This weekend in my hometown of Houston, the local chapter of #BlackLivesMatter organized an art exhibition and panel discussion seeking to discuss how Black art, Black activism and Black radical imagination can create a better, brighter future for Black lives. Writer and #BlackLivesMatter activist Darnell L. Moore, who moderated the phenomenal panel presented as part of the night’s symposium, asked the crowd to close their eyes and use their Black radical imaginations to envision a world where Black lives, all Black lives, are valued and upheld unapologetically.
I have been obsessed with these imaginings, these visions, since I closed my eyes that night at Moore’s request. I have also had to continuously confront my ideas about what Black freedom looks like, and in doing so my reaction to Sunday night’s Emmy Awards surprised even me.
Admittedly, and even with great pause (and to some degree shame), I found it difficult to celebrate Viola Davis’s win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series that night. It’s not that the power of Davis’s win—her standing there poised and dusted in glittery Black girl magic—didn’t move me to tears.
Like most Black women I know, I, too, celebrated Taraji P. Henson’s extended standing ovation as Davis won the award despite beating her in the category. That display of respect and sister-love is what most Black women work day to day to build in our relationships with one another, and it being evidenced on a national stage matters much. Like Henson, we were all ready to support what many may consider a lifetime achievement for Davis.
And her acceptance speech? Listen. Talk about that climb over the White Hollywood line that tells us every day, as both actors and viewers, that Black women are the antonyms of beautiful, of loveable, of professional and successful, of tender and loving and kind. Speak Harriet Tubman’s name to power as you bring us on the journey of how we become free (by creating our own characters, writing our own scripts, and producing and supporting our own shows—go Shonda!). Viola Davis set us all on fire Sunday night… our hearts, our bodies and our souls. As an actress, she deserves every accolade, every moment of praise, every “yaaaasssss.”
I, however, don’t give a damn about Davis’s Emmy. Totally not sorry, either. Winning the first Black anything prize in 2015 sets me on fire in a completely different way than Davis’s words did that night. As all the applause for her Emmy win began rolling in, I became livid, exhausted, then frustrated with myself (as a woman whose life work is affirming Black womanhood) for taking even a moment of shine away from Viola Davis’s merit and commitment to ensuring that Black women are seen and lauded in the TV and film industry.
However, appealing to overwhelmingly White (and often racist) institutions, organizations and overall unwelcoming spaces for favor has no place in my radical Black future. In the universe I’ve created in my mind, where Black people are wholly free, we do not celebrate being first after contributing our culture, passion and diligent work for almost a century (peace to Hattie McDaniel) with not so much as a hello—let alone an adequate, comfortable, welcoming seat at the table.
Yes, Sunday night was an epic night at the Emmys for Black folk. Uzoamaka Aduba and Regina King showed up and showed out right alongside Viola Davis. But that doesn’t excite me, especially after looking out into the almost entirely White audience that seemed stunned and clueless by Davis’s conversation on racism in Hollywood.
And then it happened—the thing that always happens when Black people attempt to remind this nation that Americans, collectively, have not gained nearly as much as we pretend to have regarding racism and White supremacy. A White woman decided it was her place to attempt to silence Viola Davis and her impassioned message. I could set my watch to what happened because moments like it happen so frequently.
General Hospital actress (I keep reading “star” in various headlines regarding her dangerously ignorant commentary, but I’m not convinced) Nancy Lee Grahn argued via Twitter that “the Emmys were not a venue [for] racial opportunity,” that Viola Davis “has never been discriminated against.” And in the rest of her “I claim to be a champion for human rights but have no idea how to speak about race or racism compassionately” spiel, Grahn felt betrayed by the Black people defending Davis (and her speech) because they were folks she “would’ve marched for.”
Welp. Glad to know my being preemptively pissed off was justified. Now can we stop needing this kind of validation from Whites (who don’t trust or care about our painful narratives, or our success)? Can we look to (and possibly do more to build) Black spaces where we are understood and, better, adored for our dopeness? Can we connect to our radical Black imaginations and work to create a future where the next generation of Black artistic geniuses don’t believe that winning awards like Emmys or Grammys crown them as the stars they already are?
If not, it’s cool. Just don’t invite me to any of your first-Black-ever celebrations. My calendar is full.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.