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8 Great: Black Women to Celebrate

By Edited Oct 18, 2016 5 6

Black & Bold

Women, as is clearly seen throughout the entirety of recorded history, have been treated as second-class citizens (at best) or as chattel (at worse) or as slaves or non-entities (at worst), worth less than the goats the ancients herded in the Middle East.

This is nowhere clearer than in the Judeo-Christian guidebook, The Holy Bible.

Starting with the very first Old Testament texts women are beneath serious consideration.  Lilith, Adam’s first wife, was written completely out of the record.  Eve (the second offering from Yahweh to Adam) after giving birth to what is believed by religious types as the first offspring of humanity disappears from the literature. The Bible makes it clear that women are childlike, mistrustful, suspicious, vain, capricious creatures who need men to tend them, much like they would tend their livestock.  [The book of Numbers—the census annotated in the biblical Exodus—makes it plain how valueless women were.  Women and girls were not even counted in a man’s household though sheep, goats, and other livestock were.]

The situation has not changed much over the millennia.  While women may enjoy greater freedoms the world’s major religions still consider them subordinate and subjugates of men.

And within the category of womanhood there are further divisions of “valuelessness”, especially in the United States.

Mona (Heartwarming)

Starting with its conquest by the Spanish in the early 16th Century North American ideals of female beauty have been firmly rooted in white European ancestry.

It is the color of their skin which makes certain women valued less in the eyes of the Western world.  It matters little that, anthropologically, the darkest Indian on the subcontinent of India, the duskiest Egyptian, and the palest Nordic blond snow bunny all belong to the same anthropological group, Caucasoid.  It is generally the blond-haired, blue-eyed, pallid dolls in that group that are put forth as the best womankind has to offer. 

White women have been lionized as the standard of physical attractiveness with precious few black women receiving the same accolades.  And in the face of that conditioning women from other ethnic or racial groups have been cast aside as unattractive or unaccomplished.

Anyone, however, can take one look at Josephine Baker and see just how truly and ethereally beautiful she was, her skin color not relevant.

Josephine Baker (silver)
Credit: public domain

Within the African-American community, too, there is a schism.  Thanks to the interracial breeding culture created in the US’ Deep South during the appalling era of slavery (from 1621 to 1863) blacks with lighter skin and “good” (straighter) hair were considered more attractive than their darker counterparts.  [Sadly, this remains true today, with lighter-skinned actresses such as Halle Berry or Aisha Tyler—both stunningly beautiful women by any known standard—receiving more favorable attentions than, say, Danai Gurira (who is also stunningly beautiful by any known standard).] 

In America black women have most likely been the least considered with respect to their achievements.  But regardless of the negativity associated with African-American womanhood and its portrayal in media there have been many women of color who have achieved greatness. 

Here are women who mothered humanity, helped slaves escape to freedom, empowered black women, proved a dark-skinned female could be a big screen sex symbol, produced fascinating fine art, wrote eloquent and entertaining poetry, walked in space, and occupied The White House.

These eight are but the tip of a terrific iceberg of interesting women of color.

8. Mitochondrial Eve (fl. 150,000 years ago)

Mother of Humanity as it is Known Today

Throughout most of the 20th Century probably every elementary schoolchild learned that the Mesopotamian region in the Middle East was “The Cradle of Civilization”.

For many this implied that humanity itself developed there.  For the white supremacist, it meant that human kind had to be white, since people from that region (though somewhat olive-skinned) are still considered “white”.  Other races—Asians, Africans, etc.—just had to be bastardized forms of that original, white race.  [The story of Ham in the Bible’s Noah myth supports that supremacist notion because Ham was punished by Yahweh with a curse.  Though the Bible is lacking in detail on the subject many racists and ideologues concluded Ham was punished with dark skin; he became the “father” of all Negroid sub-Saharan peoples according to that interpretation.]

For the racist, however, it has come as a shock that what he/she believes about whites being the première race is wrong—it turns out, the opposite is true.  Science has proven that the human organism developed in the savannahs of Africa and through migrations populated the rest of the world. 

But, that by itself is not enough to nail down our origins for the racist.  For example, the ignorant could argue “Well, after everybody left Africa and became white, those African people that didn’t leave died out and some of us went back and turned black!”

To investigate humanity’s beginnings more precisely an intensive gene-mapping project was initiated in the late 1970s that looked at the world’s populations to trace its mitochondrial DNA.  Mitochondrial DNA is passed along maternally only—sons will not pass theirs (and their mother’s) mitochondrial DNA onto their children but daughters will.  Thus, science had a means of tracing human kind’s origins with definitude.

