It’s been two years since Lena Waithe introduced us to The Chi, and the characters from Chicago’s Southside neighborhood who would soon feel like our extended family. The Showtime drama's first season documented how the death of a local teenager affected four generations of Black men, connecting their stories forever. In its second season, Brandon—the show’s lead, played by Jason Mitchell—found himself caught between two worlds: He had aspirations of becoming a chef, but got stuck in the crosshairs of one of Chicago’s most dangerous men.
But while the show was popular with both critics and audiences, there was trouble brewing behind the scenes. A month before season two finished airing, Mitchell was accused of sexual misconduct by showrunner Ayanna Floyd and actress Tiffany Boone, who played his on-screen girlfriend. Showtime and Waithe severed ties with Mitchell, leaving the fate of the show in an uncertain position. What do you do when the star of your show has allegedly created an unsafe environment for Black women on set? As far as Waithe is concerned, you produce an entire season centering women at a time when Black women want to be protected most.
Kiesha (Birgundi Baker) is known around the neighborhood as a promising high school track star who doesn't hesitate to use her razor-sharp wit to express herself. Like most teens, she's obsessed with her dating life and rotates between boyfriends like accessories. The first two seasons did little to develop her character beyond a boy-crazy athlete who becomes entangled in a problematic relationship with her much older track coach. But in September, Deadline reported that Baker was promoted to a recurring role after Mitchell's departure, though it was unclear how Kiesha's storyline would develop.
In the show's third season, which wrapped this weekend, senioritis has Kiesha counting down the days until she departs for college, but she's still nervous about the thought of leaving her comfort zone in Chicago. While her mom, Nina, and new stepmother are away on their honeymoon, Kiesha is left in charge of her younger brother, Kevin, which means one thing: She's free to come and go as she pleases. On her first parent-free night, she heads to the bus stop to meet her boyfriend across town, and the otherwise lighthearted episode takes a dark turn when she spots Ronnie, a veteran who has turned to alcohol after being shunned from the community for murdering a 16-year-old, as seen in the first season. Their exchange makes Kiesha shift around in her seat, adjusting her clothes as Ronnie uncomfortably stares her down. By the time the bus arrives, viewers find that Kiesha is gone. The only indication that she was there is the shattered phone she left behind.
In search of her daughter, Nina is met with nonchalance from the local police and community. "I've seen your daughter's Instagram," one mom says, bringing up Kiesha's secret account at a women's support group. "From what I can tell, she's always posting naked pictures and she stays in my son's comments." Waithe uses the senselessness of remarks like this, paired with the revealing outfit Kiesha was last seen wearing, to critique the practice of victim-blaming and instead reinforce that Kiesha's decisions don't make her life less worthy.
Exploring the abduction of Black girls on The Chi certainly seems like a corrective measure after Mitchell's behavior, and for many Black women, the storyline draws from a very real fear. The lives of Black women have been at stake for centuries. During enslavement, they were raped and bred by slave owners to produce more "property," under a legal fallacy that deemed them less worthy of protection. For Black women, the fight for equality is more complicated than fighting for women's rights or fighting for Black rights. It is the intersectionality of those worlds, although Kimberlé Crenshaw's conceptualization of that term wouldn't be coined until 1989. And even though Malcolm X deemed Black women the "most neglected" and "most disrespected" woman in America in 1962, not much has changed by 2020.
This year has been a moral awakening of the country's deep-seated issues with race—and yet, while we've (finally) seen arrests for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the police who entered Breonna Taylor's apartment with a no-knock warrant and shot her to death are still free. In June, Black Lives Matter activist Oluwatoyin Salau was reported missing after tweeting about a recent experience of sexual assault; authorities found evidence that her home had been burglarized, and her body was found outside Tallahassee, Fla. The New York Times reported that Salau's inner circle was worried about her safety following the tweets, and the activist even reported the assault days before her disappearance. An arrest has been made in Salau's death, but Black women's safety continues to be ignored.
The disappearances of young white girls like JonBenét Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, and Caylee Anthony caused the world to stop. Cases of missing Black girls, however, remain grossly underreported. According to a 2010 study of race and gender representation among missing children, while Black girls constituted 30 percent of all reports, only 19 percent of those cases received news coverage.
In 2017, hundreds of people paid their respects to Kenneka Jenkins, a 19-year-old who was found dead in a hotel freezer, not too far from the backdrop of Waithe's show. Still, Jenkins' mysterious death was not met with urgency. "Could Kenneka's life have been saved had the surveillance video system been checked in those early hours after the Jenkins family first appeared to hotel staff seeking help?" asks the Chicago Tribune. Jenkins' body was found 17 hours after she sought help. And it is this same form of apathetic misogynoir that more recently turned rapper Megan Thee Stallion's gunshot wounds into fodder for jokes online.
Although Kiesha's story is fictional, it mirrors the way society treats Black lives as nothing more than trending topics. When another missing girl's body is found in The Chi, her friends and family lose hope that the bright-eyed high schooler might still be alive. Her college rescinds her track scholarship and Nina even begins packing up her bedroom. But Waithe doesn't let us forget about Kiesha's story (spoilers ahead). As viewers soon find, she's being held captive in a basement nearby with a man we've seen glimpses of throughout the season. After a number of unsuccessful attempts at escaping, Kiesha's savior turns out to be an unlikely character: Ronnie.
Kiesha's rescue is a moment of redemption for Ronnie's character, but also a deliberate move in regards to Waithe's reputation. By failing to address the allegations against Mitchell until they were made public, one could argue she was complicit in his behavior. But the producer's decision to choose Ronnie sends a message: Black men should fight tooth and nail to protect Black women.
When misogyny and racism collide, Black women bear the brunt of flawed systems. The Chi used its most anticipated season as prime real estate to expose that the visibility of Black women is conditional. It's convenient to count on us when you want to try "boxer braids," need 94 percent of our votes in a presidential election, or seek a candidate who can clean up the chaos of the current administration. But Kiesha's muffled screams for help in a dingy basement weren't only hers. They were all of ours.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.