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Catlett was awarded a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology, only to have it rescinded shortly thereafter upon discovery of her race.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 Lost in History Historical Badasses

Meet Bessie Coleman: the Black woman who became a pilot before Amelia Earhart

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.

There are certain people you find out about in adulthood that you can’t believe you didn’t know about before. This happens the most when it comes to those in marginalized groups. Figures that broke barriers during their time that aren’t talked about in the classroom can slowly become erased from the history books. Bessie Coleman was one of those people. 

Luckily the history buffs out there make room for unknown trailblazers to be brought to the forefront. Coleman was the first Black woman to receive a pilot’s license. She had multiple nicknames that highlighted her skill and adventurous spirit, one of them being “Brave Bessie” according to Women’s History. Coleman got this nickname through continually performing tricks while flying. Her journey to the sky is an interesting one.

She was born in 1892 to two sharecroppers and was one of 13 children (thirteen! Imagine the chaos…). Coleman initially tried to attend Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but could only stay for one term due to financial constraints. She didn’t actually become interested in flying until moving to Chicago in 1915. At 23 she listened to World War I stories and from there, her interest was sparked. 

As we can see in the news now with the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, racial injustice in this country is nothing new, and while Coleman was aiming to get her pilot’s license she ran into discrimination on a large scale.

Bessie Coleman
[Image Description: A mug shot of Bessie Coleman] via AP
The United States would not admit her into flying school because of her race, but instead of giving up and staying in Chicago, she took the initiative to teach herself French so that she could attend Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in France. Then on June 15, 1921 history was made when she received her pilot’s license from Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. 

Outside of being a flyer she did have other aspirations to own a plane and create a flight school of her own. While this dream festered she inspired others across the world by giving speeches, playing films of her doing different flying tricks, and giving flight lessons. I can’t imagine the mix of fear and excitement she must have been feeling as she literally flew to new heights and shattered the beliefs people had about what pilots could and should look like. Coleman also took part in on-the-ground activism. She never spoke anywhere that discriminated against African-Americans or enforced segregation. Her audiences took note, and she was able to create change through subtle but important choices. 

Bessie Coleman
[Image Description: Bessie Coleman standing by a plane] via AP
Her time as a flyer brought highs and lows. She gained popularity in the United States and Europe because of tricks like figure eights and loops. Unfortunately, she met a tragic end and died due to a wrench getting stuck in the engine of a plane she was in. But even after her death she still had a lasting impact. In 1977, Black female pilots formed an aviator club named the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club, and the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago now fly over her grave every year. Coleman opened doors for other Black women to be pilots.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Bessie Coleman getting her pilot’s license. While I may not have dreams of becoming a pilot, I find inspiration in Bessie’s determination to achieve her dreams no matter what anyone might say or do.

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Culture Family Race Life

As a mixed-race person, I struggle with Racial Imposter Syndrome

I have always been the type that seeks to discover myself deeply. This includes looking at my ancestry and the cultures that have formed me. As a mixed-race person, that has proven difficult. In South Africa, I fall under the racial group, Coloured, which was created during Apartheid. Coloured people have mixed European, African, and Asian ancestry due to the mixing of colonial settlers, the enslaved, and native peoples. Coloured communities have their own culture that has risen out of a rich multi-racial heritage. It is ambiguous and heterogeneous in terms of skin color, language, religion, and culture. 

However, I have always found myself in search of my roots. What type of European or African ancestry do I have? What are the different cultures that am I connected to? These questions plague my mind as I search for who I am. 

Already, due to the multi-ethnic roots of being Coloured, I find myself in-between Black and white.  A very specific marginalized status that many Coloured people feel. This is not only a complex experience of race that informs my identity and belonging in the world at large. But to complicate things I also experience a sense of profound displacement from my maternal heritage. My mother, who is half-Coloured and half-Indian, doesn’t have a relationship with her father. As a result, I have never been exposed to or had a personal connection to Indian culture. 

However, I find myself longing for the culture and heritage I have never personally experienced. But can I claim Indian culture as my own? I know that my heritage assumes that I can, but I feel like an impostor when I try to immerse myself in the culture I have no personal relation to. 

