Karyn Parsons tells inspiring true stories of little-known African-Americans

She founded Sweet Blackberry to make films that introduce new historical figures to children of all ethnic backgrounds.

Courtesy of Sweet Blackberry Foundation
Karyn Parsons produces animated stories for children about real-life African-Americans who have accomplished great things.

For Karyn Parsons, storytelling has always been in her blood – even during her days playing the charmingly highfalutin Hilary Banks, older cousin of Will Smith, on the TV series “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and living in glossy Los Angeles as a successful 20-something actress.

It was her craving for tales of tenacious protagonists that led Ms. Parsons to create Sweet Blackberry, a children’s film production company dedicated to telling the unfamiliar but true stories of black Americans and bringing them to life through animation.

Her third and latest film, “Dancing in the Light,” for instance, is about Janet Collins, who became the first and only African-American prima ballerina at New York’s Metropolitan Opera more than 60 years ago.

“Things that are really painful in history, in African-American history, I think a lot of people just shut [them] out,” Parsons says while talking over cups of Earl Grey tea. Because Sweet Blackberry is still more or less a one-woman operation, she works mostly out of her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York. But on days like this, her fingers clack away on her laptop in the cafe down the street from her children’s school.

History can often seem dry and abstract , she says, “so I wanted to do something that was engaging and pulled you in, in a way that kids know fairy tales.... I knew Little Red Riding Hood so well, but wouldn’t it be great if it was a story about a real person?”

Unlike fairy tales, Parsons’s stories of little-known African-American heroes acknowledge the harsh historical contexts in which they take place. When writing the story of Collins, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, Parsons knew she had to delve into the complex issue of slavery in America, even though her intended audience is between the ages of 4 and 7.

At a time when schools rarely teach children anything about black Americans outside the Big Three – Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks – Parsons wants to deepen and widen the scope of African-American narratives.

“Most [textbooks] cover times of great crisis and change for African-Americans – slavery, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement,” education expert Kathryn Walbert writes in a critique of Black History Month. “But they often fail to fully cover what happened in the lives of African-Americans in between those watershed events.”

When black children grow up lacking a full knowledge of their history and culture, there are consequences, Parsons says. Few African-Americans work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. According to the National Science Foundation, the percentage of black PhD candidates in the years between 2003 and 2013 has remained stagnant at just under 4 percent.

More than half a century after Collins performed on Broadway and the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, few ballet dancers are black. At the American Ballet Theatre, for example, only a handful are black out of the nearly 90 dancers. (In a big step forward, in 2015 Misty Copeland became the first African-American female principal dancer at the ABT.)

“There is a vacuum where certain elements of history and culture have not been shared” with the next generation, says Collette Hopkins, former education director of the National Black Arts Festival. She now works with Parsons in community outreach for Sweet Blackberry.

“I hoped that my own children [wouldn’t] have to wait until they were older to be exposed to African-American and African history and culture,” she says.

As a child in Santa Monica, Calif., Parsons wasn’t a very good student, she says. She especially disliked history. But according to her mother, she was an avid reader. When Parsons was in her mid-20s, she finally read about the black poets and artists of the early 20th-century Harlem Renaissance, and she was galvanized.

“My husband knows so much about his history, about his Russian background,” Parsons says of Alexandre Rockwell, who is an independent filmmaker. “And he feels empowered by the accomplishments of his ancestors. He knows so much about who they were and what they did, and he carries that with him. And for a lot of black people, that doesn’t exist.”

“But if you give that to people, and they can hold onto the champions that came before them,” she says, “they feel like, ‘Hey, that’s me. I can do that, too. That’s what I come from. That’s what I’m made of.’ ”

It was in the early 1990s when she first heard the story of Henry “Box” Brown from her mother. Louise Parsons, a librarian in Los Angeles, had just learned about the remarkable story of Brown, a slave who cleverly shipped himself to freedom in a box from Virginia to Philadelphia.

But it wasn’t until Karyn became pregnant with her first child, Lana, that the idea for Sweet Blackberry came to fruition. With her elated maternal instincts, and some help from the cast of “Fresh Prince,” she started the company and produced its first film, “Sweet Blackberry Presents: Henry ‘Box’ Brown” in 2005. Two years later, she released “Garrett’s Gift,” the story of Garrett Morgan, inventor of the modern traffic stoplight.

The films combine African-American history with lessons about overcoming obstacles, all in a format suitable for children.

Parsons has since assembled an impressive advisory board of experts in child psychology and media programming. Among them is Sherryl Graves, a psychology professor and dean at Hunter College in New York City.  “Karyn’s approach of using real stories, real people – it’s tricky,” Dr. Graves says. “You want these things to be ... positive but not saccharine.”

R. Gregory Christie worked on the animation for two Sweet Blackberry films. “Karyn really digs deep. I’m honored to work with her,” he says. “She always has a vision.”

But the animator would agree with Graves, who has consulted for many children’s TV shows including “Sesame Street” and “Discovery Kids,” that Sweet Blackberry’s most impressive feat is its universally appealing stories.

“Films like these are important because they expand the universe of people that children can learn about,” Graves says. “It’s like there are three [famous black] people that every teacher knows, and they’re the three people that you get over and over and over again throughout your schooling when Black History Month comes along.”

In this regard, the Sweet Blackberry movies, all three of which are now available for streaming on Netflix, are valuable to children of all races. “They’re not just African-American stories; they’re American stories,” Parsons says.

“These films,” she goes on, “can change children. They’ll have a different view of the landscape of race. They look at their friends who look different from them, and they see the stories of people who are different from them.”

Parsons and her team now are working on a fourth film about the aviator Bessie Coleman. But between fundraising, keeping up with social media, and doing myriad other tasks, the mother of two would also like to expand her efforts to get schools across the country to screen her movies. She has lesson plans drawn up to accompany the screenings.

“The truth is that African-Americans contributed tremendously to American history,” says Louise in a phone conversation about her daughter’s work. “It’s devastating when people don’t know [their history]. That’s why it’s important that these stories are documented and made available to everyone.”

• To learn more, visit SweetBlackberry.org.

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