It wasn’t until the second season of Insecure that I saw the hashtag #LawrenceHive take on new life. This hashtag community sprouted up as a season one plot-twist made the central character villified, and suddenly Lawrence emerged as the victim. There was a near unanimous celebration of Lawrence by the end of season one. It’s not hard for die-hard fans to remember how that ended, but for casual readers and non-viewers, let’s recap:
The series focuses on Issa, played by the actress of the same name, Issa Rae, and her mediocre relationship with her live-in boyfriend Lawrence. In fact, the relationship is threatening to slip into failure mode as he epitomizes a classic bum sitting around the house while Issa works. He’s a techie who is working on app development but it’s not going too well for him. The relationship hits the wall, and he decides to get an inglorious job at Best Buy. The writers do a marvelous job of showing how a relationship on auto-pilot is a recipe for disaster. In the midst of this, Issa is tempted and cheats with an old friend, Daniel. Lawrence on the other hand, rebuffs the advances of a banker near his job named Tasha. When Issa reveals that she cheated, Lawrence curses her out, leaves to have angry revenge sex with Tasha. The final scene of the first season shows us that the break-up is final as Issa is consoled by her best friend Molly.
The second season plumbed the depths of what it means to be Lawrence. We see much of his character’s story independent of Issa as he meanders through the haze of a post-relationship purgatory. The season also opened a larger audience to the graphic concept of a fuck-boy. (And let’s be clear, most people substitute the “boy” for another slang word that carries far deeper connotations.) After a scene where Lawrence does a half-hearted breakup for the second time with Tasha, she called him a “fuck-nigga” ending the phone call with him. The notion of being a fuck-boy was at the center of every single conversation I observed on social media and whether or not Lawrence met the qualifications for being one. Countless threads on Twitter and Facebook timelines are cluttered with arguments on both sides.
As viewers sensibilities are pushed watching Issa and Lawrence’s dalliances in threesomes, facials, Apartment Bae and more, the backdrop of Lawrence’s life provides a tessitura around race, gender and masculinity. It is for that reason why I think black men need the #LawrenceHive.
Black men need #LawrenceHive because we need a paragon of black maleness displayed that takes into consideration our complexities, complications and even the contretemps that range from mildly embarrassing to calamitous. He is a living and breathing reality for many black middle-class men meandering through the middle-late stages of early adulting (25-32). His mistakes are our mistakes. We need a digital space to relish in the realness of our imperfections that Lawrence embodies. He acts as the counter-narrative to the innumerable black men who were dragged on social media just this summer: radio host Charlamagne Tha God and comedian Duval for bungling a conversation about transgender persons and Michael Vick and Jason Whitlock for muddying the waters unnecessarily around Colin Kaepernick. You could even include Jesse Williams if you want to go back to the month of May. We needed a hero, of some sorts, before the summer ended. And for many, we found that hero in the character of Lawrence Walker of Los Angeles, California.
For most of the black men I’ve been in conversation with who watched this past season agree that Lawrence’s life seems regular. Not regular in a bad way, but regular in the sense that it’s normal. There aren’t any red flags. Sure, he’s got some work to do to clean up his personal life, but don’t we all? In the larger spectrum, he’s about as situated in the middle of normal as you can get. And in his regular-ness, many black men are refreshed. This is what draws us into the story line. We get lost in the realness of it. Unfortunately, part of that reality includes him grappling with race, gender and masculinity in flashes of paralyzing awkwardness that give way to the revelation of a crippling dehumanization at the hands of the perpetrator.
The flashpoints where Lawrence contends with being a black man in a world that favors modes of white maleness, were mileposts in the season’s progression that resulted in complicating the character’s motivations in subtle almost imperceptible ways. Throughout the season, the main characters–Issa, Molly and Lawrence–all had specific run-ins with institutional racism. Issa struggles with the black vice-principal at the school she was assigned for her job, who was showing prejudice against Latinx students, it results in her being passed over for a promotion. Molly faces the dual demon of sexism and racism on her job at the good ol’ boys club-style law firm: she discovers she was making less money than her white male counterparts. (It’s one thing when you think it, but it’s another thing when you know it.) When she begins interviewing for another job, her partners get wind of it resulting in her being tokenized and devalued by the firm at the end of the season. Lawrence, however, has three separate instances of institutional racism that he encounters throughout the season.
