Virginia Women Making Modern Black History
Madam C.J. Walker once said, "I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them." These Virginian women took a page from Madam C.J. Walker’s book. They don’t wait to celebrate Black History Month. They get up and make Black history all year long. In doing so, they have created opportunities for themselves in the arts, literature, science, fashion, and even oyster shucking.
Get to know these modern Black history makers below. For more stories from history makers in Virginia, follow VPM on Instagram.
Hidden Figures is in a very real way, my origin story. It is both who I am and now it is what I do. My father is a retired atmospheric research scientist and he spent his career at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where I grew up and where this story takes place. He worked with the women that I wrote about in the book and he stood on their shoulders to build a successful career at NASA. My mother is a retired English professor from Hampton University and this is a historically black college that trained the first group of black women who went to work at what was originally called the Langley Laboratory, which was started in 1917. They celebrated their centennial two years ago. My parents met, they got married after college, they moved to Hampton when my dad was a young scientist at NASA and I was born just three months before the moon landing. So you might say that I am as much a NASA product as Apollo. Before they were household names, the four protagonists in my book - Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Jarden - were members of my childhood community and they were less known to us for trajectory analysis or supersonic flight plans than for their commitment to their churches or to their ability to raise scholarship money for needy local students through the civic organizations that they ran. They gave their best in every situation and they let their performance speak for itself. Even as I interviewed them decades later, asking how it felt to break barriers as a woman and as African Americans, their most frequent response was, “I was just doing my job.” For the last three years, it's been my job to make sure that these women and their accomplishments are written into history.
I’ve always been into the idea of Valentine's Day being about love - but not just romantic love, all kinds of love! The problem is, Valentine’s Day can come off as patronizing-- especially to women. Since baking is my creative outlet, I wanted to make something that would celebrate what women really care about and not just the fluffy, romantic stuff. So, I baked empowering cookies that say things like, “Be my equal” instead of “Be mine.” People’s reactions to them have been really fun. Lots of people have been ordering them for friends. Since my whole take on Valentine’s Day is about proclaiming love of all sorts, I love to see a real celebration of friendship.
When I was younger, I loved to build and create STEM projects. At the same time, I was learning about circuits and electricity. That year my neighborhood hosted a girls-only entrepreneur business market. I thought it would be cool for kids to find a way to build their own circuit. I decided to come up with a simple kit that allowed kids to be creative and learn about circuits and the flow of electricity. Unfortunately, I was sick on the day of the fair and my sisters, Jordan and Kennedy, took over for me. At the fair, my sisters sold out of the Light It Up kit and had to take more orders. Due to this success, we decided to make more kits and form a business around creating fun STEM kits for other kids. This partnership works out well. My sisters are homeschooled so we have a lot of flexibility in our schedules to show products, meet with people and plan. We love working together as sisters! When one of us has a problem or doesn't know how to do something, we can usually work together to solve the problem... or just call our mom.
I become vulnerable when I sing. I had an epidermal cyst underneath my third ventricle and it blocked my spinal fluids from getting to the rest of my body which caused me to have hydrocephalus. All the pressure build up caused my optic nerves to swell and made me lose my vision. So, when I chose to audition for American Idol I picked the song Rise Up by Andra Day. One, because it’s my mom’s favorite and two because I had sung it a few times prior to my surgery. I felt like I rose to the occasion. Auditioning for American Idol was nerve wracking but it was exciting to sing in front of Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie. I hope this experience will open doors for me in the future and inspire others.
I’ve been fighting to do this hard work long before the #BlackGirlMagic and #MeToo movements started. I was always put in my place for trying to run programs that were focused on black girls. I was told it was racist and that I couldn’t run programs for just girls. I was also told I needed to get a white woman on board to convince people with money and resources that a black woman should be leading this movement--especially in Richmond.
