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.
“I’ve never liked history. I’m not a history buff. I’m not a historian. I couldn’t stand history coming up, but this was different. She was coming to me and I would be engaged and fascinated by the stories themselves and the accomplishments and, I have to say, by the fact I had never heard these things, which led me to later feel more of an urgency with it,” said Parsons, explaining that when she was first pregnant with her daughter, she started becoming concerned about supplementing her child’s learning with what would not be taught at school.
Now Parsons has her eyes set on a special prima ballerina and has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to bring Collins’ amazing story of perseverance and triumph to young children in the form of a 15-minute animated film.
Questlove will be donating a pair of autographed drumsticks. Misty Copeland, who, fittingly, is the first African-American soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, is donating a pair of signed pointe shoes. Cast from Fresh Prince will be recording personalized voice mails (yes, you can even have a Geoffrey the Butler voice mail), as well as taking time to have lunch with high-level donors. The Metropolitan Opera will also be offering prizes for certain pledged amounts. So far, a little more than $14,000 of the $75,000 goal has been raised, with 20 days to go.
“This is a person who, at 15 years old, was so dedicated to her dance and passionate about it and so talented that in 1932 she was asked by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to dance with them, to join their troupe, which is unprecedented to have a black dancer … and they said, ‘But we have to paint your face white for the performances,” Parsons said. “She thought that talent was all that mattered. The way she was brought up was not to look at her blackness as a deterrent in her life and so she really went into it innocently and thought that her talent would win out.”
Collins refused to paint her face and was obviously crushed when her dreams had to be put on hold.
“She used that pain and prejudice to work even harder, and she became exceptional and she went on from being that person to being the first black prima ballerina. She was the first black soloist at the Metropolitan Opera,” the 47-year-old Parsons marveled.
Narrating Collins’ story will be Chris Rock, an obvious pick, says Parsons, who has seen the way the actor and comedian interacts with his daughters and the work he did with Good Hair.
“Chris is a father of daughters and I know that … after following his career, following him with his daughters, seeing Good Hair, I knew when I approached him that he would get this, that he would understand the relevance of this project, that it would strike a chord with him,” Parsons told The Root. “So in that regard I think Chris is kind of perfect for it.”
Other stars will also be contributing to the cause, including her former co-stars from Fresh Prince. According to Parsons, all of her former “family” have been incredibly supportive of her organization, often pitching in.
“They’ve all been really supportive of Sweet Blackberry all along … they’ve all been a part of it in some way. Tatyana Ali is on the board of Sweet Blackberry, Will [Smith] has been … very helpful in the past and Alfonso [Ribeiro] has also been coming to all of our events and they’ve all pitched in,” Parsons said. “We had a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air lunch a few years ago to help Sweet Blackberry and everybody came out for that and it was good because I think … it was the last time Will saw James [Avery, who died late last year], so it was a good reunion in that regard.”
Parsons credited Avery, her TV dad, with having much more to do with Sweet Blackbery and her reach into black history.
“James was always very supportive and probably had a much larger influence on my interest in going through black history I think than I realized,” she remembered. “Like ‘Oh gosh, James used to talk about this,’ and ‘James used to talk about that,’ ‘James used to talk about this person’… I think he had a lot more to do with Sweet Blackberry than I ever realized.”
But the big stars are not the only support that Parsons and Sweet Blackberry need to make this dream come true. For something as important as this, every little bit helps.
“I think a lot of times people feel that with something like this … they think, ‘I’m not in a position to contribute,’ and it doesn’t matter. Even if it’s $5, just to follow the campaign and achieve exclusive updates on what’s going on, for $5 you can get that, for $1 you can get that,” she said. “It all matters, it all helps.”
“I think it’s something we cannot ignore …. They’re like sponges, children. They pick up little things,” Parsons added. “The messages that they’re getting, not even the overt ones, but just the subtle, quieter ones, are not the messages we want for them, and we have to do all that we can, all of us, to undo this, to undo the damage and to build our children’s self-esteem up, and I think having these films at an early age, bringing these stories of real accomplishment and achievement to them early, they’ll feel that empowerment and recognize what they can be, and we can help with that.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.