Geoffrey Owens – And How Black Artists Are Expected To Survive

attends the 9th Annual TV Land Awards at the Javits Center on April 10, 2011 in New York City.

Geoffrey Owens – And How Black Artists Are Expected To Survive

A system that is stepping on our necks will also shame us for doing what’s necessary.

Published September 4, 2018

Sometimes the internet gets it right.

Fox News recently published a mean-spirited (and completely unnecessary) news bit on actor Geoffrey Owens, who is working as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey.

The photo shows Owens looking considerably older than he did on The Cosby Show (as he should, since it was over 30 years ago). And the paparazzi-styled photo screamed, "gotcha!" since it looks like he didn’t know it was taken. (The customer who took the picture promptly sold it to a tabloid.)

Blame it on decades of experience in celebrity journalism, but I expected social media platforms to explode in laughter with memes and gifs ribbing Owens. Working as a cashier at a supermarket? After being well known for an Emmy-winning show? I could only imagine how ugly Black Twitter could get.

Except it didn’t. Instead of piling on with jokes, the reaction was just the opposite. 100 percent of the people on my timelines were disgusted with Fox News for reporting the non-story and were proud of Owens for handling his business. The Screen Actors Guild started a hashtag: #ActorsWithDayJobs and several working actors outlined their own experiences with working jobs as varied as working in a flower shop to being a nanny.

“Your visibility as an actor never goes away,” tweeted actress Pamela Adlon. “But the money sure does.”

Despite some folks’ attempts to paint Owens as a sad-sack, out-of-work actor who has fallen on hard times, he’s actually anything but. His IMDB profile shows he’s been working consistently since his days as the loveable Elgin on The Cosby Show. He is a graduate of the prestigious Yale School of Drama and teaches acting at the Ivy League university. But even for the most seemingly successful among us, there are lean times, and Owens likely saw a major source of his revenue, Cosby Show residuals, dry up thanks to the heinous actions of his co-star. He mentioned in a recent interview that things were slow and he needed a job that was flexible. He specifically said that he believed being exposed as a wage worker would cost him dearly in show business, so he kept it on the low. Lord knows, Hollywood throws you away if they think you’re not in the game anymore.

This goes double if you’re a Black actor.

Ten years ago, Will Smith wanted to join the ranks of Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford. He wanted to be an international star, not just an American actor. It would take travel and heavy-duty marketing and promotion to cross that line. He did it.

But he had to do it with his own money. He laid out a plan, he called it Global Willing, (of course, because: Will Smith). He traveled relentlessly to get the worldwide exposure that white actors get just by waking up in the morning.

Thirteen percent of Hollywood’s working actors are Black, which mirrors the population. The challenge is that many of them are working in what are called “core films,” which are films that are made with all Black people. Often, that means lower budgets and non-union gigs, with studios making little effort to promote anything that isn’t starring Kevin Hart. It also means actors like Geoffrey Owens don’t have a diverse list of roles to audition for, or enough visibility to snag endorsement deals to sustain themselves between films or TV projects. He’s a classically trained Yale-grad who has often performed Shakespeare. Considering the minstrel show Hollywood expects most Black actors to put on in studio films, it’s likely he didn’t fit the profile for many open casting calls. Indeed, none of his post-Cosby roles would fall into the category of a “core” film.

Being Black in Hollywood means working in a genre that gets lumped together as Black, no matter if it’s a romantic comedy, a period piece or a horror movie. It means getting paid less than half your white counterparts, even if you’ve won Oscars and Emmys and your TV show brings in twice as many viewers (example: Black-ish vs. Tim Allen’s Standing). It means being lowballed in negotiations, undervalued on set and marginalized even once you’ve “made it.” For some, it means resorting to minstreling on, yes, Fox News (hi, Stacey Dash) or reality TV or drug deals to keep up appearances — or simply pay rent.

And then, after surviving all of this, being Black in Hollywood means outlets like Fox News (and the two Black women who sold the pictures and a heartless interview) think a Black man with a job is a news story.

I’ve grown up with relatives who have held down jobs Fox News would make fun of. My grandmother worked as a cleaning woman in a hospital for many years. My mother made it very clear to me that she expected me to go to college and get a job I loved. But that whenever necessary, I would need to get a job, period.

As for trying to make it as an artist without the safety net of white privilege? I know firsthand how that goes down.

In 2009, I reached a pinnacle moment in my career. My first book was published—and it reached The New York Times Bestsellers List in its very first week. As someone who has never wanted to be anything else but a writer, it was more of a blessing than I could have ever imagined. Not only did my work achieve this distinction, I did it after leaving my day job to write full time.

A few years earlier, when I jumped ship from my full-time job as a teacher, I was petrified. No more weekly direct deposit? No health benefits? What if I didn’t make it? What if I never sold a book or enough articles to pay the bills?

I held on. It paid off. I was a published author and soon after my first novel was published I signed a deal for the sequel. Life was good. Very good. I’m talking six-figure-salary good. Book tours. Celebrity-filled launch parties. I wrote and published five books in three years in addition to hundreds of articles.

And then, things went left. Real left. Like, 180-degree left.

During the recession, print magazines began to shut down left and right. Normally, that would mean diving into a new book. But I was exhausted from writing back to back books and needed a break to regroup. And now I had a young baby and a teenager who needed more of my time.

Add in some serious medical stuff and the recession continuing to wreak havoc on my bank account and things got tight. I went from rising star to has-been pretty quickly.

The truth of the matter is that, at that point, I needed to be at Trader Joe’s.

I knew I could go back into the classroom. But I didn’t want to. First, I knew it would be hard to work as a teacher and continue to write — especially with two children to care for. But teaching is steady and secure. It would also cover my family with excellent health benefits, a 401K and a retirement plan—things I never received as a freelance writer.

A few years after my high point, I was back where I started, teaching US history to teenagers. Teaching is an honorable job, and it brings in good money. So why did I feel a pinch of disappointment in my chest? I felt like it was somehow a punishment—even though I was doing something I loved and supporting my family at the same time.

Honestly, my feelings were based on what others would think. My readers, agents, publicists—would they think I didn’t have it anymore? And if they did think that way, were they right? Only after seeing Geoffrey’s story and the enormous reaction to it did I realize how much negative messaging about “work” and “labor” from the mainstream I had internalized.

Ultimately, Geoffrey Owens has passed on an important life lesson to other freelancers and artists — really, anybody in any field — working in a system designed to hold some of us down while heaping spoils onto a select few. With one thoughtless story from Fox News, Owens has cemented that lesson to thousands of us, working steadily and trying to balance our art with our pockets. There’s no shame in the game, and — in the immortal words of Beyoncé — “always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”

Written by Aliya S. King

(Photo by Gary Gershoff/WireImage)

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