Preview of “Scandal” The TV Hit

Previously published in The Washington Post. 

Well, did you sleep with the President or not? I did not ask the obvious question, the question burning on so many minds, bubbling up in conversations around the room as we previewed two episodes of “Scandal,” the new TV series. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the provocative brain behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Practice,” “Scandal,” is a series based on a African-American-woman-owned public relations crisis management firm in Washington.  It is insightful and riveting. It is penetrating. The disclaimer offered at the opening of the screening did little to squash the realism perceived by so many Washington workers in the audience.  “This is Hollywood,” we were told. “Everything’s taken up a few notches.”

But, people who work in Washington – in Congress, at City Hall, formerly in The White House – laughed knowingly at some of the dialogue. It is authentic.  The ruggedness of Washington work hit home. “There’s no crying – in politics!” somebody said, looking up at a scene of a young woman crying in the bathroom.  “Scandal” promises to be as entertaining and stimulating as TV gets. It’s as much about relationships as it is about how Washington really works.

There were ten “Scandal” screenings in the Washington area and the star of the series, Judy Smith, portrayed by Kerry Washington, has done many interviews with local media. At the Wednesday night screening at Lima Restaurant she was greeted with hugs.  One young woman introduced herself to Smith as a lifelong fan.

“I have admired you since I was a little girl watching the Monica Lewinski case,” gushed the young woman, who is now a communications director for one of the few Washington politicians NOT in the midst of a scandal. “I was eight years old watching the news with my mother, and I would ask, ‘Mommy, who’s that brown lady in the background?’ I have watched your work over the years,” she said. Smith was the fixer for Clinton, Marion Barry, Michael Vick, Clarence Thomas, and BP Oil – slick guys and what?

Watching “Scandal”, I was delighted at another depiction of a tough, smart, strategic, successful African American woman on TV.  I thought about Donna Brazile and Gwen Ifill.  “Why do we always have to be portrayed as bitchy?” someone in the audience asked. “It’s a necessary toughness,” I said. I was reminded of real-life tough Black women in the Washington area, too. They are tough, yes, but equally compassionate and, above all else, deeply faithful.

Theses are Washington area tough Black women, who held their own and helped their communities from powerful positions in media and government. I’m thinking of former Prince George’s County Councilwoman Dorothy Bailey, WRC’s long-time executive Aisha Karimah, former D.C. Council woman Sandy Allen to name a few. They are powerful, empowering, and deeply faithful. Their faith has yet to be depicted in a TV series.

On TV we see struggling Black women praying, but never powerful ones.  We see Black women in conflict with men.  We don’t see their connection to their spiritual beliefs. It’s easier to throw in sexual twists than spiritual ones.  I remember my favorite TV character, Claire Huxtable, enjoying romantic evenings with her husband. But I don’t recall any memorable scenes about her faith in a God or her religious practices.

Most of the women I know are faithful.  Even if they are not church-connected, they have strong spiritual beliefs or rich philosophies they draw on in tough times. We are redefining Black women in the media, thank goodness. Books like the one by Sophia Nelson; newspaper series, like the one by The Washington Post help.  The First Lady attending church with her husband and children drive home the image, as well.

When I worked on The Hill, I joined a group of Black women on weekly conference calls where we held “corporate prayer.”  We prayed for our bosses, prayed for leaders in both chambers of Congress. We were of different religions, but we all believed in the power of prayer. We reserved a room for prayer service during the healthcare reform.  Congressional chiefs of staff, communications directors, and administrative aides prayed collectively on occasion. I hope at least one episode of “Scandal” will depict Washington workers with faith.

At the end of the screening I did not ask Smith the extent of her relationship with The President – nor did I ask her about her faith. I was not there as a reporter.  A friend, a fellow former journalist, invited me.  Tough questions aside, I did what the other guests did. I enjoyed the evening and sided up for pictures with the star afterwards. I later found the answer to the burning question answered in a Washington Post feature on Smith ( She absolutely did not kiss The President..


Lord Have Mercy on Jack Johnson

Previously published in The Washington Post. 

As the sentencing for former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson looms, I began wondering how his closest family and friends are feeling.  I imagined they are sad to see him suffer (although he did it to himself). I wondered whether they tried to correct and rein him in when they could. I considered why his community loved him so.


Jack Johnson was not born in Prince George’s, but the County loved him dearly. He championed their cries against police brutality when he first campaigned for the office. Once elected, he continued to worship with them at their churches.  He danced the electric slide with them at their backyard cookouts. He promised jobs to their children, and found money for some of their community projects. He wielded power the way so many wished they could.


