Exclusive: Nafessa Williams On Why Getting Fired Was The Best Thing That Happened To Her

"I felt like I became my own superhero that day when I took it upon myself to just do what I felt like I needed to do for me."

Exclusive Interviews

It's press day for Nafessa Williams, and xoNecole is her last stop on the press run. If she's low on energy after fielding back-to-back interviews, the movie star is keeping it well under wraps. She hops on our call with good vibes and a level of enthusiasm that is the epitome of gratitude begets success.

And truth be told, she worked hard to get where she is today and prayed even harder. Just a few years ago, she was interning at the district attorney's office daydreaming about a more fulfilling life in Hollywood. No longer willing to work a job that didn't align with her purpose, Williams began auditioning for roles, not realizing that her leap of faith would cost her a steady paycheck when the company ultimately decided to let her go.

DFree / Shutterstock.com

"I felt like I became my own superhero that day when I took it upon myself to just do what I felt like I needed to do for me. That was the first day of the rest of my life."

Over the next few years, Williams built an impressive resume of television and movie roles before receiving a call that would lead her to be crowned network television's first Black lesbian superhero on CW's Black Lightning. Keeping with the trend of being a part of history-making projects, she hit the big screen this fall alongside Naomie Harris, Mike Colter, and Tyrese for her role as Missy in Black and Blue—the first film to feature a Black woman lead as a police officer.

And if you think the flashing lights and red carpet appearances have her feeling herself, she's quick to remind you that she's the same ol' Nafessa, just a Philly jawn going for gold with no intention of slowing down. We catch Williams as she continues to level up on and off the screen for some good girl talk about the importance of trading fear for faith, bringing her girl tribe with her as she elevates, and why she's choosing selfishness as a form of self-love.

xoNecole: What drew you to the script for 'Black and Blue'? 

Nafessa Williams: I like to take on projects that I feel are going to help shape the culture and have a message that serves us as a society. It was really unique with this group because it was a film about a rookie cop who witnesses a murder, but it's led by a female, which is very unique in and of its kind. We don't typically see a female leading a movie based around the police department. Also, the fact that the script mirrored what we're going through right now in our country with racial injustice and the judicial system and the injustices that are within, that really caught my attention.

xoNecole: You've previously talked about your interest in television and film, even as a child, but then you pursued a career in law. What initially made you decide not to dive into television and film?

Nafessa: You know, it felt like a hoop dream. It felt like something far-fetched. I didn't have anyone really in the industry or my family or close friends that could help guide me towards it, so I went with something a little bit more practical like most people do. I went to college and I was like, "I'm going to go be a lawyer." I interned at the DA's office and I soon learned that it was not for me. I had to do what spoke to my soul and what spoke to my heart, which was acting. No matter how difficult it was going to be, no matter if it took me 20 years to get the first "yes", I knew that it will happen eventually if I stuck with it.

xoNecole: At what point did you realize working in that law office really didn’t align with your purpose and how did you overcome the fear of taking a leap?

Nafessa: I used to dread going to work every day. Some moments I would cry that I had to do it and I was like, "OK, you can't do this anymore. You gotta be happy. You got to really get aligned with your purpose." I'm really grateful for my insight because I saw it all so clear and for the faith that I have and the drive to do it all. I was sitting in the office and realized that this would be my life 30 years from now if I made the decision to stay, or I had the option to start from scratch and make a lot of sacrifices. I couldn't travel for a while. I couldn't do certain things some of my other friends were doing because I decided to follow my dreams, which can be very tough and [there] can be a lot of ups and downs. But I just made a promise to myself that if you start, you gotta really go full throttle, and I did that from the very first day.

"I was sitting in the office and realized that this would be my life 30 years from now if I made the decision to stay, or I had the option to start from scratch and make a lot of sacrifices."

xoNecole: How long did it take for you to start seeing success in television and film?

Nafessa: I was 22 going on 23 [when I got fired], and then I booked my first regular series two years later. It was on One Life to Live, and at the time you could not tell me nothing. I was able to pay my rent. I was able to work on my craft every day, and I knew that would only strengthen my skills and help me get to the next level. So, it was about two and a half years into it, which was fairly quick. That was confirmation that I was on the right track, and it gave me hope to keep going.

xoNecole: What were you doing in between that time since you weren't working a 9 to 5?

