Now this is a story all about how the life of actress Karyn Parsons (aka Hilary Banks) got flipped, turned upside down. And we’d like to take a few minutes—just sit right there—and we’ll tell you how she makes Black history movies with flair.
To learn more about Sweet Blackberry, visit sweetblackberry.org
The Nod is produced by Eric Eddings, with Brittany Luse, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and Emanuele Berry. With production assistance from Wallace Mack. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We are edited by Annie-Rose Strasser. Engineering from Cedric Wilson. Fact-checking by Nicole Pasulka. Special thanks to MR Daniel. Our theme music is by Calid B. Additional music in the show by Takstar.
Eric: From Gimlet Media, this is The Nod. I am Eric Eddings.
Brittany: And I am Brittany Luse.
Brittany: So… when I was six years old, every Monday night.. my family would finish a dinner of baked chicken, white rice, microwaved steamed broccoli… same thing every monday. And then immediately gather round the television, squeezed together on this couch. My big sister would tell us all to quiet down… And then through the television speakers…
Brittany: Yes! Y’all know this song. My family and I, we were about to take in that masterwork of television, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Brittany: Ok so ya’ll know, Fresh Prince — it’s like a 90s sitcom classic…. misbehaving teen, West Philadelphia, sent across the country to live with rich family in LA, hijinks ensue….
Eric: It’s iconic. Black. Television. ?
Brittany: Yas! It’s iconic American television, world, universe, galaxy, Milky Way television
Eric: I agree.
Brittany: So my absolute favorite character on the show was HILLARY. Will’s oldest cousin. She was the absolute FLYEST.
Eric: Yeah. Bomb hats.
Brittany: When I was a kid, she was like a unicorn. She was this, rich, cool, Black girl from LA. Always impeccably dressed. Always had a boyfriend. Very popular. You know, these are the things you value as a child right? But she wasn’t a sidekick like a lot of Black girls on TV are. Ok yeah, she was a total spoiled brat, but as Black a girl in a really white suburb, I wanted to see a character like that. You know?
Eric: Yeah, even that was RARE.
Hilary: I have been stabbed in the back. Is nothing sacred? Is there like no honor?
Baby what’s the matter?
Francesa asked me to be a bridesmaid at her wedding.
Well what do you mean and?
She expects me to take care of the rice they throw when they leave the church… like I’m gonna learn how to cook just for her wedding
Brittany: Her character was confident, she was stylish. And she was unapologetically self-celebrating and entitled in this way that was actually kind of refreshing. And she never had to work a day in her life… Well, until she did:
I’m home, Carlton get the camera… I want a picture of me opening my first paycheck… I’m so excited, here goes. Don’t you all feel like an important part of history? What!? Federal taxes, this is an outrage, didn’t President Bush say no new taxes….federal taxes aren’t new. Well they are for me! (laughter) Who is this FICA Guy?
Brittany: Ok, so flash forward more than like 20 years… you know, Fresh Prince is on reruns. But I was curious about what happened to the woman who played Hillary. Her name is Karyn Parsons…and it turns out she is working on something really cool.
I climbed in this box
And have hidden inside disguised as a package, just taking a ride
I’m heading North where no man is bought or sold
Freedom is more precious than gold>
Brittany: That’s a scene from her movie. Yes, the woman who played Hillary is now making movies. In 2005, she actually started an organization called Sweet Blackberry. The non profit creates animated shorts about little known black history figures. And they’re kinda like kids’ books come to life… really bright, colorful with beautiful illustrations… They’re narrated by stars like Queen Latifah and Chris Rock. The first film she made, which is narrated by actress Alfre Woodard… is about Henry Box Brown, an enslaved man who hid in a box to mail himself to the North, to freedom.
Well, I know I will nap, I know I’ll sing loud, I’ll run very fast, jump high, touch a cloud
But what else, they all asked… What is it to be free?
I don’t think I know, but soon I will see
I was born into slavery, it’s all that I know.
What it means to be free, the future will show
Brittany: So yall know, Eric and I… we love talking about how kids think about Blackness. Like for me, Hillary made me feel like I had the option to be cool…which sounds small but… she offered an alternative image of a girl like myself…And now KARYN–with her films–she’s offering a whole new generation of kids alternative way of looking at their history.
Karyn Parsons: Hi!
Karyn: Thank you, good to be here…
So we got Karyn in the studio to find out how she went from playing a notorious valley girl to teaching kids about Black history…
…and what happens when they ask her the hard questions.
Plus, we put her up to a pretty nutty challenge.
But first, we had to ask the obvious.
