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Q&A: Decatur native Omar Dorsey on being Hollywood, his role in Harriet, and more

Omar Dorsey as Bigger Long in Harriet
Omar Dorsey stars as Bigger Long in Harriet, a Focus Features release

Photograph by Glen Wilson/Focus Features

As an actor, Decatur native Omar Dorsey has done well for himself. Currently, he is best known as Hollywood, the all-around good guy who treats his woman Vi like gold on Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed drama series that premiered on OWN back in 2016. Since starting his career in theater in Atlanta and appearing in Atlanta-filmed movies Drumline and HBO’s Boycott, Dorsey has gone on to take roles on HBO’s Eastbound & Down, FOX’s Rake, and Showtime’s Ray Donovan.

Dorsey, who lives in Los Angeles, came home to Atlanta for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s mammoth production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a message to his son addressing racism in America previously presented at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. For two shows on a single day, Dorsey shared the stage with Atlanta rappers T.I. and Killer Mike, actresses Pauletta Washington and Lynn Whitfield, singer Ledisi, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and more. Dorsey can be seen on the big screen now in Harriet, the first big-screen film about Harriet Tubman, which also features Janelle Monáe and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles.

Atlanta magazine caught up with Dorsey to talk about his career, touching upon Between the World and Me, Queen Sugar, Harriet, and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk Between the World and Me. What was it like doing that in Atlanta?
I haven’t been on the stage here in Atlanta, honestly, since 2009. . . . and I’d never been on that stage [at the Woodruff Arts Center]. I remember going there as a kid, seeing all this Mozart, Tchaikovsky stuff, and visualizing one day, “I hope to play piano up there.” Cut to 30 years later, I’m up there. It was a beautiful time. It just felt like it was a real homecoming.

In that moment, did you see how far Atlanta had come? Before, could you have envisioned that you would have been on stage in Atlanta with that caliber of talent?
It felt really good to be able to do that piece and then to have two straight sell-outs, for people to come out for that, it really did make my heart feel good. This is important theater. For something as poignant as this piece, it made my heart feel really good because this is the type of art that needs to be showcased. I felt like the whole city came out. And when the mayor came out and did the last piece, it tells you how important it was for the whole city.

Talk about playing Hollywood on Queen Sugar and how this character has just taken a life of its own.
It’s amazing. Ava sent [the script] to me and wanted me to read the pilot, the first two episodes, and when I thought about it, I was like, this is really a great role. I loved the character and asked her where could I audition for it, and she was like, “Nope, no need to audition; I wrote it for you. We will be in contact with your people if you want to play the role.” I didn’t know that four years later that it would be such a cultural phenomenon . . . it’s a responsibility that I try to walk in. [Hollywood is] a very strong man and Southern to the core and just a good man.

We’re not used to seeing these complex pictures of black people in the South.
Exactly! But we are that, which is why I commend Ava and the whole writing staff, all of our showrunners, for being able to highlight exactly how people are, whether it’s their flaws or whether it’s the goodness of them. We’re all three-dimensional beings. We’re all delicate, rough, fragile, but we’re also strong and tough. And, to be able to show all of that, it’s just tremendous.

You also had the opportunity to play Reverend James Orange in Selma; how was that experience?
My acting teacher was Afemo Omilami, who is married to Hosea Williams’s daughter, Liz [Elisabeth] Omilami . . . I [had worked] at Hosea Feeds the Hungry; I was there doing a lot of the work with them. I never even met Ava before I auditioned for Selma, so when she Skyped me, I said, “Listen, I used to work with Hosea Williams and with James Orange. I saw them every day; these were monuments walking, and to be able to play James Orange is something that would do my heart real well.” I was very happy that we shot it in [Atlanta] because it was a full-circle moment.

