Black Action Society hosts actress, activist Tatyana Ali


Caroline Bourque | Contributing Editor

“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” actor Tatyana Ali spoke to a crowd of more than 50 people in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room on Sunday.

By Emily Wolfe, Staff Writer

When she was younger, Tatyana Ali wanted to be an astronaut. Her room was covered with posters of her hero — Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space.

Ali never made it to space — instead she pursued another dream of becoming an actor, and landed the role of Ashley Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” becoming a hero in her own right to a generation of the show’s fans.

More than 50 of those fans gathered in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room Sunday to hear Ali speak about her experience with show business, the self-esteem issues she had as a young adult and political action. The Black Action Society, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, brought in Ali as the keynote speaker for its Indaba Week, when the society comes together to talk about community issues.

“Whatever you want to achieve, put it in front of you,” she told her audience.

After “Fresh Prince” ended when Ali was 17, she released an album and took a year off from school to tour the world, opening for bands like the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC.

Then, she went to Harvard. Her life at college was completely different from her show-business-filled teenage years.

“I was suddenly in an environment that I knew nothing about,” she said.

Both Pitt and Harvard are predominantly white institutions. According to the universities’ fact books, about five percent of Pitt’s current undergraduate student body identifies as “black or African American.” Harvard has similar numbers — 7.8 percent of its student body is black — in 2002, when Ali graduated, that number was closer to 6 percent.

“There’s some black and brown people there, we fill up a couple tables in the freshman dining hall,” she said. “But I felt very alone.”

“My self-esteem was gone. I had to get my shine back,” she said. “The thing that allowed me to do that was getting back to my faith, getting back to community service, getting back to my family. I started to treat my life like a garden again.”

Ali became visibly emotional as she talked about the alienation she had felt during her time at Harvard. She apologized, saying the movie she spent last week filming in Atlanta — “Everlasting Christmas,” Hallmark Channel’s first romantic comedy to feature black lead actors — left her “raw.” She recovered quickly and sat down with BAS president Edenis Augustin to begin the question and answer section of the night.

Soon, she was bending over with laughter as she told a story about leaving for college.

“My mom said, ‘Don’t you do what these white kids are doing, ’cause we can’t bail you out! You’re gonna stay at the jail,’” Ali said.

Ali majored in political science at Harvard and campaigned for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Recently, she said, her 2-year-old son has kept her at home, but she plans to return to political involvement as he gets older.

“What is happening to women and people of color and immigrants right now, it all works together. We have to do it together. And by doing it together, I mean seeing injustices being done to other groups of people, and standing up for them as well,” Ali said. “There is strength in numbers.”

The crowd greeted her statement with applause.

Before Ali spoke, the event featured performances from several of its members, introduced by faculty advisor Sherdina Harper. Junior Eric Reynolds performed an original spoken word poem. Then, Harper welcomed six members of Some of God’s Children, a student gospel choir, up to the stage to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which Harper made sure to note is often called the “Negro National Anthem.” One of those members, junior nursing major Leah Johnson, returned to the mic to belt out Amber Riley’s “Colorblind.”

Augustin, a junior psychology major, introduced Ali, who called the performances “beautiful,” and noted her own favorite “Fresh Prince” moment, an episode where her character sings “Respect.” A murmur went through the crowd in response — Aretha Franklin, who popularized the song, died in August.

Augustin called the night a success, considering the amount of work BAS had to go through in order to get funding from the Student Government Board to bring Ali in. When BAS originally requested $28,500 to bring Ali to campus, the SGB allocations committee advised the board to deny the request — but after SGB executive vice president Jahari Mercer moved to amend the allocation committee’s recommendation, the funding was approved in full.

“I’m glad it worked out. People came and had fun and were able to relate to Tatyana,” Augustin said.

Harper gave all credit to BAS’s council for planning the event.

“I just did the business,” she said.

But Harper did something else before the end of the evening. She led the room’s students in one more song — the “Fresh Prince” theme song “Yo Home to Bel-Air.” The crowd sang the lyrics from memory while, onstage, Ali couldn’t stop smiling.


A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted SGB executive Vice President Jahari Mercer, who did not attend the event. The quote has since been attributed to the actual speaker, Edenis Augustin. The Pitt News regrets this error.