Jenifer Lewis: The Mother of Black Hollywood
Jenifer Lewis is a legendary actress, comedian, singer, author, and activist, whose extraordinary contributions to theater, film, and television have warmed the hearts of audiences for nearly four decades. With exceptional talent, intensity, and one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood, Lewis’s career has been nothing short of remarkable.
In her newly released memoir, titled “The Mother of Black Hollywood,” Lewis writes about joining the cast of ABC’s hit television series, Black-ish, and recalls her life as an internationally acclaimed entertainer. In addition to the juicy details about her life as a celebrity, Lewis shocks readers with revelations of her secret struggles with sexual addiction and mental illness. She details the road to recovery and emotional healing after having been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder at the height of her career, encouraging readers to find the strength to begin their own journey to recovery.
October is gearing up to be a busy month for Hollywood’s most beloved matriarch. To the delight of millions of devotedfans Black-ish returns for a new season on Oct. 16. Lewis, who has received the Black Reel Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress for her role as the feisty, no-nonsense mother of Anthony Anderson’s character for two years in a row, can’t wait for viewers to explore the quintessential Johnson family’s next chapter.
On Oct. 21, Lewis will be recognized for her courageous contributions to the dialogue surrounding mental health as a special guest at the Colorado Black Health Collaborative’s fundraising gala at Hyatt Regency in Aurora. The event will honor 10 years of health services while celebrating the impact of culturally appropriate health programs delivered to thousands of Colorado residents each year. Lewis, in true diva fashion, promises, “We’re going to have a blast!”
Writing “The Mother of Black Hollywood” was monumental in Lewis’ road to recovery, as it allowed her to unpack years of baggage and concealed pain.
A native of Kinloch, Missouri, Lewis grew up in poverty as the youngest of seven children. The small self-governed town outside of St. Louis was the first in the state to be incorporated by Blacks, but after years of socio-economic deprivation and political corruption, the city is now overgrown and nearly dormant.
Lewis’s mother, Dorothy, was ahard working single parent whose ability to be fully engaged and supportive was hindered by the perilous task of dividing her time and attention between her demanding work as a nurse’s aide, and her seven children. Fueled by an insatiable desire for her mother’s attention and admiration, Lewis devoted herself to aspirations of becoming famous.
In the second chapter of her memoir, “Shoulders Back, Titties First,” she writes, “I am a born entertainer. Even as a little girl, I dreamed of being a star.” At five years old, Lewis starred in her first public production as a soloist in her church choir; the passionate,over-the top performance thrust her into the lifelong pursuit of success in show business. She spent her childhood studying the likes of Pearl Bailey, Bette Davis, Moms Mabley and Lucille Ball, and then emulated their unique flair with ostentatious performances at monthly talent shows.
Just one day after graduating from Webster University with a degree in Theater Arts, Lewis packed her bags and left for New York City. Eleven days after her arrival, Lewis made her Broadway debut in Eubie! a revue featuring the music of jazz and swing composer, Eubie Blake. After the show closed, Lewis landed a role in Comin’ Uptown, her second Broadway show in just six months.
Lewis’ career took off, just as she always knew it would. She proudly recalls her early days in entertainment. “I took the stairs to success,” she remembers, “Not the elevator. That is why I have sustained.”
Basking in the incessant praise of audiences, Lewis’ exorbitant confidence was validated by the electric applause after each performance. In the fourth chapter of The Mother of Black Hollywood, she writes, “It’s pretty common to have a heightened sense of self when you are performing: a rush of bliss, and an almost uncontrollable sense of accomplishment, like what runners feel when the endorphins kick in.”
Lewis struggled to balance the shift in energy after leaving the stage. Her feelings of despair off-stage were intensified by the absence of her long-distance companion and the love of her life, Miguel. She learned to substitute the thrill of the stage with sex, recalling, “The applause coming over the footlights is like a slow-motion tsunami of adoration, like jumping on a spaceship and riding it back to Pluto. The crash after the show, I assure you, is just as intense. Let’s just say that I had sort of an unconscious habit of using post-show sex to come back to earth.”
