Welcome to Recreate, a historical blog dedicated to highlighting prominent African American women whose lasting contributions have influenced the civil rights movement, politics, science, business, technology, art, music, theatre, beauty, and fashion.
The featured recreate photograph is a collage of the famous playwright Lorraine Hansberry on the left, and myself on the right. Lorraine wrote “A Raisin In The Sun”, the first play written by an African American to be produced on Broadway. The play debuted in 1959 and was meet with much acclaim. It tells the story of a poor African American family that struggles to raise above socioeconomic conditions only to face housing discrimination on the basis of race. Hansberry is the first black playwright, the youngest American, and only the fifth woman to win a New York Critics’ Circle Award. The title of the play comes from a line in the poem “Harlem” written by Langston Hughes.
Lorraine was heavily involved in the civil rights, a public figure, and popular speaker at a number of conferences and meetings. Among her most notable speeches was one delivered to a black writers’ conference sponsored by the American Society of African Culture in New York. In her speech, Hansberry declared that “all art is ultimately social” and called upon black writers to be involved in “the intellectual affairs of all men, everywhere.” As the civil rights movement strengthened, Hansberry helped to plan fund-raising events to support organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Along with other influential people, including Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and James Baldwin, Hansberry met with then attorney general Robert Kennedy to test his position on civil rights.
After Hansberry died in 1965, she left a number of finished and unfinished projects. A collection of her works were published under the title “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”, which was also made into an off-Broadway play. Her close friend Nina Simone wrote the song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” to honor Hansberry’s memory.
The “I Put A Spell On You,” songstress, Nina Simone left a lasting impression on world, through her music, artistry, and courageous activism. To this day, her legacy lives on, continuing to inspire and influence generations both young and old. She captivated listeners with her her powerful voice and commanding presence. Let’s learn more about the polarizing perpetual force known as Nina Simone.
Born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, she was the oldest of 2 children born to Mary Kate Waymon and John Divine Waymon. Her father was a preacher, handyman who once owned a dry cleaning business. Her mother was a Methodist minister and housemaid.
Ms Simone’s prodigal gift was recognized at an early age when she began playing the piano (by ear) at the age of three. She played the piano in her mother’s church, but did not sing. Determined to help develop this raw talent, an Englishwoman named Muriel Mazzanovich give young Eunice piano lessons. Under her tutelage, Ms Simone studied Bach, Johann Sebastian, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert. Her teacher also organized local concerts for Ms Simone to display her talent. Funds raised from the concerts were used to further Ms Simone’s education.
After graduating from Allen High School in Asheville North Carolina, as Valedictorian of her class, she matriculated to the famed Julliard School in New York City. Eventually she had to leave the school when her means of funding her education were depleted. Hoping to be accepted into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, she along with her family moved Philadelphia. However, her hopes were dashed when she was denied acceptance into the school in-spite of rendering a well received recital. She believed, racism was the reason for the rejection. Two days prior to her death, the same institution bestowed upon her an honorary doctorate.
As a means of survival, Ms Simone began teaching music to local students. In 1954, seeking to supplement her income, she auditioned to sing at Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Word quickly spread about the new singer and pianist who took the stage, showcasing plush vocal tones combined with mastery of the keys. She attracted several club goers up and down the Coast. Her growing popularity prompted her to change her name in order to disguise the fact that she was playing in bars, a notion her parents would gravely disapprove of had they been aware due to her strict upbringing. Therefore Eunice Waymon changed her name to Nina Simone by taking Nina meaning “little one” in Spanish and Simone after the French actress Simone Signoret.
At the age of 24, she got her break into the record industry when she signed with Bethlehem Records. It is with that particular label she recorded “I Loves You, Porgy” which lead to a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and “My Baby Just Cares For Me” which was used in a Chanel No. 5 commercial in Europe and became a massive hit topping the British charts at #5.
Having recorded more than 40 albums during her career, Nina Simone employed a broad range of musical styles which included jazz, blues folk, classical, spiritual, and pop. Clearly she was an extraordinary talent who could not be easily classified.
During the Civil Rights Era, Nina was deeply affected by the killings of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham Church bombing, which claimed the lives of four African American girls. These events ignited the first of many civil rights songs “Mississippi Goddamn.” In 1962, she had befriended noted playwright Lorraine Hansberry and spoke often with her about the Civil Rights Movement. Hansberry had been a personal friend whom Simone credited with cultivating her social and political consciousness. “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was a play Hansberry had been working on prior to her death. Ms. Simone took Hansberry’s play and turned it into a song, in Hansberry’s memory. “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was also credited as a civil rights anthem.
