What We Lose book review

I have to admit I haven’t read in a while. Can you imagine how draining that is to a Bibliophile’s spirit? How could I have produced an entire web series about book lovers when I haven’t picked up a book in months, MONTHS?! Well, the short answer is, life happens and sometimes even the things you love have to be put on pause to deal with it. But I am proud to say the drought is over and I couldn’t have chosen a better book to get me back in the reading game.

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What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons looks at the complicated mother-daughter relationship and how the self-image of the latter is defined through the reflection of the former. Thandi is an undergraduate student when she suffers the loss of her mother. It is an experience that, understandably, erupts the world she once knew and catapults her into grief’s stratosphere. There we find her grappling with identity, love, loss, and life.

What we Lose is a story told in a fascinating intertextual way that rebukes traditional form and convention. Clemmons uses Biggie Smalls lyrics, pop cultural references, historical artifacts, and cultural footnotes to shape the international, intercultural, interracial reality of a young black girl straddling culture, society, and countries. Thandi’s evolution is paired alongside the evolution of her mother’s land of South Africa. Her relationship, affection, and memory of the country directly relate to her relationship with her mother through life and death. What we find is an intimate, diary-esque stream-of-conscious journey of a woman  trying to remember her mother, trying to make sense of the disease that killed her, and trying to make sense of her own self in the face of life’s traumas.

I found myself gripped immediately at the depth of Clemson’s succinct writing. Like a true millennial, she perfected the ability to convey such breadth in so few words. The impact is direct; her words hit you in all the vulnerable places one often shies from visiting. The novel’s structure is a sign of careful storytelling that is idiosyncratic yet so universal. While we may not all be able to relate to losing a mother, we surely can understand how omnipotent our mother’s presence is. We are often shaping ourselves from our hair to our morals in direct accordance with or rebellion of our mother’s. As daughters we are always seeking her approval yet turning askance at her judgement trying to hard to discover our individual selves while still aiming to be someone she can be proud of. These truths are never made more clear until the day we no longer have her voice to reassure as or her arms to comfort us, or her chastisement to guide us. I would argue that What We Lose is a meditation on that. It is a reflection of how we never stop needing our mothers, even when life takes her from us.

Clemmons takes us to that bridge we will all have to cross someday, with What We Lose she shows us what it is like to step into the land of lasting grief and how it will rock one to the core. What we learn is that life and death, gain and loss, happiness and sadness are all natural occurrences in this journey we’re traveling and while we lean on our parents to guide us through many of the dark times, there will come a day when we will have to learn to stand on our own.

Like the work of Lorraine Hansberry’s autobiography and Jean Toomer’s Cane, Clemmons blends genre, text, and discourse to bring us something greater than a story, she has delivered an irrevocable, life-altering experience.

Taking Her Time: A Reflection on Solange & A History of Black Women Creatives who Couldn’t Afford to

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I recently wrote a piece reflecting on the anomaly of Solange taking 4 years to create her latest album, A Seat at the Table. Historically, black women creatives have not had the luxury to take their time, so not only is Solange’s act subversive but it’s a cause for celebration.

Read the piece in its entirety at The Establishment

Women Who Write: Raven Starr

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’tve left you without a dope beat to step to, step to…

I’ve been gone for a minute, but I’m back with another profile on yet another brilliant writer. Raven Starr is a poet whose vulnerability is so authentic it will inspire you to be just as open. She’s raw, she’s honest, and she’s talented. Check out the amazing piece she shared with me, “It was 12 a.m. and I Thought I was a Rapper”

 

The Magic Beyoncé and Melina Matsoukas Form

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Beyonce, ‘Formation’
Formation (noun) – the action of forming or process of being formed.

Beyoncé understands the power of visuals. In 2013 she graced the world with an entire visual album and forever changed the way artists release music. So when she prepared Saturday, February 6, 2016, to be the day she’d return to scalp the globe with her pro-black anthem she knew she would need a video to capture the track’s grit and gutter. It would only make sense that she’d turn to Melina Matsoukas, the woman whose directed over 10 of Bey’s visuals.