The exhilarating rush of Hollywood success was peppered with emotional pitfalls resulting from rejection, loneliness and the devastating HIV/AIDS crisis, which savagely swept through the theater community in the 1980s. Lewis losta great deal of friends in such rapid succession that she barely had time to mourn. In her down time, she grasped for activities and hobbies that would keep her feeling fulfilled, but the extreme shifts between happiness and sadness were hindering Lewis’ ability to function. She writes, “It was becoming more difficult to overlook my extreme, abiding depression or to deny that my clowning and promiscuity were, in fact, inappropriate behavior.”
After learning that her best friend, Quitman, had been diagnosed with AIDS, Lewis recalls the advice of her friend, Beverly, who suggested that she seek professional help for her increasing bouts of depression. Lewis took her advice after learning that her former lover, Miguel, had passed away following a massive heart attack.
The journey of Lewis’ self-discovery began with a therapist who helped her uncover the pain and abuses hiding behind her superstar smile. By exploring the generational patterns passed down by her mother, she assigned the rage she felt as an adult to her experiences in childhood. Her therapist helped her to understand that the severe behavior with periods of marked mania and depression was symptoms of a mental illness called Bipolar Disorder.
Mania, defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “a distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive or irritable mood and abnormally and persistently increased activity or energy,” was a likely culprit for Lewis’ addiction to sex. To balance the overwhelming feelings and emotions resulting from her mania, Lewis was self-medicating with meaningless intercourse, using men as tools to mask her pain.
Therapy allowed Lewis to discuss deeply troubling incidents that she’d repressed over the years. She confronted the pastor of her mother’s church about molesting her when she was a little girl. She confronted her mother for her negligence, forgiving her for not acting in her defense after learning about the pastor’s transgressions. Therapy taught Lewis to protect herself and stop hiding the secrets that would lead to crippling bouts of depression. She learned to speak her truth instead of bottling up her feelings and emotions for some explosive manic moment when she would offendcoworkers and friends.
Initially, Lewis was resistant to pharmaceutical intervention; saying “I feared medication would take away my personality and restrain my ability to express my emotions.” She worked through the therapeutic process by journaling, attending lectures on positive thinking, exercising and auditioning for new roles. However, after appearing on Johnny Carson’s last Tonight Show, Lewis changed her mind about medication when a manic Robin Williams reminded her of her own behavior. She was tired of the emotional rollercoaster and began taking prescribed medication to manage her disorder.
Starting therapy was a turning point in Lewis’ life. She speaks candidly about the positive effects of therapy and the importance of seeking professional help when all behavioral signs point to an abnormality. “I’m so fortunate to have done this work, and unzipped all this pain, and stepped out of the body bag,” she says. By sharing her experiences, she hopes to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness.
Mental health is a taboo subject in the Black community, with generational negative predispositions to therapy responsible for the challenges associated with diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. Of the 45 million Black Americans living in the United States, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that approximately 16 percent, or 6.8 million, have a diagnosable mental illness. The need for mental health care continues to increase, as the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reports that Black people are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Increased rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, major depression, and suicide can be attributed to increased exposure to violence and the oppressive effects of systemic racism, with many people resorting to self-medication with drugs, alcohol, or sex, in an attempt to silence their inner demons and solve their problems alone.
Lewis is among many prominent figures who are using their platform to dispel the notion that mental illness does not affect Black people while advocating for healthcare services and spreading awareness about the need for professional help when things are out of control. She urges people to be mindful of their behavior and stop ignoring the signs. “You know when something is wrong,” she says. “If you know things are unstable. If you know that you are angry, rageful, and resentful all of the time, and in thatresentment you’re over the top; you are extreme in behavior, both mania and depression, something is wrong.”
Lewis believes the key to success is honesty. “Look in the mirror and repeat over and over again, ‘I love myself,’ and then call a friend. If they don’t listen, call another friend. Ask them to help you help yourself, and then get into some kind of treatment. Try talk therapy, and if you need medication, be patient and get the correct levels of medication so that you can live your life!” Lewis points out that for some Bipolar Disorder never goes away, but that the pain will dissipate if you do the work. “If you snatch a weed, it will grow back. Ladies and gentlemen, you must go to the root! My message to you is to find the strength. If I can do it, so can you.”
