There were some distinctions. Nana, my grandmother, wasn’t grieving a husband who’d died while serving in the Vietnam War like Julia was. Mom was a little older than Julia’s son, Corey. Nana wasn’t a nurse, though she’d considered the profession, for all the reasons it made the character of Julia such a “respectable” one for black popular culture: The work paid enough to keep a small, single-income family above the poverty line. But my mom and Nana saw enough of themselves in the series to become regular viewers and fans.
Early critics of “Julia” called it unrealistic. In an essay about the sitcom, media professor Aniko Bodroghkozy noted that “critics have castigated Julia for being extraordinarily out of touch with and silent on the realities of African American life in the late 1960s. While large numbers of blacks lived in exploding ghettos, Julia and Corey Baker lived a luxury lifestyle impossible on a nurse’s salary.”
Though Julia and her son may have been better off financially than many black single-mother-led families, their existence as characters affirmed households that had long been vilified in American culture and American politics. Just three years before the sitcom’s debut, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan had written a report on the status of the black family. It asserted: "The Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is too out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.”
Diahann Carroll saw things differently. In a November 1968 interview with Ebony magazine, she predicted: “Black children are going to have a marvelous time now. Their self-image is going to be so much higher.”
If the popularity of “Julia”-themed lunch boxes and the “Julia” Barbie doll were any indication, she was absolutely right. Seeing the image of Carroll as a successful mother in the absence of a husband or live-in partner shaped my mother’s outlook on herself and her family and, eventually, it would shape mine as well.
Carroll’s career, which spanned more than 60 years, reflected her early recognition of the value of nuanced depictions of black life. She understood the power of representation, long before catchphrases such as “you can’t be what you don’t see” entered mainstream parlance.
As if in answer to those early “Julia” critics, Carroll returned with another seminal depiction of black single motherhood in the 1974 film “Claudine.” Carroll played a 36-year-old mother of six, the result of “two marriages and two ‘almost-marriages,’ ” as her character clarifies in one scene.
If “Julia” was groundbreaking for being the first sitcom to star a black woman in a non-domestic role, “Claudine” was just as groundbreaking for its humanizing depiction of black domestic worker. That both women are single mothers, played by the same actress, is significant. The two parts prove that all that separates two black women is access and opportunity. Without advanced education and her husband’s pension, Julia could have been Claudine’s neighbor.
Carroll, who married four times, was the mother of one child herself. In an interview in which she discussed having to convince casting directors that she was right for the role of Claudine, she noted, “I’ve seen her. Believe me. I’ve lived next door to her. There were Claudines in my family.” In her 2008 memoir “The Legs are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way,” she compared the two parts again: “I loved the character who inhabited the gritty world Julia had assiduously avoided.”
Both “Julia” and “Claudine” were released before I was born. But they weren’t the last times Carroll would play a single mother. By the time I was coming of age, Carroll was doing a career victory lap. She’d earned a Golden Globe Award for “Julia” and an Oscar nomination for “Claudine.” Before either of those, she’d won a Tony Award for her performance in “No Strings.” She’d broken ground yet again in the popular 1980s nighttime soap opera “Dynasty.” But my generation probably knows her best for her role in the 1990s sitcom “A Different World.”
She played Marion Gilbert, wealthy divorcee and mother to one of the main characters, the pampered Southern belle, Whitley Gilbert. Marion was neither sweet like Julia nor hardscrabble like Claudine. In her minks and jewels, she had more in common with “Dynasty’s” Dominique Deveraux, incidentally, another of Carroll’s divorced-and-parenting roles. Motherhood for Marion meant finishing school and marrying well. It meant ensuring that her daughter studiously avoided any hardship she’d faced growing up. It meant draping herself and her child in whatever finery she could afford and modeling for her what it meant to both to survive and to thrive.
On “A Different World,” Diahann Carroll was proving yet again that black single motherhood is multitudinous. It contains moments of transcendence and desperation, desire and self-consciousness, regality and indignity. There is no one way to approach it. How fortunate we are that her body of work offers us such beautiful reminders.