Before there was Sister Maxine (Waters), there was Shirley. Before there was Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm.
Shirley was not only the first Black woman to be elected to Congress in 1968, she was the first Black candidate for President for a major political party and the first woman to run as a Democratic candidate.
Before becoming a public servant, Shirley was an educational consultant becoming a leading authority on child welfare and early education issues.
After going from being a State Senator to a US congresswoman, she eventually decided to run for President of the United States in 1971 campaigning under her legendary slogan "Unbought and Unbossed slogan". Not surprisingly, her campaign was met with tremendous obstacles based on race, but she also met even more intense resistance for being a woman running for President (some things never change, eh?). Not only did she receive little support for her Democratic colleagues, she received little support from her Black male colleagues and later stated: " "When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men....They think I am trying to take power from them. The black man must step forward, but that doesn't mean the black woman must step back."
After her unsuccessful presidential bid, Chisholm continued to serve in Congress. She worked to improve conditions for inner city residents and social services, opposed the Vietnam War and advocated against the military industrial complex. After retiring from Congress in 1982, she returned to her beginnings as an educator and lectured extensively across the country and taught undergraduate courses in politics, women and race at Mt. Holyoke college. She was nominated to serve as ambassador to Jamaica by President Bill Clinton but declined due to health issues and was later inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993. Nine years after her passing in 2005, she was posthumously awarded by the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2014.
May Shirley's persistence and determination inspire us all.
"The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative. The history of the capitalist era is characterized by the degradation of my people: despoiled of their lands, their true culture destroyed... denied equal protection of the law, and deprived their rightful place in the respect of their fellows."
In celebrating Black History month, I'm returning to my Black Superheroes series with new portraits of Black civil rights pioneers and wanted to start with Paul Robeson. In what seems to be a moment of synchronicity, I stumbled upon an article today in USA Today that discussed how Paul Robeson's activist legacy is so relevant to current times because it merged art with activism.
Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898 to a father who was a former slave and went on to become an All American football player at Rutgers University and became class valedictorian. While pursuing his law degree at Columbia University, he sang and performed in various off campus productions. As his notoriety as an actor and vocalist grew, he became increasingly interested in civil rights issues of Black Americans. Robeson traveled abroad often and he eventually embraced Soviet communist principles because of its seemingly colorblind philosophy. Unfortunately, his support for communism cost him his career; during the McCarthy era, he was investigated by the US government and stripped of his passport. Unable to earn a income or travel abroad, his career suffered and never recovered. He spent his remaining years in declining health and seclusion but still remained committed to the principles of activism and social justice.
Robeson the athlete, intellectual, artist, and activist, was a renaissance man who's legacy is currently undergoing a resurgence at a time when we need it the most. May his work inspire us to be "the gatekeepers of truth" and to speak up against injustice wherever we see it.
Still can't imagine a world without you in it, amazing us with your gifts and talents. You will live for an eternity through your music and inspire countless generations to come. Light up the heavens, Prince.
Limited edition prints of this work can be purchased at http://shop.jaimeetodd.com
I've added postcard sets and prints of my Black Superheroes series! And to celebrate its release, I'm offering a limited time sale. From now until Friday, 2/26/15, use discount SUPERHERO to get 20% off your order!
Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That's the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system."--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a young girl growing up in Pittsburgh, I remember listening to the famous I Have A Dream speech on the radio every year on the holiday and being awed and often moved to tears. The vibrato of Dr. King's voice moved me and yet made me feel mournful; I was incredibly sad that someone of his magnitude was gone and angry that someone would attempt to snuff out his light.
I say attempt because Dr. King's light continues to shine.
When I was in middle school and was living in Michigan, the area that I lived in did not commemorate the Dr. King holiday and we had to come to school without any real acknowledgement of his legacy. When I asked one of my teachers why this was, his response was because probably there wasn't that many Black students in the school system.
Luckily, my mom wasn't having it. She let me have the day off but on the condition that I did something to mark the holiday; I wouldn't be sitting around watching cartoons. Instead, I participated in a local march in Southfield and attended a program celebrating his legacy. Later on in the day I visited Detroit's African American History museum and bought my first African beaded bracelet, one of my most treasured possessions. That day was a reminder to me about what his legacy should be about; activism and cultural pride.
