When Master of None’s Lena Waithe shared her coming-out story with the show’s writers’ room, she never thought it would ever end up as an episode, let alone one of the Netflix series’ most memorable episodes to date.
“I was just talking about my own struggles coming out to my mother. I didn’t think anything of it, and then before you knew it, [co-creator and star] Aziz [Ansari] and [co-creator] Alan [Yang] called me like, ‘So we want to turn your story into a Thanksgiving episode that’s centered on Denise’s own experiences. Can you write this?’” the writer-actress-producer tells The Root.
At the time, Waithe was consumed by a hectic schedule—Showtime recently greenlighted her drama The Chi—and she wasn’t sure she had the time to give the season 2 script the attention it deserved. But luckily, with Ansari’s tenacity and support, the two knocked it out in a matter of days.
“I was really nervous, because this was so extremely personal and important. I needed to get it right and do it justice,” she stressed.
And justice is exactly what she gave it.
Throughout this hilarious and unapologetically black episode, we follow Denise through six different Thanksgivings—spanning from the mid-’90s to 2017—as she struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and come out to her conservative single mother, Catherine (played by iconic actress Angela Bassett), her aunt Joyce (scene-stealer Kym Whitley) and her Newport-smoking grandmother (Venida Evans).
It’s touching, beautiful and real.
Hailed as “brilliant” by the Washington Post, “Thanksgiving” is truly art imitating life, stresses Waithe, down to her grandma’s couch covered in plastic, her oversized basketball jerseys, and her bedroom wall plastered with posters of Jasmine Guy and Jennifer Aniston (Waithe sent the art department pictures of her childhood bedroom for inspiration).
The 33-year-old also tells The Root that the scene where she referred to herself as being “Lebanese” because she didn’t feel comfortable with the word “lesbian” happened in real life.
“Being on set and re-enacting all [my past] was such a celebration and was much easier than coming out to my mom,” she says, laughing. “When it was happening in real life, I just wanted it to be over because there is nothing scarier than that.”
While the attention to detail and authenticity definitely make this episode stand out—so does the its nuanced and layered approach to addressing what it means to come out in the African-American community. Over the years, we’ve been force-fed a tired lie that black folks are more homophobic than anyone else and that admitting to loved ones that you’re LGBTQ can be met only with fire and brimstone.
However, this episode provides an entirely different narrative.
“Granted, there are plenty of queer people of color that are kicked out and mistreated by their family, and I don’t want to undermine their experiences. That just wasn’t my experience, and it’s been an honor to be able to tell a story that we haven’t seen before,” Waithe says.
Waithe emphasizes that her mother’s visceral response wasn’t about God or the Bible.
“We went to church, but we were never religious. My mother’s issues with me being a lesbian were a mix of denial, not really knowing anything about gay folks, and being this black WASP who was really worried about what the neighbors were going to think,” she explains.
“It’s really complicated, and it wasn’t until I was writing this and put myself in my mother’s shoes did I really understand how hard it was for her to process all of this,” she says. “I can’t fault someone for not knowing what they don’t know.”
That empathy for her mother—who, by the way, loves the episode—is apparent with her portrayal of Catherine. While less-aware writers would have crafted her as a villainous, angry black woman, Waithe and her colleagues handle Catherine with care and nuance. In the scene where Denise comes out to Catherine at the diner, Catherine’s reaction shows a mother who loves her child and wants to protect her but is clearly conflicted.
“I don’t want life to be hard for you,” Bassett’s Catherine blurts out, fighting back tears. “It’s hard enough being a black woman in this world; now you want to add something else to that?”
“This conversation happened verbatim, and I see now that my mom wasn’t equipped, and therefore that was her reaction—but the love was always there and was always at the center,” Waithe says.
Waithe hopes that “Thanksgiving” sends the much-needed message that living one’s truth is a process that cannot be rushed.
“I am a huge advocate for being out, but I also understand that this is a journey,” she says. “I wasn’t just coming out to my family, but coming out myself and trying to be comfortable with my own gayness. So my advice is to do this at your own pace and your own time.”
Waithe also hopes that this episode will remind queer people of color how special they are and how important their lives are.
“You are valid and deserve all the happiness in life,” she says. “So be whoever you are, look however you want. Just be yourself.”