Given how beloved you are as Hollywood, what made you take the role of Bigger Long, who is a villainous black slave catcher, in Harriet?
I’m just trying to show a little bit of dexterity. I remember when I was in Selma, I was on Ray Donovan also. So you could see me, week-to-week, playing this homicidal maniac who was having such a good time on Ray Donovan and then going back to playing this lion of the civil rights era, James Orange. So I wanted to show a little bit dexterity. I had to think about [taking the role of Bigger Long] because I spent three years at that time playing [Hollywood] on television and I told myself that I didn’t want to play anymore gangsters or anything like that, but this was something that was different. This guy is a psycho, and I really wanted to try to dive into that a little bit and show people I had some chops. I don’t just play the same character or the same person all the time. That was the main thing, and I really wanted to work with [Harriet director] Kasi Lemmons, and I really wanted to work with Cynthia Erivo [who plays Harriet Tubman].

Was being in the first big-screen feature film on Harriet Tubman a big deal to you?
I just had to be a part of that . . . I genuflect to her because of what she did. It’s not like she escaped slavery once. She kept going back, and it was perils to all of that. It wasn’t like she was going across the street to grab somebody; she was going hundreds of miles, and to have that kind of determination, I’m really proud that I’m a part of this film. Cynthia really did such a tremendous job. She’s the toughest little woman I’ve ever seen. She really feels like she’s seven feet tall.

You cross paths with Janelle Monáe in the film, who has brought a lot of attention to Atlanta. Did you guys get to spend any time and reflect on that?
I see Janelle all the time because our circle of friends is so small. We’re always in the same place, and we also said we have to work together one day. I remember seeing Janelle at FunkJazzCafe . . . I knew she was going to be a star; she had so much talent. This was like 13 or 14 years ago.

I don’t think you have any scenes with Jennifer Nettles, who also has Atlanta ties and plays Eliza Brodess [a slave owner] in Harriet.
I don’t, but Jennifer is awesome. She went to Agnes Scott and we talked about that. Jennifer is just real cool and she’s on Righteous Gemstones [on HBO] too, so we talked about that. She knows a little about Decatur . . . we’re about the same age, so we had those discussions about Atlanta, reminiscing about old-school Atlanta, downtown Decatur, Eddie’s Attic, all of that stuff.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse star and Atlanta native Shameik Moore is one to watch

Shameik Moore Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse
Shameik Moore poses at a California premiere of his new film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Photograph by Presley Ann/Getty Images

At just 23, Shameik Moore is probably one of the biggest rising stars from Atlanta right now. Since his first credits back in 2011 with local productions like Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Moore, who started out as a hip-hop dancer, has scored some noteworthy roles. In 2015, his performance as Malcolm in the Pharrell-produced indie film, Dope, about ‘90s music-loving millennials navigating the dangers of a rough neighborhood in Inglewood, California, got him noticed. A year later, he earned more rave reviews as Shaolin Fantastic, a larger-than-life Bronx DJ who helped create hip-hop music in the Netflix series The Get Down. Now he stars as voice of Miles Morales, Marvel’s first Afro-Latino Spider-Man, in the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which hits theaters today. (Moore himself is of Jamaican descent.)

One of the biggest films of this Christmas season, Spider-Verse welcomes Miles into an inclusive world where he is the latest of many versions of Spider-Man. He navigates his complicated, yet loving relationship with his father (voiced by Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), a new school, hanging out with his beloved uncle (voiced by Mahershala Ali), and accepting his new abilities with helping his new Spidey friends protect New York City from the bad guys. The film has already earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Motion Picture and is expected to be hit at the box office this weekend.

A week before the film came out, Moore hosted a special Atlanta screening at Atlantic Station with many of his family and friends present. The next morning Moore, who splits his time mostly between L.A. and New York, spoke to Atlanta magazine about his latest milestone and why sharing his work with Atlanta is so important to him.

What was your reaction when you first saw the film?
I really was speechless honestly. I didn’t know what to say. I knew that the movie looked amazing, and I was happy and thankful for that. It’s just beautiful, and I’m happy I’m a part of it. This is a huge opportunity for me. Jake Johnson [better known as Nick Miller from New Girl, who voices Peter B. Parker in the film] watched it with me as well, and afterwards he was just like, “Dude this movie is going to do a lot of big things for you. It’s going to open up a lot of doors for you.”

