‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line I see green fields, and 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 1800s. 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. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people — [Disney/ABC Television Group president] Ben Sherwood, [ABC president] Paul Lee, [HTGAWM creator] Pete Nowalk, [Shondaland boss] Shonda Rhimes — people that redefine what it means to be beautiful, sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black. 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.”
That was Viola Davis’ acceptance speech at the 2015 Emmy Awards for Lead Actress In a Drama Series. I didn’t watch the Emmys because I don’t watch award shows because sometimes they tend to be circle jerks or shock-and-awe spectacles with little thought for awarding, I dunno, substance? But I saw the real time reactions on my twitter feed from those in the audience and those watching from home. And then I did watch the clip because what media site hasn’t posted it?
There will probably be a myriad of thinkpieces about this moment. How she’s the first black actress to win the award in 60-some odd years. How her win and her speech should be taken as a call-to-arms for more diverse casting. How she singled out women of color and name dropped black actresses when shouldn’t it be about all women? And I can honestly say I probably won’t read ones that sound similar to the latter. But I will say this speech touched me in a way I never expected.
That was Viola’s moment. She’s graced screens over the course of many years, has been nominated for many things, but this was her time to shine. And what did she do with that spotlight?
She shined it on other women.
To the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union…
Watching her share her moment with fellow black actresses is promptly when the tears began to well up inside me. And I’ll tell you why:
I grew up hating myself. Around middle school, after having moved from a big city to a small town in a different state, I was the outsider. I was the bullied. It wasn’t just girls in gym class singing that song from Spongebob where Sandy the squirrel laments about going back home to Texas as I walked my laps around the tennis court. It wasn’t just people wondering why I talked the way I did or why I wore certain clothes or why I didn’t listen to the music everyone else did.
It was girls who were my “friends”, “best friends” even, who would put me down. Passive aggressively and often very purposfully aggressively. Made fun of my hair or called me “white” or made up rumors about me. In one particular instance, I had about 7 to 10 girls all at once turn on me and fridge me out of any and all interactions. For months. And we shared almost every class together. And some of these friends happened to be black girls.
I grew to resent them because damn, did that hurt and why did middle school have to be such a hive minded environment? I started to resent myself for not being more like the people I looked like because of me being raised an army brat but also puberty and wasn’t I already the black sheep of my family? I eventually moved schools and things got exponentially better.
But Viola took her moment and highlighted other women, other black women. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been learning to love myself. All of myself. My culture (and I do have many), my community. I’ve fought so hard for my female friendships in general. I’ve fought (rather vocally) for my black female faves in music, in television, in movies.
At times, I feel like I’m over-compensating. Do I really like her that much or is it because she’s black? To which my pavlovian response is: who cares?! Maybe I am making up for lost time. Those years of adolescence where I could’ve been boosting up my friends instead of picking sides in petty emotional, teenage warfare. Those years of wondering why the black girls on tv shows with mostly white characters are so hard to like. Those years of distancing myself from black culture so I wasn’t caught under the umbrella of negative stereotypes, of focusing on oh, I’m also this this and this, not just african american, ya know. Those years of hating my hair and my nose and wondering why The Imitation Of Life connected so immensely with me as a child.
Maybe I am over-compensating but seeing black women hug and cry tears of joy for each other on prime-time television will always be my favorite thing. It proves, in the very least, that there is more than one black woman in the room. But beyond that, it is indicative of this swelling shift to love ourselves and each other and to do it, unapologetically, in the public sphere. And today could not have been a better day for #blackout because we get to do exactly that.