For a while, his image seemed in danger of being sanitized; his face was seen in food and beverage ads, he was too often made,into the poster-boy of passivity as the response to Black outrage in the face of racism and oppression, he was cast as the balm to Malcolm X's fiery activism. But now, I feel like we are taking Martin back and celebrating him for what he truly stood for. He was a revolutionary who not only challenged the evils of racism, but of poverty, income inequality and even capitalism. He was fiercely pro-Black and saw the virtues of socialism. (I highly recommend reading Harry Belafonte's memoir, My Song, which wonderfully details Mr. Belafonte's close friendship with Dr. King as well the fallout from his assassination). I truly believe he become truly feared when he planned to mobilize the poor before he was fatally shot. How astounding is it that he accomplished several lifetimes worth of achievements by the time he was taken from us at the tender age of 39.
When making this Inkscape portrait, I used the color blue because that is always the color I associate with Dr. King (it is the often the color I associate with people I feel warmly about). I also continued the theme I used with each portrait where every subject had a light source emanating from some point within as a symbol of their superpower.
While this is the last image in my current Black Superheroes series, there will be more editions to come, each of them celebrating and interpreting the richness of Black culture.
"I believe in the brotherhood of man, all men, but I don't believe in brotherhood with anybody who doesn't want brotherhood with me. I believe in treating people right, but I'm not going to waste my time trying to treat somebody right who doesn't know how to return the treatment."--Malcolm X
As I put this post together, I had the hardest time trying to find a Malcolm X quote that I love best but it's impossible because there are so many.
I don't know how best to describe my admiration for Malcolm because it runs so deep and has run for so long, ever since I was a girl in middle school and devoured The Autobiography of Malcolm X (and then to go on and rewatch Spike's Lee's masterpiece based on the book multiple times) in nearly one day. Those words were written over 50 years ago and yet they hold so much truth today, which never ceases to blow my mind. I am awed by his brilliance, by his transformation. To be able to go from a troubled kid, to a hustler, to a former convict to one of the most brilliant minds ever to grace this earth is beyond powerful. Hell, powerful is too small a word to describe such a metamorphosis.
A few years ago, I also read Manning Marable's controversial biography Malcolm X, which sparked outrage over, among other things, questions about Malcolm's sexual orientation and the suggestion that his marriage to Betty Shabazz was less than idyllic. I didn't choose to read the book for those reasons but rather because I was intrigued by Marable's meticulous research and how much his accounts humanized Malcolm. Throughout his life, no matter what stage of growth he was currently undergoing, I sensed this loneliness about him that is common to when one is in search of their own personal truth. It only seemed to deepen with time as the foundations that fueled his activism (Elijah Muhammand, The Nation of Islam) continued to become undone.
In spite of the fact that Marable's book touches on Malcolm's personal flaws and contradictions, it heavily emphasizes how Malcolm bravely soldiered on in pursuit of his own personal truth and evolving philosophy, even when his life increasingly came under threat. Reading this made me even admire him even more all the while wishing he could've found that solace, that someone could've put their arm around him and tell him, "It's going to be all right" and for him to know that and really believe it. Even when he seemed to know that things would not, he still kept on, even when he was offered asylum from the Ethiopia, he choose to remain.
I admit to having this fantasy of being able to travel back in time and rescuing Malcolm from that fateful day in February when we lost him forever and allowing him safe passage on his continuing journey so that he could continue to teach and lead us. It's an absurd wish and there is a danger in elevating someone to a central figurehead such that you fail to do the work yourself. I realize this, but it is a dream that I can't help to revisit every now and then. Would things would have been different? Would he still be seem as divisive or would we have had the good sense to really listen to him as we do today, now that he is no longer with us?
In making this Inkscape, I of course wanted to encapsulate Malcolm's fiery, pull-no-punches truth-telling, so I used an Inkscape that resembled fire. I wanted his truth to be his seared in like a never ending fire.
I never knew Malcolm but yet I feel so comfortable referring to him as Brother Malcolm because that what he is to me: a brother, a comrade willing to get down in the trenches to fight alongside us, guiding us down a righteous path of indignation and an unquenchable thirst for justice.
"I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad."--Josephine Baker
Before there was such a thing as a "carefree Black girl", there was Josephine Baker. She didn't give a damn before not giving damns was fashionable and after all of these years, we are still here for it. I write this piece a day after Beyonce dropped her Formation video, a new empowerment anthem that has inspired so many in the Black community and pissed off many others. At this point, Beyonce has reached the point in her career where she can do as she pleases without giving a care what others think and to me, that is so Josephine Baker.