Every time you have a project, you make it a point to host an Atlanta screening. Why is that so important to you?
I grew up here. I’m from Atlanta. My mom and dad are here, my brother, all my friends growing up, all the people I danced with. I could have filled up two theaters if I had the opportunity or space to do that. Atlanta is the place where it’s most important to bring my people together. And every time I have a project, I try to have a screening or premiere for my loved ones to really see what I’ve been working on while I’m gone and they don’t see me or hear from me sometimes. When my projects come out, they always know that they have a chance to get dressed up, brag and bring their girlfriends and boyfriends, nephews, everybody. It’s a special time for my loved ones to share a moment with me.

Shameik Moore Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse
Moore poses with a young fan at the Atlanta premiere at Atlantic Station.

Photograph by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Sony Pictures

How is Spider-Verse different from your previous projects?
Besides it being animated, it’s not that different as far as the process. It took two years to make The Get Down. It took two years to make this. I’m working with some very creative people, [producers] Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord] and our directors Bob [Persichetti], Rodney [Rothman], and Peter [Ramsey]. I guess the difference is the little dude’s voice sessions. Probably every other month we’d do like three or four sessions, then I’d go about my business and come back, versus being on a regular set where I’m on set every day until it’s done, 18 hours or whatever. I think that’s the biggest difference.

As you’ve made the promo and press rounds, has the magnitude of starring in a Marvel film hit you?
I don’t know if that’s hit me yet. I think the box office numbers will make that [real].

After the screening you took pictures with lots of little kids—that wasn’t the case with Dope or The Get Down.
I take the responsibility of that. With great power comes great responsibility, for sure.

Do you see an opportunity to come and film in your hometown?
I would love to work here, but it really just depends on the project. It would be great to work here. Hopefully, maybe my movie that I’m writing will film here.

How has this experience inspired you to continue on that screenwriting journey?
The writing on this movie is amazing. They did a great job really putting it together. There were are a lot of people involved, but I felt like I was a part of that process in seeing what lines got thrown out and what ended getting used, what the story was originally, and how they developed it over time, just pushing the bar forward. Not just settling with the original idea, but really taking it and pushing it and making it what it’s supposed to be. That’s the biggest lesson.

Hip-Hop has been really central to your starring roles so far. Has that been intentional?
Well, that’s a part of my personality. It’s part of who I am. Really I’m just strategic about what [roles] I accept. I think I bring that essence to the table. I have two movies coming out that are less hip-hop involved. I don’t know that Spider-Man is hip-hop. I think the music he listens to is modern hip-hop and R&B. But The Get Down, that was more like I was the original bad boy of hip-hop. That was the ‘70s before hip-hop was created. And then with Dope, I was just in love with ‘90s music in general. That’s me bringing a little bit of myself to each character that I play, and I think hip-hop helps define who I am.

Yes, Spider-Mans of old didn’t feature hip-hop music.
It’s the new world. It’s the new time. This is what’s relatable for our world now. I think hip-hop is the most listened to music on the planet right now if I’m not mistaken. It’s the genre right now, so it makes sense.

You said you’re strategic about the roles you take. So what it is the thing that connects all of your roles?
Just iconic characters. I want to play characters that I feel that will be unique for me. A lot of the good stuff that I turn down [is because] I don’t really think that they need me to do it. A Miles Morales movie for Spider-Man, I think, is not something that everybody can really pull off, not in a way where it’s going to be iconic. I want to play characters where I can bring a real energy to it to make the audience feel something. I want to express parts of myself that I know will have people connect to me. Because ultimately I want the power to inspire people. I desire to inspire people to make a difference in the world. Ultimately, that’s the biggest goal.

