When I joined last Saturday’s sold-out audience at Jamestown Settlement to see Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter, I was fresh from attending the opening event of Resilience Week, sponsored by the Greater Williamsburg Trauma Informed Community Network. Carter’s amazing career as an American costume designer demonstrates what resilience looks like in action.

A loud applause from the roughly 300 people who filled the Robins Foundation Theater welcomed Carter as she sat down with Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Executive Director Christy S. Coleman for an informal discussion. Carter was part of the 2024 Directors Series, where Coleman invites prominent scholars and public figures for thought-provoking conversations.

“The number one way Americans get their history is through film and television,” Coleman began. “Carter’s costumes are an American treasure of history and culture.”

Carter has 70 film credits and is a four-time Academy Award nominee. She was the first and only African American woman to win two Oscars for costume design for “Black Panther” and its sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

Building resilience helped Carter find her calling as a costume designer and succeed in a position where African Americans make up less than 8% of the field. Moreover, she looks for opportunities to showcase the resilience of Africans in her costume designs.

She developed resilience as a college student at nearby Hampton University. She had caught the acting bug growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and initially majored in education before transferring to theater.

When she did not receive a part in a college production she auditioned for, the director suggested that she make the costumes.

Rather than get discouraged, Carter seized the opportunity and never looked back.

Carter credits learning to skillfully research characters to her work at Colonial Williamsburg, where she worked as an interpreter under the guidance of Rex Ellis, the former vice president of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. Carter thanked Ellis, who was in the audience.

Her first job was designing costumes for Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” which led to her work on a dozen of his films, including “Do the Right Thing,” “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Malcolm X,” the first film for which she received an Academy Award nomination.

Over the years, she has worked with A-list actors such as Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Eddie Murphy, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and Samuel L. Jackson.

Carter’s second Academy Award nomination came in 1998 for designing costumes for the film “Amistad,” which was directed by Steven Spielberg, who is considered the most commercially successful director in American motion picture history.

Through her costume designs, Carter is helping people see American history through a more creative and authentic lens.

She depicts resilience in her designs. Carter acknowledged that early Africans were stripped of their identity and culture, “but there’s resiliency in telling our stories,” she said.

“There’s resiliency in a community that had everything taken away from them.

Yet, there’s still vibrancy in the color palettes and they’re still giving you Africanism.”

Carter’s special traveling exhibit, “Afrofuturism in Costume Design,” brings history to life. It is on display at Jamestown Settlement through Dec. 1 and features 60 original designs from Carter’s films, including “Black Panther,” “Selma,” “Coming to America 2,” the 2016 remake of Alex Haley’s “Roots” miniseries, “Shaft” and “Do the Right Thing.”

When we come together to build a more welcoming and resilient community, we all win!

Laura D. Hill is the executive director of the Virginia Racial Healing Institute, which manages Coming to the Table-Historic Triangle.

Learn more about her work at varacialhealinginstitute.org.