Featured photo: Kerry Washington speaks at NCA&T State University on Sept. 21, 2023 (photo by Nate Monteith)
Kerry Washington stopped mid-sentence to prevent a group of guests from making the mistake of a premature exit.
“Wait! Don’t go! I have to give you something!” she shouted towards the upper-level seating in Harrison Auditorium.
Reminiscent of an Oprah Winfrey giveaway, Washington then revealed the audience was going home with copies of her book Thicker than Water: A Memoir, before its public release on Sept. 26. As screams of excitement filled the venue, Washington found a sure-fire way to quiet them down.
“I’ll do what my mother does; I’ll wait,” she said with a smirk and raised eyebrow.
Once the audience obliged, she explained the importance of keeping the memoir’s contents under wraps.
“This book doesn’t come out until Tuesday, so I need you to promise me you’re going to hold it close to your heart,” she said. “This is the beginning of my book tour. You guys are like a secret first stop before I go out into the world in front of everybody.”
On Sept. 21, Washington spoke at NC A&T State University as part of the “Finding My Own” installment of the Chancellor’s Speaker Series, the university’s effort to meet Goal Two of its Preeminence 2030: North Carolina A&T Blueprint strategic plan: “Develop engaged global thought leaders and innovators.”
“Finding My Own” encourages conversations about “finding one’s voice, purpose, happiness, identity, strength and peace,” while Thicker than Water inspires readers to search for and find themselves.
“I really wanted to write about this time in my life because I feel like I’ve been in a process where I’m learning to shake off a lot of shame and really, really be in honest, open, intimate relationships and love myself more,” Washington said during the event.
Washington’s acting career began with a commercial in the late ’90s. Following a string of supporting roles in films like Save the Last Dance (2001), Ray (2004), The Last King of Scotland (2007) and additional television and theater spots, she received public recognition for her portrayal of the fast-talking, monologue-delivering, no-nonsense crisis manager Olivia Pope from “Scandal” in 2012. Already an Emmy, SAG-winning, Golden Globe-nominated actress, director, producer and political advocate, the book’s release marks the beginning of Washington’s newest venture as an author.
The conversation on Sept. 21 was facilitated by A&T alumna Danya Bacchus, national correspondent for CBS news and stations.
Bacchus, in a gradient blue-to-green top and pants set, entered the stage and led the crowd through the Aggie Pride and Gimme Dat school spirit chants. After a short explanation of the evening’s topics, she introduced Washington, whose denim, maxi-length, A-line dress swayed as she danced her way towards the blue suede chairs in the front-center of the stage. She accessorized with a caramel-colored waist belt and matching stiletto boots, gold jewelry and gilded, almond-shaped nails that reflected the stage lights into the audience.
The discussion flowed naturally, with Bacchus asking Washington questions about finding her own identity when her career requires her to take on another, managing her emotions and dealing with what seemed like overnight worldwide stardom.
“It wasn’t until ‘Scandal’ really that I became a household name,” Washington explained. “It’s funny because I think in a lot of ways, playing a character who I couldn’t hide in, playing a character who made me so visible, really challenged me to get to know myself more. And when the show ended, I really felt like Olivia Pope helped me discover so much about myself.”
Bacchus then questioned how Washington is able to find her own happiness outside of her characters.
“I don’t think that there is such a thing as being happy. It’s not a destination, I think it’s a practice,” she said.
Speaking to a collective of mostly Black students, Bacchus and Washington found it important to touch on navigating stereotypes in a white-male dominated industry. Despite the angry Black woman and strong Black woman tropes, Washington stresses Black women are entitled to feel and express emotions, too, and they should embrace their anger and manifest it healthily.
“Michelle Obama always says, ‘Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Don’t say it mean.’ I can be angry, that doesn’t mean that I get to take it out on other people.” Washington said.
She continues, “As a Black woman, I may just be assertive and clear, and people may see that as angry. That is not my problem.”
Throughout the night, Washington dropped several gems about not taking responsibility for others’ emotions, setting boundaries and finding inner peace that resulted in collective “Hmms” of acknowledgement from the audience.
When asked by Bacchus how she would create a blueprint for college students, Washington couldn’t completely answer due to the difficulty of her own experience.
“College was the first time I actually got on my knees to pray about something,” she said.
It was also the first time she went to see a therapist, and the first time she realized it was okay to ask for help. In addition to this, she told students she made it through college and protected her peace by journaling and meditation.
When Bacchus opened the floor to student questions, one asked Washington how she deals with imposter syndrome, or self-doubt among high-achieving, capable individuals. She reminds herself she is worthy of the rooms she enters.
“We feel that way because there has been a system in place to make us feel like we don’t belong, and we get to reject that system in favor of truth, because the truth is those rooms need us,” she explained.
As the conversation neared its end, the audience formed hearts with their hands and pointed them towards the stage, expressing their love for Washington, her work and the event.
Shantea Gentry, an audience member, appreciated how the conversation emphasized caring for your well-being.
“She gave a lot of pointers in terms of self-fulfillment, taking care of yourself. It all kind of revolved around self-care and mental health, so I enjoyed it,” Gentry said.
Ivy Bethea, a freshman creative-writing student, described her first Speaker Series experience the best way someone from Gen Z knows how.
“I love her, for real,” she said. “When she said, ‘Happiness is not a destination, it’s a practice,’ she really ate with that one.”
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