I was introduced to Miss Baker through the wonderful biopic film The Josephine Baker Story and I was entranced by her story. How tough and strong willed for a Black woman to be to survive the horrific race riots of St. Louis, take care of herself on the streets and then decide to pursue her love of dance and freedom by moving to Paris! And what freedom she experienced; she marveled at being called ma'am and not having to enter buildings through segregated entrances, of being to exude sensuality, be brash and still be herself and be Black. I'm under no illusion that Paris was a post-racial utopia, but compared to the United States I'm sure it came pretty damn close. It's also easy to imagine that she experienced a massive reality check when she decided to America in the 1936 to perform in the Ziefield Follies and received a hideous racial backlash. She was called a "Negro wench" and criticized for having little talent, which was false. They just weren't ready. It's amazing how this tired trope of diminishing Black women for being different and powerful never ceases to end. Did we not see and hear similar comments being hurled at Beyonce for her Super Bowl performance?
Never mind the haters, Josephine continued to persevere. She became a freedom fighter, an agent in the Resistance during World War II. She returned to the United States to speak out against the oppression of Black people. She refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, she worked with the NAACP and was the only female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, just to name a few accomplishments. A little known fact that I didn't know of until recently: after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Coretta Scott King approached Josephine to take her husband's place as the leader of the Civil Rights movement. She declined the offer out of fear of her children losing her to assassination as well. In spite of all she did, she was still never fully embraced by the American Black community, let alone the rest of America. She eventually returned to her beloved France.
But after all this, I'm leaving out one of the most amazing things about Josephine to me; how captivating she was as a performer. She was magnetic! She sparkled, she absolutely did. Thank god for Youtube, which allows me to view incredible performances where she commands the stage. When I look at Josephine, I see original Black Girl Magic and I wanted to make her look magical with my Inkscape portrait of her. I centered a glowing star in her center; she bares her glowing soul and forever shines. I clothed her in a golden Inkscape like it was an off-shoulder dress in a gown that I like to think she would find befitting of her. The stars that illuminate her face make me think of her as a constellation, which what she was; a free Black woman that lights up life.
"I'm a real rebel with a cause."--Nina Simone
For too long I've taken Nina Simone for granted. It didn't hit me how prolific she really was until I realized how often and how much of her work has been covered and many times appropriated. It hit me when I tuned into my Nina Simone Pandora station and heard her perform her own work and I found myself saying, "Oh, she was the one who originally wrote that? I didn't know that was her."
I'm embarrassed to admit that.
But I still didn't know enough, really. I read about her and how tumultuous her life was but I still didn't really know or understand her. Thank god for the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? that I really began to get an inkling of her depth and complexity, how much she raged to just be, even when mental illness made it unbearable to her and those that were around her.
Like Ida B. Wells, she was a bad-ass from an early age. One of my favorite anecdotes about her was when she was a young girl in North Carolina and was about to perform an piano recital in front of a segregated audience. When young Nina realized that her parents would be pushed to the back of the audience because they were black, she refused to play until they were brought up front. It might seem like a small gesture to some but to me that is pretty ballsy for a young child to be willing to defy such injustice, seemingly without fear. That a child was so unaware of such injustice at a young age is also remarkable.
It seems say that her gift was salvation from the temptation of deadly rage in the face of anti-black hatred of the 50's, 60's, and 70's. It has to be soul-wrenching to be a witness to such unrelenting ugliness but yet still feel deeply satisfying to write something as blatant as "Mississippi Goddamn" to bluntly express the rage that so many black people feel after the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that took the lives of those four precious little girls. Nowadays, I feel myself humming that song whenever I hear about another deadly episode of policy brutality, the neglect of a mostly Black town, another senseless killing of the innocent.
I believe it takes superhero strength to be able to channel that anger, survive an abusive marriage, the music industry all the while battling with mental illness for the majority of her life. Most people would have ended themselves long ago but Nina somehow persevered even when she seemed to becoming undone. I am grateful that her struggle with this illness has come to light in that highlights the importance of protecting and attending the mental health of black women.
When making this portrait, I wanted to use an Inkscape that reflected Nina's passion, and fearlessness, hence the red tones. I liked the idea of reflecting the expansiveness of her talent by adding interstellar images in her profile. The contrast of red and black tones speaks to her own complexities, her layers upon layers.
I am grateful that there is a world where Nina Simone existed, and still endures through her music.