The first was when Lawrence is pulled over by the cops. The street was blocked for a city-wide running event, two cars ahead of him made the U-turn rather than wait. Lawrence followed suit as the third car. The cop chose to pull over Lawrence. It was a scene designed to highlight racial profiling. Lawrence even changes the station from hip-hop to a classical music setting. This obviously was not his first rodeo.
Later in the same episode, standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, he discovers his credit card dropped out of his wallet from when he showed his license to the cop. Two seemingly white women behind him in the line offer to pay for the alcohol. He ends up back at home with them and the three of them engage in sexual acts. Once the action moves into the bedroom, it immediately devolves into something suited for a 2017 satirical remake of the blaxploitation movie Mandingo. At the onset of the bedroom dialogue, Lawrence realized they picked him up only because he was black as the two women begin using phrases like “black cock” and “white pussy.” They even comment on how huge he is. Even still, he is willing to live with this. For these two are about as opposite of Issa as he could get. When he and one of the women orgasmed simultaneously, naturally, he enters recovery mode. But the second woman offers disdain that he isn’t able to get it up again so quickly. She says “What’s the problem? We’ve been with a bunch of other black guys that can cum and keep going!” They compare him to past conquests of other black men they’ve ensnared. One of whom has a satirically apropos name of LaMarcus. They dismount the bed as their interest in him dissipates. Lawrence languishes in the bed completely stunned and unable to move as they discuss ordering pad Thai.
It was an ineffable moment to watch because of the seamless way that racial fetishizing arrived further imbruing an already vulgar phenomenon with its roots stretching back to the formation of this country.
The third iteration is at workplace. Lawrence was hired by a tech company by the end of the first season and was able to quit his job at Best Buy. At the new job, he pitches an app idea to his bosses at the tech company and they heap effusive praise on him. The only question they ask him after his presentation is about the Jordan brand shoes he was wearing. Thinking he knocked it out of the park, he goes to celebrate with a co-worker, Aparna. Bursting his bubble, she informs him that the bosses probably didn’t think it was that great since they didn’t ask any substantive follow-up questions. Miffed by her lack of adulation, but curious, he goes to follow-up with his bosses and his suspicions are confirmed as they only have positive things to say about the pitch. And they asked him about his shoes again. Lawrence concludes that they only saved face with him because he was black.
I’m assuming intentionality on the behalf of the writers that allow Issa and Molly’s encounters with differing manifestations of racism to be enmeshed in the season’s story arc while Lawrence’s encounters were neatly wrapped up in an episode or two and never revisited again. I assume intentionality because this is how oppression works. For many black men, micro- and macroaggressions transmogrify into disconnected specters that haunt our subconscious. Society rarely, if ever, grant us the opportunity to process what just happened, rather we’re expected to get up and “handle our shit.” The expectation is to neatly compress our emotions into a box, set it on a shelf, and never deal with them.
In the lead up to the gratuitous threesome that pushes the boundaries for even this show, the brunette takes a picture licking Lawrence’s face and sends it to his single, womanizing and slightly misogynistic friend Chad. Through the text, Chad sends congratulations. After the coital moment and Lawrence is back in the car at some unknown location (it’s later revealed he pulled up to The Dunes apartment complex: Issa’s apartment) and Chad asks him how did the hookup go. The audience sees the full anguish that the escapade causes. Whether one is a part of the #LawrenceHive or not, on a basic human level you have to feel a little sorry for him. It’s apparent that he’s debating about telling Chad the gory details of how their perceived whiteness made his penis an ancient caduceus to satiate their primal lust, or how they commodified and fetishized his dark skin and body as some erotic talisman to be discarded after use. Maybe he was debating about telling Chad that the blond was an Asian woman performing proximal whiteness, but he couldn’t find the right words to express himself. No one honestly knows, so it’s no shock that he opts to lie. He forces a smile on his face and tells Chad it was a great experience.
