During the 89th Academy Awards (Feb. 26), actress and producer Viola Davis was fêted as the Best Supporting Actress for her role as Rose in Fences. Her speech – in all its moving glory – paid tribute to Fences playwright August Wilson, who she expressed “exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.” Her words were a poignant reminder to us all that the “one place that all of the people with the greatest potential are gathered” is the graveyard. In honor of Women’s History Month, we do some unearthing of our own, remembering the ones who came before us while excavating their greatest truths and contributions.
* * *
Nina SimoneNina Simone
Feb. 21, 1933 – Apr. 21, 2003 |
“I have always known that Nina Simone means something much more to a specific kind of black woman than she ever can for me. Simone was in possession of nearly every feature that we denigrated as children. And yet somehow she willed herself into a goddess.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates
Nina Simone was an author, blues singer and civil rights activist whose music stuck posthumous gold, and whose female genius and politics concerning race continue to influence and inform her global descendants.
Frida KahloFrida Kahlo
Jul. 6, 1907 – Jul. 13, 1954 |
“I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died.” —Diego Rivera
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter and self-portrait artist who is still revered as an international feminist icon.
Janis JoplinJanis Joplin
Jan. 19, 1943 – Oct. 4, 1970 |
“What most people don’t know is Janis was a smart, bright lady. Intelligent, very sensitive, and alive to everything around her—which also meant sensitive and alive to her own pain. She was so vulnerable.” —Patricia Morrison
Joplin rose to stardom in the late ’60s and was known for her powerfully bluesy vocals and brazen swagger. Her true personality, while largely hidden from her fans, took center stage in the Little Girl Blue documentary. She died of a drug overdose.
Jan. 16, 1979 – Aug. 25, 2001 |
“Aaliyah, who doesn’t have an evil atom in her body, came off as this intensely sexual, sensuous, delightfully evil, naughty performer,” he said. “It was a very tough role to pull off.” —Michael Rymer
Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised, Aaliyah has been credited for helping redefine R&B and hip-hop in the 1990s. She left behind an imprint on the music industry as a whole, from her vocals to her dancing to her wardrobe.
Belkis AyónBelkis Ayón
Jan. 23, 1967 – Sept. 11, 1999 |
“Belkis’ research was extensive, and she used the characters and myths of Abakua to express other things entirely. She created a whole visual universe, because Abakua doesn’t have its own defined imagery.” —Katia Ayón
Afro-Cuban feminist legend Belkis Ayón is celebrated as a master printmaker whose work is largely centered on the Abakuá, an exclusively male, Afro-Cuban secret society that originated in Nigeria and gained popularity in 19th-century Cuba.
Celia CruzCelia Cruz
Oct. 21, 1925 – Jul. 16, 2003 |
“There are plenty of values that she portrays, for example, self-esteem, self-love, how she believed in herself as a woman who was black, how she surpassed that to become a star, how her passion drove her to [succeed] in life … She was a good human being and that’s how she wanted to be remembered, as a human being, not a star.” —Jeimy Osorio
Grammy-winning artist, Celia Cruz, is regarded as the Queen of Salsa, whose early career was met with racial barriers, and who was famously barred from her native island for opposing then communist leader, Fidel Castro. She was a black Cuban woman who left her country to conquer the music world, with the help of Fania Records.
Amy WinehouseAmy Winehouse
Sept. 14, 1983 – Jul. 23, 2011 |
“She was an extraordinary musician with a rare intuition as a vocalist and I am truly devastated that her exceptional talent and has come to such an early end. She was a lovely and intelligent person and when we recorded together she gave a soulful and extraordinary performance.” —Tony Bennett
British singer-songwriter and award-winning artist, Amy Winehouse, lived a tumultuous life riddled with internal conflict and drug abuse. But she is best remembered for her deeply-expressive vocals, and is ranked as one of the greatest women in music.
Selena QuintanillaSelena Quintanilla
Apr. 16, 1971 – Mar. 31, 1995 |
“You can just generally feel her vibe, the good person that she was, the smile she always had for anybody. She definitely had that ‘It’ factor which hasn’t been figured out yet. All of that put together, I think that’s the reason that she’s still relevant.” —Chris Perez
Selena is lauded, to date, as the Queen of Tejano Music, who remains a beloved Latina recording artist, also known for her vibrant, fashion-forward flair.
Julia de BurgosJulia de Burgos
Julia de Burgos
Feb. 17, 1914 – Jul. 6, 1953 |
“De Burgos was an ambitious and brilliant woman who worked diligently on two fronts—to establish herself as a writer of international acclaim and to eradicate injustice. Her feminist politics and her Afro-Caribbean ideas allow us to read her as a precursor to contemporary U.S. Latina/o writers.” —Vanessa Perez Rosario
Julia de Burgos was an advocate of Puerto Rican independence and is widely regarded as her island’s greatest poet. Having lived a life full of intensity, she was also known as a civil rights activist for African and Afro-Caribbean writers.
Josephine BakerJosephine Baker
Jun. 3, 1906 – Apr. 12, 1975 |
“People just went wild for her. There was a need for something fresh and Josephine brought this combination of Africa, jazz, humor and America in her presentation. And she was personable. Everyone loved her.” —David Burke
Josephine Baker was arguably the world’s first black superstar, whose career was centered primarily in Europe. She was the first person of African descent to become a world-famous entertainer and to star in a major motion picture.
