June 27, 2024

Dreaming in Color: Erika Alexander

Episode Notes

In this episode, we welcome Erika Alexander, an actress known for iconic roles such as Maxine Shaw in Living Single, Detective Latoya in Get Out, and Cousin Pam in The Cosby Show. Outside of acting, Erika is an activist, entrepreneur, creator, producer, and director. In 2017, she co-founded Color Farm Media, a company dedicated to building an ecosystem that fosters greater equity, inclusion, and diversity in media and that empowers and elevates voices who are underrepresented, overlooked, and undervalued. 

Join us as Erika discusses the significance of her iconic character from Living Single and how that led to the so-called “Maxine Shaw Effect,” which inspired many young women to pursue careers in leadership and law. Erika speaks about the intersection of storytelling and electoral politics. She also examines how narratives shape public perception and policy, reinforcing the need for philanthropy and the social sector to support storytellers and create spaces for diverse narratives to thrive.


Episode Transcript

Darren Isom (00:01):

Welcome to Dreaming in Color, where we sit down with social change leaders of color, to learn how their unique life experiences have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host Darren Isom, and this season, I'm lucky to have a few of my Bridgespan colleagues dropping in to join me as guest hosts. Together, we'll be celebrating the genius of leaders who live into the work every day. This is Dreaming in Color. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Erika Alexander, an iconic actress, trailblazing activist, a multifaceted entrepreneur. Erika is celebrated for her many unforgettable roles, most notably Maxine Shaw in Living Single, earning her two NAACP Image Awards, Detective Latoya in Get Out, Cousin Pam in The Cosby Show, and most recently Coraline in American Fiction. Beyond her impressive acting career, Erika has a powerful voice in activism media. As the co-founder of Color Farm Media, dubbed The Motown of Film, TV, and Tech, she's committed to bringing greater equity, and inclusion, and diverse representation to media and politics.


Color Farm Media's debut film John Lewis: Good Trouble won the NAACP Award for Best Documentary, and was nominated for three Emmy Awards. A critical thought leader on racial and gender equity, Erika's work reflects her deep commitment to social activism, and a genius understanding of the critical role media narrative work play in driving a more just and equitable world. She serves on the boards of One Fair Wage and Exponent, and is actively involved with organizations like The Poor People's Campaign, Color Change, NAACP and UNCF. Please join me in welcoming the illustrious Erika Alexander to this episode of Dreaming in Color. Erika, thank you so much for making time. It's great to chat with you today. It's good to see you. You're looking good.

Erika Alexander (01:40):

It's good to see you too. It took a village to get me here. Lord have mercy.

Darren Isom (01:44):

I know. Right?

Erika Alexander (01:45):

We're all teched up. I think we're all robots now. We're no longer human. AI has taken over.

Darren Isom (01:50):

Oh. Completely. And you know what? Technology can also be your best friend, or your worst enemy depending on the day, but it's also hilarious for those of us who are old enough to remember when we didn't live in such a technologically advanced world. Right?

Erika Alexander (02:01):

That's what I'm remembering. That's why I like it.

Darren Isom (02:04):

Exactly. First things first, I like a little invocation, little throw back. Pretend we're back at the church, and start with a quote, or a poem, or whatever inspires you at this moment.

Erika Alexander (02:13):

My mother gave me a journal not too long ago that she's been keeping for me, and I'm very gratified by it, because she gave it to me. She said, "Wow. She's alive." This is how thick it is.

Darren Isom (02:24):

Oh. Wow.

Erika Alexander (02:24):

And oh, Miss Sammy, Sammy Alexander, twice orphaned and widowed has been writing all sorts of beautiful things in it. She didn't write it in any structured way, but she put a lot of things she said that inspired her. And one of the things she did was put a I guess it's a quote in here by Edgar Guest called Equipment, and it says, "Courage must come from the soul within. The man must furnish the will to win. So figure it out for yourself, my lad. You were born with all that the great have had. With your equipment, they all began. Get a hold of yourself, and say, 'I can.'"

Darren Isom (03:08):

That's a good one. Yes. A reminder that we have everything that we need. This is wonderful. Thank you. That's a great way to start the conversation. I know that you grew up in Flagstaff. I have to say first admittedly, I didn't know there were Black folks in Flagstaff until I read about it some months ago, but we're like these everywhere you want to be. I would love for you to reflect back on your parents. Your mother was a teacher, your father, a preacher. Did you know at an early age that you wanted to pursue a career in media, or entertainment?

