When Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announced their engagement immediately after the Thanksgiving weekend, the corner of the universe known as Black Twitter went off.
Meghan Markle isn’t the first American in line to become royalty, or the first Black woman to become the object of a royal’s heart. Yet, as the news cycle drowned in pieces celebrating Markle — analyzing her fashion, speculating over her upcoming wedding details — it didn’t feel frivolous. Regardless of whether you think the Royal Family deserves so much attention, it was special to see Markle receive the “leading lady” treatment, the kind rarely afforded to Black women on this scale. It’s an especially exciting moment for all the little Black girls who get to grow up with a real-life Black princess at the center of her own romantic fairy tale.
And when you put Markle’s romantic victory in the context of 2017 as a whole, it almost serves as a grand season finale. If this year were a hit show on HBO, the cast would be loaded with Black women in leading roles and given their own love story — one built for and embraced by an outside audience for once.
One of this year’s biggest moments for Black women’s love stories was Rachel Lindsay’s historic season of the Bachelorette, which represented the first time the franchise cast a woman of color as the lead. During Lindsay’s season, which also featured the most diverse cast in the franchise’s history, millions of viewers across the country got to witness a Black woman being adored, wooed, and desired.
Lindsay’s season exposed the franchise’s viewers to some valuable but often ignored conversations about race and dating — such as when she discovered that one of her suitors wasn’t romantically attracted to Black women despite being a Black man himself, or when she expressed the pressure she was up against as the first Black lead in choosing the “right” kind of man. Though the season wasn’t without some backlash from fans — notably, Lindsay wound up choosing Bryan Abasolo over fan favorite Peter Kraus (who was quite possibly her own favorite, too) — but her season will go down in history as one of the seminal pop culture moments where Black women got to enjoy being the romantic lead.
Markle and Lindsay were hardly the only Black women celebrated for pursuing their romantic happiness in 2017.
Olympic gold medalist and Grand Slam champion Serena Williams married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in an epic ceremony in New Orleans this fall; Anna Wintour and Beyonce were in attendance. Williams was the first to spill the beans last December (via Reddit, of course) in a poem accompanying a cartoon of Ohanian on one knee. The announcement — and how public the two of have been since then — surprised many given how private their relationship had been prior to their engagement.
Like Markle and Lindsay’s relationships, Williams’ is an interracial one, and therefore subject to plenty of undue scrutiny from outside observers. The usual arguments — that a person is somehow betraying her race by dating outside of it; or that there is some kind of unspoken, internalized racism at work — couldn’t matter less. Either way, it’s not for anyone else to diagnose. Williams deserves a break from people trying to take control of her narrative.
A few months before they tied the knot, and before she gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Williams posed (mostly nude) for Vanity Fair magazine, with her round, gorgeous, and very pregnant belly on proud display. It was, in part, an homage to Demi Moore’s iconic 1991 cover of the same publication, but also honoring herself. After the unwarranted and sexist fixation on Williams’ body — for years, reporters and columnists would remark about her masculine build — as well as centuries of trauma Black mothers have had to endure in this country, the cover was nothing less than astounding.
And then there’s America’s first family, Mr. and Mrs. Beyonce Knowles. Fans speculated for months whether or not there were any autobiographical elements to the dark tale of heartbreak that her visual 2016 album Lemonade portrays, and if so, why she would stay with Jay-Z. This year, Jay-Z dropped his epic apology album, 4:44, and fans may have gotten a few answers.
In 4:44 we are presented with a wiser, more evolved Jay-Z who says, plain as day on the album’s eponymous track 4:44, “Like the men before me, I cut off my nose to spite my face.” He spends the album unpacking the inherited act of disregarding and degrading Black women; he opens up about how perspective-altering the act of having children can be; and he revisits haunting conversations with major American pop culture figures like O.J., all in the name of growing up.
The album ends with the song Legacy. The track begins with his daughter’s voice asking him what a “will” is, and he goes on to note all of the things he could possibly leave behind, and to whom and why. He illustrates all of the influences, bad and good, he’s had throughout his life. By the end of the album, it seems he’s reconciled with, and then parted ways from, the man who would openly cheat on his wife, or hold grudges with longtime friends like Kanye West. A wiser Jay-Z recognizes it is not worth all he has earned and gained. Respecting his wife, Black women, Black queer women (in the track Smile, he details for the first time what is was like growing up the son of a queer mother), and ultimately himself is, indeed, a legacy worth leaving behind.
