Don’t ever knock the hustle and grind of collegiate life. If you’re really about that life then understand this: institutions are mere microcosms of the real world—where the educated are groomed to accept societal prerequisites to work, live and socialize with people from diverse ethnic, cultural, economic, political and social backgrounds. Let’s keep it all-the-way real: it’s also the pivotal period that shapes and defines a scholar’s life and challenges who he or she might become through the development of critical thinking, creativity, interpersonal skills and a profound sense of social responsibility. For the last four years, Netflix’s Dear White People has depicted the college-bound in all its complexity and explored the blurred lines of demarcation between Blacks and Whites, the haves and the have-nots, racists and activists. There to breathe life into it all was actress Ashley Blaine Featherson-Jenkins who reprised her silver screen role as the frank yet loyal, pre-med radical Joelle Brooks.
EBONY caught up with Featherson-Jenkins who spoke candidly about offering graduating seniors of Howard University’s theater arts program a headstart, the role of HBCUs nurturing today’s new school of Black leaders and why Black folks need therapy.
EBONY: How did you relate and/or not relate to your character Joelle Brooks of Winchester University on Dear White People?
Ashley Blaine Featherson-Jenkins: From the beginning the character resonated with me. Embracing Joelle was easy because of her ambition, her Black [pride] and simply being a true naturalista.
I'm extremely proud of my character's evolution because she found her voice, peace and love. By the end of the fourth season she’s fully [immersed] in her career. As an actor-stan of the show, I love what we all were able to [witness]. She’s one of my proudest accomplishments that I’ll always fondly keep in my heart.
Because you had a Black college experience did you ever feel awkward breathing life into Joelle Brooks?
Hmmmm….not really. In [the show], Joelle was a pre-med major and I studied musical theater at Howard so no comparison. In fact, the biggest challenge was learning the medical terms.
Is it true that one major difference between Black and White colleges is how fashion-forward the Black student body is at all times?
Yes! At Howard the students are always very well-dressed. Every day was like a walking fashion show. The the majority of us dress up all day, every day. The difference between [the fictional] Winchester and Howard universities is that there is more of a range and each character had its individual style that suited [him or her].
Undoubtedly, there are profound cultural differences in the way Blacks and Whites live either by choice or circumstance. How do you believe that race and/or even colorism has affected which opportunities you’ve been presented?
I can’t lie. I know I haven’t been afforded certain opportunities because of the color of my skin. Sometimes there’s a perception that I’m not as valuable as others. It’s harder for a magazine to put me on the cover or for a studio or network to believe that someone who looks like me can lead a show, film or even be portrayed as truly smart, powerful and beautiful. These are still tropes that we need to combat but I’m never tired of the battle. I will always fight for us to be seen and heard in the fullness of who we are—educated and innovative.
For the past 97 years, Howard homecoming festivities have always been legendary until last year’s cancellation due to COVID-19. Still, despite a global pandemic under the Ashley Blaine Featherson Early Grant you donated 25K to your alma mater. Why now?
Howard has so genuinely poured into me and given me so much. It was the place and time that shaped and molded me as I [pursued] my career. It’s the reason I chose to donate to an early-career grant for the [theater arts’ graduating seniors] who need [relocation funds] to pursue an acting career. This money will allow graduates to find their footing as they begin their careers. It’s extremely difficult to miss out on an audition because you need coins to do the laundry, or gas to drive to the audition or many other miscellaneous expenses. This grant will allow the recipients to have a little more stability as they pursue a fickle career that’s inconsistent and unforgiving. I hope this will make them feel a bit more confident and secure as they follow their [acting] dreams. I would have appreciated such a fund but it wasn’t available.
When jumpstarting your career, which hardships did you encounter?
I experienced Hard times where I thought, How can I do both—pursue this career and work a full-time job? That’s a hard place to be when you’re an artist. It’s very rare that an artist has the chance to start out [with no financial burdens]. In the early days, I was more worried about how much money was in my bank account and less about celebrating the small or large movements I made in my career. The reality is that when you’re in survival mode it’s an everyday struggle. I realize I don’t want to fight for survival. I want to fight to live the life I want to live happily and not be contemplating, Ok maybe I can stay in this apartment one more month before I have to move? I understand it’s part of the game, but again why this fund is so important because if there is any way for me to alleviate even a little of that burden from a young actor beginning their career I’m happy to help.
What do HBCUs offer Black students that white institutions simply can’t?
Culture. For me one of the most amazing parts of attending Howard was that I was able to be surrounded by successful, brilliant, ambitious, beautiful, fun, cool and successful multi-faceted people who looked like me. Even the attention given to Black history and learning the resiliency of our people is [unique]. That sense of Black pride can only be found at an HBCU.
How essential are HBCU’s in shaping the next generation of Black leaders?
Extremely. My mother, sister, nana and great aunt all attended HBCUs. We all found it to be essential in our growth as Black women and as Black people. Black universities were created because there was a time that we didn’t have another place to go [for our education]. Today, HBCUs are still be thriving and producing the most influential Black leaders today.
As an advocate for women’s mental health awareness why does this issue hit home for you?
It’s a near and dear issue to me because in a lot of ways therapy saved my life. I know its power to change lives if people are given proper and reasonable access to it. I think Black and Brown people specifically are dealing with a lot of generational trauma that we don’t even know how we’re dealing with it. For all the trauma we endured in this country, we deserve access to free mental healthcare which should be a part of our reparations.
What advice would you give someone who proclaims “Black folk don’t do therapy”?
Don’t let a myth disrupt your life and prevent you from taking charge and healing. Seeking therapy is not showing weakness but strength in reclaiming your power and controlling your life’s narrative. In recent years, the perception surrounding seizing control of one’s mental health has become relatively more common in our community.
Agreed. When were you introduced to therapy for better self-understanding and healing?
Eight years ago, I was talking to a friend and she mentioned talking to a therapist. It was rare because nobody was talking about [therapy]. Seeking [a therapist] changed my life for the better. When all is said and done I want to leave an imprint and always be a source of inspiration and I hope people will say that in some small way I made the world abetter place.