History Historical Badasses Art History

Elizabeth Catlett’s art reminds us to keep fighting

For stories of Black history and excellence, check out our Black History Month series. Celebrate with us by sharing your favorite articles on social media and uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Black people.

With so much changing in the world and dreary prognoses scuttling about the news, times have been tough for women of color as we fight against powers that seek to reinstitute sexist, racist, and classist values. But this is not a new struggle, and it is essential to remember that even as we feel the ground shifting beneath our feet, the pillars of feminist movements that came before us hold steady. One such pillar is the legacy of Elizabeth Catlett.  

Elizabeth Catlett was a Mexican and African-American sculptor and print-maker who used her art to advocate for civil rights and social change in the United States. The granddaughter of slaves, Elizabeth was a groundbreaking figure in the art world, becoming the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Iowa with an MFA in 1940.  

Bronze statue of smiling full-bodied woman standing with one arm behind her head and one arm at her side.
Woman Walking (Standing Woman) by Elizabeth Catlett

Catlett was awarded a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology, only to have it rescinded shortly thereafter upon discovery of her race. This was an all-too-common occurrence for Black scholars in the segregated United States, but Elizabeth didn’t let it extinguish her desire for training and education. She enrolled at Howard University, where she studied under artist Loïs Mailou Jones and philosopher Alain Locke.

I myself studied at a historically Black university, where I received funding and attention that was attuned to my identity as a Black woman. HBCUs are major parts of the communities that they serve, as they were created to give Black students the option to pursue higher education when they were turned away from white schools. 

Catlett’s experiences struggling to rise under a racist, sexist system influenced her work greatly, and after traveling to Mexico City to study under a fellowship, she began her work promoting social justice.

“I learned how you use your art for the service of people, struggling people, to whom only realism is meaningful,” she said. This is what made Elizabeth such an incredible icon. Her work represents more than her own personal struggle to overcome prejudice and discrimination. She created for the benefit of the common woman, the women who rise at dawn and care selflessly for their families and communities even as they go without themselves.

Young girl with braids holding bag and eating a piece of bread while smiling. Tall grain in background.
“Bread” by Elizabeth Catlett

She believed in the unity of womanhood to overcome oppression, and her art reflects that spirit of defiance. The women that struggle, the women that work, these were “her people.” In Mexico, she learned that female perseverance transcends race, and the synthesis of art, selflessness, and struggle is a phenomenon common to all women of color. 

Elizabeth mobilized her love of the working class to organize rallies in Mexico that protested the inhumane treatment of workers. It was during one such rally that she was arrested by the United States government and charged with being a communist, a label flung around during the McCarthy era to silence voices that spoke for justice and equality.

But Elizabeth Catlett could not be silenced. In response to these charges, she relinquished her United States citizenship and became a full Mexican, where she continued to fight for the rights of the working poor.

Catlett’s work is especially important because its feminist and humanist themes inspired the Black Feminist movement of the late 1960s. Kathleen Edwards, the chief curator at the University of Iowa’s Museum of Art, described her as, “probably the most important female African-American in the United States.” In the current political climate, when we are seeing the aggressive encroachment upon female reproductive rights and minority civil rights, her sculptures stand as an act of conscious rebellion and a testament to intrinsic female majesty.

Mature Black woman with wizened face, white sunhat, white hair, and safety-pinned tunic staring resiliently into the distance
“Sharecropper” (1952) by Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth’s work, exclusively feminine, radiates with the soul and undying strength of Black women. Catlett wielded the uncanny ability to use the grain and lustre of her medium to accentuate the natural curve and sensuality of the female figure. Her sculptures are proud, powerful, and maternal, a combination that continues to reflect the reality of Black female identities. Completed works such as “Mother and Child” (1993) and her prints of “The Negro Woman” (1946-47) and “Sharecropper” (1952) are demonstrative of our lives as raw, tangible realities, absent of the romanticism of Black fetishization. These are women as we are and have always been: beautiful and valid by nature of our existence.

We should look to these works and take pride in our history, knowing that we have shouldered and carried the burdens of every society. When we are tired, we should gaze upon “Triangular Woman” (1994), so that we may be soothed by the repose of a hard-working matriarch. And when we are afraid, raise a fist that clutches the strength of our womanhood, the bond we share, and paths we have still to pave.