Other Black romances captivated the queer community. Rutina Wesley, who played a bisexual vampire in HBO’s True Blood and a lesbian journalist in Queen Sugar, came out publicly as queer herself when she announced her engagement to Chef Shonda on Instagram. Wesley announced the engagement in a moving series of photos, accompanied with sweet hashtags like #SheFeedsMySoul. It was a full circle moment for the actress, who has spoken publicly about her role in Queen Sugar saying, “I want to play a Black role. I want to play myself. I want to see myself.”
This year taught us that representation matters. There was a much needed (and long overdue) increase in the number of Black women falling in love on the big and small screen — and an equal uptick of those performances being rewarded.
Viola Davis won her first Oscar this year for her supporting role in the movie adaptation of the play Fences by August Wilson. As Viola eloquently stated in her acceptance speech, the love story in Fences specifically — and the characters that playwright August Wilson chose to create more broadly — is familiar to Black Americans, and the storylines are ones that we recognize from our everyday lives, magnified and made important through art. Recognizing Viola’s portrayal was the recognition of all the Black aunties and grandmas.
The Emmys showed the love for important Black queer stories as well, such as Lena Waithe’s remarkable Thanksgiving episode of Master of None and the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror. Waithe’s episode chronicles her character’s growing up and accepting her sexuality and, over time, her family’s gradual acceptance around the Thanksgiving table through the years. “San Junipero” followed two women in pursuit of happiness after death, and whether following one’s heart over one’s mind made for a meaningful eternity.
At the box office, one of the summer’s biggest hits was Girls Trip, starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and America’s newest sweetheart, Tiffany Haddish. In the film, the quartet travel to New Orleans for Essence Fest, and Hangover-esque shenanigans ensue. Sure, there are pee jokes, and a crass scene involving a grapefruit. But it also tells the stories of one woman summoning the strength to leave a bad marriage, another who finds love, and all with the support of each other.
Spike Lee brought back his film debut She’s Gotta Have It as a Netflix show starring DeWanda Wise, an updated look at Black women and their sexuality, according to Lee. The show’s main character, Nola Darling, is a pansexual artist living in modern-day gentrifying Brooklyn. It’s landed with mixed reviews, but the one thing most viewers seem to agree on is that it’s refreshing to see a Black woman who’s allowed to be sexual and who gets to be the star.
The network OWN debuted Black Love, a docu-series that took viewers behind-the-scenes of high profile Black couples, including actress Meagan Good and husband actor/minister/movie producer DeVon Franklin; and Tia Mowry of Sister, Sister fame and husband actor Cory Hardrict. The series set out to answer the question: What makes a marriage work? And viewers weighed-in on social media, keeping the intriguing conversation going. Black Love, while it garnered record-breaking ratings for OWN and mostly praise for its candid look at love, received criticism for coming off very one-dimensionally: the show seems only to have space for straight, traditional, cis couples. The series was granted a second season, so perhaps they will expand their definition of a loving relationship.
The examples go on. Yara Shahidi of ABC’s Black-ish, in addition to starting college at Harvard this fall, is rolling out her highly anticipated spin off Grown-ish, featuring a budding romance between herself and a recurring character from Black-ish. Star Trek debuted with a new Uhura for this generation, positioned front and center as the show’s lead. Erica, the kid sister to Lucas from Stranger Things, stole the show in just a handful of scenes and secured herself a larger role next season purely on her dynamic energy alone. Even on the stage, playwright Lynn Nottage became the first female playwright of color to win a Pulitzer twice. And R. Kelly, who has long been accused of preying on young Black girls, was recently robbed for nearly everything in Atlanta homes, which feels like karma.
And even when not in character, Black women used their voices to stress the importance of loving ourselves and centering ourselves first.
In her Glamour Women of the Year Summit talk, Tracee Ellis Ross pointed out that a woman ought to have permission to be concerned with cultivating her autonomy and fulfillment before anything else.
“So here I am sorting out what my life looks like when it’s fully mine,” she said.“It takes a certain bravery to do that. It means risking being misunderstood, perceived as alone and broken, having no one to focus on, fall into or hide behind, having to be my own support and having to stretch and finding family, love, and connection outside the traditional places.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) said in July that after years of being pushed aside and ridiculed by white male colleagues and critics alike, she was “reclaiming” her time. Her pushback went viral, and landed her on the covers of magazines and in the pages of dozens of publications who wanted to know how to endure as a Black woman in this world.
This year began with one of the biggest and brightest examples of a Black woman’s epic love story — Michelle Obama — passing the baton to the wife of a white supremacist. On that cold and gloomy January morning, it felt like the end of something. Maybe it was the beginning of something else, too.
We Black women have always known our worth deep down–we have the power to swing a state’s vote. But this year the world celebrated with us. This year the world applauded us. This year the world loved us.