Erika Alexander (03:33):

No. I didn't know. I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to cure muscular dystrophy, because I have watched the marathons with Jerry Lewis, and I was captivated by the fact that they were raising money to find a cure. The idea of finding a cure for people who have this disability was going to be my life's work, I thought, and I kept telling, and closing my eyes, and saying, "God, it's me. It's me. I just got to grow up, and then I'll be able to help." And that's what I thought I'd be. And both my parents are in, I think, a layer of showbiz. It's called he's a preacher. So he performs every Sunday. And because he was itinerant, he was often brought in as a featured guest. So his way of doing it had to be bold. He didn't have time to have ups and downs.


He had to always bring it. And my mother, who was a Bible student with him when they were young teenagers, and they got married, was a singer. She had been orphaned. Both were orphans, but raised in Carlsbad, New Mexico by a Black woman who had some money. She had a dry cleaning place, and she raised my mother with airs. So my mother had elocution classes, and oratorical classes, and sang, and wanted to be opera singer like Marian Anderson. So she played the piano, and she had training. She didn't end up doing that.


Her mother died before she was 17, and her father remarried, and she was turned out into the streets. That was back in the day when people were known for being missionaries. And they did that around the southwest, and that would be New Mexico and Arizona. I thought to me, I get my showbiz in my DNA, because partly, we lived it. We were the people that traveled with them all over, and saw my mother and my father perform all the time. And then when you think about America, the only place they couldn't stop us from progressing was the imagination, which is the biggest nation in the world. And we are really good dreamers and Futurists. So I think I get it from both sides.

Darren Isom (05:34):

I tell folks all the time that how interesting enough within the Black community, 50, 60 years ago, all of our leaders from a Futurist perspective were preachers. They were the ministers. They were the folks that were trusted within envisioning a new world for us to live into. And now it's interesting to see how that's been passed to the artists. And I love how you're thinking about what you're doing now is totally in line with both your family lineage, but also your own personal lineage. I got to talk about the iconic Maxine Shaw, and Living Single, and since coined the term, the Maxine Shaw Effect. Can you tell us about the Maxine Shaw Effect, and it's such an incredible example of how representation in the media is important.

Erika Alexander (06:06):

Sure. So the Maxine Shaw Effect comes from a phenomenon that has built over the years, just a little bit over 30 years ago. Living Single was first aired on the Fox Channel as produced by Warner Brothers, and as created by Yvette Lee Bowser. She created four Black women who were living in New York, and they had a neighbor, Maxine Shaw that lived across the street, but she was one of the four girls and two Black men that lived in the same building above them. And for Maxine Shaw, which was the breakout character, she took a hold in a lot of young women especially, but people's imagination. And when they were I guess around the age we were, which was I was 23 when I was playing that role, and a bit younger, maybe college age, or high school, it made them feel like they could go into careers of leadership, executive positions, law and politics.


Now those people have grown up, and they're able to come up to me, and say, "That character had a lot to do with the inspiration of why I thought I should take on blah, blah, blah, or this, or that." And it has blown my mind the type of people who said that from Stacey Abrams, to Ayanna Pressley, to Mayor de Blasio and his wife. I kid you not. I kept looking at him like, "you just." He said, "Trust me. You have no idea." Yes. I have him on tape, because I said, "You've got to put this on tape." And we were campaigning together, and he did.


And judges who've run me down, and teachers, and public defenders, and you don't have to be in law to have this, but the idea is leadership, and the idea of feeling like a leader, and that type of person, because I was coming in the door with my own look, which was the locs, and my dark skin. And my attitude, and the way I talked was because I was a preacher's child. I wasn't necessarily laid back, but my modern take on life as a woman was less sentimental than they wrote women. And I approached the lines in that way. That was Erika Alexander the Maverick that she talks about as me coming to the role herself. And you mix all that in, and you blend it into young people's imagination, and next thing you know, you have something called the Maxine Shaw Effect, which is this very amazing phenomenon of these really high-powered people being affected, and being able to pinpoint that inspiration to that character.

