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#BLACKLIVESMATTER INTERVIEW

Jenifer Lewis: All hands on deck, take your knee and your privilege off my neck

Jenifer Lewis with Michelle and Barak Obama and Oprah Winfrey. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lewis)

“We did this, everybody in the United States of America is responsible for that man sitting in that office, because we sat here in our complacency and privilege... now we have to vote him out.”

On Friday 5 June, Jenifer Lewis appeared on CNN as a guest of Don Lemon (click here to watch it) and sang her now famous, “All hands on deck… take your knee and your privilege off my neck!”  

Her performance and interview capped a week of rolling national #BlackLivesMatter protests in the US. Outrage against the killing of #GeorgeFloyd on May 25 had led to an outpouring of what felt like the cumulative frustrations of black Americans over black people dying at the hands of police – before even getting to the police station. People dying while being apprehended and not resisting arrest.

Jenifer Lewis is an American actress possibly best known to South Africans for her television role as Ruby in Black-ish, and, for those who loved The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as Aunt Helen. She has a prolific screen career, with more than 300 big and small screen roles  (Beaches, Sister Act, What’s Love Got To Do With it, Madea’s Family Reunion, Castaway, to name a few). She has also played the role of “mother” frequently enough to be known as “The Mother of Black Hollywood” which is also the title of her memoir, published in 2017. 

Jenifer Lewis. (Photo: Tyler Iacono)

The actress is also well known in the US for using her social media as a platform for activism, running hashtag campaigns from as early as 2016, like  #InTheseStreets, which she was encouraged to do after an impromptu at-home performance with Brandy, who uploaded a clip to Instagram. This resulted in millions of new followers overnight. 

Jenifer Lewis with Ferguson protest signs.

“When I said I don’t want nobody fu**ing with me in these streets… I was talking about police brutality and I was also talking about the con artist that had come into my life, it was a romance scam and I had just had it [with con artists] – Trump had won and he was a con artist – and it just came out of my mouth [InTheseStreets]… and it got 45 million views!”

The actress had not considered posting the song clip, that was Brandy’s (Brandy Norwood, singer, songwriter, actress) idea. Lewis recalls Brandy asking her if it was okay to post it, to which she had replied, “Oh girl, don’t nobody wanna see that.”

A short while later, she was returning to the US from Europe when a young man came up to her at the airport and started singing, “I don’t want nobody fu**ing with me in these streets!” He had an accent, so she asked him where he was from and was surprised and delighted when he replied “Kenya!”  She says it was “a lovely moment to hear that the song had travelled that far.”

She tells Daily Maverick that, “I had the opportunity to live the American dream, I went from great poverty to great success. With hard work… I had to deal with mental illness, childhood abuse… and I wanted to be happy… When you’ve gone through that and you come out on the other side…”

She acknowledges her own privilege as someone who has managed to attain success and fame in her chosen career, as well as being able to amass wealth – which in the US is extremely hard for a black person to do, operating in a system that specifically works against the enrichment of black people. 

As Ruby (claimed to be part Zulu) on the comedy series Black-ish, Lewis is a no-nonsense, proud black woman, not above telling the odd white lie to her son or grandchildren in defence of whatever point she is trying to prove. The series itself has been loved by Barack Obama and hated by Donald Trump, who called it “racism at the highest level”. 

Black-ish is the story of an African American family dealing with issues of culture and identity living in upscale, white, America – this is not your average black American family, as they have “made it”. Dad is an executive, mom is a doctor. The parents try to ground themselves and their children in the realities of being black in the US while realising their lives are very different from the average black American’s but also exactly the same in that the dangers of being black in America are as real for the rich as they are for poor black people.

Speaking to Lewis, her warm, rich voice has clear hints of the same no-nonsense attitude as her Black-ish character, Ruby, as well as a sense of pride in her accomplishments and success. Unlike Ruby, however, she has no time for half-truths. She is painfully candid about her life and experiences. This is a woman who came from nothing but always knew she was someone – a woman who overcame tremendous obstacles and pain, yet points no fingers at anyone. Jenifer Lewis grabs life and lives it without fear of the truth, especially her own truth.

