What do you want to be when you grow up?
Everyone has been asked that at least 100 times before they enter college.
Socioeconomic backgrounds and accessibility to resources often affect the limits children place on themselves and consequently how that question is answered.
One career path aspiration particularly uncommon for black children is careers in directing, producing and animation.
Director and animator Jamaal Bradley has produced content for animated hits such as "Meet the Croods", "Open Season" and "Tangled." Throughout his professional life, Bradley has worked on feature films, video games, commercials, animated shorts and video game cinematics. He is currently a senior animator at Valve.
He is also an African American man and my cousin.
Although Bradley initially wanted to own his own business, as time progressed, he began to gain a heightened interest in art.
Despite the fear of a “starving artist” lifestyle, he decided to pursue his dream of being a professional artist. During his undergraduate studies he had a professor who worked for Disney and pushed him to delve into animation.
“Here’s an animation book, here’s a VHS tape —go try it,” he remembers her saying.
Years later during graduate school at Savannah College of Art and Design, Bradley received the opportunity to move across the country and work for a game startup.
Going from being a college student and eating “Dorito sandwiches” to working at a professional studio miles away from home was daunting. But what’s life without a risk?
He took the job and has been able to gather real success in the film industry. Bradley quickly noticed that a sparse amount of his counterparts looked like him.
He believes a major factor in the lack of black film artists is the notion that the black community is not pushed to pursue artistic careers.
“From slavery to the civil rights movement, black people still are not completely free,” he said. “We didn’t have all of the rights in the ‘80s and are still fighting to be equal. To have your child go into art and be successful is unheard of.”
The lack of accessibility for black youth to pursue artistic careers has hindered an increase of diversity in film professions. From struggling school districts to lack of disposable income, black children have struggled to experiment with creativity.
“Pursuing the arts, writing and music is often a tough hurdle when you keep cutting imagination,” he said. “Kids see all of these opportunities but do not know the first step to take.”
Growing up, Bradley did not have many black characters he looked up to. Most of the movies he remembers included negative stereotypes associated with the black community.
For example, Tom and Jerry had a black woman character, “Mammy Two Shoes,” who was highly stereotyped and spoke broken English.
“You don’t see yourself on TV, you don’t see yourself in books, so how are you supposed to find pride in who you are,” he said.
It is more than just a matter of sprinkling an extra black character in a movie.
Children of color should not have to solely depend on Frozone and Princess Tiana to show them just how powerful a black person can be.
To create real, meaningful change ,there needs to be more black directors and producers. There can be a natural shift in typical characters seen in film if there are more people of color in leadership, Bradley said.
An inclusive environment is essential. There should not be one character of sacrifice who is advertised tirelessly to make an organization seem like they genuinely care about the social and cultural implications of having black characters.
“There needs to be a directional power and skills in the position to make stories,” Bradley said. “If this happens, those in leadership positions will be able to understand the culture behind the art.”
To quote award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, “Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to do, I wasn’t sure it was a possibility…We plant the seed of possibility.”
Representation matters. We must continue to plant these seeds of possibility so gardens of opportunity can bloom.
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