ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



But the greatest thing about being a mother so young, I had my first child

at 24, is that I cook, I clean,  I love to be independent and kind of hate to be

waited on and hate to be taken care of



Kam Williams Interviews Vanessa Williams

Well-Rounded & Multi-Talented  Grew Up in a Great Environment.

Starring in Ugly Betty, My Brother, And Then Came Love


Born in the Bronx on March 18, 1963, Vanessa Lynn Williams and her brother, Chris (the actor), were raised in Millwood, a suburb of New York City located in Westchester. Her parents, Milton and Helen, both music teachers, are also each half-white and half-black. And they must have had a premonition, because Vanessa’s birth announcement read: “Here she is: Miss America!”  

As a child, she studied both piano and French horn, though she showed the most interest in developing her sultry singing voice. Vanessa settled theater arts as her major at Syracuse University, but she was too impatient to enter show business to stay there very long.

On September 17, 1983, she made history and proved her parents to be clairvoyant when she won the Miss America Pageant, becoming the first black woman to hold the title in the process. Regrettably, Vanessa decided to surrender her crown after some nude photos of her surfaced in Penthouse Magazine.

But that temporary setback couldn’t prevent such a multi-talented performer from continuing to pursue her dream, and she went on to flourish not only as a recording artist, but also on TV and the stage, and on film, winning a trio of NAACP Image Awards, while landing 14 Grammy nominations (winning once), a Screen Actors Guild nomination and a Tony nomination.

Currently, Vanessa is enjoying a recurring role on Ugly Betty, not as the title character, obviously, but as Wilhemina Slater. The bi-coastal beauty commutes back and forth between L.A. and her hometown where she is raising her four kids, Melanie, Jillian, Devin and Sasha. 

Here, she talks about her life and her latest outing as L’Tisha Morton in My Brother, where she exhibits an emotional range unseen in any of her previous work as the mother of two adolescent boys, one of whom has Down Syndrome.

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KW: Hey, Vanessa, thanks so much for the time. I really appreciate it, since I’ve enjoyed your career from the beginning.

Vanessa Williams: Thank you, no problem.

KW: In fact, since my last name was Williams and I was also from New York, I have to admit that when you won Miss America, I used to claim that you were my cousin. 

Vanessa Williams: [Chuckles] Oh, where in New York are you from?

KW: Saint Albans. I know you were born in The Bronx, but then where were you raised? 

Vanessa Williams: I grew up in Millwood, which is in northern Westchester. My Dad’s from Oyster Bay, and my Mom’s from Buffalo. 

KW: Gee, my family used to go out to places like Oyster Bay and Sag Harbor during the summer. Congratulations on recently winning another NAACP Image Award. I’m on the nominating committee 

Vanessa Williams: Oh, okay, thank you! It was my third. The first one I got was for a recording, my album The Right Stuff  back in 1988. The second one was ten years later for Soul Food, which was a film. So this is great, because it’s my first one for television.

KW: So, how are you enjoying having a hit show and playing Wilhemina Slater on Ugly Betty?

Vanessa Williams: [Laughs] I love it! I love our cast. I love our writers. I love the producers. I love our set. It’s just a really enjoyable experience. I’m just so happy that I have the opportunity to play such a fun role.

KW: Are you at all like Wilhemina in real life?

Vanessa Williams: Playing a diva like Wilhemina, most people assume that things are usually taken care of for you, and that you don’t have a lot of domestic skills. And many actresses don’t, because of the nature of the business that we’re in. But the greatest thing about being a mother so young, I had my first child at 24, is that I cook, I clean, I love to be independent and kind of hate to be waited on and hate to be taken care of. So, I guess that demonstrates my fiercely independent nature which is kind of anti what I portray on a weekly basis.

KW: Well, you certainly come across as surprisingly grounded and real. I guess part of that’s from being a mother, and part of that is from not living in Hollywood.

Vanessa Williams: [Chuckles] Yeah.

KW: And I’d guess that you’re not the type to travel with a big entourage either?

Vanessa Williams: I don’t draw attention to myself or have security pushing people away.

KW: That’s admirable. How do your children like being able to see you on TV every week like that?

Vanessa Williams: My kids are so busy that they don’t even get a chance to catch it every Thursday night. Given their schedules, they’re not even home. My six year-old manages to see it, but all the other kids have class or some other extracurricular activity, so thank God for TiVo.

