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Q & A with isiah washington, a man from another land

While fans, friends and Hollywood insiders alike have been waiting for Isaiah Washington to once again bring his brand of charisma, confidence and good looks to television in his next hit drama series or to the big screen in his next film, he has been busy building—building a legacy so powerful that the continent of Africa has welcomed him home with open arms. Building a sense of trust and respect so deep that many influential players on Capitol Hill and in the international philanthropic community are willing to open doors for him. Building a foundation so solid that the people—his people—of Sierra Leone can stand on this foundation for generations to come.

Isaiah Washington will never be defined by media sensationalism or industry double standards. He will, however, be defined by the rich story he shares in his new book, A Man From Another Land, where he explores issues of self-image, race and identity in his quest to discover and embrace his ancestral ties. Isaiah's wonderfully written personal narrative will take you on the journey from his childhood in Houston, Texas to his four years in the United States Air Force. It will take you through his challenging times as a Howard University student who slept in his car to his meteoric rise as an award-winning film, theater and television actor. A Man From Another Land will allow you to discover the beauty, complexity and importance of one man's mission to improve the lives of Sierra Leoneans and his message that we, too, can discover our DNA ancestry and give of our time and talents to support the people and the land from whence we came.

Isaiah and I talked about his new book, his unwavering commitment to Africa, his acting career and how he left the Grey's Anatomy controversy behind to discover his purpose in life and his place in the world.

LeslieWrites: Isaiah, thank you for talking with me today about your new book and your human rights work in Sierra Leone. I read your book and found it to be both inspirational and educational. What inspired you to write the book and what do you want people to take away from your journey?

Isaiah: The idea for the book first came from my attorney Ricky Anderson who met with me at my foundation offices in Burbank. We sat and talked for about three hours and I was telling him about some of my life experiences. He looked around at the photographs from my travels and he looked at my heroes, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, and said, “Isaiah, the world needs to know who you are as a human being, man. I think you should tell your story. “ Three months later he comes back with a book treatment. Ricky and contributor, Lavaille Lavette, who helped me with the story structure and edits, put the treatment together based on my mission statement and various conversations we had about my interest in Africa and DNA. Ricky and Lavaille went off and sold the idea to Hachette Book Group. When I read the treatment I knew I could stand by it. I thought to myself, “Who in the world could capture the essence of who I am like this?”

What I discovered throughout this process is that I’m not the only one. There are other people out there who have the same idea, the same vision of reconnecting to the people and to the continent of Africa, and doing it in a specific and authentic way. That is the vibration I felt my attorney and Lavaille picked up on along with the leadership over at Hachette Book Group. The executives at Hachette said, “Wow, we read the treatment and we think we know what the book is about.” After talking with me for about an hour, they asked, “Can you write everything you just shared and expand on it?” I said, “Absolutely.”

I explained to them and later I wrote in the book that I have had this dream that I’ve called “the Rerun” since I was nine years old. In the dream there were always women and children staring at me, pointing and looking as If they knew me but weren’t sure that I belonged. I always ran the same path, never straying, always ending up in the same African village.

I’ve also had these questions about identity since I was nine years old. I wrote a whole chapter called ‘Where are you from?” where I describe the sensation of being in Switzerland or Sweden or Germany or London and running into an indigenous African, an African who was not a forced immigrant because of the slave trade. On countless occasions before I even opened my mouth, an African man or woman would walk up to me and ask, ‘Where are you from?” I would answer, “I’m from Houston, Texas.” They would say, “Okay great, that’s where you live but where are you from? Where are your people from?” I would stand there like, “What is this person talking about?” That happened so many different times. I didn’t know how I would figure this out but I knew I had to figure it out. The journey started long before I took my DNA test. I was on this path but I didn’t know how I was going to end up, how I was going to get there. I just knew that I had to be on it.

LeslieWrites: In reading your book, one thing that struck me was the fact that throughout your life there were constant reminders that as a dark-skinned African American you felt that you were looked down upon and made to feel that you weren’t good enough. In the book you wrote, “After receiving my DNA results I no longer felt like an outsider in the world.” Talk to me about that.

