Growing Up With Julia By Cassiette West-Williams

When I was a little girl, I admired my Grandma Gelta Hunt’s Black doll collection. It was beautiful and every Barbie looked liked me, minus the fancy clothes and high heels. So there was no question that I longed for the Julia Barbie doll, which was based off of the actress Diahann Carroll’s television show. While one grandmother continuously gathered brown dolls, the other one, Grandma Tamer Lee Boney, spent her money on my reading material, which consisted of Ebony, Jet and Essence magazines. My mother, a divorced, single head of household for three children and a dog, Spot, was not budgeting expensive Black dolls and magazine subscriptions into our home. By the time I put one plus one together (an Ebony magazine featuring Ms. Carroll in a white and silver evening gown and the Black doll with the nurse’s outfit on) I was excited that there was a real person behind the neat, white attire.

When the sitcom first aired on September 17, 1968, I was six years-old and pleased to watch a show about another single woman (Julia was a widow) raising a child. I later learned that Julia was the first American television show that featured a Black actress in a lead role, during prime time. Even though Julia was much nicer than my mom at home, I could draw similarities from the Hollywood pretend home and my humble retreat. The thing that attracted me to Ms. Carroll more was her style, grace and presence. I have always enjoyed when a powerful woman makes her entrance and simply stands there, as one inhales her image. Diahann Carroll was all of that for me and more.

As I started reading my grandma’s Ebony magazine, I was easily impressed with the content of the article and mesmerized with the large, glossy, color photos. (That is why it is a huge loss that our young people do not have Ebony magazine around today, as it was a vehicle to influence young minds and be a catalyst for careers and ideas.) As the years passed and Ms. Carroll’s show became more popular, there was an Ebony article that featured both of her dolls and that was a huge accomplishment for a Black woman. Sadly, I never owned the dolls and when Grandma Hunt made her transition, many of her dolls disappeared… Today my Black doll count stands at 106 beauties, including my Diana Ross doll and my Black Teacher Barbie. Today the Julia doll is a collector’s item and if I can ever purchase one, I most certainly will add her to my collection. Mattel has now featured Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks, the mathematician and scientist women from Hidden Figures and even African American judges in its offering of dolls of color for this upcoming Christmas and Kwanzaa holiday season. Little did Diahann Carroll know that she would be a trend setter for the Mattel company. 

Several years later, my father took my brothers and I to see the movie Claudine. Ms. Carroll was my hero again, as she raised several children and kept a relationship with her partner, played by James Earl Jones. I loved how spirited, fiery and wise Ms. Carroll’s character was in the movie. Even dressed down as a “welfare mom” she still looked classy. Ms. Carroll had been harshly criticized for not addressing the civil rights struggles in her three years as “Julia”, but she was spot-on as she charged into her role of survival as a struggling mother in the inner city. In 1974, Ms. Carroll was nominated for an Oscar award for her outstanding role. Later, she would reinvent herself again and star as a diva in the television sit-com, Dynasty. Ms. Carroll did it again, bringing all that sass, attitude with a capital A and swag on the screen, putting the other actors to shame. She stole scenes and strutted around with her furs and jewels, making it glamorous to be a “witch” (this is a family newspaper). More Ebony articles would come, as did her men and husbands, and her book, “The Life and Times of Diahann Carroll.” Softer roles would come, as she was in The Five Heartbeats. In recent years, when I teach about the New York sisters, Bessie and Sarah Delany, I would pull out my VHS tape and show the movie “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.”

While this beautiful actress was new to me, she was not new to the entertainment world. She had earned a Tony award and had many plays and Broadway productions under her belt BEFORE I was born. She was a graduate of the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan and a model in high school. The Bronx native dropped out of NYU, when her career took off in the nightclub circuit. It is times like these that I wish my daddy was still here, as he loved Black female entertainers. Oh, we could talk about Ms. Carroll all day long and watch the re-runs of Dynasty together. What great memories of yesteryear. I am hopeful that I will be able to instill a love of the arts in my grandson, as my parents taught me.

What impressed me most about this woman was when she paid her respects to Ebony founder John H. Johnson. Ms. Carroll was very critical of the Black celebrities and business people, who did not attend the funeral. She appreciated how Mr. Johnson had built her career and featured her on many front covers. The real Ms. Carroll had compassion, empathy and respect for others. She showed humility to the Johnson family and it was a refreshing thing to see how she interacted with regular people at the services and her high regard for Mr. Johnson. There were several people of high esteem in attendance, but there were also many people absent, that the Johnson publications had promoted throughout the years. Ms. Carroll did not mind calling a spade black and having the courage to do so. She stood her ground on that point and I was glad that she did so. (Yes, I attended the wake for Mr. Johnson, but I was not star gazing and asking people for their autographs, as that was not the time or place for that to occur.)

Ms. Carroll leaves to cherish her daughter, two grandchildren and a host of fans who adored her.