Kerry Washington’s art and activism

Kathleen Posted by Kathleen at April 4, 2017 18:57:04 April 4, 2017 18:57:04

I’m in a fight with Scandal because of what happened at the end of season 6, episode 7. I won’t tell you what happened because #nospoilers but let’s just say that Olivia Pope and Shonda Rhimes are usually my imaginary besties but lately, I’ve been yelling obscenities at my television directed at them both. Kerry Washington is on the cover of the May issue of Glamour and she’s making it really hard for me to stay mad at her and the character she’s been playing for 6 seasons. The profile, written by Paola Mendoza, is a deep dive into the ways in which Kerry Washington has used her art as activism. With Scandal, Washington says the show didn’t get woke until after the first season.

“In the first season, it was as if Olivia Pope was raceless. There was no denying that Olivia was a black woman, because I’m a black woman playing her in badass white trench coats that call to attention the fact that I’m not looking like anybody else on television. But we didn’t talk about her identity as a black person.”

The nuanced conversations about Olivia Pope’s race did show up in the later seasons (especially after the arrival of Papa Pope) but I was OK with a season of a black woman owning her job and power-walking down White House hallways in her white trench coats without the focus being on her race. Although, I will argue with the idea that Olivia was “raceless” because one of my favourite Scandal scenes ever was when Fitz and Olivia fought over her comparison of their interracial relationship to Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Race may not have been the focal point of Scandal’s first season but it’s not like they attempted to make Olivia Pope exist in a fictional post-racial society. It was an issue because it’s always an issue. Kerry goes on to detail how the show’s relationship with race has changed.

“[Since then] the writers have become more and more willing to deal with race… When Olivia was kidnapped, it was not lost on me that the fictional president of the United States was willing to go to war to save one black woman at a time when hundreds of black women were missing in Nigeria and we were begging the world to pay attention. Shonda [Rhimes, creator] was saying, ‘The life of a black woman matters.’”

The life of a black woman matters. That sentence is so timely. So true. So important. (Read Morgan Jerkin’s piece for the New York Times on how America fails black girls if you need proof as to why this sentence is incredibly relevant in 2017.) Kerry Washington has devoted her life and her work to proving why the lives of black women matter and it’s apparent in the roles she has chosen. She fought to tell Anita Hill’s story in Confirmation. She shows us every week that a black woman can be the smartest person in the room and yet, at her highest, she’s still just “power adjacent.”

The whole Kerry Washington’s Glamour profile is a great read but there’s one part I can’t stop thinking about: 

Paola: One of my favorite quotes, which I have over my desk, is [from the German poet and playwright] Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Do you think that art is a hammer or should art be a mirror?

Kerry: I think it is both. Art curates compassion. Art to me breaks down walls and allows us to step into somebody else’s shoes.

We’ve all seen the think-pieces that proclaim right now as the time of Peak Black TV. Films that star people who never used to get to star in films are dominating the box office. These small steps towards progress in art have yet to translate entirely into reality. See: Trump’s America. If you look at some of great television and film to be produced in the past couple years, you could say that art is using its hammer to shape reality. It’s inspiring and empowering… but is it working? See: Trump’s America. On that point, Kerry said, “We are awake more than ever before, and we have to stay awake.”

Finally, I’m going to take on the rest of the day armed with Kerry Washington’s optimism and joy.

“My deepest desire is to create a world where there’s room for all of us, where no matter who you are, you get to wake up in the morning and know that you are worthwhile and deserving…If that’s the world I want to live in, I have to do the work to make that true for me. I have to do the work of self-love and affirmation, and say, ‘I am a woman, I am a person of color, I am the granddaughter of immigrants, I am also the descendant of slaves, I am a mother, I am an entrepreneur, I am an artist, and I’m joyful.’ And maybe in seeing my joy, you can finish your sentence with, ‘And I am joyful too.’”

You can read Kerry’s full profile here.

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