It was learned that the entirety of humanity as it exists today can be traced to one particular human female who lived between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.  Through this one woman all of us descended.

And, as it turns out, she lived in the eastern part of Africa—specifically, sub-Saharan East Africa. 

Mitochondrial Eve (interpretation)
Credit: wordpress.com; Fair Use

Therefore, every person on this planet has his/her roots in Africa, and we are all Africans at our genetic core.

7. Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913)

US Abolitionist

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
—Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (c. 1885)

Harriet Tubman had been born as Amarinta Ross, a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland.  Thanks to no records being kept her birth year is unclear, and other years of 1820, 1823, and 1825 have been cited. 

She married a freed black man named John Tubman in 1844 (while she herself remained a slave).  Shortly after getting married she changed her first name from “Amarinta” to “Harriet” (in honor of her slave mother, Harriet Green Ross).  

She made an escape attempt with two of her brothers in September 1849—her siblings grew frightened, however, and bailed on the operation, leaving Harriet to resign herself to coming back as well.  A short time later she made another attempt on her own—she succeeded.

Her flight to freedom was aided by a network of freed blacks and sympathizing whites (philanthropists, church leaders, and abolitionists).  This network was called the Underground Railroad.  Under cover of darkness and through subterfuge and bribery, these “conductors” helped escort and shelter runaway slaves who were headed toward liberty in the North (even into Canada if that was the preferred destination).  From 1830 up until about 1860 (at the start of the US Civil War) its efforts secured the freedom of an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 slaves. 

Knowing the good the Railroad had done for her Harriet committed to the cause.  She went back into the South dozens of times over the next several years and was personally responsible for leading over 300 slaves to freedom. 

Her husband, John, meanwhile had remained in Maryland.  When she tried to coax him North in 1851 she found he had remarried (legally or not is moot) in her absence after her escape. John Tubman was content to live where he was with his new wife.  [He was killed sixteen years later in an altercation with a white man.] 

Though huge rewards had been posted for her, now known grudgingly in the South as the “Moses of Her People”, she kept going back to help again and again.  Hearing of her adventures, and liking what he heard, radical abolitionist John Brown was introduced to her in 1858.  He called her “General Tubman” and she helped him during his campaign to set up the Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), armory raid that would lead to his execution.

In 1859, she was able to purchase a piece of land in Auburn, New York, and establish a home.  Shortly afterward, she headed south once more, this time returning with an eight-year-old light-skinned girl whom she said was her niece, Margaret.  [Harriet claimed Margaret had been born of free parents, in which case the girl had no need to flee.  Margaret had a twin brother who was left behind.  Some believe these were in reality Harriet’s children, perhaps by John Tubman after a tryst during the last time she saw him in 1851 before giving up on his joining her in the North.]

During The Civil War she served as nurse, laundress, and spy for Union forces in South Carolina.  [She was eventually granted a federal pension for her contributions during the conflict.]   She remarried in 1869 (a boarder in her home named Nelson Davis, a bricklayer, 22 years her junior).  They adopted a daughter in 1874, and Harriet stayed with her second husband until his death in 1888.  She later worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage when that cause grew in importance. 

 A Ride for Liberty (The Fugitive Slaves)--oil on paperboard
Credit: Eastman Johnson, c 1862; public domain

Harriet Tubman died in 1913 of complications from pneumonia.  Her legacy lived on in the people she’d helped set free to live without the bonds of slavery tying them down.

6. Madame C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove, 1867-1919)

Entrepreneur, Cosmetics Producer, Self-Made Millionaire

“I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their personal appearance and to give their hair proper attention.”
—Madame Walker

Though generally regarded as both the first female millionaire in America and the first black millionaire Madame Walker may be neither.  There is evidence to support the claim that a mixed-race man named William Leidesdorff, Jr. may hold the “first black ever” record and another black woman in the cosmetics’ business that started four years before Walker, Annie Turnbo Malone, might be the “female” record holder.  [It is unclear when Ms. Malone’s net worth reached the million dollar mark versus that of Ms. Walker.]

Regardless of her “first” status she is one of black America’s greatest financial successes, and she revolutionized the personal grooming and fashions for the majority of African-Americans.

Sarah Breedlove had been born to freed slaves as a free girl herself in Louisiana. Her mother died in 1872.  Her father remarried but then died shortly afterward.  The stepmother was apparently ill-equipped to handle young children, so the seven-year-old went to live with an older married sister.  The trio moved to Mississippi in 1877 when Sarah was ten.

The girl worked the cotton fields and did other odd jobs.  In her own words:

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub.  From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.”

