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Nafessa Williams: Breaking barriers as TV's first black lesbian superhero

“I am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to give voice to this character and show young black lesbian women that it’s OK to be themselves."
Illustration of Nafessa Williams.
Adriana Bellet / for NBC News

"She Thrives: Black Women Making History Today" puts the spotlight on 10 amazing individuals whose achievements transcend generations, occupations and regions. These women — all leaders in their communities — are truly elevating the conversation around black identity, politics and culture. Meet all of our "She Thrives" honorees here.


Nafessa Williams


Actress, "Black Lightning"




Philadelphia. Lives in Los Angeles.

Words you live by

"Life begins when we follow our dreams and when we encourage people to follow theirs."

Your hero

Phylicia Rashad

How she thrives

Nafessa Williams grew up watching “The Cosby Show” and wanted to be just like Clair Huxtable. Seeing a successful black female lawyer on television was inspiring, and proved to her that she could be anything she wanted to be.

Perhaps that’s what makes her perfect in the role of Anissa Pierce, aka Thunder, in the CW Television Network’s superhero series “Black Lightning.” Her groundbreaking character is in medical school, teaches high school, and is TV’s first black lesbian superhero.

“As a black woman, I know what barriers we are still breaking down so that we can see ourselves,” she told NBCBLK. “I am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to give voice to this character and show young black lesbian women that it’s OK to be themselves, and enjoy seeing themselves on TV every week.”

Williams was attracted to her character’s “by any means necessary” approach to accomplishing her goals. Thunder has superhuman strength, can create powerful shockwaves against her enemies and has the ability to heal quickly. In its second season, the series is expected to dive deeper into Anissa’s relationship with her love interest, Grace.

Williams always thought she was going to be a lawyer when she grew up. She studied criminal law at West Chester University and interned at a district attorney’s office, but then was bit by the acting bug.

Williams, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, started going to local auditions and then acting gigs in New York City. In 2011, she got her first big TV role in ABC’s “One Life to Live.” Most recently, she was added to the cast in the cop thriller film “Black and Blue.” Her dream gig, however, is to star in her own sitcom; eventually, she'd also like to flex her comedy skills on “Saturday Night Live.”

The spirit of Clair Huxtable has never left Williams’ psyche. Through her character on “Black Lightning,” she hopes to show other black girls that they can accomplish their biggest dreams.

“I believe it’s my duty to inspire a generation of young black girls that we can be anything we want to be,” she said. “With this character, I hope to inspire a generation of women to be themselves, and boldly and unapologetically walk in that truth.”

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