We were first introduced to Holly Robinson Peete as the doe-eyed doyenne from 21 Jump Street in the ’80s, a brown girl on TV who used to bust wayward teens with heartthrob Johnny Depp. Fast-forward 30 years, and Peete is now the mother of four, married for 20 years, an entrepreneur working on her own lifestyle brand, a tireless advocate and a “blacktress of a certain age” trying to make it happen.
As with autism in real life, the topic takes up quite a bit of space on the show, but For Peete’s Sake also touches on issues native to any contemporary family, including how to keep a 20-year marriage sizzling (the Peetes try their hand at role-playing); giving each child his or her special attention (middle child Robinson had to spend his 13th birthday without Holly but worked it out with extended family); meddling mothers-in-law (80-year-old Dolores is a fox and a spitfire); and working on your own dreams while raising a family. (Peete’s HRP by Holly Robinson Peete clothing line debuts on Evine Live on May 27.)
Like most black women, Peete does it all. Which is not to say that she’s perfect, or even claiming to be. But in the docudrama For Peete’s Sake, which debuted earlier this year on OWN, the stunning 51-year-old actress has been sharing her world with us—a world that she has built with her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete; twins R.J. and Ryan Elizabeth, 17; middle son Robinson, 13; and baby boy Roman, 10—every Saturday.
Peete says that she gets to “talk about the things that you don’t hear about.”
“Not to say that the genre wasn’t thriving with a more conflict-driven agenda, but I felt like it might be different to put a positive spin on [it] and have it be more resolution-driven,” Peete explains. “I have never seen on TV a family talking to their son with autism about what to do if he encounters the police.”
Robinson’s oldest son, R.J., was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old, and Peete has been a fierce advocate for him, as well as for other children on the spectrum, through her HollyRod Foundation. In the second episode, Holly and Rodney sat down with R.J. and had “the talk,” a necessary ritual between black parents and their children, and one that takes on special significance when your child has special needs.
“With R.J., he doesn’t always process social cues properly, and he believes in the good in everybody. He asks me all the time about the Tamir Rice situation, and he asks me about when Trayvon [Martin] happened, Mike Brown, you name it. All of them ask me questions.
“But with Robinson and Roman, or Ryan, I can sort of be more like, ‘The world is ugly, and that’s how it is,’” she continues, “but with R.J., he keeps wanting to know why. ‘Why? He didn’t have a gun, Mom, so why would they kill him, Mom? Why was this guy shot in the back, Mom?’ I’m like, oh God, I don’t have all these answers.”
The Peete family have been grappling with autism for some time and shared their experience in their first book, My Brother Charlie, written seven years ago by R.J.’s twin, Ryan, now a budding singer-songwriter en route to college, and the only girl in a family of boys.
Their latest effort, Same but Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express, a sequel to Charlie, is by both Ryan and R.J. and gives a good look into sibling relationships when one of them has special needs. “R.J. was able to express himself, and we got his voice in there,” says Peete proudly.
Through her HollyRod Foundation, Peete raises money for autism awareness and speaks to the African-American community about the disorder. One thing she stresses is that when it comes to autism and our people, denial is not a river in Egypt.
“The No. 1 question I get in these meet-and-greets and public appearances is, ‘I know my sister, I know my cousin, has autism, but his mom and dad are in denial,’” says Peete. “That’s not just unique to African-American communities. I get that question from all cultures, but I think with us we tend to push back on things that have to do with our brains, and we can’t do that anymore.
“As a community, we have to stop being so worried about stigma,” she adds. “We have to not be embarrassed culturally to talk about disorders and learning issues. We always had that cousin, ‘Oh, that’s just Joe, he don’t talk.’ No, Jo-Jo needs intervention. Jo-Jo may need a diagnosis, and we can’t just relegate him to ‘That’s just how Jo-Jo is.’ He needs help.
“Oftentimes we culturally push back on the idea that our kid could have something wrong with him mentally. We have to stop that because that’s keeping our children from being diagnosed. It’s making them get diagnosed two to five years later than other communities, and that’s missing a crucial window of intervention.”
Peete also has some advice for African-American moms—and dads—in dealing with an autistic child.
“The No. 1 thing I tell parents, male and female, is to advocate hard and don’t be afraid to be that mom that’s always up at the school. I tell people all the time, ‘If you come down to school, if they don’t roll their eyes when they see you, you’re not doing your job,’” she says emphatically.
“For dads, especially African-American dads, you’ve got to talk about it. That was one thing I was super proud of: Rodney pulling together a man-of-color, dad-of-color autism roundtable on For Peete’s Sake the other night, because you never see that. You never see men of color sitting down, sharing their feelings about their kids with autism, and certainly kids that are teenagers. I’m really proud of that, and I’m hoping that that resonates in other communities.”
“I’m really happy with what we were able to cram into eight episodes,” says Peete. “Now, if we get a pickup, I can think of a thousand other things. Every day there’s some new drama. Every day there’s more content, but I’m really proud of the arc of stories that we’ve been able to tell.”
The season finale of For Peete’s Sake airs this Saturday, May 7, at 9 p.m. ET. For past episodes, download the WatchOWN app.
Angela Bronner Helm is a writer, editor and professor of journalism at the City College of New York. Follow her on Twitter.