Audre Lorde: A Woman Who Brought Intersectionality to the Forefront

By Becca Howe, TRJ Parent

Audre Lorde was a Black poet, essayist, and activist, whose work is celebrated for its honesty, raw emotion, and powerful imagery. She has had a profound impact on literature, feminism and resilience, especially her consistent emphasis on the importance of recognizing the interconnected nature of different forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Known now as intersectionality, Lorde’s insights have had a profound impact on contemporary discussions of social justice and activism.

Lorde was born on February 18, 1934, in New York City, and was legally blind from birth. She did not speak until she learned to read at age four. She grew up in Harlem, known for its rich cultural history and vibrant community, which played a significant role in shaping Lorde’s identity and worldview, as it was a center of African American culture and activism during her formative years. 

Through her work, Lorde gave voice to the experiences of marginalized individuals, and she often explored themes of disability and self-acceptance. She challenged dominant narratives and advocated for social change. Lorde was known for her warmth, empathy and ability to connect with others. She was a mentor and inspiration to many, especially within the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities.

A quote from her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” expresses a contemporary theme that many people today are unpacking in their own lives: “Your silence will not protect you.” This powerful statement encapsulates Lorde’s belief in the importance of speaking out against injustice and oppression. She emphasized the need for marginalized individuals to use their voices to challenge systems of power and advocate for change, even in the face of resistance or fear.

In 1978, Lorde spoke at the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas. Her powerful speech titled, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” became one of her most famous and influential works. In this speech, Lorde addressed issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism within the feminist movement, calling for greater inclusivity and solidarity among women of different backgrounds. Her speech challenged the predominantly white and middle-class feminist movement to recognize and address the intersecting oppressions faced by women of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and other marginalized groups. Lorde’s contribution to the conference marked a pivotal moment in the feminist movement, sparking important conversations about diversity, intersectionality, and social justice that continue to resonate today.


Black Excellence: Taraji P. Henson – Actress

By April Dinwoodie, TRJ's Executive Director

Taraji P. Henson began her professional acting career in the late 90’s after graduating from HBCU, Howard University. For nearly three decades she has lite up our screens with her talent and grace. She has won a Golden Globe Award as well as being nominated for an Academy Award and four Primetime Emmy Awards.

Taraji made her film debut in the crime film Streetwise (1998), gained recognition for her role in Hustle & Flow (2005). For her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button she earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. In 2016, she portrayed mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures. She has also acted in Baby Boy (2001), The Karate Kid (2010), Think Like a Man (2012), Acrimony (2018), What Men Want (2019), and The Best of Enemies (2019). Henson has also been prolific in television acting. From 2011 to 2013, she co-starred as Joss Carter in the CBS drama series Person of Interest. From 2015 to 2020, she starred as Cookie Lyon in the Fox drama series Empire, for which she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Drama and was nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards in 2015 and 2016. Her other Emmy-nominated roles were for the Lifetime movie Taken from Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story (2011) and for her guest role in the ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary (2023). In 2016, Time named Henson one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Later that year, she released a New York Times best-selling autobiography titled Around the Way Girl. In 2019, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Most recently, Taraji stars in the Color Purple playing Shug Avery, the beautiful, vivacious, and flamboyant blues singer. For this role, Henson adds singer to her list of gifts and talents she shares with the world. During the media interviews for the film, Henson has been vocal about the heavy lift that professional Black women have in Hollywood (and generally) and the inequities in pay they face. “I’m just tired of working so hard, being gracious at what I do, getting paid a fraction of the cost,” Henson told Gayle King on December 19. “I’m tired of hearing my sisters say the same thing over and over. You get tired. I hear people go, ‘You work a lot.’ I have to.”

The beauty, strength and grace from Taraji P. Henson is Black excellence personified and there are so many reasons to hold her up as an example for us all.


Black Excellence: Jason Reynolds

By TRJ Parent Rebecca Howerd

Jason Reynolds is a highly acclaimed and influential author known for his impactful contributions to contemporary literature, particularly for youth, as well as his activism and his approachability and service to kids and young adults. Born in 1983 outside Washington, D.C., Reynolds has risen to prominence for his ability to authentically capture the experiences of Black youth in America while dismantling stereotypes and creating empathy and positive self- and societal perceptions of Blackness.

Reynolds started writing poetry when he was nine years old, inspired by Queen Latifa’s third album, Black Reign. Rap would continue to be his primary form of literary inspiration, because at the time there weren’t books about contemporary black youth experience, and for Reynolds, Rap gave him a sense of existence: “Rap music . . . let me know that who I already was was good enough.”

Reynold’s books, often written in verse, create a sense of connection and empowerment by portraying relatable characters living ordinary lives and facing issues that Black youth often grapple with and don’t often seen portrayed in “classic” literature.

Reynolds has actively advocated for increased diversity in literature and has been vocal about the need for more inclusive narratives. He emphasizes the importance of having stories that reflect the richness and diversity of the Black experience and has worked to promote literacy, frequently engaging with young readers through school visits, speaking engagements and initiatives to make literature more accessible.

