Amanda Seales, Star of ‘Insecure,’ Discusses Black History Month and Why She Chose Columbia
Find out how Amanda Seales would teach Black history and how she made the past a part of her life and work.
Amanda Seales, creator, and host of Smart, Funny, and Black Entertainment, just finished a successful run portraying Tiffany DuBois on HBO’s hit dramedy, Insecure. An influencer with million-plus followers on social media, the comedian, writer, and social justice activist uses her life and education to raise awareness about the Black experience with a charismatic style that brings people joy, straight talk, and facts.
A 2005 alum of Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, Seales earned a degree in African American Studies with a concentration in Hip-Hop. She studied with the late Professor Manning Marable, a leading scholar of Black history whose biography of Malcolm X broke new ground with its flawed portrait of the Civil Rights leader. Studying with Marable, Seales says, was a time in her life that “grew her up” and provided a lifetime of connection beyond what she envisioned.
Columbia Neighbors recently had the opportunity to speak with Seales. She shared the backstory on why she chose Columbia for graduate school and what Black History Month means to her.
What piece of African American history has stuck with you throughout life and your career?
Everything that James Baldwin has said. His approach to being creative at the same time as being ardently and vehemently and loudly opposed to white supremacy has been the framework for the way that I live my life. We've looked at the Civil Rights movement like it was a really long time ago, but it actually was very recent. I really look to so much of James' writing and his thought process around his responsibility as someone in the limelight, as well as someone who has the gift of words, as a beacon of light to what direction I have to continue going in with my work.
If you were teaching Black history, what would be on your syllabus?
Smart, Funny, and Black is a Black variety comedy game show where I teach Black culture, Black history, and the Black experience. I always try to reference things that are historical, pop-cultural, and also things that are experiential. All three of those things are important tentpoles because Black culture is not just about the historical figures and the ancestors who have come before us. It's also how we live and how we've lived in spite of all that has been done to us, and how we have created, in the midst of the madness, continuously and prolifically. If I was in the classroom, I would keep that same framework.
Is Smart, Funny, and Black your contribution to Black history?
Black History Month is every day for me. I applied to Columbia’s Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) because I wanted to be able to speak to my community, honestly and knowledgeably. I wanted to enrich, encourage, and enlighten. I needed to have an academic understanding beyond my own experiential understanding in order to do that, and all of my work comes from that.
All of my work is a social practice that asks: How do I continue to uplift the Black community? How do I make work that brings joy? How do I make work that challenges oppressive systems? How do I make work that creates community? All of these things I consider to be imperative parts of our Black history and our Black present. My contribution is in being a facilitator of all those things.
Professor Manning Marable would say, “we can't just know about the past, we got to discuss the present to make a better future.”
Some people argue that the idea of #BlackGirlMagic undercuts the hard work it takes to succeed. What do you think?
At the end of the day, black girls are magic. It speaks to our hope, it speaks to our uniqueness. It speaks to our grace, our work ethic, and speaks to our identities and individuality. I don't understand how it can undercut when it lifts up everything about us.
Many say that Insecure has been the gateway for shows like Harlem and Run the World. How has Insecure set the stage for representing Black women living in America?
I think Insecure has continued a representation of Black women beyond this monolithic view that has been created by those who are not Black women. It continued the trajectory and the tradition of individuals that have unique voices and unique experiences. We can go all the way back to Claudine and connect it to Living Single and A Different World, and to Girlfriends. When we see shows like Insecure, Harlem, and Run the World, they're continuing with that by growing the representation of Black women as our own independent spirits.
Is there any connection between your experience at Columbia and your portrayal of Tiffany DuBois, a Stanford University Alumna in Insecure?
Unfortunately, Tiffany is not connected to my Columbia experience. But the Columbia experience that I had does show up in my stand-up. In my HBO special, I Be Knowin’, I break down “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and give a full story to Harriet Tubman. That is a direct result of being at Columbia and the way that we would discuss things. I don't think a lot of folks can say that their college experience inspired their stand-up comedy. I'm very fortunate that the two really blended together.
You could have gone to graduate school anywhere in the world. Why Columbia?
I applied to Temple, NYU, and Columbia. I got into Temple, I didn’t get into NYU, and I didn't find out I was accepted into Columbia until like two weeks before class. I'll never forget Shawn Mendoza at IRAAS calling me on a Thursday afternoon, like, “Hey, I just want to let you know that you got in the program.” I was like, “WHAT!” I had completely given up because I hadn't heard from Columbia.
I applied to Columbia because of the staff. I really liked that it was in Harlem, a Black Mecca. I also liked that it was an institute within this Ivy League setting that was bucking the system. It mattered to me that we were so closely juxtaposed to the systems that we are opposed to and able to see it for face value. I was very fortunate to have that experience. I have to tell you, I don't say it lightly, that being at Columbia, in the Institute, changed me as a person. It grew me … It grew me up.
How did Columbia and IRAAS help you grow as a person?
I went to Columbia with the mindset of I'm not here to make friends. I'm here just to get the degree and leave. Instead, I received so much support, insight, understanding, and lifelong friends. I thought I was solely going to get an academic experience. I got a personal experience and spiritual experience. I got to see just how real it can be when you take ownership of putting what you want to do in front of you and finding a way. I went to Columbia for African American studies with a concentration in Hip-Hop. That wasn't a thing schools offered.
“Education is the cornerstone for all elevation.”
I was supported in my interest and in how to continuously ask questions and create a space for narratives and study around that. You can't get that everywhere. [The late] Dr. Steven Gregory would have us write papers every week and I couldn’t do it. Instead, I asked if it was possible to write a poem about the reading every week. He said, yes, but on one condition, I’d have to perform it for the class. That allowed my education to be tailored to me in a way that I could really get the best of it versus being stressed by it.
Why did you choose to live in Harlem?
The energy. I was like “Oh, this is it.” This just feels right. It was just a vibe and when you do the vibe check and it checks out, you got to go with that!
Learn more about the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department