KW: In this age of the soccer mom, where you’re constantly shuttling children around, how is it for you balancing your career and your kids? I know how long the days are and what grueling work it is shooting a TV series. It’s totally time-consuming.

Vanessa Williams: It is extremely time-consuming. And we shoot film, so it’s not a half-hour comedy. We’re doing an hour comedy every week, so it’s like doing a film every eight days. Luckily, my days per episode are usually three to four. So, I’m, not shooting every day of the week, which allows me to fly home to be with my kids for the weekends. That’s how I keep it moving.

KW: I didn’t realize that. So, where’s Ugly Betty shot? And where do you live?

Vanessa Williams: I live in New York, and it’s shot in L.A.

KW: Whoa! So, do you live in Manhattan?

Vanessa Williams: No, I live in my hometown in Westchester. My kids go to the same schools I went to.

KW: That’s very interesting. Why did you choose to do that?

Vanessa Williams: Boy, I moved back to New York in ’92, when my oldest was 5, and about to start kindergarten. I wanted her to go to start school back East. When we were looking for a home, we found one in my hometown that was perfect. So, we didn’t intentionally move back there, but that’s how it happened. My eldest is already in college at F.I.T [The Fashion Institute of Technology] in the City. My 17 year-old is a senior at the high school that I went to, and my son is in eighth grade at the junior high where I was class president in the same grade. And my little one is in first grade at Montessori.   

KW: Does your 17 year-old know where she’s going next year yet?

Vanessa Williams: She’s been accepted by four schools and she’s waiting to hear from four more. So we’ll know in a matter of weeks.

KW: Good luck. My son’s a senior, too, and was admitted to Princeton . . . which means he’ll be close to home, which is great.

Vanessa Williams: Fantastic. My oldest went to a boarding school which was about a half-hour away from Princeton.

KW: Do you have a place in L.A? I don’t mean to pry but a friend of mine out there, Jimmy Bayan, needs to know.  

Vanessa Williams: I’m renting in Beverly Hills.

KW: So, what interested you in making this film, My Brother?

Vanessa Williams: Well, the script and the whole theme of the movie interested me. Anthony Lover, who wrote it, came after me and said he’d written this part particularly for me, because he knew that as a mother I would have the sensibility needed to bring it to life. And when I read the script, and saw the nature of it, I signed on and met the rest of the cast. And when we started rehearsals, I just knew that it was going to be a very special movie.

KW: I agree, I loved it, and I think that it also afforded you an opportunity to exhibit an emotional range and a certain gravitas that we haven’t had a chance to see from you before. 

Vanessa Williams: Yeah, well it’s nice to have material like that. That’s another reason why you do independent films, because it allows you to do roles that you don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re bankable, or if people are going to come see them, or with satisfying a committee that’s funding it. Of course, independent films need distribution and money, but they also have a lot more freedom in terms of what the artist can truly do as the filmmaker.    

KW: I also found it interesting that this is the first full-length film to feature an African-American with an actual developmental disability in a lead role. In fact, two, because both Donovan Jennings who plays James as a child and Christopher Scott who plays him as an adult have Down Syndrome.

Vanessa Williams: Yeah, I didn’t think about it like that. They did a nationwide search for actors, and I think they did a fantastic job with Donovan and Christopher. For first-time out actors, in general, they’ve done a wonderful job. We rehearsed for maybe about two weeks before we started shooting. And Anthony, when he was directing, was very supportive and very paternal with everyone, particularly them. In working with them, his process was to kind of keep the camera rolling, and to talk us through the scene, so it was almost one constant take, as opposed to doing a series of takes, scene after scene, sequentially. I think that allowed everyone to feel really comfortable, and to get some extremely good performances. 

KW: What would you say is the movie’s message?

Vanessa Williams: I think it’s a story about the human condition, and love, whether it’s between a mother and a son, or the love of two brothers. It’s about responsibility and becoming men, and applying the lessons that were learned by their mother and bringing them to their adulthood. It’s not a pity party, although there are some strong images and a lot of obstacles that you see in the movie. It’s a story about love, and it’s uplifting. I don’t want people to feel sorry for Donovan and Christopher and the condition that they’re in. It’s definitely not that at all.

KW: What do you have on the horizon in your career?

Vanessa Williams: I have another independent film called And Then Came Love, which comes out in June. That’s a story about a female journalist who has a child through artificial insemination which explores the theme of women raising kids by themselves.