When you started acting, Atlanta wasn’t yet the Hollywood of the South. What made you think you could do this? How did you get here?
I never thought I couldn’t do it. That’s the honest truth. It’s about where your mind’s at and how bad you want it and what you’re doing to get there. Eating healthy, meditating, working out, having a positive energy, and knowing how to talk to people—how to turn it on and off and when you need to be by yourself—[is important]. And when it’s time to work, it’s time to execute. They used to call me “the delivery man” on set. On The Get Down, they would give us a script—a two-page monologue—and they’d give me 10 minutes to get it. Then I’m in there and I’m killing it, and they’re like, “This is the delivery man; he gives us what we ask for.” I never questioned whether or not I was going to make it.

Where do you go after the Spider-Verse?
To bigger and better places.

Celebrating the legacy of interior design visionary Kimberly Ward

Kimberly Ward, front right, with Black Interior Designers Conference attendees at JP Atlanta last summer.

Photograph by Sterlingpics

Editor’s note: Earlier this summer, Atlanta Magazine’s HOME had just begun to explore partnerships with Kimberly Ward and her Black Interior Designers Conference. Like the rest of the interior design community, here and around the country, we were saddened to hear of Kimberly’s untimely death so soon afterwards. When her friend Ronda Racha Penrice, a local author and African-American historian, approached us about writing a tribute, we were happy to share her essay. Our thoughts and sympathies are with Kimberly’s daughter and her family. The diversity she championed enriches design for all of us.

Some people have a knack for always seeing the bright side of everything. Kimberly Elaine Ward was one of them. Where others saw limitations, she concentrated on possibilities. After all, the very idea of her—a black girl with six siblings who was born in the shadows of the University of Mississippi and grew up to become an interior designer—was a testimony to the power of dreams.

As she made a name for herself with her influential blog, PinkEggShell, as well as through her interior design firm, Kimberly and Cameron Interiors, Kim did not hog the spotlight. Instead, she shone her light on others: first with the annual African American Top 20 Interior Designers awards and, later, the Black Interior Designers Conference. She also dreamed of growing her brainchild, the magazine Iconic Home, beyond a conference publication so that she could share the talents of the AA Top 20 and BIDC with a wider audience. All of this she achieved while also being a loving mother and rock star role model to her young daughter Skylar.

Kim’s intent with the AA Top 20 and the BIDC was slightly different than some assumed. Protest was never a motivating factor for her. From day one, she intended to inspire, celebrate, and encourage established and aspiring interior designers—not blast the interior design community because they didn’t. Kim was all about spreading love and happiness. It genuinely surprised her whenever anyone questioned the need for her efforts.

“I understand that every time I walk into an auditorium to deliver a speech or sit on a panel for a discussion about interior design, I represent the minority. Not just as an African American, but more specifically as one working as a professional in the design community,” she wrote on PinkEggShell when she unveiled the very first AA Top 20 list back in 2011.

“When I am featured in magazines and other media outlets, the questions that repeatedly arise are, who are your colleagues, is there someone like you in my neighborhood? Who are the top African American designers? First, understand this. It is impossible to build a successful career defining yourself as only an African American designer. Yes, I am African American, but I obtain clients of all races. I’m sure that the designers on the list will agree—beauty and style know no color,” she concluded.

Kimberly Ward

Photograph courtesy of Kimberly+Cameron Interiors

Excellence was the cornerstone of all that she did, and Atlanta was where she showcased it the most. After an AA Top 20 celebration at Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club in New York City back in 2012, she relocated, anchoring the festivities, while also adding a full-blown conference, in Atlanta, finding a great partner and champion in ADAC. In 2014, they hit it on all cylinders, even landing an intimate conversation with Sheila Bridges that Kim conducted. Both Time and CNN once proclaimed Bridges “America’s Best Interior Designer.” Bridges also broke barriers hosting four seasons of Sheila Bridges Designer Living for the Fine Living Network, now the Cooking Channel, making her an in-the-flesh example of just where other black interior designers could go.