While known for her vibrant colors, vintage flair, and ingenious direction, Melina does not shy away from controversy; her visuals have often either been banned or come under heavy scrutiny, but that doesn’t seem to stop the NYU and AFI alumna from creating thmelina-matsoukas-video-maven-w-magazinee most stunning videos at a time when narrative music videos seem to be declining. In her latest collaboration with Queen Bey she delves into the spirit of Southern Goth and New Orleans to bless viewers with a healthy dose of #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackExcellence, #BlackEverything.

“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”

‘Formation’ opens with Beyoncé dressed down in a red and white calico inspired fit and black boots. She is standing atop of a partially submerged New Orleans Police squad car as the late Messy Mya states “bitch, I’m back by popular demand.” Immediately you know that what you are about to witness is unlike anything you’ve ever seen from the Beyoncé and Melina catalog. Flashes of scenes from Abteen Bagheri’s (@abteen), That B.E.A.T., give you just enough time to brace yourself before being launched into a space where the past, the present, and the future intertwine at the picturesque plantation home. Inside is Beyoncé in various Southern garb as she recites her linage:

“My daddy, Alabama. Mama, Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas Bama”

It is then that you realize Beyoncé is leading you to a place of no return. For years she has subtly distanced herself from the mainstream media that once kept her in a commercialized box. ‘Formation’ is where she breaks her silence. What we hear, and see, is a Beyoncé who is unapologetically black, who likes her “baby hair with baby hair and afros,” and her “negro nose with jackson five nostrils.” Blue Ivy Carter stands before us, her afro a glorious halo, with all of the grace and confidence that make up her celestial DNA. Melina cuts back and forth between Mother and Daughter conjuring up a spirit, a tangible feeling, so visceral and magical it belongs in a Toni Morrison novel.

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Formation’ is an homage. As Beyoncé sits in a sparse room in a corset, twirling an umbrella, pictures of her ancestors behind her, Melina has expertly woven generations together illustrating the shoulders upon which Beyoncé, Blue, and all black women stand. One of the most powerful moments is the performance scene in the middle of the home’s hallway. Beyoncé and her dancers are clothed in maroon leotards with deep necklines and dancing fiercely as Bey declares:

“I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it.”

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Amidst those walls where Bey, and crew, dance with a dominant strut are the spirits of the women who once walked those halls as servants, violently stripped of the ability to work toward any dream, let alone own it. Women who were incapable of any agency over their own bodies and sexualities. No one captures that spirit with the same poignancy as Melina who places one of the most powerful women in spaces that once existed as oppressive structures for black bodies and souls, thus, reforming the image–reclaiming power and restoring dignity to what we’ve too long been made to feel ashamed of. 

While managing to insert her signature vibrant color schemes Melina continues to push the envelope as she makes some of her boldest statements yet. As the black boy in his hoodie dances before the line of SWAT officers, and the NOLA squad car submerges, and
the graffiti demanding “stop shooting us” pans across the screen, we see Melina brilliantly tackling police brutality and the incessant violent assault on black lives and bodies. This is not solely Melina’s boldest move, it is also Beyoncé’s. For a womantumblr_o25mci3Bo51qf29nao2_500 who is so calculated  and strategic with her image Beyoncé needed a vision she could trust to handle the most controversial moment of her career with grace. Melina is who Beyoncé trusts. Time and time again these two forces prove that when combined they are nothing short of Magical.

“Ok, ladies, now let’s get in formation.”

A Moment of Silence – Review

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Published: 2015
Publisher: Simon & Shuster
Pages: 535

Synopsis: Handsome, young, Muslim, and married to two women living in one house along with his mother, Umma, and sister, Naja: can Midnight manage? He is surrounded by Americans who don’t share or understand his faith or culture, and adults who are offended by his maturity, intelligence, or his natural ability to make his hard work turn into real money. He is calm, confident, and cool, Ninja-trained and powerful, but one moment of rage throws this Brooklyn youth into a dark world of dirty police, gangs, guns, drugs, prisons, and prisoners. Everything he ever believed, every dollar he ever earned, and all of the women he ever loved—including his mother—are at risk.

