By Carla Newsome McManus
May 8, 2011
On a sunny Mother's Day afternoon at Atlanta's W. Hotel in Buckhead, we caught up with veteran actor Isaiah Washington to see what he's been up to lately. Many will best remember him for his role as the brilliant, confident and charismatic Dr. Preston Burke of television's Grey's Anatomy. Indie film lovers may remember him for his role as the philosophizing deep-thinking Savon Garrison in the romantic movie Love Jones. But contrary to character's famous quote in Love Jones, Mr. Washington is determined to work so that Africa will not “consistently and forever be broke". This uncommonly talented and progressive actor turned activist who received his first break in a Spike Lee film has reached a higher humanitarian calling on his mission aide his country, Sierra Leone through his
foundation, the Gondobay Manga Foundation.
In his newly released book A Man From Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life, Isaiah Washington, whose remarkable philanthropic work has earned for him dual citizenship to Sierra Leone and the United States, will take you on an inspiring and captivating journey to the Motherland of Africa. Join us for the journey! Read on and see how Mr. Washington, one of People Magazine's most beautiful people, beautifully and humbly embraces his country of Sierra Leone and takes you on a journey that you will never forget.
Carla: What is the most important thing you want your readers to come away with when they read A MAN FROM ANOTHER LAND?
Isaiah: To follow your purpose. Whatever your dreams are stay true to them. DNA has memory. There may be some individuals out there like me who have a certain dream although their environment says “You need to do this, you need to do that". But they really have a dream to do something else. Maybe it's not what their mom, dad or university is saying. But there is a purpose for them that is there. Eventually, you're born to do a certain thing, no matter what it is. I see it all of the time. You go to college for 5, 6 or 8 years and you end up working for a non-profit after years of studying to earn a PHD in Quantitative Finance or vice versa. Or you really want to have a catering service when you've studied to be a doctor.
Carla: Are there any particular thoughts on Africa you'd like to share or myths that you'd like to dispel about the continent?
Isaiah: Oh many. I use this analogy. Anthropologically speaking, if we can all agree that all of humanity came from the cradle of Africa, then we can agree that this particular continent created all civilization. So if we can agree that this particular continent is the mother of all living organisms and over a 2 or 3 million period things evolved from there, then we can metaphorically or literally we refer to it as Mother Africa. Why then as human beings are we allowing these things to happen to Mother Africa? I would ask people to raise their hands and answer the question, “If your mother is being threatened, infected with HIV, being amputated, abused, stigmatized, neglected, unloved or murdered, would you allow that to happen to your mother?" Every single time, no one would raise their hand. So I say conversely, why are we as human beings allowing this to happen to Mother Africa?
Carla: I remember reading in your book that the Bush administration assisted in your efforts to support Africa and the people of Sierra Leone. Are you going to engage the Obama administration? If you've already done so have you had any success?
Isaiah: President Obama has been very, very busy with a lot of things. So I'm going to wait and reserve any comments about his policy on Africa. But I do know there is a bill that's been put out that I support called HR 656. That was put out by Congressman Bobby Rush from Chicago, Illinois. He and I have been talking a lot about getting the United States on board with real, viable, direct investments in various countries of Africa. So we'll see. I don't want to make any judgments on the Obama Administration regarding to African policy because he's been very busy with a lot right here. But the Bush administration did invest 2 million dollars to eradicate Malaria in 15 African countries. Bush can take that to bank. He did that. That's real, it's been documented and it's working. In fact, he is the only living president that has done anything like that. Believe it or not, the Bush's have had a long history of doing good things for Africa. In fact, Barbara Bush, according to Ambassador Andrew Young, I think sat on the board of an HBCU in Atlanta and raised millions of dollars. So I don't cross party lines because I just want to be with people who get things done. (Laugh) I don't care what you look like, what your sexual orientation is, or what your politics are. All I want to know is “what are we going to do for the continent? (Africa)". I happened to get a lot of things done with individuals who happen to be Republican. And they were all shocked when I showed up on camera at the Kodak Theater for the presidential debate between then Senator Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton in Los Angeles and found me sitting on the side of a Democrat. I remember my phone blowing up! (Laugh) People saw me outside on CNN and the politcos began saying “Gasp..You've been on Capitol Hill with all these Republicans! I thought were Republican! We were about to give you all this money!" (Laughter) Well they didn't give me any money but they still gave me help.