Kim adored Tiffany Brooks, HGTV’s 2013 Design Star winner, who became one of Kim’s tireless supporters. Locally, Kim took special pride in cheerleading both Michel Boyd and Janice Palmer, especially when they participated in the Atlanta Symphony Associates’ Decorators’ Show House & Gardens. Kim even reached beyond her country to embrace international designers like Nadin Benito in Curacao. One Easter holiday in 2013, Kim traveled there with Palmer and designer Joy Moyler, who has lent her magic to several abodes like those of John Mayer, to participate in a design challenge worthy of an HGTV show.

Domestically, Houston was a very special city for her and she worked there often. So she would have been devastated by Harvey’s destruction, but would have insisted that the city rebound. She would’ve been right there to help beautify the rebuilding.

Still, Atlanta was the place where she realized her dreams. Within ADAC, some great partners included Ainsworth-North, Peacock Alley, and Martin Nash. Last year, she added AmericasMart as a partner, alongside ADAC, to expand BIDC’s imprint and impact. And despite unexplained health complications that kept her, a previous breast cancer survivor, in her native Mississippi, she still, with great assistance from Keia McSwain and her sister Tony Ward, hosted the 2017 Black Interior Designers Conference from July 27 to July 29. While she was not here physically, she participated in a call with attendees and accepted a beautiful crystal award, as well as a proclamation from the City of Atlanta.

Just days later, on August 1, she passed away. But her vision did not and should not perish. BIDC’s continued success and a wider reach for Iconic Home, in addition to Skylar’s wellbeing and that of her family and friends, will be a fitting legacy for Kim. It is what will keep her soul well.

3 Buckhead gyms and spas for working out and indulging

In Buckhead, the gym you belong to is as important as your town club; business meetings are held over yoga mats, not place mats; and fashion standards still apply. To prevent any social missteps, here are the hottest places to sweat. Of course, it wouldn’t be Buckhead if you didn’t indulge afterward with a spa treatment to remedy or complement your workout.

Workout
Pure Barre
The shoes-off workout is subdued, with focused foot and leg action—standing on tiptoe while fusing your heels together, extending the legs while seated and standing—set off by isometric movements aimed at toning the thighs and fortifying the core. $15 for first class, $23 per class thereafter; 3145 Peachtree Road, 404-550-8542

Reward
Foot massage at the InterContinental Buckhead
Let the masseuse revive those aching feet with a tingly, instantaneously soothing tea tree oil and peppermint oil scrub, hitting key points in the toes, feet, and lower legs to create a calm that overtakes the entire body. $120 (with tip); 3315 Peachtree Road, 404-946-9175

Workout
Orangetheory Fitness
This hour of interval training is fast-paced and sweaty, shuffling from treadmills and rowing machines to light weights and TRX suspension. The body consumes more oxygen and calories; the “afterburn” melts away calories for up to thirty-six hours. First session free, $10+ per class thereafter; 3097 Piedmont Road, 404-719-0170

Reward
Lymphatic Massage at Ecobel Med Spa
Keep the metabolism churning. Expect a seventy-five-minute faceup procedure relying on slow, light strokes from the neck down to the stomach. But afterward, drinking enough water to ensure proper drainage, you’ll get the optimal calorie-burning boost. $95; 2996 Grandview Avenue, 404-760-0300

Workout
X-Bike at Roc House Women’s Fitness Spa
Developed in the U.K., X-Bike is a thirty-minute indoor mountain-biking experience—and a total-body test with arm reps and leaning, standing, and sitting motions—that knocks out a whopping 500 calories. $149 to 169 per month; 3402 Piedmont Road, 404-500-1621

Reward
Extreme Sport Massage at Roc House
After X-Bike, you’ll be too tired to leave the building. Using motions akin to Swedish and deep tissue, the practitioner pays special attention to high-tension areas. And the Icy Hot–like substance applied to the back toward the end is sweet, searing relief. $50 to $140 for thirty- to ninety-minute sessions

This article originally appeared in our September 2014 issue under the headline “Body Shops.”

