Diahann Carroll, Indelible Fixture of My Childhood
Last Friday I was devastated by a headline on my social media timeline: “Diahann Carroll, Pioneering Actress on ‘Julia’ and ‘Dynasty,’ Dies at 84.” Born in the Bronx in 1935 and raised in Harlem, Ms. Carroll not only blazed a trail for black actresses, but also gave audiences of all races iconic characters with depth and poise. She was the first black woman to win a Tony Award for best actress, in 1962, for her role in the Broadway musical “No Strings,” and the first black woman to star in a nonstereotypical role in a television series in “Julia.”
She was also my aunt. No, we were not actually related. But from an early age I adored her as if she were one of my aunts.
One of my fondest memories was watching evening television shows with my aunts. I’d sit on the living room floor, my eyes glued to the screen and ears perked listening to them go back and forth with their commentary. I loved my aunts immensely. They were my earliest introduction to what would become a lifelong admiration of beautiful, resilient and headstrong black women.
Through her many roles and award-winning performances Ms. Carroll remained a consummate example of grace, especially in a time when women who looked like her were routinely cast as domestics and not given the chance to play multifaceted characters. Both on and off screen her poise and confidence left an impression, and many black actresses would later go on to mirror their careers after hers. Of Ms Carroll’s death, the actress Kerry Washington wrote on Twitter “I love you for eternity. With all my heart. I am because of you.” (Ms. Washington herself is a pioneer: She became only the second black woman to lead a network television drama when “Scandal” debuted in 2012.)
Whether or not you related to or liked the characters Ms. Carroll portrayed, she always delivered a memorable performance. When I was a child, I couldn’t get enough.
One of my favorite characters was the ruthless business entrepreneur Dominique Deveraux on “Dynasty.” At the time, she was the first black actress with a recurring role in a prime-time soap opera. My aunts and I lived for the shady exchanges between Ms. Deveraux and Alexis Colby, played by Joan Collins. I was mesmerized — she was a stunning, powerful black woman going head-to-head against and one-upping the biggest diva on television.
Our first introduction to Dominique Deveraux, on Season 4 of “Dynasty,” made it clear that she was no one to mess with. Checking into her hotel, she is told that she’s been given a junior suite despite having specifically requested a two-bedroom suite. Her reply: “I don’t sleep in my clothes, nor do I sleep with them. I require one bedroom for my wardrobe and one for myself. If you don’t have a two-bedroom available please call another hotel in the area that can accommodate me.”
In the NBC sitcom “A Different World,” centered on a fictional historically black college called Hillman, Ms. Carroll played the mother of Whitley, a bougie Southern belle with her mother’s extremely high standards. With my introduction to Ms. Carroll being “Dynasty,” I looked forward to her appearances as Whitley’s mother. She was tough, strong-minded and knew who she was with no apologies. The strongest mother-daughter pairing I’ve ever seen on television. It was a reminder of her dramatic and comedic range.
I came to Ms. Carroll’s film work when I got a little older. She received an Academy Award nomination for the 1974 film “Claudine,” playing a single mother of six who finds romance in Harlem with a garbage man played by James Earl Jones. This was Ms. Carroll as I had never seen her before, playing a character struggling financially. But she managed to pair this vulnerability with a self-assured quality of someone who knew what she deserved, regardless of her status in society.
For me, Ms. Carroll’s death wasn’t just another passing of a celebrity. She was a fixture of my childhood. A part of my extended family. That fabulous aunt who commanded attention by simply walking into the room. She’d come with the most extraordinary tales and have everyone spellbound. In a word, Diahann Carroll was legendary, and to her I say thank you. Thank you for your many firsts and for the legacy of the many iconic strong black actresses that your example helped mold. Rest assured there shall be no burned Champagne at your wake, Ms. Deveraux. Sleep in graceful splendor, Auntie Carroll.
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