The Post-Woke Brilliance of American Koko
Is everyone a little bit racist? And if so, what does that mean for a country that just eight years ago was trading in casual talk about a post-racial America? Today, those who believe racism is a problem of the past are tightening their ranks and cutting themselves off from fake news while the millennial gospel of “staying woke” brings with it a rather problematic positioning of progressivism as contest (re: the “woke olympics”) or endless, meaningless atonement--not to mention it’s giving rise to a healthy and questionable cottage industry.
When living legend Erykah Badu coined the phrase “I stay woke” in her phenomenal 2008 song “Master Teacher,” I remember hearing that at the time and thinking, “well, that’s a good mantra.” After all, the song is essentially a call to self-education and mindfulness, to leave behind the servile identities forced upon so many black Americans--not to mention every other marginalized group--in order to become “master teachers” and learn from our past and present mistakes to create a “beautiful world.”
The hope and sense of possibility that was very much alive when that song was recorded and released--back when we had a black man and white woman at the front of the 2008 presidential race--now seems like a hallucinatory fever dream. Hell, only two-and-a-half years ago Kanye West stated that classism had become the new racism and, worse yet, I remember actually agreeing with him (for about two minutes, but still!) As American Koko creator Diana Kilpatrick puts it, “When I first started writing [American Koko], Obama was president, and there was this idea that all race problems dealt with people trying to act appropriately in post-racial America. That was the rumor that was floating around, that racism was basically dead. I thought that was ridiculous — this country was built on top of a legacy of racism.”
Three months after West’s comments, white supremacist Dylan Roof killed nine people in a historic black Episcopal church in Charlotte, SC with the stated intention of starting an all-out race war. And boiling in the background was gamergate and its solidification of a racist, misogynistic, and absurdist alt-right counterculture that was birthed online and has since infiltrated the mainstream at every level, from Vice to the Whitehouse, machinations that we’re still in the process of understanding how they even occurred. As Kilpatrick’s Akosua Millard in Koko puts it, “Racists are like Keyser Soze. The biggest trick they pull is tricking the world into believing they don’t exist.”
And while #oscarssowhite didn’t dismantle a century of entrenched racism within Hollywood, we are finally starting to see the type of sustained support for black creatives that has never really existed. With Oscar talk swirling around the cultural-critique-as-horror-film Get Out following on last year’s win by Moonlight, we’re not just seeing more movies and show with black actors, but also shows that are directly and indirectly about the black experience on TV.
For all the awareness and press given comics artist Alison Bechdel’s eponymous test that provides a helpful baseline with which to assess whether a movie is giving substantial screen time to female actors alongside and presenting them as three-dimensional characters, little seems to be known in the mainstream media about the late comics writer Dwayne McDuffie’s “rule of three” (not to be confused with the writing principle of the same name). Recounting his time at the helm of DC’s Justice League TV show, his adding of a third black character to the large cast was met with considerable backlash both in his office and online as fans decried McDuffie for creating a “black Justice League.”
As he so eloquently puts in this interview recorded before his untimely death in 2011, “Before I knew it, I had broken what I call ‘the rule of three.’ And that rule is, in popular culture, if there are three black people in it, it is a black product. You can have two black guys, although it is a stretch, but if you have three, it’s a black show. And suddenly, it was a ‘black show.’” And it only takes a quick survey of the past century of popular entertainment to realize how true this rule is; trust me, keep it in mind going forward and you’ll see it applied across the board.
Meanwhile, “black shows” like The Carmichael Show and Black-ish that have come into existence over the past few years use the black family as an incubator for thoughtful and probing commentary on the state of the nation.Though Carmichael is centered around tackling hot-button issues--each episode acts like a primer covering a different perspectives--Black-ish has also sharpened its teeth since the election, kicking off its fourth season with a Hamilton-inspired Columbus Day episode about Juneteenth, which celebrates the abolition of slavery.
Of course, a show starring or created by black people does not equal “black TV;” just ask Shonda Rhimes. As she’s more then demonstrated with characters like Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, popcorn-ready political and legal intrigue can exist in its own universe without race having a thing to do with it. This past year has seen a wider character net drawn with shows like Atlanta and Insecure, both shows that center around young black men and women coming of age in a metropolitan area while also featuring the kinds of envelope-pushing and experimentalist tendencies that have become hallmarks of this current moment in American television.
With so much of America’s political rupturing fomenting online, it figures that the show that seems to split the difference between hot-button, but prime time-ready and prestige cable would be a webseries. Loud-mouthed, brazen, and fierce, Kilpatrick’s Akosua Millard is the witty rejoinder to your free-floating liberal guilt. Set in “post-post-racial America,” American Koko treats post-election America as almost something of a ground zero for race relations, where we’ve moved past believing that racism was something for the history books to meekly acknowledging its existence without having much of a plan of how to confront something that has existed in plain sight for four centuries. “It feels really urgent right now in a way that even if it was also urgent in Obama’s administration, the public conversation wasn’t suggesting that.“These are the people that are saying, “I want to be inclusive” or “I want to be better,” but they just don’t know how,’” Kilpatrick notes.
And thus the premise for American Koko was conceived with Kilpatrick’s character a partner in the aptly named Everyone’s a Little Racist Agency (EAR) where we meet Koko’s polyphonous team, tasked with the oh-so-minor objective of ending racism in America. The owner of the agency is the Jewish Milo Gold who, like Batman, “his superpower white privilege.” Joining the gang is the genteel Baldwin Bledsoe, an academically-minded soul who has worked out an algorithm to determine just how racist a person is. And last but not least is “eternal optimist” Lucky Lin who embodies the hope that increased multiculturalism represents to many of us. Together, they engage in the often ludicrous work of helping well-intentioned individuals understand other cultures, a swift reminder of just how disconnected and segregated we still are at the close of the Web 2.0 era.
