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Life Lessons from Gabrielle Union

Don’t side-eye me, book lovers and publishing folk, but I spent almost all of 2017 hoarding books and not really reading any of them. On one such book-hoarding occasion, I got to hear Gabrielle Union speak about her memoir, We’re Going to Need More Wine, at an event sponsored by CBS University, the CBS Diversity Counsel, and the CBS Women’s Networking Group. I walked away with a free copy signed by Gabrielle Union herself, right before my eyes.

Of course my motivation for going to this talk was about more than just a free copy of her book. I’ve always adored Gabrielle Union as an actress and a black woman in Hollywood. For many black women my age, Union’s portrayal of Isis in the cheerleading cult-classic Bring It On, gave voice to the many frustrations we’ve had with the appropriation of our culture, being devalued because of the depth of our melanin, and scarcely being represented in spaces that are largely white. More recently, Union has used her platform to speak on issues such as race, gender equality, police brutality and more—with such wisdom.

Photo Credit: CBS University

Naturally, it would be a book from such a luminary like Gabrielle Union that would successfully pull me out of my 2017 reading rut. Toward the end of the year, after hearing an endorsement from Luvvie Ajayi in her Instagram stories, I reached for my signed copy and dug in. Unsurprisingly, I was glued and it quickly climbed the ranks as one of the best essay collections I’ve ever read.

We’re Going to Need More Wine is smart, so, so funny, and enlightening in a way I was not expecting. I related so much to the Gabrielle’s chapters on her suburban upbringing and how it yielded a double-consciousness (she includes an epigraph from W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk at the beginning of chapter one), how white assimilation became a means of social survival in her childhood, and how, ultimately, there’s no amount of social conditioning, money, or fame that could erase the racism one would undoubtedly face as a black woman.

Gabrielle draws on her wisdom to prescribe movies for the broken hearted—and, I am happy to report that, yes, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and What’s Love Got to Do With It are included. She talks about her first marriage and her marriage to Dwayne Wade who she endearingly refers to throughout the book as simply ‘D’ . (She even spills on her prenup proceedings.) She uses her experience of being remembered as the villain of Bring It On—and the phantom line that seems to haunt her even today (FYI: She never says “It’s already been broughten”)—to shed light on how black female characters are made in caricatures and how Iris in particular was so much more than her “bad attitude.” Gabrielle also addresses a time she was raped while working as a sales associate at a Payless. I read this chapter astonished and inspired by her vulnerability not only concerning the details of the rape but her life after—how she deals with the events almost 25 years later and how she learned to unapologetically set boundaries.

HarperCollins

My favorite essay is called “The Room Where It Happens.” This is a phrase lifted directly from a song from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. To paint a picture of the hidden meaning in the song, here’s a lyric: 

No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens.

Gabrielle uses this phrase in We’re Going to Need More Wine to drive home a point about how the big-career-launching opportunities elude people of color in Hollywood and, really, any white-dominated industry (*cough, publishing, cough*) because those people are often not invited to the room where such decisions are madeAKA the room where it happens. Enter Prince and his parties. Yes, the Prince. Gabrielle writes about that time she was invited to her very first Prince party and how The Legend used these parties as an incubator—creating opportunities for new talent struggling to get into the aforementioned room and creating a safe space for new connections.

Weeks after reading Gabrielle Union’s memoir, I’m still thinking about it. The humor of it, the brilliance of it, the down-right audacity of it. Read my favorite quotes from the book below and if you’re not convinced this is a book everyone should read… well, then, you’re dead to me. (That’s extreme. Sorry.)

Gabrielle On Natural Hair

“Still, I struggle with the questions: Does this wig mean I’m not comfortable with my blackness? If I wear my hair natural, do I somehow become more enlightened? It is interesting to see the qualities ascribed to women who their hair in braids or in natural hairstyles, even among black people. We have so internalized the self-hatred and the demands of assimilation that we ourselves don’t know how to feel about what naturally grows out of our head.” (pg. 51, “Black Girl Blues”)

 

Gabrielle On Embracing Your Tina Turner Moment

“I prescribe the Tina [Turner] combo when you just want the pain to be over. […] Watch Angela Bassett play Tina finding that fire within her to go from her lowest to be Tina freaking Turner. […] If you are feeling humiliated and broken by the weight of pain over someone trifling, be Tina. Let yourself be forged in this fire. I, for one started my adolescence wanting to be Molly Ringwald, but I spent my twenties wanting to be Tina Turner.” (pg. 167, “Prescription for a Breakup”)

 

Gabrielle On Raising Black Boys

“I felt mad at them [her stepsons], I felt mad at D, and I felt mad at how black boys seem to be in constant danger. (And these are not just black boys. These are big black boys, especially endangered.) How are we supposed to give them all the knowledge, all the power, and all the pride that we can, and then ask them to be subservient when it comes to dealing with the police? ‘This is how you have to act in order to come home alive.’

“They are the boys I adore. And people don’t value their very breath. It could be extinquished in one second, without thought, leaving a dog to run, dragging its leash the whole way home. A dog, safer from harm than black boy bodies.” (pg. 215, “And Gabrielle Union As… the Stepmother”)

 

Gabrielle On Her ‘Me Too’ Moment

“It is twenty-four years later. My instinct in so many situations when I feel threatened is to run. As fast as I can. But just as that night at Payless, my good home training keeps me frozen in fear.

“And then, we humans perceive each other.

“I will be in the ladies’ room, washing my hands next another woman. She will take a few glances, which I notice, and as I’m readying myself to walk out of the door, she’ll say, ‘Me, too.’” (pg. 107, “Code 261”)

 

Gabrielle On Finding a Community In a Segregated Hollywood

“Hollywood is extremely segregated. The whole idea of Black Hollywood, Latino Hollywood, Asian Hollywood—it’s very real. And it all stems from who is with you in the audition rooms as you are coming up. Because you are generally auditioning with people who look like you, over and over again, simply because of how roles are described. When it got down to the wire for the role of ‘Sassy Friend #1,’ these were the people I saw. That’s how I got to know Zoe Saldana, Kerry Washington, Essence Atkins, Robinne Lee, Sanaa, and all the Reginas. […]

“As you all start to rise, it’s the same people, who are now deemed the ‘it folk,’ who you sit in better rooms with. And those people become your community; they know the struggle you went through, because they went through it, too.” (pg. 237, “The Room Where It Happens”)

 

Gabrielle On the Late Prince… And His Exclusive Parties

“I mourn the icon, too, but I grieve the vital connector who brought so many communities together, long after he recorded those radio hits everyone knows by heart. He gamed the system to provide access for talented people to access each other. Perhaps if he were white, he would be celebrated as a modern Warhol, famous not just for his own art, but for creating a space where interesting people with money and talent, or just one or the other, could meet and create. His own diverse Factory. Instead, the parties are reduced to jam sessions, just as the women he gave opportunities to—artists like Shiela E. Wendy & Lisa, Vanity, Apollonia, Chaka Khan, Susanna Hoffs, Rosie Gaines, Misty Copeland, Janelle Monae, Damaris—are reduced to haremlike roundups. Prince’s women. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.”

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