In this heart-pounding adventure, thriller, and intense narrative, New York Times bestselling author Sister Souljah has penned her most passionate and engrossing novel to date. Raw and uncompromising, her storytelling highlights and ignites the ongoing struggle of young men worldwide, to more than survive, but to live strong, to earn, to have the right to love and protect their families, to receive justice, and to be free.

Review:  Midnight, a sixteen-year-old Muslim ninja from Sudan with two wives, is supposedly, represents the epitome of manhood: he protects and provides for “his women,” he has a strong faith, he is intelligent, he engages in legitimate business, and he is a dependable friend. One of his wives’ Aunts describes him as having “this compelling beauty and implacable charm.” Sister Souljah’s latest offering of the Midnight series is set up like a guideline on how to steer the lost, the broken, and the confused men of America onto the righteous path Midnight walks–Midnight delivers several asides on what a “true” man is supposed to do. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t convinced.

Beyond being an epic-novel full of adventures and mystery, A Moment of Silence, is a critique on Western Culture, especially America and its criminal justice system, and, specifically, African-Americans. Midnight is an immigrant and continues to remind us of his outsider status as he launches several critiques on African-American men, women, families, and belief in Christianity.

“It was next to impossible for me to understand the African-American mindset. Most of them were mad at the things that should make them happy, I thought, and content and stagnant with the things that should make them make moves. Too many of them hated the exact things that they should love, I thought.” – A Moment of Silence

Yet, despite Midnight’s refusal to affiliate himself with the African-Americans he critiques, he finds himself facing a reality many black men are forced to live with–police brutality. A case of mistaken identity lands Midnight in tangled, biased web of the American Criminal Justice System whose scales are often unbalanced. It is when Souljah delves into the perverse system of “justice” that she offers some of her most eloquent pieces of prose. Through Midnight’s naive position–though he would never admit to it–as a “foreigner” Souljah explores exactly how police brutality and the institution of prisons “break men.”

“Being cuffed and trapped was expected. But what they kill you with is what no decent men would ever do, or ever expect to be done. It’s the extra shit that has nothing to do with being questioned, or with being charged with a crime, or even with being sentenced or with serving time as a just punishment” – A Moment of Silence

Such insights are, perhaps, this novel’s only saving grace because after moving beyond the critique of police brutality and the prison structure, there is thinly-veiled sexism that permeates the entire novel. The attention may be on the protagonist of the story and evaluating the state of black men in America, but women also play a major role–however silent they are forced to be.

Women are continuously described as “naive,” emotional creatures who are helpless without a man’s intelligence and protection.

“I need for my sister and mother and wives to be untouched, unseen, uninterrupted and unknown to anyone who we, and they have not chosen to be apart of our world” – A Moment of Silence

Midnight literally builds a wall around his house to cage his mother, sister, and two wives inside. They are not permitted to leave unless they are accompanied by him or he approves of their travels. His friends are not allowed to see or speak to his wives and any other man who so much as expresses concern for one of his wives is classified as an enemy. All of this is defined as “protection”.

One of Midnight’s wives, Chiasa, who is also a ninja, is almost capable of being an independent woman with her own thoughts and feelings–there is a moment when she begins to question Midnight about his “protection” of her–thus being an attempt to dispel the sexist stereotype of Islam, but the way Chiasa so easily concedes to Midnight’s explanation that women can do everything, as long as women “do it among women, and men among men,”continues to fuel the stereotype and illustrates Midnight’s belief that Chiasa, nor any other woman, is equal to a man.

While women were limited and silenced throughout the novel, ironically, so is masculinity. The depiction of “manhood” in A Moment of Silence is rooted in the silencing, damaging encouragement of hyper-masculinity:

“Men fight. Men work. Men defend. Men murder” – A Moment of Silence

Midnight praises a trait that continues to plague, specifically, black men today. This notion that men are nothing more than brutes forces them to silence their emotions and render any expression of them as a “feminine” trait. There is no plurality to maleness in A Moment of Silence. When homosexuality does appear in the novel, it is described as a “circumstance” and “disease” that can easily be cured by having a strong male figure–in this case, Midnight–and a pretty, modestly dressed, respectable Muslim girl. At first glance it’s comical, upon deeper reflection it’s frightening to have such ignorance delivered as a helpful manual for men as if  “true manhood” is a uniform one size fits all mindset and life-style. 

