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Viola Davis’ Emmy Speech and the Power of Black Women Supporting Each Other

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The 67th Primetime Emmy Awards were, at least in comparison to recent ceremonies, surprisingly good! There were funny jokes that landed, well-deserved wins, and a couple of water-cooler moments. But the one moment that everyone is — or at least should be— talking about is Viola Davis’ wonderful, heartfelt, and strong as hell acceptance speech.

Davis won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Television Drama for her role in How to Get Away With Murder, a fun, soapy drama from Shonda Rhimes and Peter Nowalk in which Davis’ performance has consistently been the obvious highlight. In her emotional acceptance speech, Davis was the epitome of beautiful blackness, right down to rocking her natural hair and an opening quote from Harriet Tubman. It was a speech of celebration, yes, but it was also a speech that delivered a necessary dose of realness: Davis made salient points about diversity in Hollywood — “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there” — that also served to show how far Hollywood still has to go in terms of racial diversity.

While television has been actively working to include more diverse casts and crews, and to celebrate more diverse performers, the undeniable fact remains that Hollywood is still a place where white (and male) is the default setting. There are not enough roles for people of color, and especially not enough well-developed roles of nuance, and an Emmy doesn’t exactly ward off racism. And, well, not to downplay the rightfully celebratory mood of last night’s POC wins, but: it is depressing that it took until 2015 for a black woman to win this award; it is depressing that it’s 2015 and we’re still prefacing current achievements with “The first African American to _______.”

The speech was perfect from beginning to end, yet one thing that particularly struck me was Viola Davis shouting out and thanking other black women on television: Taraji P. Henson, Kerry Washington, Halle Berry, Nicole Beharie, Meagan Good, Gabrielle Union. Like Halle Berry, in a 2002 Oscar acceptance speech for Best Leading Actress in which she shouted out Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica A. Fox, and “every nameless, faceless woman of color,” Davis wanted to share the award with other black women who may not get the same recognition — despite all deserving it. And she wanted to make sure we know their names.

It’s not unusual for award winners to gracefully mention the other nominees in their acceptance speeches, but this was something different. Last night represented a wealth of black excitement, black friendship, and black support. (Even the Apple commercial featuring Mary J. Blige, Kerry Washington, and Taraji P. Henson — directed by Ava DuVernay — was positively beautiful!) Three black women took home major awards: Davis, Regina King (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series for American Crime), and Uzo Aduba (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Orange Is the New Black). This was exciting in and of itself (I mean, holy shit, we broke that unspoken rule that only one black woman can win a major award per award show; remember the 2012 Oscars?), but what made it even better was watching these black women congratulate each other, thank each other, hug each other, and celebrate each other.

There are rivalries in Hollywood, and one would expect the rivalry between black women to be even more intense, considering the smaller number of rules they are competing for, but none of that was on display last night. Instead, these women were so visibly happy for each other. Taraji P. Henson literally screamed with joy on stage when Regina King won; Henson later fiercely embraced Viola Davis as Davis walked to accept her award (both were nominated). Shots of the audience during the speech showed Henson clapping with pride and nodding furiously in agreement with Davis’ words as Kerry Washington cried with joy for Davis’ win.

During the ceremony, I was reminded of a moment early in the pilot episode of Black-ish, when Andre (Anthony Anderson) remarks that his promotion in the company isn’t just for him; it’s a promotion for all of the black employees, whether they are executives or janitors. A win for black person is often a win for the black community. The black women last night understood this. They — and all black women — know that our competition is not with each other, but with the inherently racist and sexist system that insists on keeping us second class. An Emmy award (three Emmy awards!) makes another crack in the glass ceiling that’s keeping us from ascending, but we have to keep working together — tirelessly — to finally break it completely.

Viola Davis’ win is a win for Taraji, and Kerry, and Gabrielle, and other black actresses, and every young black girl with kinky hair and discouraging peers who is constantly bombarded by white-dominated media that implies she’ll never be welcome in their club. It’s important for black women to support each other, through and through, because the rest of the world won’t.