Karyn Parsons, star of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and now author, speaks to Stylist about the need for more work by women of colour.
When The Fresh Prince of Bel Air premiered back in 1990 it broke major ground.
Here was a sitcom about a black family that wasn’t about race. Instead, it told the story of the hilarious and, often, relatable antics of the Banks family, launching the career of Will Smith and introducing the world to Karyn Parsons, the biracial actress who played Will’s glamorous cousin Hilary.
For many, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air provided much-needed pop culture representation and a chance to see themselves onscreen, something that Parsons herself says she never had when growing up.
“There wasn’t really a lot out there to look to,” she tells Stylist. “There was a test they did in the Thirties and Forties called the ‘Doll Test’, where you present a white doll and a black doll to a black child, and they say which one is the good doll and which one is the bad doll. There are little kids, and the black children would identify the black doll as bad and ugly.”
She continues: “These are the messages that children are receiving, not just through the media but society, that they are bad and that they are lesser than. I think we need to do all that we can to counter that and show positive imagery.”
It’s why Parsons is so proud of the work that The Fresh Prince of Bel Air has done, and it’s why she’s so passionate about the turn in her career away from acting and into children’s animations and literature.
Through her production company Sweet Blackberry, Parsons produces animated movies that tell the stories of key historical people of colour whose narratives have been displaced in the history books. And now, with the publication of her first book How High the Moon, Parsons is doing the same with publishing.
How High The Moon tells the story of Ella, a biracial girl living in the American South with her grandparents in 1944 while her mother works in Boston. Ella dreams of finding out the truth of her family and her identity, and a visit to her mother on the East Coast only deepens that dream. The book is set in a world of segregation and racism and has parallels to Parsons’ own mother, who also grew up away from her mother.
Parsons now has biracial children of her own, and she believes that greater representation of mixed race families, marriages and children is the next frontier in popular culture. “Watching my kids struggle, feeling not black enough or feeling like they have to choose,” Parsons explains, is something that more biracial representation would help. “I think the more awareness we have the more we’re going to start to appreciate and understand and recognise each other.”
In recent years, Parsons has noticed enormous inroads when it comes to representation in Hollywood. She remembers breaking for three months from filming The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and trying to squeeze in another movie or television role.
“There were hardly any roles and ever brown girl around my age was clamouring for the same role, that one role, if there even was one role,” Parsons recalls. “Usually Halle Berry got it.”
But, thanks in large part to Black Panther, the film industry has finally begun changing for the better. Now it’s time to shift that focus to publishing, Parsons says. When it comes to representation she doesn’t “think they’re there yet, but I think they’re going to get there.” There are far too lauded writers of colour, particularly for younger audiences, not to mention critics of colour and diverse lineups at writer’s festivals.
It was something Parsons discovered when she started to write How High The Moon. “It’s funny because I went into it a little naively thinking that there was more representation than there was, simply because I know a lot of people [in the industry],” she recalls. “But as I started to read and explore and open my eyes, I realised ‘Oh, I know them all, almost.’ I think there’s some catching up to do.”
She hopes that her book, by a biracial woman about a biracial girl, is the first of many to bring real change to the publishing industry.
And it’s why she’s so excited about the visibility of Meghan Markle, one of the world’s most famous women who also happens to be biracial. “I was so excited,” Parsons says, laughing, about Meghan and Prince Harry’s wedding. “It’s huge! I was thinking, wow, what a breakthrough moment because not only is she a black woman but a biracial women, which brings this discussion of mixed race up again into people’s heads and minds.”
“We exist,” she continues. “We’re over here, we’re real. And there’s no negativity associated with being biracial… Seeing Meghan out there, so gracious and lovely, is so important. She’s so awesome and I’m so happy for her and for them and all of us.”
Images: Supplied, Getty