Karyn Parsons, most famously known for her role as Hilary Banks on the iconic “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” now leads an important organization called “Sweet Blackberry” as the Founder and President.
Sweet Blackberry’s mission “is to bring little known stories of African American achievement to children everywhere.”
She spoke to us about all things ‘Sweet Blackberry’ as she continues to lead, encourage and spread African American stories.
We even had a laugh about where she believes Hilary Banks would be today.
Karyn Parsons’ passion for what she is doing, shows in her excitement when describing every aspect of ‘Sweet Blackberry’ full of hope for what the future holds and contagiously positive about what it’s going to bring.
Q: Your upcoming animated story is about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to become a pilot. Talk to us a little about your choice of Coleman and why you think it’s important to tell her story?
Karyn: Well I’ll tell you, this is a story I wanted to tell since the very beginning of Sweet Blackberry. I was a little reluctant because the mission of Sweet Blackberry is to bring little known stories of African American achievements to kids. A lot of the stories that have been on the top of the list to tell, are stories that you really just don’t hear very much. Janet Collins, our last story, nobody has heard of the first Black prima ballerina, no one knew who it was – except for Misty Copeland of course. She knew right away (laughs).
There were books about Bessie Coleman, children’s books. I saw some things here and there but not a lot. There was a stamp, there was a Bessie Coleman stamp. These were making me think, ’maybe she doesn’t fall under this’. As time went on, I just realized, enough people don’t know. Whether there are more stories out or not, enough people don’t know who she is. This is a woman who I feel, her story is so important because not only is it incredibly inspiring but it’s very empowering. I think it really makes children, and adults, (but children are who I’m really thinking about the most), it makes them realize what they’re made of.
‘I can do it if Bessie Coleman in 1921, where there was such racial and gender discrimination, could decide she wants to be a pilot, and do it, no matter what anybody told her, then I, can do anything’.
She couldn’t find anybody in The United States to teach her how to fly. I mean obviously, she’s a black woman in the early 20’s in the States. She was raised in Texas, she was living in Chicago, but still, it was so out of reach. But her friend suggested she go to Paris to learn, where the female pilots were taught and they were ok with it, and Black people were treated a little differently. She taught herself some basic French. Just all of that. Saving your money and taking French lessons, to do this thing that’s so out of your reach. But she wasn’t seeing it that way.
She was seeing that ‘I’m reaching for it and I’m going to get it’ and she did. I’m so impressed with it. I’m so inspired by her story every single time I re-visit it, that I thought it was really important to put that story out into the world and into the hands of more children.
Q: Can you speak about how you choose your narrators?
Karyn: It’s been different for everybody. Alfre Woodard, I quite literally heard her voice while I was writing The Journey of Henry Box Brown and it would not leave. I worked with her before and got to know Alfre and she’s a remarkable woman, she’s like a goddess to me. She’s not only an incredible actress, she’s just really something else of a woman. Once her voice took hold and was the narrator for me, I knew I had to go ask her and she said yes. That was a big deal for me because it was my first and I’m just starting this thing. That meant a lot to me and it was very encouraging. I also knew by having Alfre start it off, she’s so respected, that other people would go ‘oh, wow you know, Alfre Woodard did it’.
And sure enough, Will Smith said to me: ‘you need to have Dana do one of these, Queen Latifah. She needs to do one, she needs to do one’. So, he reached out to her and said ‘you really need to do this thing that Karyn’s doing, you should do this’. She said yes (laughs). So, that was something else, to have Queen Latifah on. She’s such a voice artist. You know so funny because she came in on a red-eye and she showed up to the studio really low-key. I thought uh-oh I’m going to have to pump her up. This is a kids’ piece I need her to have energy.
But what was I thinking, I forgot she was a voice artist first. But I wasn’t thinking that I was thinking of the actress I know. I know her a little bit, I worked with her a couple of times.
But I forgot.
She got in that booth and she turned it on and I was like ‘oh shoot I forgot’ (laughs). I mean she’s an insane professional voice artist.
Then, Chris Rock. That came about in an entirely different way. Mind you I have met Chris over the years a couple of times but we didn’t really know each other except for a ‘hey, hey’ in passing. I took a chance and I reached out to him on Facebook. I knew that Chris has daughters. I knew from ‘Good Hair’ and his comedy a little bit of where he was. We’re doing the story of Janet Collins, the first Black prima ballerina. I knew he would get it and understand how important the story was for little girls, having daughters himself. And he did, it resonated with him and he came on board.
Now, we have the Bessie Coleman story and we have Laurence Fishburne, which I’m thrilled about. I’ve known Laurence for a long time, before Fresh Prince and with a voice like that, he’s always in my head. He’s somebody that I have wanted to have do a voice, I’ve always wanted him to do it. When this came up that I was doing Bessie, I just immediately said I want Laurence to do this and he said yes, he said yes. He’s somebody who also I knew would get behind what this project was right away. I’m very pleased and very fortunate.
Q: Any dream actor you would like to work with in the future for narrating?
Karyn: There are a lot of people I’ve thought of. I don’t know. I don’t even think I can handle Morgan Freeman, to be honest. I think I just, I just, I wouldn’t be able to show up. Someone would have to go in place of me because I can’t handle it (laughs). I can’t handle it. Can you imagine? Oh, my God.
I mean Whoopi Goldberg is someone who I’ve heard does this kind of voice over stuff for kids and just knock it out of the park. So, I think of Whoopi a lot and she’s got such great qualities.
I love The Rock (laughs). I love The Rock and I thought of him, there are a lot of people that I thought of and I love. I can just go on and on. There are just so many people. And if you pay attention to people’s voice stuff, I mean Kevin Hart is great. There are people who when you think of their voice work and what they can do- like I said, the list goes on. And there are younger and newer people out there too who are doing great stuff so we’ll see. I hope to just keep working with really talented artists.