Ms Simone’s circle of friends was infused with prominent men and women, who were well read, well traveled, motivators, and agents of change. Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz were both friends and neighbors of Ms Simone, residents of Mount Vernon New York. Prolific author, writer, and public speaker James Baldwin and Harlem Renaissance leader, and famed poet Langston Hughes were among other affiliates.
Ms. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as the Selma march. In 1968, after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Simone and her band performed “Why (The King Of Love Is Dead), at the Westbury Music Festival, in honor of the legendary Civil Rights Leader. “Four Women” and “Strange Fruit” continued to keep her in the forefront of the few artists willing to use music as a catalyst for social change. During that time of extreme civil upheaval, such risks were scarcely taken by performers. She stood up for her beliefs and sacrificed her career for her activism.
As the 1960’s drew to a close, Simone tired of the American music scene and the country’s deeply divided racial politics. She spent a good deal of the 1970’s and early 1980’s living in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Eventually, she settled down in the South of France.
For years, Ms. Simone dealt with personal struggles such as martial, financial, and severe mental health issues. Her marriage to Andrew Shroud (former manager) was abusive physically, mentally, and emotionally. She had frequent outbursts and clashes with managers, record labels, and the Internal Revenue Service regarding her finances. In the late 1980’s, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder..
On April 21, 2003, Ms. Simone died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rout, Bouches-du-Rhone France. Her funeral service was attended by an array of famous artists such as Miriam Makeba, Patti Labelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis, actress Ruby Dee, and hundreds of others. World renowned singer, Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message, “You were the greatest and I love you”. Her legacy continues…
Photography Credit: Chelsea “Ollie” Tyson
“There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”
“Everything that happened to me as a child involved music. Everybody played music. There was never any formal training; we learned to play the same way we learned to walk, it was that natural.”
“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
“Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.”
“I’m a real rebel with a cause.”
“Once I understood Bach’s music, I wanted to be a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music, and it was that teacher who introduced me to his world.”
Sexy, stunning, sultry are just a few words to describe the polarizing actress, former model, and pageant queen known as Halle Berry. To date, she is the only black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress. Her non-conventional looks have helped to redefine American beauty standards, and continues to drive the dialogue about what it means to be a black woman in Hollywood. Although she’s undeniably gorgeous, Halle Berry has proven that her beauty goes beyond the surface, by speaking out against domestic violence, and having a voice in “Black Lives Matter”. Let’s learn more about the ageless bombshell that has sizzled the silver screen for over two and a half decades.
Born as Maria Halle Berry on August 14, 1966 in Cleveland Ohio, her name was legally changed to Halle Maria Berry at the age of five. Her parents selected her middle name from Halle’s Department Store, which was a local landmark in Cleveland. She was the youngest daughter born to Jerome and Judith Berry, an interracial couple. Her older sister is Heidi Berry.
Her mother Judith was a psychiatric nurse from Liverpool, England and is of German ancestry. Judith first met Halle’s father Jerome Jesse Berry, an African American, when he was stationed in England as a serviceman in the US Air Force. Jerome worked first as an Air Force veteran, a bus driver, then a hospital attendant while he was alive. Judith subsequently moved to America to marry him and they settled in Cleveland.
Initially, Halle and her older sister Heidi, spent the first few years of their childhood living in an all black neighborhood. Her father was an alcoholic, and was very abusive to her mother. In interviews, Halle recalled witnessing her mother being beaten daily, kicked down the stairs, and hit in the head with a wine bottle. In the early 1970s, her parents divorced when she was 4 years old, after which her mother moved her family to the predominantly white Cleveland suburb of Bedford.
Halle attended a nearly all-white public school. Throughout her childhood she experienced difficulties with her biracial background, constantly being torn between both extremes of her ethnicity. “When we lived in the black neighborhood, we weren’t liked because my mother was white. In the white neighborhood they didn’t like me because I was black,” she told Lesley O’Toole in the Evening Standard. “That was the beginning of me trying to be what I thought people wanted me to be,” she recalled. “If they wanted me to be the clown, I’d be the clown. If they wanted me to get straight A’s, I’d get straight A’s,” Berry stated.
Her early encounters with racism greatly influenced her desire to excel. Throughout high school, the determined teen was involved in a broad array of extracurricular activities ranging from newspaper editor, class president, to head cheerleader. At age 17, she won the Miss Teen All-American Pageant, representing the state of Ohio in 1985. The following year, she became the first runner-up in the Miss U.S.A. Pageant.
