Law & Order’s lieutenant sets gold standard for black women in TV

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The first ever Professional Black Woman Conference and Expo will meet in my hometown of Baltimore next March. Here’s a suggestion for keynote speaker: Lieutenant Anita Van Buren of Manhattan’s 27th police precinct.

Next Friday night, Van Buren will begin her 17th year as commanding officer of the 2-7. If there’s anyone who knows what it’s like to be a black woman striving to thrive and survive in the professional world, it’s her.

Of course, everyone knows that Anita Van Buren, played magnificently all these years by actress S. Epatha Merkerson, is a fictional character on television drama Law & Order. Merkerson, an Emmy Award winner, has taken the role of the by-the-book, put upon precinct boss – which in other hands would be a thankless, charmless role – and imbued it with style and dignity. And, while Van Buren’s is clearly a supporting role to the detectives who, according to the show’s opening mantra, “investigate crime,” Merkerson’s character is an essential part of the program.

Indeed, it is so vital that Merkerson has manned her post longer than any other actor connected with the show, arriving at Law & Order a year before Sam Waterston, who plays district attorney Jack McCoy. Merkerson, who had a guest star role in the show’s first season, has played Van Buren for 368 episodes. That’s longer than any woman has played the same role in a drama series in American television history. That is, excluding Julie Kavner who has played Marge Simpson in “The Simpsons” in 441 episodes.

In a medium that typically casts black women in their professional lives as domestics, Anita Van Buren stands out as a triple rarity: a black professional woman who supervises others in the police department. There have been characters that met one of those elements, to be sure. Diahann Carroll broke ground 41 years ago as the title character in “Julia,” a nurse who was the first African-American character to lead a series in a role other than as a maid.

In the 1970s, Teresa Graves starred in “Get Christie Love,” as a sassy undercover detective who punctuated her arrests by telling the perpetrator, “You’re under arrest, sugah.” Today, Jada Pinkett Smith heads a nursing unit in the TNT drama, “HawthoRNe,” while Lorraine Toussaint is Holly Hunter’s boss in an Oklahoma City police precinct in the TNT series, “Saving Grace.”

Although Merkerson has had to battle the show’s producers and writers to play the role with some flavor, Lieutenant Anita Van Buren is the gold standard for black women in dramatic television.

In the 1998 book, “Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion,” Merkerson said, “I have to exist in this world with white people. They don’t have to exist with blacks. [They] don’t. If [they] don’t choose to, then there’s something that [they] don’t know…And that’s where I become very important to this group, in terms of my slant on things.” Merkeson’s character, Van Buren, has increasingly become not only a police lieutenant who happens to be black and a woman, but a black female police lieutenant, who carries all of the blessings and curses that come with such a status.

To wit, the character herself has mused more than once about the perception around the department that despite her stellar record as a narcotics detective, she arrived at her current post because she is a black woman. Lieutenant Van Buren was passed over for captain for a less qualified white woman and sued the department for discrimination. She lost, and her character remains the only commanding officer in the Law & Order universe that has not reached the rank of captain.

This coming season – Law & Order’s 20th – will present Van Buren with a new challenge: cancer. But considering the challenges she has already faced and beaten, the odds are pretty good that Anita Van Buren will beat this one too.

Besides, television desperately needs someone who can quote Langston Hughes while on a stakeout, as Van Buren did in an episode where she and detective Lennie Briscoe (the late Jerry Orbach) swapped lines from the poem “Motto”: “My motto as I live and learn, is/Dig and be dug in return.” We dig you, Anita. We really dig you.

Television needs more long-standing female black characters in the mold of Lieutenant Van Buren.