“I only became an actor to make the world fall in love with a dark skin man.”
Mention Isaiah Washington’s name and the immediate response is, “What’s he been doing since…?” The “since” refers to the big pink elephant in the room also known as Grey’s Anatomy. The “since” more specifically refers to him being “resigned” after three years on the Emmy Award-winning program.
It’s natural, really. There are innate misconceptions and assumptions that go along with being famous. You lose a high-profile gig; people don’t see you for a while, so you must have faded off into a Hollywood sunset, right? Well, the Grey’s Anatomy drama is so last decade; it’s old school news. And Mr. Washington is brand new.
What has Isaiah been doing since…? He’s been writing a book. He’s been carrying the torch of the Pan-African movement began by pioneers like W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. He’s been unearthing his roots. He’s been busy realizing the Pan-Africanist dream of dual-citizenship by becoming a citizen of Sierra Leone in 2010, making him the first African-American to receive such an honor. He’s been making history. He’s been occupied with The Borgen Project, an organization dedicated to ending global poverty and his own non-profit, The Gondabay Manga Foundation, which aims to ameliorate living conditions for the people – his people – in Sierra Leone. He’s been saving lives. And, oh yes, he’s been acting too…on his terms. So Isaiah Washington has been doing his thing, thank you very much.
Isaiah took a few minutes out of his hosting duties at the L’Africana™ Night New York Fashion Week Finale Party Friday evening to speak with me about what he’s been doing since…
TL: How did your journey to Sierra Leone and your recently acquired citizenship come about?
IW: It started with W.E.B. DuBois. I’ve been reading Marcus Garvey, Martin Delaney,
Martin Luther King, Jr., Kwame Nkrumah…this is not new; everyone has been trying to accomplish what I’ve been able to achieve through the blessings of a higher being, the ancestors and the aligning of the stars and the Universe and the timing. So what I’ve been able to accomplish is public, but its not new.
I carry this passport with pride, but at the same time it’s a bit melancholy that those individuals took their whole lives and some lived in exile trying to achieve what I was able to achieve recently. Some would say its because I’m a celebrity, some would say its just my time, some would say because I’ve worked hard and I’ve earned it. I would say its just time.
TL: Time for what exactly?
IW: Time for us, particularly our community, to look to the Continent and reach back in order to give back. Because the thing that’s so painful for me is when something like Hurricane Katrina happens everybody gets upset because they don’t think that Michael Jackson when he was alive, Bill Cosby or Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan, or Earl Graves or Magic Johnson or Shaq O’Neal, they don’t think they are doing enough to help our people. You know what? That’s not fair. These individuals like Oprah have worked hard for their affluence; they’ve worked hard for their wealth so it is really up to us. Like President Obama said, “If you want change we have to participate.”
And the one way that I was thinking of doing that, “What if I use myself as a guinea pig to say that I’m going to give to a particular community, actually increase sustainability there, actually connect with them through my DNA and actually show them humbly that I want to be a part of the culture, I wanna reverse this Middle Passage. Take my time – the last five years I’ve been doing it – make it work, then get the attention of the world and then branch out from there because you can’t move forward if something is not working.
I’ve gotten pretty far. I’ve got a lot of neighbors and friends in Liberia and now Guinea, people that are supporting this concept, which is a very old one, that it would behoove African-Americans to reach back to the Continent. We are the only ones, the only people, the only community on this North American soil that does not have a country that we are attached to. Even the President has Kenya; he has a country that he’s attached to. We’re the only ones that do not. So that’s it in a nutshell – getting our people to understand why it’s important for us to connect with the Continent.
TL: Why is it so important?
One because of the resources. One because of the innovation that we already have. We have all of these PhDs and high unemployment. So lets take all of that talent and that expertise and go back [to Africa] humbly and say, “Brothers, sisters, we don’t speak the same language, we haven’t in 400 years but there’s enough of us to come together as one big united nation and make something happen and have ownership.”
With me being a citizen of Sierra Leone I can own land and put on 99-year leases on any corporation or company that wants to come and do business. To me it’s like a no-brainer. I’ve been thinking like this for years and I couldn’t understand why other people were not excited about it. But hopefully they’re excited about it now.
TL: Scripture says there is a time, and a season for every activity under heaven.
TL: How significant was your exit from Grey’s Anatomy to your journey?
IW: Everything happens in trinity. I left in exactly 3 years. God, Father and the Holy Ghost. I did what I was supposed to do on that show; I made Black beautiful, intelligent, sexy, some people say. So I was done. I’m a Pan-Africanist; I only became an actor to make the world fall in love with a dark skin man. And because I didn’t see…God bless Billy Dee and Terrance Howard, Will Smith, but they don’t look like me and Djimon Hounsou. You see what I’m saying? That was always at the front of my mind and in our community for years. So when I experienced racism in our own community at Howard University; that pissed me off. I said they are treating me like I have to take a paper bag test and I want to join a fraternity. That’s crazy!
I said I’m gonna take the next ten years and go about the business of becoming an influence in this industry. So when I did that, however I made my exit, I didn’t leave it. My talent is still my talent, but its time for me to go back to my original concept. And my original concept is how can I move those stereotypes, challenge those stereotypes and show the world that we are intelligent, we’re sexy, we’re lovable, we’re complex and yes we’re filled with contradictions, but we’re also beautiful. And we’re not all thugs, we’re not all cheating on our wives, our girlfriends and we’re not doing all these things.
TL: Do you believe that timing of your personal “Back to Africa” crusade has been or will be questioned?
IW: I’ve always been about the Continent since I was nine years old. My book [A Man From Another Land] is really gonna galvanize that concept because people say, “Oh it didn’t work out on Grey so now he’s all about Africa.” Nah, it’s not that way. I’ve been dealing with this since the apartheid movement when I was the only one marching at Howard University; no one was interested. Everyone was trying to go to all the parties. And I was like, “Yo, lets go Soweto, let’s go march.” I’ve always been my book, “A Man From Another Land”, I’ve been a bit of an aardvark, and I’ve always marched to the beat of a different drum so to speak. But boy and I glad I did.
TL: What is your favorite movie line from your body of work?
IW: Love can be a motherfucker. (laughs)
TL: You know what my favorite is?
IW: What’s that?
TL: Let me break it down…[Isaiah chimes in], so it can forever and consistently be broke!
IW: I made that up and they let me get away with it. But that’s my saying. Yeah, let me break it down so it can forever be broke. That’s what I’m about. We don’t have to remediate the past, to get the future right.
Isaiah Washington will definitely break it down for you! I overheard a reporter at L’Africana™ Night ask him for his Oscar predictions. He simply replied, I have no idea who’s at the Oscars. I have no idea who’s nominated. If you want to ask me about Liberia and Guinea and Sierra Leone I can talk forever about it. But whoever it is and whatever their doing up their in Hollywood, God Bless ‘em. Poor thing; I guess she didn’t get the memo.
Talking to Isaiah is like talking to your really intensely smart and deeply impassioned friend – you can’t help but learn something or build on what you already know. When you hear someone ask, “What has Isaiah Washington been doing since…?” Make sure you break it down and tell them “a lot”!
Isaiah Washington’s book, A Man From Another Land, will be released on April 27th, the day of Sierra Leone’s 50th celebration, but you can pre-order it now. And if you’re aching to see him light up the screen again, catch him on an upcoming episode of Law & Order: Los Angeles.
♥♥ Thanks to Lavaille Lavette and Adrienne Ingrum for their support in making this interview happen!