I often cook with Indian spices to get a taste of how my aunties’ foods may have tasted. I delved into Ayurveda, an ancient Indian medicine system, to discover how my ancestors would heal themselves. I was drawn to Buddhism and Indian philosophy which felt like an extension of my own thoughts. I watch Indian TV shows and Bollywood films to capture a glimpse into a world that is so foreign to me. 

These seemingly small acts are the leaps I take to feel closer to my heritage. Yet, I feel unaccepted and excluded from it.

I stumbled upon the term Racial Impostor Syndrome, which describes the feelings that biracial or mixed-race people experience as they exist in the intersection of different cultures and identities. We often feel like we are frauds or impostors in the races we are mixed with. For example, someone may be white-passing, but half-white and half-Black, and feel that they can’t claim Black culture as their own. Or for me, it is seen in my distinct hesitation to wear a sari, fearing that I will be told I do not belong. 

The inconsistencies in the social construction of race are evident when mixed-race people find themselves in the in-between spaces of culture, identity, and belonging. We are proof of the fickleness of race yet the importance of the cultural and social implications that are linked to it.

I often wonder if I will ever fully embrace all the racial parts that make me up. I just hope that one day I will be given the space by society to explore my racial heritage and celebrate all of its beautiful parts. 

Please donate to the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa that has been heavily impacted financially by the COVID-19 pandemic. The District Six Museum has been a center for commemorating South African history, including Coloured history. It is an important part of our community and cherishing our heritage. 

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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 Historical Badasses

The jazz you listen to today is actually full of sexism – here’s the history

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.

Let’s start with an exercise. When you think of jazz, what females pop into your head? Billie Holiday? Ella Fitzgerald? Me too, and you are absolutely right. These women are icons, but they had to fight, and women are still fighting to challenge the systematic sexism that is rooted in jazz. Let’s start in the 1800s. Yes, all the way back to the 1800s. Women were expected to be in the kitchen and were not supported on stage. Because jazz is full of instruments such as the tuba or saxophone, women were discouraged from being interested in jazz, due to the fact that instruments that required them to exert facial energy, and were not feminine enough for women to even show an interest in, apparently. 

[Lizzo saying; “I dabble in jazz flute”] Via Giphy.
Jazz has been a musical genre commended for its historical fights against social issues, especially pertaining to racism as the majority of jazz is done by African American men. However, this is no excuse for the sexism that has laid down its roots to sew in the world of jazz. When women were first introduced to jazz, they walked into a world of restriction. They were allowed to sing and possibly play piano, but that was only in private, and they were solely used as a pretty face to sell tickets to come to the “real show,” the male jazz musicians who could do anything on the tuba or saxophone.

The barriers that women had to face were absolutely unmatched. One pertinent example is Ella Fitzgerald. Yes, we acknowledge her now, but can you name any famous jazz pianists or instrumentalists? Probably not. Ella Fitzgerald had to fight through a male dominated music genre to even be noticed for her voice, which was seen as the most feminine thing a woman could do in jazz to any degree. For example, Neil Armstrong’s wife was an excellent jazz pianist but was never once appreciated for her work. She has gained little recognition to this day, and if it weren’t for the modern women in jazz today, we probably still never had heard about her. 

Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald’s beautiful but unlikely relationship took the jazz world and its inherent sexism and racism by storm. Not only was Ella Fitzgerald facing sexism in jazz, but she was also facing racism from venues, which is where Marilyn Monrone came in. Many jazz club owners rejected the idea of having Ella Fitzgerald at their club due to her “lack of glamour,” her gender, her race, the list goes on. Marilyn Monroe, being an international sex symbol at this point in time, used this to leverage Ella Fitzgerald’s career, refusing to go anywhere if she couldn’t bring Ella Fitzgerald, and further, explaining that she would bring attention to anywhere that she went, but would only go to the club if they would let Ella Fitzgerald play. We love a good women-supporting-women moment, don’t we?

We still have a long way to go for women in jazz. The jazz world has recently been having their own #MeToo moment, with women citing the abuse that they deal with on a day-to-day basis in their careers. Women in the jazz program at the Berklee College of Music cite specific instances when they still, in the last few years, perform for a panel of men who comment on her appearance rather than her performance. Come on, it’s 2020, we are better than this. Ella Fitzgerald is looking down on us with the rest of the women who have paved the way for many women behind them, telling us to keep fighting.

