WOO, WOO, WOO: I Am Synclaire
I learned that to be Synclaire is to exceed in spectacle and entertainment, but never to be taken seriously. And thus created my subconscious fear.
By MARIA D. SMITH
I’m convinced that everyone who has ever seen a sitcom has imagined the chaos of their life finding its way onto a screen. You cannot convince me otherwise. I speak from experience.
In the heyday of seeing comedic situations unfold with catchy one-liners, viewers were captivated by not only the quirks of the circumstances but the lived-in nature of the characters. The more authentic the interpretation, the more invested the audience. This is why we love undeniable personas like Ava Coleman and Ron Swanson. They are who they are, they will not budge, and we’ve met them somehow, some way, in real life. As a viewer, who wouldn’t want to see a version of themselves onscreen?
I see character reflection as a helpful life tool. For instance, if I see a character who is like me deal with a situation I have yet to experience, that’s one less life lesson for me to fumble through. This approach to life is effective… to a certain degree. The faultiness of this strategy shines through when you realize that 1) all sitcom plots do not resolve real-world problems and 2) we often miscast ourselves as the wrong character.
Before you panic, don’t. Miscasting happens in shows and movies, and the project is still bearable, if not enjoyable… sometimes. When we strive to exist in an expectation that doesn’t fit into our aura, we sometimes set ourselves up for a harsh reality check. Maybe the person I’m trying to become isn’t me at all.
I know what you’re thinking: “I would never miscast myself. I know exactly who I am.” And to that, I say, “Sure, Jan.” Regardless of how many BuzzFeed quizzes you take, who we truly are and who we perceive ourselves to be often exist in a subconscious power struggle. We may block out our truth in hopes of becoming the person we want others to know us as. We may even sleep in that mask day in and day out until we don’t even recognize ourselves.
I recently had a world-shifting reckoning with my own character analysis. I was handed a clean mirror of self-reflection during a seemingly innocent workday.
It was a slow day in the office, so to accompany our lunch break, my coworker and I decided to stream a classic show to occupy our minds. My coworker and I are women of culture and distinction, so we chose to watch none other than Yvette Lee Bowser’s iconic series Living Single to help us pass the time. For those of you who live under a rock, Living Single is a 90’s gem of a sitcom with a star-studded cast that includes Erika Alexander, Queen Latifah, Kim Fields, Kim Coles, T.C. Carson, and John Henton. The show follows this amazing ensemble cast as they navigate being modern 20-somethings in a 90’s world pursuing love, life, and adventure in New York. If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because the Friends franchise is literally the whitewashed replica of a Black woman’s brainchild. No shade. Just facts. People hijack winning recipes all the time, but that doesn’t mean they know how to perfect the secret sauce.
As we indulged our appetites with food and entertainment, my coworker-turned-actual friend and I did what we always do: cast our office as if it were a TV show. Working at a small production company, it’s inevitable that we talk about TV, and it makes it more fun when we can relate it to life in real time. This time around, we wanted to see how our luxury office space would measure up to the iconic Brooklyn brownstone. The first few castings were easy. My coworker/lunch date/actual friend is Khadija “All Chain” James, as she is an HBCU-made entrepreneur who’s just getting started (be sure to check out @blkflmmkr). The development assistant is Kyle Barker, as she is indisputably suave with a natural charm. The showrunner’s assistant is Overton Wakefield Jones, as he too is from Cleveland, Ohio, and has a natural, homespun wisdom that still resonates in all its randomness (for context, he’s an Aquarius. Enough said.). The director of the writers’ residency is Maxine Shaw Attorney at Law because she’s always in and out and on the go while governing her life her way, with no exceptions. The in-house writer/actress is indisputably Regine Hunter with her fabulous nature oozing from all aspects of her essence.
At the moment, this lineup was perfect. If we were casting the modernized reboot, we’d be halfway there! I had no complaints… until it got to me. With the original main cast only consisting of six characters, there left only one role left for me to fulfill. I sat in horror at the mere thought of it: am I Synclaire James?
To understand my initial frustration, you must know my backstory. Picture this: your typical token Black girl raised in the suburbs. She excels in academia and has a savvy social life that includes being fluid in both street slang and pish-posh vernacular. Some may say she’s a mini Michelle Obama in the making with a student-body-president boyfriend to match. She’s not an athlete but is bound to acquire a standout role in the annual school musical production. On top of her commitments to church, family, and community, you’re lucky if you can catch her unoccupied for three seconds out of the day.
I am her.
She was me.
And she sounds more like Khadija, Max, or even Regine than she does Synclaire.
So how did I get here? What took me from this high-strung, organized overachiever to an excessively empathetic, easygoing (and a bit delusional) optimist? And more importantly, why am I seeing this as a bad thing?