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History Historical Badasses

How Mildred D. Taylor’s stories can teach us how to be hopeful throughout hardships

For stories of Black history and excellence, check out our Black History Month series. Celebrate with us by sharing your favorite articles on social media and uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Black people.

When I was in seventh grade, my English class was assigned to read a book titled Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. I can’t remember the exact moment I learned about racism in school, but reading this book was an eye-opener. To this day, I can still recall two vivid scenes from the book: Cassie Logan describing the worn-out textbooks meant for Black students and her Papa’s leg being crushed by a wagon during a racist ambush.

Mildred D. Taylor began writing about the Logan family in 1975 with her first novella, Song of the Trees. Her historical works are about the hardships faced by African-American families living in the Deep South. Taylor was not the first author to narrate such moving stories. Yet, to me, she stood out for the sense of hope and resilience she breathes into her characters.

Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, but moved north with her family when she was just three months old. Despite not having a Southern upbringing, she insisted that the region held pleasant memories for her as her family’s home. They eventually settled in Toledo, Ohio as her father did not want her and her sister to grow up in the racially segregated society of the South that he lived in. When Taylor started school, she was the only black child in her class. Yearly trips to Mississippi and firsthand stories from family gatherings helped her become familiar with the South. Taylor would eventually use some of the stories for her novels.

Taylor attended the University of Toledo where she majored in English and minored in History. By age 19, she had written her first novel, Dark People, Dark World. Sadly, due to revision disagreements with a publisher, the novel was never published. After graduation, Taylor joined the Peace Corps and taught in Arizona and Ethiopia. She then attended the University of Colorado School of Journalism, where she worked with university officials and fellow students to curate a Black Studies program. It’s inspiring how Taylor maintained the respect from her roots and encouraged for others to do the same in education.

In addition to all those accomplishments, Taylor kept writing. In 1973, Taylor entered a contest funded by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. “I tried writing [a story] from a boy’s point of view because the story was based on my father’s life, but that didn’t work,” Taylor said in a 2006 interview with the American Library Association. “So I decided to retell it from the girl’s point of view. It won that honor and got my foot in the door.”

The story was eventually published as Song of the Trees, and won first prize in the contest’s African-American category. It was also listed as an outstanding book of the year in the New York Times.

In 1977, she also won the Newberry Medal for the sequel to Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and several other literary recognitions.

“I wanted to show a different kind of black world from the one so often seen,” she said of her characters, the Logan family. “[Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry] will always be the most special book I have written.”

Black stories are often heavily centered around trauma. There’s a common assumption that Blacknes and suffering go hand in hand. While the Logans are a disadvantaged family, what we learn from them is their ability to make the most out of situations. Cassie and her brothers are a strong unit who have a solid relationship with their parents and appreciate who they are surrounded by. If anything, Taylor has shown us the importance of family dynamics in the face of constant trauma.

In an interview with The Brown Bookshelf, Taylor commented on the backlash of parents who felt her work was too painful for children to read. “As much as it hurts me to write words of pain, I know that they must be written, for they are truthful words about the time I write,” she said.

Sometimes, even if it can be uncomfortable, writing about pain is necessary. It can help others become more attentive to voices that are often silenced. What I find heartbreakingly relatable is that the Logan children instantly learned that they were living in a different world than their white peers. How Taylor writes about pain from Cassie’s perspective lets readers know that children are never too young to start understanding the world around them.

In the same interview, Taylor discussed receiving letters from students like myself who read her books as required reading. The students, however, said the books weren’t just about history. Rather, they are about the values they wished were more a part of their world today.

In Taylor’s words, “[It] is so uplifting to find there are still those who read my books and not only feel a greater understanding about our past, but feel the relevancy of that past to apply to the great turmoil of today’s world.”

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History Forgotten History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Black women were at the core of the Harlem Renaissance

For stories of Black history and excellence, check out our Black History Month series. Celebrate with us by sharing your favorite articles on social media and uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Black people.

I first heard about the Harlem Renaissance when watching Black Nativity, a retelling of the Nativity story with Black characters.

The Harlem Renaissance was a twentieth-century African-American movement in art, culture, literature, politics, and music. Creativity and intellectual life flourished at this time for African-American communities following the Great Migration, where hundreds of families migrated from the South to the North for economic opportunities and to acquire cultural capital. Major players include Langston Hughes, Adelaide Hall and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

The name Langston was a frequent recurrence in the Black Nativity and I thought to myself, “who was this man?” After researching, I found out that Langston Hughes was an exceptional poet who contributed immensely to the Harlem Renaissance. However, as great as Langston’s poetry is, I began to think about the countless Black women who must have had an influence on the birth of this new African American identity.