To get away from her harsh working conditions (and her physically—and possibly sexually—abusive brother-in-law), when she was fourteen Sarah married Moses McWilliams.  In 1887, two years after Sarah gave birth to a daughter, Moses died.  The single mother moved to St. Louis and found work as a washerwoman, earning a bit over a dollar per day (this is about $26 today).  She was able to send her daughter to public school and began taking night classes herself to better her lot in life.

Sarah Breedlove, a/k/a/, Madame C. J. Walker (between 1905 and 1919)
During the 1890s Sarah contracted a nasty scalp condition that caused her to lose most of her hair.  She experimented at home with different concoctions of her own making (with some input from her three brothers who were all barbers) to grow her hair back. Because of her experience over time with hair care she was able to get a job in St. Louis as a sales person for Annie Turnbo Malone, a black woman who had pioneered hair care and cosmetics products for black women.  In short order, Sarah co-opted much of Annie Malone’s business model and product knowledge (though it was she who convinced Annie to copyright the Malone products under a brand name, “Poro”, which is a West African word meaning “physical and spiritual growth”).

Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado, to set herself up in business with the experience (and insider information) she’d gleaned from working for Malone.  She developed a product line available by mail order.  She met and married newspaper advertising man, Charles J. Walker. At her husband’s suggestion in 1906 she adopted the name “Madame C. J. Walker” for her hair care balms.

Madame C. J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower (product tin, c. 1925)
Credit: Prouct tin, c. 1925

She trained women to sell her wares.  Her daughter, Lelia (age twenty or so by then), ran the mail order part of the business while Sarah and Charles took to the road to expand their business.  They moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1908 and created “Lelia College”, a school to train Sarah’s “hair culturists”.  A final move to headquarter in Indianapolis, Indiana, was made in 1910.  Her holdings included a factory, a beauty school to train her sales agents, and a hair salon.

Most “Colored” people lived with the motto of “Gotta go along, to get along” tucked in the backs of their heads during this time.  This meant fitting in better with white people.  Because of that, Madame Walker’s hair straighteners and pomades were wildly successful, promoted by strong advertising that featured smiling, well groomed “Negroes” who owed their happiness to her sense of fashion.  [Annie Malone believed something similar herself.  Her credo was if African-American women improved their physical appearance, they would gain greater self-respect and achieve successes in other aspects of their lives.]

By augmenting her earnings with smart real-estate investments she became a millionaire. In 1917 she commissioned the building of a spectacular new house in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, to the tune of a quarter-million dollars (equivalent to nearly $5 million in 2015).  When it was completed, though, Sarah did not get to live in the house very long—she died of complications from high blood pressure about a year after moving in.  She was only 51 at the time.

In the spirit of “giving back” Madame Walker donated two-thirds of her considerable wealth over her life to charitable and educational institutions.

Sarah’s daughter, Lelia McWilliams, later changed her name to A’Lelia Walker.  She became a fixture in the cultural explosion of The Harlem Renaissance, hosting salons where artists and other cultural figures mingled and exchanged ideas about art, literature, and social issues of The Jazz Age.

5. Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967)

Film Actress, Singer, Pioneer TV Personality

“You just tell me one Negro girl who’s made movies who didn’t play a maid or a whore. I don’t know any.”
—Nina Mae McKinney

 

The humblest beginnings can breed the best.

Nannie Mayme McKinney was born June 12, 1912, in rural South Carolina.  Her parents were very poor indeed; needing jobs they farmed their daughter out to a great-aunt and took off for New York City in search of work.

The girl lived with her relative (who worked as a domestic and lived on the premises) in the Springs’ household.  The matron, Lena Jones Springs, took an interest in Nannie, and favored her much as one would a pet.  She bought her a bicycle and had the girl run errands for her in town.  [Interestingly enough, Lena Springs would go on to become active in the women’s suffrage movement; in 1924 she became the first woman ever nominated for US Vice President.]

The wealthy Springs family had built a school in the nearby community, Lancaster Industrial School.   Nannie attended as she could.  The little school held plays and other pageants in which she featured and learned some dance moves.  It was here she found a love for the stage, and to pursue that dream, at 15 she dropped out and made her way to New York City.

Nina Mae McKinney (age 16, 1929)

Reunited with her parents she spent her time auditioning for Broadway and off-Broadway shows (or in anything else where a “Colored” girl could get work). At 16 she got a job as a chorus girl in Blackbirds of 1928, a huge revue that went on to great success.  While in that show she caught the eye of Hollywood director, King Vidor.

He was working on what would become the first all-black cast talking motion picture, a musical called Hallelujah!.  The actress he had tapped for the lead female role of “Chick” had not worked out—he took one look at the newly christened Nina Mae and cast her for that coveted spot.

