She Did It Her Way-Diahann Carroll Was a Pioneer, Legend and Diversity Champion
Diahann Carroll was in a a class of her own.
She achieved this distinction at a time when the very idea that a Black woman could chart her own course was revolutionary. Irrespective of whether the desired goal was a role in entertainment or another professional endeavor, this was considered an impossible dream. In the 1950’s of McCarthy-era America, widespread fear and segregation continued to sharply define the social order and opportunities available to Black Americans.
With the weight of institutions positioned to reinforce this reality, dreamers didn’t really stand a chance. The risks were high and the personal costs even higher.
The Civil Rights movement was still in its nascent stage, but the casualties were already considerable. The deaths of NAACP field director Medgar Evers in Mississippi and countless other everyday men and women struggling to assert their Constitutional rights as hard-working, tax-paying citizens were a chilling reminder of the steep, devastating cost of change.
And in Black Hollywood, the impact of the McCarthy hearings affected the careers of activists and suspected Communists like Paul Robeson, whose brilliant career as an actor and performer was cut short without remedy. Even the great Lena Horne found her career in jeopardy.
Hollywood may have been the land of make-believe, but the studio system of the 50’s reflected the stark realities of our country and its social politics. Studio heads had iron-fisted control over the kinds of role that Black actors could play. The choices were governed by racial stereotypes and public expectations.
For women, the options were especially lean. Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were the glamorous screen sirens. Pearl Bailey was the sassy, outspoken girl-about-town. The only remaining options for an ambitious young actor to consider, provided she looked the part physically and authentically, were either(1) as a maid or (2) as a magical Mammy figure. It helped if you could sing or dance- that created a third option for performances in nightclubs or on stage.
These were the rules for succeeding in Hollywood’s bright lights and promise of fame. Yet, here comes this beautiful, sophisticated, college-educated (NYU) young woman from Harlem, New York who has the audacity to say “Not for me.”
With a background in music, modeling and Broadway, Diahann Carroll was an undeniable talent. But it would take much more than talent to defy an entire system to live her truth as an artist and actor. The odds were against her from the start. But destiny wasn’t.
With grit, vision, determination, resilience, Diahann Carroll would use her superpowers to rewrite the rules of Hollywood. She would define her career on her own terms in not just one, but two groundbreaking television roles and other important contributions to her industry.
Not to mention her appearance in the movie 1961 movie Paris Blues as the initial love interest of movie star and heartthrob Paul Newman-his interest isn’t returned- and eventual fiancee of Sidney Poitier. Two of Hollywood’s most highly sought after A-list actors competing onscreen for the hand of the same woman, an amazing Black woman.In one film moment, that woman signaled that she would be a force to be reckoned with. Imagine that.
As the war widow and efficient, polished nurse Julia in the hit 1968 NBC show, Julia (eternal props to NBC), Diahann Carroll strutted into American living rooms and dared viewers to see her as anything but an elegant, well-spoken, middle-class Black woman. She declared herself an equal among equals in a role that defied racial stereotypes.White audiences had never seen anyone like her before on their screens, but loved her anyway.
Being a trailblazer meant not only being acceptable to audiences, but creating new standards for Black women onscreen in terms of content and presentation. Miss Carroll built the wings she needed to elevate herself and her role above the images of the past and soared into a Golden Globe Award and Emmy nomination. As if she needed any further proof of her emerging superpowers.
Julia established the template for the modern day, independent professional woman sitcom. Before the equally groundbreaking Mary Tyler Moore Show about the life of happily single professional woman of a certain age, there was Diahann Carroll paving the way.
After Julia, she went on to star in the movie, Claudine with the venerable James Earl Jones, yet another amazing leading man. She earned a 1975 Academy Award nomination, following in the footsteps of acting phenomenon, icon and fellow Harlemite Cicely Tyson who had been nominated in 1972 for Sounder.
But the role that would launch Diahann Carroll into the superstardom that she deserved, raise her profile into superhero status where the rules of mere mortals no longer applied was still ahead of her. The character was as iconic and unforgettable as the woman destined to play her. Dominique Devereaux, on the zeitgeist-defining and pop culture powerhouse Dynasty, blew the doors off of what America was used seeing on film or television.( With the glittering exception of Diana Ross’ Mahogany.)
As Dominique Devereaux, Miss Carroll was Black Girl Magic and Steel Magnolia Defiance personified. Facing off against each week against her screen rival, the deliciously manipulative and glamorous Alexis Carrington, played by fellow diva, the divine Joan Collins,Carroll was at the height of her powers.
