By Emma Holmes
Last week, at the 69th Emmy Award Show, history was made. Lena Waithe graciously accepted the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, and she was the first black woman ever to do so. Ms. Waithe stood beside her co-writer and co-star, Aziz Ansari, as they were rewarded for their work on the “Thanksgiving” episode of the Netflix Original Series “Master of None”.
Waithe was born in Chicago in 1984, and grew up with aspirations to be a screenwriter, not necessarily an actor. She wrote for the Fox television show, Bones, and later worked as a producer on the 2014 film “Dear White People”. In the “Thanksgiving” episode, Waithe drew on her personal experience as a black lesbian. As both a writer and a main character in the episode, she explores compounding aspects of her identity as she experienced them through the years at Thanksgiving.
This storyline is just one in a series that poignantly addresses both diversity and commonality of personal experience. Master of None also follows Dev’s (Ansari) experience as a first-generation American with immigrant parents, reconciling their religious and cultural perspective with his own. Another episode explores the under representation and stereotyping of Indian men on television, as Dev struggles as an up-and-coming actor.
According to an interview with Vogue, Waithe’s character, Denise, was originally written as a white, straight woman who had the potential to be a love interest for Dev. However, once Waithe was cast, the show’s creators decided to base the character more on Waithe herself. Denise is depicted as a smooth, confidently sexual woman with a complex and honest backstory. Although her experiences help Dev (and audiences) see unique perspectives on issues like street harassment and homophobia, Waithe’s character isn’t merely a token woke friend; She also has some killer jokes and, now, award-winning storylines.
Waithe was not only the first black woman to win the Emmy for writing in comedy, but the second woman of color to be nominated. In 2010, Mindy Kaling and co-writer Greg Daniels were nominated in the category for the Niagara episode of “The Office” (the one where Jim and Pam get married), but lost to “Modern Family.” It’s refreshing to see Kaling and Waithe, both accomplished and hilarious writers and actors, playing roles that defy racial stereotypes. Kaling plays a customer service representative for a paper company in Pennsylvania. Waithe plays a theater critic. In white male-dominated arenas such as comedy writing, both women shine brightly.
In an interview with Marie Claire, Waithe paid tribute to the LGBT+ and black communities. “I didn’t want to just make it about me,” she said, “because the moment was so much bigger than myself.” She also recognized Halle Berry’s Oscar win in 2002, when she became the first black woman to receive the award for Best Actress. Waithe, who was 18 at the time, stated, “Her win told me that I could do anything. It told me that the industry was starting to embrace us as a community, and her speech meant so much to me as an artist, and as a young performer.”