In the midst of such cringe-worthy themes there is an actual plot, and several sub plots, to the story. Midnight commits a crime that is contradictorily described as criminal and commendable. Somehow he also gets wrapped up in a drug-bust that lands him in jail. As he traverses the vile, and seedy corruption of prison, he attempts to maintain a clear conscious and pure heart, all easily achieved by remaining silent. It is through silence that he learns “the demons that live in men.” 

The novel skips back-and-forth between past and present interactions Midnight has exclusively with men–there is a chapter dedicated to a “she-officer,” an Aunt, and his female attorney. Through these interactions Midnight reveals how he manages to pass all of the tests on his character, never making a mistake–except for the one that lands him in prison. Unfortunately, the plot is not as engaging as one may think. The ending is an anti-climatic twist that was more of an easy way out of a confusing web than an actual resolve. I have no doubts another Midnight book will be coming, I have even fewer doubts that I’ll be reading it.  

I struggled to complete this book. Seriously, it took me a month to finish, and the staggering 535 pages weren’t solely to blame as I am not a reader who shies away from larger novels. It was Souljah’s depiction of manhood, and love that I found myself questioning. While I could agree with her critique of the justice system and the fact that “we are at war” when it comes to police brutality, I could not concede to the idea that Midnight’s example was the answer for freedom. I continued reading because I was waiting for some sort of shift or growth in Midnight’s character. I was hoping the sexism and hyper-masculinity talk was that of a young, naively arrogant, sixteen-year-old boy. But there was no shift, there was no growth, apart from him understanding how he got caught in the drug bust and how the prison system worked. Midnight is a static character. Whatever charm that bedazzles his wife, his peers, the “she-officer,” and his attorney is completely lost on me. If this is a guideline for men across the world on how to “restore” masculinity and gain freedom, then a moment of silence is definitely needed to reflect on the dangers of the outline presented.

Rating: 2.5/5

Book Haul

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I’m acquiring books at a much higher rate that I’m actually reading them, but that’s a good thing–you can never, EVER, have too many books! One thing for sure, my interest in Jamaica Kincaid’s work has developed into a full-blown obsession. And I finally found a Toni Cade Bambara book! All of my findings are below:

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Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun / The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. (Lorraine Hansberry)

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Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. (Edited by Gerda Lerner)

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Gorilla, My Love. (Toni Cade Bambara)

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At the Bottom of the River. (Jamaica Kincaid)

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A Small Place. (Jamaica Kincaid)

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The Book of Night Women. (Marlon James)

2 Kincaid novels + 1 Toni Cade Bambara Novel + 1 Marlon James Novel = $20; the EXTREME HAPPINESS of finding them all in 1 place = priceless!

A Conversation with Black Women on Race

“Being Alive, Being a Woman, Being Colored is a metaphysical dilemma I have not conquered yet,” is a standout quote from Ntozake Shange’s, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide /When the Rainbow is enuf. In this poignant quote, as well as the poems/plays, Shange succinctly illustrates the complex way race and gender intertwine for black women–neither is mutually exclusive and both inform not only the perception of us, but the way we self-identify.

Haitian director, Michèle Stephenson, along with husband, Joe Brewster, offer a poignant visual conversation with black women on race in their documentary for the New York Times.

Check out the five minute clip below.

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000004050379

Who Will Tell Her Side of Her Story: A Black Woman’s Distorted Reimagining in “Dreams of a Life”.

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By 2011, most of the world had at least heard of Joyce Carol Vincent. The story of her body decomposing in her apartment for almost three years shook the world at its core–even for the brief moment that her name remained on people’s conscience. What most found alarming was the fact that this beautiful, relatively young, woman could die alone and remain neglected almost three years after passing away. When I was made aware of Vincent’s death I immediately wanted to know her story, not so much how she “ended up” like that, but who was Joyce Carol Vincent beyond the BBC article? I thought Dreams of a Life would be where I could get at least some sense of Vincent, but after almost two-hours of footage I ended the documentary with the same amount of knowledge I began it with. The biggest issue I had with the piece is the question it, inadvertently, raises about the lack of agency black women hold over their own stories even posthumously. The overall tragedy in this attempt to retell the life and final days of Vincent is that it’s perverse with over-sexualization and victimization all done through the gaze Carol Morley, a white woman.