Carla: Speaking of non-partisanship and getting things done regardless of political party, Tavis Smiley has been very vocal about making legislators and candidates seeking political office accountable to their constituents, regardless of party. He has taken quite a bit of heat from Obama supporters for this. Do you have any thoughts about this?
Isaiah: Tavis does what he does and I do what I do. I know a little bit about heat so I can't help with anything. (Chuckle). I know he's done a lot of good along the years and will continue to do a lot of good. As a journalist he's incredible. But my focus has really been on my 500 students at Sierra Leone.
Carla: Speaking of heat do you know where the Frazier sisters are? (Chuckle) I just couldn't resist asking.
Isaiah: (Laughter) Ha ha! That's funny! Frazier isn't even their real name. But I'm sure they know who they are.
Carla: You mentioned in your book that your experiences with Black Greek lettered organizations on the campus of Howard University when you attended were not very positive, primarily because of your complexion and economic status. So I was really surprised to learn that even in the 80's, more than 20 years after the Civil Rights movement, you felt discrimination from other African Americans on the campus of Howard University.
Which do you think most contributed to your experiences at Howard University…. classism, colorism, or self hatred and shame among African Americans?
Isaiah: All of the above. Ignorance is the thing that I've been challenging my entire career-- trying to break stereotypes. I actually became an actor because of those scenarios that I witnessed on the campus of Howard University. Howard is one of the greatest institutions in the country. But I quickly found out how Black I was and how Black I wasn't -- how Black I wasn't in terms of my own history and how Black I was in terms of the way people perceived my hue. I didn't know about Richard Wright. I didn't know about by own icon, James Baldwin. But when I arrived at Howard after coming from the military I found out that I needed to know who James Baldwin was. There were a lot of things that came out of that experience. I quickly became interested in issues regarding apartheid. I became interested in the career and life of Nelson Mandela. I was also interested in why people in Africa were being treated this way, why Nelson Mandela was being treated this way, and why I was being treated this way. At the same time I was interested in why my own people were treating me this way because of my hue. Conscientiously or unconsciously (through my DNA) I decided that I would become an actor and do something about it. So I gave myself a ten year plan. I told myself that within 10 years I'd work with Spike Lee. I made my first movie with Spike by 1986 and I went about the business of changing and challenging stereotypes for African Americans that look like me or are darker than me. Because the perception at the time was if you were light skinned, green-eyed, bow-legged with “good hair" that was the man to be with, whether he was smart or not. It had nothing to do with his ability to provide for the family or his intellect, or even class or income. In fact there are people in New Orleans who are still suffering from the practice of “lightening up". The practice started in 1907 in Europe and was called survival of the fittest. It later came to America with the idea that you should keep your blood line close. The idea was that if a woman was intelligent then you needed to continue to procreate with this person so that your children would be intelligent. It was a very Eurocentric concept but quickly bleed over to our community. The desire for us to assimilate never changed.
A lot of organizations came out of that…the debutantes, Jack and Jill and so on. And it was all based on color. Because the thought was that if I look this way or if I look close to my oppressor, maybe I will not be so oppressed.
