Viola Davis had a historic win at the Emmys this week, being the first African American actress to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama for the show “How to Get Away with Murder. The show is written by Shonda Rhimes, an African American writer. It is always uplifting to see a talented woman being acknowledged — breaking through gender, color and stereotype barriers, and attaining what she has rightfully earned.
In her speech, she discussed the importance of opportunity.
Without opportunity, one never gets the chance to succeed.
People often ask why do I write, why do I get so involved in causes, what drives me.
I was a beneficiary of those who sacrificed before me. Those women who paid a high price, so that I can have the opportunities I have today.
It’s great. There is no reason that I can’t relax, while enjoying the fruits of their labor.
But the ultimate thank you to those women who came before me, those trailblazers, is to create opportunities for the next generation.
At the last National Black Prosecutors Association conference, a young prosecutor came up to me and told me “I interviewed with you several years ago. Although I did not accept an offer with your office, opting to stay closer to home, you showed me being a prosecutor was possible”.
This is why I do what I do. We must show and empower.
The Miami Herald ran a story on Gwen S. Cherry, who, because of her strength, determination and sacrifice, gave African American women lawyers like me the opportunity to succeed. I have previously acknowledged her on my blog (see the story here), but read this powerful Herald piece here. I am proud to continue to serve as the Vice President of the organization that bears her name, the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association.
When you get an opportunity, seize it with both hands, then drive a truck through it. That way you leave the path clear for others to follow. Not only must you take, but you must always be mindful of who is following you.
If you asked “aren’t they the same thing”?, then you would have hit the heart of the matter.
Folks are wondering why Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times Article about Shonda Rhimes is causing such an uproar. Stanley wrote an article about television writer Rhimes (of “Scandal”, “Gray’s Anatomy” and “How to Get Away With Murder” fame), and while complimenting her success, focused largely on Rhimes’ ability to get away with being an “angry black woman”.
For the record, Rhimes has not been known for any publicized rants or bad behavior; her characters are the furthest you can find from angry black women; yet somehow, the article focused on this aspect.
For African American women, the stereotype of the angry black woman is parallel to the struggle that White women have had with the word “bitch”. Some women embrace the word “bitch” to mean a tough, aggressive, no-nonsense woman that threatens men on their own turf in the corporate world. The majority of women view it by its actual definition – a female dog, and a derogatory term that has no connotation of respect. Women of all races have fought for the right not to be called that word (including the ongoing battle in the music industry).
The image of an “angry black woman” conjures up that of an angry ghetto chick, snapping her gum, screaming at someone for no apparent reason, and making a scene “just because”. It embodies that of a bitter nasty woman who you certainly would not want to be friends with, much less date.
It even justifies (in some people’s minds) domestic violence (well of course he had to hit her…you know how those angry black women are). This becomes even more relevant in the current discussions of the recent arrests of NFL players Ray Rice and Jonathan Dwyer.
The last image that comes to mind when one says the term “angry black woman” is an educated, polished professional woman, who is the top of her career, has great credit, is a pillar in her community, and is a loving family member/friend (which all of Shonda Rhimes’ characters are in some way or form). But from a quick reading of Stanley’s article, Rhimes, as well as her body of work, is reduced to a simple stereotype.
That’s the dangerous thing about stereotypes – it paints all with a very wide brush. This is not to say an African American woman can’t be angry. But there is no “angry White woman” syndrome, or “angry White man”….so why make such a big deal about how Shonda Rhimes defied the odds and is NOT an angry black woman? If we were not sure before, reality television certainly has shown us that EVERY race, gender and sexual orientation can be good, bad and downright ugly. Why not characterize the individual by how they behave, instead of by some perceived stereotype that you believe is the standard?
Stanley has since stood by her article, saying that she “complimented” Rhimes for defying the stereotype. To draw another analogy, it’s like calling the female CEO of a major corporation “a smart bitch with a heart of gold”, and as folks recoil in horror, saying “but I said she was smart!”
As we explore Stanley’s description of Viola Davis’ character in “How to Get Away with Murder”, she discusses how she is not classically beautiful due to her dark skin (!!) but has a sexy but menacing quality. Menacing, angry…common theme? Certainly not the way any woman would want to be described.
In truth, Stanley does chronicle the television evolution from the “uh uh-ing” maid, to the beloved Claire Huxtable from the Cosby Show, to the characters we see today. But she gave, and took away at the same time.
In summary: happiness comes from within, no matter what race you are.