Carol claims an affinity with Joyce:

“we were exactly the same age, we shared a name – Carol, her middle name – and at one point we even lived on the same street. Joyce lost her mother when she was 11 and I was 11 when my father died, so I felt I understood something of the loss she had suffered,”

and so she decided to “dream up Joyce’s life and ambitions through the information I gathered and the people who knew her.” The problem is, no one interviewed in the film seemed to truly know Joyce. Carol gathers up a group of individuals: two boyfriends, a landlord, co-workers, and a series of acquaintances—although you wouldn’t know that at first as you’ll spend more than half the film trying to figure out who is who in relation to Joyce, sometimes never getting any real clarity. For the most part these people appear as talking heads spewing their own speculation of who Joyce was and how it was that she “ended up” the way she did. It isn’t clear whether or not most of the interviewees spent more than five minutes with Joyce as Carol provides no clear or structured time-line.

From the very beginning of this “dream” a fixation on Joyce’s sexuality is established. A series of men rattle off how they were sexually attracted to her; we hear stories about how Vincent wore skin-tight dresses, as well as a story about how Vincent had a wardrobe malfunction resulting in her breast flying out of her dress and Vincent simply laughing. The men harbor on their desire to sleep with her and the women profess their desire to be her. There is a hint of sexual promiscuity that lingers with each interviewer as they all constantly state that when she wasn’t with her white boyfriend, Martin, there was no telling who she was with. No one delivering interviews can offer intimate details about who Joyce was; all they remember is their own imaginations of her. Insinuations of molestation—none of which are supported or confirmed—are offered by several interviewees and Carol uses flashbacks of Vincent’s father, played by (actor’s name), as a way to suggest that he was the culprit. This obsession with Joyce’s sexuality and speculated sexual abuse gets at no real heart of who Joyce was. Instead the same focus and obsession with black female sexuality is projected onto Joyce through the white gaze of Carol and her interviewees. The lack of structure, detail, or ethos in these interviews is quite disturbing and possibly done deliberately so that Carol could come in with her own plot-line and re-create a story, a life, that did not belong to her.

Nikki Giovanni, in her poem, Nikki Rosa, said that she hoped no white biographer would want to tell her story because, “they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.”

One of Vincent’s “friends” emphatically states that Vincent was not into the “race thing,” as if race is some sort of fashion or genre of music not an institutionalized system that oppresses individuals based on phonemes resulting in psychological, emotional, and physical trauma not to mention the pre-determining factor on the quality of life one has immediate access to.  But how could one understand race as more than a “thing,” when one has never lived under its microscope? While race is not a subject Carol provides any depth to, she does make a deliberate segregation of the space her interviewees occupy in her documentary. Any mentions of race outside of a “thing” one can or cannot be “into,” are reduced to one liners and jokes (Joyce’s black landowner and neighbor joked about Vincent’s attraction to white men and how a cure for her flightiness would be a black man). Why hadn’t Carol probed more into the dynamics of being black, being caribbean, being woman, and being British? These multilayered experiences and identities unquestionably affected Vincent’s life whether she was into the “race thing” or not. And if Carol’s desire was to victimize her why not look at the contributing factors of racism, fetishizing, and sexism?  There is one mention of a male co-worker sexually harassing Vincent and her never returning to that job afterwards, but as quickly as it is mentioned it is dropped never to be revisited. It is obvious Vincent had troublesome experiences, there is a point in the film where Martin’s, Vincent’s long-time boyfriend,  reason for not marrying Vincent is revealed to be because he did not want “tinted children,” but the poignant and telling revelation is not explored further. It is this neglect of subtle but revealing insights into the complexities of Vincent’s identities and, instead, focus on a supposed tumultuous childhood that makes Carol the exact white biographer Nikki Giovanni feared.

