Does the name Janet Collins ring a bell to you? Hint: She’s African American and a ballerina.
Bigger hint: She was an African-American ballerina so talented that in the 1930s at age 15, after auditioning for the company in Los Angeles, she was invited to dance for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo … under the condition that she paint her skin white. Collins refused, but eventually went on to become the first black prima ballerina at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
However, her story is sadly little told, and known and recognized by few. This is something that Karyn Parsons—better known as Hilary Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—is trying to combat with her nonprofit organization Sweet Blackberry, which aims to teach and empower children through little-known stories of African-American achievement.
“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,” Parsons lamented to The Root.
“[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,” explained the star, who splits her time between her organization and rearing her two children. “It becomes this cute, little history, and every now and then a special black person comes along who does something great.”
This model, Parsons says, is dangerous, and does not empower children or lead them to recognize the various accomplishments of African Americans.
“I think if children recognize early on the accomplishments of African Americans and their contributions to this country that are so significant … they’ll recognize that in themselves and they’ll be empowered by it,” she said. “And also for children who are not black, it also makes them look at their friends and look at black people differently … than the way … media presents black folks and their contributions.”
With Sweet Blackberry, Parsons already has animated shorts about Henry “Box” Brown (The Journey of Henry Box Brown), the slave who literally mailed himself to freedom, and Garrett Morgan (Garrett’s Gift), the black man who invented traffic lights. Parsons didn’t pull any punches on the production, with Alfre Woodard and Queen Latifah narrating those stories, respectively.
Parsons was inspired, in part, by her mother, who was head of the Black Resource Center in South Central Los Angeles. She’d often get calls from her mother asking if she’d heard of one interesting African-American story or another. Henry “Box” Brown was one of those stories, and many of them, Parsons had never had any idea of before.