In 1989, Halle moved to New York City to pursue her acting career. During her time there, she ran out of money and had to live briefly in a homeless shelter. Later that year, her situation improved and she was cast in the short-lived television series Living Dolls, which was a spin-off of the hit series Who’s the Boss?. During the taping of Living Dolls, she passed out for a week and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. After Living Dolls was cancelled, she moved to Los Angeles where she landed a recurring role on the long-running series Knots Landing.
In 1991, Halle broke onto the big screen when she was cast as Samuel L. Jackson’s drug addicted girlfriend in the hit movie Jungle Fever directed by Spike Lee. Her commitment to the role was notable in the fact that she stayed in character throughout the filming of the movie. She even refused to shower for days so that she could actually feel the desperation and hopelessness that the character required.
She went on to star in multiple films throughout the 90s which expanded well into the new millennium. These movies include:
The Last Boy Scout
Race the Sun
The Rich Man’s Wife
Why Do Fools Fall In Love
Die Another Day
X-Men: The Last Stand
Their Eyes Were Watching God
The Things We Lost in the Fire
Frankie & Alice
New Year’s Eve
X-Men Days of Future Past
In 2002, she was the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, which she received for her role in Monster’s Ball. This role generated controversy due to the graphic nude love scene with a racist character played by co-star Billy Bob Thornton was the subject of much media chatter and discussion among African Americans. In her very tearful and joyous acceptance speech she declared “This moment is so much bigger than me. It’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
In an interesting coincidence she became the first woman of color to win the Academy Award for Best Actress (earlier in her career, she portrayed Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American to be nominated for Best Actress, and who was born at the same hospital as Berry, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Now looking back on her win, following the controversy surrounding the 2015 Oscars, and the lack of progress since 2002, Halle recently told Teen Vogue that what first felt like a major milestone now feels almost meaningless. “It’s troubling to say the least,” she began, adding that the 2015 Oscar race, in which no actors of color were nominated for major awards, “was probably one of my lowest professional moments.” That feeling, she said, left her “profoundly hurt” and “saddened.” But she also admitted that it has inspired her to get involved in other ways, which is why she wants to start directing. “I want to start being a part of making more opportunities for people of color.”
With a multi-decade acting career under her belt, Halle is focused on using her voice and her platform to speak out about the issues that really matter to her. Halle continues to drive dialogue around being a mom to a black son in the age of Black Lives Matter, and the strides necessary to diversify Hollywood. Halle states, “we have to start getting people to be change agents and walk the talk, not just talk the talk.”
Halle has also used her platform to speak out against domestic violence, stating that it is one of her life’s purposes “to help others, especially women” after her experiences with domestic abuse. In 2015, she attended the”Imagine” VIP cocktail party, where proceeds benefit the Jenesse Center, a national domestic violence prevention and intervention organization that provides services and outreach efforts to afflicted families and helps move them from crisis to self-sufficiency, she opened up about her experience. “I saw my mother battered and beaten many years of my life and I felt helpless. And that’s what connects me to this organization. I have an understanding, a knowing. I feel like I have something that I can impart to these women. It seems like I’ve overcome it, but I really haven’t. In the quiet of my mind, I still struggle. So while I’m helping these women, I’m helping myself through it, too. And that’s largely why I’m here.”
Halle is one of the most highly paid actresses in Hollywood to date and is also considered to be one of the most beautiful. She has frequently been included on “Most Beautiful People” lists compiled by magazines such as People, Esquire and FHM. In 2007, she was awarded her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has been married three times and has two children. She is currently 50 years old and lives in Los Angeles, California.
“I always had to prove myself through my actions. Be a cheerleader. Be class president. Be the editor of the newspaper.” –Halle Berry
“I’ve always liked to go down a different path. Being a woman of color, I never followed a cookie cutter way.” –Halle Berry
“The worst thing a man can ever do is kiss me on the first date.” — Halle Berry
“I am my best self when I have super-short hair. That’s when I feel most like me and most confident.” — Halle Berry
“Being thought of as “a beautiful woman” has spared me nothing in life. No heartache, no trouble. Beauty is essentially meaningless.” –Halle Berry
“I’ve pretty much learned I can let that [being black] hinder me if I want to … or I can fight for different kinds of roles.” — Halle Berry
“The first step is clearly defining what it is you’re after, because without knowing that, you’ll never get it.” — Halle Berry
“I also have been called that terrible “N” word straight to my face and not known what to do about it because it was just in like 1993 that someone called me that.” — Halle Berry
From cabaret dancing to her portrayal as the villainous “Catwoman”, this “Santa Baby” songtress has done it all. The masses would agree that Eartha Kitt has lived an extraordinarily vibrant life. Once described as being “the most exciting woman in the world” by famed director Orson Welles, Miss Kitt seemlessly captivated her audiences for more than six decades. Let’s take a deeper look at the woman that seduced America.
