History in the Making
by Jeremy Pierce
“In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields, lovely flowers, and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but I can’t seem to get there no-how. I can’t seem to get over that line. That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800’s. And let me tell you something: the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
These are the words spoken by a woman who had just made history. These are the words spoken by a black woman who just made history. On September 20th, 2015, at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Viola Davis became the first black woman in the history of the awards show to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead in a Drama Series. Quoting Harriet Tubman in her acceptance speech, it’s the role of Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder that brought Davis the win. It’s her strength, her perseverance, and natural talents that brought her the award. Her speech was one for the record books.
“So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black. “And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union: Thank you for taking us over that line. Thank you to the Television Academy. Thank you.”
She thanked the writers for redefining what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a woman, and to be Black. She even acknowledged her fellow actresses of color [Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry, Kerry Washington, and Gabrielle Union] for taking us over that line. It was beautiful, poignant and timely. With cheers of joy, the audience seemed to appreciate it. Kerry Washington had tears in her eyes. Taraji P. Henson could barely contain herself. But, not everyone was pleased.
“General Hospital” star Nancy Lee Grahn expressed her disapproval. In a series of tweets, she wrote: “I wish I loved #ViolaDavis Speech, but I thought she should have let @shondarhimes write it. #Emmys
She could’ve stopped there and explained her way out of it, but of course, she didn’t. It was the subsequent tweets that dug an irreparable hole. In response to someone else, she said: “@nxssy I do 2. I think she’s the bees knees but she’s elite of TV performers. Brilliant as she is. She has never been discriminated against.” Grahn faced immediate criticism, but she still didn’t get the picture. “@MelioraEsq and I heard Harriet Tubman [sic] and I thought its a fucking emmy for gods sake [sic]. She wasn’t digging thru a tunnel.” Grahn has since deleted the last two tweets.
“I apologize for my earlier tweets and now realize I need to check my own privilege. My intention was not to take this historic and important moment from Viola Davis or other women of color but I realize that my intention doesn’t matter here because that is what I ended up doing. I learned a lot tonight and I admit that there are still some things I don’t understand but I am trying to and will let this be a learning experience for me.” Then later: “30 yrs an advocate, 3 human rights & now i’m a racist. Color me heartbroken. Twitter can bring out the best & sadly tonight the worst of us.”
It still surprises me that even in this day and age, for all their power, influence and privilege that white people possess in this country, there are those who still find a way to take offense when a person of color merely references their oppression. I wonder sometimes as to why they’re affected so strongly. Is it guilt? Are they threatened or is it just uncomfortable?
Earlier in the evening, Regina King won the award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her role in the ABC drama, American Crime. Viola Davis gave a standing ovation to a shocked and emotional Regina King. I was beyond ecstatic to see such a talented actress who caught a lot of people’s attention for roles in 227 and Southland win the award. But, you thought to yourself if they would really give us more than one award for the evening.
Then, the category of Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series came up. Uzo Aduba won the previous year for Orange is the New Black, yet was categorized as Comedy as this year Emmys changed the classification of what is considered a drama or comedy. Uzo has talent and that’s something that cannot be denied, however was there really a chance that she’d win the award two years in a row? Not only did she win, but also she made history, as she became the second person and first female to win an award for playing the same character in a drama or comedy.
A Black woman saying she’s experienced discrimination doesn’t mean that women in general don’t have a hard time in acting. Why would you want to silence a colleague who’s speaking about what’s real for her and others like her? The act of ignoring and then attempting to discredit or silence black pain, experience, and triumph is one that is deeply rooted in racism and I hope Nancy sees that now.