There are no sacred cows: she talks about her own life openly and calmly – abuse, poverty, a childhood that lacked maternal affection but not maternal love. She has the EQ to know and understand the difference. She does not hold a lack of affection against her mother who worked around the clock to support seven children and make sure they all got an education. She respects and is proud of her mother and how she raised her children – this comes through clearly in the anecdotes Lewis tells about her. 

Jenifer Lewis in high school. (Photo courtesy of Jenifer Lewis)

On mental illness, she is candid and encourages people to confront their fears. Her memoir talks about confronting and dealing with her own mental illness.  She was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder in 1990. Lewis says when it comes to mental illness you have to get to the root of the pain, “until you go down there and get it, express it, feel it, journal about it, it will be in there eating you alive. We are as sick as our secrets.”

Lewis believes therapy should be free. She says, “This is America… put these centres in place where people can talk. They bring in these centres after natural disasters… and we have to stop waiting for natural disasters and the violence to come to a head before we address the issues.”

She also encourages people to pay attention to their family and friends and to get involved if they notice something is wrong, changes in behaviours or persistent negative moods and constant unhappiness.

As a child, she was molested by a pastor and she urges people to speak out when they are aware of children in danger. She also encourages parents to be careful of who spends time with their children and to believe the children if they say something inappropriate has happened. She is scathing of parents who say they did not know of abuse happening regularly under their own roof: “Don’t come tell me you didn’t know. You knew… and having a man, or woman was more important to you.”

Lewis was an activist from an early age – she remembers leading a walkout in high school on the birthday of Angela Davis. But she was fully on the path of activism during the Aids era when she was part of “a group of performers called Divas for Dollars, which would go from club to club and pass the hat” for donations.

Jenifer Lewis backstage with The Rockettes at a benefit for an AIDS Project in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Jenifer Lewis)

“I want to make [activist] videos that even children can watch, because I am always very careful around children with profanity, I was taught: no profanity around your elders and no profanity around children.”

So, in her more recent videos she is “keeping profanity to a minimum, but I will tell you why I am bold enough to put profanity in some of my videos… the millennials are so used to profanity and when someone like me… you know the aunty, Mother of Black Hollywood… when I use profanity, they listen.”

More recently, #GetYourAssOutAndVote came very naturally, she says, as Donald Trump has to go. 

“When he said in an interview, ‘my blood is German, that’s good blood’… and what he has done to this country… made right wrong and wrong right. And I am going to say this – we did this, everybody in the United States of America is responsible for that man sitting in that office, because we sat here in our complacency and privilege, and I am talking about black, white, Chinese… all Americans.”

She says Americans were navel-gazing instead of paying attention, they were: “spending your time trying to figure out what flavour ice cream to get out of the 157 flavours… come home… have a drink, marijuana and whatever the hell else and then we sit there and watch apocalyptic movies, destructive movies… White House Down, London Bridge Down… I can’t even think of all of them… and now Lex Luthor is in the White House”.

If there is a DC comics arch-villain in the White House, what has to happen next? Lewis says those same Americans who put him in there because they were not paying attention, now need to “Vote him out! Let’s all vote him out now. That’s your job now.”

Lewis says she has issues with her knees and cannot run. “I can power walk,” she laughs and quotes long-time friend Bette Midler who called her to tell her not to go on a protest: “Jenifer, you can’t go, you’re old! You’ll fall!” Lewis is 63 and says Midler is right, adding that she does not have to physically be at a march, to protest. She will continue to protest in her way, using the platforms available to her.

She is working on her second book and says of the officer who killed George Floyd: “Where did that rage come from? Even the animals in the Serengeti, they kill to eat, this man was killing because he had been given permission to do it, the president of the United States had given him permission.”

“When I saw the sea of people in London, that sea of humanity, they moved like a river. Protesters all round the world… because this problem is worldwide.”

#TakeYourKneeOffMyNeck is speaking to the world: “I am talking to the gay people… the poor that are beaten down by police going up into the townships and favelas, shantytowns in Brazil – all over the world and oppressing poor people more than they are oppressed.. it’s time. FUCK YOU. We’re not gonna wash you and feed you and clean your houses no more. That’s what this movement is – [time for you to] treat me [black people] like a human being, treat me like an equal.” DM

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