Eric: We were wondering… Who do you think Hilary Banks’ favorite Black history figure would be?
Karyn: Ooo uh Madame C.J. Walker.
Eric: That’s a good one.
Brittany: Yeah that is a good one.
Eric: It holds up.
Brittany: Because she is the first Black female millionaire.
Karyn: Millionaire, yeah.
Brittany: Basically popularized the hot comb and like all straightening products… No she had bread, all from hair. All from hair.
Karyn: Isn’t that crazy? It’s funny though. I mean toward the end though.. toward the end of Fresh Prince. I had my hair both straight and curly but mostly my hair was curly in the show. And early in the show – I think was the first season – I thought and I think I think the hairstylist on the show agreed with me… that at that time Hilary would have had straight hair. Right? So we tried to do her hair straight once. And I was on the set to see I was …a real small like Hilary you usually like you know few lines and I’m out you know quickly. And the producers of the show ran up to me afterward and they were like Don’t ever do that again. We had no idea who you were. They were like trying to figure out if it was like a date for Will like do they have a girl in there for Will. Figure out like what was going on. Who is that?
Brittany: But the brand is strong.
Karyn: I guess so, I was like damn, I’m just curly head. Like just know you don’t anything else. All right.
Brittany: OK, so now we’ve got our Fresh Prince gossip outta the way… We wanna know…. what made you want to start Sweet Blackberry?
Karyn: I just wanted to get little known stories of African-American achievement to kids. Because my mother was a librarian and she headed the Black Resource Center where she worked and would come across really interesting stories. And she would share them with me. And this is when I was doing Fresh Prince. And she told me the story of Henry Box Brown, the enslaved man who literally mailed himself to freedom in a box across state lines and when they opened it he was free. It was such a crazy story and I had never heard of it. And then I told my friends and my friends hadn’t heard of it and I thought well this is nuts. It’s like a man in a box – the whole thing is like such a kid’s book to me. And so I kept making notes because I thought wanted to make a series of books for kids. And I’d forget about it, I’d go back and forth with that for a while over the few years. And then when I was pregnant with my first child, I started thinking a lot about you know what do they teach kids in school? And what do I have to teach her or what do I have to make sure she learns and what’s my duty as a parent… what do I have to supplement? And I started talking about Henry Box Brown a lot… and the idea… and my husband has always thought it was a really good idea. And he was like you need to stop talking about it and start doing it, just figure out a way to do it. And next thing you know I was doing them as films instead of books because at the time, self-publishing wasn’t what it is today. It wasn’t as easy. But I knew I could make a movie. So now Sweet Blackberry… it’s a film series. And the whole idea is to teach children that tremendous obstacles are actually opportunities for greatness.
Brittany: So we also know that you visit schools?
Brittany: Tell us more about that.
Karyn: I go to schools across the country and they screen the films for them and we do really long interesting Q&A sessions cuz kids are really funny and they ask really good questions and they stump me all the time. Kids get you … they will ask. Like with Henry Box Brown it seems like every single time, every audience, one kid will ask the heartbreaking question which is: Did he ever see his family again? They always seem to… “Did he ever see his family again?” No. You know? And when I wrote… when I sat down after all those years of wanting to write that story and wanting to start the series, when it came time to write it… I was like what I am I thinking? This is a slavery story for kids? How do you do that? You know and I didn’t know how far to go, how much to disclose, how much to hold back. You know when we were doing the film itself like there was a picture of a man holding a whip… like well do we make a sound with the whip or is that too frightening? You know there was so much kind of like negotiating but I don’t want to lie about it. I want them to know. But you know the older kids are funny the older kids are like how do you make that movie? You know they always get right down to that. How did you do that and did you have a… what kind of camera did you use for this part and what did you do for editing this.
Brittany: Wait so who else… I know that I know that you guys have done Henry Box Brown… like tell us some more about some of the other figures that you guys have talked about.
Karyn: We did the story of inventor Garrett Morgan and it was, it focused on him and the traffic signal. And then we did our last story which is Janet Collins, the story of the first black prima ballerina. I first found out about her by reading her obituary… that’s how I first found out who she was… And I mean she was such an incredible woman. She was asked to dance by the Ballet Russe De Monte-Carlo – the Russian ballet – to dance with them, which was unprecedented at the time. However they said she’d have to paint her face white. And she was 15 and she said no. And she went on to work really hard. And she ended up becoming the first Black Prima Ballerina. And hopefully more people will come to know who she is.
Eric: Yeah. I was reading through and reading about these people and I was just even shocked… I’m like dang, I wanted to know more. I think I had the same experience as you, everything was packed into one chapter, and that was the Black history chapter, you did it during Black history month.