The improbity of white supremacy and institutional racism is that even as I watched those scenes, I disconnected the encounters from the behaviors and actions of Lawrence’s dealings with both Tasha and later with Aparna. I never connect his lack of emotions or his desire for risky sexual trysts to his demoralizing blows dealt by invisible power structures. Even though he is a character I strongly I identify with, the market forces that tell black men to suppress our emotions run deep. In all truthfulness, this isn’t a pathology only found black culture, but in American culture. It is a larger indictment of Western thought. How we understand gender roles in black culture begins with Western philosophical standards that emanated from European Enlightenment ideals that traveled to what was to be the United States forming a so-called “American” way of thinking. As it stands, we, as citizens of this country don’t give much room for men to be emotive. Period. From the weepy eyes of former Speaker of the House John Boehner to the Jordan Crying Meme, this country sees male emotions as weakness, something to be laughed at and lampooned.
I would argue that so many of us as black men have been programmed to see black male portrayals on big and small screens as flattened two-dimensional characters. The only “emotion” black men are allowed to show are in the patriarchal displays of romance on television and film when they are taking a woman out on a date and paying for the food or pulling out a chair and opening doors. If black men were androids in a science fiction story, society would have their aggression setting high while their emotional intelligence setting near zero and for entertainment purposes, their athletic ability and humor would be on the highest possible setting. We see this attribution matrix applied to dozens of storylines. Tyrese Gibson’s character in both the Fast and the Furious series and the Transformers’ series. Or one could think of the representations of black men in sit-coms such as Good Times, The Jeffersons or even The Cosby Show. When black sit-coms exploded in the late 80s and the 90s, I grew up watching the portrayal of the black men as emotional dunderheads to the point of comedic foil against their womanly counterparts. Seriously, pick a show that aired on the WB or UPN in the 90s to see my point. But, again, the two-dimensional American male was not relegated to the representation of black male roles, but also included white males too. This was reflective in the sit-coms on the big three networks. Dan in Roseanne had the emotional intelligence of a brick, and Tim in Home Improvement was the catalyst for weekly comedic disasters with his power tools malfunctioning and remaining emotionally unavailable to his wife. Every episode required him to seek advice from his neighbor so that he could relate adequately to his sit-com wife.
When it comes to just how one should see Lawrence, especially as it may help us see Issa differently, we need to be able to place him in context of his experiences. He is not a disconnected specter wandering aimlessly in the nothingness of space, but is a real and tangible person. Yet, market forces cause him to be plucked out and dropped into humanity as those forces see fit. There are moments in which he does not have agency over himself. One moment, he’s a regular guy driving to the grocery store, the next minute he’s a potentially violent criminal who needs law enforcement intervention. In rapid succession, the next minute he’s seen by two women at the grocery store as an exotic ebony sex doll with a big penis. Whether Lawrence is aware of what he is functioning as to these women in the grocery store or not, it’s a socially acceptable distraction he’s willing to roll the dice on following his run-in with the police. His gamble turns into a psychological catastrophe as he’s stratified beneath humanity by their language to describe his disposable body. His mind fcuk isn’t over because at his job, his blackness simultaneously protects his bosses’ whiteness from coming off as “too hard on the black guy” but also serve to devalue his perceived worth to the company.
Overall, most images on television and film do not grant permission to viewers to contextualize black men in modalities that encapsulate a full human experience. The election of Barack Obama single-handedly forced the country to at least take a peek into black family culture, but unfortunately Obama’s election did nothing to raise awareness about the lives of black men even though he himself is a black man. When Obama at a press conference said “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” mentioning the tragic end that Trayvon Martin met, the remark backfired and vast sections of this country seethed with rage. Unbeknownst to him, he was probably adding fuel to what would soon be the nationalist coalition that elected Donald Trump. Instead, as a rejoinder, Obama dutifully lectured to black men through the lens of respectability politics. In an election year, the only mode in which he could safely talk about black men on a national was one of being the lecturer-in-chief. His assigned role by society was to tell black men about personal responsibility.