Even teaming with Oprah, Tyler Perry incites critics

Clearly Atlanta’s adopted son Tyler Perry is the most polarizing African American entertainment figure of our time. When it was announced last fall that Perry would team with the almighty Oprah to produce original series for her network OWN, there were many raised eyebrows.

And this week Perry unveiled his Oprahlicious collaborations to a storm of criticism coupled with defense from his fans.

The Haves and the Have Nots (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) is a throwback to nighttime soaps like Dynasty—with a racial twist. It centers on the white and very rich Cryer family with a main plotline involving the African American daughter of one of their maids. The comedy Tyler Perry’s Love Thy Neighbor (Wednesdays at 9 p.m.) features female lead Patrice Loveli as Madea-esque Mamma Hattie.

Needless to say, Perry’s audience has backed him up, making The Haves and the Have Nots “OWN’S HIGHEST RATED SERIES DEBUT IN NETWORK HISTORY WITH 1.77 MILLION TOTAL VIEWERS,” according a jubilant press release. In fact, the network notes that more than 1.8 million total viewers tuned in for the second episode, which immediately followed the premiere.

Perry himself was hyperactive on Twitter, promoting the show to his 2.5 million-plus followers. As if predicting the next day’s many naysayers, one of Perry’s last tweets on the night of the show’s premiere was, “Now tomorrow make sure you talk about how good this show was at your job, ok? #HavesAndHaveNots”

And the criticism came full blast. Critics, of course, detested The Haves and the Have Nots. Variety’s TV columnist Brian Lowry even predicted that the scripted series was beginning of the demise of Empire Oprah, writing:

Almost exactly two years ago I wondered whether leaving her syndicated
show would “herald a bright future, or her diminution as a cultural
and media force? Counting Oprah out would be silly, but given a
choice, here’s a qualified bet on the latter.” Whatever OWN’s future,
if its first scripted drama from Perry is in any way indicative of the
network’s direction or becomes one of its staples, historians will be
able to trace the time that trail flamed out to right around May 28.

But Lowry’s words are relatively mild in comparison to what Brittney Cooper, assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, had to say on her site, Crunk Feminist Collective. In a piece titled “Tyler Perry Hates Black Women: 5 Thoughts on The Haves and Have Nots,” she holds nothing back and even proclaims that “Tyler Perry is dangerous” because “he has made Black women mistake hate for love” and uses as evidence the “rape scene” from the show—in which Candace, played by rising star Tika Sumpter, turns the sexual tables on Judge Jim Cryer, her friend Amanda’s father.

As a contrast, Dr. Cooper references showrunner Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal starring Kerry Washington, and argues fervently that Perry will never be in Rhimes’s “stratosphere.” For Cooper, Perry is a “cultural batterer” similar to a “wife batterer.” In fact, that was her lead complaint as she notes, in reference to the maid Hanna, her daughter/seductress Candace and Cryer family friend, the wealthy and black Veronica Harrington.

And, adds Cooper, “The fact that Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire, along with their remixes (Bad) Baby Mama, Golddigger, Freak and Hood B** showed up in under 15 mins is surely a new world record.”

When a reader asks, “How is this show any different from the soap operas and other shows like Dynasty?,” Cooper responds “Whenever there are trashy white tv shows on… HOW MANY GOOD AND QUALITY WHITE TV SHOWS ARE THERE TO COUNTERBALANCE THAT?” and adds “BLACK SHOWS DO NOT HAVE THE SAME OPTION ON TV!!!”

Cooper does point out that Oprah Winfrey, for her part, is doing what many networks (FOX, WB) have done before; turned to more African American-focused entertainment to create larger ratings for OWN, whose struggles have been well-documented. Serving such an underserved demographic is almost always a ratings winner as Winfrey and OWN are proving. And, with Perry, they seem to be getting what they ask for.

Unfortunately, for Perry, whether he intends it or not, he cannot escape virulent criticism regardless of how hard he tries or how much money he makes or generates. For now, he can only please some of the people because there are others he will clearly never please. In fact, that might be a show in itself.