USA Celebrities Race The World Inequality

Monique Coleman’s HSM story reveals a larger pattern of hair discrimination in the workplace

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, life, and work of Black people.

On January 26th, Insider published an interview with Monique Coleman in recognition of the fifteenth anniversary of High School Musical.

In the interview, Coleman revealed that her character in the film, Taylor McKessie, actually wore her signature headbands because the onset crew didn’t know how to style Black hair. Coleman’s heartbreaking disclosure thereafter sparked discourse on social media surrounding the unique hair discrimination and lack of representation Black women in Hollywood, and other non-visible industries, have long endured.

In the article, Coleman stated, “The truth is that they had done my hair, and they had done it very poorly in the front.” As a result, she suggested they “incorporate headbands into her character [to] just make that a part of who [Taylor] is.”

Taylor McKessie was many Black girls’ favorite character within the Highschool Musical franchise, myself included. She is smart, witty, supportive, ambitious, and subverted stereotypical narratives Hollywood tends to place on Black female characters, especially within predominantly white casts. So learning about the hardships Coleman had to bear on account of her hair was disappointing but unfortunately not surprising. The reality that Black women’s hair is all too often not accommodated in the workplace is nothing new. 

In fact, this very same conversation of the lack of necessary accommodation for Black talent on sets has happened before. Vice wrote an article in 2019 discussing discrimination towards Black hair in Hollywood when model Olivia Anakwe took to Instagram to publicize that while she was working a photoshoot, there wasn’t a stylist on set who was familiar with styling her natural hair. Anakwe then had to go through the trouble of finding anyone on set who could, even if they worked in other departments. 

Afterward, a slew of Black female celebrities like Natasha Rothwell and Gabriel Union shared their experiences of also having to manage their own hair on production sets, showing solidarity with Anakwe, and raising further awareness about the issue on social media.

Similarly, to corroborate Coleman’s experience, many people dug up videos or tweets of other high profile Black female actresses like Riverdale’s Vanessa Morgan and Ashleigh Murray, and Hamilton’s Renée Goldsberry who have openly discussed the not-so-secret occurrence of Black women having to do their own hair because stylists on film sets cannot correctly style Black hair.

Adding insult to injury, Hollywood sets often act as if they’re starved of choice when it comes to finding Black hairstylists who can do hair for Black talent. With all the skilled Black hairstylists at the disposal of production studios, it’s a deliberate choice to opt-out of hiring Black hairstylists in lieu of white ones. Ultimately, forcing Black cast members to manage their own hair for filming, while other non-Black cast members don’t, is an act of aggression.

In recognition of the ongoing diversity happening within mainstream American media, Coleman further stated in her interview, “We’ve grown a lot in this industry and we’ve grown a lot in representation and we’ve grown a lot in terms of understanding the needs of an African American actress.” Luckily, we are moving in the right direction regarding Black hair in Hollywood. See: Insecure and This Is Us.

However, Black women are still having to navigate through hair discrimination in Hollywood. Not to mention, Black women in other industries, especially ones that are not in the public eye, often suffer in silence. Aimee Simeon perfectly sums it up in an article for Refinery29 stating, “Not even Coleman’s success as part of such a popular film series exempted her from having to find a solution to make her feel more comfortable with her look, a position that far too many Black women are put in on big-budget TV and film sets.”

Black women elsewhere with not as much fame, money, or status as the women mentioned throughout this article are likely to go unheard regarding whatever accommodations they need to effectively do their job or they may be too afraid to speak up.

Thankfully, Coleman has brought this conversation to the forefront again, so non-Black creators and employers can be made aware of this ongoing problem. So, what many predominantly white industries and companies must learn is having diversity in itself is simply not enough without accommodation. Representation means nothing if Black women are made to feel uncomfortable, othered, or outcasted from the rest of their co-workers. 

Given the long history of Black people being shut out of white-collar or high profile workplaces, employers have to care enough about their Black hires to satisfy whatever circumstances are necessary to accommodate Black folks into the workplace. Understandably, first, that means being made aware of the unique circumstances we may face or white employers may unknowingly perpetuate.

Discussions like the one Coleman and many other Black women have sparked on social media are the first steps towards creating equitable work environments across all industries. But, as Simeon concludes in her article, going forward progress towards equity in Hollywood and other workplaces “shouldn’t always fall solely to the hands and ideas of Black talent.”

