Maya Angelou To Queen Latifah: Black History Month Tribute
As Black History Month draws to a close, it would be remiss of me to not highlight a group of inimitable African-American “Boss Ladies” who’ve unknowingly guided my personal and professional growth for so many years, inspiring and shaping me with their bravado, earthiness, warmth and spirit. The names in this post could stretch out into pages but here’s a special toast to my favorite five.
When I first read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as a 12-year-old, my life changed forever. Never before had I been so drawn to someone’s story and as I turned each page, I realized writing—a skill I continue to work on to this day—is catharsis for even the most tragic of times. Whether documenting her own life (growing up in poverty, surviving abuse, touring the world as a dancer, working with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and so much more) or creating words for others, Maya Angelou, 82, is arguably the greatest memoirist of our time. Her themes of identity, family and racism resonate with all women via her breathtaking six autobiographical volumes and her poetry (start with The Complete Collected Poems Of Maya Angelou, if you haven’t already). Perhaps the greatest lesson she’s taught through her work (quoting her own words) is “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Is there a woman in media not inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s journey? Lady O’s the living definition of turning tragedy into triumph. At 57-years-old she’s been ranked the richest African-American of the 20th century, the greatest black philanthropist in American history and was once the world’s only black billionaire. Most important to me, however, she’s described as warm, humble and poignant to this day—words rarely, if ever, associated with a powerful woman. Her work ethic should be taught in schools and her brave move to turn the Oprah Winfrey Show‘s focus to spirituality and self-help at the height of its success (when it was competing with grubbier talk shows like Ricki Lake, etc.) was a career-defining moment. She credits Maya Angelou as one of her guiding forces and just like mentor, she’s survived poverty in the South (rural Mississippi), child abuse (her cousin, uncle and a family friend) and other hardships to become queen of all media in film (The Color Purple, Beloved and more) television (now with her OWN cable channel), radio (Sirius/XM), publishing (O magazine), philanthropy and so much more.
Jada Pinkett Smith
When Jada scored the lead role in Set It Off (1996), it was a wrap for me. Sure, I loved her in A Different World, A Low Down Dirty Shame, The Inkwell and of course, Jason’s Lyric. But no other role defined her as much as playing Lida “Stony” Newsom, a vulnerable yet über-tough girl from around the way, whose by-any-means-necessary attitude clashed strongly with her better conscious, setting her apart from the other strong female characters in the film. Jada’s high school friendship with the rebellious Tupac Shakur and subsequent marriage to clean-cut (yet equally manly) Will Smith enthralled me, because both men represented a shift in her own growth that was not unlike my own. When Will once described his wife and the mother of his children Willow and Jaden as “An 11 on a scale of one to ten; White House to the ghetto, she fit right in” on an episode of Oprah, I was convinced there could be no higher praise.
I once interviewed Vin Rock from legendary rap group Naughty By Nature and asked him who leaves him starstruck to this day. He instantly answered Queen Latifah, explaining that although they’ve worked together for over 20 years, the woman born Dana Owens continues to mesmerize him with her magnetism, success and spirit. A Hollywood bigwig with undeniable hip-hop roots (she released her first album, All Hail The Queen, as a 19-year-old in 1989) Latifah has espoused a regal mentality from the beginning of her career, encouraging young women to respect themselves and assert themselves in what’s often a man’s world. She’s a marketer’s dream with her CoverGirl line of cosmetics for women of color, L’Oreal contract, Jenny Craig spokesperson arrangement and new perfume, aptly named Queen. Always armed with a smile and never one to forget her humble beginnings, Latifah proves no matter where you’re from, what you look like or who you love, if you’re destined to be a star nothing can stop you.
Mary J. Blige
“I’m just Mary, just Mary, just Mary” she sings over and over, pleading with listeners to understand she’s a regular girl whose God-given gift and challenging life story has catapulted her forever into the hearts of so many women around the world. Mary J. Blige, 40, is the only artist with Grammy wins in R&B, Rap, Pop and Gospel categories, been deemed the most successful female R&B artist of the past 25 years by Billboard magazine and has sold over 50 million albums since the release of her seminal 1992 debut, What’s The 411? I was 12 when that album came out and, I must admit, I didn’t understand what it meant to be a maligned woman at such a young age. As I came into my teenage years (and even more so in my 20′s) Mary’s music became the soundtrack to my life. Her struggles with love, both in relationships and with herself, endeared her to a legion of fans, who then rejoiced when No More Drama (2001) kicked off a a stretch of positivity and hope that continues to this day. Currently working on her 10th studio album, Mary’s now also enjoying success with her perfume My Life (through Carol’s Daughter) and a line of sunglasses called Melodies by MJB.