It was not limited to only Black men or just Harlem. Despite being centered in Harlem, it was a diasporic movement with Black Francophone writers in Paris being influenced.

[Image description: Meta Warrick Fuller] Via Library of Congress
As mentioned above, the Harlem Renaissance has been known to be about the emergence of new forms of art and literature by African Americans living in Harlem, New York. After the First World War, artists such as Meta Warrick Fuller were influenced by African themes and this was reflected in her artwork. She was the first Black woman to receive a federal commission for her art. One of her most notable sculptures, ‘Ethiopia Awakening’ (1914) catalyzed the resurgence of numerous African themes in the Harlem Renaissance.

[Image description: Jessie Redmon Fauset] Via Library of Congress
Jessie Redmon Fauset has been described as the “midwife of the Harlem Renaissance” due to her position as the literary editor of The Crisis, an NAACP magazine. Her position as editor gave her the opportunities to promote literary work relating to social movements of the era. Fauset was ahead of her time as an editor! She discouraged writers to write about their struggles being Black in the early 20th century but rather encouraged them to speak about positivity, ensuring there was positive representation of Black identity in the magazine.

It’s interesting to see how even back then there was a collective understanding of what constitutes Black joy, Black identity, and why it must be preserved for future generations. It’s just bittersweet to see that up until today Black people are still writing about struggle given our experiences in the world. I wonder what Fauset anticipated for the future of Black writers. Would they be writing about joy and positivity?

Her influence during the era was unmatched, she bolstered the careers of figures we now know to be Langston Hughes and Nella Larson.

[Image description: Josephine Baker poses for a portrait in a beaded gown in 1970.] Via Getty Images
Remember Betty Boop? She was inspired by Josephine Baker. Dubbed the trendsetter and fashionista of the Renaissance, she served as inspiration for Black women and white women at the time with her outfits. Even across the Atlantic, she was causing a commotion. I mean, this is nothing new.

One of the most notable aspects of her career as a dancer is her refusal to perform for segregated audiences and this speaks volumes. By refusing to do so, she acknowledged her worth and respected herself enough by not doing so. I guess not everything is worth the bag. Her fashion influence left people copying left, right and center. Josephine was an influencer before her time.

After shining a light on three prominent women during the Harlem Renaissance, I’ll remember that there are so many stories out there and sometimes you just have to find them. 

[Image Description: An illustrated graphic featuring several Black women with the text saying Black History Month in capital letters] Via The Tempest
[Image Description: An illustrated graphic featuring several Black women with the text saying Black History Month in capital letters] Via The Tempest
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Gender Race Inequality

Without this woman, Barack Obama could never have become president

Like so many Black women, when Shirley Chisholm saw trouble, she took things into her own hands. She said, “screw it, I’ll do it.” What was “it”?

Well, not only was Shirley Chisholm the first Black Congresswoman in the US, but she was also the first Black candidate to run for a major party’s presidential nomination.

Chisholm was born in 1924, a few years before the Great Depression began. She was the oldest of four. Her parents were of Caribbean ancestry and blue-collar cut. Her mother was a seamstress and her father a factory worker. She would go on to graduate from Brooklyn College with honors, as well as Columbia University, and thereafter became an educator.

Chisholm started her political career in 1965, as a state legislator for New York. For perspective, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just passed.

Chisholm wasted absolutely no time in making her impact. She served for three years until the opportunity arose for her to run for the House of Representatives.  For perspective, Chisholm ran for Congress the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. It was a scary, emotional and trying time for folks of all colors and creeds. She hoped to aid in unifying the country, at one of its most volatile times.

When Chisholm became Representative for New York’s 12th Congressional district, her racist, sexist colleagues had no trouble wasting her time. They assigned Chisholm, a candidate representing in one of the most densely populated cities in the world…to the agricultural committee. Still, she turned lemons into lemonade. Shirley’s biggest priorities were the working poor and education.

Those two often mixed.

