Karyn Parsons Celebrates African American Achievement

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Karyn Parsons- mom, actress, & founder of Sweet Blackberry

Karyn Parsons- mom, actress, & founder of Sweet Blackberry

You may remember her from the seminal 90s hit show Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but did you know that Karyn Parsons is an entrepreneur, mother of two, and passionate about   storytelling. Karyn and I were pregnant at the same time and while I was dreaming up the rudiments of Mama Glow, she was busy toiling away and dreaming with ideas for an educational media company for children. She launched launched a non-proft Sweet Blackberry that highlights stories of African Americans that are little known, let alone celebrated by our society. She tells the untold stories of those who have shaped our culture. Karyn shared her latest project with us and she’s launched a Kickstarter too!

Your non-profit Sweet Blackberry, when did it launch and what does it do?

We bring stories of African American achievement to kids through various forms of media, namely animated short films. We launched back in 2005, but weren’t a non-profit until 2009. The mission is to bring little-known stories of African American achievement to kids. Through various forms of media, chiefly animated films.

We’ve done The Journey of Henry “Box” Brown, the true story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom. The incredible Alfre Woodard narrated that one.

Our second film was called Garrett’s Gift and it is the story of Garrett Morgan the inventor of the stop light, as a young boy and how he struggles to find what he’s good at and what to do with all of that creative energy that always gets him into trouble.

You just launched a Kickstarter for your third film on Janet Collins. Who is she? Why is this an important story to tell?

I heard of Janet Collins after reading her obituary. I was blown away by her story, one I had never heard. It was such a powerful story of being exceptionally talented, but still being asked to dramatically alter her appearance (“paint it white”) in order to perform with the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She was only 15 when this happened. She turned it down, and used that incident to fuel her. Make her unstoppable. She became the first Black soloist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera!

Janet Collins in La Gioconda at the Metropolitan Opera House

Janet Collins in La Gioconda at the Metropolitan Opera House

What do you hope kids get from these films?

One of my biggest wishes for my children is that that they be confident, believe in themselves, and are true to themselves. It can be challenging for any kid (even for us adults!), but when the cards are stacked against you, when all of the messages out there be they through the media, or society, are that you are somehow inferior, before you’ve even had a chance to open your mouth, it’s particularly difficult. It can feel impossible.

I think that these stories allow kids to see people before who overcame incredible obstacles. That they often actually used the challenges to rise higher, to greater accomplishments than others may have. They’ll also see Black people doing things, creating things, inventing, contributing to this country, in ways that they never knew. That opens your eyes up. It makes you aware of what you are capable of.

Janet Collins Illustration

Janet Collins Illustration for Sweet Blackberry

I was reading a study recently about how Black kids by the age of 6 know who all of the presidents of the US are, and because (with the exception of our current president) they’re all white, they feel that they will never hold a great position of power. That’s the message they’ve received… at 6. It’s devastating. We have to do something about it.

What made you decide to start Sweet Blackberry?

 My mother was working as a librarian, heading the largest black resource center in California, and would call me and tell me incredible stories about Black people in history that I’d never heard of. The story of Henry “Box” Brown blew my mind. A man who literally mailed himself to freedom in a box! I thought that it was a great story for kids.

By the time I was pregnant with my daughter, I was talking about a lot making that story, and more, for kids. I was thinking about my own child coming into the world and how it was going to be up to my husband and I to ensure she received the education we wanted for her. My husband’s the one who said to stop talking and get moving, and so I did.

Janet Collins dreaming about ballet dancing

Janet Collins dreaming about ballet dancing

Why are you using Kickstarter? How is it different from other kinds of fundraising?

Everyone that hears about Sweet Blackberry is so excited by what we’re doing. So happy to hear that we’re making an effort to bring stories that risk being lost, that are valuable stories in American history, to children. I thought that Kickstarter just made sense as a way of bringing our supporters together and making them collaborators. After all, these stories are for all of us. And for all of our children. Sweet Blackberry is a non-profit organization. No one is trying to get rich here. We want to make the stories and get them to kids. Plain and simple.

Karyn, husband Alex Rockwell, and children, Lana & Nico at the Rome Film Festival

Karyn, husband Alex Rockwell, and children, Lana & Nico at the Rome Film Festival

Who are some of the people and organizations involved with the project? What will they be doing?

I’m thrilled to say that Chris Rock is narrating! He’s the father of two girls, so he understands firsthand the importance and the relevance of a story like Janet Collins’s.

Will Smith and the cast of Fresh Prince, Jada Pinckett Smith, Questlove, amazing Black ballet dancer Misty Copeland! They’re all donating gifts and one-of-a-kind experiences like watching your favorite episode with the FPOBA cast and having a Q&A afterward. Chris Rock, Jada, Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey the Butler) from Fresh Prince, and Alfonso Ribeiro, will all be doing customized, outgoing voicemail messages! Tatyana Ali and I will go on a shopping trip with a backer! Fun stuff!

Support the work of Karyn Parsons and Sweet BlackBerry Today. Join her kickstarter!

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