When Kerry Washington was cast in Scandal, she became the first Black woman to lead a network television drama in 38 years. The Shonda Rhimes show – and Washington’s iconic portrayal of Olivia Pope, a fixer for D.C.’s elite – was boundary-breaking not only for its representation, but its subject matter: a midseason finale marked the first on-air depiction of an abortion on non-cable TV.
Born in the Bronx in 1977, Washington has built her career bringing strength and tenderness to a string of complex characters. She’s received critical acclaim for her roles as a house slave in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, as Anita Hill in the HBO political thriller Confirmation, and as a single mom and struggling artist in the Hulu miniseries Little Fires Everywhere (based on Celeste Ng‘s bestseller).
Beyond her acting, Washington has used her platform to champion a variety of social justice causes, lending her voice to issues like women’s rights, racial equality, and arts education. Notoriously private about her personal life, she lifted the veil on her difficult upbringing and journey into self-discovery, stardom and political activism in the 2023 memoir, Thicker Than Water.
Washington recently sat down with the Women’s Prize for Fiction to discuss the books of her life, sharing her penchant for stories that speak to the depth and resilience of the human spirit. From Alice Walker’s powerful portrait of Black womanhood in rural Georgia, to Eve Ensler’s radical rhapsody on female sexuality, explore her favorites below.
Kerry Washington’s Reading List
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (also rec’d by Anita Hill, Chimamanda Adichie, Emma Watson, Gabrielle Union, Glennon Doyle, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Jane Elliott, Janet Mock, Sue Monk Kidd & Viola Davis)
“It’s actually one of the first books I remember my mom reading…so when I finally read it for myself, it was really such a a joy to kind of step into adult readership and to step into being part of the community that could appreciate a book like that…what I love about the book is that it is about trauma, but it’s also about resilience, and about the power of love to create community and heal – the power to find sisterhood belonging with people.” -KW
“I was living in New York, and auditioning and dreaming of having a career as a working artist. I jumped into that recovery process with the book with some dear friends. And it really allowed us to walk toward our dreams, with more courage and more of that sense of why not me. But I think it also just encouraged me to think about my life as a creative playground, not just my career, but to be a creative person, creative in my relationships with others, in my relationship with myself. It really gave me permission to think big, think outside the box, get to know myself more.” -KW
Kindred by Octavia Butler
“Reading this book was so eye opening for me because I hadn’t really thought of myself as somebody who loved fantasy or sci fi. I mean, I really loved A Wrinkle in Time, which I read as a child with my mom. But I didn’t have any other examples of science fiction or fantasy that really drew me in. But this changed that for me, it opened me up to the idea of how fluid of a relationship we can have with a genre when the humanity is there. When the humanity is right, it doesn’t matter, the genre context. You can fall in love with the characters in their world and suspend your imagination past the kind of traditional drama of a more realistic novel.” -KW
“It doesn’t feel posh, or unattainable, unaccessible. It feels so human and grounded, like the best of us, right? And I love that the book just made me feel less alone in my grief and my loss. It made me feel like this was a well-tread path, that people had walked this road of loss and grief and survived it, and figured out how to live more richly in the context of that kind of loss. It’s quite a revelation, isn’t it? When you realize what a breakup is. It’s loss, and it’s grief, and it helps you feel so much less stupid.” -KW
“She really transformed culture by forcing us to say a word that so many of us had been taught was a bad word. And it’s not a bad word. It’s just the beauty of a woman’s biology…I think we can just keep speaking up, we have to keep being unafraid. You know, now, vagina is no longer a bad word the way it was when the Monologues were first produced.” -KW
(via Women’s Prize for Fiction; photo by Jsquared)