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Posts Tagged ‘biographies of African-American women’

Diana Vreeland, Empress of Fashion, 1903-1989

Before her career as editor and columnist at fashion magazines Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Diana Vreeland, like other society women of her class, ran a little lingerie shop near Berkeley Square in London. She often traveled to Paris where she would buy her clothes, notably, Chanel. She remembered one such trip in the summer of 1932:

“One night in Paris, after I was married, a friend and I went to a little theatre above Montmartre to see a German[-French] movie called “L’Atlantide,” with a wonderful actress in it called Brigitte Helm, who played the Queen of the Lost Continent. It was the middle of July. It was hot. The only seats in the theatre were in the third balcony, under the rafters, where it was even hotter. There were four seats in a row, and we took two.

L'Atlantide poster 1932

“We sat there, the movie started…and I became totally intoxicated by it. I was mesmerized! …I was absorbed by these three lost Foreign Legion soldiers with their camels, their woes…they’re so tired, they’re delirious with dehydration…And then you see the fata morgana [mirage]. That means that if you desire a woman, you see a woman, if you desire water, you see water – everything you dream, you see. But you never reach it. It’s all an illusion.

“Then…a sign of an oasis! There’s a palm…and more palms. Then they’re in the oasis, where they see Brigitte Helm, this divine looking woman seated on a throne – surrounded by cheetahs! The cheetahs bask in the sun. She fixes her eyes on the soldiers. One of them approaches her. She gives him a glass of champagne and he drinks it. Then she takes the glass from him, breaks it, cuts his throat with it…

Brigette Helm as the Queen of Atlantis, the Lost Continent, shown here with one of her screen cheetahs.  "L'Atlantide" (1932)

Brigette Helm as the Queen of Atlantis, the Lost Continent, shown here with one of her screen cheetahs. “L’Atlantide” (1932)

“This goes on and on. I hadn’t moved an inch. At some point I moved my hand…to here…where it stayed for the rest of the movie. I was spellbound because the mood was so sustained. I was sucked in, seduced by this thing of the desert, seduced by the Queen of the Lost Continent, the wickedest woman who had ever lived…and her cheetahs!

The essence of movie-ism.

“Then…the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down – and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!”

Josephine Baker was a hit in Paris cabarets, singing, dancing, and goofing around. In the 1930s, she was the most successful American entertainer in Paris. She got rich fast and was a superstar. She is wearing her notorious silly but erotic banana skirt. ca. 1925

When Josephine Baker began performing her exotic, erotic, and peculiar dances in Paris cabarets in 1925, she became an instant hit, a superstar. In the thirties, she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. She was known as “The Black Pearl” and “The Bronze Venus.” Whether sitting high up in a giant bird cage covered with peacock feathers or dancing semi-nude in a skirt of dangling fabric bananas, audiences were captivated by her infectious charm. ca. 1925

Meanwhile, back to our story:

Diana Vreeland was chatting with Josephine Baker in the balcony of a hot theater, looking at a cheetah.

Diana says to Josephine:

“‘Oh,” I said, ‘you’ve brought your cheetah to see the cheetahs!’

“Yes,” she said,’ that’s exactly what I did.’

“She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed.  She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt – no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias. Don’t forget how hot it was, and, of course, the great thing was to get out of this theatre we were in. The cheetah, naturally, took the lead, and Josephine, with those long black legs, was dragged down three flights of stairs as fast as she could go, and that’s fast.

“Out in the street there was an enormous white-and-silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind; the door closed…and they were off!

…Ah! Style was a great thing in those days.” (1)

American entertainer Josephine Baker (1906-1936) often performed onstage in Paris nightclubs with pet cheetah Chiquita. Chiquita wore a diamond collar. Sometimes, during a performance, Chiquita would decide to jump off the stage and into the orchestra pit, causing quite a ruckus. Early 1930s. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

American entertainer Josephine Baker (1906-1936) often performed onstage in Paris nightclubs with pet cheetah Chiquita. Chiquita wore a diamond collar. Sometimes, during a performance, Chiquita would decide to jump off the stage and into the orchestra pit, causing quite a ruckus. ca. 1931. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

Heads turned when entertainer Josephine Baker took her pet cheetah Chiquita on a walk, sometimes down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Ca. 1930

Heads turned when entertainer Josephine Baker took her pet cheetah Chiquita on a walk, sometimes down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Ca. 1930

Sheet music with Josephine Baker and Chiquita

Sheet music with Josephine Baker and Chiquita.

Comparing Josephine Baker to a beautiful Egyptian queen,  artist Pablo Picasso dubbed her “the Nefertiti of Now.” She posed for him in all her glory: “tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.” (2)

Gorgeous, talented, and funny Josephine Baker, an original. Undated photo, ca. 1930

Gorgeous, talented, and funny Josephine Baker, an original. Undated photo, ca. 1930

(1)Vreeland, Diana. D.V. New York: Da Capo Press, 1984

(2) Picasso quote

 

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Maya Angelou (Undated photo)

Maya Angelou (Undated photo)

American writer Maya Angelou (1928-2014) had deep political ties with the Clintons. In 1993, she read her poem, “Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Both she and Bill were from Arkansas. In 2008, she supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary race for the U.S. presidency against Barack Obama, a fellow African-American. It was a tough decision.

Maya Angelou campaigns for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton prior to the crucial Pennsylvania Primary, 2008. Even though Ms. Angelou walks with a cane, you can see that she is a towering figure at 6 feet tall.