Isaiah: I can only be who I am in this lifetime. I can only see the world through my lens and my experiences. I can only share how the journey has impacted me, good, bad and worst of all, indifferent. For me, once I received my DNA results revealing that I share 99.9% ancestry with the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone on my maternal side and 99.3% with the Mbundu people of Angola on my paternal side and after doing the research I was able to put together a pretty succinct idea and blueprint of a people and a land from a long time ago. I think it’s important that like an adoptive child who grows up with some extraordinary parents, if love is in the house all you know is that you’re growing up as a child and these are your parents. Take Angelina Jolie’s kids, for example. All they know is that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are their parents. If the love and respect are there, if there is integrity, dignity and discipline in raising the children, the only time the question of difference or race comes up is from an outside influence. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are these children’s parents. They are. But at some point even those children are going to ask who and where they come from. They are going to want to know who and where their biological father and mother are. It’s something that’s innate and that is the feeling I had growing up.

I knew I was part of America. I knew I was from Houston, Texas, but there was still this pull of me wanting to know my biological parents, which would obviously be the people of the continent of Africa. I just wasn’t satisfied with the explanation that we were from down south. I wasn’t satisfied with the explanation of the history of slavery and that slavery was a part of American history. I wasn’t satisfied that our names were changed and now we have to move on. I always had dreams and a feeling that there was something bigger and something more divine that would not only open up a door of wholeness for me but would hopefully strike a chord with others that feel the same way. I feel that Africa is calling her best and her brightest back to help heal her and to remove the stigma of blight and violence and famine. And we can do it easily. I’m just using myself as the guinea pig, as a living example of what can happen if we stay focused on a people and a country long enough to give and support the people, especially the children, for a minimum of three to four years. It doesn’t take a lot of money. You can volunteer, you can reconnect and authentically and humbly attach yourself to the next generation and see how you can help them. In doing so you can acquire your citizenship and have dual citizenship where you can have two presidents. I am proud to say that I have two African presidents. One African American and one Sierra Leonean and that’s a very powerful, quiet thing. It doesn’t make me feel superior but I certainly don’t feel inferior about the legacy and history of all of that power. And yet I will always be proud to be an American.

LeslieWrites: In A Man from Another Land, you describe being inducted not as an honorary chief, but as a bona fide tribal chief where in some ways you are responsible for the lives of hundreds of villagers. You wrote, “Nothing felt adequate to describe what was happening to my heart, to my soul.” Can you tell me more about this experience and what this responsibility means to you?

Isaiah: I had taken a tour of the country in twelve days. So, I’m in Sierra Leone asking people on camera if they had five things that they could change—if they could wave a magic wand—what would those five things be? Corruption was always number one, addressing education was number two, eradicating malaria was number three, providing clean water was number four and providing jobs was number five. And it kind of made sense—you can’t have a healthy nation and a healthy people if you don’t have clean water because people are drinking themselves to death. It’s something that we take for granted here and water born diseases are killing hundreds of thousands of people in Africa. You can‘t educate anyone no matter how many schools you build if you have dirty water and how can they keep a job if they’re constantly being affected by malaria? Malaria has been eradicated almost everywhere else in the world but they can’t seem to get a handle on it in Africa.

This is much bigger than me. I made all of these pledges, Leslie, and I thought to myself many times, “Am I crazy? I’m going to build a school? I promised to do what? I don’t have the funding for this. I’m not George Clooney!” [Laughter] But I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t shut my mouth. I felt like I didn’t know how it was going to get done but it was going to get done. If I have anything to do with it these children are not going to live like this forever. Not these children, not my people. Once I knew who they were, I just felt an immediate connection because when I got there I started seeing people who look like my family members. I made them uncomfortable because I was staring at them. [Laughter]

LeslieWrites: Yes! In the book you write about seeing a woman who bore a striking resemblance to your aunt in Houston.

