunday, May 16. Here, creator Leigh Davenport shares the inspiration behind the show.
When I was nine years old, my parents took my brothers and me on vacation to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. On a long, sunny day at the beach, my older brother and I made friends with two white kids, spent the day splashing in the water and building sandcastles. As the sun went down and our time together came to an end, one of the kids looked at us and said, "You look like Vanessa and he looks like Theo." My brother and I exchanged looks, not sure what to say, so we said nothing and kept playing until our parents pulled us out of the water.
You see, I was more than a little worried about the whole thing. I've never been a fan of Vanessa Huxtable's hairstyles on The Cosby Show. While I may have reluctantly accepted being compared to Rudy, I just couldn't see how she ended up on Vanessa. Later that day, I shared my very serious and well-founded argument with my mother. She looked at me both annoyed and a little amused and said, "Sweetie, Theo and Vanessa are probably the only other black kids that girls have ever seen." Something about her tone made me realize that we had reached the end of the conversation, even though I was even more confused.
Guide the world creator Leigh Davenport
Reese Sherman
She has never seen black people ?! I was too young to understand that in America in the 1990s it was possible to go to or live in an all-white school. I certainly didn't understand that South Carolina is in the "south" and that "the south" is very different from Chicago, where I grew up and attended racially and ethnically diverse schools. I just knew I didn't look like Vanessa Huxtable.
Was my mom crazy? Did she tell me that it is possible for someone to interact with black people only through a television screen - that is how people learn who "other" people are? I still admire the disbelief of my nine year old self. That moment on the beach never left me. It was the power of everything. The sudden realization that images on the screen can inform, educate, inspire and provoke - there was just so much power. I suppose, in retrospect, that experience was the beginning of my obsession with storytelling, which led me to poetry, then journalism, and finally screenwriting.
In all honesty, it was amazing when I found myself in my mid-20s that I was still actively looking for authentic and understandable reflections about myself on TV. Run the World was created out of a sense of rebellion. It was 2009 and it seemed like everyone had something to say about black femininity. There was the whole thing: "You have to think like a man and change everything about yourself to find your barracks." It felt a bit like hysteria - the articles about single black women who are least wanted in dating apps, the stats on all black men in prison, the NBC Nightly News special, "African American Women: Where They Stand". (Yeah, it really did air, and it was a five night event. ABC followed suit with their own Nightline special.) Even Oprah was on the line. "Ladies!" She roared on a memorable episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, "Seventy percent of black women are single !!!" The message was omnipresent and clear: single, smart, and successful black women were in crisis.
Run World Season 1 2021
Cara Howe
But ... were we? Honestly, even though I was a jobless disaster at the time (damn it, 2008 financial crash), I didn't buy it. I was surrounded by phenomenal women of all ages - smart, independent, loving, laughing, and mostly amusing. Sure, we've encountered our fair share of professional challenges and dating troubles, all of which are great fodder for lively brunch conversations. But to us, the challenges of early adulthood didn't seem like an omen of lifelong solitude and misery. I couldn't help but ask myself: Where were my black sisters on TV that I knew, who, despite all the demands this world places on our mind, body and soul, tried, flourished and fought to be their best To be yourself? I wanted to see this show and it wasn't there. So I decided to create it.
A decade has passed since I wrote my first draft and a lot has changed. The hysteria of the doomed single black woman has subsided, and instead we proudly acknowledge that #BlackGirlsRock and celebrate #BlackGirlMagic and scream in protest against #BlackLivesMatter. We are also very tired. We're so tired of waking up to cellphone videos of dead black bodies on the street. We demand justice and a hunger for escape - for joy.
Run the World was written with the intention of bringing joy through the journey of four loving, devoted sister friends. It's specific and small, authentic and truthful, and deeply joyful.
For many of us, the gravity of this socio-political moment is inevitable. Black joy is neither a refutation of black trauma nor a cure. Black joy is what we have, what we keep to ourselves - a sacred way we can laugh, breathe, smile through the darkest moments, survive, and thrive, even when the persistence of racism seems adamant. I want us to have this show now. I want us to gather together and laugh and cheer for these girls and take a 30 minute break from the madness in our week. We need this show because the terrible series we see on our phones has way too many seasons and badly needs to be canceled.
I believe it is protest to protect your peace, protect your spirit, and nurture your joy. I think it's impressive to watch smart, ambitious black women strive to live their best lives. I believe making Harlem the entrance to experiencing modern New York City can be informative and purposeful, and I think observing healthy black love can be transformative.
At this moment black pictures are always being made political, and while I don't know if any of us can explain what it means to be political in 2021, I'll close with that: right now there are billboards in Los Angeles and Big Red buses in New York City with posters saying Run the World. Next to these words is a picture of four stunning young black women. If that's political, that's what I'm here for.
Originally published on Glamor

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