After looking at the history and what I experienced I used myself as a guinea pig and said, “You know what? This is silly." I'd been dealing with this as a child. Even within my own family. From someone being light, red-bone, or whatever….high yellow, all of these terms. So I put myself on a 10 year journey to try to eradicate internal racism in our community. And I was successful. By the time I got to “Dr. Burke" people knew who I was. So now when I go around the world, I'm not called a Black actor or Black doctor. I'm referred to as Isaiah Washington or Dr. Burke. Obviously it does not mean that prejudice and bigotry do not exist, but I don't see it. When I get on the plane, even if I pay for an economy ticket, I'm asked to sit in first class. Or when I'm in first class people don't ask me what I do because now they know. So in my mind I've won in terms of where I started with my idea to combat ignorance. By the time I did my 3 years I felt like I had completed my initial goal. So now the next chapter is removing this same stigma from Sierra Leone and ultimately Liberia, Angola and all of the East and West African cultures because these are the countries where the transatlantic slave trade did most of its damage. All of us of African American descent here is this experiment called the United States of America are from these West African countries. So why aren't we going about the business of humbly trying to reconnect to our people? It's time to stop pointing fingers across the Atlantic and come together holistically and authentically and at least dialogue about how we can help each other. That doesn't mean we have to get on the plane and go back to Africa. What can we do? You can donate to organizations like mine (Gondobay Manga) anything from $5.00 to 1 millions dollars, it doesn't matter. They (our ancestors) just want to see that you care.
Carla: Do you like AKAs? (Chuckle)
Isaiah: (Laugh) Ha ha. I have a lot of colleagues coming after me saying," What are you talking about? What are you saying? Man I didn't know all that was going on. Why didn't you say something?". All I wanted was to spark dialogue. I want people to say, “Yeah, I'm not greek either. I'm Me Phi Me!". I want people to be terse with me. It's my experience. But if you're a member and there's something that you recognize, or if you were on the other side of that bigotry at that time, you may have changed. But if you were playing that game, then you know who I'm talking to.
Carla: (Smile) Well I'm an AKA. But I'm not mad with you (Chuckle). Admittedly, stereotypes are sometimes thrust upon all Black Greek letter organizations. Unfortunately, people occasionally feel pressure to buy into those stereotypes. But AKA is really founded on service to all mankind; regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, or color. As a matter of fact, under our new theme, Global Leadership Through Timeless Service, we are tirelessly working to support a cause that you are passionate about, fighting global poverty and hunger. So I think we've found a common thread.
Isaiah: Don't get me wrong. It's not a criticism of the organization. But it's a criticism on the individual. Even in the Obama administration, President Obama can't watch every person that he hires. He can't control what people think. But if they are part of your organization it may appear as though you're giving that organization a bad name. Again, hopefully it's an opportunity for people to come together without becoming defensive to acknowledge the problem. There may be some people who are not supposed to be where they are. They may be pretending to be something that they are not and are using the organization to give them value. There may be some people who are saying some things by day and doing other things by night. So now my hope is that we can have a dialogue and ask the questions, “Why do all the Delta's have to be brown skinned? Why are all the AKAs supposed to be light skinned with long hair? Why can't I see a dark skinned AKA? What is that? Who started that and where did it come from? How do we stop it? “. The practice of using skin color as a source of power must be eradicated.
Carla: Tell me about Coalhouse Productions. I read that you're doing a biopic on Lou Rawls.
Isaiah: Yes. It's a really good script. But it's very costly to make the film.
So for now I'm just moving to look for stories that will continue to redefine us and our connection globally.
We have a wonderful ability to define ourselves globally and tell our stories on foreign soil. We have a lot of people of African descent who are Brazilian. People need to see that. I am interested in putting my brand with global brands where we see each other and all of the diaspora ---- India, China, New Zealand. I did a speech before South Korea and the entire government body to represent my country, Sierra Leone and my new company, HIRA International Investment Group, which will be an advisory firm to let a diverse group of investors from Dubai, South Africa and England run their capital hedge funds through my organization and know that I will be transparent and will actually get it done. I have two African Presidents, President Obama and President Koroma. So I'm in good shape.
Carla: Yes indeed. You are in good shape! Do you plan to take up permanent residence in Sierra Leone in the future?
Isaiah: (Displaying Sierra Leon and American passports). No need. I'm African American. And now with dual citizenship I can live and can do business anywhere in the world. That's the whole thing that Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Kweisi Mfume advocated for---enabling us to go back and forth and to bridge that gap. They wanted us to have alternatives and other options.