Q: How excited are you to team up with Kickstarter again for this project?
Karyn: It’s very exciting. The last experience made so much more than I bargained for. It really is a community. You go ‘hey how much do you want to be a part of this’ and people take it seriously. They come in and they’re plugging on social media, pushing and sending it out to their friends. They’re donating whatever they can.
I get people writing me personal emails a lot – ‘stick with it, you’re doing a great job.’ I cannot tell you. I had people make me cry.
People were really boosting me up when I was feeling like ‘oh I don’t know if this is going to happen, I don’t know if this is going to work.’
You put in a lot and it’s amazing, people come through and they’re like ‘we believe in this, we believe in you.’ And they’re saying these things to you, they’re saying the things you need to hear and they’re pushing for you.
I heard little rumors that said ‘oh Kickstarter community…’ and it sounded all touchy-feely (laughs). I didn’t know what it was until it happened and that was really great. When you think of what the whole concept is of Kickstarter, of people showing people ‘hey look at this thing I’m doing, what do you think?’ And people say, ‘I think that’s incredible, I think that’s awesome, I wanna help you. I don’t have very much to help you, but I have this. And I know this person, and I know some other people that might.’ If everybody does that – ‘I can give you a little bit that I have and I can tell all my friends about it.’ Then next thing you know, you’ve got them telling their friends and so on and so on. It’s effective and it really makes you feel literally like you’re doing something worthwhile. And other people recognize it too and they get it and see that it’s important. It’s a good thing.
Q: What are some other stories you would like to tell?
Karyn: There are stories. I don’t know if I want to talk about them so much now. I’m always discovering new stories. I have a bank of them and then it seems like people are always sending me stuff – ‘you should do a story about this person’. And I look up people and I’m floored at all of the histories we don’t hear about that I think would make such an impression. If kids can learn about these stories young, and just know that these stories of people came before, and understand how much Black people built.
They’re American stories, for everybody. I don’t think they should be exclusively told to Black children. These are American stories, American history. I think if we could teach these to the new part of the curriculum, and we taught them. I think It would change how everyone looked at race.
When you only tell a few stories, so you only think that there were a few contributions. Kids think when they grow up that just once in a while, a Black person comes along and does something, as opposed to the reality.
I think that would make a big difference.
Q: Talk to us a little about the inspiration behind your organization “Sweet Blackberry” and where the name came from?
Karyn: It’s so funny. I mean everyone likes that name and everyone is curios about the name. I wish I had a really juicy story, (haha), pun intended.
The truth is really, I used to call my daughter Lana, berry. It was just a fun little name.
So, Blackberry came out, and someone said, ‘you can’t use Blackberry because that’s the device.’
I was like ‘what kind of device?’ and they said ‘you know it’s a device.’ I mean that’s how long ago I came up with the idea. I didn’t know what a blackberry was, I quickly found out because it quickly took off right around that time and I’m like,
‘oh that’s a blackberry (laughs) wonder if I could’ve used the name if it’s just around for a minute (laughs), but it lasted, so I’m glad I didn’t use it (laughs).’
But Sweet Blackberry just came kind of came with it and it just fit and everyone liked it and responded to it, so it stuck.
Q: Are there any other upcoming projects you would like to share?
Karyn: I’m trying to do one thing at a time. I have so many things I want to do but oh my God. When I first started the organization, I had this one simple thing that I wanted to do and it makes these movies for kids. And I’ve always wanted to do a book but now, it’s just oh my God, I have a million things I want to do.
I can’t really talk about all the things that I want to do but I would just say to stay tuned to Sweet Blackberry because we’ve got so many things on the horizon. I’m happy to say, we have a lot of people that are interested in trying to help us make things happen. So hopefully, they will.
I think that the idea for me, what’s really important. I want it to be a center where we can bring this kind of organic learning to kids. So, instead of somebody shaking their finger in their face and saying ‘remember this date’ about history. You tell the story and you make them laugh and make you make them smile, and you engage the kids. Then, they walk away, learning about a person and a time without even realizing it, because they were just being entertained. I think there are lots of ways we can introduce learning to children through play and organic ways, and that’s what I’m interested in doing with Sweet Blackberry.
Q: Everyone loves Fresh Prince with Spinoffs and reboots being all the rage if there was an option to do a Hilary spinoff/reboot what do you think that story would be?
(laughs) Well, it’s funny because they did dance around with that one for a little while when I was on the show and it didn’t end up coming to fruition, but she was going to have her own talk show. And that would’ve been a logical thing. But if you are to do it now, God who would she be now? What a tragic figure (laughs) no, not necessarily (laughs).
She might be, who knows, strangely accomplished somehow. I don’t know how, on the track she was on. But, Hilary was a little bit clever at getting what she wanted, so maybe that would continue (laughs) in her 30s and 40s. I don’t know. I can’t even imagine what that woman would be doing right now, you know? Imagine if she had kids, what would she do with a child? I think that would be really funny. A spinoff about Hilary’s kids and she’s like a background character as the mom, but the story is really called ‘Ernestine’ (laughs) or something like the girl who is the daughter of a crazy woman (laughs) that would be funny, someone should do that.
Karyn Parsons The Bessie Coleman Story project is part of Kickstarter Gold, a new initiative bringing back some of the most inventive and successful creators in Kickstarter history. Now through July 31, over 65 exceptional artists, authors, designers, musicians, and makers are back as they push ideas and rewards from their past projects in bold new directions. Head here to learn more, and here to browse all the live Kickstarter Gold projects.