Isaiah: Right, she even had the same gold tooth in her mouth as my Aunt Gloria! I’m going, “Are you kidding me?” This was just a bit much. She wasn’t an identical dead ringer but it was close enough that if I did a double take from a distance, the way she walked, her mannerisms, the way she moved her hands, she was just like the women in my family. So for my maternal lineage, it was clear to me that indeed I share an ancestral connection to the Mende people that are now in Sierra Leone. From that point on just to honor my mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother, I had to do something to try to make it better for the people in this country.

LeslieWrites: But Isaiah, didn’t you piss off some Sierra Leoneans when you boldly spoke out against and accepted a forced apology for their role in the slave trade?

Isaiah: Oh yeah… the taboo conversation. [Laughter] It was the conversation that no indigenous African or African American wants to have. In that moment, on camera, I talked about how my executive director at the time whom I trusted implicitly wanted to head for the hills. She happened to be a Caucasian woman, about six feet tall, from North Carolina and as sweet as she can be. The day before my induction as tribal chief, a huge feast was prepared before a council of women, the mayor and the BO Council. They all wanted to wish me well but I just broke it down, you know? Yeah, this is great, I thought, but I just felt in my heart that I had to deliver a message from my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother: “The reason that I exist and the reason I am here is because that slave woman survived. But she wants to say to the offspring, to the ancestors of those that are still here, that she forgives you.”

LeslieWrites: And what was their reaction?

Isaiah: Oh boy. My now tribal brother, Alieu Manga, popped up like a weasel in a carnival, like a Jack in the Box. He said three times, “There were extenuating circumstances, there were extenuating circumstances, there were extenuating circumstances then! What would you have done?” and then he collapsed.

It was like a poltergeist came out of my soul and touched every single person in that room. And whatever guilt they may have had, they had an opportunity to speak on it. The women put their heads down. One man was just offended. He was educated in London and came at me in this parliamentary way like, “We’re about to honor you, how dare you bring up the past? This is an insult.” I just felt it was important and some people recovered from it and some people didn’t.

I agreed to be given an honorary chieftaincy at that time which has now been legitimized because I have been made a citizen so that makes me a real chief now with real responsibilities more so than the honorary chieftaincy. I kept my word. The people who supported me then but may have had suspicions about my connection five years ago kept their word. It was difficult because they didn’t think I would stay. They thought I was a cash cow coming to the country to start projects for a few months to feel good about myself and then disappear. Over the years they learned that I’m a man from another land who keeps coming back.

LeslieWrites: Your foundation, The Gondobay Manga Foundation, made and honored a commitment to the people of Sierra Leone and got support to finish building a school. The school, Chief Foday Golia Memorial School (I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly), served 150 students when it opened in 2007 and it now serves 500 students. You must be very proud.

Isaiah: Very good pronunciation, Leslie. [Laughter] I’m working to expand as fast as I can. You know, it’s just expensive and the recession is real around the world. It’s difficult to get basic supplies because the things that we need to buy in the marketplace like nails, for example, are so expensive. Things are moving but not as fast as I want because one day a bag of cement is $50 and the next day it’s almost $100. You know what I mean? The guys will ask me for funding and I’ll send $3,000 then three weeks later they’ll need $6000 for the exact same supplies.

LeslieWrites: I would imagine that some of the funding comes from your own personal contributions but where does most of your school funding come from?

Isaiah: I’ve been robbing Peter to pay Paul. I’ve been telling my wife that I haven’t been putting a lot of our personal funds into the foundation and I have. The personal funding is from my work when I accept projects and my residuals. And I have my Cuban angel, Maria Elena Lamas, who was there in the beginning during the tough period when all of the drama was going on with Grey’s Anatomy. She single-handedly funded the organization and hosted fundraisers in her home in Miami. And now I have a wonderful supporter named Barry Segal and the Segal Family Foundation. Barry has pledged to support me into perpetuity as long as I’m doing what I say I want to continue to do in Sierra Leone. In fact, their executive director traveled to Sierra Leone. He saw with his own eyes that clearly I am transparent and that I am doing everything I said I’m going to do for those children and he’s been there with me to help me expand. But it’s been difficult, you know, and hopefully the book will let people know that I am not what many people thought I was during that horrible period in my life.

