Janelle Monae may have scored roles in two films nominated for Oscars this year — the critically acclaimed Moonlight and the box-office breaking Hidden Figures – but it was her acceptance speech at ESSENCE's 10th Annual Black Women In Hollywood event that, for the budding actress, truly highlighted the role of Black women.
Accepting the Breakthrough Award, Monae faced a crowd of past and present honorees to deliver a speech that celebrated service to others, invoking the late Shirley Chisholm who once said "service is the rent that you pay for room on this earth."
"You are all my community, this is my community. I’m constantly thinking how can I be of service, what can I do," she said. "My way of giving back has been through the arts."
But she reminded the crowd to protect their magic, to know their worth in a political and social climate that will often tell Black women otherwise.
"Black women, the world must continue to know that we are not your expectations. We are not your receptacles. We are not your objects, but yet subjects to study. It was Black women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson that took you to space. We did that."
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"We’ve birthed this nation, we helped contribute to some of the greatest, American, extraordinary things that have happened here in this nation. We have been the backbones in communities from the ghetto to Silicon Valley. We are not monolithic. We’re multi-dimensional and we have a right to have our stories told."
The 31-year-old artist — who plays NASA engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures and Theresa, the caring girlfriend of drug dealer Juan in Moonlight — was inspired by good friend Pharrell Williams to take on Hollywood.
"Not everybody can do fashion, film and music. If you're good at it, you can turn that [versatility] into an art form that you share with the world. Janelle is a shining example," Williams once said of Monae.