The picture was critically panned by some but roundly applauded by others.  It is now recognized (despite its melodramatic story line and obvious stereotyping of its African-American characters) as a landmark in motion picture history.  His work on the project netted Vidor an Academy Award® nomination for “Best Director” in 1929.

The teenaged Nina Mae, however, for her part in it became the first black female sex symbol, a steamy vision of African-American womanhood.  As a result of her newfound status, she believed in the empowering of black women in Hollywood—women of color could be sex symbols, too, just as well as any white woman could.

Nina Mae decided she would be an exemplar.  She only wanted to take on quality roles in other films, ones that didn’t play to the typical “mammy”, “whore”, or “maid” parts usually offered to black actresses. However, after snagging a five-year contract with MGM her talents were put to little use by that company.  [She was used by MGM in but two movies during her contract term (which, coincidentally, kept her from working for other filmmakers).  In one of these, she only featured as the off-screen singing voice to a lip-syncing Jean Harlow in 1935’s Reckless.]

With a lot of downtime at MGM (after 1931’s Safe in Hell in which she played a waitress) she decided (as her spiritual godmother, Josephine Baker, had done in the early part of the 1920s) to try Europe.

Europeans had not adopted the Jim Crow racism of the US and people of color were generally welcomed without being discriminated against.  In 1932, Nina Mae went to Paris.  From there she sang and played in stage shows and in cabarets.  She traveled to London in 1933 to appear in a stage show there.  It was during this time in her life she gained the nickname “Black Garbo” (a backhanded reference to the great Greta Garbo, though likely well-intended by those who hung it on her).

She traveled more on The Continent, playing out, and returned to London in 1934.  She starred in two British produced films in 1935.  And she featured on a BBC radio broadcast that same year in which she sang.  But it was a new medium that gave England a chance to see more of her than they might have otherwise. 

Television technology had been in development in fits and starts since the early 1920s (right around the same time as radio became available and affordable for the public to access).  The British began experimental broadcasts as early as 1929.  Roughly regular broadcasts began in 1936. 

The black beauty from America, Nina Mae McKinney—because of her popularity with the public after her radio show—was slotted for a special televised show in 1936.  With that documentary she was not only the first black woman but also the very first person of color to appear on British television.

Nina Mae McKinney on British television (1936)
Credit: BBC; public domain

She starred in another British stage revue in 1937, but with World War II on the horizon, she headed back to the US in 1939.  She entered into a brief marriage (to a junkie) and traveled with a jazz combo.  She then lowered her standards and appeared in small parts in several “race” movies, culminating with her part in the 1949 classic Pinky (a film that tackles the topic of light-skinned blacks “passing” for white).  Nina Mae played the minor part of a man’s girlfriend.

Finally giving up on America she returned to Europe and passed her time in Greece.  In 1966 she came back to New York City where she died of a heart attack on May 3, 1967.  She had been completely forgotten by then.  Recognition came later: in 1978, she received, posthumously, an award from the American Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame for her contributions.

Nina Mae McKinney was the first woman of African descent to capture the “It” essence for blacks onscreen.  She helped pave the way for great women of color in her wake, all of whom can give her a nod of acknowledgement and gratitude.

4. Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998)

Artist, Activist, and Educator

“[The French] would stand and watch me and say ‘mademoiselle, you are so very talented. You are so wonderful.’  . . . the color of my skin didn’t matter in Paris . . .”
—Loïs Mailou Jones

The Harlem Renaissance (also called the “New Negro Movement”) was an interesting time for black culture in America.  The epitome of the black ghetto, New York’s Harlem, ironically, was both the richest and the poorest in the City.  It was a place where great entertainers and celebrities hobnobbed with the well-heeled in fashionable nightclubs; it was also a place of grinding poverty for the average American of African descent living there. 

During the 1920s, though, many enlightened and educated blacks took cues from the social schisms and cultural elements they saw and experienced in Harlem and made it part of their artistic endeavors.  Literary giants of the day (author Langston Hughes, poet Countee Cullen), educators and activists, and fine artists all documented and celebrated the diversity of their black heritage as reflected in the streets of Harlem. 

There was a grit and no-holds-barred realism to the works produced by the Harlem Renaissance élite.  The movement changed how black American literature was written.  No more were writers creating works of dialect or imitative of mainstream white writers.  Instead, they focused on more sophisticated explorations of black life and culture.  This, in turn, stimulated racial pride.

Among those on the vanguard was an artist named Loïs Mailou Jones.  [It seems likely that the umlaut over the letter “i” in her first name was an affectation she added sometime in her early life—her birth name seems to be simply “Lois” of the common spelling.]  Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 3, 1905, to professional parents (her father, a lawyer, was the first African-American to earn a law degree from Suffolk Law School; her mother was a cosmetologist).  She developed her interest in fine art at an early age, encouraged by her father to draw and paint.

