Author Crystal McCrary has created a roadmap of sorts. Co-creator of the BET show Leading Women and author of the novels Gotham Diaries and Homecourt Advantage, McCrary’s latest project is a book of wisdom all black women can relate to. Her recently-published tome, Inspiration: Profiles of Black Women Changing Our World shares the personal stories, triumphs and trials of 30 amazing African-American women who have reached the top of their fields. From media personality Gayle King to designer Tracey Reese, her book exposes readers to the full gamut of influential sisters of color who tell their stories in their own words. Stunning full-color photographs taken by Lauri Lyons accompany the gems shared by each woman detailing how she reached the pinnacle of success. These black female activists, artists, doctors and executives shared with McCrary how they gave their best to become the best. McCrary sat down with theGrio to discuss how the book came together, what every woman can take from it to help improve their lives, and which women featured in Inspiration left her simply in awe.
theGrio: There are so many amazing women in Inspiration. How did you put this roster of ladies together?
Crystal McCrary: Really, it was in a variety of ways. A number of them I have relationships with and some were friends of friends. I started practicing entertainment law almost 15 years ago, back in 1995. I’ve gotten to know a range of women. I’d meet someone that knows someone that knows someone. It’s created a great supportive range of women.
For instance I knew Debra Martin Chase, who’s the top black female producer in Hollywood. And Debra connected me with Shonda Rhimes[, creator of Scandal]. Deborah gave Shonda her first job, reading scripts with Denzel’s company. Then Deborah got Raven-Symoné, because Symoné was in Cheetah Girls, which Rhimes produced. So it’s all inter-connected.
Also, most of the women who agreed to be in the book knew my work. I had a Viacom docu-series on black women, Leading Women. It was a documentary-style show about elevating women; it wasn’t about appealing to the lowest common denominator. They felt a certain amount of safety to open up their lives and tell their stories.
Do you feel as though there was a void that Inspiration needed to fill?
Of course there was Brian Lanker’s book, I Dream a World, published in 1989, that profiled 75 amazing women accompanied by gorgeous photos. But there hasn’t been a photo essay book of a wide array of women of color that really explores us in the way I was hoping to explore us with Inspiration.
I wanted to get really into their lives. Much has been written about them, but not much has been said about their stories and their journeys and how they got to where they are. Magazines couldn’t give the space to that breadth of life. The media these days showcases black women in such a negative light. And with this new generation, they’re all about instant gratification — thinking success will just happen overnight. Girls are seeking positive roles models and mentors. We need to show the truth of us that the media does not; images in the media don’t show us at our finest.
Out of the thirty interviews featured in the book, were there any women you were awed by?
Iman is someone who I’ve admired for years — seeing her in fashion magazines, seeing this brown woman being incredibly regal and iconic. She carries herself with such dignity. The first time I had one-on-one time with her, I realized that this is a women who is incredibly self-assured. She has always known herself. When I first sat down with her for the TV series the cameras were on her. Bright hot lights. And I swear, no pores. I’m just like — how is she looking like this! No pores.
She was an astute businesswomen, she is and always was throughout her entire journey. I was just very impressed and a little intimidated because she knows her wealth so well. She’s one of those women who makes you think, “I gotta get my stuff together.” That is the effect Iman had on me.
So did Misty Copeland. She is just an angel and sweet as pie. Stunningly gorgeous and an exquisite ballerina and you’re blown away. How does she do this? Cleary lots of rehearsal and practice, but she has a quiet ambition, too, to have risen to the level that she has in her profession.
How can Inspiration inspire everyday women, as the women chosen are high profile and well-known?
I found that all of these women had something to share that the average woman can apply to their lives and goals. Take Gayle King, she was very blessed. She came from a two-parent home with four sisters. In terms of the dreams she had for herself professionally, she wanted to be a newscaster. Aside from the competitive nature of being in news, their really aren’t that many black women on TV. As she set about getting that first foot in the door, there were rejections, but the successes she got were strategic; she was smart about it and clever. She had an unpaid internship, saw how tapes were edited, studied the craft. She takes you through the process in the book.
And so you see through these stories that no one just arrived at success. What’s applicable to the everyday woman is that there really was a journey to their path. Some kind of stumbled into their passions, but it always took work.
It can sound cliché, but anyone who does have a dream for themselves — yes there is a path, but on a practical level what I tried to tease out is that the road map to achieving goals is discipline, education, and strategies. Bottom line: their passion ultimately drove their success.
Did you have criteria for the women featured in the book?
Yes, my criteria was for all of the women to have a seriousness of purpose. That doesn’t mean they are perfect, but I really wanted them to be serious about their craft and their life purpose outside of their craft. I didn’t want the trite or the mundane, I really wanted women that were about something substantive and multi-generational — our youngest is actress Keke Palmer and one of our oldest is actress Ruby Dee.
I also wanted there to be a range of careers. There’s Marian Wright Edelman, an education activist, and Dr. Patricia Bath, who broke ground for black women in medicine. Judith Jamison, the dance legend — just extraordinary. And magazine giant Susan Taylor, who said if there was one thing she could do, it would be to apologize to our youth for not creating safety in urban public education.
Would you consider doing something like this with black men?
Oh yeah, I’d love to! I’ve thought of having Vernon Jordan, Henry Louis Gates, Dick Parsons, Denzel, actors, athletes, Dr. Keith Black, Dr. Ben Carson, and of course President Obama.
Gosh… I actually have a long list. Darren Walker, Marcus Samuelsson, Walter Mosely, Lupe Fiasco, Magic Johnson, Wynton Marsalis, Jeff Canada. Oh, and Desmond Richardson, he’s amazing! Love him. He was a soloist for American Ballet Theater; he was in Fosse and co-created Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I am finishing up a documentary that I have directed and produced with Lupe called Little Ballers that profiles 11 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball players and what the organization means to urban youth as a way of creating opportunity. We hope to have it ready for the Sundance film festival. It’s definitely been a passion project that I’ve been working on for a year and a half.
I also have another feature film based on my first book Home Court Advantage in the works. Ideal Partners film fund is behind it. I hope we can get that into pre-production in the next couple of months.
And of course, my first love is novel writing, my passion. I’m always writing.
Has writing always been a love of yours?
Writing was something I was always passionate about. I had journals filled with stories, poems, and short scripts as a kid. I’d written for years, but never tried to do anything with it. I wasn’t raised in a household where creative jobs were promoted. My father worked for years for Ford. My parents always wanted me to have a safe job with benefits and a good pension. But writing has always been a passion. I always knew I wasn’t going to practice law for long.
I’m definitely happy I went to law school to be in the club — the club of credibility. It taught me to think, write and reason. It has been incredibly valuable to me in terms of relationships. I produced my first film through a sales agent who was [a legal] associate of mine. Relationships I got from the legal world helped me a ton.
Follow Danielle Kwateng on Twitter at @danispecialk