The Mother of Black Hollywood is a memoir in which Jenifer Lewis tells the story of her life from being a young kid growing up in Kinloch, MO to a working actress in New York and Los Angeles.
I don’t know when I first became aware of Lewis but over the years I have seen her appear in numerous Black films and tv shows. She’s one of those people where you can hear their voice but not actually see them and you’d still be able to tell that it’s them. Usually I read a physical copy or ebook for the books that I review. But, with The Mother of Black Hollywood, I listened to the audiobook to get the full experience. Lewis’ voice is LOUD and distinct which I didn’t mind after lowering the volume a bit. She’s like that slightly inappropriate favorite aunt that your mom side eyes and tries to hush.
There’s really quite a bit of name dropping and as Lewis makes her way through the industry, everyone is a dear or close friend. Aside from a few names here and there I didn’t know most of the LA people she mentioned and even less of the Broadway folks. I cheered on Lewis success and sympathized when her hopes were dashed. I thought the industry stuff was the least interesting part of The Mother of Black Hollywood.
After reading through the early part of The Mother of Black Hollywood where Lewis briefly discusses her childhood she delved into her move to NYC and time on Broadway in the late 1970s. This part of the book includes details about several of her sexual conquests. I’m not a prude but after a while I was thinking about giving up on the book because the laundry list of men ran together and seemed never ending. It was a bit too much and I thought to myself, “There’s being sexually liberated and then there’s having a problem.” And right at that point, Lewis began addressing one of the major themes of the book, mental health and drew me right back in.
Having dreamed about stardom since childhood gave Lewis a fairly single track focus in life. She spent her time in New York practicing and auditioning for various roles on Broadway. And when she finally started achieving a degree of success it boosted her ego and made her feel like her dreams were coming true. As Lewis explains, stepping out on stage and giving a great performance which would be followed by the applause and adoration from the audience gave her a high. And when she got off stage she wanted to sustain that feeling and began a routine of calling up one of the men that were already in her rotation or picking up whatever random attractive man caught her eyes.
It became clear that Lewis’ need for an aftershow “session” was actually an uncontrolled compulsion. She was having manic episodes going from moments of depression and despair to being incredibly hyperactive and excessively giddy. There were signs that something was wrong but Lewis spent years ignoring the problem and self-medicated by performing on stage and engaging in intercourse. She used attention from audiences and from men to make her feel in control and better about herself.
This worked for a while until the lows started feeling bottomless and the highs bred recklessness. Lewis’ periods of depression would lead to her being incredibly emotional for days on end to the point of pretty much paralysis. Dragging herself through the day and spending nights on end crying uncontrollably and not quite knowing why. The periods of hyperactivity would lead to her saying and doing things that were incredibly self-centered and hurtful to others. Swinging back and forth between depression and hyperactivity became exhausting and too difficult to continue.
Lewis eventually sought help and began a long journey of using therapy to treat and manage her mental health. It seemed that half of the battle was finally getting some understanding of her mood swings and confirmation that she was not just “crazy as hell”. Speaking with a therapist clarified that while she had a mental illness, she was not “crazy.” This meant that illness could be managed by developing new coping mechanisms and eliminating bad habits. And if need be her mood swings could be stabilized with medication.
It takes some time to unfold but I thought the discussion of mental health was one of the high points of The Mother of Black Hollywood. As a group of people who have suffered grave injustices, been dehumanized, and often made to suffer in silence, it’s understandable that Black people would need someone to talk to and mechanisms to cope mentally with the day-to-day reality of living in society. Yet, mental health is a marginalized subject in general society and incredibly taboo within the Black community. Statistically speaking Black people are less likely to seek out general health care and part of that might be having less access compared to other demographic groups. And seeking mental health care whether that be in the form of a therapist or medication is if not disparaged, then frowned upon.
Listening to Lewis discuss her experience partaking in behaviors and activities in hopes of controlling her moods and coping with the ups and downs of life sounded very familiar. It’s been long acceptable or at least overlooked when people use a few drinks after work to “unwind” or smoke weed to “relax”. To a lesser extent, many people have also done the same with sex as a means of feeding their ego, masking a feeling of emptiness, or for stress release. There’s nothing wrong with any of these activities in and of themselves but that’s not necessarily the case when you use them as coping mechanisms or as a form of self-medication. They dull and mask feelings but don’t actually resolve the underlying problems. And overuse can have serious negative medical ramifications.
I respect and appreciate that as time goes on, more and more celebrities, entertainers, athletes, and regular people are speaking openly about their bouts with depression and other mental health concerns. Hopefully in time this will help to normalize having conversations about these topics. My hope is that people, Black people in particular, will be able to recognize when they have a problem and feel more comfortable seeking help when they need it.
