Issue #6: Pulled From the Archives - An Interview with Jenifer Lewis
"I walk in my joy." - Jenifer Lewis
Welcome to Shamira Explains It All/Shamira Explique Tout, a culture newsletter discussing the origins and impact of Black production and exchange, identity, and intellectual property via our digital, social, and archival discussions - and whatever else may be timely and interesting. Part English, Part Francophone. Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This issue, we’re going to be trying something a little different. Instead of sharing writing I have published elsewhere, I will be publishing an original piece of writing here — namely, sharing an interview that I have had stored in my archives.
I am not hiding this interview or others behind a paywall, nor do I have any plans to switch this newsletter to a subscriber model or mixed-use model. Depending on reception, I may find other opportunities to share other pieces of pertinent archival interviews or features that never saw the light of day, and occasionally do brand new interviews here on topical material (for example, conversations with immigration organizers, or reproductive justice organizers, or people in the cyber security and big data space in my network — just thinking off of the top of my head, no commitments here). Outside of that, you can remain used to the occasional updates on what is going on in the world for yours truly, music playlists, reading lists, and byline updates, and how it all aligns to *gestures around* the chaos that is the world at large.
For those who are inclined, feel free to send a token of appreciation to my CashApp (note: I will only post this on original material.) Considering recent events in the United States with Roe v. Wade being overturned, I would much prefer if you offered your funds to places such as The Brigid Alliance, the National Abortion Federation. Also, if you are in the New York City area and willing to host someone traveling for an abortion, please sign up to Volunteer with the Haven Coalition.
That said, I just paid for COBRA for the first time as I am navigating post-employment life, and hitting submit on that payment made my chest cave in to compliment my spasming scapula — so if you’re so disposed to drop a few coins both ways, that wouldn’t hurt either. Ultimately, I want this to continue to be a free-flowing space to share with those who appreciate my words and perspective.
Enough of the preamble from me; on to the interview du jour.
Next Friday, July 15th — also known as Jackie Washington Day — the inimitable Jenifer Lewis will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The “Mother of Black Hollywood” has had a 4-decade long career on stage and screen, remaining as vibrant and invigorating in present-day as the first mark she ever hit on Julianne Boyd’s Eubie! Most refreshingly, she is remarkably open and forthright — a rarity in Hollywood, particularly for a thespian of her stature.
I had the opportunity to interview Lewis and grab some pearls of wisdom she had gleaned over the course of her iconic life and career nearly four and a half years ago, while she was in the midst of promoting her memoir (she is now promoting her upcoming book, Walking in My Joy, expected to be out on August 30th).
A different version of this transcript had been put together for a publication but killed due to shifting editorial priorities. I kept the audio and hadn’t revisited it for a while, but as I had combed back, I had realized that in our conversation, she had elaborated on the very title that she is using for her newest offering, which was an uncanny full-circle moment I wanted to share with anyone who cared to read.
The below Q&A has been edited and condensed for readability and clarity.
How are you able to write and go on set and do everything that you do?
I go to sleep thinking of beautiful things. I have learned that it's very important. You must see, beauty feel beauty, all of that before you go to sleep. Did you watch some trash on TV with sex and violence - somebody whacking somebody's head off? Make sure before you close your eyes you change that channel, because I assure you in my 60 years how you go to sleep is how you will wake up. When I wake, right after I burst my teeth and spit out the toothpaste ,I clean the corners look into the mirror and call myself a pretty bitch. *laughs* I’m kidding. Well I'm not. Instead of just standing there and putting on makeup for two hours I do I make sure before I walk away I look into my eyes and say I love myself. And I stand there until I mean it. And I literally say these words - go get 'em, tiger. And then I proceed to do that.
That’s number one. Stay healthy. Stay woke. Know where you are going. Stay grounded and watch your footing. Pay attention as you’re walking the walk. I walk in my joy — understand this, there is nothing perfect about my life. But after 60 years and all of that therapy? You learn to pay attention. If you're not serving the moment - and serving it well - go somewhere else and do something else. It is a profound realization to know that you now have more years behind than you do in front. And so I say to people that bring drama - I wonder if this negative shit is worth one of my summers that I have left. The answer is fuck no, and good riddance bitch.