Whitney HoustonWhitney Houston
Aug. 9, 1963 – Feb. 11, 2012 |
“I can hear her voice and her spirit talking to me telling me, keep moving, baby. I can always feel her with me. She humbles me. I remember what she told me, I remember what she taught me. … She was a sister, a comforter. The spirit that she had – no matter where she was … she touched everyone.” —Bobbi Kristina
Houston is lauded as one of pop music’s best-selling music artists of all-time, whose tragic death is marked by marital controversy and drug abuse. She is cited by Guinness World Records as the most awarded woman act of all time.
Billie HolidayBillie Holiday
Apr. 7, 1915 – Jul. 17, 1959 |
“I listened to this girl, and I just couldn’t believe my ears that here was a singer who sounded like an instrumentalist, like one of the most advanced instrumentalists there had ever been. So I started talking to Billie, and Billie had had a fairly checkered career by then. She’d been in jail and everything. And Billie had already been arrested for prostitution at 14.” —John Hammond
Billie Holiday is considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time. Her life and legacy is marked by both her musical genius and tempestuous times.
Lisa "Left Eye" LopesLisa “Left Eye” Lopes
Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes
May 27, 1971 – Apr. 25, 2002 |
“People didn’t understand how much of a heart she really had and how passionate and giving she was. She might have come across as someone who wanted to start trouble all the time, but that wasn’t it; she just had a lot to say. Sometimes when you speak what’s on your mind — I’m talking everything on your mind, and people can get a misconception of you. So because she spoke her mind, all of the time, it caused people to misjudge her.” —Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas
Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was one-third of the all-female 1990s group TLC, and is best remembered for her raps and in-your-face attitude concerning sex politics and gender roles.
Dorothy DandridgeDorothy Dandridge
Nov. 9, 1922 – Sept. 8, 1965 |
“Dorothy Dandridge really pushed for her career and the problem with these powerful men was that they wanted something else from her. She was not going to be this kept woman. She was not going to be the little doll on the shelf.” —Donald Bogle
Dorothy Dandridge – Oscar-nominated actress, known for her striking beauty – had a career of a charismatic leading lady that was ultimately curtailed by racism, sexism and personal problems during the ’50s.
Maya AngelouMaya Angelou
Apr. 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014 |
She brought an understanding of the dilemmas and dangers and exhilarations of black womanhood more to the fore than almost any autobiographer before her time. She challenged assumptions about what was possible for a poor black girl from the South, and she emerged as a figure of courage, honesty and grace. —Arnold Rampersad
Maya Angelou is an author, a poet and civil rights activist, whose encounters with bigotry, sexual assault and childhood trauma informed much of her work—both award-winning and critically acclaimed.
Audre LordeAudre Lorde
Feb. 18, 1934 – Nov. 17, 1992 |
Audre Lorde claimed and celebrated all of her selves in order that others could come to find their own voices. Her poetry and prose demonstrate that we need not be afraid of difference, that difference can be a creative force for change. At the forefront of black feminist thought, her work has contributed to an analysis of the interlocking nature of all oppression. As activist and poet, she worked to challenge and transform power relations. —Ann Trapasso
The incomparable Audre Lorde dedicated her life and her writer’s talent to tackling and addressing the injustices of sexism, racism and homophobia.
Sara GómezSara Gómez
Nov. 8, 1942 – Jun. 2, 1974 |
In an industry dominated by men, Gomez’s presence was a brazen challenge to the status quo… Gomez was the first female Cuban filmmaker in the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), and her intimate portrayals of women in Cuban society sparked an important cinematic dialogue which continues to this day. —Adrienne Rochetti
Throughout her career as a filmmaker and community advocate, Gomez made it her duty to capture and document the culture and traditions of Afro-Cuban life and women.
Yuri KochiyamaYuri Kochiyama
May 19, 1921 – Jun. 1, 2014 |
“Most people make life; some people make history. Yuri organized her life around making history. I think of her as a very ordinary person, who’s done extraordinary things.” —Diane C. Fujino
Most notable for her developing a relationship with Malcolm X upon joining his Organization of Afro-American Unity, Yuri Kochiyama is remembered as a teacher and activist who fought tirelessly for the rights of African American, Latinos and Asians.
Amalia HernándezAmalia Hernández
Sept. 1, 1917 – Nov. 5, 2000 |
“[Hernández] is the first Mexican who has reached a world audience through the performing arts. Then there are those who feel she has misrepresented the culture, that she does not put folk dance on stage in its original form.” —Gema Sandoval
One of Mexico’s most influential women and pioneering choreographer, Amalia Hernandez, is credited with creating the famed Ballet Folklorico. Her legacy is not without controversy, namely for transforming traditional country folk dances into more flamboyant, theatrical numbers.
Jenni RiveraJenni Rivera
Jul. 2, 1969 – Dec. 9, 2012 |
“We realized that no [Latin] celebrity in recent times, not even a politician, has received that kind of coverage. The interest in Jenni illustrates that there was this momentum, a major force. People will continue looking for her in one form or another.” —Victor Gonzalez
For years, media outlets like Billboard, The New York Times and CNN have lauded Rivera as one of the most important female figures and top selling artist in Mexican music.
Zora Neale HurstonZora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston
Jan. 7, 1891 – Jan. 28, 1960 |
“People are still reading Zora Neale Hurston because she knew how to strike that balance. She has empathy for her characters, she is deeply knowing, but she never sanitizes or romanticizes them. She lets them be real, and we see ourselves in them as a result.” —Angela Flournoy
Zora Neale Hurston is hailed as an anthropologist, a novelist and fixture of the Harlem Renaissance even prior to authoring her masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God.