Aunjanue Ellis walks through D.C.’s Union Station virtually unnoticed. She’s strikingly beautiful in person, a rare actress that’s even more stunning off screen than on. It’s not that she’s a shrinking violent, her persona and her opinions are bold, her clothes are colorful—today she’s sporting a leopard print coat and purple from head to toe--with the exception of her zebra print shoes that finish in the back with a little black tail.
There's a quiet confidence about her --for her it's about the work. And today her work is resistance.
Ellis is at Union Station on one of the windiest days of the year to host a press conference alongside Rose Simmons, daughter of Reverend Daniel "Super Simmons" Sr., who was one of the nine people killed by Dylan Roof at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and Dr. Edelia Carthan, a professor at Tougaloo College and cousin to Emmett Till.
At the conference, Ellis reads an open letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the confederate flag flying at the Super Bowl every year.
(Photo Credit: Black Sports Online)
The flag flies outside of Union Station in the nation's capitol and is omnipresent in Mississippi.
It's not just flown at the State house, but can be seen around every bend at general stores and schools as a constant reminder of the fight to keep slavery operating as a profit machine for southern states. Ellis has been traveling around the country as part of her “Take it Down America” campaign to remove the confederate flag where it still flies.
She begins her open letter and it quickly becomes clear that she’s a writer's writer who enjoys the lyricism of the written word as much as she does the message:
I am a Mississippian. We love two things in my state as much as life.
Jesus and football. And depending on what day of the week it is - it may not be in that order.
From the time the hands of our little boys are big enough to grip the oval pigskin--shoulder pads bigger than the entirety of their little bodies are placed on their shoulders and they are put on fields bigger than skies to fall and tumble.
But among the fallers and tumblers--there is always one. One who for him it is a little more than playtime.
His feet are blurs.
His eyes are lasers.
You can catch the balls he throws.
But you can't catch him.
Ellis, raised in McComb, Mississippi, by her grandmother and her mother on a farm that's been in her family for generations, has used her platform as an actress to talk about injustice since she was a little girl in the Baptist church fighting for women's issues.
Like any other kid, she played hard too. She played tag with her cousins and her only sister in the creek behind her house, amidst foxes and raccoons the size of large dogs. She always had a flair for theater and a love for sports, especially football. Every day when she and her sister, Sasha, got off of the school bus, her grandmother had a full home-cooked meal waiting for them.
Ellis was always an A student and acted in church plays, but didn't think about theater as a career until she enrolled at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. When she discovered this passion, she transferred and enrolled at Brown University, where she trained as an actor under Jim Barnhill and John Emigh.
She also majored in African American studies and later received a master's degree in Fine Arts from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
Imagine, Mr. Goodell, being that black child from Mississippi where hate hangs from poles in the form of the Confederate flag and the flag of the KKK and football -- football is your ticket away from that hate.
Imagine being a black child from Mississippi with the hopes of your family, your community and then your city on your shoulders and then through the pushing and punishment of your body for years, you convert that hope into an appearance in the Super Bowl, the biggest stage on the planet.
If you judge Ellis by her work, she should be a household name. She won a Television's Choice Award as a leading actress in BET's The Book of Negroes and a SAG award for her role as Mary Ann Fisher in the biopic, Ray.
She's had roles in The Help, Get On Up, the Taking of Pelham 123, among many other films and plays including The Tempest and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Most recently she played the mother of Nat Turner in Birth of a Nation, and currently stars as Miranda Shaw on the critically acclaimed ABC series, Quantico.
Somehow she falls under the radar to fans, but she has been a long sought-after talent in the entertainment business that has been tapped to play a variety of diverse lead and supporting roles.
"She's that rare breed of actors that is emotionally available," says Quantico producer Beth Schacter, "She brings everything to every character she does. She is an advocate for the story. Then she also has this world class mind that never stops. It's that combination that we're so lucky to have on the show. She doesn't like compliments. She's about the work.”
And you get there and while the star spangled banner is being sung by someone like Whitney Houston or Lady Gaga and your hand is on your heart and the remembrance of the taste all the good dirt you swallowed from those tough tackles comes back to your mouth, the pain from that hit that left you blind, that humiliation from that impossible loss to that lesser team, the constant sacrifice of the people of who loved you who you rarely get to see--makes this moment all the more worth it--and you look at the flags held by soldier guard and one of those flags is that flag--that flag you ran from--that flag "thoroughly identified" with slavery as reads the Mississippi statement of secession, that flag thoroughly identified with terrorism as Dylan Roof proved, that flag thoroughly identified with genocide of American citizens.