Darren Isom (08:25):

And now at the time, did you understand the significance of this character, and how impactful she would be to so many people? That's something you appreciated in the moment?

Erika Alexander (08:32):

I don't think I knew how she would figure in terms of the history, or the length of time that she would resonate. But I think the arrogance in me says, "I didn't do anything in this life to be unmemorable. So why not?"

Darren Isom (08:42):

I know that's right. Yes. And I want to shift from there, and talk a little bit about this whole role of storytelling, and also Color Farm. And I'd love you to tell us more about the incredible work you're doing over at Color Farm Media. We used to have so many shows in films showcasing Black stories, and Black joy in a unique and positive way. And while there've been some reasonable successes such as American Fiction, bravo, we'll talk a little bit more about that as well-

Erika Alexander (09:03):

Thank you.

Darren Isom (09:04):

... which you recently starred in, and Insecure, the prevalence of multifaceted Black representation in film and television in many ways seems to have undergone a significant shift since the nineties. And I tell folks all the time as well, growing up Gen X, born in the seventies, we just come out of the country's most violent civil rights movement, and our parents went to work, and set us down in front of the TV. And I call us the Feral Generation, because we were out here on our own right?

Erika Alexander (09:29):

For sure. I was.

Darren Isom (09:31):

We all were. We were on our own. Between Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, the various TV shows really shaped the perspective on what life could be. And it gave us a really interesting perspective on what normal was. It gave us a new normal that I take for granted, that we were growing up in a bit of a Truman Show. We were creating our own normal. That was a huge departure. Right? What do you think about the current representation in the media for Black folks, and where's there space there?

Erika Alexander (09:54):

That actually, if I talked about that would be really what American Fiction is about. The current representation is very much influenced by the past, and the past representation has been mostly influenced by stereotypes. They leverage that very well just beginning in the seventies, and when I say they, I'm talking about an apparatus, or the industry in a systemic way started to leverage the idea of what blackness was, and then Black people wanting to be successful in the industry started to fit themselves to it. And at first, that wasn't so bad. It was a little hard, because that's why we got Good Times, and some of the shows that showed us struggling more. But you still saw the family unit, which was important, and you saw things like What's Happening, and The Jeffersons, they were moving on up, that type of thing. But then you started to see, I think a devolution into pathology.


And then once it got funded, and it solidified itself in the zeitgeist of what we were in story terms, that's all we really got to be for the most part. And I think American Fiction, which is directed and written by Cord Jefferson from the novel of Percival Everett, who was asking those questions, and created a story about an author, which is played by the great Jeffrey Wright, who wanted to be free of that narrative, and it's keeping him the cheap seats. He hates that he's a spectator in his own life. His reality is certainly more complicated and complex than the shallow pond of narratives that drive the market, but he can't get out of it, because he's been told that because he's Black, he's in it. So those stories partly endure, because Black people have been amazingly successful by catering to forces that have successfully produced them, and supported the current I call them impoverished narratives, but the more durable self-sustaining universe is rejected.


And that's what's going on now, everybody pushing against that to say, "No. We are more. We're more complex. We're not just one Black Panther. We are kings and queens, and we also are villains and thieves, and we also are divorced, and married, and in love. We are all those things." So that's where we're at now, and that's what Color Farm does. We call ourselves The Motown of Film, Television, and Tech, and we want to change the face of media, and we say we want to rebrand Blackness. And storytelling is important, because the 22 inches around your head is the battlefield. And right now, we don't own it.

Darren Isom (12:26):

And I think it's also interesting as well, when you talk about this idea of the various tropes that have been written, or that folks are living into from an acting perspective. What are the beautiful stories that are being denied, the beautiful narratives that are being lost, not talked about? It gives us a sense of the value of storytelling in giving us possibility and potential. One of your goals at Color Farm is to bring increased equity and diverse representation to both media and electoral politics. And you've even spoke on narrative change work before the US House of Representatives. I would love for you just to share how is storytelling connected to electoral politics, and where do we see the impact of storytelling play out in American politics?

Erika Alexander (12:57):


Darren Isom (12:58):

I know. Right?

