I loved How to Get Away With Murder‘s Annalise Keating, and I will miss her—because I knew her all too well.
When I moved from behind the scenes in politics to running for higher office—in front of the camera, you might say—the criticisms of my appearance began to surface. I am a dark- skinned black woman, and always have been comfortably tomboy-ish about makeup, hair and clothes, opting for whatever was easiest.
During my campaign for president of the Young Democrats of America, black women who were supporters were eager to help me change that image—in large part because they knew (and I came to understand) that for a black woman, clothes, makeup and especially hair is not just for our own enjoyment. How we present ourselves is carefully constructed armor against a world that judges us harshly.
This occurred to me as I watched Viola Davis as Annalise Keating in the now famous “How to Get Away With Murder” scene in its first season: She carefully took off her wig, her jewelry and wiped the makeup from her dark-skinned face after a long day at work being the powerful, brilliant lawyer she had transformed herself into over the course of her legal career.
It was then I knew I was watching a show that would honestly deal with the realities of being a black woman in America. And as the show recently ended after a six-year run, I realized my kinship with this television character created by another black woman—Shonda Rhimes—and why it resonated for many fellow professional black women I knew who watched the show.
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At the beginning of “How to Get Away With Murder,” Annalise Keating has a respected legal practice operating out of her home, after retiring from a big law firm where she was an accomplished defense attorney. She spends a chunk of her time teaching at an Ivy League law school, where she picks a handful of law students each year to work with her on real-life cases.
Annalise has a beautiful house and a doting, handsome husband, Sam Keating. Though all seems absolutely perfect all is not what it seems. Her life slowly beings to unravel publicly when a significant character dies.
Over the course of the series, the mask cracks. You learn that Annalise is a survivor of childhood abuse and poverty. She has suffered miscarriages and lost children and has experienced marital issues and family drama. Through a lot of this, she has managed to rise through the legal world, as a brilliant defense attorney to the powerful.
Annalise Keating was not written for a black woman specifically, according to an interview with Viola Davis. And that’s not surprising, a white woman who is complicated, sexual, messy and brilliant is easy to picture on television. Unfortunately, recognizing that complexity has not been a privilege for women of color, on TV or in life.
“Annalise Keating is completely different from anything anyone’s ever given me,” Davis said in 2015. “When someone is described as sexual and mysterious and complicated and messy, you don’t think of me. I thought it was a really great opportunity to do something different.”
And Academy Award-winning Viola Davis used it as an opportunity to change the way we saw black women—so that we could really see black women.
So many professional black women who reach the highest ranks of their professions wear the armor, as Annalise does. Underneath flawless makeup, impeccable clothing style, and our wigs, weaves, extensions or perfectly coiffed naturals could be survivors of abuse or recovering addicts. There are successful black women who battle infertility, income insecurity, being fired and targeted with workplace discrimination.
Our white female counterparts encounter such challenges as well, but black women are judged severely for our struggles and “failures” and for being publicly vulnerable about them. To err is human. But if you live in a society that doubts your humanity as a black person, let alone as a black woman, then the stakes are higher for those struggles and perceived failings. Every imperfection is used as proof positive of what white supremacy says about black people.
In politics, the profession I know well, I am reminded of this every day. When Stacey Abrams ran for governor of Georgia in 2018, despite being a successful business owner, lawyer, published novelist, non-profit founder and elected official, she was attacked for having financial debts, though she was transparent about how she accumulated them and how she planned to pay them back.
Compare this to the lack of accountability enjoyed by Donald Trump, the current president, who had left a trail of failed businesses, had declared bankruptcy multiple times, and had incurred debts throughout his career.
When black women defend ourselves or our communities, the public derision, backlash, death threats and online harassment are instantly wielded against us. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) may not have been the only voice of resistance against Trump, but she was the one who attracted intense and personal ire from Trump and his supporters, with attacks not only on her policies but also on her intelligence.
And as Waters dealt with the human tragedy of losing a sister to COVID-19 recently, there was not one word of comfort or compassion from the president.
Her imperfections made Annalise because she was not that “superwoman” black women are expected to be. When she relapses into alcoholism as past trauma surfaces, and tries to hide it until she cannot, you understand because the mask for a woman who has endured so much has a cost.
When she finally yelled at one of her mopey law students who always sought her continued support and affirmation for their own issues—“You want me to save the world and be nice, too!”—I felt deeply the suffocation of the mask and the consequence of wearing it.
In the final 10 minutes of the series finale, Annalise Keating lets that mask slip fully:
“Who I am is a 53-year-old woman from Memphis, Tennessee, named Anna May Hartness. I’m ambitious, black, bisexual, angry, sad, strong, sensitive, scared, fierce, talented, exhausted.”
I am grateful to for Annalise Keating, especially as I continue to forge my own path. I hope we can get to a world where many powerful accomplished black women can follow her example and just be ourselves.
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