Put love in front of you. These are things that have to be practiced. They don't come easy. You wanna lay in bed, get back under the covers and bitch about Trump, or bitch about this that and the other — or are you gonna get up and walk the walk, and be of service. What are you going to do with this day? You sleep eight hours; you only got so many left to get something done and make sure that you're dedicating it to your passion.
That’s real. When did you get your book writing in? What is in the morning before getting called to set?
First of all, I signed the [book]contract with HarperCollins before I got Blackish. So if I had known girl, ooh, I never would have accepted the challenge. But, it's called stepping up. And once you, you know, once you say yes one you give your words you must come through. That's one of my big sayings. Once a task is begun, never leave it until it is done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all. Now I don't know who wrote that shit, but it certainly has carried me through my life. So no, there was no giving up on the book. I did throw the manuscript in the pool a couple of times. But Tracey Sherrod [at HarperCollins] flew her ass out here and got it right out the pool, jumped her ass in and said bitch you gonna send us this book. And I did. There was a scene that I've been telling people about where I was in my garden that I was clipping my roses. I was thinking about retiring, and by the time I got to the geranium out of my mouth came these words : “not even me can stop me.” So, you know what’s a girl to do, but keep it moving? When you've been given the gifts that I did, there's a responsibility that comes with talent and charisma and that gift of gab and that it - being that force of nature that the press is always, you know, Hurricane Lewis hits New York - a responsibility comes with that. It's a huge responsibility and you either take it on or go sit down. Get out of people's way who are trying to do something. If you're not serving the moment, go to another space, do something else. It is all about the moment because in a moment it can certainly all be gone.
I’ve read about you working with Big Brother Big Sister and I know you've done stuff with AIDS organizations as well. How did you manage to fit that time to prioritize that as something that you care about in addition to all the other things you do?
It's in the walk of it. You really do have to say, "what can I do today to help somebody?" You know I will get in my car and go out to a high school. That's me. You know you cant' be rolling up on motherfuckers, they'll turn around and blow your fucking head off. But I was in a taxi in Chicago, saw an old woman just struggling down the street with these bags. I told the taxi driver to pull over. I said where the fuck you going? Get in here! We'll take you home.
We have to learn compassion for other people. We have to learn kindness. These things are real with me. I don't just talk the talk. You got to reach out. You see somebody staying in the house all the time - that uncle won't come out of the basement, that aunt won't come out of the attic - something's wrong! Reach out! But I always cap that with this: if a person is not ready to be helped, they don't want it right now and nobody's going to do it for you until you're ready. Two things change human beings: a near death experience, or you just got to get tired. You got to get sick and sick and tired of being sick and tired to change those patterns. And it is no easy feat, I assure you. It takes practice. It’s a day to day walk. Living a day as if it were your last. Now that's dramatic but I'm dramatic, you know?
What if it was your last day? What would you do? Walk the walk — but the most important thing is to find the passion, find a cause, live. I never watched life, I lived out loud. My honesty, telling the truth all the time, it's worked for me and it's worked against me, but it certainly did work more for me. This shit ain't gonna be perfect, but the attempt, the intention…what are you compelled to do with the day? Get out and do something, help somebody. You wake up depressed, go help somebody. Go do something for somebody else, see how that works for you. There's always something to do, there's always a child to mentor. There's always an old lady and needs groceries and that sort of thing. Deal with what's right in front of you. Look in the mirror. Who is that? Are you gossiping about somebody, spend your time talking about other people, what their problems are? What does that say about you? On the Internet, you know trolling, hating? What does that say about you - you wanna know who you are, read your page.
You're busy working, giving us everything, laying it all out on screen; how do you finally decompress?
I go to the beach. I take pilates. I cycle on bike trails. I'll read a good book; I swim. I live a pretty full life. I have no problem relaxing and taking a moment to meditate and center myself. If there's chaos, and you find yourself with a challenge in front of you, take a moment to center. If you listen, before you ask the question you will know the and then fucking proceed. Feel the fear and do it anyway, you know? There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but you can't think that when you get there you're going to be happy. You've got to be happy on your way to happy.
Well that was perfect.
Nobody can wear your shoes. Nobody can build your house. You have to walk your walk. And if you wrote your book, what would it say? But most importantly how would it end? Because nobody wants to hear, what you gonna do and what you did. What are you doing? I just do my best and I leave the rest, you can't tackle everything. Whoopi Goldberg told me years ago, you go in the house and some of the boards are loose? Nail down what you can and leave the rest. Keep it moving.
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