Erika Alexander (12:59):

We see it everywhere, good and bad. The problem is that I think the Progressives have the better storytellers, but they have failed to tell the better story, in a way that other people can hear it. I think that people say, "Oh. The Progressives, they're elite. They're that. They're this." I said, "Well, they are more I think inclined to be thoughtful about things, and to come at it from a very generous point of view of having different sides. The problem is that we've trained people to not be as complex as that, and they understand very simple narratives." People don't want to believe it, but you can offer something that's more dynamic, and interesting, and a lot of people be, "Oh my gosh. That was amazing." Many of those people are like, "I don't know what they said, and I can't remember it. What's for dinner? What's for lunch?"


They're not going to remember it. And narrative is everything. And one of the things that I tried to say on Capitol Hill, and then also at the California and DC reparations hearings was that if they did not get their storytelling right, they could forget it. And in fact, if you want to help activists, you have to unleash the storytellers. They are the people who prepare the ground. It's fertile before you knock on the door, or they come looking for you, because they've been moved as such. And here's a very simple example I give to prove the type of narrative. Everybody goes around saying CP Time, which is short for Color People's time. I actually hate that. I don't say it myself, because I realized that Black people have never been allowed to be late. They took the early bus, and the late bus. Tell me a time in history that they've been allowed to do that except in our minds.


And then we started to actually propagate it, and people started to take it on, and you start to see it. "I'll be their CP Time. Oh. You CP Time." Slaves and enslaved people do not have CP Time. But if you want the narrative to be that they are lazy, and shiftless, which they said for years, and then suddenly we digest it, and we start to tell the narrative of, "Oh. Yeah. CP Time," then suddenly it is. Same with the word nigger. It works the same way that they tell us we are, we start to maintain that space. We sell it to ourselves, nigger, nigger, nigger. We put it in our music. We say, "Oh. We own that word now. We've made it something different." No. You didn't. That was a brand marketing plan that happened hundreds of years ago, and then you digested it, ate it, and became it.


That's how dangerous narratives are. And if those simple narratives can be used, and weaponized, imagine how many narratives we have going around that are affecting white people, white people's point of view, funders. Why are they only funding people, Black people and Black women under 1%? Because they think that we can't make money. They think that we are lazy and shiftless. They think that they won't get a return on investments. But I say the darker the skin, the earlier in. That's a new narrative. The early into work, the early into funding, these are the types of narratives that are simple to get, but yet we want to have conversations about socialism, and blah, blah, blah, and anti-authoritism. People can't define those words. So why say them, and then think, "Well, we're not getting our narrative straight." No. You don't have the words. We need people who understand how storytelling transfers. It may look a little ham-handed to you, but there is a way, and we need to deploy it. Otherwise, we'll be destroyed by our own lack of narrative storytelling prowess.

Darren Isom (16:23):

And lack of imagination, right? Our most powerful place is in our own imaginations. Right? It also reminds me. I think about Donald Hollowell, the civil rights attorney that used to always say that, "At any given moment from a social justice perspective, there are two battles happening, the courtroom battle," it's the legal, the laws, the courtrooms, the legislatures, "and there's the kitchen table battle." And the kitchen table battle is a battle for the narrative. You may win or lose the courtroom battles. The winds come few and far between, but you can't ever lose the kitchen table battle. We always have to win the narrative battle. And what are the stories that we have to put out there to make sure that we win? I'm also very much so aware more recently, particularly there's this wonderful term in French called Necropolitique, this idea that communities, people only exist when they're dying. We can only talk about them when they're dying. We can only pay attention to them when they're dying, and how so much of our community's identity has been around death.

Erika Alexander (17:11):


Darren Isom (17:12):

We don't have a liberation narrative. What does that liberation narrative look like? Because people get behind a liberation narrative in a way that's very different, and powerful as well. I would love for you to share what do you see as the stories that need to be told, that we aren't currently hearing? And on the flip side of that as well, what are the stories that we need to stop telling?

Erika Alexander (17:28):

I guess stories give us proof of life, and their version of organic sustainability. If you think about a new generation, or the future, the future is here. It's always here. Right now, we're talking about a future that's going to the rebrowning of America. We're seeing a sea change in the types of groups that are being born, and those children will want to see themselves reflected in stories. That's threatening to some, but historically, we know that's how great societies thrive. We have to be supported and funded. So in order for them to start to step up, but we also need new worlds. We need new authors, new POVs, new discoveries, new strategies. There's familiar tactics right now, and people like them, because it's comfortable, but if it's not working, we should be the first to realize that, and move on. And I like to think of this space right now about the storytelling, and the types of storytelling.