At a time when Black women were entering the corporate workplace in greater numbers, Carroll’s representation of her character was significant. With all things being equal, Dominique Devereaux exemplified our unrestricted promise.
She was everything we were capable of being- wealthy, super successful, smart, competitive, cosmopolitan and accomplished. Most importantly, she was neither tragic nor pathetic. She was our American dream.
In Black America, we all knew or heard of women like Dominique Devereaux. We vacationed with them in Martha’s Vineyard, Myrtle Beach, Carr Beach or Hilton Head. Or perhaps, we worshipped with them at church. They volunteered at our schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Some of our aunts or family friends did their hair. A friend of our brother’s may have cut their yard. Their faces were on the cover of our local Black newspapers as they held court at galas and balls.
We saw them profiled in Jet magazine and saw them whisk around our communities in dressed to nines in Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Benzes. In passing, they would smile brightly and tell us to study hard in school.
But these women were a closely kept secret. That’s the way it had always been, part of an old social pact that had been made long before our time. Sometime after the Civil War. You did not talk about Black excellence or success or fabulousness outside of the community. Especially at work, it posed an automatic threat and career risk.
Someone could lose a job or customers, if they owned a service business like landscaping or furniture repair. In the corporate world, where our standing was still so unsteady, it was important to work twice as diligently, keep our heads down and be quiet in order to succeed.
But every week on Dynasty, Dominique Devereaux did our talking for us. She was unapologetic about her accomplishments. She spoke her mind and demanded equal standing and respect.
She was not intimidated by the “gaze” that governed the everyday lives of Black Americans. The perpetual “gaze” that required us to adhere to unspoken, but well-understood rules about how to move forward and succeed without disruption. She did not aim to please and did not care if you liked her.
She was nobody’s maid. She was nobody’s magical mammy or confidante. Dominique Devereaux onscreen was what Diahann Carroll had been in her life. She was simply the best, a woman who lived on her own terms, according to her own truth.
She even spelled her name differently from anyone else. Diahann Carroll as Dominque Devereaux was our inner diva and outer dream girl. She showed us what it meant to control your destiny, succeed without apology, and live up to your full potential with style and grit. She was an undisputed queen. And nobody played the role better.
But it wasn’t easy. There were many hurts and disappointments along the way. Because of her uncompromising standards, Miss Carroll’s film career didn’t progress.
In her bleak years, she performed in smaller venues and appeared on the game show Hollywood Squares to support herself and stay in the public eye. Being a change agent in an industry that still chafed at seeing you the way, you deserved to be seen exacted a tremendous personal cost. And Diahann Carroll paid it.
She had to be her own diversity champion, even when the doors were closed to her. There had to have been tears at midnight. Mornings when she wondered and worried whether she had done the right thing by rejecting that script or speaking too directly with a studio executive.
In addition to getting more worthy roles, she should have been a producer or studio executive with her experience and success. That she endured any of this is a travesty.
There had to have been moments when it was hard for her to put on her heels, makeup, and suit to attend a meeting where agents or studio heads were certain to turn down her pitch or idea. Or offer her something beneath her talents. And yet she kept going, persevering, hoping, pushing, dreaming. We owe her so much.
Because of Diahann Carroll, television audiences loved and accepted Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in the ABC show Scandal, based on the remarkable life of DC fixer Judy Smith. Because of Diahann Carroll, the world accepts without question that Beyonce is a queen. Because of Diahann Carroll, Michelle Obama was revered and admired as our First Lady.
Miss Carroll pushed the envelope on diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry. It’s a shame that the industry isn’t further along. But in television, we see Miss Carroll’s footprints in the success of shows focused on the lives of complicated, sophisticated Black women. Oprah Winfrey, Shonda Rhimes and Ava Duvernay are part of her legacy.
We also see her footprints, along with our mothers, and others like corporate pioneers Ann Fudge or Ursula Burns whenever we see a Black woman allowed to stand tall at a company committed to real equality. Or when we see a Black woman in a role in which her leadership is supported and groomed just like anyone else. That’s what meaningful diversity and inclusion truly looks like.
Diahann Carroll was a legend, diversity and inclusion role model and superhero because her reach far exceeded her grasp. We thank her for letting us know that it was possible, albeit not easy, to define your place in the world as an equal with certainty and grace.
Her life was as remarkable as she deserved. Now she’s finally home where she belongs-among the stars.