Family Issues & Dysfunction
Personalities often bring to mind nature versus nurture. Are personalities predetermined before birth where it naturally unfolds during a person’s life? Or is it a matter of being influenced by environment? In the case of Jenifer Lewis, her personality was influenced by both.
Lewis was born the last of seven children and her parents separated shortly after her birth. Her mother worked but it was difficult to raise seven children on a modest salary so the family struggled at points. Lewis’ mother, Dorothy, was adamant about her father, Edward, continuing to provide for his children but he was inconsistent and absent for much of Lewis’ life.
Given the time period and the stress of raising all of those kids largely by herself, Dorothy was not a very patient or indulgent mom. She raised her kids and was there for some of Lewis’ performances but didn’t offer Lewis the amount of attention that she craved. Dorothy seemed to also have a very short temper and did not believe in sparing the rod. She obviously cared about her kids and supported them as best as she could but also seemed a bit emotionally distant. In addition, Dorothy brushed it aside when Lewis confided in her that a trusted family friend had molested her.
By the time Lewis was born her siblings had already bonded and separated into pairs leaving her the odd man out. She craved attention and was very pushy and ambitious even as a child. Lewis didn’t necessarily bully other kids but she grew accustomed to talking herself up and pushing to the head of the pack to be the center of attention. This lone wolf attitude was a gift and curse later in her entertainment career. It gave her the confidence to go out on audition after audition. But it also led to her feeling the need to constantly one-up coworkers and co-stars rather than collaborating.
As Lewis began going to therapy to work through her issues, she also began exploring and discussing the problems that she had with her mother. Her feelings were certainly valid and their exchanges and differing perspectives on past events were interesting. It was telling that she had these experiences to discuss with her mother but didn’t have these kinds of conversations with her father despite him being mostly absent from her life. Without a doubt many of Lewis’ issues stemmed from her childhood relationship with her mother. But, it also seems obvious that this need for constant male attention and validation resulted from the lack of attention she got from her father as a child.
Lewis’ sexcapades in The Mother of Black Hollywood took place while she was a grown woman. She only dealt with grown consenting men so there was no issue there. I wasn’t born as yet but it seems like people weren’t practicing safe sex at this point. And safe sex wasn’t being actively encouraged until the late 80s or early 90s after people began publicly addressing HIV/AIDS. She never mentioned being pregnant or thinking she might have been pregnant at any point but did mention an STD which prompted her to be more careful and likely helped her avoid more serious illnesses.
Unfortunately, this would not be the fate of many of her friends and acquaintances in the 80s and 90s. As I mentioned before, I didn’t know a lot of the industry people that Lewis mentioned, especially those that work behind the scenes. But it was still incredibly sad to hear what was essentially a list of people she knew who seemed to be passing away one after the other due to HIV or AIDS. Listening to Lewis describe trying to get a handle on her mental health issues while also working out her problems with her mom and then being faced with multiple deaths in quick succession was heartbreaking.
I was born right around the time that the HIV / AIDS epidemic was just beginning to be discussed publicly. But, this was still a time when there was a lot of stigma attached to the diseases. So it was a different perspective to hear about the experiences of someone who had to watch multiple people become ill and try to cope with the disease in various ways and many of them still dying.
You sort of get both sides of the story or rather a perspective on taking divergent paths at a fork in the road. On the one hand you have the story of Jenifer Lewis and her past history of engaging in sexually irresponsible behavior. But, having one scare and deciding to change some of her practices before ultimately getting into therapy led to pretty much over hauling her approach to expressing her sexuality.
Given the onslaught of the HIV / AIDS epidemic, one could say that making a change at this point in her life saved her life in multiple ways. Had she continued being sexually irresponsible Lewis could have likely also been one of the unfortunate entertainers to contract and die from HIV or AIDS. Likewise had she not sought out treatment for her mental health issues they might have overwhelmed her and possibly resulted in the loss of her life or at least the quality of life that she now has.
I definitely recommend checking out The Mother of Black Hollywood but do yourself a favor and get the audiobook.This is the third book in my trilogy of light summer read reviews, biographies by entertainers that are not super heavy but also about more than just working in the industry. Lewis is funny but there are some serious topics discussed here that give the book balance. But, be warned that there’s a lot of profanity and Lewis has had a very (very very) active sex life which she discusses in detail and at times explicitly.
The profanity is probably just a reflection of the way Lewis speaks in real life and the discussion of the breadth of her sex life (though not the details) are necessary to effectively tell her life story. It’s a good book but not everyone’s cup of tea. So if you’re offended by foul language or discussions of sex, then this really isn’t the book for you. It goes without saying that this is not the audiobook for family road trips. You and your girlfriends on a girls trip? Sure. You, Nana, and the kids? Probably not.
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