The way the Reverend Barber, who is a great mentor to me, and a person I like to emulate, he calls this the Third Reconstruction. And if that's true, he's saying it's time to push beyond the things that perpetuate white supremacies, talk about a better story we need to tell, and the boundaries that perpetuate that, and tell the better story. So we get to a greater truth. And I think if you know that you're in the Third Reconstruction, then you have the opportunity to be an architect of the Third Reconstruction. And bon voyage. This is a great moment for it, but a Concrete Park story that we tell at Color Farm Media, which is a comic book series, that became a graphic novel, that we were trying to do a sci-fi series with Black people in it as inspired by City of God, and writings of Frantz Fanon, and we couldn't get it done, and it was a really cool world.


And finally, my creative partner, Tony Puryear, who was my ex-husband, but my creative partner often said, "Oh. Forget it. I'll draw it." And he taught himself how to draw, and illustrate comics, and we created Concrete Park, and then we sent it to Dark Horse, Dark Horse Comics, the 300, Hellboy, Sin City, and they said, "Okay. We'll publish it." Mike Richardson is a great dude there. And then by the end of the year, we were Best American Comic, and then Forbes said we were one of the best graphic novels in America in the next few years. That's the type of thing that we need to do. But you see what we had to do to do it?


We had this DIY strategy, but not everybody can do that. Who has the time? We didn't have the time. Many times we couldn't pay our rent, and those types of things. You go, "Really, Erika?" I said, "Yeah, because that's how it is for artists." But I also think that the types of things that we should tell, even though it's difficult, is that we can't do it without their help. We can. There's a different global majority that we need to move toward, and we need to find those people, and find that money, and actually do it together. So now we can go beyond borders. Phones make it easy, airplanes, but also understanding about what's at stake. And I'm really excited about that new storytelling.

Darren Isom (20:27):

And stories are also bigger than borders as well, right? There are whole diaspora full of stories that connect with folks in different places that you have to really take advantage of, and live into as well. What can the social sector and philanthropy do to bring these stories to the forefront? This is a call for philanthropy and those in the social sector. What should we be doing more of?

Erika Alexander (20:42):

I think we have to reorient ourselves around the viability of sustaining storytellers. There's different types of storytellers. Ground zero are the ones that are in the lane of popcorn. That's where the majority lives. It's not high art. It's not going to make you always feel good. You might feel little grimy, but that's the battlefields, and you got to be willing to go there. It's a blood sport, and there are certain people who understand that, and find those people, and ask them to create stories, not tell them what to create.


Ask them to create a story that can take hold, and live in a space that something new can grow. We need to fund them. There's no doubt about it. Arts has been underfunded for years. It's been attacked for years. One of the reasons why we have so many people who are playing out these narratives of disenfranchisement, how they see it an American Dream, and seeing themselves as victims as opposed to victors, and the resurgent of animosity toward people of color that has never gone anywhere, but now is at the front, it's because we didn't tell this better story about the Civil War.


We haven't told those stories. We keep saying, "We can't go back to slave narratives." I said, "Back to? We haven't explored them," but if you go online to Discovery, you'll see tons of narratives about World War I, and II, and all of that, and the Holocaust over and over again, and also see tons of narratives about the Queen of England. And you get shows about the Queen of England, and the Queen of blah, blah, blah, and Victoria and the Vikings and all that. If we can't tell this American story in a new way, not from a point of view of just enslavement, but the point of view of the enslaved, we'll start to maintain a different space of how that happened, how we can continue to happen, but also a different type of narrative about what it is to be human. White people weren't just enslaving people.


There were beautiful things that happened inside of it, inside of a narrative of say, what Reverend Barber would call Fusion Politics, that we were together on, people being oppressed simultaneously. The poor whites of the Appalachian Mountains were, and they were trying to do things with Black people. Who's going to tell those narratives if people say, "Well, we don't want to go to the past." Well you don't even want to study the past. In Florida, they banned it. So I say, "Okay. Let's play your game. We're not going to study Black history. We'll do American history. That's good enough. That's going to encompass everything," but if we are afraid of it, and we think it's not going to sell, or it's not, again, bad return on investment, your worst return on investment is ignoring it, and allowing people who don't have the narrative to come in, and create something in that vacuum. And they are doing it.


