Firsts

Lena Waithe

First black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series

‘If I win, now it’s not just about, ‘Oh, I get to win an Emmy’ — it’s about me breaking through a barrier that I didn’t even know existed.’

I developed my love of television watching TV with my grandmother. She watched All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Columbo and Hunter. Then I discovered my own shows, like A Different World, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and Family Matters. I found myself not just watching it blindly but really soaking in everything about it — the characters, the jokes, the laughs, the musicality of it all.

I don’t think I knew that pursuing a career in television was even viable until I was about to graduate high school. My teachers at Evanston Township High School told me about Columbia College Chicago, where I could major in writing and producing television, which was mind-boggling to me. But I did, and I got to come to Los Angeles for a semester and work on spec scripts and do internships and get to know people. That was the best thing for me, because it really made it real.

Starting out, I had really great bosses. Ava DuVernay and Mara Brock Akil and Gina Prince-Bythewood sort of became my mentors whether they liked it or not, just because I was watching them work, and I would see how they moved through the world and the industry. I know “mentor” is a very popular term. People always say, “I need to be mentored,” or, “How do you get a mentor?” But that term for me means I help point people in the right direction. The truth is, you’ve got to really go out there on your own and try things.

I’ve lost count how many times people have asked me, “So, what is it like for you being a queer black woman in the industry?” I’ve felt my gender and identity mostly in success — not in trying to come up — where certain white men were thinking they knew more than me or feeling resentful that I was more successful. But for the most part, people didn’t care that I was black or female or gay. They didn’t give a sh-t. They were like, “This script is really dope, and we want to make it.” The thing I won an Emmy for, the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None, was about my coming-out story. My TBS pilot Twenties is about being a queer black girl in her 20s in Los Angeles. My Showtime drama The Chi is about what it means to be black and human in Chicago. These are all things that make up who I am. So there’s this element where people think, “But it must have been difficult for you.” I’m like, “No, things got easier once I got better as a writer.” But we still don’t have a level playing field when it comes to the town.

Being nominated for an Emmy was icing on an already delicious cake. I’m a writer. I’m an artist. This is what I do for a living. So when someone wants to reward me for doing the things that I would do anyway, it’s kind of nice. I had such a great experience making that episode. I met friends I’m going to have for the rest of my life. Melina Matsoukas is not just a woman who directed that episode, but she’s my sister. Angela Bassett is literally like my other mother now. Kym Whitley has always been my play-aunt.

I actually didn’t know I was a first, even when I was nominated. A friend Googled it and said, “I think you’re the first African-American woman to be nominated in this category.” And I was like, “That can’t be true.” So we did our research. I always try to make sure I’m saying my sisters’ names: Wanda Sykes won for Outstanding Writing for a Variety or Music Program, and Mindy Kaling was the first woman of color to be nominated in the comedy category. I was the first African-American woman to be nominated in that category. Once that news hit me, I thought, “Oh, man. If I win, now it’s not just about, ‘Oh, I get to win an Emmy’ — it’s about me breaking through a barrier that I didn’t even know existed.” I was just really honored to be a part of a very exclusive club, and now my mission is to make sure that I’m not the only one in there for too long.

Waithe made her feature film debut in Stephen Spielberg’s Ready Player One in March.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com