Pam from ‘Martin’ Taught Me That Black Women Can Own Their Anger
As a kid—I couldn’t have been more than nine—I remember watching one particular scene from the classic ‘90s sitcom, Martin. (In case you don’t remember, Martin followed the antics of a Detroit radio host, his girlfriend Gina Waters, and their tight-knit group of friends.) It was the episode where Gina loses Martin’s tickets to the Pistons game, which puts both her and her friend Pam in the awkward position of needing help from Martin’s feisty neighbor, Sheneneh. Standing mere feet from her own apartment, Sheneneh makes a proposition: If Pam sings "Old MacDonald," then they can get new tickets to the game.
I remember feeling pity for Gina as she emerged from the trash with tattered clothes and begged Pam to cooperate. I remember chuckling as Sheneneh rolled her neck and toyed with Pam’s patience. But most of all, I remember being in complete awe of Tichina Arnold’s Pamela James—better known as the clapback queen or, better yet, the baddest baddie.
There she was in her glamorous outfit, with her edges slicked back, curls intact and makeup on point. And while she was literally on the verge of throwing hands, anyone who saw her would’ve guessed that she had just stepped off the runway.
But as impressed as I was by Pam’s bold fashion choices (yes to the patterned mini skirts!) and her iconic ‘dos (from highlighted curls to sleek top-knots), I was especially taken with her unapologetic anger. Here was a successful, dark-skinned woman who had the smarts and the sass to go toe-to-toe with Sheneneh and Martin without missing a beat. And no matter how many insults they threw her way, she had an air of confidence that never wavered.
It’s not lost on me that some may consider Arnold’s character a classic example of the racist “Angry Black Woman” trope (also known as Sapphire), where Black women are depicted as violent, rude and overbearing caricatures. Pam’s temper could go from zero to 100 in a matter of seconds and she never held back with her retorts. For instance, Martin, who will likely go down in history as one of the most melodramatic men to ever grace the small screen, roasted Pam with nicknames like “Scary J. Blige” and “Beady Bead.” But then Pam always came back with a glare that could cut like a knife, calling him “inch-high private eye” and “Donald Stump.” (Yep, she knew that was an insult way back in 1995). She was brash, loud and uncompromising—not afraid to yell “punk” mere inches from Martin’s face or push him out of her way during one of their spats.
Even so, I truly feel Pam’s character managed to avoid the “Angry Black Woman'' stereotype, since her expressions of anger only account for a small fraction of her personality. I’ve seen her rescue her best friend from ruining a work presentation, give Martin relationship advice, let her guard down with her BFF-turned-boyfriend, Tommy, and even go to therapy for her anger issues. She’s ambitious, self-aware, considerate, compassionate and so freaking funny…which makes her a refreshingly complex Black character who dares to own her anger in a world that doesn’t accept it.
It’s also worth noting that Pam was decidedly different from the other Black female protagonists on TV at the time. Clair Huxtable, Harriette Winslow and Vivian Banks (to name a few) were strong-willed, but also carefully poised and likely to reel their anger in before they reached their tipping point. Then there were problematic characters, like Sanford and Son's Aunt Esther—the ill-tempered church-goer who was always angry and ready for a fight. Pam, on the other hand, wasn’t bitter. She simply stepped into a room and, regardless of what others thought, decided to be authentic, even if that meant raising her voice (or fists, if the situation called for it). For an introverted kid from Brooklyn, terrified of confrontation, this taught me that I’m also entitled to my anger, even if others may see it as disruptive.
As I got older, I grew more appreciative of Pam’s unfiltered comments and strong sense of self. Pam went from working at a boutique to working alongside Gina at a successful PR firm, and whether she had a man or not, she knew her worth. This isn’t to say that there weren’t cracks in her armor; She certainly made questionable decisions when it came to love (like agreeing to marry an older man that she barely knew). But even these mistakes felt well-rounded and intentionally flawed—certainly nothing she needed to apologize for.
Given my quiet nature, I never saw much of myself in this firecracker character, but she did serve as a catalyst that helped me break out of my own shell. Pam showed me that others’ opinions are not nearly as important as how I see myself. She reminded me that Black women are entitled to their anger. That we can be “extra” or “loud” and still be feminine, sexy and confident. She proved that we can speak our minds, yet still be deserving of dignity and respect.
Did I eventually blossom into an outspoken fashionista who can breeze past every insult? Well, not exactly. But I can say that Pam helped shape who I am and how I view the world. I know that my emotions—including my anger—are valid. And I’d even like to think I’ve learned to dress a little better, thanks to her subtle guidance. (Though you probably won’t catch me rocking a mini skirt and matching crop top any time soon.)