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: 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

 


Books, Books and More Books featuring Black protagonists!

by Avril McInally and Vicki Richards

August is the month we prepare our children for going back to school and April’s August card for Facing and Embracing Differences of Race and Culture asks some introspective questions that might prepare our families for the school year to come.

  • What can you do to better prepare me for what I might face at school?
  • How do you think your experiences in school were different from mine?

To help us adults to remember and to introduce our children to a range of possibilities and experiences that might unfold for them in the academic year ahead, we choose to focus on differences of race and culture via our recently-launched Transracial Journeys Bibliography. This bibliography has been a year in the making and prepared for our families by myself (a professional adult librarian) and my friend and colleague Vicki Richards, a professional children’s librarian. From birth through adulthood, we’ve curated a collection of titles that share experiences (fictitiously and non-fictitiously) that touch on topics and stories shared from the perspective of African Americans.  Whenever we could find them, we also included stories and experiences of adoption, fostering, blended families, and LGBTQ+ people. There isn’t a lot out there about adoption, but there is more now than there has been in the past. Vicki and I are searching for more for next year’s bibliography.

In this Transracial Journeys Bibliography 2023, back-to-school and school themes are prevalent as stories like the following unfold:

  • Vanessa in “Becoming Vanessa” grapples with her name on the first day of school
  • “Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn” depicts a multicultural society experiencing the change of season
  • “Henry at Home” illustrates what happens between siblings when one of them leaves home for the first time to attend kindergarten
  • In “Class Act” we see our Black protagonist enter 9th grade in a mostly white school
  • Dax Devlon-Ross in “Letters to My White Male Friends” shares a lot about transitioning from an all Black school to an all white private school as a child in D.C.. His memoir imparts glimpses into racial situations our own children might be navigating but don’t want to talk about.

In most of the fiction for teens or young adults, there are lots of school scenarios depicting not only first love but also attending Black Lives Matter marches or children coping with racism and/or bullying.

Between us, Vicki and I have read every single title on this bibliography and either one or both of us has wholeheartedly endorsed the books that made it to our list. It’s in your hands to promote, support and share this growing, beautiful body of Black authors and illustrators. It’s in your power to create a reading experience for your children populated with bedtime stories, humor, comics, memoirs and literary experiences featuring Black characters and protagonists. There is a literary African American canon, unfolding and building momentum, of authors and illustrators we should be sharing with all of our children (Black and white). It would be a loss to not grow up experiencing the books of Kadir Nelson, Sharon Flake, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Sharon Draper, Kwame Alexander, Justin Reynolds, Jason Reynolds or L.L. McKinney to name a few.

It’s our hope that you not only share these titles with your children, but that you (the grown ups) read them too in order to get some insight into the landscapes our children navigate away from home and away from us (their parents, their teachers, their neighbors, etc.). We also would ask that you share these books with non Black or non adopted children and adults to help promote more understanding of the sometimes invisible challenges of racism or phobias our children encounter. These books help us get back to Facing and embracing differences of race and culture. Sometimes this embrace can be as simple as cracking open a book, turning the page and sharing it with a loved one.

With a love of and wonder in reading,

Vicki Richards and Avril McInally

(click here to open/print/download Transracial Journeys Bibliography 2023)

This post is from our August, 2023, newsletter. If you would like to get our newsletter in your inbox each month, as well as information about our annual Transracial Journeys Family Camp and our monthly Zoom call to provide support for our transracial adoption parents please subscribe.


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 – Kiese Laymon

Considered to have written one of the best 50 memoirs of the past 50 years by the New York Times, Kiese Laymon is an American author who is currently on the faculty at Rice University His memoir, “Heavy”, has received multiple accolades and awards including the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Award for Excellence. The autobiography is about growing up Black, bookish and overweight in an abusive home in Jackson, Mississippi.

Why write about Laymon for January’s Black Excellence? Well, last year, “Heavy” was chosen as one of the “15 Books to Read During Black History Month and Beyond” by the Innocence Project. To commemorate Black History Month this year, consider reading Laymon’s book.

Currently teaching at Rice University as the Libbie Shearn Moody Professor of Creative Writing and English, Professor Laymon also works with and founded the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts and Justice Initiative which promotes reading and writing with children in Mississippi.


Black Excellence: Serena Williams

Uppermost in the news today regarding tennis star, Serena Williams, is her very recent retirement from the sport. Over the course of her career, she has won 21 Grand Slams but now, she’s leaving her tennis career with plans to grow her family. “If I have to choose between building my tennis resume and building my family, I choose the latter.”

 

In a recent interview with Selena Gomes on her new website for mental health awareness, acceptance and support, Wondermind, Serena stated that you have to “put yourself first mentally”.

She detailed that for her, "mental fitness" is learning how to "shut down," and she said: "I have serious boundaries, and I don't let anyone cross those boundaries."

Related Posts:

Venus and Serena Williams – Black Excellence

Reveal: The Masks We See and Those We Don’t

Book Corner – Mental Health Month


Black Excellence: Colin Kaepernick and Nessa Diab

This month, Transracial Journeys would like to take the opportunity to feature Colin Kaepernick and Nessa Diab.

Colin is an American athlete and activist who is also adopted! He came to great prominence as the San Francisco 49er quarterback who kneeled during the national anthem at football games to protest police brutality towards Black people.

 

In 2016, Kap launched the non profit Know Your Rights Camp that teaches, supports and nourishes African American children to have a brighter future.

Nessa is a well known radio and TV host. She’s also an activist! She helped found the Know Your Rights Camp, hosts an annual prom for disadvantaged girls in New York City centered around female empowerment and launched a mentoring and scholarship program for girls too!

Congratulations to this powerful and beautiful duo on the arrival of their baby!

 

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