By many standards, Gabrielle Union is living the dream. She’s rich, famous, beautiful, married, a step-mother, and seemingly ageless. But anyone who knows anything about the actress is aware her life hasn’t been a fairytale. And if it weren’t for the foundation her parents laid and her ability to dream of a life beyond Omaha, Nebraska, she wouldn’t be the force we know her to be today.
But Union isn’t interested in just making it for herself. Having been in the game for 20 years, the 45-year-old is now focused on creating opportunities for other Brown girls and Black women, and one way she’s doing so is by working with AT&T and their #DreamInBlack initiative. Dream In Black is the telecommunications company’s “call-to-action for Black people to reimagine their own identities and dream big while fully embracing our culture and Blackness to revolutionize possibilities.” Union, who, in addition to developing her own production company, has also used her platform to speak out against rape culture, police brutality, and advocate for breast cancer research, has certainly answered that call. And so has her fellow industry sister and friend, Queen Latifah.
During Essence Festival in New Orleans, the superstars participated in a panel during a special AT&T brunch discussing what dreaming in Black means to them and how they push past barriers to realize their dreams.
“When you have this idea of what you see and no one else sees it, sometimes you have to stand alone,” Queen Latifah told the audience. Union echoed a similar sentiment, cautioning the crowd against allowing other people’s opinion of them to shape what they believe they are capable of.
Before the panel, I had the opportunity to chat with Union about her family’s longstanding connection with AT&T and how she’s still realizing dreams for herself and others. Check out the Q&A below.
How did you get involved with AT&T’s Dream in Black initiative?
My dad retired from AT&T after 30 some odd years. My step-mother worked at AT&T longer than him. My mom worked for Pac Bell — we’re a telecommunications family so I’ve always been an AT&T person. Since birth, they paid for everything, they allowed me to have the life that I have so when they reached out about Dream in Black, I was like, “Y’all allowed me to Dream in Black, you allowed my dad to Dream in Black.”
In Omaha, for a man who was a non-traditional student, went to the military, used his GI bill for him and his wife to get college educations, they were one of the first companies to really offer Black people advancement within the company. My dad went from a line to middle management and then he was able to work his way up and they are one of the lead companies in terms of diversity, especially at that time in the 70s when there wasn’t a lot.
What did you dream about as a little girl?
One of my first dreams was I wanted to be Zoro or a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Zoro had a mask, he was cool. I would make my own mask and — my family calls me Nicki — so instead of Zs I would write Ns all over my house which my mom was not pleased about. And then I moved from that to being obsessed with Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders — not the team, just the cheerleaders because they used to be on The Love Boat, they had their own movie, and there was a girl from Omaha, she had two long blond ponytails and, to me, that was like, “she’s made it!” because that was a big dream. And then it went from that to wanting to be a lawyer because my sister wanted to be a lawyer.
Who were the women who encouraged you as you started out in the acting industry?
Jenifer Lewis, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Tichina Arnold, Regina King, they were already very big, and when you’re kind of up and coming not everybody is actually wanting to create a space or felt like there was enough space for everybody — that’s the nicest way I can put that — and they felt like, oh my God, this is an ocean for all of us. We can all swim and be amazing. So those women really made sure I didn’t fall on my face. They were not interested in watching me fail.
Is that why you are constantly championing other Black women in the industry on social media?
I just want to make sure everyone gets a little light. People gave me light. I don’t want to be the Black person that made it. I’m not interested in being the only one at the table. I’m actually not interested in being at your table if there’s only one seat. I’m not interested in being in your house. I built my own house with a gang of tables and chairs and sh-t. I’ve got lawn furniture. That’s the only house I’m interested in being in. And another reason why I’m so excited about my production company, like creating work for other people — because it’s not obviously all for me — is to allow creatives of color space to get jobs and put people to work and dream in Black and create more dreamers.
We Need More Wine was such a success, will there be another book?
There’s a lot that I left out because I had not gotten through enough therapy. There were great stories that I could’ve just put in the book and then on the book tour and the press tour been like, “I’m not talking about that.” I wasn’t going to do that. If I’m not willing to have real, honest, transparent conversations about whatever I put in the book then it shouldn’t be in the book. I’ve been in therapy since then so hopefully a lot of those chapters that didn’t make it in the book because I wasn’t really ready to share, I’ll be ready to share. There’s a lot that’s happened since the book came out.