When I was young, I used to do that thing most kids (and some adults) do: stand in front of the mirror with my hairbrush in hand, thanking my imaginary, yet adoring fans for loving me and giving me this “award” (read: hairbrush) for my imaginary achievements. The award was usually a pretend Oscar or a Nobel Peace Prize, something little Black girls rarely received.
There aren’t many award shows that specifically seek to recognize the achievements of Black people. The mainstream awards most of us are familiar with have historically (and recently) excluded Black creatives. There are some awards however, like the NAACP Image Awards, that make it their mission to give Black people their moment, even when much of America would rather turn their backs on them.
Take singer and actress Vanessa Williams, for example. Thirty years ago, a then-25-year-old Williams thanked her real-life fans when she took the stage at the 1989 NAACP Image Awards to accept the award for Outstanding New Artist. It was the first award she received after being stripped of her title as Miss America 1984. Williams, who was the first African-American woman to ever receive the crown, was forced to resign after nude photos of her were published without her consent in Penthouse magazine.
Williams had taken a hiatus from public life after the scandal but came back triumphant with her debut album, ”The Right Stuff.” Singles from the album were successful on the Billboard charts and the title song received a Grammy nomination. It would appear she had made her comeback and the American public that had once criticized and shamed her had welcomed her back with open arms.
But when Williams stood on the stage in 1989 with her Image Award in hand, she let the watching world know who was really there for her and who had never left her side.
I definitely want to thank the Black community for showing me how to spread my wings and fly because I’m flying now! Vanessa Williams, 1989
“I definitely want to thank the Black community because when I needed you, you were there for me,” Williams tearfully told the audience as she accepted her award. “I thank you for giving me the opportunity and encouragement. For showing me how to spread my wings and fly because I’m flying now, thank you!”
On Saturday, March 30, the NAACP Image Awards will celebrate 50 years of seeing, encouraging and celebrating Black American achievement in a variety of genres like film, television, poetry, literature and activism.
“We understand at NAACP that how people view us on the screen is how we are (often) treated in the streets. By police officers, by policy makers and by the general public,” Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, told HuffPost about the historic ceremony. “Our mission is to honor and support and highlight positive images of our community throughout the entertainment industry.”
“There’s a distinctive difference that we bring to the table compared to other awards shows and platforms,” he added. “African-Americans have always defined pop culture. We’re celebrating Black excellence.”
It’s important for us to appreciate and embrace the diversity of our own community. Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO
The Image Awards, of course, are not perfect; there are still people and categories that have yet to gain recognition. The NAACP and the Image Awards came under scrutiny from the LGBTQ community this year after the organization failed to recognize “Pose,” a critically acclaimed FX drama. The show boasts the largest-ever cast of transgender and LGBTQ actors, and is about Black and Latinx ball culture in 1980′s New York City, produced, among others, by trans activist and author Janet Mock.
“I am disappointed that our own refuse to truly see us, largely I assume, (because) we are as unapologetically trans & queer as we are black,” Mock said on Twitter in February after the apparent snub. “Respectability politics won’t save us.”
When asked about this and how the awards may expand in the future, Johnson responded: “[The Image Awards] is an opportunity for us to grow and learn from one another ... to deepen our understanding and learn about each other. There are areas we’re going to have to consider in future years of the show. Our growth will be consistent.”
I’ll still watch the Image Awards, as I have for as long as I can remember, to get a sense of being among family both on the red carpet and during the ceremony. And if ever I’m lucky enough to retire my hairbrush and win a real award of my own, like Vanessa Williams, I too will thank the Black community because I know their support will have helped me succeed.
After all, the Image Awards and the NAACP remind us that sometimes, we’re all we got.