We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: ‘excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.’ We’ve got no time for excuses – not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and overcame
Obama famously leaned into the social contract of being the lecturer-in-chief to black men as the commencement speaker at Morehouse College, the all-male historically black college in Atlanta in 2013. It shows just how much his hands were tied in acknowledging, as the president of the United States, that the daily indignities that black men face are insignificant because there’s “no longer any room for excuses.” The fault of racism and white supremacy is placed on the victim and not the perpetrator. And what better spokesman for this than the first black president.
Not shockingly, the plausibility that the instances of race, gender and masculinity that Lawrence confronted in turn effected his behaviors for the rest of the season, was not a thought-experiment deemed worthy of Twitter and Facebook screeds. (Social media has proven to be the place where nuanced ideas go to die.) Rhetorically, I wonder if there ever is a time and place for the Lawrences of the world to get a chance to work out their own shit or are we as a society content with the Lawrences suppressing their shit and putting it in a box on the shelf never to be discussed. If we can do the mental and emotional work to connect Molly’s wilderness wanderings with men (Dro and Quintin) to her failed strivings in her career for equitable pay and struggling against the “shoulds” of life, why do we let ourselves off the hook and make it easy to write off Lawrence as a garden variety fuck-boy?
For black men who live the reality of healthily managing adult responsibilities, seeing Lawrence on the small screen is a nod in our direction that our life and lifestyle actually matters. Representation means so much in a national society that places high value on identity politics. It has the power to normalize black men into being fully human rather than some droid-like aberration lacking a depth of consciousness.
Even though the show is about black women, this second season went through great lengths to tell Lawrence’s story. In the last episode, “Hella Perspective,” Lawrence’s emotions get the best of him. While driving in the car with his new bae from work, Aparna, he acts paranoid and accuses her of keeping up something with her ex, who also is a co-worker. As if on cue, Issa’s name pops up on the caller ID in full display for Aparna to see. She makes him pull over and she exits the car. Undoubtedly, this sets up the emotional gut-punch that the season climaxes with as Issa and Lawrence finally have a meaningful post-break up conversation. It’s a raw moment and both of them heed the call to be vulnerable together in that space. Tears well up in his eyes, and then Issa fights back tears as well. It was the quiet dramatic moment we expected from Issa, acknowledging how her own life is unraveling in some not so healthy ways. It also grants Lawrence the authority to unpack some of his own baggage, even though the nitty-gritty existential mind-crises that come with engaging battle against white supremacy and racism remained packed and untouched.
The racial narrative arc of Lawrence reminds me of the short story “Like a Winding Sheet” I read in high school. The story focuses on a black man who has a factory job in which he’s a cog in a vast wheel. He’s always tired and overworked. On this day, his encounter with the white forelady results in her referring to him as a nigger. The author goes into detail about the violent flood of emotions that wash over him. He wants to hit the lady. Opting not to, he utters a rebuttal about not appreciating being called a nigger. The day ends and he arrives at home. Tired and overworked. His wife, Mae, is joking with him and can tell he’s tenser than normal, but completely unaware of the mental burden he carried that day. In her joking, and in black vernacular, she calls him a nigger. (Perhaps if this was updated this would be “nigga” specifically.) He then starts beating her mercilessly. Based on the title, we are led to believe that he ends up beating his wife to death. The way the story is woven together, the reader is left asking was this a simple case of domestic violence, or did Mae die at the invisible hands of white supremacy and racism.
Even though it was written by Ann Petry in 1945, it’s a reminder that racism and white supremacy still wreak havoc in the lives of people of color in the most cunning and barbaric ways. Insecure reminds us of how that can look in a society post-civil rights movement and after the election of the first black president. We have to assume that Lawrence, as well as Issa and Molly to be fair, carry these daily reminders that their black skin makes than abnormal. Those reminders function as an incremental etching away at one’s humanity and the smallest nudge can trigger cataclysmic dysfunction. As a friend always tells me, “Oppression fucks with the mind.”
Lawrence is far from the hero we think of in the classic sense of a lionhearted warrior who vanquishes the bad guys. But he is a hero because he survives the fiery darts of white supremacy and racism on a daily basis and is able to maintain some semblance of his righteous black mind. There is a superhuman quality to being a black man in America who survives a traffic stop when no law has been broken. This may not be the hero that many want, but his representation is the hero that we need.
Also, full disclosure, my middle is Lawrence.