At Union Station, Ellis is sitting down at a table outside of Shake Shack talking with Simmons and Carthan on a variety of subjects, including the trial of Dylan Roof and his use of the Confederate Flag as a symbol of hate before he murdered nine people in a church after they invited him into their congregation. He sat there for an hour and then opened fire, hoping to kill as many people as he could.
Mississippi's Governor Phil Bryant named April Confederate Heritage Month this past February, making no note of its roots in slavery. In the Mississippi Declaration of Secession it states: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” The flag’s founders reiterated this theme: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
Simmons grew up in a family of sharecroppers in a tobacco community in Mullins, South Carolina. Carthan also grew up on a farm in Tchula, Mississippi, population 2,300 and one of the poorest cities in Mississippi with over half of the population living below the poverty line. Both of them learned to drive early at 8 and 9 years old, farming and driving a tractor and delivering food. Every day they both pass by the Confederate flag. Simmons, Carthan and Ellis don’t see the flag as some innocuous symbol where they’re from.
“It’s not a symbol, it’s a call to action and that’s what separates it from other symbols, particularly in the case of Dylan Roof,” says Ellis. “In Iowa the white man that was waving the flag at a football game went and killed two police officers.”
In her quest to have the flag taken down, she has reached out to NFL players and coaches, and of course, Commissioner Roger Goodell, without any luck. Seventy percent of the NFL is made up of black players, with the weakest union of all professional sports resulting in a virtual plantation for players. Ellis says, a lot of times the fight for justice gets lost in making a living.
“There is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, they will get fined, threatened with loss of contract,” she says. “They send a very clear message they should not be speaking out and causing a distraction.”
Of course there’s one player that doesn’t care much about threats. “I think Colin Kaepernick is bold. I mean look at the afro,” says Ellis. “He is driven by purpose, I believe, and following his calling to do the right thing.”
Last year, Ellis led a rally at the U.S. Capitol on Flag Day in support of a lawsuit against Governor Bryant under the 13th and 14th amendments. Since that rally took place, every public Mississippi university has removed the Mississippi flag containing the Confederate symbol from their campuses.
“If the NFL is brave enough to do something, then maybe the government will follow suit. If corporations started having an opinion about this and forcing these organizations to not engage in this bold racism and bigotry, because that’s what it is — corporate sponsored racism and bigotry — then it would stop.”
Can you imagine what that child who is now a man must think? You need not imagine. This has been the experience of players like Jerry Rice and Steve McNair and every other black player from MS and every other black player from anywhere who has ever played in the Super Bowl. And we wonder why Colin Kaepernick, a Super Bowl quarterback, takes a knee.
What must this black child--who is now a Black man--what must he think of the league he plays for?
There’s another star, besides Kaepernick, that doesn’t care much about the risks to her career for being bold and speaking out. Ellis uses her paychecks from acting to take care of her family and to travel the country to spread her message about the flag.
“She was always outspoken, so it doesn’t surprise me that she’s an activist,” says her younger sister Sasha. “She always had her own mind. She wasn’t rebellious, but she ran her own life. I think she got a lot of her spirit from my mother. My mother and grandmother were really outspoken women. People knew not to mess with them or to come for their children.”
“My mother gifted me with my particular kind of radical imagination,” Ellis agrees. “And my grandmother gave me the tools to execute it.”
She was disappointed in the low turnout for the film about the slave insurrection led by Nat Turner, Birth of a Nation, in part because she understands that the work against injustice doesn’t happen by activism alone. The other part is meeting people where they are—informing and educating through film, arts and pop culture.
And she says, the art will remain no matter what we do. It was also an opportunity, she says, for white people to have to reckon with how racist the original Birth of a Nation was and what it stood for, and having it be used as a recruitment tool for the Klan.
On the critique of Nate Parker, she says she doesn’t excuse anyone’s behavior and what’s complicated and hard is that sometimes the artists, the messengers are scoundrels, people that are morally reprehensible. But the art survives.
“Because there has been a purposeful, strategic, extrication of our history from the classrooms, and we have been strategically misinformed about who we are, we all know we have had to use oral histories to tell us who we are. Art serves that function,” she says.
Ellis says civil rights activists weren’t singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ because they liked the way it sounded, they sang because they needed to know where everyone was if the police came and beat you. “We may not know the singers, but we know the song. Years from now we will all be dead, but guess what will survive? Birth of a Nation. That’s the power of art.”
“I believe black art is going to do a lot of work in terms of black survival,” says Ellis about the current challenges that will face the nation. “Our art has never been ‘we just want to paint pictures and dance cause it’s cute to do.’ It’s saved our lives.”