Most people know Karyn Parsons as Hilary Banks of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” but these days, she’s more of a history teacher than anything else. In the years since “Fresh Prince,” the star and mom of two founded a nonprofit called Sweet Blackberry, which aims to share little known stories of black history with children. Her goal is to teach and empower young people through these stories, and change the way they view African American culture. It’s a grim reality that American history is selectively retold, often with an omission of key players in moving the country forward who are black.
Parsons told The Root:
“In the schools we pretty much learn about the same handful of stories of black people and accomplishments. And they are fascinating, great stories, but they’re the same ones. There’s so many people who contributed to this country, who created the fabric of this country, that are not white. [When] we just relegate black history to February, for a short little 28 days we will talk about it, and you relegate it to a little, special ‘boutique’ history, you extract it from American history. It becomes this cute, little history, and every now and then a special black person comes along who does something great.”
This line of thinking is ultimately dangerous to young people. Instead, she says, black children should see the empowering examples of African-American accomplishments in history at a young age, and that children who are not black can benefit just as much from such lessons by seeing their perspectives broaden.
Parsons’ mom was head of the Black Resource Center in Los Angeles, and used to regale her with stories that she’d never learned in history class. One of those stories was of Henry “Box” Brown, a man who literally mailed himself out of slavery after 33 years of forced labor. Parsons had never heard of him until that day, and she didn’t want that to be the reality for future children. When she got pregnant, she started to worry about how she’d supplement the narrow history lessons her daughter would receive in school.
These days, Sweet Blackberry empowers kids through school visits and the creation of animated shorts and books about forgotten historical figures. The kids are directly involved in making the films and books through the help of mentors, and contribute their own talents to seeing the project through. The nonprofit has put together shorts on Henry “Box” Brown and Garrett Morgan, the inventor of traffic lights, and enlisted stars like Alfre Woodard and Queen Latifah to narrate the films.
Parsons’ latest goal is to create a 15-minute animation about ballerina Janet Collins, who in the 1930s was invited to dance for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at only 15 – but only if she were willing to paint her skin white. She refused, and eventually became the first black prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. She’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds for the project, and the entertainment world is rallying behind her — Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre’s first black soloist, is donating a pair of signed point shoes to the campaign, Questlove will give a pair of signed drumsticks, and cast members from Fresh Prince will record personalized voicemails with donors. About $18,000 of the $75,000 needed has been raised so far, and there are a few weeks left to go. The stories we are told about our past shape who we are and what we believe we’re capable of, and work like Parsons’ changes the whole conversation. [The Root]