“I Coulda Been But No I Didn’t…” Debbie Allen Explains How Her Mother Stopped Her From Pledging AKA
Today, Strong Black Lead, Netflix’s podcast featuring interviews with legendary Black people in the entertainment industry published their season finale, an interview with Debbie Allen. If you don’t know, Allen has done it all: dancer, actor, producer, director etc.
So it makes sense that people would want to claim her. And they have. Online if you search Debbie Allen and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, you’ll see that she is listed as a member of the historically Black sorority.
During the interview, host Tracy Clayton shared that there is much debate about whether or not Allen actually pledged. She laughed before sharing what happened in her quest to become an AKA.
Tracy Clayton: Are you aware that there is a conversation on the internet about whether or not you pledged any sorority and if so, whether it was Delta or AKA. Is that something that you’re conscious of?
Debbie Allen: Laughs I’m not aware of the conversation but I’m aware of it every time I’m in the company of multiple Black women who go ooo [oop] or skee wee. And they talk to me.
So, when I was at Howard University, my sister Phylicia Rashad, whose footsteps I was following everywhere pledged AKA. So, I was going to pledge AKA. I went and I made line. Oh my interview, I just remember it. I was so sharp, they thought I was schooled or I don’t know what. They were gunning for me. They were going to really let me have it. But my mother, Vivian Ayers, said, ‘If you pledge a sorority, then I’m going to take all the money that I have saved to send you to dance school in the summer and I’m going to buy a car. Because your consciousness is not in the right place. Your focus is off. And I’m like, ‘No mom, no.’ So I dropped out of line. So I never did pledge and I went to the New London Dance Festival where I met Alvin Ailey, where I met the protégée of Katherine Dunham, I met Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham. I met the greatest icons in the dance world and momma was right.
See that’s what she did. Those were her tricks. I coulda been but no I didn’t go.”
Because of her intimate knowledge of what it meant to not only pledge but be entrenched in the HBCU experience, Debbie Allen was tapped to share her expertise on a spin-off of “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World.” Allen shared that when she arrived on the set of “A Different World,” there was a lot to do.
“My coming into this show was certainly somewhere between my sister who was Denise’s mother and had visited the campus of Hillman and seeing what was happening behind the scenes. It was not a happy place at “A Different World” behind the scenes. They didn’t quite have the right producing director there. And Phylicia went back and talked to Bill and the next thing I know I was getting a call from him saying, ‘We need you to dust it off over there and clean house.’ I said, ‘Alright.’
Allen said she watched every episode up to that point to learn how she could fix it.
“Then it was about breaking down in the writer’s room to let them open up to new ideas. Denise, yes she was pregnant and we were going to do such great stories about a girl who was a Black girl from a upper middle class family, pregnant and not married for a change. You know that’s not how it’s usually portrayed.”
But as you know Bill Cosby shut that down. He told Allen, ‘No, Lisa Bonet is pregnant not Denise.’ Allen said, “It was a little early for him to let go and she was very precious to him.” But we made the show so relevant with Jasmine Guy—she was one of my “Fame” dancers. We took that show and put it back together. Susan Fales, she was amazing as the headwriter on that show. We made everybody want to go to college. We tripled enrollment of historically Black colleges. We made all kids, Black and White, want to go to college because they felt there was something there that they connected to, that they loved and they wanted to have that experience.
Having come from Howard University, I knew what to do with this show. I lived it and breathed it. I knew the stories that they needed to be telling. They didn’t need to be walking around talking about an egg. They needed to be doing stories about voter registration or date rape or their cultural identity. Who is Whitley Gilbert? Who is the boy in this cast that she needs to be with? And I was, ‘Hands down, it’s Dwayne.’ They were like, ‘No, no.’ I said, ‘It’s Dwayne! Don’t tell her about some pretty boy. She’s going to go with someone who’s more intelligent than she is can make her laugh and give her sh*t.
We did many other things they weren’t ready for. I was always being called into what I called, ‘the principal’s office’ for doing shows that were really about something.”