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During the Christmas break I had a chance to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario on the last day of the esteemed Anthropocene photography exhibit before moving on to its next destination. As a once frequent visitor, I used to live a block or two away from the gallery twenty years ago, I was glad to see that through time not much had changed in the neighborhood. It was a busy day with lots of bodies crammed in the showroom crowding around each photographic installment and although I didn’t have the time nor the space to make an intimate connection with each photographic image, on the whole I was happy to have had the chance to personally view the collection. My friend Anne who is a patron of the arts and an AGO member hosted my visit inviting me to once again as I frequently once did twenty years ago walk through the various exhibition rooms to view the colorful collections housed within the gallery walls.
Anne was particularly excited to show me Mickalene Thomas’ exhibit: Femme Noires where she had attended the opening reception just days before and met the artist, enjoyed viewing the works in a warm and inviting atmosphere. Up in the elevators to the fifth floor and as you approach the exhibit you are greeted by a 15ft’ tall five wood-paneled multimedia art piece – a bold statement telling you that what you are about to see in her showcase is a series of sensual, sexually artistic, intelligent and creative strong black women. The collection maintained it’s warm and inviting with a living room style atmosphere of rugs sprawled across the floor, stacks of books and magazines from the artists’ personal collection, plush chairs and even household plants littered throughout the room! Clearly the artist doesn’t want you to just look and leave but to stay soaking in all the subtleties of her expression.
Immediately I was drawn to a 5 paneled video display of five black women looking the same singing the same song. They seemed vaguely familiar, and as I approached the panels for a closer view why look well if it’s Eartha Kitt who caught my eye and once I established contact I was drawn to her singing, I just stood there watching her sing Black Angels. Strong, stunningly beautiful with a graceful simplicity of natural make up, slightly tossed hair staring into the eye of the video camera as she sang, I was struck by her fearless vulnerability as a tear or two began to swell down her face. The song seemed upbeat the subject a little sad but nothing to emote in such a way as she did and then her eyes and as her moist tears glistened in the light it soon began to tell a whole different story; clearly there’s way more to this lady than just song and dance and I’ve gotta find out what that is!
“In essence, I’m a sophisticated cotton picker.” ~ Eartha Kitt
Eartha Mae Kitt; born in 1927 in South Carolina from an out-of-wedlock relationship; her father was a white man and her mother was African-American and Cherokee. Her mother abandoned her and left her in the care of some relatives where she would grow up in an abusive home often picked on and teased because of her mixed heritage. At the age of 8, Eartha was removed from the unhealthy home environment to live with her aunt in New York City. Kitt was later enrolled in the New York School of Performing Arts, then at the age of 16 she won a scholarship to study with Katherine Dunham and once her scholarship was completed she later joined Dunham’s dance troupe. Kitt toured with the troupe for several years before breaking off to do solo work in Paris nightclubs until she was discovered by actor-director Orson Welles.
“I never identified with anybody. I have always been very sensitive about my color, because everybody called me ‘yellow gal’. I was caught in between both sides – nobody wanted me. I love that my audience is there, but I always feel as though I have to fend for myself.” ~ Eartha Kitt
Orson Welles immediately took towards Kitt and casted her as Helen of Troy in his production of Dr. Faustus. Her career began its ascent to the stars with her appearance in the Broadway review New Faces of 1952. “In the production, she sang “Monotonous.” Her performance helped launch her music career with the release of her first album in 1954. The recording featured such signature songs as “I Want to Be Evil” and “C’est Si Bon,” as well as the perennially holiday classic “Santa Baby.””
“On the big screen, Kitt starred opposite Nat “King” Cole in the W. C. Handy biopic St. Louis Blues (1958). She netted her one and only Academy Award nomination the following year, for her role as the title character in Anna Lucasta. In the film, Kitt plays a sassy young woman who is forced to use her womanly wiles to survive. She stars opposite Sammy Davis Jr.
In the late 1960s, Kitt played one of her most famous parts—the villainous vixen “Catwoman.” She took over the role, on the TV series Batman, from Julie Newmar. Remarkably, Kitt only played Catwoman on a handful of episodes of the short-lived campy crime show, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, but she made the role her own with her lithe, cat-like frame and her distinctive voice. The series found a second life in reruns, and it remains on the air today. ” [Biography.com]
Active in numerous social causes in the 50s and through the 60s Kitt managed to establish a youth non-profit foundation for underprivileged youth in the Watts area of Los Angeles. In Washington, D.C. in the Anacostia area she involved herself with a group that called themselves “Rebels with a Cause”. Their “cause” was to clean up the streets and establish recreation areas in effort to keep young kids out of trouble. Kitt provided her assistance by testifying on their behalf before the House General Subcommittee on Education of the Committee on Education and Labor. Soon after the group was successful in attaining some funding to continue the project.
In the early years Kitt was definitely a rising star and almost a house hold name in entertainment. Then came the “show-stopper” or I should say “career-stopper”.
“We’re not thought of in terms of color because we are entertainers. We are there to entertain you not because we are black, white, pink, or green or gay or straight or because we are Catholic or Protestant” ~ Eartha Kitt
In the book Second Sex, which is often considered the feminist bible, Simone de Beauvoir writes about race relations “…But there are deep analogies between the situation of women and blacks both enslaved and liberated today for the same paternalism, and the former master caste wants to keep them “in their place”, that is the place chosen for them, in both cases they praise, more or less sincerely, the virtues of the “good black” the carefree, childlike merry soul, of the resigned black, and the woman who is a “true woman” frivolous, infantile, irresponsible, the woman subjected to man. In both cases, the ruling casts basis its arguments on the state of affairs it created itself. The familiar line from George Bernard sums it up: The White American relegates the black to the rank of shoe-shine boy and then concludes that blacks are only good for shining shoes. The same vicious circle can be found in all analogous circumstances; when an individual or a group is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is that he or they are inferior.”
Growing up in the ‘school of hard knocks’ one tends to develop a unique outwardly view of the world. For Eartha, her blunt vulnerability, sometime short temper and her plain spoken frankness – you quickly catch on that she’s not one to mince her words. In 1968, Kitt was invited to an all-women’s luncheon at the White House hosted by President Lindon Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson. During the course of the luncheon Kitt became vocal about her criticism of the Vietnam War, its connection to poverty and racial unrest of her time and its effect on the youth.
“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the streets. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they will be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”
This statement upset the First Lady and caused her to cry. Later on during a Q&A session Kitt began to apologize for her previous statement, but ended the apology by saying:
“The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons—and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson—we raise children and send them to war.” (huffingtonpost.com).
Kitt was not at the time aware of what a severe impact these statements would have on her career. Lady Bird Johnson was offended by the remarks, which was later shared by President Johnson. “For years afterward, Miss Kitt was blacklisted in the U.S. and was forced to work abroad in Europe and Asia, where her status remained undiminished.” It wasn’t until 1975 when Kitt learned the reason for her stalled career, when unbeknownst to her it was discovered that she under surveillance and had a CIA file in her name. The New York Times also discovered the CIA file and Ms. Kitt granted them permission to print portions of the report simply because she had nothing to hide.
“When the people who are responsible for our country ask you a direct question, I expect them to accept a direct answer, not to be blackballed because you are telling the truth.” ~ Eartha Kitt
Ms. Kitt joined the ranks of politically active public figures during her time; Mohammed Ali is a very good example of what happens when a black person dares to step outside the bounds that ‘the master caste has chosen’ for them. In 1968, with all the civil unrest, I suppose one could somewhat agree with Ms. De Beauvoir’s statement that ‘the ruling casts basis its arguments on the state of affairs it created itself’. But thanks to the civil rights movements and others that have come after them why, in 2019, are we still facing these issues? In terms of those whom we send off to war and those at home who speak up about it? These are very legitimate and pressing questions that should provoke thought and a contemplative answer. When someone decides to stand up they are usually acting out of their own lived experiences of what they have seen and been through, lived through and shared by their neighbors and peers. But those who are in a dominant position, with access to symbolic and institutional power, are somehow able to define social norms and sanction those who deviate from them. There is an underlying idea: there is one group, “us”, with perceived privileges and rights that are of superior interest, and there is another group, “them”, perceived as a threat to existing privileges and security.
Colin Kaepernick is a good modern example. Taking cues and lessons learned from his predecessors Kaepernick didn’t stand up, he knelt. Kapernick didn’t yell and shout slogans, he was silent in his protest. Yet, his fate remained the same. Michael Jackson being the first black superstar post-civil-rights era and Prince was a black man in America who owned his sexuality without collapsing into the hyper-masculinity that white racism has often imposed on black men. Both artists were highly reclusive, and experienced difficulty with their record companies as they fought and won over the industry, fans and public alike; both are questioned about their sexuality -as was with Kitt.
Prince was also recognized fairly early as someone who was reshaping perceptions of black culture and black manhood. Michael Jackson was literally walking in the shoes that no Black person has ever walked in before. It’s cool being a song and dance man. That’s what they want. But, don’t dare become a thinking businessman. Don’t dare beat the record industry at their own game. Michael started being labeled as “crazy” when he began making business moves that no one had been successful at doing. A Black man with no real formal education becomes the most powerful man in the industry. Despite hatred, racism, enemies in both artists’ own camps and a media willing to be bought to the highest bidder, they both broke barriers, smashed stereotyping, and crushed those who tried to discriminate.
