Today marks a special anniversary for 3 African American women—Zora Neale Hurston, Thelma McQueen, and Marian Anderson. Hurston was born on January 7, 1891 in Nostasulga, Alabama. A graduate of Howard University, Barnard College, and Columbia University, Hurston was an anthropologist, folklorist, and author. She published 4 novels, more than 50 short stories, plays and essays, and is best known for her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Hurston traveled throughout the Caribbean and the South and studied the local cultural practices. She did research in lumber camps and noted the practice of powerful White men taking Black women as concubines. She documents this practice in her book “Mules and Men” (1935). Hurston’s pioneering work in anthropology underscored my own understanding that Black people have the right and responsibility to study, research and write about their own lives.
This is also the birthdate of Thelma McQueen. McQueen was born in 1911 and most of us know her by her stage name, “Butterfly McQueen.” McQueen played the iconic character, “Prissy” who was Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind.” But McQueen was more than a Black woman playing a maid. She was a part of the Katherine Dunham dance troupe and played roles in other films and TV shows. Although known for the “Gone With the Wind” role, she disliked it because she felt it demeaned African Americans. A little known fact about McQueen was that she attended the City College of New York.
Third, this day stands as the 60th anniversary of contralto Marian Anderson’s first appearance at the New York Metropolitan Opera. We know of Anderson’s famed appearance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow her to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. Although Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR because of their stance, Zora Neale Hurston criticized Eleanor Roosevelt’s public silence about the similar decision by the DC Board of Education to first deny, and then place race-based restrictions on a proposed concert by Marian Anderson.
On January 7, 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera where she sang in a Giuseppe Verde opera. In her own words Anderson stated, “The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch’s brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot.” Critical reports of that performance said that Anderson moved the audience to tears.
Stories of women like Hurston, McQueen, and Anderson rarely make for splashy headlines or juicy gossip. But, their stories help us understand the depth and beauty of Black women. They inspire us when we think our roads are too difficult or our paths are too rocky.
I love women like Hurston, McQueen, and Anderson because they didn’t follow a script or pattern as they pursued their dreams. They just did it the way that worked for them and they walked in beauty!
Stay Black & Smart!