One elderly fellow in the County told me years ago, “If I was in office all my friends would have jobs!” He laughed heartily, and I understood that he and so many others were living vicariously through Jack. But now what?


His arrest was embarrassing to those who voted for him and stood by him through early investigations by the media. (I’ll discuss my personal part in this mess in a future blog. Promise.)


Disappointment, betrayal, anger, fury at those who brought him down, outrage at him for being so stupid. All those emotions must have swirled overhead in the County after his arrest and confession.  All these emotions had like clouds when I lived in D.C. and my mayor Marion Barry was arrested, led away in handcuffs on TV.


For many of my relatives and friends who moved from the District to Prince George’s as they prospered, seeing their elected leader in an incriminating videos last week was a double-blow to the head.  Jack’s arrest last year had been too painful to discuss. We mostly avoided the conversation for months. But with sentencing scheduled for Jack and his wife next week, I broached the subject.


“So, what do you think about the Johnson’s going to jail?” I asked one of my aunts who lives in the County.  She reminded me of how my Granddad had dealt with his wayward sons.  If you do the crime, you’ll do the time. Simple as that.


“Honey, when the police came to get your uncle… your grandfather told them, “He’s upstairs. Go on up there and get him. Second room at the top of the stairs. He’s the one in the top bunk.”


“No way!” I laughed.


My grandmother was miffed, according to my aunt. She wanted to save her sons from a criminal justice system she believed was even more corrupt than her sons.  A generation later my father was the one in our family who would get my teenage brother out of jail while my mother argued that he should pay the consequences for his actions.


Seeing Jack sentenced next week will feel to many like seeing a beloved son, a big brother, a favorite uncle going under, felled by “The Man.”.  For me, it will be like watching the community pimp finally taken off the streets.  Without his arrest, he would have continued to exert influence through his wife on the County Council. His bad behavior would have continued – to the detriment of the community he claimed to serve.


My grandmother put it aptly when she said, “You got kids out there starving and she’s walking around with all that money in her butt!”


The $80,000 Jack told his wife to stuff in her panties could have gone a long way at a food pantry – if community service really was his mission. He was not shaking down wealthy developers to prosper the community – but his community loved him. Or simply looked the other way as we tend to do with our sons.


I asked friends on facebook whether they would surrender their son to law enforcement.  Their answers were as conflicted as my family’s – as conflicted as any random group polled in the County, perhaps. Karen said, “Hmm. I always tell my kids if they do something they will face the repercussions of their actions.” I laughed out loud at the comment from LaShawn, my BFF since childhood. “I’m with the grandfather, he’s upstairs in the top bunk! There are consequences to everything that we do or do not do.” Monique’s response was most heartfelt: “My love for my kids is unconditional, but I am certainly teaching them to be accountable for their actions. It’s a tough question to answer because it would depend on the circumstances. If my son was guilty, I would encourage him to turn himself in, help him get the best legal representation he could and be there for support.” Monique added, “I don’t envy any parent in that situation.”

What’s in Your Hand?

What’s In Your Hand?

Yesterday, out the blue, Adam Clayton Powell’s famous, “What’s in Your Hand Speech” came to mind. I remembered happening upon his speech about 15 years ago, during one of what would become a series of my mini-retirements (more on that another time).

I had been in line at a library when I noticed a documentary on him on a shelf nearby. I grabbed it, and when I watched it, I was so blown away by the clip of his speech at the end, I rewound it over and over again. I jotted it down verbatim in my diary and memorized it. I loved it so much. It was a call to political action, an attempt to jolt people from apathy.  But I imagined it could be an inspiring call to personal and professional action, as well as a call to celebrate the gifts that we have.

I imagined using it in a speech I would give someday, encouraging beauticians to realize they held in their hands the gift of making others beautiful, calling teachers to realize they have the gift of guidance and instruction. Everybody’s got a gift and often we don’t fully appreciate what we are giving right where we are.

I once envied a friend who made six figures as a personnel specialist. He lamented that he had no special gift. Money isn’t everything, he said. He prayed for God to show him his special gift.

“Are you kidding?”I asked. “Not only are you making money, adding value to your own life and by extension the lives of others you give presents to, causes you donate cash to, your church, which is sustained partly by your tithes and offerings. You have the gift of modeling a level of success that is possible. Plus, in your job you help match people with the right opportunities. That’s a gift!”