Like Vincent, black women have died in obscurity. Nella Larsen, a once prolific writer of the Harlem Renaissance, was found dead in her apartment. Zora Neale Hurston, an equally prolific writer during the Harlem Renaissance, was found dead in her south Florida welfare home. Dorothy Dandridge, a formidable beauty, talent, and force in Hollywood, was found dead in her home. Marie Vieux-Chavuet is a brilliant black woman author many still know nothing of. The question of how Vincent, a beautiful woman who seemed to have it all, could end up dying alone is not a question, but often a reality played out for many black women. This year we’ve lost Karyn Washington (founder, creator of “For Brown Girls” ) and Titi Branch (co-founder of Miss Jessie hair products) due to suicide. Black Women’s Lives Matter and Say Her Name became almost a sub-branch of Black Live’s Matters out of a paucity of support and visibility for black women suffering, and dying, at the hands of police brutality. There is an obscurity that surround black women as they are forced to navigate a system that renders them valueless and voiceless. It is a troubling fact to experience and even more so to watch on film, especially when not handled correctly. We’ve watched the mishandling of our narratives in films like Girlhood, Suffrage (where, in the director’s world, we don’t even exist), and countless other media when we are not given agency over our lives and our stories. Filmmaker, Nikyatu Jusu, said it best in her caption of a Girlhood movie poster:

“I promise not to be bitter that it’s easier for her to make films featuring my people than it is for me.” 


For all the reasons Carol stated she felt a connection to Joyce; the trajectory of her documentary illustrates that she couldn’t be any more further from Joyce than a stranger passing her on the street.

There is an obsession of pain Carol has when it comes to examining the life of Vincent, but it is grossly misdirected. I don’t doubt that Vincent went through her share of pain, the depths and the circumstances we may never accurately know, but despite that fact it should not be the definition of her life. Carol ignores the fact that Vincent voluntarily moved into her one-bedroom flat, described as “a refuge for victims of domestic violence.” Carol does not include the fact that Vincent’s family hired a private investigator to find her and that they wrote her letters. This same family also showed up at her inquest after Vincent was confirmed to be the deceased woman in the apartment. Carol has frozen Joyce somewhere between a lonely abused child and a young sexually charged woman completely stifling Joyce as a victim whose one too many losses culminated in a tragic death. I find trouble with this dramatization of Vincent’s life because Carol allows for speculation to exist as fact. She has completely silenced the true Vincent–stolen her life and created a nightmare. At the end of Dreams of a Life I couldn’t help but feel a great disservice had been done toward Joyce Carol Vincent. I felt that her story and her body had become a vessel through which someone else appropriated for their own artistic, and even emotional, catharsis. Art is supposed to imitate life, but is an artist supposed to appropriate someone else’s life completely? A woman’s “dream” came at the expense of silencing another woman’s life, Dreams of a Life is but another footnote to that tradition.

Black Herstory short film

In honor of Women’s History month I wanted to create a short film that payed homage to the love, sacrifice, and overall contribution that black women have made since their 4 centuries of being in the Americas.

 

Vintage Black Glamour

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(Nichelle Gainer, Vintage Black Glamour)

As a young girl, I was always fascinated by the beauty of Dorothy Dandridge, the courage of Josephine Baker, the confidence of Eartha Kitt. I often dreamt of a place where I could see these faces printed on posters, magazines, etc. I wanted their images and their stories to be as ingrained in our nostalgia for vintage Hollywood as Marilyn Monroe and Mae West (both stars in their own right). Thanks to Nichelle Gainer, I no longer have to imagine such a place–she has brought it to life with her encapsulation of the glamour of African-American female entertainers in her book, Vintage Black Glamour.

The book presents historic photographs of famous actors, dancers, writers and entertainers who worked in the 20th-century entertainment business, but who rarely appeared in the same publications as their white counterparts

This incredible collection includes women like:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Lorraine Hansberry
  • Diana Ross
  • Donyale Luna

Not only are there rare pictures of these iconic women, but biographical text is included to tell the dynamic and inspiring story of each starlet. Gainer, who writes for: 55 Secret Street, Revenge of the Curves, and Anovelista, brings us an important archive of history with this book, one that I can’t wait to purchase.

Check out some of Gainer’s amazing work on the Vintage Black Glamour site  and order your copy of, Black Glamour, today.