Princess Of 'Fresh Prince' Brings History To Children

Jul 13, 2014
Originally published on July 16, 2014 8:16 pm

Hey, remember Hilary Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

She's back, but in a different light. Actress Karyn Parsons has started a new organization — Sweet Blackberry — that makes short, animated films about influential, yet lesser-known African-Americans.

She still loves acting, she told Kelly McEvers of Weekend All Things Considered, but her priorities have changed since she became a mom.

Parson says being pregnant with her daughter got her thinking about her responsibility, as a parent, to add to her kids' formal education.

"In school we learn about a handful of stories — great stories — but still, we're missing out on so much," Parsons says. "We want to celebrate black history but we don't want to separate it from American history."

Her animated movies have aired on HBO, and are available in libraries and DVD.

In the interview, Parsons talks about three interesting figures she discovered along the way, who are also the main characters in her shorts:

Henry "Box" Brown

It was her mom, a librarian who worked at the African-American resource center in South-Central Los Angeles, who introduced Parsons to Henry "Box" Brown.

Brown was a slave who had a pretty ingenious escape plan: He just mailed himself to Pennsylvania from Virginia in a box. The minute he crossed state lines, he was free.

All he had with him on his 26-hour journey was a bladder of water and a few small biscuits.

An eyewitness record from 1872 remembers the dramatic scene of his arrival in Philadelphia:

Rising up in the box, he reached out his hand, saying, "How do you do, gentlemen?" The little assemblage hardly knew what to think or do at the moment.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan was an inventor, credited for the traffic signal and the gas mask among other things.

In Parsons' version of the story, Morgan starts off as a child.

"So, I wanted to come to where kids could actually be face-to-face, eye-to-eye with him and understand him a little bit" Parsons explains. "He was creative-minded but trying to find what he had to offer the world."

Morgan was the son of freed slaves and his formal education lasted only till sixth grade. But his mechanical genius helped him figure out inventive ways to realize his visions.

Janet Collins

Parsons has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for her new cartoon venture. This one is about the first African-American prima ballerina Janet Collins.

At 15 years old, in 1922, the Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo invited Collins to join their dance troupe. It was unprecedented, but there was a catch — she would have to perform in whiteface. Collins refused, devastated. A 2003 obituary in the New York Times describes her reaction:

"I said no," she told Anna Kisselgoff in a 1974 interview in The Times. "I sat on the steps and I cried and cried." But the rejection spurred her, she said, to work even harder, hard enough to be an exception.

It paid off. She became the first black prima ballerina and soloist at the Metropolitan Opera, performing with names such as Katherine Dunham — often called the queen mother of black dance.

To tell Collins' story, the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air actress has pulled in Chris Rock as narrator.

"The fact that we don't know about her now is sad to me," Parsons says.

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Thanks for sticking with us here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You might know Karyn Parsons as that airhead princess Hilary Banks from "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air."


KARYN PARSONS: (As Hilary Banks) Dad, I need $300.

JANET HUBERT: (As Vivian Banks) Hillary your cousin will is here.

PARSONS: (As Hilary Banks) Hi. Dad I need $300.

MCEVERS: Today Karyn Parsons has a different priority. She runs an organization called "Sweet Blackberry," producing short animated films for children about influential, yet little known African-Americans. When I spoke to her earlier this week she said the idea started many years ago.

PARSONS: My mother was a librarian and she would call me from time to time with interesting stories that she came across. She shared with me one day the story of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who had literally nailed himself to freedom in a box, from Virginia to Pennsylvania. None of my friends had heard this story either and I thought, that's crazy, how come we don't know about this guy? So, I started making notes about it and I would put it aside and then come back and when I was pregnant with my daughter many years later, I started to really think about my responsibility as a parent supplementing my child's education. What do I want her to learn? What do I need to bring to her on my own. Finally I arrived at "Sweet Blackberry."


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: I've come very far. Still no man is free unless we all are.

MCEVERS: So your first film was about Henry "Box" Brown and then the second film you made was about an inventor.

PARSONS: Yeah, Garrett Morgan, I mean he's fascinating man. This is the inventor of the traffic signal, as well as the gas mask and a bunch of other things.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: And suddenly he jumped up and exclaimed, I've got it, a traffic signal...

PARSONS: Our focus on Garrett's gift is on the traffic signal 'cause also our age group, you know, we have really little kids, that's something that they're learning about and navigating.

MCEVERS: And now you're raising money to do a new one about a ballerina named Janet Collins. Who was she?

PARSONS: Janet Collins was the first African-American prima ballerina. At 15-years-old, in 1932 she was asked by the ballet Russe of Monte Carlo to join their dance troupe, which was just unprecedented at the time for a black dancer to be asked. The condition would be that she would have to perform in Whiteface. So, she was devastated but she still said no. Instead she worked extra hard and she would end up becoming the first black prima ballerina and the first black soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. In schools we learn about a handful of stories, great stories but still we're missing out on so much, we want to celebrate black history but we don't want to separate it from American history. We've been fortunate enough to bring Chris Rock on to narrate the Janet Collins story and we have a Kickstarter campaign right now, we're in our last week and I've been fortunate enough to be able to bring my Fresh Prince family on. Everybody's kicking in to do it.

MCEVERS: Many people remember you as Hillary Banks on "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air"

PARSONS: Oh, yeah.

MCEVERS: You know, it's almost 20 years since then. I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about how we got here. What have you been doing over the years?

PARSONS: Nothing. Nothing.


PARSONS: I continued acting for a while after the Fresh Prince but I had two kids, let's face it. I became a mom.

MCEVERS: An honorable profession.

PARSONS: Wouldn't trade it for anything. That's my everything really. I've never stopped loving acting, it's just, you know, my perspective has changed and my priorities have changed and that's what I've just been working on.

MCEVERS: Karyn Parsons is the founder of "Sweet Blackberry." I want to thank you so much for your time today Karyn.

PARSONS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.