For stories of Black history and excellence, check out our Black History Month series.

[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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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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Race Life

The “angry Black woman” stereotype makes me hesitate to defend myself

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, life, and work of Black people.

Being a Black woman causes me to severely overthink, especially when contemplating if and when to stand up for myself while being viewed by others as inherently angry. The angry Black woman stereotype: every Black woman has felt the burden of this stereotype at one or many times throughout our lives. Personally, I’ve found myself in many situations or conversations that were both micro-aggressive and aggressive in a racist context. As a result, throughout my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable while at school, at parties, and in work environments. 

Therefore, I’m constantly battling the angry Black girl stereotype, and my personal mission to always stand up for myself. Admittedly, too often, I allow my internalized insecurity to win. The societal stigmas against Black women cause me to be silent. I’ve been called angry, aggressive, or defensive in times I was simply not allowing someone to disrespect me or others. So given my history of being gaslighted, I’ve forgone standing up for myself or firmly setting or maintaining a boundary out of fear of being seen by others as the angry Black girl.

However, I’m slowly learning to overcome my internalized insecurities with the intention that I’ll never second guess putting myself first again.

The angry Black woman stereotype was created as an extension of the sapphire stereotype during the antebellum period, which categorized Black women as inherently masculine, aggressive, and dominant. The angry Black woman stereotype is a reimagined, racially charged trope that often goes undetected as it persists within modern society, pop culture, and politics; mostly because the stereotype is a manipulation technique used to silence Black women. The imagery of the original sapphire trope may look different or be less obvious, but the harmful effects it has on Black women remain.

Within recent years, prominent figures and celebrities such as Janet Hubert, who originally played Aunt Viv in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, and Monique have all had to navigate through being stereotyped and/or type-casted as difficult, angry, or masculine women. In particular, Janet and Monique have been blacklisted in Hollywood for years because of the harm being labeled as “difficult” have on Black women’s careers.

Besides, the angry Black woman stereotype is downright hurtful as much as it is harmful. According to a Forbes article written by Janice Gassam Asare, “Black women were found to experience many negative health outcomes including anxiety, at a greater rate than their white counterparts” because of how often we suppress our emotions. This gaslighting technique of accusing someone of greatly overreacting when they aren’t, that people continuously use against Black women, is an intentional tool of oppression.

Essentially, we are taught not to challenge the intersecting marginalizations that continue to severely oppress Black women. Instead, Black women are forced to shrink ourselves into quiet submission or simply be complicit with treatment we aren’t comfortable with so people won’t weaponize our emotions against us. Consequently, the angry Black woman stereotype lumps Black women into a monolith of combativeness and negativity while it strips us of our feelings and humanity.

Notably- if the world can impose this stereotype on the aforementioned women with as much status, money, or influence as they have, imagine what the average Black woman is forced to tolerate at work, in class, in shops or restaurants, and elsewhere.

Since late May of 2020, we should be seeing a supposed societal shift in oppressive race dynamics, as people promised to “listen and learn” about the harmful effects of racism. Luckily, I have some suggestions on how people can better show up for Black women, specifically when we are forced to combat the angry Black woman stereotype.

People need to first reflect on what about Black women causes the world to view us as inherently angry and why Black women are the ones most punished for having feelings perceived as negative. People must confront their internal biases and empathize with Black women’s frustration- and yes, anger- regarding how we are treated in a racist and patriarchal society. Lastly, people should begin the work towards dismantling the stereotype by always standing up for Black women whenever and wherever they can. 

As for Black women, it’s hard, but we must learn not to view ourselves as inherently angry either. Standing up for yourself or exerting your will does not make you angry. In fact, there is nothing wrong with anger as an emotion. It’s natural and sometimes warranted. After all, we have a lot to be angry about anyway. As Delta B. Mckenzie perfectly concludes in an article for Medium, “As a Black woman, I have a right to be angry. I have a right to be loud. I have a right to be anything I want to be. If society wants to put my emotions down to a demeaning stereotype then I say, let it.”

Black women- work towards consistently showing up for yourself despite what others have or continue to tell you. I’m additionally trying to remind myself that my feelings are valid, and I shouldn’t ever have to make myself smaller to coddle anyone. Ultimately, my humanity should matter more than other people’s biased, racist, and inaccurate perception of me anyway.

