Abbott Elementary’s Emmy wins prove diversity is critical for success, both on and off screen

September 13, 2022, 7:49 PM UTC
Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph poses with her Emmy.
Broadway and TV legend Sheryl Lee Ralph receives her first Emmy for the role of Barbara Howard in ABC's Abbott Elementary.
Frazer Harrison—Getty Images

A dream girl’s dream has come true.

After an extraordinary career of hard work, accolades, and nods, but little industry recognition, actor, singer, and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph won a best-supporting actress Emmy last night for her role as Barbara Howard in the break-out hit show Abbott Elementary. She is the second Black woman to win in the history of the category; Jackée Harry was the first for her performance as Sandra Clark in the second season of 227 in 1988.

The Broadway performer opened her acceptance speech with an acapella version of “Endangered Species,” a song by American jazz artist Dianne Reeves. “I am an endangered species,” she sang, “but I sing no victim’s song. I am a woman, I am an artist, and I know where my voice belongs.”

Yes, the crowd went wild.

Ralph, 66, began her career in 1981 in the first Broadway production of Dream Girls and has been working steadily ever since. But the Jamaican-American performer found an unusual opportunity in Abbott Elementary, a mockumentary-style series about a drastically underfunded public school in Philadelphia. She turned the character Mrs. Howard—a teaching veteran who balances worldly wisdom with a sharp, seen-it-all cynicism—into a grounding presence among the ensemble. “I thought that I was just going to be there collecting a check,” Ralph said in a red carpet interview. “I had no idea that people would see the subtleties in the work. It’s very easy for people to miss the layers that you put in sometimes as an actor. And they saw it all.”

Ralph was given an opportunity to shine on the platform created by writer/actor Quinta Brunson, who also made history last night as the first Black woman to be nominated three times in the comedy category—for writing, lead actress, and best series. Her win last night for best comedy writing makes her the second Black woman in the category and the first to win solo. (Lena Waithe was the first, who shared the trophy with Aziz Ansari.)

It’s a breakthrough for many reasons.

While an entire generation of television viewers may best remember Ralph as Moesha’s stepmother in the 90’s hit show, now enjoying a second life with new fans, it is her work with this new ensemble that is likely to be her enduring legacy. For one thing, Brunson has made the show effortlessly diverse, populated with the kinds of characters—Black, white, older, younger, gay, straight, single, etc—who would actually be found working in the kind of school that serves a primarily (but not entirely) Black community.

“Ultimately, I feel that is the key to more diversity in television is not just sticking characters into a white world, but actually green-lighting the stories that naturally bring those people to the forefront,” Brunson explained on the Awardist podcast. “We weren’t worried about diversity at all while we were making the show. We were worried about being funny. And that’s because we didn’t have to do the task of sticking people in to fulfill some quota. We already brought everything that’s being looked for so hard to the table.”

That mindset has allowed the cast to fully inhabit the experiences of the true stars of the show, the teachers and educators who are underfunded, under-respected, and increasingly under political attack. It has infused the work with purpose and meaning.

“I’ve never been an actor who’s out to make a lot of money. I need to be [telling stories that] affect change in people’s hearts and minds,” says Tyler James Williams, who plays the perpetually wide-eyed teacher, Gregory Eddie. “This is one of those shows.” Says Ralph, “It’s amazing that I hear from so many teachers who feel like, ‘Finally, we’re heard. Finally, we’re seen for what it is we contribute to the lives of America’s children.”

Brunson herself has become an unflinching voice for educators, raising funds for classroom teachers and advocating for fair pay. “[Teachers] worked through a pandemic, in person, on Zoom and on Zoloft, I’m assuming,” she told a delighted crowd at the 2022 TIME 100 gala last June. “I play a teacher on TV, but every day I wonder if I’d be strong enough to be one in real life. You all deserve to be paid more.”

But last night, it was all about the joy. Ralph’s electrifying speech became an instant anthem for anyone who has been an excellent, overlooked, principled long-hauler in any industry where dominant culture norms held them back.

“To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true,” Ralph said, “I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like. This is what striving looks like. And don’t you ever, ever give up on you.”

Let’s take this one personally.

More Emmy news here.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point: The royal edition

The death of Queen Elizabeth II sparked a strong but necessary conversation about the role the British Monarchy has long played as a colonial, imperialist power and the harm the empire has caused. You can find nuanced examples in threads created by historians all over Twitter.

This poignant piece from Stanford’s Priya Satia explains why Pakistan’s flooding and Queen Elizabeth are interrelated. “[T]he frantic analysis of the monarchy remains blind to its role in the existential climate crisis we face: the surrogate sacred object it offered to a society that ceased to find meaning in the earth and fellow beings.”

For those at the heart of the (mostly online) conversation, it has been a real-time attempt to ensure that the memorial narrative doesn’t erase history—much of which is not widely understood.

One such commenter was Uju Anya, Ph.D., a scholar and applied-linguistics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who took to her personal Twitter account to express her feelings about Queen Elizabeth. “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating,” she said in a tweet that was subsequently removed by Twitter. She was hardly alone in her harsh assessment, and the remark might have been just another node in a global conversation about monarchy and reckoning if Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t quote-tweet a response. “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow,” he said.

From there, the tweet took on a life of its own, forcing her employer to disavow her remarks and inciting a predictable deluge of vile, hateful messages. (Why did Bezos attack her and only her? Nobody knows, but theories abound.)

Uncertain how CMU would respond, the global academic and research community rallied to her side.

Nearly 4,000 people have signed this open letter highlighting Anya’s contributions to academia, her “joyful” presence on Twitter, and reiterating the harm the British monarchy caused her personally. “Not only did Queen Elizabeth II sit on a throne of Indigenous and Black blood, embedded in the overall legacy of the British monarchy, her actual government presided over and directly facilitated the genocide that Dr. Anya’s parents and siblings barely survived,” it says. “This genocide entailed the massacre of more than 3 million Igbo people, including other family members of Dr. Anya.”

It was a case study in swift, effective, and public allyship.

Anya does essential research exploring the barriers African American students face accessing language education, and I can attest to her typically joyful presence on Twitter. But she’s also offered a case study in not backing down.

“If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star,” Anya wrote in a tweet.

And to Jeff Bezos, she clapped right back. “May everyone you and your merciless greed have harmed in this world remember you as fondly as I remember my colonizers.”

Parting words

"When I was a little girl, all I wanted to see was me in the media — someone fat like me, Black like me, beautiful like me. If I could go back and tell little Lizzo something, I'd be like, 'You're going to see that person, but b***h, it's going to have to be you…This is for the big grrrls!"

Lizzo accepting her first Emmy award for Lizzo's Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.


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