There is a perception by some that America has entered into an era of post-racial harmony where more good than bad occurs when it comes to racial tensions. While the outward clashes between races and blatant racism may have disappeared, there is still a struggle that many people of colour face in the United States. Some people may choose not to face this battle, maybe even accept that their situation may never change.
On the other hand there are individuals, such as actress Lynn Whitfield, who possess an attitude that drives them forward when they meet barriers, and confronts and overcomes them to achieve success. Lynn Whitfield came from a background that, had her skin color been different, would have easily launched a high profile career. However, because Whitfield is black life presented more challenges.
Roots in Black Southern Aristocracy
Whitfield was born Lynn Butler-Smith on 6 May 1953 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to parents with deep roots in black Southern aristocracy. Her father, Dr. Valerian Smith ran a successful dental practice for decades in her native Baton Rouge. Dr. Smith was a graduate of Howard University and in addition to his dental practice was thoroughly engaged in the performing arts in Louisiana.
Her mother, Jean Butler, is a third-generation graduate of Howard University and spent time working as a fashion consultant before finding her true calling. Ms. Butler has worked for the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency for decades and currently serves as the organization’s president. Both of Whitfield’s grandfathers were doctors, giving her family a unique standing in Southern society as accomplished African-Americans at a time when many blacks were considered by most in America society as less than equal.
Whitfield is not only an African-American, but with deep roots in Louisiana and the American South is also part of the Creole culture that encompasses much of Louisiana. Her family tree includes people of African descent as well as Native American descent, specifically from the Cherokee tribes of the region.
A Career Reflective of an Attitude
Whitfield’s upbringing would provide her with all the tools she needed to succeed in life, especially as an African-American woman and actress. She credits her parents for raising all four children, Whitfield being the oldest, with a strong will and sense of commitment. Whitfield’s father is responsible for launching her career in the arts.
Dr. Smith was not only a dentist, but a dedicated composer and theatre fan. He played a large role in developing and forming the local theatre scene in Baton Rouge, even writing and directing a number of small plays. It was Dr. Smith who guided Whitfield toward her career in the arts, starting with her enrollment in the drama program at Howard University.
While attending Howard University and studying drama, Whitfield joined the Black Repertory Company in Washington D.C. During the 1970s her career got up and running with several appearances off-Broadway after she moved to New York City. She gained greater notoriety in 1977 for her performance in Los Angeles in the play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide… When the Rainbow is Enuf”.
Following her performance in the play, television and movie roles began to pop up for Whitfield. She would struggle for years though to fight the stereotype that black women in America were routinely typecast into on American television series’ and in films. In an era when many roles for women of colour included being prostitutes and junkies, Whitfield refused to be pigeonholed.
She would hold out at all costs because she saw herself as, and certainly was, equal in American society.
Whitfield’s career surged upward in the 1990s thanks to her award winning role as Josephine Baker on the HBO biopic “The Josephine Baker Story”. Whitfield nailed the role of Baker, a legendary entertainer turned civil rights activist. Her determination to maintain her principles and seek out intelligent roles made Whitfield a perfect fit for the role of Baker, not just as an actress but as a human being.
Playing the role of Baker was a challenge for Whitfield, in no small part because of the fact that in her late 30s Whitfield was asked to portray Baker throughout the film ranging in age from 18 to 68. For her effort, commitment, and discipline Whitfield won an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special” and won an NAACP Image Award for the role as well.
Devotion to Craft
The biggest challenge of Whitfield’s career came after her role as Josephine Baker. She has admitted in recent years that it was tough to step out of the shadow of her role as Baker and find work that didn’t force her into a typecast. Indeed, her career suffered a bit of a slump in the late 1990s despite roles in movies such as “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” and “Gone Fishin”.
Whitfield refused to give up however, and eventually found that the roles she desired came her way early in the 21st century. Throughout the early 2000s she appeared in numerous television shows and made for TV movies.
As for her status as an African-American and a woman, Whitfield has never given up on pushing for equality for all in American society. The same intelligence and devotion she brought to many of her characters can be seen in her own life. She refuses to see herself as anything less than equal. Whitfield’s own words encapsulate her feelings the best, as she once told the Chicago Tribune “I find myself in an emotional paralysis if I accept the concept that because I am a woman, especially a black woman, it`s harder to be successful. I can`t accept that as my reality. I`m an equal”.