In the 1930s, when 15-year-old ballet dancer Janet Collins first began to audition for dance companies, she was invited to join the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The only condition was that the black performer would have to wear whiteface.
“I said no,” Collins told The New York Times in a 1974 interview. “I sat on the steps and I cried and cried.”
That early disappointment only pushed her to greater heights as her talent took her from stage to stage until she became the first black soloist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1951, four years before Marian Anderson would become the first black person to sing there. She struggled against racism her entire career and, in the process, cleared the way for countless other black dancers to come after her.
To ensure her story isn’t lost to history and that the legacy of Collins continues to inspire young black girls, actor Karyn Parsons has launched a Kickstarter to make an animated children’s film on the dancer. A lot of people may recognize Parsons as Hilary Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She’s also the founder of Sweet Blackberry, a nonprofit that brings “little-known stories of African-American achievement to children.” Previous short films by Sweet Blackberry on other black pioneers have aired on HBO and HBO Family. The upcoming film on Collins will be narrated by comedian Chris Rock, and children’s book illustrator R. Gregory Christie will help design the animations.
And Parsons drew from her Fresh Prince past to offer awesome prizes for backers of the project. The rewards range from lunch with Will Smith and the Fresh Prince cast to a shopping trip with Parson and Tatyana Ali, who played Ashley Banks on the show.
The Kickstarter is less than $10,000 away from its $75,000 goal and only has until July 18 at 8 a.m. PDT to reach its fundraising goal. To share with younger generations the story of Janet Collins and raise awareness of the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history, contribute to the Kickstarter here.
Photo taken from the Kickstarter campaign
Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.