Unforgotten Black Queens
Spirit. Tenacity. Beauty. Emotion. Heart. Love. These are a few of the words that come to mind when I picture Diana Ross, Nina Simone, Raven Wilkinson, and Marpessa Dawn. Among these words, their uniquely Black feminine energy in life and art impacted the world in an everlasting way...and yet these four women are often forgotten, left only in the memories of those who search and pass on their knowledge, beauty, and worth. “What a crime,” I thought as tears rolled down my cheeks in the last moments of Marpessa Dawn’s most prominent film Black Orpheus. “How had it taken me this long to know about her?” I wondered as I looked up at angelic photos of Raven Wilkinson, floating effortlessly. My heart fell to pieces as I listened to Nina Simone lay her heart on the piano, only to realize her dreams were consistently silenced. And I try to heal myself with love and confidence as I dance and sing to Diana Ross, thinking of all the love that would fill this world if more people knew of The Supremes and her later work. Effervescent, Complex, Loving Black Women whose names and stories need to be imprinted in history. But I can’t help but wonder: do we really know their names and stories? How many Black and Brown women have we forgotten, cast aside, because they were geniuses born in a time that couldn't appreciate all they had to offer?
Inspired by four iconic images of four larger than life women, It fills my heart with joy and gratitude to share this project, my passions and inspirations with you all. These women, at different stages of my life, guided my love for myself and my own unique Black Beauty. In their own ways, they shaped culture, transformed minds, and fought bigotry with beauty and grace. With Chelsea and Heather of Luckyleo and my friend, fellow artist and inspiration Sheridan Guerin, I was able to tap into this vision, honor their work, and also consider: what do I know about these women and why was it so hard to find out about them?
Diana Ross is a household name, and yet when I look at her story and the context of today, I can’t help but notice that people scream Madonna and Britney as queens of female empowerment. (They are, but what about Diana?) My own friends and family, a lot of the world, are left unaware of the true Magic of Diana Ross. “Oh, I’ve heard of her,” but few of us know of her. When you look up #BlackisBeautiful or anything Black Beauty, there is no way you can go without seeing this image of Ross, gazing up with a halo of hair framing her beaming face. This image was one of the first that made me consider how beautiful black features are - her delicate nose, skin gleaming like dew in the morning, a depth in her eyes seen in very few.
From a young age, I was enraptured by her, and the soul she puts into her music from the very beginning with The Supremes, and on. I still am to this day. So many of us audibly recognize her voice in hip-hop samples or “that one song I heard when I was little,” but do not know that it is Diana Ross singing with a power rarely matched. Diana Ross: a singer, an actress, and so much more. We channeled her beauty & power to create these images, and continue to as we foster love for the powerful, multi-talented woman within us all.
Ms. Nina Simone. For a long time she was only a name I was familiar with; I was an acquaintance to her music and had no idea of the depth to her name. Her story is one of perseverance and strength against so much pain. Nina Simone is now a prominent presence in my life but only since going out of my way to know her story. An important story. An integral story to understand the depth and hardship of Black women in America. I cannot begin to capture her life or the importance of her presence with words. My way was to use this image of her gazing beyond herself, seeing something no one else could - as she often did. This image, for me, encompasses a unique beauty but also a secret pain and depth also unprecedented. With this image, I hope to spark a curiosity about Nina Simone who’s life and music should be written about in history books, and yet there is a very real reason why her name and her art is not sung from the mountain tops. The world was not ready for her, for a strong Black beauty that cared too much and fought so hard. They were not ready, but we are. We can sing her song through the streets, in our hearts, and empower each other the way she deserved.
Unknown to me until this year, was the beauty that is Marpessa Dawn. It does not surprise me that many people feel this way; what surprises me is why. Marpessa Dawn is a beauty like no other. When you research her, you see her image glowing as the covergirl for Ebony magazine; her beauty, inside and out, was unmatched at the time. However… it was such a short time. When I learned of her, and the short spotlight on her career, all I could think was Why?
To me, Marpessa Dawn is just as beautiful and talented as Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, her performance in her first feature film brought me to tears, something I cannot say after watching a plethora of my favorite Monroe films. So again I keep asking myself, Why? Why, even though she was born in America, did she only find success in Europe, specifically France? And again… How did I not know about such an iconic Black woman?
Although uncomfortable at times, I think it’s important to ask these questions, to really analyze how we contribute to a society that sees Black women as a temporary love, not a permanent source of true beauty, vitality, and talent like Marpessa Dawn.
I was 18 years old when I learned of Raven Wilkinson. I had gone my whole Ballet training without realizing there was a woman, a Black ballerina, that created the space in Ballet for women like her, like me, to find our voice and our art. Little did I know, her career was plagued with hate from racism and her voice would try to be silenced by misunderstanding, and apathy from the Ballet world. A vision and a trail blazer, Raven Wilkinson’s name and legacy are on par with Balanchine and Baryshnikov for her contributions to the Ballet world. With these images, inspired by her ethereal beauty and undeniable talent, hopefully her story can inspire us to continue growing the space she persevered to create.
What a dream come true it was to recreate these special images of one-of-a-kind women that have impacted my life in a monumental way. To not only recreate them but honor them with knowledge, provoking thoughts, and hopefully understanding of the world we live in today - how it treats women, specifically Black women, & often not kindly. These images are meant to spur joy, love, & beauty but also to make us think and, I hope, inspire us all to research and learn about these special souls often lost in the sea of history. We can know their names, their stories and grow from them, learn to love even more from them. And then we can help shape a world where women like them have the stage for as long as they want, speaking their truth and sharing their unique, strong, Black feminine light.