From her summer home in Westport, Karyn Parsons tells me about Garrett Morgan, a Black inventor. (“He invented the traffic signal… things we take for granted.”)
And Bessie Coleman, the first Black person to earn an international pilot’s license in 1921. She sailed to France for it, because no one in America would teach her, says Parsons, and earned her license “before Amelia Earhart. And we know all about Amelia Earhart.”
Both figures became subjects of films Parsons wrote for her nonprofit, Sweet Blackberry. With its mission to bring little-known stories of African-American achievement to children everywhere, Parsons, founder and president, has written four films, available now on Kanopy and DVD, with narration by Chris Rock, Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, and Laurence Fishburne.
Parsons, who played Hilary on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” has adapted two films into soon-to-be-released children’s books: “Flying Free: How Bessie Coleman’s Dreams Took Flight,” illustrated by Coretta Scott King award-winner R. Gregory Christie, will be published in December. A book on Morgan will follow in 2021.
Her middle-reader novel “How High the Moon,” has been recommended around Twitter as a book to help kids understand the protests, and complexities of race relations in America. It’s the story of Ella, growing up in Jim Crow South, and navigating life as a biracial girl. After a visit to see her mom in Boston, Ella returns to find her friend George, a Black boy, wrongly accused of the murder of two white girls.
I called up Parsons — who is working on her second novel — to talk race, protests, and finding inspiration.
Q: How did you pick Bessie Coleman for your first illustrated children’s book?
A: The idea of Sweet Blackberry is to tell little-known stories. Nowadays with internet, you can find just about everyone. But when I first discovered Henry Box Brown [a slave who mailed himself to freedom in a wooden crate] there was nothing out there except his narrative. My mother was a librarian, she headed the Black Resource Center. She told me the story [which became a Sweet Blackberry film narrated by Oscar-nominee Alfre Woodard.]
I found that if I brought Bessie Coleman up, people would be like, “Oh yeah, I know Bessie Smith.” And they’d talk about the singer. [laughs]
And I’d have to explain. So I thought, I’m going to have to tell her story. It’s a story of determination, and persevering, and this incredible triumph.
Q: When you’re looking for these stories, what do you want kids to get out of them?
A: We’re far more capable than we often give ourselves credit for, especially in the Black community, more than the world outside of us gives us credit for. I want to show all kids images of people who have faced tremendous obstacles and were able to do amazing things. That’s what leads to greatness: having to jump over a really high hurdle.
Q: Have the protests influenced who you’ll feature next?
A: I think so. There are people in high contention who are activists, like Ella Baker. It’s an opportunity to help people who are new to what’s going on to understand more. Or for the parents to go: I want to have a deeper understanding, let me go deeper. Not to mention my own education.
I’m writing a novel, too, and [the news is] definitely influencing me. When I wrote “How High the Moon,” I was deeply influenced by the news — 2016, it was almost every day, another Black man or boy had been killed. I know it influenced me bringing George Stinney Jr. [a black child executed in an electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit] into that story.
I’d come across George Stinney’s mugshot, many times. This 14-year-old boy with life drained from him. It was the saddest image, because I also knew that he’d go on to be the youngest person ever executed in our country, and that it was wrongfully so. His trial was a sham. He had nobody representing him; there were no witnesses.
Q: The book, in general, has a lot for kids to think about.
A: I think a lot of kids don’t understand. There’s been this idea sold for so long, “Oh, we’re in a post-racist world!” People want to think everything’s OK. So kids don’t understand the origins of [racism.]
[With the character of Ella] living in the Jim Crow South [kids see] the segregation, the overt racism that was accepted not that long ago. If we don’t look at what happened, how do we expect anything to get any better?
Interview has been edited and condensed. Learn more at https://www.sweetblackberry.org/