You may know her as Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but Karyn Parsons has also made a name for herself as a filmmaker, producer, and author. The Los Angeles native founded Sweet Blackberry, a collection of award winning children’s animation films. She used the platform to celebrate the more unknown Black heroes who were nearly lost to history.
To supplement these stories, Parsons has written books about figures like Bessie Coleman and Garrett Morgan. However, her writing doesn’t just stop at historical figures, it also includes narrative fiction with relatable characters and lessons of self-acceptance.
Through it all, Parsons seeks to quench the thirst for knowledge in young Black children. Her latest offering is Clouds over California, where we follow a young girl named Stevie as she navigates life changes. She’s a biracial girl who has recently moved, which means a new school and new classmates. Also her older cousin is traveling across the country to stay with her family. At the same time, her mom is carrying a secret. Stevie finds herself having to keep other secrets, not just her own.
Clouds over California is a lovely coming-of-age book that shows life against the backdrop of the groundbreaking 1970s. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Parsons and asking her questions about the work.
How High the Moon and now Clouds over California are both semi-autobiographical works that use a lot of details from your childhood and family. What’s something new that you’ve learned about yourself with these projects?
It’s been so interesting for me to enter the worlds of these children and journey with them, processing so much of my own childhood, reflecting, realizing things, and facing truths. A lot of people push a lot of things aside as a kid — for survival’s sake and in order to fit in. Revisiting events or similar situations to the ones I experienced, I see how much I didn’t allow myself to take up much space with my discomfort or hurt. I’d write most things off as “no big deal.”
Were there any revelations about your mother and father that surfaced while putting together these projects?
In an early draft of Clouds, I received a note that the father came across as unlikeable. My editors couldn’t understand this man at all or his relationship with his daughter, Stevie. To address the note, I had to try to make my own father — who Coop is based on — a little more understandable, if not relatable. I didn’t expect anyone to agree with his views; I didn’t agree with many of my father’s views. But since I always loved him in spite of him being difficult, I think I forgot how he might come off to others.
I went deeper into all aspects of my life as a kid with him and uncovered many memories of him as a loving and jovial man. He was fun and funny, and he did care for his family. Remembering these things vividly and feeling them fully came to me as my dad was — in real life — in rapid cognitive decline. It was truly a gift to have these memories restored before he passed. I was able to look into his eyes and remember him as a young father who was a great — if difficult — man in my life.
I found the narrative on the Black Panthers to be particularly interesting. Currently we see them as unsung heroes, but at the time they were sometimes seen as thugs. Tell me about the decision to include the different perspectives of the Black Panthers. Do you see any parallels with civil rights groups of today?
When I was growing up, I knew little to nothing about the Panthers. All I saw was the image of defiant Black men carrying large guns. All I heard was that they were trouble, “angry,” “militant”; they were vilified. As I got older I learned so much more about the truth of their mission and their contributions to the community. Public schools to this day use the Free Breakfast Program.
I wanted to share that perspective. As for parallels, I definitely see people doing their best to vilify the Black Lives Matter movement and twist their intentions, very much like what was done with the Panthers. And in a time of catchy sound bites and quick news, most of us ingest what our algorithms feed us and don’t ask a lot of questions, only causing a greater divide.
I’d love to know more about the microaggressions that Stevie faces — everyone touching her hair, her well-meaning teacher insisting she has a “boy’s” name, etc. They were sad in their relatability. Can you speak to sprinkling these situations in and how they affect Stevie’s point of view?
As I wrote the story, I touched on many incidents from my childhood. I also found myself unpacking a lot of hurts I still hadn’t dealt with directly, like having people play in my hair and talk about how “weird” it was. It was something I kind of excused away. For Stevie, I think it helped set the stage for Naomi’s entrance into her life and for being introduced to new ideas of beauty and acceptance — for being able to see how beautiful and cool she was just by being herself.
Stevie talks about never seeing her mother without her “face” and wig. This affects her ability to see herself in her mother. Had you experienced this as a child?
Growing up, I thought my mom was the sun and the moon. She was the most beautiful woman there was, and she was often made up. But even through that, I fought to see myself in her. Any little resemblance, I held onto like gold.
Aunt Florence tells Stevie that some people just aren’t good with change. Stevie thinks this is about her dad, but it can also apply to her. Tell us about her journey from resistance to being ultimately accepting.
Change can be hard for everyone, but it’s constant. How do we accept change? Do we move with it, do we resist it, fight it? Coop [Stevie’s dad] is stuck. He likes things just the way they are and sees no need for change. But resisting it doesn’t make it stop or go away. As long as he fights against it, he will be miserable. Kitty [Stevie’s mom] approaches change a little like diving into the deep end of the pool. It’s terrifying, but exhilarating, and she finds she can swim.
Stevie has been so happy in her life as it’s been, but she really has been taking most of her cues from her mom — what she likes, finds beautiful, what she sees as the “proper” way to behave. Naomi [Stevie’s cousin] shows up and ushers in the change that was just outside their door. The country — especially for women and Black people — was shifting incredibly in the ’70s. Kitty’s change forces Stevie to face change. But as she finally begins to accept her new world, she starts to recognize her own value, beauty and strength in it.
Clouds over California is currently available at your favorite book store.
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Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found in some corner of the internet pontificating about pop culture and its effect on women, Blackfolk and the LGBT+ community. You can see more of her work at https://syvonnecreative.com