Urban Cusp recently spoke with Isaiah Washington, the award winning actor, author and activist to discuss his new memoir, A Man from Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life. Washington, has appeared in several films, including love jones (a generational classic), Romeo Must Die, Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus, and the television series Grey’s Anatomy.
In the book, Washington chronicles the ascension of his star in Hollywood as well as the controversy that threatened to dim it, the serendipitous discovery of his African heritage through a genealogical DNA test, how that discovery has lead to him becoming the first African American to be granted full citizenship to an African country based on DNA and what he hopes will be an impetus for change within the African American community.
Urban Cusp: What would you like your readers to learn about you from this memoir?
Isaiah Washington: How I am using myself as a guinea pig to see how far I can go to reconnect and bridge this gap that everyone keeps talking about. I really feel strongly that DNA will provide the kinship for an authentic and holistic conversation once and for all.
There exists the possibility that’s in all of us that our true nature, our true purpose can be defined through our dreams if these indeed are messages from our DNA letting us know who we are and what we are supposed to be doing in this life. And I believe that in reading my journey, they may see some similarities in their life. We have to really know who we are individually before we can become unified globally.
UC: In the book you admitted that you were hesitant about taking the DNA test, why? And what changed your mind?
IW: Ignorance, like anyone else. I was impacted by what I didn’t know. I felt like the last thing I need to do is give up my DNA to a system that would have access to forensics organizations, military organizations, or a policing organization. And I did not want my DNA used for something negative. In Chapter 5, I explain in detail that African Ancestry, Inc. owns the database and there was definitely no way that my DNA could get in the hands of an organization like that.
UC: What is the significance of this DNA test for the African American community as a whole?
IW: We don’t have anything to connect ourselves to another land outside of America. Most of us don’t even know how we got here. We still think we are living outside of boundaries that are clearly there. We still collectively think that perimeters are not there when they clearly are. Hopefully, the book will open up our eyes collectively and you know there’s much more to who we are, where we come from other than what America has dictated historically.
UC: The government of Sierra Leone has granted you full citizenship based on DNA, making you the first African American to receive this honor. What does this accomplishment mean to you and the African community throughout the Diaspora?
IW: It just proves a theory of this experiment that I have spent over a $1 million dollars trying to figure out because of my love of the African Diaspora. But this is not the Back to Africa Movement because we’re still essentially outsiders. Because we don’t speak several languages and dialects. We’re still outsiders. We have to remove this American arrogance that we emanate.
UC: If this is not the Back to Africa Movement, then what would you call it?
IW: Having Africa’s back. Everybody else is doing it. Chinese Americans have China’s back. Filipino Americans have the Philippines’s back. Costa Rican Americans have Costa Rica’s back. People from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico all have their countries’ backs. They have their countries’ back and they come here and get paid and they go on and send their money right back home. If we are not claiming where we are from, then you deserve to be lost and not know where you are going. If you choose to ignore Africa, then you ignore Africa at your peril.
UC: Many of the young people in our community are not reading anything unless it’s available on audio book or an electronic device. Do you have anything in the works to reach that demographic?
IW: [Young people] will if they see that brother from love jones, that brother from Romeo Must Die who appealed with his truth. Telling everything from his soul and his heart about how he has struggled and how he admits that he made a mistake at the Golden Globes. How it’s still going on and how he apologized and it still fell on deaf ears. My apology wasn’t enough. The question is, why wasn’t it enough? I don’t have a history of homophobia. I don’t have a history of any of that. I have only been a man who would defend myself against a personal affront or a lie. That’s all I’m guilty of, self-defense? There is no way I can be in this business for 25 years and be all those things they said I was. No way! It’s not even possible.
But that’s besides the point, look at the bigger picture. Look at the history of those that are trying to change things. And I am not saying I am a martyr. I am not saying I’m up there with Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. But just like them, I am trying to get the truth out to my people. I love my people, even when my people don’t love me. That’s my purpose, since I was about nine-years-old. That’s the dream. That’s the rerun and I am not gonna stop running. I want that truth. Until we all get there. I don’t even know if I will live to see the impact, but that’s not my purpose. My purpose is to keep running. To keep moving and if I can touch you or touch another person, then we can grow and build.