Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
By Sophie Apps
When we think of culturally diverse women today – the influential and inspiring – Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and Oprah Winfrey pass between our lips daily; invited as guests on talk shows. Though, there are hundreds of hidden female figures in history; the originals making their mark. From Katherine Johnson – a mathematician for NASA – to Septima Clarke – a precocious combatant for Black education, history is branded with change. Remembering, recognising and appreciating the accomplishments that diverse women have made globally is so important – especially during Black History Month, if not all year round.
In contemporary society, culture, literature, art and music preserves and protects marginalised narratives. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton reimagines and resurrects the story of migrant Alexander Hamilton – one of founding fathers of America – one that could have been buried in history forever. “When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?” In a world filled with papers, phones and bulletin boards, now more than ever we must tell the stories of those who never had the opportunity. So, in commendation and celebration, here are eight pioneering diverse women whose stories need to be told.
Born in Cardiff, Gaynor Legall is the first BME female councillor in Wales and advocates for ethnic female minorities across the country; butchering racial inequality. Appointed by First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford, Legall has pioneered a battalion that will audit all public statues, buildings and street names in Wales. Selected for her knowledge of the slave trade and Black narratives, Legall is writing history in the present; reflecting Wales’s inaccurate past. She plans to eradicate the statue of the “sadistic slave-owner” – as described by mayor Dan De’Ath – Sir Thomas Picton at City Hall in Cardiff, amid many more. Her contributions don’t halt there. Legall sits on the board of Diverse Excellence Cymru and chairs Heritage and Cultural Exchange; an organisation established to preserve the history of Tiger Bay and the black and minority population of Wales. From her myriad of devoted work to Black communities, history and female ethnic minorities, Legall prospers a different dance in Wales; untuning the levels of racial prejudice that still festers.
Born in 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina, Septima Poinsette Clark was a teacher and activist; schooling the civil rights movement. She infamously remarks “the greatest evil in our country today… is ignorance… we need to be taught to study rather than to believe”. Throughout Clarke’s lifetime, she educated herself and Black African Americans. Aligning herself with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Clarke efficaciously collected two-thirds of Charleston’s black population signatures – overturning the ban on Black African American teachers. Even more progressively, Clarke set up 800 citizenship schools. As the director of Highlander’s Citizenship School Program, she pioneered a project which educated African Americans in literacy and led disenfranchised African Americans to vote. Clarke even wrestled for equal pay for black and white teachers; working with NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, she won the case in 1945. Clarke kicked off the status quo of Black women and exists in history as the ignition of the civil rights movement.
Recognised as the world’s first Black female star, Josephine Baker was of African American and Apalachee Indian origin – born in 1902 in Missouri. Baker found her flair as a dancer and singer in productions Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam; becoming the first Black woman in a big motion picture. Through her success in the entertainment industry, Baker created spaces for Black women. Though Baker exceeded her theatrical achievements and worked for the French Resistance and Red Cross during World War II; at times smuggling messages hidden in her sheet music. For her aid, Baker was bestowed both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance – two of France’s highest military honours. Non-stop, Baker pledged herself to the civil rights movement in the 1950s; joining in demonstrations, boycotting segregated clubs and alongside Martin Luther King Jr, she participated in the March on Washington. The first cinematic star, a war hero and civil rights activist, Josephine Baker is an assemblage of giftedness and generosity that makes her one of the most striking Black women in history.
In a sport gripped by whiteness – the clothes, balls, socks, shoes, people – Althea Gibson paved the way for ethnically diverse women in Tennis, during the 1950s. Becoming the first Black woman to compete at Wimbledon in 1951, Gibson went on to win single titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, along with the French Open in 1956. Rightly, proving that women of colour deserve a space on the court. In recognition of her achievements, Gibson was voted Female Athlete of the Year in 1957-8 by the Associated Press, becoming the first African American to receive the award. With Black tennis players Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Coco Gauff charging the courts today, Gibson is the woman who made that possible.
Chantelle Whitney Brown-Young a.k.a ‘Winnie Harlow’
Canadian born and of Jamaican descent, model Harlow has remarkably challenged the fashion industry’s archaic standards. Despite her diagnosis of vitiligo – a skin-condition which causes areas of the skin to lose pigment – at age four, Winnie has overcome malice to advocate body confidence and vitiligo. From her discovery by Tyra Banks on Instagram, Winnie found recognition on America’s Top Model in 2014 and has fuelled her career with modelling for fashion label Moschino; appearing on the covers of Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar and Grazia magazine too. Most notably, Harlow is the first model with vitiligo to strut in a Victoria’s Secret Show which has significantly normalised difference and subverted expectations of beauty. With a career epitomised by numerous firsts, Winnie has championed for less stigma and standards and for a more diverse fashion landscape. Harlow models a modern brand of Disney princess; representing race and beautifying difference.
Mildred Loving (and Richard Loving)
Mildred Jeter and her husband Richard Loving changed the course of history through their marriage. Mildred of Indian American descent and Richard, a white American were raised within a cultured community which valued multiculturalism. The Lovings were arrested in 1958; they had married in the District of Columbia, but their union was illegal in Virginia due to the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Avoiding a sentence by leaving and not returning to Virginia for twenty-five years, the Loving’s fled to Washington. Inspired by the civil rights movement, Mildred Loving wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for help. The Lovings were referred to the ACLU, which represented them in the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia (1967) where the Court unanimously ruled that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional, in Virginia and fifteen other states. It is no coincidence that the Mildred and Richard’s surname contains love – the couple set a precedent; teaching America and the world that love doesn’t depend on the colour of your skin.
More known for her celebration in the 2016 film Hidden Figure, Katherine Johnson was part of the group of Black women mathematicians at NASA. Born in West Virginia, Black African American Johnson began her scientific career in the age of racial prejudice; overcoming barricades of sex and race, she worked in Langley’s West Area Computing Unit in 1953. Only two weeks into Johnson’s position, she was assigned to the Manoeuvre Loads Branch of the Flight Division project – permanently – calculating the aerodynamic forces on aeroplanes. From there, Johnson developed the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s 1961 mission Freedom 7 – America’s first human flight – and in 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, her work marked a turning point in the space competition between the US and the Soviet Union. In recognition of her abundant achievements, in 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s Highest civilian honour – most rightly so. Johnson surpassed race in her time; breaking mathematical and racial barriers that have left her an empowering Black legacy.