Now, Darren, I tell you, they're making documentaries. They're making movies and films that push their narrative, and it's insidious. And I've seen it come into Hollywood movies where actors don't even know that people funding it are in foundations that are undermining democracy. But if you're not going to fund it, and these artists need to be made whole, and make a living, they're going to start to work for the other side. And many times, they don't even know it.

Darren Isom (23:44):

They're going to use the narrative to support their goals if we don't use it to support ours. Right? I want to talk. During your testimony for the House of Representatives, you said that, "We are the original Futurists in American culture," and I found the assertion that Black Futurism is not only existent, but it is in fact ubiquitous in American culture to be such a beautiful spin on the narrative. And I would love for you just to expand a little bit more on this, and tell us how Black people are the original Futurists.

Erika Alexander (24:08):

When I was talking about the new world, new minds, and new all of that, we had to create ourselves out of whole cloth. We were taken, kidnapped from Africa. We were put in a boat with different tribes that didn't speak our language. So the confusion in the non-communication was real. We lost a lot of traditions, and more importantly language right there, and that would've helped us contain ourselves. This is a unique thing in history to be taken so far away, and then given an instant new narrative of colonialism, and an instant new God if you didn't have one at a different way into that idea of spiritualism, because Black people have always been spiritualists, and always been inside of that Christianity, and all those other things. But if you look at and see how those people existed, and the nightmare of the horror show to America, and then the hundreds of years after that, it's because they definitely cultivated their mind, and the idea of a future beyond their pain.


I believe that it is encoded in our DNA that that's what we had to do in order to survive. We weren't going home. There was an ocean between us. We had no power. The Black men who saw the women and the children being abused had no agency. So they went within. The Black women, same thing, being raped could not help anybody. They went within, and the children learned to do it. When you go within, there's dark spaces in there, but there's also tons of light and color. And I think that that's what happened, that we started to create ourselves, and recreate the idea of ourselves in the future. And we didn't have to just have any traditional music. That's why you have a person as fantastic as Louis Armstrong, an orphan on the streets of New Orleans start to hear the music inside of his world, and he's swinging (singing).


He's got a different beat. You see James Brown put music on the one. He did a whole different thing. You see the Mahalia Jackson, the gospel that's pouring out of the soul. You can't say what you want to, but you can feel and say inside of your voice the pain. We have these rich, beautiful voices that are unique to Africans, and African America, and you hear the difference of how deep, and volumous, and rich that is. That's a perfect microphone and amplifier to tell a story that here two four, you couldn't tell, because you weren't allowed to read or write. Nobody stops you from singing. Nobody stops you from drumming. And therefore, that's where we cultivated, and that was a Futurist attitude. So we were the aliens that they brought from across the ocean to rock their world, and make their planets twirl.

Darren Isom (27:05):

I know that's right.

Erika Alexander (27:07):

And we did that. That makes us the biggest culture makers as far as I'm concerned, in world history, because if you look at how people map onto rock and roll, blues, country singing, all those things that we were able to recreate, and create in that space that didn't exist before, the music that is played the most around the world and from everybody comes from the 13% population African-Americans in America. And that is fact.

Darren Isom (27:33):

Yes. Yes. And I think there's also a very interesting analogy where in many ways the limitations that the world gave us actually gave us new avenues, and more powerful avenues. The limitation of language meant that we couldn't just communicate through language. We had to find other ways of communicating. The limitation from a real life perspective means that we couldn't live out our freedom. So we had to create freedom in other ways.

Erika Alexander (27:52):


Darren Isom (27:53):

We had to create beauty in other ways. And one of the things that Bruce Williams reminded us that as we look back on our history, remember that through all that pain, that two people found love, and that's why we're here, right? Through all that pain-

Erika Alexander (28:05):

Come on.

Darren Isom (28:05):

... through all those narratives. So really something powerful.

Erika Alexander (28:07):

Even the idea of creating love, love as a Futurist idea, you're in a loveless world. You create the type of love you need in order to sustain yourself. That's how powerful the imagination is-

Darren Isom (28:20):

That's right.

Erika Alexander (28:20):

And that's how potent it is when again, weaponized against your enemy, which is this loveless world, we created love out of nothing.

Darren Isom (28:29):

Yes. And at the end of the day, what's the quote? "You can't take nothing from me but notes." They can't take nothing from us, but notes. You better take them notes, and see what's going on here. Right?

Erika Alexander (28:37):

I love that.

Darren Isom (28:38):

Listen, this has been wonderful. I have a few questions I want to close this out with. And you talk about this from a Futurist perspective, but I would love to get your sense, and you can answer this as loosely, or directly as possible, how do you define freedom? How do you define freedom? What does freedom look like for you, for us as a community?

Erika Alexander (28:58):

Well, I'm free to tell you what's on my mind, Darren.

Darren Isom (29:02):


Erika Alexander (29:03):

And that wasn't true years ago. And for some in this world, it is not true. That's freedom. I think that we can talk about various ways of freedom being expressed to how you can live your life, or the opportunities that you're granted, or the rooms you're let in. But I am able to speak my mind. Thank goodness for people like Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, people who understood that when they spoke their minds, the world changed. But it's who you're speaking to that really matters. That freedom really matters. And if we don't have the freedom to have exchange of dialogue, and communicate whether I'm right or wrong, then to me, I'm only speaking to myself. I'm in a wind tunnel. So I think the ultimate freedom is having dialogue that you feel that this space has been created, meaning fertile space. Again, fertile ground has been prepared for the idea to catch, and to be allowed to live there for a while.


And I think that creators challenge that every day. You can see the community of comedians pushing back against what they call Cancel Culture. They say, "We must push those boundaries. We're comedians." We allow people to check themselves, but also everyone is skewered with equal opportunity insult place. And I guess that's true. It also holds a lot of toxicity, frankly for many years, for women in certain types of people where jokes. Look at the Chitlin Circuit and this space where they played us in blackface. They were laughing at us for years. So we can all argue that point, but I do understand that the mission is they say, "Well, we should be free to do whatever." Yes. But they also should be free to observe, and decide to not watch you. And that's the problem that it comes with everything you put out. But I'd like to think that frankly, if we're going to discuss the disparities, or certain inequities that are inherent inside this complicated system, we have to encourage people to do the work of what freedom is.


And if there's so many systemic issues that are play, and there's a downward pressure of wages, and opportunities, and the narrative, and the damage done, then the world must be confronted. And that is the ultimate thing to me that you do with freedom is challenge not just yourself, your community, and your nation, but the world, and how you challenge it. How do we know you're challenging it? Because you don't just challenge it. You come up with solutions, and then you enact those things. That's activism. But a lot of those solutions are in the creative space. So we need to work together.

Darren Isom (31:46):

Yes. And I love the idea of freedom being both the ability for you to speak what's on your mind, and what a beautiful mind to listen from, but also to be heard, this idea of being heard, and being respected. And I love the way you said to have those ideas come out, and sit for a while. Right? Two other quick questions. One of the things that we want to talk about this season of the podcast is the important role of mentors. I think that so many folks think that we are out here on our own doing it all by ourselves, and we never really get the opportunity to call out those mentors that really made us who we are. And mentorship can come in different forms. Sometimes I talk that I have mentees that are more mentors to me than they think they are, right? But mentor being as broadly defined as possible, would love for you to call out a mentor you've had who's been really impactful in your life, and your career. Who comes to mind?

Erika Alexander (32:36):

Wow. I have so many great mentors. Reverend Barber, Bishop Barber of the Poor People's Campaign, and Repairs of the Breach. Saru Jayaraman of One Fair Wage has been a fantastic mentor to me. I've had mentors in film and television. Peter Brook, great British director. Joseph Papp, who started the public theater, was a mentor to me. And even though I may not have met or known all these people, every Black actress I see is some mentor to me. Meryl Streep is a mentor. I see their work, and the mentorship comes through I guess digesting what they've done, and then trying it on. I don't need to meet Prince in order for him to be a mentor if I was a guitarist. It turns out that his music mentors passed, whether you play an instrument or not, the same with Michael Jackson to me, who I think is a fantastic mentor to me, of the idea of how to transfer over time.


