When Keke Palmer walked onto the stage at NCCU’s Rock the Lyceum lecture series, her energy was magnetic. The audience was immediately drawn in by her confidence and relaxed demeanor — quite literally, people inched forward in their seats. And judging by the mob of people within the small theater and huddled outside, she knew how to attract a crowd.
Palmer opened the lecture series, which took place Sept. 19 in Miller-Morgan Auditorium and kick-started the new school year at North Carolina Central University. The lecture series brings in inspiring individuals to talk to students and staff about topics ranging from politics to the entertainment world, with past speakers including Roland Martin and Angela Rye.
Most widely known for her work in “Akeelah and the Bee,” “True Jackson VP” and Broadway’s “Cinderella,” Palmer is an American actress, musician and talk-show host. Most recently, she had a role in the film “Hustlers.” From an early age, Palmer told the crowd, she had the full support of her family in building her acting career and establishing herself in the entertainment industry.
“Sometimes you don’t realize the sacrifices your family makes for you until we get older and we realize, ‘Wow, they did all those things for me so I could shine, so I could be where I want to be,’” Palmer said of her parents’ decision to move to L.A. to help her pursue her dreams.
Palmer also admitted that her career was heavily impacted by her identity as a black woman. From coming into her sexuality on screen in films like “Pimp” and “Hustlers,” to being the first black woman to star in “Cinderella“ on Broadway, she quickly realized how the treatment of black women in the film and music industry was vastly different.
“I don’t have to be ashamed of my sexuality, I don’t have to be ashamed that I’m beautiful,” Palmer said. “I just have to realize the power of it. Because if I don’t realize that, it will be taken advantage of.”
Palmer is also recognized for her work within mental health and youth advocacy circles. For her, discussing and normalizing mental health extends beyond the individual, in that it alleviates the systematic delegitimization of mental health struggles.
Reflecting on a conversation with her mother about Palmer’s own mental health journey, she shared, “My mom said, ‘Wow, I have felt like that my whole life, and I thought that was just me.’ And that’s what we’re here to do — to make it better for the next one. So the ones after me don’t have to fight that battle.”
Additionally, Palmer was instrumental in the growth of Saving Our Daughters, an organization focused on issues young girls, particularly those of multicultural backgrounds, face in the entertainment industry. Her involvement was primarily motivated by her belief in the importance of representation both in front of the camera and behind, as well as her own experiences in acting and music, namely as Cinderella on Broadway.
“When I did Cinderella, this little black girl was in the front row, and she goes, ‘Momma, that’s not Cinderella,’” Palmer recalled. “I said ... That is you, baby. You are Cinderella. You can have that story.”
At the end of the lecture, I got to sit down with Palmer to ask one final question about her favorite memories and proudest moments from her extensive career, to which she quickly replied “Akeelah and the Bee” and “True Jackson VP.”
“I say ‘Akeelah and the Bee’ because the movie was so powerful and I saw how it touched people,” she said. “And with ‘True Jackson VP,’ I know the shows that I grew up with have a special place in my heart and I think that I could be in any way a part of people’s childhood, it’s very special and I’m very grateful.”
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And after thinking for a brief moment, Palmer added her performance on Broadway as Cinderella.
“I never thought I would do Broadway,” Palmer said. “It was a personal accomplishment for me to be able to say you can do anything you want to do. You just have to work hard at it.”