Dispatches from Shondalandia by a Slavery Historian (Vol. 2)

“I am not yours.”
– Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, Scandal 2 X 3

“You might be Command, Dad, but I have weapons at my disposal. Weapons you couldn’t possibly possess.”
– Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, Scandal 4 x 6



Read Vol. 1 at Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog (click here)

Shondaland is so very personal to black women. We see in Olivia Pope (and before her Miranda Bailey and Naomi Bennett) a generative visual response to a media climate that, over the last ten years or so, has used science to deem us unattractive, suggested we are ‘less classically beautiful,’ questioned our marriageability (after first assuming we were all straight and wished to formally marry), refused to defend the innocence of our daughters….and refused to defend the innocence of our daughters. It was a rout, of course, a dirty trick we let everyone from major news outlets to scientific journals play, a sleight of hand where mainstream media makers and academics tell us something ugly about ourselves we don’t believe but we click the link to learn more anyway.

During this same time period, Rhimes was building. In 2005, Grey’s Anatomy appeared, with Miranda Bailey, the “Nazi,” played by Chandra Wilson. Then Private Practice (2007), with Naomi Bennett, a socially conservative, Catholic, fertility doctor, and business owner played by the gorgeous and now six-time Tony award winner Audra McDonald. In 2012, Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope headlined the cast of Scandal and Viola Davis as Annalise Keating was right on her heels as the lead in How to Get Away With Murder (2014). Ten years after Grey’s Anatomy premiered, Rhimes has taken over Thursday night on ABC, her team crowing their triumph on the hashtag #TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday). You don’t need to know anything about media to know claiming and renaming an entire evening of television is a monumental feat. If there is a generation that is the Potter generation, then SURELY there must and will be a Shonda generation.

A black woman runs Thursday night network TV and as she built her oeuvre she has exposed and dramatized one of the basic questions black women grappled with across time and space.

Who protects us from you?

The panel I participated on at the Shondaland Symposium at Duke was titled: “You gotta testify because the booty don’t lie”: The (Il)Legality of Black Womanhood” (watch video for the other panel here). Our magnificent moderator, Karla Holloway, began our conversation with a question on ways the law constructs black womanhood, how and if the law safeguards our most vaunted (American) ideals—freedom, justice, safety.

In Shondaland, no one is protected. Standard tropes of heteropatriarchal masculinity go flaccid in Rhimes’ dystopic creative universe. The experiences of black female characters on each show reveal, instead, the less comfortable truth. Respectability won’t save us. Marriage won’t save us. Our fathers won’t save us and our mothers are questionable resources. The President won’t save us. And as much as we might want to “save ourselves” (“Run,” Scandal, 4 x 10), in the end it is never a thing we do. Not for lack of trying vis à vis uplift politics, but because the triumphant storyline, the one where black women lift themselves from their bootstraps on their own, somehow bereft and absolved of a much longer history of resistance and shame, pleasure and pain–that storyline is so much the fantasy it has yet to be lived.

Scholars have discussed such things before. The post-slavery struggle with a liberal subjectivity that transforms all slaves into ‘free’ men but either vacates women of African descent (who lack the grammar of citizenship) or consumes them as harlots and villians. The yarn that is the modern Man, a tall tale rooted in race as biopolitics even as it requires black alienation to reflect or refract disorder against the West as constitutive of ‘order.’ Slavery’s afterlife looms large across Shondaland, not because Rhimes is deliberately working through such concepts but because black life matters are already in the water around us and Rhimes’ chose to develop a creative universe in which black women neither ignored those matters nor pandered to them.

The lack of protection and the failure of either freedom or uplift (in particular, material success) grows more complex across each show and over time. As we meet the black women of Shondaland, they appear to be calm, cool, collected–and relentless. Bailey breezes past her interns ready to send them scurrying to their tasks. Olivia barely glances at Quinn on the young woman’s first day of work and dismissively comments on her cleavage. Annalise meets viewers by strutting to the front of her classroom, silencing her students with a glance and admonishing several before the first few minutes of the class period are over. The exception to this trend is Naomi, who we first meet sitting on the floor of her bathroom, sobbing, eating an eight-inch round carrot cake from the box with a fork as her best friend Addison, via voice over, describes “Nae” and her professional prowess. The dissonance is comedic, the scene is recognizable.

It isn’t long before each character joins Naomi in revealing levels of strife both familiar to the viewers (divorce, teen pregnancy) and less so (extramarital affairs with the President of the United States, murder). Bailey’s struggling marriage, seemingly inexplicable except against her professional aspirations, is over by the end of season six. Over the course of Private Practice‘s first season, Naomi is revealed to be fighting bankruptcy, an eating disorder, and her recent divorce from her daughter’s father, Sam Bennett (Taye Diggs). In Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, the timeline to problems micro and meta has sped up. By the end of Scandal 1 x 1, Olivia is revealed to be the President’s former mistress and is taking on his most recent past mistress as a client. On How to Get Away With Murder, within the first few minutes we are thrust into the aftermath of the murder the first half of the season will ask us to get away with.