Loïs Mailou Jones (c. 1925)

With a natural talent, after high school she took evening classes at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts (1923-1927).  [She later attended other universities, including Harvard and Columbia for graduate work, and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1945 from Howard University.]  While attending her evening classes she worked as a costume design apprentice.  Her art was sufficiently mature that at the age of 17 she held her first exhibit.

Inspired by the social movement of Negro advancement through great educators (such as Carter Godwin Woodson with whom she collaborated) and literary figures and activists (such as W. E. B. Du Bois) she captured elements of The Jazz Age combined with Harlem’s colorful entertainment world and its people.  Her early works included African motifs as well as cityscape inspirations fueled by jazz “tones”.  Throughout the 1930s her pieces brought vivid color and vigor to what might have been considered a depressing subject, life in a black ghetto.

The Ascent of Ethiopia (oil on canvas)
Credit: Loïs Mailou Jones, 1932

In 1928 she took on the job of creating an art department for an upscale all-black prep school in North Carolina.  During her time there she taught art, folk dancing, and coached a basketball team.  A year later she was enticed away by Howard University who wanted her there as a professor of design.  [She remained with Howard, teaching design and watercolor until she retired in 1977.]

Still working on her art in 1934 while attending Columbia University she met fellow student Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel.  He was Haitian and would go on to become an artist himself.  The two were friends and corresponded over the next twenty years.  [They finally married in southern France in 1953; Louis died in 1982.]

Les Clochards, Montmartre, Paris (casein on board)
Credit: Loïs Mailou Jones, 1947

Loïs received a chance, via a fellowship, to study art in France in 1937.  She went to Paris for a year and came away with thirty brilliant watercolors.  She traveled extensively, visiting eleven African countries over a four-month period.  As a guest professor in Haiti in 1954 she was feted by the Haitian government to paint local people and landscapes to capture the spirit of the people and the country.

She died June 9, 1998, at the age of 94.  She was but six years short of having lived through and seeing the entirety of the 20th Century.

Her works are included in museums and collections around the world.  Stylistically, she embraced mostly impressionist forms, incorporating features of cubism in later works.  And during her mid-period, after her marriage to her Haitian husband in 1953, she strove more toward putting Caribbean and African themes into her work.  However, at her latest artistic stage the shapes used by Matisse in his famous “cutouts” period can also been seen as perhaps influential. 

Loïs Mailou Jones wanted to be remembered as an artist, not with the qualifiers of black artist or female artist, just merely “artist”.  Like it or not, though, she was all of those things, and her work is exquisite and worth exploring for the uninitiated.

3. Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

Poet and Pulitzer Prize Winner

“When you use the term minority or minorities in reference to people, you’re telling them that they’re less than somebody else.”
—Gwendolyn Brooks

 

Poetry, for many, carries with it a “take-it-or-leave-it” caveat: people either love it or they hate it.

There is good poetry and bad poetry (schlock of the “moon/June/spoon” rhyming structure). 

The best poetry, though, can not only paint a picture and spark an emotional response it can also address—sometimes in a humorous way, other times deadly seriously—social issues and the foibles of the human condition.

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks, who became the poet who could make the reader feel and perhaps smile as well as recognize a social concern with her words, was a Chicagoan to the bone though not born there. Her birth was in Kansas on June 7, 1917.  When she was six weeks old her parents moved the family to Chicago, Illinois.

The young Gwendolyn took an early interest in writing.  She published her first poem at the age of 13 in a children’s magazine; by 16, she had published 75 poems and had her work seriously critiqued by one of the founders of The Harlem Renaissance, novelist and poet James Weldon Johnson.  And at 17, she began as a regular contributor to the poetry column of Chicago’s premier black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.

She completed high school, and then graduated from a junior college in 1936.  She never bothered with any more formal education afterward, saying she already knew she wanted to be a writer and anything beyond her two-year degree was unnecessary.

Gwendolyn married in 1939, ultimately having two children (in 1940 and 1951 respectively).  She worked on her poetry while being a mother and later teaching literature and poetry across the US (as her star rose).

Gwendolyn Brooks (c 1945)
Her first collection of poetry was published in 1945, A Street in Bronzeville.  “Bronzeville” was a neighborhood within the larger community area known as Douglas in Chicago.  It was a place where, during “The Great Migration” of blacks from other parts of the country from 1910 to 1920, many settled thanks to Jim Crow de facto segregation.  [Brooks’ parents settled here when they first moved from Kansas.]  It was from the streets outside her window she found poetic inspiration.