Brittany: Yes. And then the rest of the year it’s like we’ve never heard of these people.
Karyn: Right. And that’s one of the things very frustrating for me. And mind you, our next film, I plan on launching it during Black history month, I have nothing against Black history month. But, I think it’s also really important to teach children early about all of these incredible contributions to our history to our country by Black Americans that we don’t hear about. If they learn this stuff early, I think that it changes the landscape of race for them. If they can recognize their value or their neighbor’s value… By seeing this and seeing how we all contributed and are a part of the fabric of this country. Instead of hearing in February in a really short month there are a handful of black people that did something. Because then the message is every now and then a special Black person comes along and does something great. “Oh Barack Obama, yay special Black man!” There are just so many people to learn about and Black history month… does not cut it, it’s not enough for us.
Eric: After the break, we are going to have Karyn tell us a Black history story… Nod style. And be warned…. Karyn Parsons is about to eat a whole lot of peanut butter…
Brittany: So what we have decided to do today, given that we have such an auspicious guest…
Brittany: Somebody who’s so celebrated for so long… we were like what would be a better sign of respect than to make her eat copious amounts of peanut butter…
Brittany: And try to tell us the story. Like really put that professional training to work.
Eric: So one story that you’re working on is about Bessie Coleman.
Karyn: Yeah, Bessie Coleman – first Black female aviator.
Eric: Yes! So here’s what we’re gonna do. Instead of just asking you to tell us about Bessie Coleman, which I’m sure you would do a great job of…
Brittany: A fine job.
Eric: We’re actually gonna play one of our favorite games. It’s our tribute to Black History figures who should be known at least as well as George Washington Carver. Peanut. Butter. History…
George Washington Carver was the wizard of the soil.
George Washington Carver was the most well known African American of his day
During his lifetime Carver extracted more than 300 products from the peanut
There is one product mistakenly attributed to him… Peanut Butter
Brittany: So your challenge is to tell us Bessie Coleman’s story in four minutes or less while you are eating as much peanut butter as physically possible. So….
Eric: You’re excited about that.
Karyn: I’m thrilled.
Brittany: Yeah. I can see it all over your face. Just for those of you who can’t see right now… I mean it’s like it’s like leaps and bounds… back flips.
Karyn: What I am doing here…?
Eric: Do you eat a lot of peanut butter on the regular?
Karyn: I’m more of an almond butter kind of girl.
Brittany: Well this is like a treat.
Karyn: I like peanut butter…
Eric: But you gonna change it up, it’s not a party if it happens everyday. So to get in the mood why don’t you go ahead and open that jar. I think you should open it wider, going to need to go in there a lot.
Karyn: Oh boy.
Brittany: Here you go.
Eric: Alright, so before we get started, let’s get one really big scoop of peanut butter on that spoon.
Brittany: You look so thrilled.
Eric: You can do this.
Karyn: It’s not a teaspoon everyone, it’s one of those big tablespoons…
Eric: Yeah. It’s like a ladle.
Karyn: It is like a ladle.
Eric: All right. So you’ve got you’ve got your peanut butter on the spoon. Brittany are you ready with the time?
Brittany: I’ve got four minutes on the clock.
Eric: All right.
Eric: On your marks… get set…. go.
Karyn: OK [laughs] so Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892. And she was the tenth child of 13 kids.
Karyn: her mother African-American. Her father was African American and Cherokee. Yuck. So at age 23, Miss Thing went to Chicago to live with her brother, who had been fighting in World War One. And she ended up working as a manicurist. And she ended up hearing all these stories about — oh god this is so gross – all these stories about women aviators and all these daredevil aviators in World War One – I don’t even know what I said. [laughs]
Eric: It’s a big topic at the nail salon.
Karyn: So her brother teased her about how oh you’re never going do that because you’re a Black woman… teased her about it. And she was really fascinated by the whole idea that just presented a challenge to her… Oh my God.
Brittany: You got it.
Eric: You’re doing great
Karyn: So she tried to find a place that would teach her how to fly and so she had become friends with a lot of community leaders in Chicago including Robert Abbott, who was the publisher of The Chicago Defender, which was the largest African-American newspaper in the country. And he suggested–
Brittany: We’re halfway, we’re halfway done.
Eric: Tell us about Robert.
Karyn: And he suggested she go to France. He said you go there. There are less sexist. They’re less racist. And they are the head of aviation right now. And so he said I will help pay for you. And so he and another businessman sponsored her trip. Cuz they really were bent on seeing an African American woman become a pilot. And she took her money.