No one will come save us and no one protects us. Alone, this knowledge is terrifying and in Shondaland it is deadly. But as texts, each show also offers us glimpses into the need at the root of black humanity—need for acts of love, for contact and kin. For origin stories and a community to tell them to. In Shondaland, a creole lexicon marks the boundary between good and bad behavior. On Grey’s, to be a ‘person’ means something more than biopolitics, something beyond protections granted by the Fourteenth Amendment. To be a person requires people, demands filiation and rebirth, circumvents biological ties of kin for the labor and love of chosen kin, for the claims of kinfolk. On Scandal, to be ‘Poped’ (a term that appeared on episode 3 x 5, “More Cattle Less Bull and reappeared this season (4 x 7) in “Baby Made a Mess”) is more than just a phrase meant to capture the strategic mastery of Olivia and her team. It is to experience Olivia and her team’s hermeneutics of justice, to fall, more or less, on the right side of the law but ALWAYS on the right side of her clients.

This need—desire, lust—recognizes immediately that playing by the rules (or against them) offers no solutions to complex problems. In Shondaland, there isn’t a law that can’t be broken, dodged, or overturned–and Rhimes’ team is as disrespectful of death as they are of life. On Grey’s Anatomy, characters cross from moments marked by murder and sickness into dream spaces flush with the resurrected dead. Former lovers brush shoulders with ghost lovers and lost patients before breaking randomly into song. On Private Practice, ethical violations range from inner-office sexual liaisons to public disclosures of medical information. On Scandal, ‘Gladiators’ skirt the law with every episode, doing whatever is necessary to service their clients. On How to Get Away with Murder, viewers join Annalise and the Keating Five (five students chosen for, as far as we know after only one season, their nimble thinking and potential as much as their actual command of law) in a range of exploits, including working our way backwards in time through the cover-up of at least one murder, that of Annalise’s husband, Sam.

As the rulers of Shondaland, Rhimes’ team uncouples freedom from justice and justice from safety–and all three from the legal system. The representatives of the state (police, elected officials, lawyers, hospital administrators, even doctors themselves) are not who you turn to for help when solving a problem. Instead, kinfolk and illegality become bedfellows, your tools to save yourself and save the lives of those around you.

No one protect us us from you. But this is how we survive.

Skirting the law, working on behalf of and accountable to an inner (i.e. gut) and community sense of right and wrong that baffled overseers, slaveowners, colonial authorities, elected officials, constables, sheriffs, and more (nearly all of these gendered male positions) was work familiar to enslaved and free women of color. And, once again, we have seen this before. In the geography of resistance and the “intoxication of pleasurable amusement” that helped enslaved women survive the brutal dehumanization of bondage. In  freedwomen’s political action in the Reconstruction South, as my AAIHS colleague Patrick Rael described in a recent post. Drawing on work by Elsa Barkley Brown, Laura Edwards (and more), Rael (with Alexis Little) notes Democrats’ surprise that “black women seem often to have played conspicuous roles in the conduct of formal politics,” even when barred from voting. Taking measures which sometimes veered into the illegal and extralegal, Rael described the sometimes violent action black women took to influence election outcomes in the post-Civil War South. Elsewhere, I have described ways free women of African descent in New Orleans used inheritance laws and the courts to distributed goods and contest legacies, but rebuffed biological kinship to claim more complicated filial ties. No one protects us from you—whether the you is a parent, a slaveowner, a husband, a doctor, or an elected official. Kinship and illegality. This is how we survive.

In volume one, I mused on four things I wanted: an archive, a methodology, a theory, and a praxis. I want them in the context of black feminist scholarship (including histories of slavery) but I wonder if this is also a good moment to ask: “Where is the Black Lady?” (Scandal, 4 X 4). Who is this black woman we think we see, the one Rhimes rebuilt and the ones we are?  Again, these shows are personal, that is, the viewers enjoy them for the dramatic plots, the fandom, the fashion, the sex, and the community created while watching. However, if we take black women viewers seriously, as critics and theorists who know what they see when they see it done right, then by tapping into the ways black women fight on micro and meta battlegrounds, by being honest about our need and the heroic, foolish, lustful, violent things we will do in our need for each other, Rhimes is asking us to consider the creative and destructive power of our passion for each other. This is how we have survived, this is how we create, this is how we will pass on legacies.


Works Cited

Camp, Stephanie M. H. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. First Edition edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.

____ . “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1–14.

Hine, Darlene Clark. “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West.” Signs 14, no. 4 (1989): 912–20.

Johnson, Jessica Marie. “Death Rites as Birthrights in Atlantic New Orleans: Kinship and Race in the Case of María Teresa v. Perine Dauphine.” Slavery & Abolition (September 25, 2014): 1–24. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2014.943931. (online now)

McKittrick, Katherine, ed. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Penningroth, Dylan C. Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South. UNC Press Books, 2004.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (July 1, 1987): 65–81. doi:10.2307/464747.

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Jessica Marie Johnson

Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include women, gender, and sexuality in the African diaspora; histories of slavery and the slave trade; and digital history and new media and has appeared in Slavery & Abolition and Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism. Follow her on Twitter @jmjafrx.