I know our community doesn't have very many options. ….But what are we going to about it? I have some recommendations. And it's just a matter of how we change the tape in our heads and go back humbly. I'm not saying that you can just go back and automatically get a citizenship. It doesn't work like that. For me it took four years of minding my own business. I got the attention of the community at large and the new president. The fact that I kept my word and remained transparent and consistent got the heart of a nation. They were thinking, “He's still here. He's still helping these kids. He kept his word.". Now my president has mandated , I want to see more of you. I want to see the Tom Joyners. I want to see the Tavis Smileys. I want to see the Michael Jordans. I want to see the Oprah Winfreys. Where are they? We can rebuild this together. We don't need India, we don't need China, we don't need Europe. We can do this. WE can do this. What's up with the they? God bless the they.
But what I've seen is billions of dollars being thrown at this continent (Africa) but it's gone down a black hole. I've researched it and realized that in all the giving there's no focus. A lot of good intention; a lot of energy and then disappointment because there's no long term plan. So I said let me come in as a missionary not telling them what I'm going to do. Let me come in and ask them what they need. They told me what those five things were. So I'ved addressed corruption, education, clean water, jobs, and eradicated malaria. I've done all in that in my village. Just one village at a time.
Carla: Back to the topic of Africa. There are many people who would enjoy visiting Africa. But the cost to visit can be expensive.
Isaiah: Good question. It's not for everyone and I am blessed to be in the position to have access. And it's still difficult for me --- dealing with private school, my wife and family. I still have to decide what to spend my capital on because I'm also funding my organization (Gondobay Manga Foundation). But if you really want to go, as my mother would say, “Where there is a will there is a way.". If you really want to go to Africa you're going to find a good deal. You're going to take up a collection at the church. You'll raise that money and you will figure it out. But I certainly can't publicize the idea that “Hey, I'm gonna bring you." That's just too expensive. (Laugh) I can build two schools trying to bring people to Africa who'll want to go back and start to complain.. "Mosquitos biting me… I don't wanna take my shots. Ooh Lord, I can't get my hair done. Ooh Lord, it's hot!" No no no! I'm not paying for all that nonsense! (Laugh).
But (seriously) go back to where and to what and to whom? Go back to the book and find out about a people and learn about them first. Do research. And then once you understand who they are what they're about they'll adopt you. Because you're coming back humbly and asking “Where is that building and what does that mean?" Then they'll go, “Ahh you're trying to speak the language. “. Then they'll embrace you because you're not coming in and asking “Where's McDonalds? Show me the McDonalds'". (Laugh)
For 8 months I researched everything I could about the Mende and Temne people. So when I went there I knew what to expect. I wasn't a complete foreigner or stranger. Now, they're like, “Okay now, you've been coming here 5 years! Speak your language! Speak your language!". (Laugh) And I'm like , “Hey hey, take it easy! You've know I've been gone 400 years! I just can't. You know I've only been here 6 months!" And they're like, “But we don't want to hear anymore of that! ". So I started speaking Krio. But shortly after they were like, “Okay stop. Let's just start speaking English." (Laugh) Don't start it if you can't finish it! But I can say thank you , goodbye, hello, and how are you doing.
So when I go to this book signing the Sierra Leoneons are going to come out of Buckhead and I'm torn. Do I put on my African dress or do I put on a suit? I still haven't made a decision. Do I show up as Chief Gondobay or do I show up in this European suit?. I can't do both. They want to know! But I'm still working with God on that.
Carla: Is there anything in particular you'd like for book clubs to do to support your cause for Sierra Leone?
Isaiah: Read the book and talk about it. Debate about it. Hopefully with this being the catalyst there will be healing.
Carla: It's getting late and I know you need to hurry to the book store for your signing. But I do have one last question. Tell me who some of your favorite authors are.
Isaiah: James Baldwin, number one. Octavia Butler, and J. California Cooper. Bob Woodward.
Copyright Sisters and Brothers of Hotlanta Book Club. All rights reserved