LeslieWrites: Let’s talk about what happened while you were working as one of the most successful actors in Hollywood playing Dr. Preston Burke on the hit medical drama television series, Grey’s Anatomy. I find it interesting that there are high profile actors who make huge mistakes at some point in their lives, then they move on and their careers grow. Meanwhile others who have made mistakes are tried and convicted in the court of public opinion and it takes years for their reputations to recover. You write about the very difficult period in your life when the Grey’s Anatomy controversy was being played out in the media and on the Internet. Can you talk about this experience and how it affected your life and your career?

Isaiah: Yeah, my contract was allowed to expire and I was not invited back eight months after the original argument with Patrick (Dempsey) and five months after I tried to defend myself, which was a stupid thing to do. I regret that, saying the very word that I’ve been accused of using against a cast mate, which was not accurate in the beginning. The gentleman (T.R. Knight) was nowhere around and I wrote about that in the book. The irony of it goes back to the chapter when Moza Cooper, from the Pan African Film Festival, wanted to give me the 2005 Canada Lee award and I bristled. I appreciated his strength and what he was trying to do with the African American male image during the 1940s. He was this violin prodigy, a jockey, a boxer and a great actor. He played on Broadway in Native Son directed by Orson Welles. But this phenomenal presence was destroyed! He was accused of being a Communist and ended up dying penniless.

LeslieWrites: He died at the age of 45, right?

Isaiah: Yes and at the time I was like 42 years old. I thought, “Why do you want to give me the award of Canada Lee?” I mean, the media destroyed this man portraying him as something he was not. So you figure it out, I mean “Wow!” Here I am where my life was changed the day I received the Canada Lee award, Leslie, and I get my DNA information to answer all of these questions that for so many years I tried to find answers to. I’m given the award at the Pan African Film Festival, a film festival I had been thinking about for years before I got to Los Angeles. The irony is that I would have a meteoric rise, just like Canada Lee, and be on the outs, less than two years later. You can do the research yourself. I couldn’t make these things up. These kinds of things have been hitting me since I was nine years old and I wasn't able to understand it or have conversations about it for fear of being ridiculed. It was enough for me just trying to figure out being a teenager in Houston, let alone having these kinds of highbrow conversations about what I was seeing or feeling or dreaming about. It just did not happen in the 70s. It certainly didn’t happen, particularly in the Black church, in the 70s in Houston, Texas.

LeslieWrites: We all know that there are no mistakes, there are no coincidences. After your perceived fall from grace, it appears that you put your heart and soul into your foundation and your work in Sierra Leone. Do you feel that this painful time in your life forced you to distance yourself from Hollywood and shift your focus and your passion to the work that you were really meant to do?

Isaiah: Well, I had to. I didn’t get the choice because I had a wife and three kids. This has happened to me before. I’ve had many times where I thought I was going to do one thing and something came into my life where it changed that over and over again. I thought I was going to retire on a hit TV show with $50 million in the bank but that didn’t happen. Why? Because it wasn’t what I was born to do. That wasn’t my purpose. This had to happen for me to go about the business of getting back to my purpose.

LeslieWrites: Isaiah, is it true that you may return to Grey’s Anatomy or is that pure conjecture from certain members of the media who keep fanning the flames on this issue?

Isaiah: [Laughter] You’re referring to my recent interview with Billy Bush (co-anchor of Access Hollywood and cousin of 43rd U.S. President, George W. Bush). As I say, there’s an extraordinary connection between Sierra Leone and the Bush family. They were very, very supportive of me after the crisis and had me participate in the first White House Summit on Malaria on December 14, 2006. That was two months after the whole Grey’s Anatomy thing started. Billy Bush has been very vocal, trying to get down to what really happened between Patrick and me and he’s still being supportive. He’s still stoking the fires thinking that there was some injustice. In his mind he’s trying to undo what he feels was an injustice. But I have purposely taken myself out of the game. I don’t have a manager, I don’t have agent so I can’t really say that I’m blacklisted. That would be an unfair assessment because to be quite honest a lot of people are not working in this town right now, Leslie.