KW: Isn’t Eartha Kitt in that?

Vanessa Williams: Right, she plays my Mom.

KW: How do you feel about Donald Trump pardoning Miss USA, rather than stripping her of her title?

Vanessa Williams: I really don’t have any feelings about it. I didn’t do the Miss USA system which is way more big business and corporate-based than Miss America. And that was 23 years ago.

KW: What advice would you have for anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Vanessa Williams: Number one, find out what you true desire and talent is. And get practical experience. The more you do, the more you’ll be prepared when opportunities present themselves to you. So keep working at it, be professional, show up on time, be prepared, know your stuff, be pleasant, treat people kindly, and don’t forget to take chances.

KW: Your being very gifted and blessed with beauty and a variety of talents has served you very well: singing… acting… dancing….. And your being well-spoken also enabled you to be a successful spokesperson in commercials. But do you recommend that an aspiring entertainer focus on one skill rather than several at once?  

Vanessa Williams: I think it’s up to the individual. I was lucky to have two parents who were music teachers. They exposed me and my brother to so many things: the ballet . . . Broadway . . . marching bands . . . every kind of educational tool and entertainment. So, the fact that we’re well-rounded and kind of multi-talented was definitely a function of what we were exposed to and what we got training in. I was lucky that I had parents who could provide me with dance classes. And I had a great acting teacher in my high school which is unusual. I grew up in a great environment.

KW: Well, thanks for the time and continued success in your assorted endeavors. And let me say again that I was extremely impressed by your performance in My Brother, and by the picture overall. So, I hope to see you in a lot more roles which call for such emotional depth.

Vanessa Williams: Thank you very much.

posted 16 March 2007

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It’s The Middle Class Stupid!

By James Carville and Stan Greenberg

It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! confirms what we have all suspected: Washington and Wall Street have really screwed things up for the average American. Work has been devalued. Education costs are out of sight. Effort and ambition have never been so scantily rewarded. Political guru James Carville and pollster extraordinaire Stan Greenberg argue that our political parties must admit their failures and the electorate must reclaim its voice, because taking on the wealthy and the privileged is not class warfare—it is a matter of survival. Told in the alternating voices of these two top political strategists, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! provides eye-opening and provocative arguments on where our government—including the White House—has gone wrong, and what voters can do about it. 

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*   *   *   *   *


Absalom, Absalom! 

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Absalom, Absalom!

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man’s turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners’ plans to give him a “necktie party” (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by “the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own home town.” Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson’s magnificent, extensively researched study of the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an “uncertain existence” in the North and Midwest.

Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

*   *   *   *   *


Becoming American Under Fire

Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship

During the Civil War Era

By Christian G. Samito

In Becoming American under Fire, Christian G. Samito provides a rich account of how African American and Irish American soldiers influenced the modern vision of national citizenship that developed during the Civil War era. By bearing arms for the Union, African Americans and Irish Americans exhibited their loyalty to the United States and their capacity to act as citizens; they strengthened their American identity in the process. . . . For African American soldiers, proving manhood in combat was only one aspect to their quest for acceptance as citizens. As Samito reveals, by participating in courts-martial and protesting against unequal treatment, African Americans gained access to legal and political processes from which they had previously been excluded. The experience of African Americans in the military helped shape a postwar political movement that successfully called for rights and protections regardless of race.   For Love of Liberty

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Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid

By  Frank B. Wilderson III

Wilderson, a professor, writer and filmmaker from the Midwest, presents a gripping account of his role in the downfall of South African apartheid as one of only two black Americans in the African National Congress (ANC). After marrying a South African law student, Wilderson reluctantly returns with her to South Africa in the early 1990s, where he teaches Johannesburg and Soweto students, and soon joins the military wing of the ANC. Wilderson’s stinging portrait of Nelson Mandela as a petulant elder eager to accommodate his white countrymen will jolt readers who’ve accepted the reverential treatment usually accorded him. After the assassination of Mandela’s rival, South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Mandela’s regime deems Wilderson’s public questions a threat to national security; soon, having lost his stomach for the cause, he returns to America. W—Publishers Weekly

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Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All

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Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock  market. True wealth has more to do with what’s in your heart than what’s in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, “Happy can make you money, but money can’t make you happy.”

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.

Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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update 14 July 2012




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