Delivered from slavery

Times Staff Writer

ONLY a handful of historical anecdotes about African Americans are part of this country’s cultural canon. Most schoolchildren are taught about Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but that’s often the extent of the list. Actress Karyn Parsons hopes to add names and expand horizons.

“The Journey of Henry Box Brown,” a new DVD produced by her company, Sweet Blackberry, tells the story of a man born into slavery who literally was delivered -- by post -- to freedom. In 1849, Brown packed and mailed himself in a 3-by-2-by-2-foot wooden crate, from a plantation in Virginia to Philadelphia.

Parsons, best known for her role as Hilary Banks in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” heard the story from her mother, a retired librarian, as an adult. “No one I knew knew the story,” she says. After the birth of her daughter, and with the encouragement of her husband, Parsons wrote her version of the story and undertook the project.

The narrator of the DVD, Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard, did know the story and was delighted when Parsons asked her to participate.


“I knew that things would be told simply but sophisticated as well,” Woodard says. “And that’s the way to reach children. You know, they’re not aliens.”

The DVD, touted as “Stories from our culture ... Stories for the soul,” is a storybook on screen. It opens with Woodard talking to a group of children, asking them about what “freedom” means.

When she opens the book to start reading, the illustrations take over. Despite being a two-dimensional presentation, it manages to retain the intimate experience of having a trusted adult share a book with a room of children.

“Just because it’s a DVD does not mean that you can’t keep storytelling, the tradition of storytelling, alive,” Parsons says. “If your kid’s going to be watching a DVD, it’s nice to put them in front of something that’s educational. But they’re having fun; they don’t know they’re learning something.”


There are some mature themes in the story, in keeping with the historical accuracy of slavery. “The Journey of Henry Box Brown” gently incorporates the separation of families, beatings and submission, but does not linger on them.

Parsons uses animal characters -- Bird, Mouse, Cricket, Cat and Horse -- to discuss the concepts of slavery and freedom. Henry Box Brown encounters these animals one by one on the trip, and they convey his emotions and dreams.

“The whole concept of the Sweet Blackberry series of stories is to tell true stories about African Americans in history -- some stories that you may not be familiar with, some that you may,” she says. “But they are about amazing people who have overcome incredible obstacles.”

Parsons said the company is in negotiations with distributors, but for now the DVD is available at Storyopolis in Studio City and from her website.


She hopes her project will eventually grow to six or seven DVDs, including the story of Ellen Kraft, a fair-skinned slave who posed as a white man -- the slave master of her darker-skinned husband -- to escape to freedom.

And as the series expands, she intends to expand beyond stories of African Americans to other people of color who have overcome tremendous obstacles.

“I think that’s really what the heart of it is all about: empowering children,” Parsons says, “so they can see that and they know that they can do whatever they want.”



‘The Journey of Henry Box Brown’

What: Sweet Blackberry DVD; for ages 3 to 10

Cost: $14.95