Tyler Perry and Oprah Join Forces

Oprah sightings may become more frequent now that she and Tyler Perry have taken their relationship to the OWN level. Under an exclusive partnership, the Oprah Winfrey Network will be Perry’s “singular destination for all new television series and projects.” This includes two scripted shows scheduled to debut by midyear. The first, The Haves and the Have Nots, is based on a Perry play and will shoot here this spring.

“Bringing Tyler Perry exclusively to OWN is a major coup,” said David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications, which partnered with Winfrey’s Harpo Studios to form OWN. It’s also a move that should prove mutually beneficial. Despite Winfrey’s star wattage, OWN’s ratings have been iffy; to save the venture, Winfrey became more involved, assuming the role of CEO. Perry’s movies may be dismissed by critics as schlock, but they’ve been box-office gold. His TV track record is bumpier.

The multiyear deal represents OWN’s first venture into scripted TV as well as a move to target African American viewers. Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s‚ which chronicles the restaurant run by former Ike and Tina Turner backup singer Robbie Montgomery, has been one of OWN’s few ratings winners, and its greatest draw is black women—Perry’s billion-dollar demographic. Other successes include reality shows like Iyanla: Fix My Life and specials featuring Winfrey herself.

Perry’s previous TV partnership was with Atlanta-based TBS. The June 2007 premiere of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne attracted 5.9 million viewers, setting a basic-cable record. Perry followed that with Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns, which relied more heavily on an African American audience. His most recent TBS series, For Better or Worse, premiered in late 2011 and has averaged 2.9 million viewers. TBS canceled both Payne and Browns and had no plans for original episodes of For Better or Worse beyond 2012.

Perry may find more patience at OWN. Black viewers have traditionally been good to struggling networks. Fox, which launched in 1986, largely sustained itself with the Martin Lawrence sitcom Martin and In Living Color, the Keenen Ivory Wayans sketch comedy show that launched the careers of Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx and featured “fly girls” Jennifer Lopez and Rosie Perez. With a 1996 lineup that included Brandy’s Moesha and Atlanta resident Steve Harvey’s self-titled show, UPN and the WB (now merged as the CW) followed Fox’s blueprint.

But don’t fret for Winfrey and Perry; they’re doing just fine. Perry ranked twentieth on the 2012 Forbes “Celebrity 100” list; Winfrey took the number two spot.

Photograph by Alan Light/Flickr. This article originally appeared in our January 2013 issue.

Interwoven

Growing up I never realized I was southern. A childhood split between Chicago and my mother’s hometown of Brookhaven, Mississippi, might have been a tad unusual, but there was nothing unholy about being Southern in Southern-dipped black Chicago.

When I got to New York, it was an entirely different story. As a Columbia student in the early 1990s, I found the self-professed NYC melting pot very anti-South. It unsettled me to encounter black people who considered my born-and-raised Mississippian grandparents backward and stupid. One “friend” even advised me not to tell people where my family was from. Needless to say, my “y’alls” didn’t go over very well either.

As jarring as this was, it forced me to ponder what makes us who we are. Prior to living in New York, I was just “black,” but being “black” was more complex in a city where black faces hailed from Caribbean islands, Spanish-speaking lands, and faraway countries such as Nigeria and Cape Verde. Examining my own heritage through a new lens, I realized that while I was definitely a black Chicagoan, I was also a Southerner. The South may indeed be a physical place, but its culture had no boundaries for me. I craved greens that tasted like greens. Few New Yorkers had even heard of tea cakes or boiled peanuts.

In school my concentration was English and history, not an officially branded African American studies program, but I incorporated “me” at every possible chance. Where history books were deficient and literature courses neglected black experiences and voices, I did my own research to learn some of the whys behind the things I, my family, and friends did. Unlike my classmates, I grew up listening to blues, but it wasn’t until I took black music courses that I learned the bluesy tunes from B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf that my family enjoyed evolved from spirituals and field hollers.