For more on this phenomenal game-changer, listen to his interview with Trevor Noah here:

https://www.cc.com/video/avk8pe/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-jason-reynolds-serving-young-readers-with-long-way-down


Black Excellence: Marcus Samuelsson

By TRJ Parent Rebecca Howerd

Marcus Samuelsson is a renowned chef, restaurateur, and author who has made a significant impact on the culinary world. Born in Ethiopia in 1971, he and his sister were adopted and raised in Sweden by parents who taught him confidence and humility. Samuelsson's empowering perspective on the power of blackness has given him the motivation and strength to stand out among his peers, while his multicultural background has been a driving force behind his innovative and diverse approach to food.

After honing his skills in several European restaurants, Samuelsson moved to the United States, where he gained prominence and has become widely recognized for his commitment to celebrating the rich tapestry of flavors and culinary traditions from around the world, blending his African, Swedish, and American influences into his cooking.

Samuelsson is a prolific author of books including a memoir, "Yes, Chef," which chronicles his journey from losing his mother to a tuberculosis epidemic that swept their village to becoming a celebrated chef and TV personality in the United States. As a Black chef in a predominantly White culinary industry, he has confronted challenges related to racism and discrimination, and he has used his platform to address these issues. Samuelsson has spoken about the disparities in opportunities and recognition that Black chefs and culinary professionals face, and throughout his career Samuelsson has worked to create opportunities for underrepresented groups in the culinary world.

Samuelsson uses food as a way to bridge cultural gaps and challenge stereotypes, and believes that his passion for cooking and the respect for hard work his parents taught him have helped him rise above the insecurities that can come from navigating life as a transracially adopted, Black, African immigrant.

By openly addressing racism, celebrating diversity, and advocating for change, Marcus Samuelsson has not only become a respected and influential chef but also a role model for those who aspire to overcome obstacles and contribute to a more inclusive and equitable world.

Learn more:

Watch Marcus Samuelsson speak with April and friend Louis Johnson in this powerful interview: Talking Adoption, Identity, and Family with Chef Marcus Samuelsson and guest-host Louis Johnson Jr.


Black Excellence: Eartha Kitt

By TRJ Parent Rebecca Howerd

Eartha Kitt is known for popularizing the iconic Christmas song, “Santa Baby,” as well as her role as Catwoman in the 1960s tv show, Batman. But she was so much more. Her career spanned almost 70 years, and most of those were during a time when racism and sexism created insurmountable obstacles for any Black and Native American woman pursuing a career of any kind.

Born in 1927 in South Carolina. Her mother was a Black and Cherokee sharecropper and her father, the white son of the plantation owner, did not seek a consensual relationship with her mother. Kitt picked cotton before moving to Harlem when she was 16, where she became a dancer and toured with the Katherine Dunham Company for five years.

Eartha Kitt wore a literal mask in her role as Catwoman, but how many other invisible masks did she wear in her life? Code switching is a form of masking that many find helpful while navigating workplaces and social gatherings where respectability politics control whether or not you will encounter discrimination.

Kitt went on to perform on Broadway, become a popular singer and recording artist, be nominated for two Tony Awards, write three autobiographies, and was an actor and voice actor in film and tv right up until just before her death in 2008. It’s impossible to endure the rejection (perceived or real) of a parent, the violence and discrimination caused by racism and sexism, and grow as a creative public figure without hiding parts of yourself nearly constantly in some way. But Eartha Kitt also generously took her masks off in order to advocate for marginalized groups, despite intense political and economic consequences. Most notable are her ongoing public support of the LGBTQ+ community as well as the time when she spoke against the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon in 1968. These remarks effectively ended her career in the United States for ten years, during which time her LGBT supporters kept her name alive.

Kitt performed in numerous nightclubs and was active in Civil Rights communities throughout her life. Eartha Kitt was a strong, independent artist unwilling to let discrimination dictate how far she could go.

Each person in the transracial adoption community has potentially many intersections of identity to navigate in a world that often does not honor all of them at once, and at times none at all. When is it good to have a mask on and use it as a tool? For preserving energy, for protection or for art or even just for fun?

Learn more:
When Eartha Kitt Condemned Poverty and War at the White House
1982 Documentary: All By Myself, The Eartha Kitt Story
NYT Obituary: Eartha Kitt, A Seducer of Audiences, Dies at 81

 


Black Excellence: Sharon G. Flake

Sharon Flake b. 1955 in Philadelphia, PA

Award-winning author, Sharon Flake didn’t get her start as a writer. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a BA in English, she went to work for several years in foster care as a house parent. She later went to work in the public relations department at the University of Pittsburgh Press followed by a directorship in the public relations department for the University of Pittsburgh’s business school.

As a student and later in her career, Ms. Flake coped with apprehension related to her writing (spelling and grammar) but she persevered and wrote articles and stories which she submitted to publishers. These attempts were mostly rejected until after fifteen years of working to be printed or published, Ms. Flake’s first book “The Skin I’m In” was picked from a “slush” pile of manuscripts by Andrea Davis Pinkney. This book went on to win the Coretta Scott King Award, YWCA racial justice award and many, many more accolades.