Of course, he was thinking of an artistic gift. He admired my gift of – and passion for – writing. He said he envied that I could be content in a corner anywhere with a pen and a notepad or journal. Of course, I did not see what I had as a gift because as much as I love journaling – and now blogging – there’s no money attached to it – yet.  

It can’t be a gift without monetary value, right? Never mind the peace of mind, and what we now call “psychological income.” That doesn’t pay the mortgage, right? At some point it will.  (I have complied trunks full of journals, that I am now considering a gold mine of material for novels.) That’s a gift to be shared, right? 

This morning I tuned in to hear Steve Harvey’s morning testimony, something I’ve enjoyed off and on for at least two years now. I like “witnessing” him share his love of God with his audience of millions. At the end of his 12-minutes of testifying this morning, he talked about gifts God gives us all.

“He gives a lot of people a gift. Some are not using it, now they’re life ain’t what they want. But, guess what? You made that call,” he said in all his sassiness. “You know how to cook, but you won’t bake a pie. You’re funny, but you ain’t on stage. You can sing, but you ain’t got a record deal. You can counsel, but you ain’t took up social work. What you want God to do? You the best painter, but you ain’t got your art displayed no where…That’s crazy.”

I considered the coincidence of recalling Adam Clayton Powell’s speech on using God’s gifts last night and hearing a similar message from Steve Harvey this morning an interesting enough coincidence to follow it somewhere. I googled Adam Clayton Powell and found a clip of him giving his speech on YouTube. I listened and not only felt inspired all over again, I felt compelled to share the inspiration.

Here is the text of Powell’s famous “What’s In Your Hand” speech:  

“As far as I know, here, you’re in trouble. It says you’ve got about 30 percent unemployment. That’s why I’m working hard to get this surplus food here. Some of you say to me, ‘well, I’m not like you. I’m not a congressman. I haven’t got education. I haven’t got work. But you’re a human being. And you know what you’ve got? You’ve got in your hand the power to use your vote and to use even those few cents you get from welfare to spend them only where you want to spend them.” The crowd applauded and cheered. “A young slave boy stood one day before the greatest ruler of his day. And God said to Moses, what’s in your hand? And Moses said, ‘I’ve got this stick, that’s all.’ He said, well let me use what’s in your hand. And God used that slave boy with a stick in his hand to divide the Red Seas, march through a wilderness, bring water out of rocks, manna from heaven, and bring his people to freedom land. What’s in your hand?”

“What’s in your hand! George Washington Carver, who was so frail that he was traded for a broken down horse as a slave boy, and George Washington Carver sitting in the science laboratory at Tuskegee told me, he said, ‘Dr. Powell, I just go out into the fields each morning at 5 o’clock, and I let God guide me, and I bring back these little things and I work them over in my laboratory.’ And that man did more to revolutionize the agricultural science of peanuts, and of cotton, and of sweet potatoes than any other human being in the field of agricultural science.”

“What’s in your hand? Just let God use you that’s all. What’s in your hand!!!!!!!” he boomed. “I’ve got a string in my hand, that’s all, and I’m flying a kite, and way up in the heaven’s lightening strikes, and I Benjamin Franklin, discover for the first time, the possibilities of electricity – with a string in my hand. What’s in your hand!!!!! Little hunch-back sitting in a Roman jail. ‘I haven’t got anything in my hand but an old quill pen. But God says, ‘Write what I tell ya to write!’ And Paul wrote, I have run my race with patience. I’ve finished my course. I’ve kept the faith. What’s in your hand little boy!!!!” ‘All I’ve got is this slingshot, but the enemies of my people are great and big and more numerous than we are.’ Well Little David, go down to the brook and pick out a few stones and bring them back, and put them in the sling shot and close your eyes if you want to and let them go. And David killed the enemies of his people, and his people became free, just letting God guide a stone in his hand. And a few years pass, and David is King. And God says, ‘What’s in your hand?’ And David says I’ve got a harp. And God said then play on your harp. And he played, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters. Yea thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. What’s in your hand!!!!!”

Now here was my favorite part.

“A man hanging on a cross with two nails in his hands said ‘Father I stretch my hands to thee. No other help I know. If Thou withdraw thy hand from me, whither will I go. And that man with two nails in his hands split history in half, B.C. and A.D. What’s in your hand tonight? You’ve got God in your hand, and with God in your hand, He’ll let you win because he’s on your side, and one with God is always in the majority. So, walk with Him and talk with Him. And work with Him and fight with Him. And with God’s hand in your hand, the victory will be accomplished, sooner than you dreamed, sooner than you hoped for, sooner than you prayed for, sooner than you imagined. Good night and God bless.”

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