Brittany: She took her money?
Karyn: That she’d saved from her manicurist job, along with the money from the sponsors and she went to Europe. And in seven months she learned how to fly. She earned her international pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautic Internationale.
Brittany: Oh wow, so clear, that was amazing. Clear French.
Karyn: Federation Aeronautic Internationale. Still sounds good. Well she was the first African-American woman or woman of Native American descent to receive that. And also it was two years before Amelia Earhart would receive her international pilot’s license. How’s that?
Brittany: We got, we are uh, you’ve got about one minute left.
Karyn: OK so quickly as you came back and she was a big celebrity and she was very ambitious and she liked all the celebrity and everything. So she decided she wanted to do air shows. She was known as Queen Bess and she would perform and she would do parachuting and diving and wing walking. But she leveraged her power and her position to make sure that she only played for… d– hold on… only if the crowd was desegregated and if the black people could come in in the same place as the white people came in. But unfortunately on April 30, 1926 Bessie ended up dying in an accident. Ironically, she was not flying… she was preparing for a parachute jump and her mechanic and publicity agent was at the wheel…
Karyn: The engine failed and Bessie was thrown from the plane that was 2000 feet above at the time. Horribly tragic obviously…. but her as we know her legacy goes on and we are doing our best… One more bite– To keep Bessie’s story alive.
Eric: Yes! [clapping]
Karyn: Did I do it?
Eric: Bessie is so proud.
Brittany: That was beautiful.
Eric: Bessie’s so proud.
Karyn: I did it for you Bessie. You know I’m serious, yuck. But I’m serious when you see these pictures she’s like she’s so cute and she’s got this big smile and she’s got so much energy she’s like 34 years old I think when she died.
Eric: My gosh.
Karyn: And you do. I do anyway, I look at her and you… you know I don’t abstract her like she’s just like a black and white picture of somebody that I can’t relate to… or… you look at her like she’s real passionate young person doing this thing in front of you and she really does inspire you. You know.
Karyn: When you think about what she was doing like… I was saying honestly if she was around now and you heard about her she’d be all over Facebook, people like you know who this girl is you know this woman is who’s who went to France and did this and that because they wouldn’t let her. You know. She was pretty amazing.
Eric: Yeah, well thank you so much for coming and telling us so much about Bessie Coleman.
I feel like I’ve learned so much.
Karyn: You’ve been edumacated today.
Eric: Yes! I’m going to go home and try to relay this to my kid.
Brittany: Well there’s this thing that we do when we get to the end of a peanut butter history segment.
Karyn: Is it jelly now? Now gotta eat a big jar of jelly?
Brittany: No no no, we don’t do jelly around these parts.
Eric: George Washington Carver didn’t do jelly.
Brittany: We don’t we try not to support gelatin like that. We try to keep a vegan friendly around here. But usually what we do is we welcome this person – the person that we’ve just told the story about – into the Peanut Butter Pantheon which is where they are lifted up up you know into the leagues of George Washington Carver. So usually we say it together… would you say it with us?
Brittany: So Bessie Coleman
ALL: Welcome to the Peanut Butter Pantheon.
Eric: Whew. That was beautiful.
Brittany: That was good. That was strong.
Eric: You did good.
Brittany: You did great!
Karyn: Thank you.
Eric: You don’t look sick.
Karyn: You know am I’m going to walk out of… No.
Brittany: When I did it the first time…
Karyn: When I get out of this you’re going to be like… Oh I’m sorry Karyn!
Eric: You actually go through like half the jar.
Karyn: Don’t make me sick. Don’t make me sick! I feel like it hit me right in here.
Brittany: The struggle is a small sacrifice for the culture.
Brittany: Talking to Karyn Parsons was like, I mean can’t even describe how great it was… like you know how they say don’t meet your heroes cuz you’re going to be disappointed… Karyn Parsons is somebody who actually lived up to and exceeded the hype. She’s awesome, she’s so cool, she’s so fun. She ate half a jar of peanut butter in the name of Black history… so few people would do that. To watch her films, go to Sweetblackberry.org. The Bessie Coleman film is coming out soon, so watch that space…
And to see pictures from our interview with Karyn, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter! Go to Gimletmedia.com/newsletter to sign up!
The Nod is produced by me Eric Eddings, with Brittany Luse, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and Emanuele Berry. With production assistance from Wallace Mack. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We are edited by Annie-Rose Strasser. Engineering from Cedric Wilson. Fact-checking by Nicole Pasulka. Special thanks to MR Daniel. Our theme music is by Calid B. Additional music in the show by Takstar.