When Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were nominated for Emmy’s this year in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category, they were only the sixth and seventh Black women to ever be nominated for that award.
When Davis accepted her first-ever Emmy Sunday night, she also became the first of those seven women to actually win. Her acceptance speech, one that invoked abolitionist Harriet Tubman, was a powerful reminder that, as Davis said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
The previous night, at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual dinner in Washington, D.C., President Obama delivered a speech that mirrored very closely, in 27 minutes, what Davis said in fewer than two.
“We know that the promise of this nation, where every single American regardless of the circumstances in which they were born, regardless of what they look like, where they come from, has the chance to succeed – that promise is not yet fulfilled,” Obama said.
His speech focused on Black women in particular, noting that – while they’re better off today than they once were – Black women in America are affected by economic policies and a criminal justice system that disproportionately trap them in poverty.
Davis’s speech may have been specifically calling out a lack of opportunity for Black women in Hollywood, but her sentiment, as Obama made clear in his remarks, is true nationwide. And it’s well-documented. In a report issued last year by the Black Women’s Roundtable (released 50 years after the War on Poverty, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, and 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education), the challenges Black women face – unequal pay, high (though improving) incarceration rates, underrepresentation in elected office – are comprehensively explored.
“I want to talk about what more we have to do to provide full opportunity and equality for our Black women and girls in America today,” Obama said later in his remarks on Saturday, “because all of us are beneficiaries of a long line of strong Black women who helped carry this country forward.”
Obama no doubt had in mind women like Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height. He may have been thinking about women like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. He probably, too, thought of Harriet Tubman, as Davis did the following night.