With roles in a long list of films including: Get on the Bus, Beloved, He Got Game, The Skulls, For Colored Girls, and most recently, Concussion, Hill Harper needs no introduction. Also an education advocate, the actor/author recently gave an interview Jan. 12 in collaboration with the National Honor Society regarding its Honor Your Future Now campaign. In the following interview, Hill discusses the campaign, in addition to other keys to success for students and parents in the areas of college and career planning, and life.
Anwar Dunbar: First off Hill, I’m a longtime fan of your work and appreciate this opportunity to interview you. You are a very well accomplished actor, writer, and an education advocate. Were you always a straight A student yourself? If not, what was the turning point for you?
Hill Harper: No I wasn’t, though my parents very much emphasized the value education can play in your life. In high school I don’t think the teachers or my peers necessarily expected me to be great or do well. I was just an okay student. But there was a fire lit within me, because it was explained to me that there was a link between how I performed in school and my future opportunities. That’s really the key because when we tell kids to stay in school, we usually just stop there. We usually don’t tell them why, and someone had the foresight to pull me to the side and say, “Hey, you don’t just have to be on the same level as everybody else. If you apply yourself, you can excel, and if you do excel, this is what can happen.”
Because of this I was one of the first people from my school to go away to and graduate from an Ivy League institution (Brown and Harvard Universities). Again, the reason this happened was because I was fortunate enough to have someone pull me to the side and say, “Hey, what you do in school now will impact your future options, so apply yourself,” and that’s why I’m so proud of the National Honor Society pillars; because when you think about what they represent, you can see that you can really build a life of a well-rounded student and individual. That’s what I aspired to do, and that’s ultimately what I became.
AD: I see that you’re from Iowa and have two very accomplished parents. Did you have any challenges as a youth on your journey through school and to all of your successes?
HH: What’s interesting for me is that we left Iowa when I was just starting first grade, very early. I came back for just a little bit, one year of eighth grade, but for the most part I was educated somewhere else. As an African American and moving through different schools and around a lot, maybe that’s why I became an actor because you have to get comfortable meeting new people and adapting to new situations. Certainly in Iowa, African Americans are not the majority, but my parents always made it very clear not to focus on race, and race-based thinking in terms of my education, and in terms of whatever preconceived notions some people may have had.
I can’t speak for how the teachers may have perceived me, but I can say that I was never going to allow anyone to think that I couldn’t perform on the same level as them based on anything having to do with race, and any kinds of stereotypes around education and educational performance. I’m proud of being from the Midwest and having Midwestern roots because it really seems the Midwest is a place where old school values are. I’m also proud that I went to high school in California because that opened me up to different types of diversity that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. So I kind of got the best of both worlds growing up, certainly by having two parents who were educated. Both of my parents met at medical school at Howard University. I’m very proud that I was able to follow in their footsteps to go to college and graduate school.
AD: That’s interesting because for some black males even when they come from “successful” homes, they’re still caught between following that path or following the negative images in the media, you know, the “street credibility” type of thing.
HH: Exactly. That does happen. In part, to me that happens because many of those young men don’t have enough positive male role models to emulate, which is why it’s important for me to be visible and vocal about my education. A lot of young men will send letters, emails, tweets, or posts on Instagram saying, “Hey man, people used to tell me that it wasn’t cool to be smart and now knowing you, I realize that it’s cool to be smart, because you’re a cool guy. It’s sexy to be smart.”
Smart is the new cool, so I think we can turn the corner on that, particularly with campaigns like Honor Your Future Now, which is a cool campaign. It’s about honoring your future, but it starts right now and to me, if we can get that message out to young people and young African American men, we can really have impact because oftentimes a lot of these young men are taught not to think about their future. They’re taught to think about right now only, and that leads to poor sets of choices. Ultimately in life, we’re all the aggregation and accumulation of a series of choices that we make, and those choices determine our life’s path.
This interview will be continued in part two of; Hill Harper discusses Honor Your Future Now campaign.