Kasi Lemmons: ‘African American History Is American History’ (Guest Column)

Kasi LemmonsNew York Women in Film and Television's 40th Annual Muse Awards, Arrivals, New York, USA - 10 Dec 2019
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My influences were literary initially. I was a big reader of books so my influences were Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and southern novelists.

In terms of film, I liked Bergman a lot and Hitchcock, but there were a lot of different people that I admired. I realized recently that Lina Wertmuller was one of the few directors that I’ve seen every film. She was one of my early influences, along with Bergman, Hitchcock, Spike Lee and Euzhan Palcy. I admired Euzhan Palcy’s “Sugar Cane Alley,” which was also a big influence. Eventually, Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” was an influence, but by the time that came out, I was writing my first film.

When Spike Lee came along, the landscape changed completely. It was a breath of fresh air. I remember it so distinctly. With “She’s Gotta Have It” there was a big shift in thinking.

My mother got divorced when I was a kid and she took me to the movies with her when I was nine years old. Those movies were probably inappropriate, but they shaped me. I watched a lot of these films with her.

One of my strongest memories was coming home — my parents had divorced by this point — I walked into the house and my mother was screaming. It was something I had never experienced in my life. I couldn’t imagine what could possibly have happened. I thought she said, “The king is dead.” I was searching for who “the king” was since we don’t have a king. When she told me it was Martin Luther King. I knew who that was. My overwhelming memory is just the shock of seeing my mother so overtaken by grief and strong emotion. It really seared itself into my memory.

My mother used to say things to me that I realized later were inspired by Harriet Tubman and the quote: “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”

My mom also had a quote on the wall by Marianne Williamson: “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

I don’t remember her sitting me down with these stories, but I remember it being a fabric of our lives and those dramatic events.

My next series is “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.” Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire. I have been wanting to do something on Madam C.J. Walker for at least 20 years. I think there are a lot of people in our community, as black people, who know her name and we kind of know her story. She’s someone who we’ve learned a little bit about and are proud of.

In some ways, it’s like Harriet Tubman, we don’t know the story deeply. With film and TV, you have access to the character, you feel like you’ve sat down with them and it’s a wonderful thing. It becomes less abstract. Madam C.J. Walker was a tremendously visionary woman. When you think of a woman born two years after slavery who says, “I think I can run a business, empower other women and I think I could become a millionaire and a major entrepreneur,” you don’t know how she arrived at such forward-thinking. She was decades ahead of her time.

I celebrate black history all year. It can be a great celebration, but it can also be very diminishing. I’m very interested in African American history and American history; they are the same. I’m interested in history in general. I feel strongly that we need to be celebrating African American history as history all year long. There’s something that rubs me a little bit the wrong way when, during Black History Month, you see a list of inventions by African Americans and they list six things when it’s countless things — it’s so much of America. We built this country.

I don’t think most Americans have wrapped their heads around how much of a contribution African Americans have made. We see wonderful things during Black History Month such as content, exhibits and articles, but that doesn’t begin to cover our contributions until you understand that this country was built on the backs and ingenuity of African Americans.

We need to be celebrating all the time because African American history is American history.

Kasi Lemmons is a director, writer and producer. Her credits include “Harriet,” “Eve’s Bayou” and “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.”