Of course, as their clients would need to be worried about even being racist in the first place to seek such an agency out, Millard and her team deal with a series of laughable, but not unimaginable, scenarios. In the first season’s riotous cold open, Koko schools a well-intentioned, but utterly clueless Asian mother of an adopted black girl on the different types of black hair. If you’re thinking, well, most people would just Google that, Koko soon does just so, pulling up one of the many YouTube video on black hair maintenance as the stunned mother looks on futilely, the realization of just how subtly pronounced racial difference is falling over her bewildered face.
Koko was conceived during the Obama administration when there was nary a mainstream show or movie around that featured smart and angry black women who say what are on their minds, political correctness be damned. As Kilpatrick notes, “nearly every portrayal of black women has been filtered through the white male gaze,” making Koko one of an increasing number of exceptions, like Insecure and Being Mary Jane, that have emerged in recent years.
Anger as caused by inherited racial trauma is a central theme of Koko. Giving expression to inherited racial trauma, we often see quick cuts to Koko as a slave, being knocked down and getting back up again and again. These flashbacks, while sometimes a bit on the nose, serve to articulate the type of deep-seated, inherited rage that has been genetically passed down from generation to generation. In his work on trauma, academic Dennis Foster wrote “The traumas of slavery exist as mute presences for African Americans. And the racism that produced that trauma persists as well.”
Over the course of two seasons, the audience follows Koko from workplace drama to dating crises and perhaps most memorably, her Meeting for Angry Black Women. Rage and race are both things we tend to shy from talking about and expressing openly, but Koko picks up on the subtleties of the sedated racism so many endure and amplify them to often comedic levels. In the safe space of Koko’s meeting, the instructor walks the assembled women through such scenarios as dealing with that one annoying white coworker they all have. When one character invokes the power of “black girl magic,” Koko swiftly responds, “Magical negroes only exist in movies.”
Koko isn’t one to play her role, not when all she sees is hypocrisy and people hiding from their own truths. Whether it’s at the staggeringly lame parties she accompanies her white best friend to or her workplace, if something is bugging Akosua, you better believe that others will hear about it. Not that her blunt observations always have to do with race as in one memorable scene where she insists to a potential white paramour, “You do realize you’re gay, right?”
And as insensitive as Kilpatrick comes off in that scene, or when she comments about Asians not being able to drive, this is a character that says what she thinks and that naturally makes people uncomfortable. She’s flawed as the rest of us, but also open to being wrong, to adjusting her beliefs based on new information. What sells the anger and indignity Koko continuously endures is the fact that it helps to shine a light on common discussions that rarely enter into mixed company. The show pokes fun at an infinite array of cultural stereotypes. In response to the shooting of the teenage Devonte West by a white restaurant owner, Millard states, “You white folks need to stop binge-watching The Wire. It is fucking with your heads.”
As a person at once unable and unwilling to let herself enjoy the moment for too long, Koko is the embodiment of race’s very facticity. “It gets on my nerves when everyone tiptoes about what’s written right on our faces,” the character exhorts in response to the pleas of a suitor to stop making everything about race, something. After all, racism is not Schrödinger’s Cat; it doesn’t cease to exist if someone opens the box or rather simply tries to talk about what others would rather presume to be dead.
What can seem so painfully obvious to some tends to be largely ignored by most, be it repressing one’s true sexuality or one’s feelings, all in the name of adhering to the social code of “decency.” In the show’s first season, she engages in a prolonged courting with a former friend from college whose penchant for white women soon sends Koko on an investigation all her own, finding that this black man is being pushed by his southern-born mother to marry a white woman. When Koko calls him out, he goes off about black women, painting them in the type of broad strokes that you’d typically hear while watching Fox News and in turn, shedding the light on prejudices that exist with marginalized groups that often go unacknowledged.
At times when watching Koko, one can feel it butting up against the limitations of the web series runtime. How can a show ask such earnest and exacting questions about racism while also upholding the tropes of romantic entanglements and big plot twists? Often Koko can feel like too much of a show as it carves out ample room for Kilpatrick’s many compelling monologues. Indeed, she doesn't so much chew the scenery as become it, which is perhaps why the show can sometimes feel out of balance. Yet, for episodes that cram so much into their short ten minutes, viewers will be hard-pressed to not to learn something when watching the show, especially if they are less than familiar with the everyday realities experienced by those of a darker skin tone.
These formalist quibbles become mute when just purely experiencing the show’s unmitigated passion and willingness to make its characters and its audience a bit uncomfortable in order to arrive at a place of better understanding. Ultimately, the show moves past the idealized concept of being/staying woke as it recognizes that we all have deep-seated prejudices and beliefs that are often unknowingly passed down to us. As Milo notes at one point, ”Being a little racist is what unites us. It’s what makes us the United States of Xenophobia.”
In a time when so many Americans live in communities with people who look like them and spend their time online with others like them across the country, the chance for a thriving, heterogeneous American culture diminishes. American Koko may raise more questions than it answers, but if we’re ever going to reach a place where one doesn’t have to purport to be woke to pass as non-racist, we’re going to have to start exposing ourselves to the unfamiliar and learning how to respond reasonably. That American Koko makes doing so such enjoyable entertainment is what makes it a truly singular, must-watch show.