When Javoris and Arlene Hollingsworth found themselves working from home, like many others during the COVID-19 pandemic, they became more aware of what their kids were watching. “One of the biggest things that stood out was the lack of diversity in a lot of the content that was out there,” Arlene recalls. The realization caused Javoris to wonder, “What can we do to try to fill this void, where there can be children that look like mine on the screen?”
Drawing on their professional backgrounds—he as a scientist and researcher, she as psychologist—the two Ph.D.s decided to do something about it. The result: Gracie’s Corner, a homegrown children’s YouTube channel featuring Black characters that launched in the summer of 2020.
The Houston couple soon found they had hit a nerve with other families grateful for content that challenges much of broadcasting’s racial imbalance. In just two years, Gracie’s Corner’s 40 or so short educational videos have drawn almost 750,000 subscribers (plus 169,000 Instagram followers) and clocked up more than 300 million collective views and a further 22 million on TikTok—a remarkable viral impact that spotlights the importance of learning, the hope of faith and the power of persistence.
The positive reception to the cheery sing-along videos has confirmed the Hollingsworths’ suspicion that there was a space needing to be filled. “People are yearning to see themselves in a positive light,” says Arlene. “People want to see themselves in cartoons. People want to see themselves in shows.” They also want to be more than the token person of color you might sometimes find in other productions, she adds. “We seem like we’re afterthought because there’s one character that looks like us. Not only does Gracie’s Corner spotlight children of color, African American children, but different hairstyles, different skin tones. It’s so important to be able to see yourself.”
She references research dating back to the mid-1900s, when psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark used different-colored dolls to gauge how children perceived themselves. “So, this isn’t a new thing,” Arlene says, “but sometimes I think we forget and lose touch of how important it is for us to see ourselves and know how beautiful and fantastic we are.”
Gracie’s Corner is doing that by celebrating education and empowerment. There are singing and dancing songs that teach about numbers and reading. And there are others that address issues like diversity and heritage. One video proclaims, “I Love My Hair,” while another celebrates Juneteenth.
It’s not just about screen time for Black characters, though; it’s also the context in which they are seen. In “Row the Boat,” Gracie sings the well-known kids’ song with the rest of her family—mom, dad and grandparents. That is no accident, Javoris explains in a behind-the-scenes video on the channel. “You can see that the nuclear family is shown,” he says. “In the present day, there’s different types of family dynamics, but I think it’s also good to show that there are Black families that are fully intact, contrary to some of the stereotypes that usually are portrayed for people of color.”
A family affair
Gracie’s Corner has truly been a family affair. With Javoris and Arlene both involved in the content, oldest daughter Graceyn, whose name inspired the title and who has loved singing since she was just two or three, gives voice to the main character.
At first mom and dad weren’t sure about involving her. “We have always been really big on protecting her and, to some extent, her identity,” says Arlene, “because we want her to live a normal life, go to regular public school, all that great stuff.” But the youngster who wants to grow up to be a singer like Whitney Houston or Alicia Keys proved to be a perfect fit.
The videos don’t just draw on Javoris’s musical roots but also his geographical ones. He grew up in Jeffersonville, a small town in Georgia, with landmarks from around the area popping up in the backgrounds. The channel provides free coloring pages and activity sheets and there are birthday shoutouts each month for fans.
Though the Hollingsworths had no entertainment world background, Javoris has some musical experience. Growing up, he spent a lot of time in church with his grandmother (“sometimes not my choice”) where he learned to play piano and drums. “And I was also a band geek and I guess a lot of those skills somehow transferred to Graceyn, because she’s very, very talented,” he says.
The educational aspect of Gracie’s Corner is important to the creators, both of whom came from families that did not enjoy the opportunities education has afforded them. Javoris was the first person from his family to go to college. Neither of Arlene’s parents had gone to college, either—in fact, coming from a poor family in the Philippines, where you had to pay for school, her mother had no education.
“Education remains something really important,” says Arlene, “especially because it wasn’t something my family could easily do, or just in general, African Americans; you know, it’s something they tried to stop us doing.” With that in mind, whatever success may come with Gracie’s Corner, they’re going to encourage Graceyn to go to college.
As a tenure track professor at Texas Southern University, one of the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Arlene sees “day-in day-out the impact that education has, not only on you being able to get a degree, but also in helping mold you as a person.”
She challenges the notion that education isn’t worth the time and money anymore. “There are so many doors that open when you have a degree,” she says. “I tell people with just a bachelor’s, if nothing else you’re set up to teach and go through alternative certification programs, which already puts you significantly above what minimum wage is.”