My initial fear of being Synclaire was planted in me as a child. When I would stay at my grandparents’ house during the summers of my middle school pubescence, I’d avoid the rural Southern heat by watching re-runs of Living Single with my granddad. It was his favorite show and one of the rare pieces of content that wasn’t a gameshow or a sermon. In this sacred space of Black families bonding through Black media, I indirectly learned what was expected of me.
“Boy, that Synclaire sure is ditsy dumb,” my granddad would say in between his hearty chuckles. “I bet her and Overton are like that in real life, 'cause ain’t no way you can just act like that from reading a script.” His commentary was a zinger, but his joy was real, making this more of a contradiction than he ever cared to realize. From this alone, I learned that to be Synclaire is to exceed in spectacle and entertainment, but never to be taken seriously. And thus created my subconscious fear.
Sure, it’s easy to point fingers and say that someone else’s opinion on this fictional character is what drove me to avoid becoming her in my real life, but that lacks accountability. The truth is, yes, that opinion held weight to me, but I also shortchanged Synclaire’s value. Because she wasn’t running the magazine, campaigning for alderwoman, or styling celebrities, I overlooked her. I took her only as a sense of comedic relief instead of as an actual reflection of what life could be if any of us were bold enough to walk to the beat of our own drum. If I allowed her, she could teach me how to surrender to the process of attracting our best reality instead of forcing it. By prioritizing capitalistic ideas of gaining, concurring, and reigning in fiscal impact, I rejected the idea that maybe just being is enough, and Synclaire is the prime example of that.
I think the reality is that we all start as Synclaire—loving, innocent, and optimistic—until the world forces us to reckon with the reality that as Black women, we can’t always afford to be carefree and just vibe until we figure it out. There is always someone relying on us to succeed or looking to us for answers. That type of pressure, either direct or implied, can curate an unhealthy desire to know and control every aspect of our lives so that even if we don’t have the real answer, we at least look like we do.
But that is the beauty of Synclaire: she never tried to pretend she knew the answer. If she didn’t know, she was honest about it. She was open learning (like when she went to night school), she owned up to her mistakes (like when Shamar Moore kissed her during a study date while she was betrothed to Obi), and she was always willing to try new things (like when she ran naked across the stage during her stage acting debut). Her lack of interest in society’s expectations made her fearless and if that’s who I am at this point in my life, well, I accept it.
Woo, woo, woo: I am Synclaire.
Having committed so much of my life to trying to excel in the day-to-day, I hadn’t realized how I lost myself to the expectations of others. I was so used to checking off the boxes that I didn’t even know who wrote the list. Growing up, even if it wasn’t said, the expectations to be excellent were in the air and tainting my body like secondhand smoke. Not all of this pressure was harmful, but it was enough to make me lose myself in how I thought I should exist instead of embracing the truth of where I was at.
Having recently graduated and now embarking on life in a new city, the Synclaire in me has jumped out as I’m truly able to exist on my own terms. Specifically, after eight years and three degrees, finally existing on my own timeline and writing without a rubric, I’ve been both frightened and refreshed. Not only have I been transplanted from the comfort of the South to the parched, over-priced, plastic desert of the West Coast, but I’ve also been gaining my sea legs as I start from the very bottom of the entertainment industry and work my way up. I’ve been able to see how strong I am yet still clock where I need improvement or simply just need to grant myself grace. I went from being a full-time student to finally jumping into the deep end of the real world. Exhilarating some days and sick to my stomach the next, this is the most freedom I’ve ever had. I’m still adapting the taste of it all to my palette. I’ve had to embrace the “I don’t know” because everything is so new, and despite initially having a plan, I’ve had to trust the flow and attract more than I chase to maintain my peace.
Besides the obvious parallels of being an office assistant and aspiring entertainer, I see why I am Synclaire and I’m happy about it. Just like her, I am intentional with my friendships and will literally do anything for those closest to me. I also believe in true love. Although I have yet to find my Obi, I know that he’s out there and will be just as sincere and smitten as I am when fate finds it time for us to meet. From time to time, I read into astrology just like she does because often the stars make more sense than people. I’ve learned that a personal mantra to either keep you motivated or help you find peace goes a long way (Woo, woo, woo!). Lastly, but most importantly, just like Synclaire, I believe in myself. Regardless of how badly the world wants me to forgo that belief, it will never happen. I will always bet on myself because I know that I was predestined to have the life of my dreams. No question.
In embracing this character casting, I embrace all aspects of the soft life that come with it. There is a different type of peace in knowing that I am secure in my tribe, that I will fulfill my dreams, and that love will find me even if I don’t have all the answers or try to conform to what others think my success should look like. I mean, why wouldn’t it work out for me? It did for Synclaire.