Her second collection was one that loosely tied its poems together with a theme of growing up in Chicago.  Annie Allen was published in 1949—Gwendolyn was given the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1950 for this work, making her the first black person to ever win the prestigious award established by pioneering newspaperman, Joseph Pulitzer.

She revisited “Bronzeville” in 1956 with Bronzeville Boys and Girls.  This grouping, all told from the perspective of individual children with each selection titled with a child’s name, made for entertaining reading while incorporating some beat elements and jazz influenced phrasing.

The subjects broached in the poems were very different from contemporary “white” poetry, as well.  A great example is “Gertrude”:

When I hear Marian Anderson sing,
I am a STUFFless kind of thing.

Heart is like the flying air.
I cannot find it anywhere.

Fingers tingle. I am cold
And warm and young and very old.

But, most, I am a STUFFless thing
When I hear Marian Anderson sing.

The child, Gertrude, rhapsodizes about Marian Anderson, an Africa-American opera singer who had been denied use of a particular venue for a public performance because of her skin color by the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington, DC, in 1939.  Instead, with the intervention of then-First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian was granted permission to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. 

The open air concert she gave was attended by thousands and broadcast on radio.  It was universally acclaimed and made the racists of the DAR look very bad indeed.  With the poem “Gertrude”, Gwendolyn reminded America about that particularly ugly incident without bludgeoning the reader.  The child simplistically describes her elation upon hearing Marian’s voice as something which transports her soul.

Continuing in the vein of raising social issues (in this case, errant black youth that likely will not come to any good end) she published “We Real Cool” in 1960’s volume, The Bean Eaters.  In words of one syllable (24 of them to be exact) Gwendolyn succinctly paints the social reality of most young black males, with little guidance or sense of belonging, of the times:

We Real Cool
Credit: Gwendolyn Brooks, 1960; Broadside Press, Detroit, Michigan, 1966; Library of Congress

She published volume after volume of insightful and engaging works.  In 1968 Gwendolyn Brooks was appointed Illinois’ Poet Laureate (she held this post until her death).  She was further acknowledged with the honorific of being Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1985). 

By the time of her death from cancer on December 3, 200 (at the age of 83) she had been granted 75 honorary degrees, received humanitarian and literary awards by the dozen, and had been a mentor to many aspiring African-American poets. 

She is truly one of the greatest poetic voices America has ever produced.

2. Dr. Mae C. Jemison (b: 1956)

US Physician, Astronaut, and Educator

“I always knew I’d go to space.”
—Mae C. Jemison

 

Born in Decatur, Alabama, on October 17, 1956, Mae Carol Jemison, after her family moved to Chicago when she was three years old, considers herself (as Gwendolyn Brooks did) a Chicagoan.  Her father moved from the South to insure his daughter had better educational opportunities; her mother (a school teacher) obviously was in agreement.

The girl was fascinated by science and Nature, and had aspirations of becoming a doctor.  An early incident of sexism made her more determined: a kindergarten teacher, when hearing of her desire to be a scientist when she grew up, asked, “Don’t you mean a nurse?”

And like Nina Mae McKinney the young Mae Carol also discovered an early love of the performing arts, with dancing taking over her young soul at age eleven.  At this point in her life all she wanted to be was a dancer but her keen mind instead kept driving her toward the world of science.

Graduating from high school at an early age she entered Stanford University (in California) when she was sixteen, graduating in 1977 with a B.S. in chemical engineering.  [While there she also had earned enough credits to qualify for a B.A. in African and Afro-American studies.]  As a woman and a minority in a white male field of study she found both racism and sexism on campus while she earned her degree.  Some of her professors, for example, ignored her presence completely.  Others felt questions she might ask in class were trivial—yet, when the same question was posed by a white male student the same instructor would invariably offer praise for that student’s insight.

She moved on to Cornell University in New York City, taking her M.D. from Cornell’s medical school in 1981.  During her time at Cornell she traveled to Cuba, Kenya, and Thailand as part of her education, treating the ill and injured in those countries.  She also took time to hone her dance skills while studying to be a physician, taking modern dance lessons from the renowned Alvin Ailey School.  After graduating she interned in Los Angeles, worked as a general practitioner from July to December 1982, and then joined the Peace Corps.  She served as a physician to other Peace Corps volunteers in Africa from January 1983 to June 1985.

