It’s been a few years since I watched Saturday Night Live regularly so I missed the addition of Sasheer Zamata, whose birthday is today, to the cast back in 2014. And it was kind of a big deal. There hadn’t been a black woman in the case since 2007, and only five in the show’s entire history. That’s pretty striking for a show that’s been as culturally relevant as SNL, and I thought it was even more poignant when Zamata did a segment for a March episode of This American Life called “You’ll Understand When You’re Older” in which she talked to her mother about the civil rights movement. This is how Zamata describes what she learned about the civil rights movement growing up:
When I learned about the civil rights movement in school, I got a pretty truncated version of it. I remember learning about the Little Rock Nine. And I saw that famous picture of them entering Central High School surrounded by US soldiers. And then desegregation happened. And now we get to use the same bathrooms. That’s pretty much all I got.
That’s not far off from what I learned in school too, but the major difference is her mother was one of the first children to attend an integrated school. Her mother, for a long time, was the only black student in her classroom, and subjected to regular verbal and sometimes physical abuse, from students and teachers.
Zamata’s a comedian so she finds some humor in her conversation with her mother, but she’s also brutally honest about how far we’ve come in the pursuit of equality and how far we still have to go. For most performers joining the cast of SNL is the start of their career. Most performers need it, but she was already a successful comedian and performer. It seems like SNL needed her.