A Very Empire Halloween

Maya as Cookie Lyon (sans wig), October 2015, La Habra, California.

This year’s Halloween was everything to me. For the first time in fifteen years, I was surrounded by fellow crazy folks who love to step out of their everyday identity for one night to embody someone—or something—else. I’m not just talking about the  hundreds of Los Angelenos who were in full effect on Hollywood Boulevard, I’m talking about my family. I have many fond memories of trick-or-treating with my older sister and parents, who, despite helping us assemble our costumes, probably low-key hated us for dragging them around our neighborhood in the cold. Halloween was never about the pillowcases (yes, pillowcases…boughetto fabulous!) full of candy that I never ate. It was about stepping outside of myself. I don’t know if my family ever connected to Halloween the same way I did, but it was always a special experience to share with them. So, this year, the first time since my freshman year of high school, it went down. And two key members of the fam (let’s be honest: coordinating everybody is just too much work) had a theme: Empire.

You’re probably going through a range of emotions right now. Zahida, how could you? That’s show’s trash. That show makes Black people look soon bad! I didn’t know you were one of those. And so on. And I gotta admit, I get it.  But. I’m not gonna wax lengthy about the complexities in Black culture and media representations of Blackness (or lightskinded-ness) that Empire embodies. There are plenty of other articles you can read about that. I’ll simply say that this: Empire’s grandiosity and dramatic flair are so good and simultaneously terrible (in a Sexual Chocolate kind of way) that I cannot turn away. Nor do I want to. I’m good with it. I celebrate it. It’s a sheer miracle that I was able to continue on with my life after Season 1 ended. Okay, maybe not, but you get my point: I love Empire like a fat kid loves cake. And I don’t care who knows. Not White people. Not even the Diaspora.

For some reason, we seldom talk about the intra-Diasporan gaze. But there is a certain Diasporan criticism (read: judgment) out there that’s arguably as lethal and seductive a trap as the White gaze and the politics of respectability. It argues that if you mimick Whiteness (read: downplay stereotypical Blackness) with enough finesse, you too can live out the fullness of the American dream. So live in the suburbs, opt for names like “Jessica” or “David” instead of “Aisha” (my sister’s name!) or “Jamal,” go to private school, get top grades, dress preppy, and most importantly, should you choose to surround yourself with other Black people, only associate with Black people who are just like you. If your family recently immigrated, identify yourself by their national identity (Nigerian, Jamaican, Bajan, etc.), and never refer to yourself as “Black” or “African American” lest people get confused and start treating you as such.

Before Empire first aired, I gave it the side – eye. Great, that’s just what we need: another show about out of control Black people in the hip hop industry. Flavor of Love and Ray J had shown me enough of that. But really, the Empire previews made me remember my own fear of the Diasporan gaze.  When I was in college, most of my Black classmates were immigrants or first-generation American. Whenever we watched a popular TV show or movie with a predominantly Black American cast, I was always deeply embarrassed by how pervasive the stereotypes of Black Americans were. The characters were materialistic, lazy, loud, and hyper-sexual. I was ashamed of what I saw, not because those things weren’t true about some Black Americans, but because it was an incomplete and narrow depiction. I was afraid that my classmates might believe those things about me. I wasn’t prepared to feel the disgust and insult I would feel when I found out I was their token Black American friend — an backhanded exception to a rule they ascribed to.

I knew that I couldn’t blame the media for internalized racism, but I desperately wished the Diaspora could rid itself of those incomplete truths, those dangerously single stories that we wield on each other, for just a moment. But you can’t wish away the media. And over time, I expanded my Black cultural supply and got better at reading and appreciating the nuances. So now, when I watch Empire, I can find beauty in the flaws, I can place its dramatic story-telling within a larger context of Black narrative, even if it is on the more wild end of the spectrum. I love that Hakeem Lyon and Theo Huxtable would never be friends, and that Cookie Lyon wouldn’t be caught dead shopping at the same stores as Aunt Viv.  This kind of character diversity tickles me.

The characters on Empire give us permission to be our fullest and truest selves in a way that’s unmatched. They are themselves — all of themselves — no matter what, all of the time.  And if being Black in America for 30 years has taught me anything, it’s that the act of being myself, in lieu of American racism that’s penetrated every fiber of society, is the most powerful act of defiance that I can wield. When I watch Empire, I simply watch, clap my hands, stomp my feet, clutch my pearls, and dance to Timbaland’s beats, because on a Wednesday night that’s just how I’m feeling. I don’t worry about what difference my tuning in will make on the ratings and the future of Black shows, or what anyone will think of me for watching. America is still racist to its core, but for one hour each week, I can go to my happy place and boldly be me. As Jamal reminds us in an episode that only a Black person would ever fathom titling, The Devil Quotes Scripture: “My obedience is no longer for sale.”


Me as Lucious Lyon, October 2015, Universal City, California.

Some might think me and my family crazy to bring my 18-month old niece into our Halloween Empire shenanigans. And maybe we were slightly wrong for trying to put her in that wig (spoiler alert: she was having zero parts of it). But every family has its traditions, and every culture has its pop cultural markers.  It just so happens our little brown baby checked both boxes this Halloween. I can’t wait for next year’s theme.


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