With Sally Ride’s historic barrier-breaking “first” (the first American woman in space in 1983) Mae Jemison felt perhaps the time had come for other women to venture into The Final Frontier as well. Taking inspiration from black actress Nichelle Nichols—the original Star Trek series’ communications’ officer, “Lt. Uhura”—Mae processed an application to NASA to join its shuttle program.  However, NASA was apparently not ready for her—her first application was denied, though she applied a second time and got a call-back in 1987.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison (July 1992)
But before she could train to go directly into space she had to earn her bones on the ground first, serving as a launch support technician for other missions.  [One of these was the first shuttle launch after 1987’s Challenger disaster.]  Her chance to be up in the air came in 1992.

Mae C. Jemison was one of seven crew members aboard the space shuttle Endeavour when it launched on September 12, 1992.  Its mission (designated “STS-47”) was a joint venture between NASA and Japan.  Experiments in microgravity—some chemical, others biotechnical—were conducted on board during its nearly eight-day trek. 

She became the first woman of African descent into space (the first black man was Guion S. Bluford in 1983).  [The STS-47 mission held some other “firsts”, too: the crew included the first Japanese astronaut on a US shuttle (Mamoru Mohri) and the first married couple in space (Mark Charles Lee and Nancy Jan Davis).]  Mae’s trip made her only the fifth black to venture off the planet. 

To illustrate that “space is for everyone” Mae brought a few small West African art objects with her.  She also took a photograph of Bessie Coleman, the first woman of color to ever fly a plane (in 1920; Bessie was African-American and Native American in her heritage). She brought aboard a poster for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

One of her best memories was a view of her beloved “hometown”:

“The first thing I saw from space was Chicago . . . I was working on the middeck where there aren’t many windows, and as we passed over Chicago, the commander called me up to the flight deck.  It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl I had always assumed I would go into space.”

Mae C. Jemison in space aboard Endeavour, Sep 1992
Credit: NASA; public domain

After returning to earth on September 20, 1992, Mae stayed with NASA for only a short time afterward.  To pursue other interests (her dancing, for one—she built a home studio) and a newly found desire to explore how society and technology interact she resigned in March 1993.

Interestingly enough, thanks to her very public love of the Star Trek franchise, she was tapped to appear in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (aired May 24, 1993).  Her role on this show represented the first time an actual astronaut had appeared on the series. Since then she has hosted other televised programs and guested in an NPR broadcast of its popular program Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me (in 2013). 

Mae Jemison featured as one of the subjects for 2006’s African-American Lives (PBS’ miniseries).  The show used historical records and genetic research to trace the ancestry of several famous blacks in America.  Mae learned, quite to her surprise, that her genetic make-up includes 13% that is East Asian.

She started her own company, The Jemison Group, that researches and markets science and technological innovations to be used for everyday life. She then created a civic foundation, named for her mother, which brings science to children and delves into global issues.

Mae is a professor-at-large for Cornell, and from 1995 to 2002 she was a professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College (in New Hampshire). She is a favored public speaker for charities and social symposia.  She has received multiple awards for her works as a scientist, as a voice for social issues, and as a writer.  There are four schools and a museum around the country that bear her name in honor of her achievements. 

This woman is an overachiever of the type rarely seen today. She, however, has very mixed feelings about being a role model.  Her indecision about that is reflected in her quote to a Midwestern newspaper in 2006: “. . . everybody's a role model . . . role models can be good or bad, positive or negative”.

Don’t listen to her—Mae C. Jemison is worthy of admiration and emulation.

1. Michelle Obama (b: 1964)

Attorney, Activist, and First Lady of the United States of America

“I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity.”
—Michelle Obama

 

She ties with Hillary Clinton as the most educated First Lady to ever hold that honorific.  [And while both earned post-grad degrees, dependent upon how one takes the “most educated” measurement—Hillary’s undergrad work at Wellesley versus Michelle’s Princeton—Michelle may qualify as the most educated.] 

She is also the first female of African descent to inhabit The White House as something other than a slave or paid domestic.

Forbes listed her, in 2015, in the #10 spot of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.  She presently carries a personal net worth of just a bit over $11 million. 

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (official White House portrait, 2013)

She is Michelle LaVaughn (née Robinson) Obama. 

Born in DeYoung, Illinois (now named Calumet Park and part of the Chicago metropolitan area) on January 17, 1964, the girl’s family was grounded in the working class.  Her father was a water plant worker and her mother was a secretary.  Neither had much in the way of formal education.

Her family’s history is also firmly rooted in slavery.  Her father’s people were descended from the Gullah ethnic group (spawned from enslaved Africans) of South Carolina.  Her mother’s forebears were slaves in Georgia (with some white blood getting into the mix starting in 1860 with a biracial boy born of an African mother and the son of the plantation master).  All four of her immediate grandparents are multi-racial.

Her childhood was spent in Chicago’s public schools.  A bright child she was promoted from first to third grade, skipping the second grade (a feat her older brother also accomplished). By the sixth grade she was in gifted classes.