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[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
Celebrities Activism Gender Politics Race The World

Naomi Osaka makes a case for athlete activism

What do Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, and just about every other teen flick have in common? Jocks? And what do these jocks have in common? Nothing. Apparently that’s all they are; two-dimensional sportspeople with no substance to their characters beyond their athletic activity.

I remember thinking about this when I had to write an essay for a civic discourse class. Although the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype is a cinematic trope, the notions behind it aren’t all that far-fetched. Even in real life, many people think that athletes are nothing more than their muscle or athletic ability.

Take Naomi Osaka for example. Heard of her?

Naomi Osaka wearing a black and blue tank and blue hat during one of her matches
[Image description: Naomi Osaka wearing a black and blue tank and blue hat during one of her matches], via Danielle Parhizkaran—Reuters.
Apart from popping up on my news feed for her continuous wins at the US Open, she has also been the subject of many articles for speaking up and showing support to the Black Lives Matter movement. She has also been the subject of critics who think she should be doing the exact opposite. 

Last year in particular has seen a lot of activism in wake of the continued injustices police have committed against black people, as well as inaction in reference to the coronavirus pandemic. In light of that, many celebrities have taken to social media and other channels to make their voice heard and spread awareness. The sports world has also taken part with many athletes showing their support by staging walkouts and sitting out of games.

In August, Osaka announced that she would not be playing at one of her upcoming semifinal matches. In a social media post, she said “before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand than watching me play tennis…” 


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After this, the Women’s Tennis Association released a statement saying that all matches would be postponed. 

The statement, as well as Naomi’s actions, prompted a slew of mixed reactions, with some supporting the decisions to take a stance against racial injustice. Other comments expressed disappointment, saying that sports should not mix with politics.

Hmm…. Where have I heard that before?

For decades, even centuries, athletes have used their platform as public figures to protest injustice. From Tommi Smith and John Carlos to LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, this phenomenon is nothing new. Especially considering that many of these athlete activists are people of color, whose victories as first-class athletes does not negate the fact that they or their families can be treated as second-class individuals. But despite that fact, critics still respond to athlete activism with some response pertaining to “stick to sports”. 

Sports have historically been marketed as a form of escapism, an island separate from reality. So I’m honestly not surprised when people criticize athletes for being outspoken. When an activity is viewed as an escape from the real world, its participants will undoubtedly be positioned as absent from tangible things. But – that needs to change.

Here’s the thing: athletes are humans too. And just like any other person, they have a right to speak up regarding issues, especially those that directly affect them. Just because someone plays sports for a living doesn’t mean that their entire life revolves around that. Sure, being an athlete and a public figure means that their profession is a larger part of their day-to-day existence. But that doesn’t, and shouldn’t discredit their opinion on things not sports-related.

The opinion taken by most critics about athletes like Osaka who have spoken out is part of a greater conversation about athletes and their participation in the discussion of political, social and moral issues, particularly those considered polarizing or deviate from conservative views.

However, the fact remains that there is absolutely nothing polarizing about human rights. The harmful and vicious effects of racism are real. Athletes’ support for an ongoing quest for racial justice is not a lecture. Instead, it is a consensus of support for players who are Black. Instances of police brutality and institutional racism hit close to home. If sports leagues do not stand up against bigotry during this moment of social upheaval, they never will.

When people claim that supposed social justice biased sports will no longer be a place for fans to escape polarization, they really mean sports will no longer be welcoming for racist viewers.

Athlete activism today is a powerful thing because unlike earlier times when they couldn’t speak freely to the public, social media has provided a means to communicate to millions of followers – which is no small thing. That kind of platform has the potential to raise awareness on things that truly matter.

Naomi Osaka expressed similar sentiments when an interviewer questioned her about wearing seven different BLM masks during the open. Her response: “What was the message you got? I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

And people are talking.

I grew up playing sports; I ran track, and I loved every moment of it. But never for one minute did I think that the presence of my athletic ability meant an absence of my intellect or voice. Why should professional athletes be considered any different?

It is time that people regard athletes as more than robots, but rather humans with convictions and morals they feel obligated to uphold.


