Through her newest role, actress Jasika Nicole is looking back to look forward.
“I play the coolest character ever,” says Nicole, who plays a woman named Georgia, who runs a boarding house (and stop on the Underground Railroad) in the show, Underground, which boasts an impressive viewership of 6 million each week. “She’s the head of a sewing circle that’s really a front for women to be politically active and to talk about how to abolish slavery,” says Nicole. “In that time you didn’t really see many black women who owned a house or had a business. It wasn’t a reality for people of color in that time, and I love that this dialogue is bringing the story into the picture.”
All pictures of Jasika Nicole by Robin Roemer
Nicole's character, who is the daughter of a slave and a slave owner, teaches other women how to use guns and fight for their freedom, and serves as a personal inspiration.
“I don’t see [the African American experience] in mainstream entertainment,” says Nicole. “I have a personal relationship to it; but there are so many different black experiences. We always get dumped into one experience. We are in a diaspora and I love that this show is bringing that to light.”
Nicole, who has a black dad and white mom, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where she said racial tensions were high. “It’s still so segregated and antiquated in a lot of the roles people have in that city. I left home to go to college in North Carolina, then in New York. Each time I returned, I felt more and more different. I felt I was having to squeeze myself into who I was there and I wasn't that person anymore.”
Nicole says she had an even more nuanced racial experience due to being biracial, and thus was treated differently from her black friends and family.
“As an adult processing my childhood, I realize I am still unpacking a lot of it,” says Nicole. “I was influenced largely by my environment which was almost all white, and anti-black. I understood that my light skin and the fact that I was biracial gave me the point of view that a lot of black girls my age didn’t have, in terms of how others treated us. People would tell me I was pretty, but it was because I have lighter skin. They weren’t saying that to my black cousin.”
“Racism is so insidious that even though my mother has black children she’s not free of its entanglements.”
Eventually Nicole would move to New York with the intention of performing in musical theater. From there she booked a few off-broadway plays, a show in Philadelphia, and eventually larger television roles like playing Agent Astrid Farnsworth on the Fox series Fringe.
Jasika Nicole courtesy of WGN America
“In television and film you can completely get edited out, so I’ve learned to accept that the work I do [in the moment] is my work. Whatever happens after that, who cares? It’s not mine after I film my scene.”
When discussing the entertainment industry as a whole, Nicole says she considers herself lucky to have the ability to star in films and shows that are meaningful.
“It is a real privilege to be able to pick and choose the roles that you get,” says Nicole. “Usually that [creative freedom] is limited to a select group of super famous females with a lot of money and most of whom are white. It’s been a really hard thing to navigate. These three markers are hard to fill: Doing projects so you can pay your bills, feeling creatively inspired, and feeling proud of the work you are doing. This is the first big project that hits all of them. I’d be lucky for another show like this.”
Nicole, who describes herself as "queer," says that being a role model for the LGBT community is something that she takes seriously, but it doesn’t come easily.
“I identify as a queer woman and it feels like a double whammy sometimes,” she says. “I don't think the writing in mainstream media reflects what my life is like. It doesn’t look the same, it doesn’t feel the same, in terms of race, culture, religious background and the stories they are telling. A lot of TV and film have introduced a bi or lesbian woman character only to kill them off. It happens so much.”
In terms of her own acceptance of her sexuality, Nicole says it took time to come to terms with it. “I wasn’t out because all I knew was that I needed to go on a date with a girl to see what it felt like. When I finally did, I heard birds singing. It finally made sense. I had always been ambivalent about romance and for the first time [I felt something]. I came out after my first date with a woman.” Although she didn’t end up with this woman, Nicole met her now wife, Claire, shortly thereafter. “At that point I didn’t have anything to lose by coming out,” says Nicole. “For me, because my relationship with Claire was so new, and I was just so proud of it that I couldn't imagine putting it back in the box. She was too good to keep a secret.”
It was around that time that Nicole began booking television roles, and began making a name for herself on the small screen. “I had no idea I was going to be in TV and film,” says Nicole. “I thought I was going to have a career in musical theater and no one cares who you’re sleeping with in musical theater.”When asked what advice she has for actors in today’s complex world, Nicole says it’s all about staying true to values. “I would say that the thing that has kept me most level is to have a really strong idea about who I am outside this industry,” she says. “This industry wants to own you. You don’t have to play that game. Make sure you stay solid for who you are. Don’t make compromises for [on your beliefs]. This industry can be tricky. There are misogynists, racists, homophobes, and all these bad things but I’m still a part of it. It’s a fine balance.”
In her spare time, Nicole says you can find her sewing or knitting (she is wearing all clothing she made herself in the images in this story), and working on side projects like her indie flick – Suicide Kale – a dark comedy that tells the story of three women of color.
“My hope is that one day someone would look at me on screen and say ‘I look like her’ or ‘I’m queer like her,’” says Nicole, who is currently filming her second season of Underground. “That’s representation. That's what I didn't have when I was growing up. I didn’t have a mirror to see myself in the world. I'm hoping to do more good.”
Suicide Kale, which won the audience award at Outfest LA, can be viewed on Suidicekale.com and on ITunes. Underground can be viewed on WGN and on Hulu, and to follow Nicole, go to Jasikatrycurious.
