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5 Powerful Lessons for Changemakers from Diahann Carroll’s Life

Issue 109 — October 7, 2019

I distinctly remember when the actress Diahann Carroll began starring in the sitcom “Julia” about a nurse who’s also a widowed single mom to an elementary school-aged son living in suburbia. Sounds pretty ordinary, right?

But Julia was Black, it was 1968, and the Civil Rights Movement was in full bloom of progress and simultaneously receiving violent pushback.

Martin Luther King was assassinated in April of that year — the same year that the Equal Housing Act was passed into law. While racial desegregation in public schools had been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision fourteen years earlier, bitter resistance to integration still roiled, and the implementation of racial equality had shown itself to be far more challenging than changing the laws.

In the midst of this cultural unrest, Carroll broke through a major barrier to become the first African American woman to have the starring role in her own television show, and one in which she didn’t play a maid or some other sidelined character. Certainly, this was as momentous a step forward for racial equality as Rosa Parks’ refusal to go to the back of the bus, for the media images we see are so powerful in creating social change — or maintaining the status quo.

In a sense, “Julia” did both.

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While she was obviously African-American, the show was intentional in emphasizing that she and her son had a life like any other American suburban family in the predominant culture. Her character and her life were drawn in such a way that they were stereotypically “Leave It to Beaver”-like, except that Julia’s husband had died in the Vietnam War.

Reading Carroll’s obituary when she died at age 84 this past week, I was thrown into a time warp.

In 1968, I was teaching in a new War on Poverty program, Head Start, for preschoolers from low-income, largely black and Hispanic families in Odessa, TX. After volunteering in several Civil Rights and War on Poverty organizations I had embraced the job, located in the spare parish hall of a Catholic church, where my teaching colleagues and I had to set up tables to create a makeshift classroom every morning and take them down each afternoon. And yet, Head Start was a beacon of hope, as the name of its local umbrella organization implied: “Greater Opportunities of the Permian Basin.”

The economic and social conditions of people of color in my community didn’t match up to Julia’s. I recall how the first Black family to buy a home on the “white” side of Odessa — a family that was well educated and financially secure with all the trappings of any upper middle class family — had to move in at night with police protection and was subjected to slanders and threats of violence. “Julia” might have been an ideal, but was far from the norm.

It’s important to set that scene to reflect on how we can learn these five powerful lessons for making social change from Diahann Carroll’s inspiring life story.

  1. There’s a cover charge to get in the door.

The first women entering the professional workplace during the 1970s thought they had to act like men to succeed. They wore menswear suits with big shoulder pads and bow ties, were counseled not to have photos of their families in their offices, to be tougher than tough, and certainly not to show emotion. “Covering” is a term for trying to fit in even when you don’t. It’s a pretty good description of what women experience today, working in institutions designed by men for men 200 years ago when life was very different for everyone. Julia Baker, or her persona in the NBC series that ran for three years, was criticized for covering — being too much like the archetypes of white middle class suburbia and reflecting too little on the harsh realities of African American life. But Julia was taking on the plumage of the predominant birds so as to be accepted into the flock — sometimes a necessity if you want to make change.

2. Be intentional about your steps forward.

Once accepted, however, the steps forward can become increasingly bold and authentic. By all accounts, Carroll was very intentional about her choice of profession and the characters she played. As the first African American woman to win a Tony, she acknowledged the controversial aspects of Julia’s persona but also saw it as a giant step forward in breaking racial barriers in an industry that had never had a woman like her in a starring role. And afterward she played increasingly complex roles, becoming the first African American to play Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” She told “People” magazine that she wanted to be the first Black bitch on television. Step by step.

3. Use both controversy and compromise strategically.

According her Washington Post Obituary, “On Pioneers of Television,” Carroll recalled that in 1968, several years ahead of Norman Lear’s socially conscious sitcom slate, television shows were wary of addressing race. “It was absolutely ‘let’s stay away from that, that is too controversial,’ so we knew that going in…That first you make the success — after you’ve done that, you can make other steps.’” Carroll realized that the character of Julia was highly sanitized and avoided the political controversies of the day, but the compromise was a strategic one for what she saw as a higher good.

4. Remember who you are, however difficult and energy sucking it may be. Carroll had to teach television makeup artists that there were skin colors other than Caucasian when she discovered that they didn’t have makeup that matched her complexion. It takes self-assurance to surmount such biases and micro aggressions without losing one’s temper or dignity. You have to UNcover yourself and stay centered in your own identity, your values, and your integrity.

5. Never underestimate your impact on the next person. Fast forward to today and as this Washington Post article’s title says, “Without Diahann Carroll, we wouldn’t have Olivia Pope,” the high powered political “fixer” protagonist of Shonda Rhimes’s “Scandal” played by Kerry Washington. Who even notices now that it’s an African-American female lead on a prime time television drama? Come to think about it, without Diahann Carroll and others like her, there might not have been a Shonda or Kerry.

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