Actor Isaiah Washington attended the 102nd NAACP Annual Convention in Los Angeles, where he signed copies of his book, A Man From Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life, and chatted with The Root about civil liberties for gays, tracing his roots and how he feels about the NAACP Image Awards.
The Root: Does having a black president help or hinder progress on the issues that are affecting the black community the most?
Isaiah Washington: I don't know yet. He's trying to address a 400-year-old issue. I think so far he's taken all the issues at hand and he's doing the best he can with what he was given. I don't see him as black or white. I see him as an [American] man of African descent.
He's Kenyan American, and he's probably one of the most levelheaded politicians I've ever experienced. Right now it seems as if politics has become less and less about bigotry and race and more and more about class. I think class is the bigger issue … with class, rich and poor has no color.
TR: What's the most important civil rights issue in our country today?
IW: There are still parts of the Voting Rights Act that need to be extended [periodically] and haven't been laid down as a law. That's a thorn in my side.
I think civil liberties issues need to be addressed in terms of the gay community. I'm not so certain that it's an actual civil right, but I do know the civil liberties of not being able to acquire the remains of your loved one after being together for 20-plus years or not being able to marry who you want. That's an issue that needs to be addressed and put to rest.
If we are truly addressing humanity and being civil, then as humans we are addressing all of those rights that are human rights. I'm more keen to put a handle on human rights, and I think everything under that will fall into place.
TR: How is the NAACP still relevant in 2011?
IW: I've always maintained that my lovely NAACP would start by taking the word "image" out of the NAACP Image Awards and just say you're giving awards to great performances. That's my biggest concern about the NAACP or all award shows — just give awards for great performance, no matter what kind of characterization is up on the screen.
We don't have control of our images. So Denzel was great in Training Day and he got the [NAACP Image Award], but it was a despicable character. I got two awards by playing a positive character as a doctor, but the preacher I'm playing now, he's somewhat negative and abusive, and I wouldn't want to get an award for that image; I'd want to get an award for performance.
Overall, I think [the NAACP is] doing the best they can with what they have, and I support [NAACP President] Ben Jealous wholeheartedly. It's a tough job.
TR: You embarked on a journey to trace your roots and found out that your family came from Sierra Leone. How would you advise others to do the same?
IW: I want people to understand that this is an evolutionary process, something that will evolve … We should evolve in the way we think and understand the power of DNA and its memory. If we do this for the next 50 years collectively and work hard at it, we can reverse the Middle Passage successfully and be able to have economic participation in various villages and countries on that continent.
But it starts inside our own DNA, in our own conversations in our heads. We have to want to do it. Each of us should trace our DNA back, find out where we're really from, and have authentic and holistic dialogues with those who are indigenous who are still there.
There's so much over the last 400 years that we just don't understand about one another. Hopefully with this book, I'm using myself as a guinea pig to show how you can go about that.
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