With studies suggesting a difference in the rate of metabolization among Black people, it is important that healthcare professionals are attentive to the need for appropriate dosages. Lewis urges people to be patient when trying to determine the proper levels of medication with healthcare professionals. “Recovery and healing require patience,” said Lewis, “Having patience means knowing that it is never too late to get well.”
Lewis made a commitment to work hard to align herself and create an environment that is supportiveto her personal evolution. “I do the work. I continue to do it. I’m really good with my medicine; I have to remind myself to take it every day. If the warning signs are there, and the mania starts, I take my meds and realign myself,” she said. “It doesn’t make life easy, it makes life easier.”
In the process of working through her emotional healing, Lewis discovered the irony in having played a mother in countless roles without having children of her own. She decided to become more active in the lives of children, giving back to her community while nurturing her peace of mind. She joined Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America to serve as a mentor to children in need, and became a “Big Sister” to Charmaine, the youngest of four children whose mother was sufferingwith the painful and disabling Multiple Sclerosis. When her mother’s condition worsened, and she was unable to care for her children, Lewis assumed responsibility for Charmaine, adopting her and becoming her legal guardian.
Lewis’ experiences as a parent called her to question her experiences with her own mother. In a journal entry, Lewis wrote, “Was my mother depressed every day of her life? Is that what I learned? Can I live another way?” Not wanting to replicate her mother’s strictness, Lewis struggled to findbalance between being a big sister and an authority figure. “As Charmaine’s parent, I couldn’t always say ‘yes.’ I now had to say ‘no’ sometimes. That was hard for both of us.” A serious devotion to her mental health allowed Lewis to tackle parenting issues with patience and clarity until Charmaine left for college.
After six years of appearing as a regular cast member on the top-rated Lifetime show, Strong Medicine, Lewis accepted a role in Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion, before going on to voice the animated 1957 Cadillac “Flo” in the Disney-Pixar animation, Cars, and playing opposite Meryl Streep in the stage production of Mother Courage.
The stage has always been a creative outlet for Lewis, who introduced audiences to the intricate details of her fascinating life in one-woman autobiographical comedy and music shows that addressed the topic of bipolar disorder. She shared her Hollywood experiences in The Diva is Dismissed, earning an NAACP Theatre Award, and thrilled audiences in Bipolar, Bath & Beyond, leading to an invitation to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show to speak about her challenges with mental illness.
With more than 300 film, televisionand theatrical appearances, Lewis was considering retirement when she landed the role of a lifetime on Black-ish. The successful series has warmed the hearts of viewers for four seasons, with no plans of slowing down any time soon. More than four million people tune into ABC each Tuesday evening to watch the affluent Johnson family navigate social challenges that address the current socio-political climate.
In her current role as the feisty, no-nonsense matriarch, Lewis explores the intricacies of the modern Black family in relationships with her marvelous television grandchildren, Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown, and Caila (Marsai) Martin; an eccentric daughter-in-law, Rainbow, played by Tracee Ellis Ross; a hilarious son, Dre, played by Anthony Anderson; and on-screen ex-husband, Pops, played by Laurence Fishburne. “I am proud of Ruby. Tome she is the exemplification of what ‘mother of Black Hollywood’ means. She represents how far we’ve come,” Lewis writes. She loves filming Black-ish on the set she refers to as refreshingly happy.
Lewis continues to use her platform as one of the most respected actresses in Hollywood, advocating for mental health and stressing the importance of maintaining healthy relationships and balance. Her journey was marked with tragedy and hardship, but she persevered and refused to be defeated. “I did my best to be happy instead of thinking I was going to get to the top and then be happy because I made it to the top,” she said. The Mother of Black Hollywood has received outstanding reviews from respected literary critics, but the most meaningful review came from her good friend, the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, who delivered a message of praise in the days preceding her death.
Lewis manages her workload by staying aligned and traveling. She plans to share her globetrotting experiences as she introduces the world to “the Jenifer Lewis of today,” in her next literary masterpiece. “I’m leading with love, she says with a positive outlook on the future, “I do my best, I leave the rest.”
Editor’s Note: For tickets to attend the CBHC 1st Annual Fundraising Gala, visit www.ColoradoBlackHealth.org/gala. The Mother of Black Hollywood is available for purchase online and at all major retailers.