High school found Michelle on the honor roll all four years.  She was a member of the National Honor Society and was student council treasurer.  She graduated in 1981 as salutatorian.  Michelle’s brother had gone to Princeton (graduating in 1983); she followed in his footsteps.   She majored in Sociology and minored in African-American Studies.  In 1985 she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree.  She set her sights on a law degree from Harvard, earning her Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School in 1988.

Michelle Robinson found work at the Chicago-based law firm of Sidley Austin LLP.  While there she was tasked with mentoring a “summer associate” (usually someone who has completed his/her second year of law school and interns somewhere) in 1989.  Her charge was a young man with a funny name, Barack Hussein Obama II. 

As two of only a few African-Americans in a mostly white work environment the pair spent much time together.  A romantic interest developed and in 1992, she became Michelle Obama.  Two children—daughters—came along in 1998 and 2001.

While Michelle had worked for the Chicago mayor’s office in 1991 she was not politically inspired to seek an office of her own. She moved on to work for a non-profit organization for four years and then she settled in as Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago. From there she took on the post of Executive Director for Community Affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals and in 2005 she was the organization’s Vic President for Community and External Affairs.

Her husband, “Barry”, had political aspirations, however, and he secured a three-term seat in the Illinois Senate (from 1997 to 2004).  He ran for a spot in the US House of Representatives in 2000.  Michelle helped him campaign but she hated it.  Her wish, after his defeat in that election, was for him to simply stay at home.  Wanting that plum, however, he decided to run for the US Senate in 2004, a chair he won handily over his opponent.  He was US Senator from Illinois from 2005 to 2008.

In 2007, while sitting in the US Senate, Barack decided to run for President of the United States.

Michelle, who loathed campaigning but did it anyway (she agreed to help Barack if he quit smoking!) feared the national exposure and media scrutiny would disrupt the lives of their children. 

The rest, of course, is history, and landmark history at that.  Africans had first set foot in The Colonies as slaves in 1621; 387 years later the United States had its first President who was not of white European ancestry. 

And it also had its first “non white” First Lady, too.  Michelle Obama brought a lot of fashion sense, intelligence, a sense of humor, and a self-effacing wit to her spotlight position.  She has taken on many causes, not the least of which is her concern over childhood obesity.  She pays attention to international matters involving civil rights violations (such as the “Bring Back Our Girls” global cry).  [The hashtag meme “Bring Back Our Girls” was a response to the kidnapping, rape, and selling off as slaves or wives of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, taken from their school dorm in the dead of night on April 14, 2014, by a renegade militia group.  Only spotty information concerning their fate has been gleaned from a few escapees.  The whereabouts of the majority of the victims are unknown.]

Michelle Obama: Bring Back Our Girls
Credit: public domain

Michelle Obama is a model for all young women.  She is intelligent, charming, gracious, and caring, as well as physically stunning. 

And for a “first” it is likely the US got one of its best with her as a two-term occupant of the most famous address in the United States, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Final Words

Young women today would do well to look up to smarter role models than the ones they currently do (rappers, sports figures, Kardashians, etc.). 

The handful of truly great women presented here does not do justice to the entire body of creativity, technical expertise, performing talents, and other areas of inventiveness women of color have achieved.  It is worthwhile to spend time looking for such women, whether in history or in the neighborhood—they may have something wonderful to impart.

Hope for the Future of Black Women
Credit: Alex Porter, a/k/a, Harmon Montgomery

                                                                                        ***

Josephine Baker-C'est toi mon seul paradis Haiti

Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood
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Comments

Feb 17, 2016 3:57pm
97jetty
Enjoyable read.
Feb 17, 2016 6:26pm
vicdillinger
Thanks.
Feb 23, 2016 8:26am
HLesley
This is a great article, Vic, with bios of some truly inspiring women that I had never heard of.
Feb 23, 2016 10:01am
vicdillinger
I generally dislike poetry but I've enjoyed Gwendolyn Brooks' work since I was a kid.

The artist in this list, Loïs Mailou Jones, is a recent "discovery" for me, and I wanted to share her (her work is fantastic)..

Nina Mae McKinney is an icon I've visited before (in greater detail in my piece, "Black Garbo") but I wanted her out there again for others to see.

Thanks for reading about these wonderful women.
Mar 9, 2016 12:28pm
galaxysurfer77
Great piece. I never knew Josephine Baker had such a beautiful voice. Wow!!!
Mar 9, 2016 1:15pm
vicdillinger
Yeah, that's one of the beauties about venturing off the beaten path--you discover something wonderful in the process. Thanks for checking out these wonderful women.
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