I am thrilled about Sunday night’s history-making Emmys. But I must admit, I halfway stand with Nancy Grahn, the White soap-opera star who tweeted “I wish I loved [the] #ViolaDavis speech” and I heard harriet y Tubman [sic] and I thought its a fucking emmy for gods sake [sic].”
I, too, wish that I loved Davis’s speech. As impressed as I was with her emotional tribute to Black women and her public declaration that the color line in Hollywood is real (and must be reckoned with), I wasn’t exactly caught up in the #BlackGirlMagic excitement that swept across social media. What’s more, I, too, heard Harriet Tubman and thought, “Really? We’re evoking Harriet…now?”
Don’t get me wrong, I actually think there’s scant an inappropriate time to bring up Ms. Tubman. But as soon as Davis finished those prefatory remarks that she attributed to the abolitionist, I couldn’t help but to raise an eyebrow. Something about the tone and tenor of that Tubman quote seemed like overkill, not to mention that my inner fact-checker was dubious about the context and origin of Tubman’s original words.
I couldn’t track down a reliable source for Davis’s Harriet Tubman quote (and no, BrainyQuote doesn’t count as a “reliable” source). But I did discover an online copy of Harriet, The Moses of Her People, a biography by Sarah H. Bradford that was first published in 1886. In the book, there’s a passage that reads as follows:
…she seemed to see a line dividing the land of slavery from the land of freedom, and on the other side of that line she saw lovely white ladies waiting to welcome her, and to care for her. Already in her mind her people were the Israelites in the land of Egypt, while far away to the north somewhere, was the land of Canaan; but had she as yet any prevision [sic] that she was to be the Moses who was to be their leader, through clouds of darkness and fear, and fires of tribulation to that promised land? This she never said.
Now, in those sentences, I heard echoes of Davis’s Harriet Tubman quote, but I didn’t hear the quote itself. For all I know, Viola Davis may have retrieved the quote from a prestigious Harriet Tubman research vault where she sat thumbing through hours of transcriptions of interviews with Tubman for her upcoming role as the abolitionist. Or, for all I know, Davis may have retrieved the quote from someone who used it as his email signature after reading it on BrainyQuote. A site, which, again, for all I know, may have first crafted the “quote” based on Bradford’s words, not Tubman’s.
All that to say, I, like Grahn, wasn’t wowed by last night’s best actress speech. But, although she nearly lost me at Harriet Tubman, Davis quickly recovered my attention with that flawless one-liner: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Despite my own tepid reaction to what I like to call Davis’s “Field of Dreams Speech” (per those first few opening phrases, “I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful White women…”), I emphatically applaud and affirm the How to Get Away with Murder star’s rightful place on that podium last night. I, like so many Black women, love me some Viola Davis; and I hold up her right to do or say anything she damn well pleases from the Emmys stage.
But guess what? Grahn, too, has the right to react to what Davis does and says from that Emmys stage. Which is why I’m going on the record as a Black woman who also didn’t care for the speech, but who also recognizes that there’s a thin line between not loving a speech and completely disparaging or undermining the speech-giver.
So, as much as I wish I loved Davis’s speech, I also wish Grahn hadn’t crossed that line. I wish she had spoken more humbly, more circumspectly (all the f-bombs and that “color me heartbroken” remark about people calling her racist didn’t sit well). Still, just because Grahn’s words were hurtful and irresponsible doesn’t mean she didn’t have the right to speak at all.
But there’s a slippery slope with the word “right” and who has the right to say what and to/about whom. In the case of Grahn and Davis, the slope gets even more precarious when you take into account the longtime “who has the right to say what” struggle between Black women and White women.
Grahn’s Twitter ranting about Davis reeked of dismissiveness and misplaced resentment. Two tweets, in particular, seemed particularly ill-tempered: ”Brilliant as she is. She has never been discriminated against” and “Try being any woman in TV. Wish she’d brought every woman in the picture. I wish I’d [had] opportunity to play roles she gets.”
First of all, Grahn’s so-called critiques were yet another instance of overkill that incited my inner fact-checker and, presumably, the inner fact-checker of any Black woman who has read enough Viola Davis interviews to know that her discrimination journey is a real one. It includes a fight to overcome her personal self-esteem challenges and a struggle to navigate a Hollywood landscape where there’s a dearth of roles for women of color. (Please read these great pieces by Stacia Brown and Rebecca Carroll that mention specific references about Davis being undercut by the media and her peers on several public occasions. This includes the time she was cut off mid-sentence by Charlize Theron.)
But the biggest problem with Grahn’s Twitter fingers is not that they were firing off inaccurate statements. The biggest problem is not even that what Grahn said was racist. (We can debate whether or not her comments were racist, but we know this for sure: They were rude.) The biggest problem is that this kind of blind rudeness from White women–the privilege of rudeness, if you will–is so exasperating to Black women. It’s absolutely nothing new, but it’s so damn persistent and treacherous and trying that it makes us want to holler.
When I read Grahn’s tweet about how she wishes she’d had Davis’s career and opportunities, I could picture all kinds of forward-thinking and progressive feminists of every color sighing to themselves. Saying, “See, that’s why women can’t have nice things.” Feeling disheartened by yet another moment that illustrates the longtime struggle between Black and White women, in the feminist movement and beyond, to come together.
As I emailed with my MadameNoire editor, Victoria Uwumarogie, about #AttilaTheGrahn, she made it plain. “Grahn’s way of sharing her opinions is [what] makes Black women feel like we can’t stand with White women. Because they don’t fully acknowledge or respect our experiences. And that is a reason some Black women don’t call themselves feminists.”
I won’t go so far as to say it’s not okay or permissible for Grahn, or any woman for that matter, to undervalue the experiences of another woman. The glory of feminism, after all, is wielding and sharing an unshakeable belief that it’s okay and permissible for women to say whatever we damn well please. And that goes for all women, whether or not those women are Black, White or otherwise, and whether or not we choose to quote Harriet Tubman or Harriet Beecher Stowe or Harriet the Spy.
But I will say this: Every woman’s words are permissible, but not all words are helpful. And by “helpful,” I don’t mean positive. I mean productive. And, look, we should know by now–and by “we,” I’m talking to both Black women and White women–that it’s just not productive when women go tit for tat with each other over who has had it worse.
I am not saying that White women need to nod along to everything Black women say or do, or vice versa. But, going back to what I said about the “thin line between not loving a speech and completely disparaging or undermining the speech-giver,” it’s time for White women and all women to stop dismissing each other. (That means: White women dismissing Black women for not having really struggled; Black women dismissing White women for flaunting their privilege; White women dismissing other White women for being too badass; Black women dismissing other Black women for not being badass enough).
Look, I’m not naive enough to suggest that Black women and White women should cease and desist to argue and disagree. No, there are too many dissenting voices, on both sides, that are too valuable for all that can-we-all-get-along jazz.
But I am strident enough to tell White women this: You must be more careful about how you bring Black women into your critiques and conversations and know that being more careful doesn’t make you any less bold. What’s more, the charge to be more careful doesn’t mean that you should stop bringing Black women into your critiques and conversations. In fact, you must keep doing so, as we also will keep bringing you into ours.
In response to Grahn’s critiques about Viola Davis, MadameNoire’s Veronica Wells wrote a great piece that essentially told Grahn to “shut up” (which, I admit, is understandable since Grahn was essentially telling Davis, “You didn’t struggle! You won! Now, shut up and be happy, girl!”).
Still, I wouldn’t go so far as to silence Grahn, or even to tell her “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I would, however, share these words with her that my father always repeats to me:
Be good and, if you can’t be good, be careful.