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Black on TV

I'm excited about seeing more and more black people on TV. Today I'm creating my own Web series, and I'm encouraged by what creators like Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris have done in network television. Of course, it wasn't always that way. And even now, in this age of new voices and faces of color in the industry, in this age of Obama and Oprah, the struggle continues.
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Ever since I was a little boy, I've loved television. I'm proud to be working in the industry today, writing and acting on the small screen. I'm also excited about seeing more and more black people on camera (look at the cast of Grey's Anatomy and Black-ish) and being aware of creators like Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris. Today I'm creating my own Web series, and I'm encouraged by what those ladies have done in network television. Of course, it wasn't always that way. And even now, in this age of new voices and faces of color in the industry, in this age of Obama and Oprah, the struggle continues.

My first encounter with the impact of race on TV was in the '70s. I was a huge fan of The Brady Bunch and had fantasized about being part of the Brady clan -- that is, until I saw a Brady episode that deals with race. A white neighbor adopts two boys, one black and one Asian. They run away from home (to the Brady backyard) because they don't feel like they belong. It hit me then, watching that episode, that I could never be a Brady kid; I wouldn't fit in. My presence in that family would be an "issue." It changed the way I looked at TV.

Today, television has changed, and there are many shows I like that feature black people (The Flash, How to Get Away With Murder). But it's rare that those shows are as diverse behind the camera as they are onscreen.

While there are many people of color working in writers' rooms today, there are still plenty of all-white writing staffs. (Next time you're watching a TV awards show and the winning writers rush the stage, take note.) The truth is that people hire people who share their sensibility, people who are "like them" -- and that often translates into a homogenous group. If I had a show, I'd hire people I relate to and who relate to me -- on some level that's the same principle -- though I'd undoubtedly have a diverse staff because, as a rule, I hang out with a variety of people. I'd be searching for that balance, because it would "feel right" to me.

When I came to Los Angeles almost five years ago, I arrived as a formally trained playwright and actor, with a goal of getting a TV-writing gig. I had an agent and a manager, and I knew many people in the industry, but there was no job for me. At some point my manager suggested I apply to one of the network's diversity programs as a way of potentially getting in.

The suggestion made me angry. I hadn't moved across the country to get into a "program." I'd moved across the country to get a job. Furthermore, did I really want to be lumped into the "diversity" pile again? Hadn't I done that all my life? But after considering it, I realized I had nothing to lose. I wrote a new spec script, and I applied to several programs and was accepted into one.

The CBS Writers Mentoring Program changed my professional life. Primarily, it introduced me to the culture of TV behind the scenes. I discovered how writers' rooms work, what show runners are looking for in employees and how to take a meeting. I was instructed on how to prepare myself for the day-to-day challenge of creating collaboratively. The goal of the program: to help me fit into the culture seamlessly. And, once inside the program, my agent and manager were able to get me out for more interviews. Eventually I landed a gig, as a writer on Covert Affairs, where I spent two seasons.

So much of what I've learned as a writer is to lean into what I know. That's the source of my deepest writing, and it's my deepest work that makes me most compelling as a creative person. For that reason, it can be difficult to be a writer of color in the world of TV. So often the stories I want to bring, the stories I relate to, the conflicts I imagine, are not the stories that are onscreen. There's a process of "translation" that is a constant part of the work. The further a writer is from "mainstream," the bigger the learning curve.

Today I've turned my attention to a subject close to my heart and in line with my experience. My current project is called SEND ME. It's a Web series about a woman named Gwen (Tracie Thoms) who has the power to send black people back in time to slavery -- more or less as an "extreme sport." People who approach her want to go -- to test themselves, to find out about their history, to reignite their will to live. This is similar to the way people climb mountains, cliff dive, or jump out of airplanes in order to test their limits. The candidates are extreme personalities, and they're all in search of some connection to their history that they haven't experienced. They're all trying to find themselves and learn more about how they fit into the culture at large. Gwen argues with her husband about whether they should be sending people on this journey at all.

Much of this material mirrors my experience. I have questioned where I fit in. As a studious kid I was accused of not being "black enough." As a gay man I've felt pushback from black people who take issue with my sexual orientation. Today I'm able to celebrate who I am. As a gay black man, I've moved through questions around my relationship to the black community, and I've wondered about my "obligations" as a writer to other people who look like me. Today I understand that telling the truth about my story can have a positive impact on anyone who reads or sees my work. I've had the experience of being followed in convenience stores and being stopped by the police, I've been heartbroken and angry about the racism I've seen on the news, and I've struggled with what to do about all that, just as the characters in SEND ME wrestle with what they're doing and what they should be doing. These challenges are woven throughout the material I'm working on.

In order to make the first season of this Web series, we've launched an Indiegogo campaign for SEND ME. Donors are helping us create this series -- to launch audiences into their own questions around race and belonging, about the impact of history and about personal obligations to self and community. I'm combining my skills as a writer with what I know about the organizational mindset that goes with creating television. I'm pushing past what I've done before to create something new and out of the box. By taking on this radical and unique subject matter, I'm hoping to present a universal story of belonging and identity.