Lena Waithe Is The First Black Woman To Win An Emmy For Comedy Writing (Video)
“TV teaches you how to dream,” Lena Waithe said in her recent interview with The Breakfast Club.
The Chicagoan actor and writer just made television history as the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing, for her work on the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None. Now earning accolades as the creator of the Showtime series The Chi (for which Common serves as an executive producer), Waithe and her success echo Donald Glover’s critically acclaimed and award-winning series Atlanta, also a show devoted to showcasing Black culture in an American city.
With Charlamagne, DJ Envy and Angela Yee, Waithe discussed her career and perspective as an openly queer (the term with which she chooses to identify herself) woman from Chicago, which has been a focal point in both headlines and Hollywood recently. She says she wants to be the Kanye West of writing (2:46), adding “The Chi is another color of my voice, and I want to keep surprising people. Every [Kanye West] album felt so different from the last one, you almost didn’t know if it was from the same artist. And that’s what I want to do, I want to keep surprising people.”
Waithe was in part inspired to create The Chi because of the news media’s portrayal of her hometown, which she says focused on things like gun violence in place of the people of the city. “It was three years ago that I wrote the pilot…[Chicago] was really hot in the news. The gun violence, the deaths, it was just getting to be out of control,” she says (4:59). “The news gets bored with a story and moves on, but people are still there and still struggling. I was seeing people go into the city and reporting on it, which I appreciate, but at the same time, these are foreigners going into my city who don’t know what it’s like to survive a city there or run the streets of the summer there, or don’t know the heartbeat of the city. And I know the heartbeat, because I used to fall asleep to it every night.”
She credits the writings of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and “how they would tell stories about us” with setting the tone for her own writing. “I wanna try to do this for Chicago, ’cause I feel like there wasn’t any humanity behind the headlines.”
Waithe won her writing Emmy for an episode of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, Master of None, in which she shared her personal coming-out story. After telling Ansari her story of telling her family she is queer, he and others urged her to re-tell it as an episode for the show. Admitting she was hesitant at first, Waithe calls the experience “phenomenal” and that the Emmy was just “icing” on the cake. However, she is justifiably proud of helping elevate Black lesbian visibility in television. “I didn’t know how much the culture needed that episode of television. I really, really didn’t,” she says (13:25). “So many people reached out and were, like, ‘Finally, we see someone that reflects us.'”
She continues, “My mom was born into a segregated America. She was born in 1953. For her, what it means to be a good Black person is to make sure White people don’t feel uncomfortable around you. For me, I didn’t care if, when I walked into a room, the energy changes. I didn’t care to shout from the rooftops. I’m proud to be Black. I’m proud to be gay. I’m proud to be a woman. And then, I realized what an anomaly I was in the industry. If you look at how many Black people there are in Hollywood, and how many out gay Black people there are in Hollywood, the numbers don’t add up. So, I know I get a lot of credit for being out and proud, but what I hope is, with my success, I hope that somebody looks at me and goes, ‘You know what? Maybe it ain’t that bad. Maybe I should stop pretending to be something I’m not.'”
Elsewhere in the episode, she touches on Spike Lee’s recent film Chi-raq (18:13), which was received unfavorably by Chicagoans like Chance the Rapper; how Bill Cosby and shows like A Different World inspired her as a young Black girl (5:30); her career beginnings on Girlfriends (10:01) and other jobs with Ava DuVernay; her decision to call herself “queer” rather than “lesbian,” and more.