Whispering words wander in my mind - “Spirit. Tenacity. Beauty. Emotion.” These characteristics have guided me in my life and the inspiration I found from three special women whose uniqueness and “Black queen excellence” gave me confidence and reassurance, shaping my artistry and who I am today. Janet Collins, Eartha Kitt and Maya Angelou transformed our world, despite society and history’s tendency to leave them forgotten. As I gaze at moments captured of Janet Collins, Eartha Kitt, and Maya Angelou, I can hear and see the words again, swirling with their smiles and poses. Each so unique, one description could never encompass their fire. While their names may ring a bell, or more likely and unfortunately, not, their warmth and integral presence are often taken for granted, praised and kindled by few. With so many flames of spirit, tenacity, beauty and love, I must admit, it is a struggle for me to choose which fires to engulf these pages. To share their legacy with you today, I followed my inspiration and connection to the four words mentioned above in showcasing three supreme lights of our culture.
Let this not be only a temporary gaze at the strength and fragility of these women, their careers and lives, but an introduction (or perhaps a re-introduction) to the life and art of Janet Collins, Eartha Kitt, and Maya Angelou - wonderful wildfires never to be put out due to a societal failure to care for and appreciate Black women. I hope their inspiration, reflected by these words and the effervescent Sheridan Guerin, ignites a flame within our hearts that makes us truly look and see beyond, appreciating those who gave us the most, even when constantly, unfairly, and systematically, they were given the least.
Janet Collins, her dancing compared to a butterfly in a review, had wings that aired and fed the fire of African American trailblazers in ballet. Janet’s undeniable grace and talent for Ballet should have established a precedent; the racism she battled happened 20 years before Raven Wilkinson, even longer before Misty Copeland, however not much changed in regards to the embedded discrimination her fellow, beautiful black ballerinas faced. Janet Collins, turned away from ballet schools as to not “scare off” Caucasian parents and children, relentlessly continued to prove herself only to be told the same story over and over again - “You’re a beautiful dancer but, what will our White patrons think?” It happened, and continues to, again and again. A disturbing history. A darkly wooded history that seems to repeat itself, struggling to heal, learn, and grow.
And yet, I find infinite hope in Janet Collins. Her statements and presence demonstrate something much stronger than perseverance. A fiery will rarely matched, but needed beyond what my words can describe. Her accomplishment as the first Black Ballerina on stage with the Metropolitan Ballet and one of the first African American muses to the ballet world created a permanent space for Women of Color. Because of Janet Collins we do not continue to, in her words, “bow to that treatment [of Black people]” when unjust, biased, or cruel. As she thoughtfully laid out, she “did not have to overcome inferiority” projected onto African Americans, “[she] had to overcome arrogance” - of society and the racial biases that have been built.
For me, Janet Collins is a beacon for self-respect and confidence, a shining example for myself that truly valuing my artistry and what I bring to the stage is a gift, and if I continue to harness it, I can accomplish so much. She is an icon and reminder for us all, regardless of shade. However, not without the acknowledgement of how her Black Queen complexion redefined what is possible for a Black ballerina.
Queen, icon, timeless muse, I see and hear Eartha Kitt everywhere in an endless variety of forms. From her purrs as Catwoman to the sweet voice of “Santa Baby'' heard across the world, to immaculate fittings with Givenchy, I’m sure all of us have been blessed by the spark of Eartha Kitt’s face, voice, and smile. Yet mystery shrouds her petite frame, despite the grand rainbow of light she brought to the Performing Arts. Personally, she was a name and face I recognized but I also seemed to be vaguely chasing her shadows, only seeing flickers of her flame. One thing I did know from the beginning is what drew me in - that smile, that laugh, the way her eyes seem to reflect any and every emotion that she chose to share. In Eartha I see, and am inspired by, her far ranging talent and artistry. Talk about a woman who could do ANYTHING. Talk about a woman with no limits.
As an African American dancer, I heard the speeches of how a dark/brown complexion and Black heritage somehow pigeon holes you into one type of dance; and I’ve also been told that those that break the mold are the exception, not a normalcy. I look back at those moments and wish I could give them a bodacious Eartha Kitt-esque laugh, knowing (with beacons like Janet and Eartha as proof) that my heritage will never limit me when I am being true to myself. So, when I look at Eartha Kitt, a mixed race artist like myself, again I am given hope. Remaining true to herself, Eartha and her art reflect a woman with no fear of herself and her power in a world that was often frightened or simply didn’t know what to think of a Black woman’s voice.
