Phylicia Rashad Opens Up About Overcoming Self-Doubt

Phylicia Rashad Opens Up About Overcoming Self-Doubt

Phylicia Rashad is magnetic.

Her legacy is punctuated—but not defined—by her role as the unshakably stern lawyer and matriarch Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show (1984-1992)But before anything, Rashad’s career is rooted in theater. In addition to appearances on This Is UsDavid Makes Man, and Creed, she got her start on Broadway in the 1980s. (Dreamgirls and Into the Woods were her earliest projects). But it was her historic 2004 turn in A Raisin in the Sun, when she became to first Black woman to win a Tony for best actress in a play, that set-off a career hot streak. Subsequently, she’d appear on the playbill for A Wonderful Life, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and gain directorial credits for productions of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Gem of the Ocean.

But back to her magnetism. When I spoke to Rashad over the phone for this interview, her distinctive voice pulled me in. Just as she commands every scene on the stage and screen, in conversation, the star’s careful inflections are filled with intention and strength. Whether she means to or not, a well-needed lesson seems to be folded into every word she says; it’s a rare, but comforting quality. This, in addition to her years of portraying maternal figures on screen—including one of pop culture’s most recognizable TV moms—is perhaps what led the NAACP to name her “Mother of the Black Community” in 2010.

Living up to that lofty expectation could be daunting, but Rashad doesn’t think so. “I don’t feel that pressure,” she says. “What I feel is gratitude. I feel grateful to have done work that means something to people. That people would accept and embrace it. I feel a tremendous measure of release, and I am thankful.”

Some might credit Rashad’s commanding charm to her family; her mother is Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Vivian Ayers, and her sister is multi-hyphenate entertainment extraordinaire, Debbie Allen. Others might look to her years as a student at the prestigious Howard University, where, 50 years after graduating magna cum laude, she was named Dean of the College of Fine Arts in May 2021. It’s at the HBCU where she became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated; in April, she narrated Twenty Pearls, Comcast’s documentary about AKA’s history as the oldest Black Greek organization for women.

Ahead, we welcomed the 72-year-old to “The Wisdom Corner” to learn if the “Mother of the Black Community” has it all figured it out.

So many look to you as a maternal figure; someone who appears to have it “all together.”

Does anybody have everything figured out? [Laughter]

To be held in esteem by other people is, for me, a humbling experience. Because my mother always said to me: “You don’t see yourself as others see you.” And having you say that to me, that really shows me that I guess I don’t. [Laughter]. Because there’s certain things that you deal with every single day. Did I do that just right? Did I say what needed to be said? Did I say too much? Did I give enough? Always these questions.

To be held in esteem by other people is, for me, a humbling experience. Because my mother always said to me: “You don’t see yourself as others see you.” And having you say that to me, that really shows me that I guess I don’t. [Laughter]. Because there’s certain things that you deal with every single day. Did I do that just right? Did I say what needed to be said? Did I say too much? Did I give enough? Always these questions.

My values were shaped before I even entered Howard University, because I grew up in a time where these things begin in childhood—your grandparents, aunts, uncles, your own parents, the teachers in your classrooms. An appreciation for education or culture, good behavior, was instilled in me.

But what happened when I joined the sorority? One of the things that struck me the day I pledged AKA were the other young women who were all being inducted. We’d all been on campus for at least a year-and-a-half, and I didn’t know them. There were so many majors among us: psychology, home economics, some in literature, and some were contemplating pre-med. The diversity of interests was inspiring. The world became a little bit bigger, still, and I hadn’t considered my world very small. There was something about going through a pledge period with other young women who you really didn’t know very well. And you must learn to bond, trust, and depend upon one another. Think about what that means.

Developing a sense of respect and appreciation for others?

Well, you can respect people. But can you depend on that person? Can you trust that person? And can you be depended upon and can you show up? That’s another level of engagement. It’s not just about what other people do. It’s about you, too.

What’s been the biggest obstacle in your life?

My own thinking, because in your own thought, you create opportunities and obstacles. It’s true, because thought is created—sublimely created. You see people and imagine they have everything, but it might not be that way because there may be something in their thinking that holds them hostage.

“There’s nothing noble about keeping one’s self small.”

I remember a time in my life when I kept myself small; this is around 1981 to 1982, because everything began to change. For some years, I had this misconstrued notion that there was a level of nobility with that—but there’s nothing noble about keeping one’s self small. I see people who are very successful in my profession, who had notoriety and a measure of financial success. And they don’t appear to be very happy. I think fame and fortune must be corrupting. So I don’t want to be famous, and I don’t care about fortune. I just want to be.

How did you overcome feeling small?

I like to read scriptures from different traditions. And one day I was reading from Bhagavad Gita. This is an ancient Indian scripture, and it comes from the epic Mahabharata.

In this text, the Lord is giving very detailed instructions to his disciples on how to win, because his disciple is despondent. There’s a great fight that must be fought, and he has relatives on both sides of the battle. He immediately becomes discouraged, and he just can’t do anything. The Lord, out of compassion, begins to talk to him, in this Bhagavad Gita—translated, it means the Song of God. He tells this disciple all of the things that he, the Lord, is. He says something, like: “As a celestial being, I am the sun and the moon. I am the beauty in the beautiful, and the intelligence in the intelligent. Of feminine nouns I am bathed in prosperity.”

When I read it, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I thought about it for days. One day during an intermission (I was in Dream Girls at the time) I was walking to get something to eat. And I was thinking about fame, fortune, and corruption. Instantly I heard a voice within me say: “No, it is not fame and fortune that are corrupting. It’s your understanding.” It was a revelation. I switched gears in my thinking and I tell you, truthfully, I had more auditions in that week than I had had a whole year, because I had removed a block from my own thinking.

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