Javoris agrees. “Being able to have options is probably the greatest level of freedom you can have,” he says. “If you don’t have those options, you’re kind of stuck with what’s at hand, and in those types of situations, you tend to find yourself unhappy. But when you have options, if this doesn’t fit or this doesn’t quite resonate, you can change tracks and go this direction.” That’s what he has done in a surprising way, by quitting his academic position at the University of St. Thomas, in Houston, to pursue the Gracie’s Corner possibilities full-time.
A different narrative
As the channel’s popularity grows there has been outside interest, with talk of maybe a TV show. He is also playing with the idea of creating a similar-style show aimed more at boys, in response to demand.
Before that, there are plans to extend beyond the short song-video content to more long-form pieces that help broaden the show’s palette, “a narrative where you can actually learn about the family who is Gracie,” Javoris explains. “Who is her mom? What’s her dad like? What are Grandma and Grandpa like? . . . where you actually get to see the family dynamics.”
The aim is to make sure “that the whole Black family is shown,” Javoris says. “I know sometimes the media tends to paint a certain picture about what a Black family looks like, but we really want to try to break down a lot of those types of barriers and stereotypes and just show us in a positive light.”
In addition, there are licensing discussions going on that would expand existing merchandise, which includes onesies, T-shirts, hoodies and backpacks. The first Gracie book, I Believe in the Dream, celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recent releases include Gracie’s Corner Kids Hits, Vols.2 and 3 on streaming services.
Javoris’s passion for education dates back to his time in Jefferson (where, “if you graduate from high school, you’ve pretty much done great”) when he got to visit Morehouse College. “It just really lit a fire for me, and I became excited about the idea of going to college,” he says—something only made possible by the Gates Millennium Scholarship he earned.
Education that potentially opens more doors doesn’t have to be a major investment, he points out—it could just be a class or a seminar, he says. “Something that you can do that will take your skill set to the next level or something that just helps to broaden your background. I always recommend anyone to do it, even if it’s just something that they’re remotely interested in, because if one day you want to pivot, you can do it and it’ll be a smooth transition.” Javoris illustrated that himself by pursuing an MBA while he was working as a professor: “I wanted to be able to understand entrepreneurship and that whole business side of things.”
Once they got the spark to do something about the lack of diverse representation in children’s media of which they had become aware, the Hollingsworths tapped into their strengths. Javoris applied his bent for research, figuring out how to produce a show and pulling together a team with the right skills. Arlene offered her psychologist’s insights.
A sense of mission
Though they had a sense of mission about what they were doing, funding the effort themselves, they had no certainty it would take off. “In the beginning we weren’t sure, because we weren’t seeing what we thought we would see,” says Javoris. Arlene remembers wondering when they would ever reach 1,000 subscribers, the level at which you can start to monetize something on YouTube.
Along the way, the Hollingsworths have learned some lessons about what it takes to turn a dream into a reality. First, “you have to have a high degree of faith because you don’t always see the fruits of your labor in the very beginning,” says Arlene. “It’s like you’re planting a bunch of seed. You’re knowing, based on what you’re doing, that it can yield a fantastic harvest, but you’re not really certain.”
Their experience has also confirmed her professional understanding of how you can choose to do certain things that will increase the likelihood of certain behaviors happening and there are things you can do that will decrease it. “Having a husband who is ambitious, who wants to try to do things, that’s something I don’t want to decrease,” she says. “Even if it doesn’t necessarily work out, I want him to continue to dream and to try to pursue things because, as you see, it can, and it does work out.” Had she not been supportive, “there may not be a Gracie’s Corner,” she adds. “So, I’m really happy that we’ve had the success we’ve had.”
Not everyone thought it was a great idea to begin with. “I think a lot of people looked at me [like I was] crazy, to be honest,” Javoris says, because of his background—a Bill Gates scholar who went to China on a postdoctoral fellowship and later became a university professor. “Having this full-blown science background and then taking this drastic turn to entertainment, sharing that news with people, [they were] kind of like, ‘Are you sure?’ But I just continued on because I believed in the purpose of it and that the impact was necessary.”
Persistence is key in achieving anything, says Arlene. “Most things that are really worth it take time, take dedication, take patience,” she says. “You need to be patient even when it doesn’t look like it’s going to pan out.”
She points to herself as an example, now with a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University. She didn’t get accepted for the program on her first two attempts. “Now, all people know is Dr. Hollingsworth . . . that’s all people see. So, my best advice would be, just have faith in yourself and have faith in the process.”
Not that it’s always easy, she admits. In the early days of Gracie’s Corner, “I would have moments where, like anyone else, I struggled with faith, but that’s the most important thing—to continue to have faith, continue to have persistence and to keep doing it.”
From an interview with Louis Carr