While a lot of the world listened to Eartha, many of us listen now without a clue, and some “listened” with the audacity to ostracize a woman for speaking out for those who couldn’t. Again, a disturbing history repeated with Black artists. Today I am reminded of so many vivacious artists I have loved, from Eartha Kitt to Nina Simone. Can we learn? Can we heal? Can we grow? I believe we can, and I think she believed it too - she shared so much of herself in every type of role, show, and song. And what I love so much is that even when she met challenges, from her own community in the South to the White House, she knew that we still needed her, and that she had so much to give. She kept performing, singing in 10 different languages across the world. Those that truly listened were able to dream of a world in which life is exceptional art, and art is life, and no racial lines could cloud her or diminish this truth. Many of us pine for this state of being, yet Eartha lived, sang, and danced it from the beginning to end, despite the rain of doubt and discrimination. Honored and inspired, I follow the paths she uniquely forged for artists of all backgrounds, knowing that “the price we pay for staying true to ourselves, is worth it.”
Few artists unleash my full range of emotions like Maya Angelou. I seem to share this common spark of emotion with each soul that I connect with through her poems. From peace, to sorrow, to laughter, I can’t help but feel it all. Her poems grant insight into her being, but even more profound, I feel I understand my own heart, and my neighbor’s, a little better with her guidance. This forest of racial tension, misunderstanding, and hatred is at times a dark one and I look to her for light, a path, and answers. What does it feel like to be a Black woman in America? She lays it out quite intricately, yet simply. What does it feel like to be an African American man trying to create a home after 400 years of devastation? As tears streak my face reading “My Guilt” and “A Black Woman Speaks to Black Manhood,” I understand a little better than I could have in all my years of public school, trying to read between the lines. With Maya there is no adjusting history, pain, and suffering. There is only truth. And it is only from there we can actually learn and grow.
As I peer through the branches that seem to poke and rip at my own fragile petals, I think about what it feels like to be alone, to care too much, to go through life searching and wondering, winning sometimes and losing too. What does it feel like to live, to thrive? And what does it feel like to do all of this, with a complexion that makes people look the other way before you can even say hello? I have so many questions and Maya always helps me contemplate them all with empathy, vulnerability, and truth. So much external pain is unjustly thrashed upon Black people that I cannot, and will not, begin to articulate it because it is too much, too important for a sentence or two here. However, through Maya’s poems and books, she dives into these pains-beyond-comprehension because they are integral to our history--not only for the African American community, but for our Nation. Maya Angelou somehow manifests healing from reflection, and an unfathomable understanding and acceptance of our past. She takes your soul beyond comforts and makes you not only listen to the cries, but weep for all that we have lost. This is something we all need.
And then, she makes you take a look inside, with radical love. The healing you find in the embrace of your brother, the only one that gets it. The universal heartache from a love that wasn’t meant to be. The love for oneself that can only be found within, but should and can be found within everyone--if they give themselves the chance to see it. We need these lessons too. Maya gets the fact that we are all still learning, growing, and healing. If you don’t get it quite yet, I know tending Ms. Angelou’s fire in your mind and heart with her books and poems will help to get you there as she has with me, warmly fostering my soul with vulnerability and wisdom.
HEART OF THE MATTER
As I journey down this page, reflecting on America’s earth scorched with the Spirit, Tenacity, Emotion, and Beauty of Black Queens, a few trailing expressions flutter into my mind, like the last pieces of ash floating down before settling for the new life to come. Here’s to being as Brave and Confident as Janet Collins, as Unique and True as Eartha Kitt, and as Soulful and Vulnerable as Maya Agelou. May we carry your fires in our own individual hearths, to nurture and warm us when scared, and ignite our passions when ready. In my own heart, I feel so much from these women--blazing passion to cathartic release. You could say I see much of myself in these women and so much more of who I would like to grow to be. In their own lives, they lit fires with their art and their presence burned down walls of tension, misunderstanding, hate, and ignorance. They cultivated and created the platform on which I can stand and dance, grateful and empowered by my heritage--a state of being that I admittedly have not always felt in my past, but looking to the future, with their inspiration lighting the way, I am filled with hope.
At last, as I bask in their inspiring glow, I am grateful for the blessing of being able to hold these flames dear to us, and to be born in a time in which we can reflect and do better. They, and we, deserve so much more. To honor them, to never forget them, I try to thank these women everyday with actions that I hope reflect Bravery and Confidence, Uniqueness and Truth, Soul and Vulnerability.
Thank you for your action in this moment, for taking time to look into our world and let the suppressed flames of these women roar, even for a second, in your mind. Blossoms like these in our hearts and minds honor these Queens and their contributions that laid the groundwork for women like Sheridan and me to kindle our own fires. Without them, and by forgetting them, we risk losing so much art and life in this world. But by keeping their flames unforgotten, tending to the inspiration and art of Black Women with the energy and fire of Queens, we can indeed blossom forward, learning, healing, and growing.
1 - Cash, Debra. “Into the Eye of the Storm.” The Women's Review of Books, vol. 29, no. 1, 2012, pp. 6–8., www.jstor.org/stable/41553308. Accessed 25 Feb. 2021.
2 - NPR Staff. (2014, April 26). René Marie On Singing, Sex And The Importance Of Being Eartha. Retrieved from npr.org: https://www.npr.org/2014/04/26/307147748/ren-marie-on-singing-sex-and-the-importance-of-being-eartha