Grandparents make the world go ‘round, bringing joy and light to all of us. But gone are the days when we only look at grandparents as old folk, who sit at home knitting in their rocking chairs and watching their grandchildren. The term may sound old to some, but today, grandparents are vibrant, active, and they simply aren’t monolithic. Grandparents create Tik Tok videos, travel the world with and without their grandchildren, two-step at the club, run their own dance academies, and have careers that they’re still growing and thriving in.
Just ask the award-winning actress, choreographer, world-class dancer, singer and songwriter, producer, director and living legend, Debbie Allen. The Howard University alum hasn’t slowed down at all—she’s still directing, producing, writing, and acting—and she’s on our screen’s every Thursday as Dr. Catherine Avery Fox on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, which she also executive produces. The mom of three has many titles, but she’s a new grandmother and that title may trump them all.
On a mission to break the stereotypes of what it means to be a grandparent, this Grandparent’s Day (September 13) Allen has partnered with Aspercreme to launch #LoveIsGrand, a campaign created to celebrate today’s grandparents for who they really are by sharing a photo on social media. (For every photo shared, Aspercreme will donate $1 to an organization supporting aging adults, up to $50,000.)
ESSENCE caught up with the icon who shared the joys of being a new grandparent, her memories as a granddaughter, and she even gave our readers some advice pushing through the very difficult and uncertain times we are all dealing with today. Oh, and she let us in on some exciting family news. Hint: two is twice the fun!
ESSENCE: There’s a lot going on in the world right now and it’s taking a toll on all of us. How are you doing and what are you doing to maintain your peace?
DEBBIE ALLEN: One of the most important things that I do that maintains my peace is the time that I spend with my granddaughter, honestly. My husband and I are so in love with her and she’s so in love with us and we get to keep her every weekend. And my mom is with me too. We just celebrated her 97th birthday.
Have you had a lot of time to relax during quarantine?
ALLEN: Yes! [My husband] Norman and I just cuddle up together. We watched everything from Black Lightning to Black is King three times. And then with my little baby, she loves Barney. So, we’re watching Barney now, again! But that’s how it’s been for us. Then [I’ve been] turning the Debbie Allen Dance Academy into a virtual experience. I’ve been dancing the whole time and touching and lifting the world, which is a blessing that I can do it. And it has given meaning and more purpose to my life to be able to touch people, especially with the physical separation of COVID; it has created a global connection.
You are somewhat of a new grandmother and you’ve been enjoying that journey. Is that why you decided to partner with Aspercreme and launch Love is Grand?
ALLEN: Grandparents are the heart and soul of so many families. I think it is time to reset the model on what and who a grandparent is, what they are doing. You know, we are active people. We are working people. We are people that have energy. We’re people who love that energy that we get from our grandkids and there’s a lot of grandparents right now that are probably suffering because they can’t have the connection.
So, we want people to celebrate, post their pictures and acknowledge grandparents. In this country, everything is disposable and expendable, and our elders are one of the greatest resources we have in this country and in the world. And every country in the world celebrates their elders in ways that we don’t.
Honoring our grandparents is important and it’s great to have your voice be a part of this conversation.
ALLEN: We need to show some respect and some joy. I was having to put my 2 cents in and I don’t have a problem with that. Somebody made a joke to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re a grandma now.’ And I said, ‘I’m a lucky B-I-T-C-H…,’ I didn’t say that part. [hilariously laughing] And I am sorry you’re not. Honey, I’m real. I got another one on the way, Vivian’s pregnant again.
Oh wow. Congratulations.
ALLEN: Thank you. She’s due in December. And I’m waiting on my son to bring me somebody, c’mon now.
How was your relationship with your grandparents?
ALLEN: Oh my grandmother, Goldie Jean Jackson, birthed 10 children. She was very active with me and Lish [Phylicia Rashad], our brothers and our cousins, chasing us around the house having fun. I can remember when I was a little girl, being three and four years old, her having me dance for her around the Christmas tree. And by the time I was four and five, she was chasing us around the house with a switch, me and Phylicia and all the cousins for turning the water hose on, ‘cause we didn’t have a swimming pool. It’s still hot in Texas.
We had a grandmother who was living in a home that was totally intergenerational. She lived in the home with her husband, my grandfather, Papa Lloyd, and some of her children still lived with her. And some of their children lived with them as well. So, I grew up with a real sense of family, and even though there were often problems, it wasn’t like everything was just working, but there was a family there to help solve whatever it was.
What has been the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make as a grandparent?
ALLEN: Being a grandmother now, I take a back seat to my daughter and how she wants to raise her child. There was this whole thing of Shiloh going to sleep in the room by herself with a monitor. Vivian was never by herself, I always there. But this is the new way of doing things. And then she said, ‘But mom, if you make a noise, you’re going to wake her up.; And so now when we keep her, we know we can’t make noise if we have her in the room with us because we’ll wake her up. So, it’s taking a back seat to my daughter’s idea of how she’s raising her child and supporting that. So that’s something that I’m learning.
How are you as a grandmother?
ALLEN: She calls me Ma D like mom and Debbie. She calls my husband, Papa. She runs to us when she sees us. She loves us. She’s 17 months and is talking and communicating. She will repeat almost anything that I say, so I have to be careful.
Being there and stepping in, however you can is one of the most important things to me. When she was first born, I was her night nurse for the first, like two weeks of her life. And I was still doing Grey’s Anatomy and I was falling asleep at work. We just wanted to keep her close. We didn’t want anybody strange touching her.
As one of our culture’s icons and powerful mother-grandparent figures that lived through the Civil Rights movement, would you say that what’s going on right now is similar in any way to what went on during the Civil Rights movement?
ALLEN: Absolutely, I would say it’s very similar. Unfortunately, there has been like a rebirth of an awakening of hatred and racism that is in your face. That we thought we had moved past that, as a kid we saw a lot of brutality from communities and policemen and we felt like we had moved past that. It’s still with us, it’s not everybody but it’s still with us and we are going to have to stand up to it.
Would you say that young people are doing a good job, as it relates to standing up and fighting against everything that’s working against us?
ALLEN: Yeah, I think young people are stepping up, owning their position and demanding rights, and this is the time for their leadership. It’s a good thing. It’s a powerful thing.
As my mom always says, the elders can lead from behind. We’re there to give guidance and ideas and inspiration, but it is the time for young people.
As one of the grandmother figures of our culture, what’s some grandmother advice that you could give us all right now for such an uncertain and difficult time?
ALLEN: Right now, we’re going through birth pains. Birth is one of the hardest, most painful things a person can go through, and women are born to take it. Out of the pain of birth comes something beautiful.
We went through birth pains through the Middle Passage, the abolition of slavery. We went through birth pain through Civil Rights in the 60s, and we’re going through it again now. But the beauty of what’s happening now is that we are going through it with a unified voice of people from all over the world.
So, I think we’re getting to the place where we’re in the middle of this storm, which will allow us to see much clearer who we are, who we want to be, and who we are destined to be.
If we’re lucky enough, we will live long enough to do something with our life that will make an impact. You don’t have to live forever to do it, Kobe Bryant made an impact. Chadwick Boseman made an impact. George Floyd unfortunately made an impact.
So, ask yourselves— what can I do that brings some positive light?
And remember, we have to go through these birth pains, we have to go through a bit of pain to get where we are trying to go.