Born in a small town of North located in Orangeburg County SC on January 17, 1927, Eartha Mae Kitt was conceived out of rape. Growing up very poor, she also suffered through the physical and mental abuse inflicted upon her by relatives. Miss Kitt endured the harsh realities of being a light skinned black girl situated in the deep south in the 1920s and 1930s. She was often referred to as “yella gal” and not accepted by the black community due to her mixed-race heritage.
Her mother was of African American and Cherokee decent, and her father was white. It was later discovered that her birth father’s name was concealed and blacked out on her birth certificate (a document in which she’d never seen until the age 71.) Previously, Miss Kitt had attempted to locate this record in the 1950s but was unsuccessful. For most of her life, she did not know her exact birthday. After being invited to speak at Benedict College, she charged the students with the challenge of locating her birth certificate and they did so successfully.
At the age of 8, Miss Kitt was sent to New York to live with a relative in Harlem. Although she was given piano and dance lessons, Kitt continued to be the recipient of abuse. This viscous cycle often prompted her to run away, and then she would return. By her teenage years, she was working in a factory and sleeping at friends’ homes or in subways. She would later become an advocate for homeless children.
At 16yrs old, Miss Kitt got her break into showbusiness on a whim, when one of her friends dared her to audition for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, which was the first African-American modern dance company. She passed the audition and permanently escaped the cycle of poverty and abuse that defined her life then. By the age of 20, she had toured all over the world.
Miss Kitt won awards for her music, film, television, and broadway performances. In 1960, the Hollywood Walk of Fame honored her with a star. She spoke four languages and sang in seven different languages. She had a plethora of career highlights which included the following: three Tony Award nominations, two Grammy Award nominations, two Emmy Award nominations, and the recipient of three Annie Awards for Voice Acting work in “The Emperor’s New Groove”, “Kronk’s New Groove”, and “The Emperor’s New School.”
In 1967 she made the role of Catwoman her own when she became the first black woman to achieve mainstream TV success in America with the series Batman. She broke racial taboos by flirting with Adam West in the lead role. She took over the role from Julie Newmar who had scheduling conflicts. Eartha brought a more mysterious and ruthless Catwoman to the series. With her lissome, cat-like frame and her distinguished voice, she immediately embodied the character. Her trademark purr became imitated worldwide, leaving an indelible mark on pop culture.
In 1968 Miss Kitt was invited to the White House to attend a luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. At the event, Kitt spoke out against the Vietnam War, telling the First Lady that “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” Her remarks against the Vietnam War offended Mrs. Johnson, and erupted a media firestorm. Her popularity took a significant noise-dive after that. For several years after the incident occurred, Miss Kitt was blacklisted in the U.S. The CIA had branded her “a sadistic nymphomaniac” and she was forced to work abroad where her reputation remained untarnished. However in 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited her back to the White House and that same year she earned her first Tony nomination for her work in “Timbuktu.”
She kept a busy work life well into her 70s. She regularly charmed New York nightclubs with her performances at The Cafè Carlyle. She continued to enthrall audiences as she had done so many decades previousy, when she was revered as the toast of Paris. Although Miss Kitt still seemed to have men of all ages wrapped around her finger, she would often toy with younger fans at her shows by suggesting they introduce her to their fathers.
On January 17 2007, Miss Kitt held a celebratory concert in honor of her 80th birthday at Carnegie Hall called “Eartha Kitt And Friends.” The celebrity audience members included Diahann Carroll and Janet Jackson with special guests performances by Tony Award winners Ben Vereen, LaChanze and Tonya Pinkins.
Miss Kitt died on December 25, 2008 and is survived by her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, and four grandchildren.
“I am the original Material Girl.”
“I’m an orphan. But the public has adopted me and that has been my only family. The biggest family in the world is my fans.”
“I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”
Photography Credit: Alexia Guidry
The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/oct/19/eartha-kitt-suffered-over-identity
The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/26/arts/26kitt.html?mcubz=1