Nafessa: I had saved money so I was living off of savings and I was auditioning like crazy. I was in acting class, but I wasn't technically working on the books yet. I was going on auditions and I would tell everybody I'm a working actress even though I hadn't booked anything, but I was just really trying to manifest that and do everything in my power to make it become real.

xoNecole: Did you ever experience Imposter Syndrome?

Nafessa: Oh, of course. Especially when you get to LA because I had started to make a name for myself in New York with being on One Life to Live and just hanging out in the acting community. But when you go to LA it's like starting all over, so it can make you feel really small. I told myself you will hear no and to just get comfortable with that rejection because eventually, you're going to get a "yes" that's going to change your life.

xoNecole: Did you get that kind of character from your family or is that just something you developed as you went along in this business?

Nafessa: I think that's something that's within you, but there are influences that can inspire that. Also, growing up in Philly and wanting to get out of the environment and wanting to just be different from what I saw. Again, it goes back to Black and Blue where you could become a product of your environment or you could want something completely different, and whatever your choice is, your friends are going to reflect that and your environment is going to reflect it. So I think it's about the environment that you choose. We don't have a choice at first, but after a while, you can make a choice to decide what it is that you want.

"I think it's about the environment that you choose. We don't have a choice at first, but after a while, you can make a choice to decide what it is that you want."

xoNecole: So, I know set life is crazy, and it can obviously take a lot of toll on your body. Are there certain things you do to maintain your self-care and wellness? Because you look good, girl!

Nafessa: Oh my gosh, the hardest thing is to stay away from all the badness and crappy food. I work out a good bit. Meditation is really, really important to me. My spirituality is very important to me. I think that's what keeps me centered and grounded throughout all the chaos and the strict schedules. What else? Oh, massages. I treat myself very often, especially with all the fighting that I have to do on set. It's very important to me. I love Deepak Chopra; I listen to him a lot. I've learned how to meditate through Deepak. So, whatever podcast he's on, I have those on my phone.

xoNecole: Being young and in Hollywood, what has your dating experience been like?

Nafessa: I can't say that I haven't dated here and there, but the last five years, my main focus has been my career and I've been really gung-ho on that. It's literally my boyfriend. I feel like that's been a priority to me; it's been about laying my foundation. I'm still a baby in this industry and I'm just starting out. The blessings of Black Lightning and Black and Blue, I take very seriously. So it's really all about work for me right now.

xoNecole: Do you feel like you're sacrificing your love life in lieu of your career?

Nafessa: You know, I realized that I chose a different path. If I had stayed home in Philly, my life may look a little different. But I'm still young; I feel like I have time. And again, I'm just getting started. I believe in coming into a relationship whole and knowing who you are and setting the foundation of your career so that you don't need anything from anybody else. And I believe you attract who and what you are. So to me, it's really about laying the foundation with myself and my career, and self-healing and self-care is high on my list. It's really all about me right now though, I'm so selfish [laughs].

"I believe you attract who and what you are. To me, it's really about laying the foundation with myself and my career, and self-healing and self-care is high on my list. It's really all about me right now though, I'm so selfish."

xoNecole: Oh, tell me more about this selfishness!

Nafessa: I was in long-term relationships really young, so I felt going into my 30s, it was really important to find out who I am as an individual and by myself and to learn what it is I really want, and then link up with somebody else.

xoNecole: Have you figured out what that is yet or are you still in the process of figuring it out? 

Nafessa: I'm definitely still on a journey of that. And I think soon, starting a family is ideal for me. But again, I'm still in the thick of having and enjoying where I am in my career. You don't want to break that. I guess I'm just riding this wave right now.

xoNecole: As you should be. So when the cameras are turned off, who would you say you are at your core?

Nafessa: Just a real simple, down to earth, funny girl. Somebody who you feel like is your cousin. Somebody who likes to have fun. Somebody likes to dance and just always tries to remain true to who I am and at my core who I was when I left Philly. I posted me dancing on my InstaStory and somebody who I went to college with was like, "Damn, you really are the same person. You still like to have fun; you didn't change." To me, that's a compliment because you always want to remember who you are and remember what got you here.

xoNecole: So what’s next for you?

Nafessa: I really want to do comedy. I love to have fun. I love to make people laugh, and I think it's going to be interesting for people to see a different side of me. A lot of what I've done so far has been a lot of drama. Even the superhero show, it's still very dramatic and I'm really excited to dive into the comedy realm. My ultimate comedy job would be SNL.

Keep up with Nafessa on Instagram by following her at @NafessaWilliams on Instagram!

Featured image by DFree / Shutterstock.com

Originally published November 11, 2019.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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