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History Art History

I hadn’t fully realized how racist art history could be until I saw this Baroque painting

Before I dive into the problematic tales of my final-year high school dance, I should probably address a few of your burning questions. What on earth is Baroque and why should I care about it?

Baroque is a style of art, music, architecture, and dance that gained huge popularity in 17th century Europe. It originated in Italy and it’s characterized by rich colors, grandeur, and intricate details. Much like other styles of art, Baroque has a colonial history that overlooks diverse depictions of black people living in this era. For the most part, it’s a whitewashed style of art, however, it has taken on a new life in the last century.

Today, the term ‘African Baroque’ refers to colorful jewelry, garments and ornaments made with traditional African textiles. It marries the colorful grandeur of Baroque art with the craftsmanship and design choices of African art.

[Image description: Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Parc de Montjuïc, Barcelona, Spain. An example of Baroque architecture.] via Unsplash
[Image description: Man staring at Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Parc de Montjuïc, Barcelona, Spain. An example of Baroque architecture.] via Unsplash
Nevertheless, it’s still questionable to try and link African identity to Baroque art and my high school dance was the perfect example. Back in 2014, the theme for my final-year high school dance was “African Baroque.” Bear in mind that this event is usually a fun and celebratory moment in most students’ lives and a light-hearted ‘fairy-tale’ theme would have sufficed. At the time, I had no idea what Baroque was and neither did any of my peers. The theme didn’t sit well with any of us, but the teachers had the final say and we just had to roll with it.

On the night of the dance, the table décor consisted of Baroque-style décor, African textile prints, flowers, a few other ‘African-style’ ornaments and afro combs. Yes, you did read that correctly. We did have afro combs as table decorations and for some reason the organizers thought this was a good idea. For context, I went to a wealthy private school in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa. In retrospect, I believe the whole event was a desperate attempt to promote diversity and Black culture at a predominantly white school and it missed the mark. Choosing to marry African themes with Baroque art was an arguably racist decision. And I’m here to tell you why.

In the past, depictions of African people in Baroque art were few and far between. It took ages for me to hunt down a Baroque painting on the internet that depicts a black person as the main focus. In light of this tiring research experience, I’m not going to pretend that slapping the word ‘African’ in front of ‘Baroque’ makes a meaningful difference. It’s still a deeply colonial art form.

[Image description: A Baroque-style painting by Annibale Carracci. It portrays an African woman wearing a red coral necklace, pearl earrings, and a black long-sleeve dress with a white lace collar.] Via Wikimedia Commons
[Image description: A Baroque-style painting by Annibale Carracci. It portrays an African slave woman wearing a red coral necklace, pearl earrings, and a black long-sleeve dress with a white lace collar.] Via Wikimedia Commons
Nevertheless, after a few hours of solid internet research, I stumbled upon a rare Baroque portrait painted around 1585 by Italian artist Annibale Carracci. He’s considered one of the forefathers of the Baroque style of artwork and one of the most prolific painters of his generation. His painting portrays an elegantly dressed African slave woman wearing a red coral necklace, pearl earrings, and a black long-sleeve dress with a white lace collar. The identity of the woman is yet to be discovered, but her clothing reveals that she’s a product of modernity and colonial Europe.

[Image description: 'Portrait of an African man' painting by Jan Mostaert (circa 1525-1530). The man is wearing loose long-sleeve garment the early renaissance era. via Wikimedia Commons
[Image description: ‘Portrait of an African man’ painting by Jan Mostaert (circa 1525-1530). The man is wearing loose long-sleeve garment from the early Renaissance era. via Wikimedia Commons
Similarly, Dutch painter Jan Jansz Mostaert’s Portrait of an African Man (circa 1525-1530) illustrates the presence of Black bodies within European life and the Baroque art scene. It’s a true rarity as it’s one of the only known portraits of a black individual from this period who wasn’t a slave. Due to the man’s attire, art historians believe the painting depicts a black nobleman who worked at a courthouse. Mostaert paid attention to detail and aimed to create detailed, realistic facial features, portraying the gentleman in an honored position, rather than a servant’s role.

Having a portrait taken was an exclusive practice usually reserved for wealthy white nobility or religious leaders. This means the sheer existence of this painting is groundbreaking as it depicts an upper-class black man from this era.

