My Uncle Grady may be the only guy I’ve heard of who has broken into jail. He did this during the early 1960s sometime after being arrested alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other young protesters in the Albany Movement. Legend has it he broke out of jail to buy a pack of cigarettes; then broke back into jail because he felt he had been arrested for a reason. His incarceration was a part of the protest in his eyes. So long as fellow activists were locked away for peacefully protesting segregation in public places like the libraries and lunch counters, Uncle Grady felt it was his place to be by their side. He certainly wasn’t the only one in my family to stand up to inequality.
His sister, and my mom, Joyce, were quite different. You weren’t going to find her standing in any picket line. However, she did find her own way of challenging the status quo by being one of the first black women to enroll and study classical piano at the Julliard School of Music in NYC. Very much her own person at a young age, she left Albany, GA, chopped off her hair, died it blonde, and walked the streets of New York with a large greyhound dog she named Pocahontas. My mom followed her bliss and dared anyone to tell her she wasn’t supposed to. It’s possible they both inherited some of that rebellious spirit from my great-grandmother, the matriarch of our family we all affectionately called Mama Hailey.
A decade or more earlier, Mama Hailey spearheaded a campaign that eventually desegregated public swimming pools in Tifton, GA. As a hard-working midwife raising four daughters in the Jim Crow south, years before there was any real organized civil rights movement, she had every reason not to rock the boat. But one year she grew fed up with seeing kids on her side of the railroad tracks suffer in the oppressive summer heat — long before central air-conditioning, folks — when white children on the other side of town had a public pool to cool off in. The way she saw it, since everyone paid taxes, everyone should have access to public facilities. I don’t think Mama Hailey was trying to be a leader. She was a pragmatist who felt compelled to speak up for what was fair.
My family has passed a baton to me now. It never occurred to any of us that I wouldn’t become a TV writer if I was crazy enough to pursue it. I knew long before moving to Los Angeles how the odds were stacked against me, in ways both subtle and obvious. I was aware of how hard it is to make a living at anything in entertainment, least of all working as a scribe. Yes, there are discouraging statistics about the lack of diversity in many writer’s rooms and disheartening double standards women and writers of color grapple with once they begin working. I’d be remiss to let that keep me from pursing this path though. If I’ve learned anything from generations of my family’s struggles with adversity, it’s this: Be bold. Be yourself. Stand up for what you believe is fair. And don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do.