The 69th Primetime Emmys had one of the most diverse groups of nominees ever, including writer and actress Lena Waithe. The “Master of None” star is the first black woman to be nominated for writing in a comedy series.
She is also the first black woman to have won in that category.
Waithe shared the award with Aziz Ansari, who co-wrote the “Thanksgiving” episode documenting a character’s coming out experience. In her acceptance speech, Waithe thanked those who embraced “a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago.” She also spoke directly to her “LGBTQIA family.”
“I see each and every one of you,” Waithe said. “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers.”
It’s important to celebrate Waithe’s talent and this outstanding accomplishment, especially in light of the possibility that it could be a few years — or maybe decades — until another black woman is nominated again in this category.
In honor of Waithe’s historic win, here are black women in comedy who came before her.
Most significant Emmy nomination: Outstanding single performance by an actress in a lead role for her performance in “Naked City”
Did she win? No.
The Brooklyn-born, triple threat actor-model-singer Diahann Carroll is accustomed to being “the first.” In 1962, she became the first black woman to win a Tony for best lead actress in a musical for her performance in “No Strings.” Then, in 1963, she became the first African American to be nominated for an Emmy for her work in “Naked City.”
Carroll was the first black woman to star in her own TV series in a non-stereotypical role. Her role as Julia Baker in “Julia”catapulted her to stardom and garnered her another Emmy nod in 1969. Although she didn’t win that year, she did snag a Golden Globe for best actress, and she went on to secure two more Emmy nominations for roles in “A Different World” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Her role in “Julia”was momentous because it was the first time American TV portrayed a leading black woman in a non-domestic role. Julia was a beautiful, successful nurse. With “Julia,” Carroll proved that a black woman could be a bona-fide television star, and she opened up doors for actresses like Kerry Washington and Viola Davis.
Most significant Emmy nomination: Outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for her performance in “The Jeffersons”
Did she win? Yes.
The late Isabel Sanford was the first black woman to receive an Emmy for best actress in a comedy series for her work on“The Jeffersons.” Sanford captured seven consecutive nominations from 1979 to 1985 for her role as Louise “Weezy” Jefferson. She clenched the award in 1981, making television history.
Louise Jefferson and her husband George, played by actor Sherman Hemsley, first graced television screens in Norman Lear’s “All in the Family.” Their performances were so strong that Lear created “The Jeffersons” as a spin-off. The show lasted for eleven seasons. “The Jeffersons” broke ground by portraying an African American family that was “movin’ on up” economically and by showing an interracial marriage between Helen Willis, a black woman played by Roxie Roker, and Tom Willis, a white man played by Franklin Cover.
Sanford’s award-winning role as the strong-willed Louise paved the way for other tenacious women, including Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” and Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow Johnson on “Black-ish.”
Most significant Emmy nomination: Outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for her role in “227”
Did she win? Yes.
Jackée, Beyoncé and Oprah belong to an elite sorority of entertainers who are famous enough to use mononyms. Jackée sashéd her way into American living rooms as the ultra-sexy Sandra Clark in the 1980s sitcom, “227.”
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences was so captivated by Sandra’s alluring comedic persona that it awarded Jackée an Emmy for her supporting role in 1987, making her the first — and only — African American woman to capture the coveted award. “Saaaaa-ndra” showed Hollywood that a black actress could be crazy-sexy-cool without blinking an eyelash — or while blinking fake ones.
Subsequently NBC piloted a new show, “Jackée.” Although the pilot was short-lived, her acting career soared. Jackée starred alongside Oprah in the award-winning miniseries, “The Women of Brewster Place.” Roles in numerous television roles ensued, including her role as Lisa Landry on the hit show, “Sister, Sister,” from 1994 to 1999.
Most significant Emmy nomination: Guest performer in a comedy series for her role in “The Cosby Show”
Did she win? No.
Anyone who watched “The Cosby Show”in the 1980s remembers the popular wedding anniversary episodes where the Huxtable clan would honor Healthcliff’s parents — Russell and Anna — with choreographed lip-synced routines. While these performances captured the hearts of TV viewers, it was the late Clarice Taylor’s performance as Anna Huxtable in the “Happy Anniversary” episode that captured the attention of the Television Academy. In 1986, Taylor became the first black actress to be nominated for an Emmy in a category now referred to as outstanding guest actress in a comedy series.
Taylor’s theater career preceded her television one. First she performed with the American Negro Theater in Harlem, then she co-founded the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967. Both provided her and her colleagues with meaty roles before those opportunities were available in film and TV.
As opportunities for black actors surged, so did Taylor’s career. In the late 1970s she appeared as Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, in the original Broadway production of “The Wiz,” and on “Sesame Street” as Harriet, a beloved grandmother.
Given that Taylor’s Emmy nomination came late in her career, one can’t help but wonder how many other nominations she would have received had more opportunities been available to black actresses sooner.
Most significant Emmy nomination: Outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for her role in “Black-ish”
Did she win? No.
Like her superstar mother Diana Ross, Tracee Ellis Ross is an entertainer who is as ladened with talent as she is with style and beauty. But unlike her famous mother, Ellis Ross is a goofball and rising comedic star whose bulging eyes possess an uncanny ability to evoke laughter. While her role as Joan Carol Clayton in the sitcom “Girlfriends” positioned her as a comedic actor, her performance as Rainbow Johnson in ABC’s “Black-ish” positioned her as a comedic superstar. In 2017, Ellis Ross received her first Golden Globe for the role.
This year she received her second consecutive Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series. The last time a black woman was nominated in this category was 30 years ago, when actress Phylicia Rashad was nominated for her role as Clair Huxtable in “The Cosby Show.”
If Ellis Ross ever wins an Emmy for her role in “Black-ish,” it would be significant. The show explicitly yet comically explores what it’s like to be black in America. While “The Cosby Show”introduced America to an affluent black family that never really discussed race, the affluent Johnsons discuss and debate race incessantly, with Rainbow’s identity as a bi-racial black woman playing a central part in these conversations.
Most significant Emmy nomination: Outstanding writing for a comedy series for the “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None”
Did she win? Yes.
The fact that Lena Waithe’s groundbreaking episode, “Thanksgiving,” secured a 2017 Emmy nomination for her and “Master of None” creator Aziz Ansari is proof that who tells the story is as critical to the storytelling process as the story itself.
When Ansari heard Waithe’s coming out story, he wanted to share it on “Master of None.” But Ansari didn’t know what it was like to be a gay black woman. He wisely asked Waithe to help him write the episode. In “Thanksgiving,” Waithe’s character, Denise, comes out to her mother. Denise and her family struggle with her sexuality, and the episode follows their growth with a potent poignancy.
Waithe is no newcomer to Hollywood. Although she became widely known for her role as Denise, she has worked behind the scenes as a writer and assistant. Her next project, “The Chi,” was picked up by Showtime earlier this year.
Waithe’s Emmy win proves that #BlackWritersMatter and highlights the diversity of the black experience. She will go down in history books for her talent and masterful storytelling.