Unfortunately, not all depictions of black Africans in Baroque have the same energy as Mostaert’s. A 1688 Baroque painting by Benedetto Gennari depicts the notorious libertine Hortense Mancini (Duchesse de Mazarin) as Diana the Huntress.

Image description: Hortense Mancini as Diana the Huntress by Benedetto Gennari.] via
Image description: Hortense Mancini as Diana the Huntress by Benedetto Gennari.] via

Diana is the goddess of the hunt and wild animals in ancient Roman religion, the equivalent to the Greek Artemis. In the painting, Mancini is surrounded by Black slave children wearing collars and intermingling with her pet dogs. It’s a horrific depiction that explicitly equates Black children to animals.

To make matters worse, there are plenty of other Renaissance paintings that adopt this same tone, making it difficult to reference this body of work without acknowledging its dark truths.

Given the Baroque art movement’s problematic and racist history, the concept of ‘African Baroque’ is rather ironic. It certainly doesn’t seem fitting for a high school dance theme, even if it’s been adapted to incorporate modern African art.

Ultimately, we cannot overlook the entire historical context of any forms of art while paying tribute to them in the 21st century. Let’s be better.

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History Lost in History Historical Badasses

N’Nonmiton: Meet the real Dora Milaje, the most feared women in history

Imagine you’re a French colonizer, preparing for war as a horde of Dahomean fighters approach. You raise your weapon, and as the group comes closer, you see that a lot of them are…. women. You hesitate. At this point, you have two options:

  1. Don’t fire because, you know, they’re women.
  2. Keep fighting anyways.

Here’s a hint: no matter which option you choose, you’re probably going to get your derrière handed to you. 

Many men faced that situation on the battlefield of the Franco-Dahomean war as they realized their enemy combatants were women: The N’Nonmiton warriors. Their hesitancy to fire on the women cost many their lives. But make no mistake: just because these fighters were women did not make them any less deadly. Not at all.

I remember watching Black Panther in theaters and being in awe of the sheer beauty of African culture being portrayed in such a positive light. But one of the standouts for me was definitely General Okoye and her wig-snatching badassery, not to mention the fierceness of the Dora Milaje in general.


Sis did not come to play AT ALL.

As it turns out, these fictional badasses were partly inspired by real-life legends: the N’Nonmiton.

More commonly known as the Dahomey Amazons (a term coined by foreign observers after noting the women’s strength and tenacity), the group was an all-female elite warrior unit from the Kingdom of Dahomey; what is today known as The Republic of Benin.

So how did this fierce team of warriors come about, you ask?

There are a few theories about that, but the most common speculation is that the N’Nonmiton initially started as the king’s bodyguards. Some of the women were recruited from the gbeto, elephant hunters. Others were selected from the third-rank of his ahosi, the wives. Either way, considering that only women were allowed in the palace after dark, they naturally became the prime candidates for protectors.

As Dahomey became an increasingly militarized kingdom, the role of the N’Nomiton expanded accordingly. But this wasn’t your average militarized combat unit. They were “for all intents and purposes, highly trained, killing machines.”

A group of women and men, the N'Nonmiton/Dahomey Amazons, in their ceremonial clothing, holding weapons
[A group of women and men, the N’Nonmiton/Dahomey Amazons, in their ceremonial clothing, holding weapons], via Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures
Think Physical Education was hard? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Training for these warriors was intense: wrestling, target practice, simulation attacks, you name it. The process for the N’Nomiton also put heavy emphasis on discipline and mercilessness. As part of the insensitivity training, the women were instructed to throw captured prisoners over a wall to their deaths. The women were also trained to withstand a lot of pain, with drills that included scaling thorned walls.

But being an elite warrior had its perks— they had access to prized goods like alcohol and tobacco. Also, since they were technically married to the king, they had a semi-sacred status, and could not be touched by any man. In fact, whenever they left the palace, each warrior had a slave girl walk in front of them and ring a bell, alerting anyone nearby to keep their distance and avert their eyes.


As the French began making their way into kingdoms, their colonization interfered with the Dahomean activity, and surprise surprise, they were not here for it.

Cue the Franco-Dahomean Wars.

