Why Black Women Cultural Heritage Stewards Matter

The "Insecure"/HBO/AKA Sorority Trademark Disagreement as a Real-Time Case Study

Busts of three Black women against a beige background with a white amorphous shape

*Special Note: Alexia Hudson-Ward is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. This post focuses on the matter of honoring Black women content creators and cultural heritage stewards.

Last weekend, HBO’s Insecure kicked off its fifth and final season in exuberant fashion. For months, fans of the show bantered with the show’s creator and producer, Issa Rae, about the fate of some of the characters and their relationships. The celebratory moment of concluding one of the most influential shows ever produced was dampened, however, by a Twitter firestorm that raged so fiercely that actress Amanda Seales, executive producer Melina Matsoukas, and Rae weighed in with various opinions on social media.

The issue pertained to a series of scenes featuring the character Tiffany (played by Amanda Seales) dressed in partial view Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated paraphernalia. Some members of the organization were enraged and took to social media. The Insecure team stood firm, arguing that Tiffany’s character has been portrayed as a member of the sorority since the show’s inception. Moreover, the team added that the sorority was portrayed respectfully from their vantage point.

Not everyone agrees.

The corporate headquarters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated released a statement to its membership on this matter, which was then leaked and posted online by several news sites. The sorority asserts that HBO’s usage of the organization’s Greek letters and shield violates its trademark and copyright.

The latter part of the sorority’s statement is worth exploring through a DEIA lens. Before I delve more into the copyright and trademark matter, I will provide a brief overview of the show and the relevance of its incorporation of Black Greek life.

Insecure is led by an outstanding ensemble cast representing the first major network portrayal of Black West Coast millennial professionals. Having met at Stanford University, the characters navigate many post-undergraduate life complications that arise in friendships, romantic relationships, and their careers. While marketed as a comedy, Insecure is groundbreaking for several reasons. Entering the Black West Coast experience into an assemblage of programming that largely centers on the East Coast is a refreshing approach to a stale collective of buddy-themed television shows. Fans of Insecure comment with delight that the show’s two primary leads are dark-skinned women. Many viewers also openly share on social media how relatable Issa Rae’s character is as a person struggling to gain their personal and professional footing while surrounded by a circle of seemingly successful friends.

As a Gen Xer, I will admit that some of Insecure’s humor flies straight over my head. Nonetheless, I find the show to be an enjoyable way to wind down my week.

Because Insecure features the experiences of Black, college-educated millennials, I was not surprised that Black Greek letter organizations are factored into the storylines. Historical Black Fraternities and Sororities have been cultural influences from their inception. Despite criticisms of elitism (paywalled), this set of organizations (often referred to as the Divine Nine) have mainstreamed African traditions of call and response, step dancing, and fictive kinship. Moreover, these organizations provide refuge for many Black college students.

So, while there is a complicated relationship between the US and Greek letter organizations, it is not surprising to see popular culture incorporate some forms of Greek Life into shows about college friends.

However, incorporation is one thing, appropriation without approval is something different.

The internet kerfuffle over HBO violating the legal trademark and copyright of a Black women’s organization has layers of strangeness. The seemingly glib manner in which Issa Rae addressed the issue is odd. It is peculiar that Rae celebrated gaining approval from Stanford University to film on campus while flippantly punching down on someone who queried her using the sorority’s images on the show.

Within all the chatter and debate, a few of this situation’s crucial elements are clearly in opposition to DEIA principles. At the writing of this posting, HBO remains silent on the matter. At the same time, Rae, Seales, and Matsoukas (three BIPOC women) continue to defend the use of the sorority’s imagery on Insecure, raising disjointed points about fictional character portrayal without taking responsibility for the controversy.

In the era of #ProtectBlackWomen, #CiteBlackWomen, #BlackLivesMatter, and #SupportBlackBusiness, a massive for-profit media conglomerate choosing to dishonor a Black women’s organization’s trademark and copyright appears to be a weird and deliberate choice.

I will hold up this blog as an example of why I refuse to give HBO a pass on this situation.

Toward Inclusive Excellence is supported by both a fantastic team at Choice and attorneys. Through each step of our pending trademark application, we received crystal clear legal guidance as a fledging enterprise of ACRL, a nonprofit professional association of college and research library staff. I refuse to believe that HBO is incapable of exercising the same legal due diligence concerning this show.

The trademark usage disagreement between HBO/Insecure and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated provides an important teachable moment for the academy.

HBO violating the trademark and copyright of a Black women’s organization is a real-time case study on who and what is valued in relation to Black women’s contributions. A positive portrayal of an organization’s legally protected assets is irrelevant if permission is not granted.

In addition, an essential element must not be diminished or overlooked while internet debates on the topic continue. Black women are within their right to serve as guardians and stewards of whatever matters to them, including their organization’s cultural heritage assets.

This should not be debatable.

The appropriating of Black imagery and content (paywalled) has been a persistent issue for centuries. Various disciplines, individuals, and organizations have rightfully called out the need to recognize invisible labor, correct the erasure of Black women’s contributions across sectors, and honor the cultural and corporate assets of Black women and their organizations.

There are too many circumstances like this happening to Black women creators who do not have the same fame and recognition as the principal players in this disagreement. Their stories matter too.

Higher education has much more work to do in this arena. Before the academy can be ever project excellence, we must first strive toward ensuring inclusivity that honors the totality of Black women’s creations.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.