In a recent “New York Times” article, Alessandra Stanley labeled Shonda Rhimes as an angry Black woman. Stanley is referring to the Black female character that Shonda created in “Scandal” and the character in her new production “How to Get Away With Murder”. Since the latter has not yet aired, my comments refer only to Scandal. I do not perceive Olivia Pope, the character played by Kerry Washington, to be an angry Black woman, I perceive her as an immoral Black woman and that is more disturbing than the anger charge. Anger can be a legitimate emotion when applied in the proper context. James Baldwin wrote that to be Black in America is to be angry all the time. Of course he was referring to the dismal and appalling treatment Blacks had to endure in a segregated country.
However, there are no circumstances or situations in which immorality can be justified. If Shonda should be ashamed of any part of her creation, it is her portrayal of the Black woman in “Scandal.” As an artist who has the opportunity to portray the Black female for the entire world to view, she should feel compelled to create images that show Black women in a positive light. In his autobiography, “Here I Stand”, the great artist Paul Robeson commented on this subject. Referring to his responsibility as an artist, he wrote, “In the early days of my career as an actor, I shared what was then the prevailing attitude of Negro performers—that the content and form of a play or film scenario was of little or no importance to us. What mattered was the opportunity, which came so seldom to our folks, of having a part—any part—to play on the stage or in the movies; and for a Negro actor to be offered a starring role—well that was a rare stroke of fortune indeed. Later I came to understand that the Negro artist could not view the matter simply in terms of his individual interests, and that he had a responsibility to his people who rightfully resented the traditional stereotyped portrayals of Negroes on stage and screen.”
Evidently, Shonda and Kerry reject the advice from Robeson, and also ignore the stellar position taken by the great Cicely Tyson when she refused to play any role demeaning to the image of the Black woman. Dr. Maya Angelou’s tribute to the beauty of the Black woman in her poem “Phenomenal Woman” loses all its meaning to a Shonda and Kerry when they destroy that image in “Scandal.” They also insult the memory of the lovely Ruby Dee who insisted on playing roles that accentuated the positive image of the Black woman. There is nothing admirable about Olivia Pope; she may be strong but she certainly is not a beautiful person. Unfortunately, we cannot separate the Olivia Pope character from my beautiful Black sisters in real life. They become a part of that image because too often reality imitates fiction.
There is a history of courageous Black women who deserve to be treated with great respect and admiration. Shonda and Kerry have done immense damage to the memories of these women. Olivia Pope is no Shirley Chissolm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, or Michelle Obama. These were and still are great Black women who did not compromise their moral principals for power and money. They are the women our young girls need to see on television and all our sisters, who rush home just to see “Scandal”, should be reading about and using as examples of the images of the Black woman in America. Not a woman, who hates her father, and sleeps with a married white man for power and privilege.