DIVA: A History—R-E-S-P-E-C-T

In part two, how black women came to redefine the diva.

Previously: Queen of the Night (Part 1)

As Malcolm X, and later Beyoncé, reminded us, the “most disrespected…most unprotected…most neglected person in America is the black woman.” At the time he made those remarks, in 1962, positive representations of black women were few and far between. Just two years later The Supremes made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, and among those watching was a 10-year-old Oprah Gail Winfrey.

“If you are a person who isn’t of color, you don’t even understand what it’s like to be in a world where nobody looks like you. You take for granted that everyone is like you,” Oprah said of that seminal moment in her life. “When you’re not accustomed to being validated and you first see someone on television like Diana Ross who was glamorous, and beautiful, and represented, literally, possibility and hope—it was life changing for me. Life changing.”
 

Black women have always strived to maintain a sense of grandiosity, regardless of society’s treatment of them, from the churches of Birmingham to the streets of Harlem. Madam CJ Walker both capitalized and epitomized this, building an empire on beauty and haircare products marketed toward underserved black women, becoming one of the wealthiest self-made women in America. Still, black women also faced consequences for being larger than life, for being too loud, for being too much of anything. Dorothy Dandridge is a prime example.

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Dorothy Dandridge

The first black woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, she was a glamorous sex symbol when black women weren’t allowed to be either glamorous and certainly not sexy. Despite her landmark success, she found it hard to find work in Hollywood, notorious for relegating women of color to roles as maids. She died broke and broken in 1965 at age 42. As is true with many a tragic diva, Dandridge was far more appreciated in death than in life. Halle Berry snatched every available trophy for playing her in the HBO movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, then when she became the first (and currently only) black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar, she made sure to thank Dandridge, along with fellow screen divas Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. As trailblazing as those women were, they all owe a debt of gratitude to a remarkable and multi talented entertainer who became the first black person to star in a major motion picture.

Bronze Venus

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Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Mo. on June 3, 1906. Her mother was a poor washwoman and her father, depending on who you ask, was either a vaudeville drummer or the white man for whom her mother worked. Either way, times were hard for young Josephine. Armed with nothing more than a fifth grade education, her natural beauty and charm, and some good old-fashioned pluck, she would work odd jobs, sleep in makeshift cardboard houses, and dance on street corners. At 13 she married her first husband, Willie Wells, and her second at 15, William Baker, whose last name she decided to keep. She could easily have succumbed to the life of struggle and hardship that befell many black women born into similar circumstances, but her dancing led to gigs in vaudeville shows and Broadway revues, and eventually to Paris, where she became its brightest, and highest paid, star.

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Baker in La Revue Nègre

At age 19, she debuted in La Revue Nègre, her naked, erotic, and energetic dancing made her a literal overnight sensation. She premiered her most famous routine of the period the following year in the Folies Bèrgere wearing nothing but a skirt made entirely of fake bananas. Beyoncé, the closest thing we have to a modern day Josephine Baker, paid tribute to this iconic act at Fashion Rocks 2006.
 

Baker was also known to parade around onstage with her pet cheetah Chiquita, which was adorned in a diamond collar while terrorizing members of the band. She entranced, and seduced, men and women alike, including Ernest Hemingway, who reportedly called her “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will.”; she went to whorehouses with Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, who would get distracted seducing young men with opium kisses. Ah, gay Paree! She starred in the films Siren of the Tropics, Zou Zou and Princess Tam Tam—they were big hits in Europe but both success and respect eluded her in her native America. When she appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway in 1936, she was met with hostility where Paris had greeted her almost instantly with adoration. In a racially charged review, Time magazine dismissed her as a “ washer-woman’s daughter who stepped out of a Negro burlesque” and a “Negro wench.” Baker returned to Paris and in 1937 became a French citizen, marrying her third husband, industrialist Jean Lion.

Josephine Baker’s life would have many more ups and downs, many more stages (far too many to get into here), and she would eventually return triumphant to the states, but she always bristled against her homeland’s treatment of African Americans. She became an impassioned civil rights activist—the NAACP even declared May 20, 1951 Josephine Baker Day. She refused to play for segregated U.S. audiences and in 1963 she spoke at the March on Washington (the only woman to do so).

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Baker at the March on Washington

The African American diva has historically felt an additional responsibility or obligation to address the racism of a country that can at one turn exalt them and at the other, just as easily, demean them—whether it’s Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone writing “Mississippi Goddamn,” or Aretha Franklin demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Eartha, Baby

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Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt was one of the most politically and socially active divas of her and any other time. She was outspoken about a number of causes, from the Civil Rights Movement to juvenile delinquency to LGBTQ rights, becoming an early public supporter of marriage equality.