Before Grey’s Anatomy I was offered jobs because of my prior work and because people had positive experiences working with me so I got offers for almost thirteen years. I never had an agent get me a job or an audition. When the offers slowed down I started looking for authentic and powerful projects that I could explore in television. In fact I had an agent pay me not to go into television because he thought I was going to be a force to be reckoned with like Denzel (Washington). I never saw that for myself and I wrote about it in the book. I only became an actor to take on certain stereotypes to really change a mindset about the image of African American males.

I felt that I achieved that unequivocally and dramatically portraying Dr. Burke. When I go out the door, no one calls me a Black actor or that African American guy that played Dr. Burke. They know who played Dr. Burke. Both brands are very clear—Isaiah Washington and Dr. Burke and there’s no race that has any place in there. However, there are some people who still have an issue with the brand of Isaiah Washington. Hopefully when they read the book and get to know the real Isaiah Washington and what I’m about and why, that will be put to bed as well.

LeslieWrites: How often do you visit Sierra Leone and have your wife, Jenisa, and your three children visited with you? If so, how has that experience been for them? Are they supportive of your work in Africa?

Isaiah: It’s been challenging now only because I’ve spent time away and the kids are old enough now to be aware of how much they really miss dad and they vocalize it. I think the bigger picture of this puzzle is that I could not do any of this if it were not for my wife. I could not do any of this if she wasn’t in full support of all of me—the good judgments, the bad judgments, the in between. She’s the queen of this home and allows me to be the king I think I am. [Laughter] She even allows me to be “A Man from Another Land.” While I’m traveling she’s here holding the fort down no matter what, unconditionally. It’s difficult. She’s a single mother when I’m doing what I’m doing and she’s been doing a fantastic job. Again, there is absolutely no way I could do this ministry, there is no way I could do what I’m doing without the full support of my wife, my friend and my partner.

LeslieWrites: That’s really nice to hear and based on how you lovingly talk about Jenisa in your book, I’m sure that you remind her often of how important her unconditional love and support are.

Isaiah: Yes and she knows I’ll almost do anything for Africa. When we got married I told her, “Look, I have some other women in my life that are going to come before you.” At the time it was my mother who had a terminal illness. I said to my wife, “If you don’t mind her coming before you until she makes her transition then we can be married.” And she agreed. I also told her, “There’s another woman out there too. It’s Africa and at some point I’m going to want to one day take our children out of school to travel to Africa so they can see this continent from an up close and personal perspective.” She didn’t have a problem with that either.

LeslieWrites: What do the kids think about their connection to Africa?

Isaiah: They know their genetic ancestry is connected to the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone on my mother’s side. They know that they also share Mbundu from my paternal side and that they’re Yuruba out of Nigeria from the genetic ancestry makeup of their mother. They are very clear little human beings. They have a very strong sense of self. You know, they don’t have that identity issue. They know they are who they are, they know their parents, they know about the book and they know about Africa. There is no superiority/inferiority conversation. They don’t want for anything.

LeslieWrites: I love the idea that they have a strong sense of self. You and your wife have worked all of their lives to instill this in them and that’s how our children deserve to feel. When people read about your work in Sierra Leone and the confidence and self-assuredness you're instilling in your own children, I think they will come away with a renewed sense of hope and the message that we absolutely must pay it forward. I am going to share your experience with my children as well.

Isaiah: Well, thank you Leslie. In the book I tried to touch upon various themes on identity and redemption, on mentorship, on the importance of being disciplined, on not being afraid of Wall Street and on trying to find a way to fund yourself just to survive. I throw a lot in there man, and I hope there’s enough that will attach itself to you where my story will become your story. If I hit my mark, then you and everyone you’re connected to will be able to take it from there. And spread the word. It’s time for us to have a healing, authentic conversation.

Isaiah Washington's book, A Man From Another Land, can be purchased on Amazon.

To learn more about Isaiah Washington's message and his mission, visit the The Gondobay Manga Foundation online.

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