Modern Narratives of Black Love and Friendship Are Centering Iconic Trios
“Insecure” and “Nobody’s Magic” illustrate the intricacy of evolving Black relationships
Since the wildly popular HBO series Insecure wrapped at the end of 2021, I’ve been obsessed with a behind-the-scenes photograph on Instagram. It shows a dazzling trio—Issa, Molly, and Lawrence—standing side by side at Molly’s wedding. Issa is draped in a scarlet pleated dress, Molly wears a strapless wedding gown in the center, and Lawrence stands on the end in all black. It’s easy to imagine Issa standing in front of Molly, Molly shifting away from Lawrence, Issa migrating closer to him, and how their constant shuffling tells a complex story about Black friendships and love.
Part of Insecure’s brilliance is seeing Issa, Molly, and Lawrence mess up—and put themselves and their relationships back together—season after season. Whether I’m binge-watching, or patiently waiting for the following week’s episode to air, serial storytelling activates my writer’s mind. When it’s all over, I get to step back and look at a show and figure out how it changed me. I get to ask: how did we get here? That Instagram picture may be one moment in Insecure’s fictional universe, but it has a literary function, too: it’s the show’s very own triptych, telling three distinct, yet intricately braided stories. I can’t help but think of Destiny O. Birdsong’s recently published novel Nobody’s Magic.
Centering three Black women with albinism striving to make their way in the world, Nobody’s Magic is a triptych novel that uses form to expand its meaning. Like a triptych painting that features three images, each protagonist gets their own section. This format compresses the time in which readers engage the stories of Suzette, Maple, and Agnes. Each woman navigates desire, self-love, and belonging, while reclaiming narratives about her life. The power of the triptych is that it offers three experiences in addition to the fourth, which emerges when all three are viewed or read together.
Traditionally, the panels of triptych paintings were held together with hinges to enable folding open or shut, and to support easy transport. They were placed on the tops of altars, often telling a story of a grand religious event like the birth of Jesus. As patrons’ eyes passed from one panel to the next, a narrative developed—one with a beginning, middle, and end. The hinge or crease of the painting clearly demarcated a pause, a moment to breathe and prepare to behold the next panel. I like to think of this demarcation as the threshold of change. Across the threshold of a triptych painting, color, shadow, and the images that those elements form, are manipulated to evoke discourse. Panel 1 speaks to Panel 2 speaks to Panel 3. But what are the panels saying to each other? And about what? Within triptych art—visual or literary—discourse revolves around the work’s central themes and crosses the threshold of change at least twice. The effect is thematic repetition. This repetition then illuminates the significance of some message or question.
In Nobody’s Magic, Suzette, Maple, and Agnes all contend with the distorted association between albinism and the magical; stereotypes that say their skin or eyes possess supernatural qualities. Agnes, for example, tries to darken her skin and alter the texture of her hair to gain a kind of physical protection that will shield her from the backlash of being othered. “And the questions they posed, first about her race and, when she told them, her condition, triggered a silent mortification that surged through her body like a riptide, shifting the center of gravity in every room.” In each section of the novel, these stereotypes are interrogated to reveal their harmful imprints, yet we don’t dwell in any trauma narratives, though repetition can lead us into such tricky territory. Always, the protagonist and her self-perception pull focus.
The Insecure triptych displays a static connection that comes to life in the show. In Season 4, Episode 8 of Insecure—my favorite episode—we see the fluidity of their connectedness. In this episode, Issa and Lawrence unpack the reasons behind their breakup. The episode opens with Lawrence returning from San Francisco where he’d been interviewing for jobs. At the airport he bumps into Molly, whose disastrous vacation with her then-boyfriend Andrew has come to a tense end. Molly and Lawrence exchange pleasantries and then, moments later, Lawrence texts Issa to ask if she’s free to meet up. The transition is smooth and has an ombre effect. Just as colors blend gradually to form a new hue, the scene takes us from one panel of the show’s triptych painting into the next. At dinner, Lawrence tells Issa about running into Molly. He describes the encounter as “awkward.” Issa says, “Yea, probably because we’re not friends anymore.” Even when the show is focused on Issa and Lawrence, Molly haunts the periphery. She is essential to the overall narrative, waiting just on the edge to alter it.
After five seasons, seeing Issa, Molly, and Lawrence celebrate and achieve many of their aspirations brought about, in me, a new level of earned TV satisfaction—earned, because it did not arrive without its fair share of heartbreak. Insecure reminds us that sometimes your mess blows up so you can assess the wreckage, then rebuild.
