Actress Gabrielle Union’s first book is a lot more serious than its title suggests. “We’re Going to Need More Wine” does indeed include the funny, true-life stories you might expect from the glittering, personable lead of BET’s “Being Mary Jane,” but the strongest essays in the collection, while told in the same friend-to-friend style, are searing and powerful: an account of when she was raped at a Payless shoe store in college, for example, and an exploration of the challenges of raising black children in America today.
By phone from Cleveland, Union spoke about these and other experiences she writes about her book. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Q: You write very openly and movingly about being raped at a Payless shoe store when you were in college. When and how did you decide to be so open about this experience?
A: It was sort of decided for me when I was on a show that had a story line about a serial rapist preying on the people who worked at a hospital. Over the course of several weeks, I would look at the script and I would just be locked in terror, wondering if they were going to write my character to be raped next. And yet I worked with such kind, compassionate people, I realized that if they knew what had happened to me, they just wouldn't do that to me. So having that conversation with my co-workers — someone who was not related to me, who I was not paying for therapy, who wasn't from my small town — the idea of sharing that information as a means of protection, that's what started it. Then once I shared, others shared: You know that happened to me; you know that happened to my child, my mother. In attempting to protect myself, I realized I was offering a bridge, a hand, to other people who wanted to share, or who just needed to know, "Hey, I'm not alone." Literally a week later, I got my first cover for Savoy magazine, and during the whole interview, I knew I was sitting on information that could help a lot of people. I wasn't sure that I was prepared emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially even to share that. I didn't know what the consequences could be. But when I saw the route the questions were taking, I thought: I could either answer these silly, benign questions or I could share with people a very big piece of my soul and perhaps help other people.
Q: Your writing style is very conversational, yet you also quote people like James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois. Why the variety of styles?
A: We're all a bit of a mix, I think. In my life, certainly I've been perceived as a mix of different identities and different voices. The quotes are there as a window into who I am, and to give a deeper sense of what writers I've been inspired by, and what words specifically lent themselves to my development as a human being. And I wanted to talk to as many people as possible. If you start using all of your SAT words, you're going to make people think you're pretentious, and they have no clue what you're talking about. But I knew I was going to lose some people who feel that unless you use all your SAT words, you're not worthy of listening to. I try to talk to people where they're at.
Q: Your essay about talking to your stepsons — with NBA star Dwyane Wade — about how they’ll be looked at suspiciously because they’re black reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ideas about the black body. Tell us about that essay.
A: I reference Coates's book quite a bit, and that was absolutely my guide, especially when dealing with my children's educators. It's interesting now how some people are finding Coates's new book problematic. Perhaps more people are willing to see my approach as not being as combative. I also have the power of a larger Instagram feed, and I subscribe to a lot more silly things in my downtime that I'm willing to share on social media. Maybe because I was in "Bring It On" — people reference that all the time — it's just been received differently. But I'm not really saying anything different than what he's saying. It's like instead of buying Cracklin' Oats, they bought what they thought was Lucky Charms, and there were prizes in there they weren't anticipating, so it's like slipping nutrients into something they thought was going to be more of a guilty pleasure. And there are people who don't find me as benign as others do, who see me as very angry and very combative, and perhaps with a hidden agenda that somehow is deeper than just wanting equity for the children I'm raising.
Q: You’re writing as yourself here — as opposed to playing a role. Are there any elements of acting that you brought to writing this book?
A: No. I wrote a lot of it as exercises for my therapist. By the time I was shaping it into essays, I was really just dealing with my honest thoughts, things that I hadn't even shared with my therapist because I was afraid of judgment. I didn't plan on anyone ever seeing this.
Carole Burns is the author of "The Missing Woman and Other Stories."
By Gabrielle Union
Dey Street. 272 pp. $26.99