On her website, Ms. Flake writes:

"I am so much like many of my readers. I grew up insecure; not very confident. Yet here I am, one of the top authors for young people in the world.

I write about everyday, average teens who are loved and cheered on by readers on six continents. My characters fall down, get up and learn life lessons that help readers believe they too can achieve anything; make it through any storm. Quirky. Honest. Open.. Vulnerable. My characters get young people of all backgrounds reading as never before."

Ms. Flake has authored several books with two more on the way.


Black Excellence: Victor Hugo Green

Victor Hugo Green and The Travelers’ Green Book

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”

Born in Manhattan, New York City in 1892, Victor Hugo Green grew up to become a postal carrier with the U.S. postal service. He married Alma Duke, a woman from Richmond, Virginia, and they settled in Harlem at the same time the Harlem Renaissance was blossoming.

Mr. Green had spent most of his life in Hackensack, NJ and in New York City, but after his marriage, he began to travel to Richmond with his wife. He then realized the need to find safe places to stay, eat, use the toilet and put gas in his car while on his travels, and he realized a lot of other people had this same need too. It was then, he had the idea of creating a small guidebook to not only support Black-owned businesses, but also to support the safety of Black travelers and holiday-goers in the United States.

“He found a model for his publication in the guides for Jewish travelers that appeared in Jewish newspapers.” His first installation of the “Green Book” appeared as “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in 1936. The first edition was a small, 15-page booklet which listed businesses that were Black-owned and/or friendly to Black travelers and diners. It included places to stay and places to eat. “By the early 1940s, thousands of establishments nationwide - identified as either black-owned or verified to be non-discriminatory - were listed in the Green Book.”

Over the years, the guide grew to cover much more territory in the United States as well as as places in Canada and Europe. Using the nationwide help of fellow postal carriers, he used their input to expand and promote safe travel for Black people in the Jim Crow era.

“By the early 1940s, thousands of establishments nationwide - identified as either black-owned or verified to be non-discriminatory - were listed in the Green Book.” Although the guide ceased publication during WWII, it was re-started and eventually grew to have a print run of 15,000 copies per year. Mr. Green died in 1960, but his wife continued as editor publishing the guide until its cessation in 1966.

You can watch a short video about the impact of The Green Book and some of the experiences of Black travelers in the 20th century here: The real story of the Green Book.


Black Excellence: James Weldon Johnson

A predominant figure of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871 to a middle class, African American family in the progressive city of Jacksonville, Florida.

One of his most famous writings is the lyric to the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which he wrote in 1900 to commemorate President Lincoln’s birthday. In 1919, the NAACP claimed this song as the Negro national anthem. Now considered the Black National Anthem, it was initially written as a poem. When put to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson, it became the hymn we now know it by today. Recently, the hymn was sung for the first time at a Superbowl (February, 2023) by African American performer Sheryl Lee Ralph.

Over the course of his life, Johnson accumulated many achievements as an author (The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man), a statesman in international politics, a leader in the ranks of the NAACP, as the first African American professor at NYU, as the first Black lawyer admitted to the Florida state bar after the Reconstruction era and as a lifelong advocate for civil rights.

He tragically died in a railroad accident in 1938 while on vacation in Maine. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Lift Every Voice and Sing Lyrics


Black Excellence: Maya Angelou – April 4, 1928-May 20, 2014

I am a woman phenomenally, phenomenal woman that is your grandmother, that is your mother, that is your sister, that is you and that is me.”

Mlack Excellence Maya Angelou

Poet, author, singer, dancer, activist, playwright and director Maya Angelou nee Marguerite Ann Johnson was born April 4, 1928. Over the span of her life and career, she accomplished many things, but the list of her extraordinary accomplishments may have started in San Francisco where, as a girl of 15, she became the first female African American streetcar conductor! Close to the end of her life, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 by President Barack Obama.

One of her most notable works was her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” which begins with the story of her life in Stamps, Arkansas where she was raised with her brother Bailey by their grandmother for part of their childhood. Angelou overcame almost insurmountable hurdles in childhood throughout her life to become one of the most important voices of American history. She is thought by many to be a “symbol of strength and leadership for the plight of women and the underprivileged.”


Black Excellence: Martin Luther King, Jr formerly known as Michael Luther King, Jr

This month’s Black Excellence piece concerns famous African Americans who either changed their names or had their names changed by someone else.

With your child, choose someone from this list and try to do a little independent research on that individual and the names they’ve had. Have a conversation with your family about these name changes and why they happened. After that, have a conversation about your own names, their meanings and the reasons why any of your names may have changed. You’ll discover that people change their names for many different reasons.

Did you know Martin Luther King, Jr’s name was changed when he was five years old? His father, for whom he was named, made a visit to a Baptist World Alliance convention in Berlin, Germany in 1934. While there, he learned about the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. King Sr was so impressed by Martin Luther that he changed his name from Michael to Martin. Even though Martin Jr’s name was changed when he was five, his birth certificate wasn’t amended until he was 28!

Note: If you have the TRJ Conversations cards, they can guide you in these discussions about names. Stay tuned for a new and improved edition of June in April conversation cards coming soon!

See April's Conversation Cards