“And let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You can not win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”– Viola Davis
History was made last night with Viola Davis becoming the first Black woman to win the Outstanding Drama Emmy. The fact that it only took 67 years to happen speaks volumes to the realities of just how far we still have to go with regard to race relations and racial representation. But more importantly, Davis’s win along with the wins of Regina King and Uzo Aduba was a moment for Black women everywhere. It was, in fact, a kind of magical moment for Black women and girls. The wins of Davis, King and Aduba are personal to Black women, especially those of us who have never fit the very narrow aesthetic of what is deemed attractive for Black women. Which is even more limiting than the aesthetic that is deemed desirable for white women.
Black womanhood is a complicated dance. You are a woman and you are Black, you live at an intersection that at times is harrowing. It’s that six-way intersection which at times feels like a crash waiting to happen. Black womanhood is to exist in a space where your womanhood doesn’t exist on the pedestal that white women are put on. It’s not even in the same room as white womanhood, more like in the low-ceiling basement with dirt floors at times. It’s a place where white women tell you: We are all just women but rarely do you feel like you are a part of the womanhood club. Instead you feel like the Mammy to a white woman’s Scarlett. Always being asked to serve and support with little in the way of reciprocity and support. You are the “Giving Tree.”
Sometimes, Black womanhood demands supporting Blackness, which often translates into supporting Black men and boys with very little in the way of reciprocity. It means being front-line soldiers when Black men and boys are brutalized and killed yet needing to create awareness that Black women and girls too suffer at the hands of law enforcement. It sometimes means to give and give while being held to impossible standards of womanhood based off an impossible standard that few of us can meet.
To be a Black woman of a certain hue means to be effectively invisible to many (sometimes most) people around you; it means hearing what I heard growing up “You are cute…for a Black girl.” It means knowing you are fetishized and rarely seen as feminine. You are a barely wanted playmate rarely deemed worthy of love and respect. You are a work horse and mule. It means there are few places that affirm you as a human. It is a lonely place, where often the much-touted Black woman “strength” is often the result of few options for humanity but to be strong and muster through this existence, stealing your joys where you can.
Black womanhood has also historically been that place where you rarely see your likeness. Growing up in the 1980s, I remember seeing few women who looked like me or my mother. I remember when our first Black Miss America was crowned and I also remember thinking that her Blackness was pretty close to whiteness and that it didn’t look anything like the darker cocoa-brown complexion that I wear with the kinky/curly hair.
I remember being a little girl who at seven told her daddy that she wanted to be either an actor or a lawyer. I remember my father telling me that I could be anything that I wanted and not long after that despite my parents barely having two nickels to rub together, they got me into a theater program. From 4th grade until I dropped out of high school in my senior year, I was involved in drama and theater programs. I went to a high school that had a performing arts program and despite the fact that I cut up horribly in high school, drama classes were the ones that I never missed. Though by that time, I started to notice that I never got more than bit parts in the plays and when I went to auditions, they were few roles for brown girls, though I did a lot of extra work in my teen years.
Once I got back on my feet in my 20s, I took up improv lessons but in some ways it was too late for me. To work professionally as an actor is hard, but to work professionally as a Black actor? A level of hard that I just couldn’t afford to dabble in as a mother and wife. So when I moved to Maine in 2002, my theater dreams went in the cabinet of unfulfilled moments of life.
Yet last night, as I soaked up the wins, it dawned on me that for some little Black girl who isn’t light brown with silky hair (like I wasn’t either), she could look at Viola Davis with her rich skin and beautiful coily hair and see unlimited potential. Representation matters. It matters even more in a world with a narrow view of womanhood and an even narrower view of Black womanhood.
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