So like many I am a big fan of the soap hip hopera Empire. It is a part of my Wednesday TV block where everything stops for me to plug in and live tweet at all the ridiculous developments. I remember when I first saw the news that Empire had been green-lit by Fox I was excited to have such a show that took a look Hip Hop industry complete with original music mixed in with the drama just like another favorite of mine Nashville. However, I was nervous because Fox had a record of axing good shows I liked (RIP Almost Human and Gang Related) so the success of this show made me very happy. Part of the show’s success is an exceptional cast led by Terrance Howard as Lucious Lyon but the real show stopper being Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon. Everyone knew Taraji would bring it but when she strutted out of that prison we knew we were in for a show! Cookie was everything we were needing with her anti-politically correct self. After taking the fall for her ex-husband Lucious she was coming for what was hers in the form of Empire Enterprises, the record label she helped found with her $400,000 in drug money. However, we soon realized in the pilot that Lucious had moved on to the younger former debutante Anika Calhoun aka Boo Boo Kitty played by the lovely Grace Gealey (she retweets me!). To make matters worse for Cookie Anika held the position that Cookie wanted, director of A&R. So from the start we were able to see how the writers were building the Anika vs Cookie showdown that my wonderful resident black feminist friend Brionca T. does not like because of how it puts these two beautiful women against one another. Within the first episode it became clear that Cookie was the matron saint of mother”hood” who was smart and beautiful on top. What I did not expect were such hateful comments directed at Anika for reasons I could not understand. People literally resorted to hoping Boo Boo Kitty would die or get severely beat up. One person even commented that you could never trust the “light bright or blue black” ones (Girl you need psychological help, you got serious skin color issues).
So I wanted to find out what caused such visceral reactions to Anika because in my opinion she did nothing wrong, after all she wasn’t around when Lucious divorced Cookie while she was in prison. Though we had the scene when she took off her clothes and paraded around showing her insecurity, I was able to understand where she was coming from because who wouldn’t be just a little bit intimidated if your boyfriend/girlfriend’s ex came back unexpected from prison after 17 years when they were supposed to be gone for 30? A lot of people said that Anika is stuck up which I can see where they are coming from but I never saw her go as far as to say something condescending to Cookie. The “she’s bougie” argument reveals a lot about how people respond to Anika. Cookie is seen as someone who prides herself on her rough upbringing from the mean streets of Philly. She was able to build an Empire so in a way she represents the American dream but her urban roots gives her an appeal to a lot of people, mainly black, who can identify with her experience and her urban colloquialisms coupled with Cookie styled realness. So Anika for many is seen as the opposite of Cookie. She made it clear to Cookie that she was a debutante who’s father was a doctor so she could “slice your throat without disturbing her pearls” (Get it Boo Boo!). On top of that, Anika did not know how to respond when she went with Lucious down into the hood to recruit Titan and a drive happened (Poor Boo Boo). Anika’s lack of touch with the “authentic”[sic] black experience of struggle in America’s ghettos makes it difficult for many viewers to sympathize with her and makes them pray for her downfall.
But if you think this competition between Anika and Cookie is just for entertainment you would be mistaken. The tension between these two reflects a long history of black elites vs the black masses. It is no small thing that Anika is light skinned with a dark skinned mother and a white father as that connects to the larger history of who constituted the black elites early on. The children of enslaved mothers whose fathers were slave masters sometimes had access to better opportunities such as manumission and inheritances. Because of their parentage, they also had lighter skin and more anglicized features which though was still looked down on by whites was seen as better than being darker skinned and more closely connected to slavery. This helped to support the hierarchical system of racism, as you would see the use of quadroon balls (related to debutante balls) where light skinned women would attempt to gain a white husband who had money and could support them (this occurs during slavery in places such as New Orleans so you have a tradition well in place when slavery in abolished in 1865). Following the abolition of slavery in the US and the Caribbean, those black people who were able to ascend to a middle class status developed certain philosophies in regards to respectability that stemmed from Victorian ideals. These concepts of being presentable were seen as the best line of defense against racism following slavery. So with these ideals we have groups such as Club Women emerge who stressed modesty for African American women due to stereotypes of black women being sexually lascivious. Also you have W.E.B. DuBois who
expressed his belief in the talented 10th the top 10% of black people who have gained success who are tasked with using their knowledge and professions to help lift their black brothers and sisters up from their position. This concept is noble but it became a way of being condescending to black masses who may have been illiterate or had different ideas of success than that which was stressed by people such as DuBois. The conflict between the black elites and the black masses was seen in other instances such as the very public disagreement between DuBois and Marcus Garvey who in a nutshell advocated that the oppressed black masses rise up. You have the continued tension between the two groups reaching even to today with some black elites stressing respectability politics as a way to safeguard black lives from police violence (Really? Last I checked MLK was killed in a suit so those that think respectability will save us please take your seat it is getting cold).
So with all of this back history it is easy for me to see why people despise Anika as she is the opposite of Cookie. Cookie is realness and represents the struggle so to many she is authentic especially since she doesn’t mince words and does whatever she wants. Anika is a reminder of black elites who think they are better than others because of how she presents herself and the one time she mentioned that she was a debutante. To many Anika can’t be trusted even though the extent of her scheming was hiring a private investigator to look into what Cookie was up to (She was then read by Cookie with that prayer). In my opinion Anika loves Lucious and she only wants to do the best job she can as director of A&R. If she was a criminal mastermind she would be doing what Andre and Rhonda (Who I love!) are doing but she doesn’t seem
interested in taking over Empire (I’d be more worried about Lucious bribing her father. Girl needs to listen to her mother’s warnings). Perhaps what illustrates the relationship between Anika and Cookie is how they both are entangled together because of Lucious. Cookie criticized Lucious when she came back, saying she liked him better when he was a thug but he is striving for the refinement that Anika represents and brings to the table and he is planning on using her father so that his IPO is approved. So this post is only meant to encourage people to think about why they gravitate so easily to Cookie and reject Anika. I for one love them both and I think they both represent the diversity that makes up the black experience in America. We have a lot of Cookies out there who are powerful and wonderfully unapologetic but then we also have the daring and fierce bougie queens represented by Anika who can hold their own (as long as it doesn’t involve almost getting shot at). I look forward to the day when these two women team up because together they would truly be unstoppable. But now I have to wait till next week till I get another dose of these two handling their business.
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