“I support [gay marriage] because we’re asking for the same thing,” she said in a 2005 interview with the Windy City Times. “If I have a partner and something happens to me, I want that partner to enjoy the benefits of what we have reaped together. It’s a civil-rights thing, isn’t it?”

But of course she was punished for being too outspoken. In 1968, at a White House luncheon hosted by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, Kitt passionately criticized the Vietnam War, which reportedly led to Lady Bird jumping out of a moving car running out of the room in tears.

The incident resulted in Kitt’s immediate blacklisting and she was unable to find work in the states for years afterwards. However, she had a triumphant return at Carnegie Hall in 1974 and in 1978 President Jimmy Carter invited her back to the White House. Just a few years earlier, The New York Times had revealed that the CIA had been keeping a slanderous dossier on Kitt since 1957, alleging, among other things, that she was “a sadistic nymphomaniac whose escapades and loose morals were the talk of Paris.”

Honestly, if you don’t have a CIA dossier, can you really call yourself a diva?

Like Josephine Baker before her, Kitt found success in Europe, especially during her blacklisting, eventually touring more than 100 countries and singing in a dozen languages. Kitt made her impact in nearly every medium: from a dancer and nightclub performer, leading Orson Welles to call her “the most exciting woman in the world”; to the Broadway stage, earning multiple Tony nominations over multiple decades; to recording star, her versions of “Santa Baby,” “C’est Si Bon” and “I Want to Be Evil” are among her most famous hits; to film, starring alongside the likes of Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Nat King Cole; and television, most notably as the third greatest Catwoman ever (no offense to Ms. Kitt, but Michelle Pfeiffer is the tops with Julie Newmar just barely edging Kitt out) in the ’60s Batman series…that is before reducing Lady Bird Johnson to tears.

My personal favorite Eartha Kitt moment, however, is from the 1995 documentary Unzipped, following the hectic behind-the-scenes machinations of Isaac Mizrahi’s 1994 fall collection. In it, Kitt is every inch the diva, kicking up her gams, purring seductively, singing in tongues, gesturing extravagantly, existing on her own planet and just allowing us a glimpse into her rarefied atmosphere. And Mizrahi. Is. Living. For. It.
 

Can you blame him?

Where’s All My Soul Sisters?

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LaBelle

Like many a black diva that crossed over in the early-to-mid-20th century, Baker, Kitt, Horne, and Dandridge were all light-skinned and waifish. That’s one, but certainly not the only, facet of black divadom. Another comes straight out of the church, where many a diva has honed her operatic chops—chops that have inspired lip-synching drag queens for decades, that produce tingles up and down your spine, that threaten to shatter the very glass in your hand.

If Tina Turner blew the hinges off the door with 1960’s “A Fool in Love,” Aretha Franklin burned down the door and the rest of the goddamn house with her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” seven years later. Both women grew up in the church and had a violent, sexy, sometimes primal approach to their singing, but whereas Tina was a rock singer (one of the best we’ve ever had), Aretha was the quintessential soul singer. Her voice was monumental but also capable of eliciting myriad emotions over the span of an album, a song, a chorus, or even a single line. Aretha was no Diana Ross. Her voice wasn’t delicate, it was in your face and sunk under your skin. But she was still, to borrow from Oprah, life changing. And game changing.

A fellow church girl turned soul singer, Patti LaBelle formed the doo-wop girl group Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles in 1962, but they didn’t really take off until they rebranded themselves as the funky, intergalactic soul sistas LaBelle, scoring their first and only number one hit “Lady Marmalade” in 1974. By the time Patti, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendryx were belting about New Orleans prostitutes while wearing metallic bras and three-foot tall feather headdresses, the black diva had evolved, reflecting the freedom and awareness of identity inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, and the fight for gay rights.

Meanwhile, for a gorgeous diva overload, check out LaBelle and fucking Cher singing the hell out of “What Can I Do for You?” on the latter’s eponymous variety show.
 

Around this time, a young Yvette Marie Stevens was chalking up some hits under the name Chaka Khan with her band Rufus. In 1978, she went solo, releasing perhaps the diva anthem of all diva anthems, “I’m Every Woman.” Fun fact: Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy sang background on that track, and Whitney would of course release her own version years later, giving a literal shout-out to Khan. Before Whitney assumed the title forever and a day, Stevie Wonder called Chaka “The Voice”—he wrote “Tell Me Something Good” for her after hearing a Rufus cover of his “Maybe Your Baby.” And file this under the slim volume “Divas Supporting Divas”: Aretha, never one to suffer fools or gowns…beautiful gowns, considered Chaka her favorite singer.

That she was not as friendly toward Patti LaBelle is a shame, but I’ve always wondered what would’ve happened if Aretha, Patti, and Chaka ever shared the same stage. I mean, I’m pretty sure the world as we know it would’ve come to an end then and there, but what a way to go: The Divapocalypse.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat