From Beyoncé to Shonda Rhimes to Laverne Cox, African American women have a higher profile up and down our pop culture than at any time in the past. Of course, the past was not exactly rife with opportunity for women of color (any color), and no one’s declaring right now a golden age, either. African American women have a higher profile and a little more power. That’s about it for now, and where it goes from here, if writing and executive staffs can ever match the (slightly less inadequate) diversity of the performers, for example, will write the histories of today as a time of change or another false dawn.
The UIP offerings in this week’s Throwbacklist T. trace some of the careers that led African American women, and we their millions of admirers, to this moment.
From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, by Helen Walker-Hill
Exploding the assumption that black women’s only important musical contributions have been in folk, jazz, and pop, From Spirituals to Symphonies focuses on the effect of race, gender, and class, and notes the important role played by individual personalities and circumstances in shaping this under-appreciated category of American art. Helen Walker-Hill offers an in-depth exploration of eight African American artists including Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore, and Julia Perry. These women blended the techniques of Western art music with their own cultural traditions and individual gifts to create dazzling and unforgettable works that generated national and international acclaim in their lifetimes. Reclaiming these artists and their works from obscurity, Walker-Hill reintroduces a cache of breathtaking American music for modern audiences.
African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, by John O. Perpener III
Black artists of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s pioneered a bold and distinctly African American dance genre. John O. Perpener sets out in search of these seminal artists and their innovations in the contexts of African-American culture and American modern dance, and explores their creative synthesis of material from European-American, African-American, Caribbean, and African sources.
Perpener’s subjects include Hemsley Winfield, a versatile performer and director whose company, the New Negro Art Theatre, launched the careers of Edna Guy, Randolph Sawyer, and Ollie Burgoyne, among many others; Charles Williams, director of the Hampton Creative Dance Group; Asadata Dafora Horton, a native African and mastermind of the African Dance Troupe that was put up the famous “voodoo” Macbeth; Katherine Dunham, who combined anthropology with dance and founded two influential schools; and Pearl Primus, another dancer influenced by anthropology and founder of the African Arts Center in Monrovia, Liberia.
Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film, by Mia Mask
Dorothy Dandridge. Pam Grier. Whoopi Goldberg. Oprah Winfrey. Halle Berry. Each lit up the silver screen and television with an undeniable charismatic authority. Mia Mask shows how these five female stars deftly negotiated the uneven terrain of racial, gender, and class stereotypes by delving into five seminal, yet underanalyzed, films.
Mask considers Dandridge’s status as a sexual commodity in films such as Tamango, revealing the contradictory discourses regarding race and sexuality in segregation-era American culture. Grier’s feminist-camp performances in sexploitation pictures Women in Cages and The Big Doll House and her subsequent blaxploitation vehicles Coffy and Foxy Brown highlight a similar tension between representing African American women as both objectified stereotypes and powerful, self-defining icons. Mask reads Goldberg’s transforming habits in Sister Act and The Associate as representative of her unruly comedic routines, while Winfrey’s daily television performance as self-made, self-help guru echoes Horatio Alger’s narratives of success. Finally, Mask analyzes Berry’s meteoric success by acknowledging the ways in which Dandridge’s career made Berry’s possible.