Caribbean friends and I had so many similar values and experiences, it was clear the Africanisms that anthropologists Melville Herskovits and Zora Neale Hurston described were very real. Regardless of which part of the world we hail from, many black people carry pieces of Africa with us. In my case, it is Africa as filtered through the South. In Mississippi, I attended a country church where call-and-response renditions of such spirituals as “I Love the Lord” were the norm. As a child, I learned to eat with my hands, and marveled when I saw Ethiopians do the same in New York. Caribbean people used phrasing similar to what I heard in Mississippi, like saying “what you taking up?” instead of “what’s your major?”

After graduation I wrote reviews for QBR: The Black Book Review and enrolled in an NYU program, intending to focus on the works of Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. Although I was exploring black identity, much of it was Southern-based, and something felt amiss pursuing these studies in New York. When a friend introduced me to the Southern Studies program at Ole Miss, I had an “aha” moment.

My family didn’t rejoice over this epiphany. Ole Miss, where it took federal intervention to enroll James Meredith in 1962, was not their ideal place for me to explore my black Southern heritage. Those times were not just pages in history books to them. When my mother was promoted to a job her white coworker didn’t even qualify for, a white male harassed her, prompting police involvement. We returned to Chicago and, after that, visited Mississippi sparingly. A white Southern Studies student from Minnesota advised me to reconsider my move, warning that in many ways, change had skipped over Oxford.

Needless to say, Southern Studies wasn’t completely home. Often I was the lone black voice. For instance, when someone suggested that black and white Southerners had different moral values—to almost universal agreement—in one of my courses, I was the voice of reason, reminding my classmates that if a black church didn’t shun a pregnant black woman in the antebellum South, it was not because their morals were different, but because maybe, just maybe, that woman had been raped or her child’s father had been sold or even killed.

Outside the classroom, there were parts of Oxford where racist, antiblack words and imagery were proudly displayed. Forget the civil rights movement; so many white Southerners I encountered were still fighting the Civil War. White sorority girls rocked hoopskirts. Coach Tommy Tuberville had to ask Ole Miss fans to stop bringing Confederate flags to games. Cutouts of Colonel Reb were quite the rage at homecoming gatherings in the Grove.

Legendary Ebony editor, Morehouse man, historian, and Mississippian Lerone Bennett writes of “parahistory,” the concept that black and white Southerners “occupied the same space but their perceptions of time and its significance were fundamentally different.” This resonated with me: While my family lived on acres of land; planted fields of greens; cultivated watermelon patches; raised chickens, cows, and hogs; and was just as community-oriented as the next (white) Southerner, mainstream works often omitted us.

Today much of my work challenges the “one South” myth, which in popular culture still means “one white South.” There is no monolithic “South.” It is much more complex than that. In the ten years I’ve lived in Atlanta, that’s never been clearer. Sometimes I feel more Chicagoan than ever here, but at other times I feel more Southern than ever, in much the same way I did in New York. Boiled peanuts are hard to find here. I have attended countless mainstream exhibits where the “one white South” ideal rules—as well as “black” exhibits with works hell-bent on proving just how cosmopolitan and unSouthern the artists are.

I’m Southern not because of living or not living in a certain place. It’s because that culture has been passed on and nurtured in me, and I carry that wherever I go. It’s why my first Columbia roommate, a Thai girl from Chattanooga with a decidedly Southern twang, and I got along so well. Recognizing the diverse people and experiences that make up our Southern community leads to change. In 2010 Ole Miss students voted to dump Colonel Reb as the school’s official mascot. There’s definitely more to this South thing than a lot of us know, and that’s what keeps me going. Because as much as a lot of things change, one thing never will: There’s absolutely no erasing the black and Southern in me.

The author of African American History for Dummies, Grant Park resident Ronda Racha Penrice has penned several encyclopedia entries on the black South and frequently speaks on African American history and culture. She regularly writes for Uptown, the Atlanta Voice and thegrio.com.

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