By the way, we need to see our mentors in the lean times, in the mean times, and really observe them as being human beings. And that's the context we need to see if we looked at Martin Luther King, his whole self, not just the one that's projected out into space. And I also have a mentorship in the great Hillary Clinton, who to me changed my life, and gave me the opportunity to be her surrogate. I was her most traveled surrogate. I designed her campaign poster, the one Hillary that's in the Smithsonian, and she gave me the opportunity of the lifetime to meet a mentor that I never thought I could meet was John Lewis. And John Lewis famously talks about his mentor, Martin Luther King, where he writes him, and says, "I want to join." And he says, "Come to Alabama." The Boy from Troy shows up.


He calls him The Boy from Troy. And then John Lewis joins the movement, and becomes part of the Freedom Writers. And he needed that mentorship from Martin Luther King to be inside of it, and they're all very young, to make him a person that would live beyond his years. They're all being assassinated, and dying in certain ways. And John Lewis lived long enough to not only see his family grow up, but also grow up within the movement, and become part of the system, which was a congressman, and the conscience of Congress. That's great mentorship, and we get it all the time. So I like to say that even people that I, again, I admire, and may never have met are my mentors. And certainly you are too, Darren. You've been fantastically generous with Color Farm, and me, and Ben. We don't take that for granted. Your authentic self, and more importantly, your real focused advice and care is unusual. And I'll take that with me wherever I go, and pay it forward.

Darren Isom (35:18):

Listen, thank you. What a wonderful way to close the conversation. Thank you, Erika. I was not expecting that.

Erika Alexander (35:23):

Thank you.

Darren Isom (35:24):

But thank you for all that you do, and you're great folks to have from a squad perspective. You're my mentor too. We're all mentoring each other. We're all making this up the best way we know how as we go along. Well, this has been wonderful. Thanks so much for your time. Thanks for sharing with the folks on the podcast, and thanks for all our conversations outside of the podcast as well. So excited about the great work you're doing, the perspective you bring to the work. It's much needed. It's really powerful, and look forward to chatting with you again soon.

Erika Alexander (35:47):

Thank you, Darren. And thank you for dreaming in color.

Darren Isom (35:51):

Some months ago, the world discovered that white men spend an exorbitant amount of time thinking about the Roman Empire. And while I can count on 1/2 a hand the number of times I've thought about the Roman Empire, including when I actually studied in school, I do think way too much about the Transatlantic slave trade, and the system of slavery more broadly. I wonder how my ancestors found the will to survive, how they stayed hopeful, found love, learned to love so generously, created beauty, and maintained their sanity when confronted by generations of such a sick and perverse institution, and its even sicker and more perverse stewards. One morning driving into work, I called my mother, and after quick pleasantries, asked her, "What do you think motivated the slave to survive?" After expressing some sincere concern this is what I was thinking about on my way to work, she shared, "They lived for each other. Black people have always lived for each other."


I imagine it was even truer then than now. In the closing monologue of Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious, Odom delivered those thoughts more poetically. "I find in being Black," he said, "a thing of beauty, a joy, a strength, a secret cup of gladness, a native land in neither time nor place, a native land in every Negro face." I'm forever thankful for Black America, my community, and the joy, love, warmth, and sense of belonging it has always offered me. And while Sartre teaches us that as human beings, we can be each other's hell, "L'enfer c'est les autres," Black America models what it looks like for us to be each other's heaven. My conversation with Erika reminded me of that heaven. And for this, I'm infinitely grateful, mere cup of gladness runneth over.


This season, we're putting some music with the magic, and have collected the theme songs from all of our guests and collaborators, to create a Spotify playlist for our listeners to enjoy. Find it on Spotify under Dreaming in Color The Playlist. Thanks for listening to Dreaming in Color. A special shout out to all the folks who make this magic happen. From Studio Pod Media, our wonderful Producer Denise Savas, Audio Engineer Theresa Buchanan, and Graphic Designer Diana Jimenez, and from Reelworks, our video production team, Jenny Liu and Steven Czaja. A huge shoutout to our ever brilliant Bridgespan production team, Cora Daniels, Christian Celeste Tate, Christina Pistorius, Ryan Wenzel, and this season's guest hosts, Jasmine Reliford, Nithin Iyengar and Angela Maldonado. And of course, our fabulous creative director Ami Diané. What a squad y'all. Be sure to rate, subscribe, and review wherever you listen to podcasts. Catch you next time.

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