Born in Winslow, actress Erika Alexander, best known for her roles as cousin Pam Tucker in “The Cosby Show” and as Maxine Shaw in “Living Single,” grew up in Flagstaff before moving to Philadelphia and catching her big break in 1990.
In her 33 years in the industry, she starred alongside Whoopi Goldberg and appeared in a variety of TV shows, including “Criminal Minds,” “House M.D.,” “Bosch” and most recently the critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning horror film “Get Out” as Detective Latoya. Instead of being in Hollywood to celebrate the film’s success, Alexander returned home over the weekend to talk to more than 70 Northern Arizona University students, alumni, community members and faculty about the part the small mountain town has played in her life.
Alexander spoke to NAZ Today about her experiences. See the full TV interview online.
An artist, screenwriter and graphic novel writer, Alexander also is a strong political activist who campaigned for and spoke on behalf of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. She attributes her resilience and expertise in using arts and culture for social change to her hometown and the influence it had on her.
“The foundation of who I am is very Arizona,” Alexander said. “People often remark that I feel a little different… no one ever thinks it’s because I’m from Flagstaff.”
Alexander was brought to campus as part of the Ted Johnson Lecture Series—a public event put on by the Ethnic Studies Program, Black Student Union and the NAU Foundation. Started in 2016 by a gift from alumnus Booker T. Evans and his wife, the lecture series was created in honor of Ted Johnson, the university’s first African-American professor, who joined the faculty in 1969 and taught composition, literature and minority literature for more than 30 years.
“I wanted to ensure that his legacy would continue, long after his years at NAU,” Evans said during the Saturday luncheon. “I thought about a scholarship fund, which would help one individual at a time, and this lecture fund, which will reach several dozens of people each year.”
With this fund, an NAU Foundation account was established to which others could donate. The funds are used exclusively to cover expenses for a free public lecture every year. Evans said it is important for current students to understand how Professor Johnson is a model for success, resilience and excellence despite the odds.
The series provides more than an opportunity to hear the inspiring stories of successful individuals who overcame the odds, but also has turned into a sort of homecoming for Black alumni. Evans, along with alumni Mel Hannah, Tyrone Thompson, Marquitta Lambert, Tia Truss and several others returned to their alma mater for the lecture.
As a result, NAU’s Ethnic Studies program, the Black Student Union and Alumni Engagement are collaborating to build a network of black alumni to serve black and underrepresented students in their personal, academic and career development. The lecture series will serve as a networking opportunity and annual venue to bring together students, alumni, faculty and staff who are committed to diversity and academic achievement. According to Ethnic Studies director Ricardo Guthrie, community-engaged mentorship has always been a hallmark of NAU’s Ethnic Studies Program—and it began with Ted Johnson.
“I think this is a unique collaboration and growing partnership that builds on Ted Johnson’s legacy, Booker Evans and other Black alumni’s generosity and the Ethnic Studies Program’s commitment to building leadership and community engagement beyond the classroom,” Guthrie said. “Featuring a speaker like Erika Alexander demonstrates how Flagstaff serves as an incubator for talented and committed people who go on to achieve great things. As the series continues, we will extend invitations to other speakers who, like Erika, embody attributes that are similar to Ted Johnson.”