The Quick 10
1. What app do you most use?
2. What's the first thing you do in the morning?
Drink a cup of hot water with fresh lemon and ginger.
3. Name a business mogul you admire.
Heather Lou of the indie sewing pattern company Closet Case. She isn't a "mogul" per se, but she is an entrepreneur with a successful small business who is changing the lives of people the world over in small, meaningful ways. I appreciate how her art and craftsmanship have manifested into something she can create for and share with people.
4. What product do you wish you had invented?
The electric car.
5. What is a food you never get sick of?
Peanut butter and I eat it almost every single day.
6. What is your life motto?
"Live a trycurious life."
7. Name your favorite work day snack.
If I'm in a healthy mood, chopped up jicama and green apples with chilli pepper, salt and lime juice sprinkled on top. If I'm being lazy, a bag of Doritos.
8. What's something that's always in your bag?
9. What’s the most inspiring place you’ve traveled to?
10. Desert Island. Three things, go:
A knife, peanut butter, and a solar powered kindle loaded up with thousands of books.
In 2016, I finally found my voice. I always thought I had one, especially as a business owner and mother of two vocal toddlers, but I had been wrong.
For more than 30 years, I had been struggling with the fear of being my true self and speaking my truth. Then the repressed memories of my childhood sexual abuse unraveled before me while raising my 3-year-old daughter, and my life has not been the same since.
Believe it or not, I am happy about that.
The journey for a survivor like me to feel even slightly comfortable sharing these words, without fear of being shamed or looked down upon, is a long and often lonely one. For all of the people out there in the shadows who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I dedicate this to you. You might never come out to talk about it and that's okay, but I am going to do so here and I hope that in doing so, I will open people's eyes to the long-term effects of abuse. As a survivor who is now fully conscious of her abuse, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, quite frankly, it may never go away.
It took me some time to accept that and I refuse to let it stop me from thriving in life; therefore, I strive to manage it (as do many others with PTSD) through various strategies I've learned and continue to learn through personal and group therapy. Over the years, various things have triggered my repressed memories and emotions of my abuse--from going to birthday parties and attending preschool tours to the Kavanaugh hearing and most recently, the"Leaving Neverland" documentary (I did not watch the latter, but read commentary about it).
These triggers often cause panic attacks. I was angry when I read Barbara Streisand's comments about the men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them, as detailed in the documentary. She was quoted as saying, "They both married and they both have children, so it didn't kill them." She later apologized for her comments. I was frustrated when one of the senators questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (during the Kavanaugh hearing) responded snidely that Dr. Ford was still able to get her Ph.D. after her alleged assault--as if to imply she must be lying because she gained success in life.We survivors are screaming to the world, "You just don't get it!" So let me explain: It takes a great amount of resilience and fortitude to walk out into society every day knowing that at any moment an image, a sound, a color, a smell, or a child crying could ignite fear in us that brings us back to that moment of abuse, causing a chemical reaction that results in a panic attack.
So yes, despite enduring and repressing those awful moments in my early life during which I didn't understand what was happening to me or why, decades later I did get married; I did become a parent; I did start a business that I continue to run today; and I am still learning to navigate this "new normal." These milestones do not erase the trauma that I experienced. Society needs to open their eyes and realize that any triumph after something as ghastly as childhood abuse should be celebrated, not looked upon as evidence that perhaps the trauma "never happened" or "wasn't that bad. "When a survivor is speaking out about what happened to them, they are asking the world to join them on their journey to heal. We need love, we need to feel safe and we need society to learn the signs of abuse and how to prevent it so that we can protect the 1 out of 10 children who are being abused by the age of 18. When I state this statistic at events or in large groups, I often have at least one person come up to me after and confide that they too are a survivor and have kept it a secret. My vehicle for speaking out was through the novella The Survivors Club, which is the inspiration behind a TV pilot that my co-creator and I are pitching as a supernatural, mind-bending TV series. Acknowledging my abuse has empowered me to speak up on behalf of innocent children who do not have a voice and the adult survivors who are silent.
Remembering has helped me further understand my young adult challenges,past risky relationships, anger issues, buried fears, and my anxieties. I am determined to thrive and not hide behind these negative things as they have molded me into the strong person I am today.Here is my advice to those who wonder how to best support survivors of sexual abuse:Ask how we need support: Many survivors have a tough exterior, which means the people around them assume they never need help--we tend to be the caregivers for our friends and families. Learning to be vulnerable was new for me, so I realized I needed a check-off list of what loved ones should ask me afterI had a panic attack.
The list had questions like: "Do you need a hug," "How are you feeling," "Do you need time alone."Be patient with our PTSD". Family and close ones tend to ask when will the PTSD go away. It isn't a cold or a disease that requires a finite amount of drugs or treatment. There's no pill to make it miraculously disappear, but therapy helps manage it and some therapies have been known to help it go away. Mental Health America has a wealth of information on PTSD that can help you and survivors understand it better. Have compassion: When I was with friends at a preschool tour to learn more about its summer camp, I almost fainted because I couldn't stop worrying about my kids being around new teenagers and staff that might watch them go the bathroom or put on their bathing suit. After the tour, my friends said,"Nubia, you don't have to put your kids in this camp. They will be happy doing other things this summer."
In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have friends who understood what I was going through and supported me. They showed me love and compassion, which made me feel safe and not judged.