She used her influence concerning Agriculture to greatly increase food stamp benefits. She helped create WIC, which was a program that helped new and soon-to-be mothers feed their children. She helped create and join the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Woman’s Political Caucus. Her work in Congress was remarkable.

So obviously, the next step was to run for president.

Chisholm ran because she knew someone had to do it. It was 1972, and no one had paved the way.

So, of course, she had to.

[A campaign poster for Chisholm’s 1972 presidential run. Chisholm is depicted, along with the words “Bring U.S. Together” and “Vote Chisholm 1972, Unbought and Unbossed”]
You’d be surprised at who supported her run, and who didn’t.

Chisholm mentions frequently that she experienced more strife fighting against sexism than racism. People didn’t really know what to do with a Black woman running for the Democratic nomination. She was often a punchline.

Whereas Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon of the 70s did not endorse Chisholm’s run, Chisholm managed to gain the favor of her opponent. Someone who was perhaps one of the most racist men in America: George Wallace. You know, the man who said he wants segregation forever.

He was the governor of Alabama at the time, and he was a Democrat.

The campaign itself was rather dangerous for Chisholm and her opponents.

Wallace was shot while on the campaign trail and ended up paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Chisholm caught a lot of flack for visiting him in the hospital, but she was simply being a good colleague. Chisholm’s life was threatened at least three times while she was campaigning, and she was appointed a Secret Service detail due to these threats.

She lost the race for many reasons, mostly because no one truly took her seriously. Her experience mattered not: she was a Black woman, and that was enough for a great deal of Americans to discount her.

After her run for the Democratic nomination, Chisholm returned to her seat in the house. She left Congress in 1983, having served in the House for fourteen years. She passed away in 2005 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that Shirley Chisholm didn’t live to see Barack Obama elected into the White House. After all, she truly paved the way for him.

Gender Race Inequality

What you need to know about Black Women’s Equal Pay Day

Today, August 7th, 2018, is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day in the United States.

If you don’t know what this means, fear not, we’re here to provide some context.

The gender pay gap is no secret. In the United States, based on federal statistics from organizations such as the U.S. Census Bureau, the statistic that is typically thrown around is that women make somewhere from 70 to 80 cents to the dollar per a man. This number is based on taking the difference between the median income of women working full-time and year-round in the United States and dividing them by comparable men’s median income. As of April 10, 2018,  this number came out to roughly 80%. This is already egregious. By these measurements statistics, the average American woman would have to work a fifty-year career in order to make up the difference between her a male colleague doing the same work for forty years

Applying these numbers to comparisons of time puts them in a different light, and that’s just what Equal Pay Days do. Equal Pay Days raise awareness on the gender pay gap by marking how far into the next year a woman would have to work in order to make the same amount of money as a white, non-Hispanic man. For instance, for the year of 2017, Equal Pay Day for all women would ideally be December 31, 2017, denoting that women have made the same amount as their male colleagues over the course of 2017. The Equal Pay Days of 2018 signify how many extra days in a year it takes women to make the same amount as men in the same position in a year.

[Image description: A concerned black woman is visible from the neck up, with the 3¢ on the dollar is not enough. - Judy Miyashita]
Source: equalpaydaytpday .org [Image description: A short-haired black woman with a concerned look on her face is visible from the neck up, with the 3¢ on the dollar is not enough. – Judy Miyashita]
It is important to note that that is Equal Pay Days plural. The reason for this is that the numbers are also strikingly different when broken up along racial lines. Statistics for 2017 as taken from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that, when compared to $1 for white, non-Hispanic men, Asian-American make 87 cents, white women make 79 cents, black women make 63 cents, Native women make 57, and Latina women make 54 cents. By putting that into the extra amount of time these women would have to work in order to make up the difference, we get each group’s Equal Pay Day. For black women in the United States, it takes more than two-thirds of the year.

This is unacceptable and important to remember. Gender and race intersect in ways that are quantifiable, and to ignore this picture would be to ignore the obvious.

Equal pay for equal work is not a difficult concept to grasp. Hopefully, the people in charge of determining pay, typically men, typically white men, can use some of their brain space to learn something new from these days. In the meantime, for more information, check out There, you can find more statistics on the breakdowns between gender, including those of mothers v. fathers, as well as resources for becoming more educated on these issues.

On Tuesday, August 7, 2018 there will be a Social Media Storm at 11am EST. Tweet with #BlackWomensEqualPay and #DemandMore and find resources images at