I stayed in it though, because I kept seeing the gaps. Although we have a long way to go, we’re at the level now where I feel like those acknowledgements have put us in front of people who have the power and skills to support our girls. They can help us open more doors. To be in the room with people who have resources and to be invited to the White House to receive President Barack Obama’s Champion of Change Award after 15 years of sacrifice was amazing. It meant that someone saw my girls and my initiatives and really understood why it is so important.
How big can you dream? That is what we create with our makeup and costume designs - dreams. As Niko Swan our goal is to have our designs on the front cover of Vogue. Not just Italian Vogue, not just teen Vogue, we want to be on every cover!
The problem is, people don’t understand that we aren’t presenting face painting but rather walking art. Once, there was a popular model from DC modeling at one of the same events that we were showing in. She approached our models who were painted, but not yet in their costumes and started to belittle and demean them. Before our designs walked the runway, all the audience had seen were conservative suits and casual fashion. When our creations walked down the runway, a hush fell over the crowd and our models heard the audience say that we brought #Paris to Virginia. That same popular model who belittled our models before the runway came to them afterwards and told them how great we were.
At the end of the day, the only person who is going to try to put people down is someone who is intimidated. And why would they be intimidated by us? Because they’re seeing us create something they have never seen before.
Writing and directing my experimental film, “The Healer” was my way of celebrating - and getting over - a very challenging three years in which I wanted to commit suicide. I sobbed to God one night, “What is my purpose?” I was lead to the story of Sekhmet and Bastet, the Upper and Lower Goddesses of Egypt. I drew strength from their symbolism and it slowly pulled me out of my depression. As one of my proudest moments as an artist, “The Healer” screened at the 2018 Richmond Afrikana Film Festival.
My sister taught me how to open oysters on the back of my parents doorstep. I shucked oysters for many years and then in 1985, I got into an oyster shucking competition and won for the first time. It took me ten years to become number one in the women’s oyster competitions. After being in the world oyster shucking competition four times, I’ve became famous! Now my son is competing against me. He’s beaten my sister in oyster shucking but he hasn’t beaten me. He is good. He tells me every day, “I’m coming to get you.” I said, “If you beat me then I shall retire from oyster shucking.”
I didn't grow up understanding the full range and capacity of what art encompassed. I see it all the time when I walk downstairs [at VMFA], the little ones walking through the museum. That was my life. That was my exposure to it. At the time as a child walking through those museums, you would maybe see some decorative arts, but it was the art that sat in castles. Or the art that well-heeled, very wealthy individuals have the opportunity to enjoy.
And even when I went back and I worked at the contemporary arts museum, which was one of the museums I would get bused to. Even then I didn't see myself reflected, but having those experiences really opened the world for me. And going back to work at that museum as an adult, and as a curator, understanding that people like me at that age would utilize the museum to expand their existence and their understanding of the world, I wanted to create a world in which they felt, all of them would feel very well represented.
I love being a burlesque performer. I love being able to be a magical, sensual, carefree creature. As a woman of color, it is often difficult to feel like you have permission to just be joyous and free without feeling judged or feeling like you are representing the entire race. I love feeling like I am safe and free to be me. Then, I lost my job as a teacher. I was devastated! I did everything I could to protect myself and the district that I worked for. I wore wigs and heavy make up, and rarely performed in Virginia. I loved my students and co-workers and the last thing I wanted to do was to bring a scandal to the district. After that, I knew that my public school teaching career was over. It took me years to get back onto my feet, I suffered from severe depression, but oddly it was burlesque that brought me back. Through burlesque I was able to heal and rebuild my life and self esteem.
I learned what it was like to be homeless and I learned what it is like to be hungry, but I also learned how strong I am. I learned that I am not the middle class girl from Detroit, not the over committed high school teacher, not the survivor of a drive-by shooting, or the disgraced twerking teacher. Beneath all of the titles, labels, certificates and degrees, I found me. While I wouldn't wish my experiences on anyone, I also wouldn't trade them for a million dollars! I danced around, risked it all, lost it all, and in the end I found something more valuable. Through all of it I found my voice; I found me!