Maya Angelou campaigns for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton prior to the crucial Pennsylvania Primary, 2008. Even though Ms. Angelou walks with a cane, you can see that she is a towering figure at 6 feet tall.

However, when Hillary dropped out of the race, Maya swiftly endorsed Barack Obama.

When she was asked to introduce Michelle Obama at a rally in North Carolina, she consulted her good friend TV hostess Obama Winfrey:

I knew she had socialized with them. I asked her, ‘What is Mrs. Obama like? What should I expect?’

Oprah said simply and without hesitation, ‘She’s the real deal.'”

The Obamas and Maya Angelou grew very close. She referred to Michelle Obama as one of her “she-roes.”

When she was interviewed followed Obama’s November ’08 victory, Maya was asked by the BBC World Service for her reaction:

My reaction can be described as thrilled – I am thrilling – but in the classic sense of the word. It used to mean having a physical reaction, you know – BRRRR!!!! – like that! (giggle) – where the whole body responds. Well, this is happening. Even my hair is happy!”

When Maya Angelou died this past Wednesday, President Obama called her a “fierce friend.” Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was named after Angelou.

Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from President Obama at the White House in Washington in this February 15, 2011 file photo. U.S. author and poet Maya Angelou has died at age 86 in North Carolina.. REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files

Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from President Obama at the White House in Washington in this February 15, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files

 

First Lady Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou on stage at BET Honors 2012 at the Warner Theatre on January 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. Photo from Amanda Wills at Mashable

For more on Maya Angelou, click here.

 

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Back in the 1950s, writer Maya Angelou was singing and dancing her way across Europe and America to appear in clubs, movies, and plays.

African-American writer Maya Angelou died this week at age 86. Starting Friday, May 31, 2014, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York City, will showcase a collection of her papers, manuscripts and letters. Maya Angelou is no stranger to the Schomburg Center. In 1991, the Schomburg expanded to include a new addition and Ms. Angelou was a guest at the opening.

The Schomburg Center, Harlem, New York.

The Schomburg Center, Harlem, New York.

The 1991 expansion of the Schomburg Center was the Langston Hughes Building. The structure is named after African-American poet Langston Hughes, the leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Maya Angelou met him in California once when he came to hear her sing.

Poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes hang out. Undated, prob. ca. 1960s.

Poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes hang out. Undated, prob. ca. 1960s.

The Langston Hughes Building contains an auditorium that seats 340 guests. Although impressive, the auditorium is of no interest to us here. It is the lobby that draws our attention.

The lobby is spacious, elegant, and flooded with natural light streaming through its many tall windows. The windows look out onto a garden but the real conversation piece is the floor. Embedded in the terrazzo tile  is a design honoring the poetry of Langston Hughes. “Rivers” was inspired by Hughes’ well-known poem, ” A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” This type of design is called a cosmogram, as it treats mystical themes of nature and the meaning of life. Blue rivers snake through rust-colored clay, evoking the Earth.

The Langston Hughes Building lobby at the Schomburg Center, New York City

The Langston Hughes Building lobby at the Schomburg Center, New York City

The design is pleasing, with its tribal symbols and poetic quotes. Looking closer even, we see that there is a fish shape in the middle. Inside the fish is a quote from the poem.

A quote from "A Negro Speaks of Rivers," by Langston Hughes appears in the cosmogram in the Langston Hughes Building Lobby.

A quote from “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes appears in the cosmogram in the Langston Hughes Building Lobby.

If we had superpowers and could see through the tile of the fish and underneath the floor, we would discover that there is something buried there. It is a vessel, made of metal, and, fittingly, we think later, shaped like a book. It is sealed. If we were to open it, which we won’t (and can’t), we would discover that it contains the cremated ashes of Langston Hughes himself. So the cosmogram, besides being beautiful, is useful. It is a tomb.

So, at the 1991 opening of the Langston Hughes Building, guests filled up the lobby and turned it into a dance floor. Someone cranked up the music and everyone boogied down. And this is how Maya Angelou and others ended up doing the proverbial dance on a friend’s grave.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem observed the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes and the beginning of Black History Month on Thursday night.  Mr. Hughes's ashes were buried beneath the floor of the auditorium, and in an African Custom of ancestral return, the  writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou danced atop them. Published NYT Metro, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1991 CREDIT:  Chester Higgins, Jr/The New York Times

In February 1991, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem observed the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes and the beginning of Black History Month. Mr. Hughes’s ashes are buried beneath the floor of the auditorium, and in an African Custom of ancestral return, the writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou danced atop them.
Published NYT Metro, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1991
CREDIT: Chester Higgins, Jr/The New York Times

 

For more on Maya Angelou, click here.

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Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), photograph by Mathew Brady c.1864

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), photograph by Mathew Brady c.1864

Born into slavery in New York, Isabella Baumfree (Sojourner Truth’s given name) was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She spoke Dutch until the age of nine when she was sold to a new owner along with a flock of sheep. Eventually freed, she became a devout Christian and began to travel and preach about freedom.

Asking the Lord for a new name to reflect her new life, she claimed “Sojourner” was given to her because she was to travel the land and “Truth” because she was to declare the truth to all people.

Sojourner Truth was a powerful speaker. Her most famous speech was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. It is called “Ain’t I a Woman?” a slogan she adopted from a famous abolitionist image (See below.) The speech as shown here has been revised from the 19th century dialect in which she spoke.

When Sojourner got up to speak to the crowd, some men were present and they began to boo and hiss at her:

“Well, children, where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne five children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Abolition Movement poster

Abolition Movement poster

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

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