The N’Nonmiton were a key part of the battles, and in addition to them being formidable foes, the French hesitancy to attack women made it even easier to defeat them. In fact, legend has it that the reason for the lack of first-person narratives from the French is that any man who met them rarely lived to tell the tale. Eventually though, even the might of these female warriors fell under the French, who had far superior weapons. That being said, the women were the last to surrender. And there are claims that they allowed themselves to be taken as wives by some of the French, then slit the men’s throats while they were sleeping. You know, just your average housewife duties.

The name N’Nonmiton or “Mino” refers to “our mothers” in Fon, the Dahomean language. True to name, these women defended their kingdom with a fierce maternal instinct (with just a sprinkle of terrifying shenanigans). Although they are commonly referred to as “Amazons”,  they actually had different names based on their role within the army. There were huntresses (gbeto), riflewomen (gulohento), reapers (nyekpholento), archers (gohento), and gunners (agbalya).

So there you have it: your typical multi-functional, if-you-come-across-them-on-the-battlefield-good-luck, extremely deadly, unit rolled up into a killing machine.

Seeing the Dora Milaje on-screen, being fierce and beautiful and intelligent Black women was so refreshing, so to know that these fictional fighters drew inspiration from real-life (albeit incredibly ruthless) warriors, is an incredible piece of forgotten history.

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History Historical Badasses

Madam C.J. Walker was the first Black female millionaire

Earlier this year, a mini-series on Netflix was released called Self MadeThe mini-series is inspired by the life of the first self-made Black female millionaire Madam C.J. Walker. The life and work of Madam C.J. Walker is an important story to tell because it celebrates the success of a Black woman and the beauty of Black hair.   

A few months ago, Kat Graham from The Vampire Diaries did a morning routine video on Vogue’s YouTube channel called “Kat Graham’s Natural Hair Beauty Routine.” During the video, she explained to her viewers that this is the first time that she has been completely without additional assistance when taking care of her hair. While Graham was talking about a hair care product that she was introduced to that really helped her hair throughout quarantine, she started crying and getting emotional.

Watching the video made me reflect on my own experiences with my hair as a Black woman. It also made me reflect on how having Black hair is an emotional, personal, and empowering journey. Madam C.J. Walker is a woman who truly understood the emotional and empowering experience of having black hair. And ultimately, she was able to use her experience to become a successful entrepreneur and help other Black women. 

Before she was known as Madam C.J. Walker she was born as Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a Louisiana plantation. Her parents were both enslaved before the Civil War ended and later became sharecroppers. At the age of seven, her parents passed away.

After their deaths, she moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi with her sister and worked picking cotton. At the age of 14, she got married to escape her abusive brother-in-law and had her daughter A’Lelia Walker at 18 years of age. Two years after giving birth to her daughter, Walker’s first husband died. After his death, she and her daughter moved to St. Louis, to work for $1.50 a day at a barbershop owned by her four brothers. In St. Louis, she joined the St. Paul A.M.E. Church and the National Association of Colored Women. She also got married to her second husband, but the couple eventually divorced.

A newspaper Ad for Madam CJ Walker's for Wonderful Hair Grower product that is titled "Is Your Hair Short?" On right is a picture of her and on the left there is an article promoting the product.
[Image Description: A newspaper Ad for Madam CJ Walker’s for Wonderful Hair Grower product that is titled “Is Your Hair Short?” On right is a picture of her and on the left there is an article promoting the product.]  Image Source
Walker’s hair care journey began in the 1890s and early 1900s. She was struggling financially and developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose her hair. In order to work on growing her hair back, she sought advice from her brothers and experimented with home remedies. She also tried hair products by Annie Malone, another prosperous Black hair-care entrepreneur. After using Annie Malone products, she became a commission agent and moved to Denver in 1905.

In Denver, she met her third husband, Charles J. Walker. Soon after meeting her husband, she began her brand. Her husband encouraged her to use the name “Madam C.J. Walker” so that her brand name would be more recognizable. She began traveling throughout the South and Southeast for almost two years selling and promoting her “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, which was a scalp conditioning and healing ointment.

By 1910, she was able to settle down in Indianapolis where she built a factory, a hair salon, a nail salon, and a hair care training school. Throughout her life, she used her own personal experience of losing and regrowing her hair to build a prosperous Black business.  Today, she is known not only as the first Black self-made female millionaire, but also as a Black woman who supported her community as a pioneer of hair care for Black women.

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