The meme and stan-centric culture of the late 2000s led the world to generally attribute the terms “iconic” and “legendary” to talent that, oftentimes, fall short of those titles. However, in a few rare instances, the terms apply, and Diahann Carroll’s game-changing mark on the culture is the definition.
Like many of my age and experience — a 28-year-old millennial with a feverish passion for the arts — I was exposed to Carroll as Whitley Gilbert’s mama in the coming-of-age sitcom A Different World. Sitting in my dorm room my freshman year at Morehouse College, instead of focusing on that finals paper, I was sucked into the rabbit role of “Vintage Tube,” as I like to call it — you know, when you find yourself unable to separate from one of those YouTube playlists which happens to be the only source to view “throwback TV?"
Obsessed with Ms. Carroll’s comically shallow-yet-lovable fabulosity as Marion Gilbert, I decided to further explore her work, only to learn that I was embarrassingly late to the party, but grateful to finally be there.
In addition to the unreleting glamor and simultaneous vulnerability Carroll exuded in her work, it was the joy of seeing a Black woman unwilling to compromise her standards for the satisfaction of others that drew me in. While coming of age, myself, in a space where fully realized and self-reassured Black women were celebrated — shout out to the women of Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University — seeing one on television, portrayed with such an honest and headstrong demeanor, helped shape my vision of the roles Black women play in this world — no matter how few or how many they choose.
Carroll’s career plays like a timeless song, as she started where many can only dream — and if they somehow get the rare opportunity to strike gold, are too nervous to commit. The actress made her big break as the lead actress in Julia, the first Black woman to lead her own primetime television show in a non-stereotypical role. The series helped earn Carroll a Golden Globe in 1969 in the category for “Best Female TV Star.”
And to further prove that her initial success was the result of serious effort, not beginner’s luck, the actress revealed in a 1998 interview that the show’s creator initially thought she did not have the range to pull it off. This tenacious spirit served as a forever shadow and silent motivator for her to take on more roles where she played empowered Black women who subverted the mainstream’s expectations. From the eternally fabulous Dominique Deveraux in Dynasty to the small-but-weighted role of Vivian in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her Oscar-nominated performance in Claudine, Carroll left a mark in all of her work that is hard to miss, and even harder to successfully deliver.
While blazing narrow trails — and widening them along the way for other Black women — she possessed enough heart to revisit the wider essence of her fight, which she detailed in the “Matriarch of the Movement” series with BET.com in 2018. Reflecting on supporting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, the actress declared that “nothing was more important than our presence,” a motto that continues to resonate with Black Americans today.
It is because of this diligence and selfless outlook that Cookie Lyon, Annalise Keating, Olivia Pope and several other loved and flawed fictional heroines exist today, and we are forever grateful. Thank you for leading an extraordinary life that will be remembered through your infinite impact, Ms. Carroll.