The Inspiring Reason This ‘Fresh Prince’ Star Wants to Turn You Into a History Buff
Janet Collins dreamed of being a prima ballerina. She began training at the tender age of four, put in countless hours at the barre, and pushed her body to the limit. Finally her big break came. After auditioning for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in France, Collins was asked to join the company. There was only one problem: If she wanted to dance, she had to do it in whiteface.
Like most people, actor Karyn Parsons had never heard of the classically trained African American dancer—who turned down that offensive offer in 1932 at the age of 15—until after Collins’ death in 2003.
“I didn’t discover Janet Collins until I read her obituary in The New York Times,” Parsons, best known for her role as Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, says. She discovered that Collins struggled for years before becoming the first black performer hired by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1951. That same year she won the Donaldson Award for being the best dancer on Broadway. “She was not only clearly a legend, but she also had a really remarkable story.”
“When you’re relegated to a month and thought of as boutique history, that’s not right,” Parsons, the daughter of a research librarian, says. “The message a lot of [nonblack] people get is that it’s black history—it’s not for us—and I don’t think that’s fair to anybody, because this history belongs to all of us. It’s not just black history; it’s American history.”
Yet when it comes to inspirational African Americans, we often hear about the same individuals over and over again. Though it’s valuable to discuss icons such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X, limiting the scope of black folks’ contributions to a few people is not only unfair to those left out. It’s also extremely problematic.
“One of the dangers of only telling a few stories is that you’re sending a subliminal message that once in a while a special black person comes along and does something,” says Parsons, who launched Sweet Blackberry in 2005. Since then the educational organization has produced several DVDs, books, and other projects to inspire and empower young children.
“Black people are a part of the fabric of this country,” she adds. “There are things that we take for granted and [use] every day that were invented by black people.” Today’s kids need to know that history and need Collins’ example of perseverance, because the dancer’s whiteface experience isn’t a thing of the past.
Just last year, an instructor at Russia’s famed Bolshoi Ballet Academy suggested that Precious Adams, an African American ballet dancer studying there, experiment with skin bleaching to increase her chances of being cast in student productions. Misty Copeland, the first black soloist at the American Ballet Theatre in more than a decade, has also written about being passed over for roles because of her skin color.
Parsons has taken to Kickstarter to raise $75,000 to turn Collins’ story into an animated short that will be narrated by Chris Rock. Her Fresh Prince costars have chipped in some pretty sweet rewards—how does a custom voicemail from Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) or a chance to watch your favorite episode with Parsons and at least two other cast members sound?
Beyond the cool incentives for supporting the production of Collins’ story, Parsons hopes Sweet Blackberry’s projects will resonate with audiences. “When we recognize our selves in others, that’s our humanity,” she says. “We do that in these stories, and that’s what makes this feel now. It makes us feel like this person who lived a long time ago is like me.”