Which brings me back to Simone de Beauvoir are black people still viewed as the shoe-shiners who do are good for nothing excepting entertaining and shining shoes? Look at sports and the entertainment industry that is predominantly black, but look to the categories of science, mathematics, philosophy (etc.) – I know there’s prominent black individuals but we don’t hear much about their accomplishments. If a black woman was an entertainer but want to change her career into something completely different; can she? Is she allowed to? Or will the master caste put her back into “her place” and keep her in a place of inferiority for daring to stretch beyond what she has accomplished.
Eartha Kitt’s on screen persona became sort of an occupational hazard in the sense that she earned a reputation of a ”sex kitten” and being a bit of a gold digger. To this she said: “People in general are used to seeing me as the naughty girl because that’s what they’ve always cast me as.” Marilyn Monroe had the same problem with stereotypes. Kitt continues “I don’t sing naughty songs. Innocence is one of the most exciting things in the world. When I sing something like ‘I Wanna Be Evil‘, I’m not trying to indicate an adult evil. It’s a little-girl mischief, like going out and throwing stones at windows.”
Asked recently to define her sensual appeal, she replied, “In the old days they called it “IT”. It’s something you’re born with, there’s nothing you can do about it. I play with my sensuality because of who I am. I love teasing men. We don’t have much of the teasing factor anymore because of feminism. God, it drives me nuts. Men don’t flirt with us anymore. They don’t tease us because it’s called harassment. I used to love it when I walked down the street and construction workers would whistle.” [Independent]
Kitt definitely had “IT” and while yes she had a sensual appeal that’s not what made her “IT” radiate. I bet hands down Kitt was a descendent of Nubian royalty. You see it here and there among a few black individuals. A regal-ness, a sense of royalty that transcends color, race, or creed. There’s manufactured “IT” and I won’t give examples of manufactured black “IT” women because they, as talented as they are, still do service to the black community.
“I don’t carry myself as a black person but as a woman that belongs to everybody. After all, it’s the general public that made me – not any one particular group. So I don’t think of myself as belonging to any particular group and never have.”
What I’m talking about is something different, its spirit bound of past lives going back centuries and centuries. I was reminded about this at last year’s (2018) NDP’s Black History Month Toronto’s celebrations with this awesome African-born poet who laid down some serious words imploring us to remember who we were before we were slaves – we need to go that far back because as a race that’s the way we move forward. The energy I’m talking about is an energy that remind us ebony people that we were (and are) more than just slaves (and entertainers) – that’s not our history, well at least it wasn’t supposed to be our history. But it’s not our full history. We need to stretch back and beyond farther to remember who we were before we became slaves living as Emperors and Empresses, Kings and Queens, before the 1st Dynasty of Egypt.
We were powerful, we were strong, we were mighty, we were smart, we were respected, we stood up and were encouraged to stand up tall and proud and that’s what we need to remember and that’s what we need to teach our children. That’s the energy of Eartha Kitt, Mohammed Ali, Josephine Baker, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Nina Simone, Angela Bassett, Bell Hooks, Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama, Viola Davis and so many more. You get the sense of regal-ness an unapologetic greatness because they are channeling the powers and wisdom of our Nubian ancestry begging us to remember who we really are – because only then as a race we will then find our true everlasting emancipation.
Kitt made a comeback in the United States with the stage musical Timbuktu! (1978), a remake of Kismet featuring an all-black cast. Other Broadway productions include The Wild Party (2000) and Nine (2003). In addition, Kitt continued to perform in nightclubs and films and on recordings until her death, and she received two Daytime Emmy Awards (2007 and 2008) for providing the voice of the scheming Yzma in the children’s television program The Emperor’s New School. She also did voice work for numerous other film and TV productions. Her autobiographies are Thursday’s Child (1956), Alone with Me (1976), and I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1989).
Throughout her adult life, Kitt had a tremendous work ethic. She kept up a busy work schedule well into her 70s. For many years, Kitt performed her cabaret act at New York’s Cafe Carlyle. She continued to wow audiences as she had so many decades before, when she was the toast of Paris. With her voice, charm and sex appeal, Kitt knew how to win over a crowd.
Eartha Kitt died from Colon Cancer on December 25, 2008.
View: Image Gallery
View: Image Gallery
Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires is the first large-scale solo exhibition by this African-American contemporary artist to be staged in Canada. It will spark timely and urgent conversations about race, representational politics, Black celebrity culture and sexuality as seen through a Black queer feminist perspective.