I graduated from JHU back in 2009 (yikes)! Was Instagram even around then? It wasn’t. Either way, one of the most exciting stages of working on my master’s degree at JHU was preparing for my thesis. Granted, we all started prepping for thesis the minute we enrolled for our first class but once I picked my topic and started researching and writing, I knew I was close to the finish line. My thesis, “Media Coverage of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Relationship: African-American Perceptions of Black Love in the Media” is still my pride and joy. Why this topic you ask? Well, who doesn’t love love? Also at that time, Barack Obama was elected the first Black president and what followed were numerous newspaper headlines, magazine covers and hours of coverage focusing on his relationship with Michelle. The bulk of coverage purported that ‘Black love’ had returned or was now a reality because Barack and Michelle appeared to actually like each other. A labor of love if you will, my completed thesis was later used as an example in the ‘Applied Qualitative Research’ class, which is the perfect segue to the point of this post.
I met a student from that very class, Jonelle Henry. She started a political and social soapbox, Districtly Speaking, through which she periodically hosts engaging town halls. She invited me to participate in last month’s town hall, which was a celebration and discussion of Black television shows and films, and the popular Black couples that became household staples. We discussed Black TV shows from The Cosby Show and Martin, to classic Black movies like Love Jones and Love & Basketball and as a result, the discussion was lively. We also discussed real-life couples like Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith and Barack and Michelle Obama, and the love we assumed and hoped existed between them.
What remains constant about love is that everyone has felt and experienced it; therefore everyone has an opinion about it. When it comes to romantic relationships, multiply the number of opinions by 10. Since I can’t share all of those opinions, I picked a few points I thought you’d find interesting as it relates to the media:
- Claire and Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show are neck and neck with Barack and Michelle Obama for favorite Black couple. The loose similarities in career success, child rearing and just overall lovable factor make the two couples the ultimate blueprint of relationships. While one is fiction and the other reality, both couples represent positive representations of Blacks in the media.
- Participants from my study, and some attendees at the town hall, expressed frustration that fictitious couples were even used as a blueprint for romantic relationships. Someone at the town hall even asked whether Caucasian viewers had to look to couples on television to help guide their relationships. I don’t have the answer to that question but what I realized from my research is that I only scratched the surface and there is a lot more to explore about the media and its impact on all romantic relationships.
- One major takeaway came up during the panel when an attendee asked “Whose responsibility is it to protect and uphold the image of Blacks in the media- the consumers or the creators?” In other words, should Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) or Lee Daniels (Precious, Empire), both Black creatives, take care to only show ‘positive’ representations of Blacks in the media?
Should Scandal’s Olivia Pope refrain from engaging in relationships with married men? Perhaps but that certainly doesn’t mean all Black women consume huge amounts of red wine and popcorn and are involved in love triangles. Or does this mean consumers should stop watching television shows with what they think are ‘negative’ representations to demonstrate that they want something better? The conversation got a little heated as the room was divided on this one so I’m curious to hear what my fellow JHU alum and students think.
What we did agree on during the town hall is that beautiful images of Black love do exist (thank goodness) but we have to mind how these images affect the way we perceive love and each other.
Mercy Chikowore (@MercyC) is a Public Relations and Social Media consultant, freelance writer and Communications Director for the DC chapter of ColorComm. With almost a decade of PR and marketing experience under her belt, Mercy has worked with nonprofit, entertainment and private sector clients. The Zimbabwe native received her Bachelor of Arts from Claflin University where she studied Print Journalism and later received her Master of Arts in Communication from The Johns Hopkins University. While at JHU she focused on Public and Media Relations and completed and defended her thesis: “Media Coverage of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Relationship: African-American Perceptions of Black Love in the Media.” Mercy often serves as a voice on relationship, career and communication panels and writes music reviews and guest posts on PR blogs. Her most recent post, Never Stop Moving: One PR Professional Shares Her Biggest Lesson, may inspire you. Mercy is also a pop culture junkie, sushi addict and has an unhealthy obsession with music and live concerts. Don’t be shy, you can say ‘hi’ to Mercy on LinkedIn or send her a tweet!