Former actress Karyn Parsons finds success as author

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Karyn Parsons first found fame and success as Hilary Banks, the stuck-up, beautiful, affluent and ever-stylish socialite cousin of Will Smith’s character on the hit sitcom, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which ran on NBC for six seasons 1990-1996.

She struck gold again, this time in another creative medium, as a successful children’s book author and filmmaker.

Her new career began after a friend nudged her to take a short fiction writing class at Santa Monica College. Parsons said she found the experience invigorating and fulfilling.

As her passion for the written word grew, she decided to forego acting and instead focus on writing Black history books and short films on little-known African Americans for children everywhere, including in schools.

Today she’s a best-selling author, having written several books and short films produced through her nonprofit company Sweet Blackberry.

“I’m not interested in acting anymore,” said Parsons during a recent phone interview. “That’s a weird thing for me to say out loud. I wanted to do it since I was a kid. I had a large success with the show. It defined me very quickly. I was taken seriously. 

“Even when I started writing, I didn’t lose my love of acting. But to be honest, I would much rather be working on my books.”

Her latest book, her fourth, released in July, is “Clouds Over California,” a novel about how a girl’s family and friendships are turned upside down — just as the world is changing in 1970s Los Angeles.

“Clouds Over California is semi-autobiographical,” said Parsons, who lives with her independent filmmaker husband Alexandre Rockwell, and two children in Providence, Rhode Island. “It took me about a month to write. There are elements pulled from growing up in Santa Monica in the 70s.

It was during a period when women’s liberation was shaking the ground. The civil rights movement had been underway and the Black Panthers were doing their thing.”

Parsons’s other books include the middle-grade novels “How High The Moon” (2019 Little, Brown and Company), and the picture-book biographies, “Flying Free: How Bessie Coleman’s Dreams Took Flight” (2020), and “Saving The Day: Garrett Morgan’s Life-Changing Invention of the Traffic Signal” (2021). Both picture books are illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.

“‘How High The Moon’ was my first book,” said Parsons, who grew up enjoying Judy Blume’s books. “It took me three years to write it. The premise was inspired by my mom’s growing up in the Jim Crow South in a little town outside of Charleston. She was always cheery.”

Parsons said the book is about her stepping into her mother’s shoes as an 11-year-old girl.

“Ella is light-skinned,” she said. “She lives with grandparents and cousins. Her mom is in Boston working as a jazz singer. Ella doesn’t know who her father is. Kids tease her — telling her that her father was probably white. The book gave me an opportunity to find out why my mom had such a great childhood — considering where she grew up.”

In addition to her children’s books, Parsons has an award-winning series of children’s animated films, designed to share stories about unsung Black heroes in history, featuring narration from her entertainment buddies Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah, Laurence Fishburne and Chris Rock.

“Everyone has been supportive,” Parsons said. “Will Smith is the one who told me that Dana (Queen Latifah) needs to do one of these. She agreed. I knew Chris Rock had two daughters so he might be interested in the Janet Collins story because she was the first Black prima ballerina. I knew this kind of stuff mattered to Laurence so I had him do Bessie Coleman. Alfre is it for me. I had to have her do something.”

The short films, which include stories on Bessie Coleman, Garrett Morgan, ballerina Janet Collins, and Henry “Box” Brown, have been screened on HBO and Netflix, and shown in schools and libraries across the country.

“I want to get into schools across the country to screen the films,” Parsons said. “I have lesson plans to accompany the screenings.”

Launched in 2005 to critical acclaim, Sweet Blackberry is a children’s film production and content company that not only believes Black history is everyone’s history but is dedicated to telling the unfamiliar but true stories of Black Americans and bringing them to life through animation.

“These films aren’t just for African American kids,” Parsons said. “These films are for all students. We can’t simply relegate our history to Black History Month.

“This isn’t Black history,” she added. “This is American history. All children growing up need to know these people and their breakthroughs. These stories empower boys and girls. African Americans have contributed tremendously to this country. There are so many stories we don’t know. It’s devastating when people don’t know their history. So many stories are at risk of being lost. Not lost, buried.”

Parsons came up with the idea for Sweet Blackberry when she was pregnant with her first child, Lana.

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 are designed to combine African-American history with lessons about overcoming obstacles.

“Our mission is to bring little-known stories of Black achievement to children everywhere, celebrating these unsung heroes and illustrating for children that obstacles can be opportunities for greatness,” Parsons said. “Through this lens, we tell stories that inspire, educate, and entertain.”

Parsons said her mother, Louise Parsons, was a librarian who headed the Black Resource Center and would call and tell her about stories she would come across.

“There were stories like Henry ‘Box’ Brown, a slave who cleverly mailed himself to freedom in a box from Virginia to Philadelphia,” Parsons said. “I thought it was ridiculous that we didn’t know the story of his triumph. A true story. I was blown away.”

Parsons isn’t interested in pulling any punches with her storytelling of little-known African-American heroes. She wants to acknowledge the harsh historical contexts in which they take place.

“Tell it how it happened,” she said. “Let’s open this up. Let’s go deep. Tell the truth.”

Parson, who is currently writing her latest book, tentatively called “Blue Beach,” said one of the most gratifying parts of Sweet Blackberry is getting the chance to visit schools across the country.

“I’ll go wherever they need me,” Parsons said. “We screen the films for kids, hear their impressions, and answer their questions. I love it. I love teaching them their history.”

Ironically, Parsons, who admittedly wasn’t a “good student,” hated history when she was in school.

“I couldn’t stand history,” she said. “I hated history. I hated the way it was presented. It was dull and flat and uninteresting. Why can’t we engage and excite kids and reach them where they are.”

That’s one of the reasons Parsons launched Sweet Blackberry. She wanted to bring history to life for kids.

“I love it because we are planting seeds early,” Parsons said. “We’re changing the landscape of race and doing it early. I really want to drive home that these stories are all of our stories, not just Black stories. “What drives me crazy is when we are only told a couple of stories, but when you only tell a select amount of stories, you’re telling kids that only every once in a while a special Black person comes along. Tell it the way it is. When things are really painful in history, in African-American history, I think a lot of people just shut them out. Kids need to know it all — even the hard stuff. Kids are ready for more than we give them credit for.”

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at