In the case of Agnes in Nobody’s Magic, we see a woman who lingers among the debris of the proverbial house (her choices) that has fallen on her. Agnes, a woman with multiple degrees who dreams of a life where she is appreciated and loved, struggles to achieve economic stability. The treatment of Black women in the labor market parallels the degradation she experiences with intimate partners and family members. “Suddenly, she felt exhausted from the obscene amount of work involved with managing other people’s feelings and not being courageous enough to tend to her own.” How does one find refuge from their suffering when door after door closes in their face? Birdsong exposes the humiliating side of rejection, and expertly depicts how that humiliation might lead someone to ignore the internal voice telling them they deserve better.
Insecure not only disrupted harmful TV industry barriers that limited the presence of Black creatives in front of and behind the camera, but also employed storylines that illustrated lessons on how Black millennials might lean into our talents, and bet on ourselves. It showed us failing, resetting, achieving. Take Issa’s career trajectory: She gradually ascends from a dejected nonprofit worker to a self-assured creative curator. Molly, on the other hand, finds her career lane earlier, taking a challenging role at a Black-led law firm where she struggles to strike a healthy balance between work and personal life. Then there’s Lawrence, who finds his footing within the tech industry after a long season of unemployment. If Issa, Molly, and Lawrence had all stumbled along the same path, Insecure would have fallen flat for viewers. Thankfully we got something more nuanced.
Insecure builds on the tradition of shows like Living Single and Girlfriends by centering Black friendships from the perspectives of young, gifted, and Black characters. Where Insecure differs is in its depiction of its generation: as millennials, Issa, Molly, and Lawrence navigate their lives with a vigorous drive to make new lanes for Black folks, while leveraging technology and diverse social networks. I envision the next phase of this ever-evolving Black media canon to capture broader conceptions of Blackness, including people with albinism, who are woefully underrepresented in media.
In my search for triptychs by Black artists, I found Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled (Black Love), 1999/2001, featured at the Studio Museum of Harlem. In this piece, three humans stand in front of windows. They look out, or in, or into each other. These photographs tell a story of two people before, after, and during an intimate encounter. In the final panel, they embrace, and their silhouettes emanate, for me, desire fulfilled. When I try to look at each panel individually, I find my gaze being pulled to the images right there. Their proximity is irresistible.
For a while I struggled with Lawrence’s place in the referenced photograph because it forced me to think about the show in terms of a shared spotlight, and not one that Issa solely dominated. I was willing to concede the show boiled down to Issa and Molly. But Issa, Molly, and Lawrence? His character always felt like a mechanism for exploring hardship rather than a vehicle for enlightenment. But if I view this photo, in which Issa rests on Molly’s shoulder while Molly’s hand cradles the base of Issa’s back and Lawrence intertwines his hand with Molly’s, as one possibility for how to make sense of the show, especially in its final season, I see a story about how relationships require intricate support systems, and how the hardship that Lawrence represents is integral to that overall picture. Relationships take time to build. They evolve, and evolution is not a standalone phenomena.
In Nobody’s Magic, the triptych form asks readers to consider how works of art can resist the idea that there can only be one. While the novel introduces us to three women with albinism, their family structures, socioeconomic status, and desires all differ. There is no singular narrative because there is no singular way for a person with albinism to be. Just as there is no such thing as a Black monolith. By situating the protagonists among other Black folk, the novel asks: when do we consider Blackness at the intersection of albinism? Not often enough. And, as the title proclaims, dispel the notion that anyone can possess another’s uniqueness or self-defined power. I’m amazing because I am. In another scenario we might have been reading a long novel about Agnes or Maple, but Birdsong—whose poetry collection Negotiations was published in 2020—gives us three arresting tales about what happens when Black women take matters into their own hands. In this way, expectations about narrative dominance are shattered.
By the novel’s final pages, I flipped back to Suzette and Maple’s sections to understand how the three stories all come together. Shreveport, Louisiana – their primary stomping ground – shines brightly as a focal point, as does Birdsong’s interweaving of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). When Suzette must try harder than ever before to figure out why the relationships in her life keep making seismic shifts, she says, “Everybody was acting a fool, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do aside from going off on folks. But I was tired of all that. They just needed to let me live. Didn’t nothing else have to change.” Here, language magnifies time and place, crystallizes connections between people, and cuts through any veneer of how people are supposed to sound when they speak.
While Suzette, Maple, and Agnes face stigma and rejection, they also experience pleasure, love, and fierce intimacy with people who act as mirrors in a world set on casting out those who are different. Birdsong’s experimentation with form disrupts ideas about what can be accomplished in the space of a novel, and whose story that novel can be. She gives other debut novelists permission to paint beyond the edge of the canvas.