The women featured in Brave. Black. First. include, among others, Nina Simone, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Lowe and Condoleezza Rice. (Illustrations by Erin K. Robinson / Photo collage by Meilan Solly)

New Book Draws Inspiration From Life Stories of African American Women

In “Brave. Black. First.,” meet more than 50 African American women who changed the world

smithsonianmag.com
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM | Feb. 3, 2020, 9 a.m.

While other children were making mud pies, Augusta Fells Savage used the clay near her home to mold small figures of farm animals.

It was obvious that Savage had a talent for sculpting. Despite her father’s objections, and the opportunities she was denied because of her race, Savage continued to practice her craft and in 1934, became the first African American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.

Savage’s work and spirit inspired many others to follow the trail she so bravely blazed. The walls of her studio in Harlem witnessed the early beginnings of several well-known artists like Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight, where she offered free classes and gallery space to her students.

This story is only one of many featured in, Brave. Black. First. 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World. A collection of short biographies written by Cheryl Willis Hudson, and compiled in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the book’s pages serve as testament to the impact women, and particularly women of color, have had and continue to have on the world. Although created for young readers, the masterful storytelling combined with Erin K. Robinson’s enchanting illustrations are sure to capture the attention of all generations.

Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the museum’s deputy director, who lent her expertise to the selection process, hopes that the compendium incentivizes readers to take the next step, and perhaps be inspired to listen to the music of Nina Simone or to tackle Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. “This book might strike a chord, it might make those who read it want to go further, and increase their knowledge,” says Conwill.

Flipping the pages, one is struck by the authenticity and vibrancy of the illustrations. The pearls around Ella Fitzgerald’s neck glisten, the tennis ball flies from Serena Williams’ racket, the purple of Dorothy Height’s hat pulses with pride and Angela Davis’ fist is clenched in fierce defiance.

“I really wanted my illustrations to feel tangible, to be textured and have emotion,” says Robinson. “I want the readers to feel that they knew these women, to feel intimate with them.”

The narratives span a vast range of cultural landscapes. From music and sports to arts and activism, from protest to performance, each story hints at the many different methods and means that women access to find success, but when read as a whole, the tales reveal the profound commonality these women share. They are all brave, they are all black, and they are all the first to achieve groundbreaking success in their respective fields.

Through its collaboration with the museum, the book works to pull these women from the pages and into real life. Many of the women featured are linked to artifacts held in the museum’s collections, which Hudson anticipates will demonstrate to the readers that history is prologue.

“I think children, young adults, adults, people can see themselves as a part of history, rather than something that is stiff and, on the page,” explains Hudson. “I hope that children can go into the museum, and experience the history they read about in the book.”

Conwill, emphasizes this sentiment, hoping the book is another method for sharing the museum’s vast collections. “Like the motto of the Smithsonian—the increase and diffusion of knowledge—it makes people want to not only take this for what it is, but to move beyond it,” she says.

Read about some of the influential women featured in the book with the excerpts below paired with Robinson's captivating portraits.

Nina Simone (1933–2003)

Nina Simone
Nina Simone was a songwriter and activist dubbed the High Priestess of Soul. Her repertoire was a unique blend of jazz, blues, soul, R & B, and gospel, influenced by her training as a classical pianist. Throughout her career, Nina was celebrated as a master griot, or storyteller, who hypnotized her audiences with her interpretation of lyrics and her musicianship. Her autobiography and one of her most popular albums were titled I Put a Spell on You…. Between 1958 and 1993, Nina made more than 60 albums, consistently taking musical risks in live and studio performances. Using her distinct contralto voice, she also gained a reputation as an edgy, defiant and uncompromising artist. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Faith Ringgold (1930– )

Faith Ringgold
Faith Ringgold describes herself as a painter, a sculptor, an art activist, a feminist and an educator. She broke ground during the 1960s and 1970s in the world of contemporary fine art when her protests and performance events took center stage in the New York museum art world. Now renowned for her story quilts, Faith is also the author-illustrator of more than a dozen children’s books, including the Caldecott Honor Book Tar Beach. Central to her work of six decades are social commentary; an interest in African rhythm, pattern, color and repetition; and embracing what she calls an authentic “Black aesthetic.” (© Erin K. Robinson)

Condoleezza Rice (1954– )

Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice is an accomplished educator, musician, writer, athlete and scholar who has achieved many remarkable firsts during her lifetime. She served as the 66th Secretary of State, in the administration of President George W. Bush. She rose through the ranks of academia as a scholar specializing in Soviet studies and foreign relations and an assistant professor at Stanford University, and she was eventually appointed as the first woman, the first African American, and the youngest provost of that institution. Her expertise in foreign relations and fluency in Russian led her to appointments as the first female National Security Advisor and the first African American female Secretary of State. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Augusta Fells Savage (1892–1962)

Augusta Fells Savage
Augusta Fells Savage was a talented sculptor who blazed a trail as a pioneering working artist. Her activism and art helped mold and inspire the careers of future artists… A huge 16-foot-tall harp, commissioned in 1939 for the New York World’s Fair, is considered Augusta’s best-known work. Inspired by the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson, its strings are a line of singing children, and the sculpture symbolizes the musical gifts of black people. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Ntozake Shange (1948–2018)

Ntozake Shange
Poet, novelist, playwright, performance artist and educator Ntozake Shange’s unique voice and feminist approach to literature achieved widespread acclaim when her choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, was first produced on Broadway in 1975. In that production, seven nameless women dressed in colors of the rainbow spoke in 20 poems, monologues and dance about vital issues confronted by black women… Whether writing for adults or for children, Ntozake’s works have always been informed by the literary, musical and intellectual influences of her family experiences and the turbulent political and feminist ideologies of the 1960s and 70s. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (1981– )

Beyonce Knowles-Carter
Bathed in golden lights, surrounded by dazzling sound, and energized with incredible beats and choreography, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter dominates stage and video performances with her compelling lyrics, velvet vocals, provocative dance moves and commanding stage presence. Beyoncé is a multitalented American R&B and pop singer, songwriter, entertainer, dancer, actress and music producer. She is also one of the bestselling music artists in history, with 23 Grammy Awards (and 63 nominations) and counting. Famous for “slaying” her audiences, Beyoncé is the most nominated woman in the history of the music awards. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977)

Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer sat at a table to testify before the Credentials Committee at the 1964 National Democratic Convention. She spoke plainly, powerfully and passionately, detailing her efforts and those of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to register to vote as first-class citizens of the United States. In her state, blacks were not represented by the Democratic Party. If the MFDP was not recognized and seated, Fannie stated in front of the television cameras, “I question America.” Fannie was an activist, an orator, a community organizer and a courageous leader of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s and 70s. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012)

Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett was an internationally known printmaker and sculptor whose art was always fiercely socially conscious. Her signature pieces focused on African Americans, women and the lives of working-class people. Part of her goal as an activist “womanist” artist was to make political statements and to make her work accessible to everyone. In bold strokes, she carved a series of 15 linocuts with titles like Survivor, Sharecropper, and Negro Mother in an epic commemoration of the historic oppression, resistance, and survival of African American women…Elizabeth became one of the most prominent African American artists of the 20th century. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Simone Biles (1997– )

Simone Biles
Simone Biles stepped onto the floor mat and started running, and in seconds, this petite, powerful athlete was tumbling in the air, defying gravity. Sticking the dismount, Simone flashed a brilliant smile and waved to the adoring crowd. Simone is a five-time Olympic medalist gymnast whose phenomenal artistry and athleticism have won her accolades across the globe. At the 2016 Summer Olympics, Simone won four gold medals with stunning performances in the team, all-around, vault and floor competitions, and a bronze medal for beam. With a total of 19 medals at the Olympics and world championships, Simone is the most decorated gymnast in United States history. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s mother, a former schoolteacher, encouraged Zora to “jump at the sun” and explore the creative talents she expressed as a child, despite her father’s efforts to tame her rebellious spirit. Zora followed her mother’s advice and engaged in numerous adventures on her path to literary success. Zora was a somewhat controversial personality because she used African American dialect in some of her writing. She could be outspoken, and sometimes she expressed unpopular political views. Zora was a novelist, folklorist, anthropologist and influential member of the community of artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance…She wrote four novels, several musicals, and more than 50 short stories. As an anthropologist, Zora conducted documentary research on cultural rituals in Jamaica and Haiti. Her most famous work is the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Ann Lowe (1898–1981)

Ann Lowe
Ann Lowe was the first African American to be recognized as a fashion designer of haute couture. Her one-of-a-kind dresses and gowns were made of dozens of yards of satin, tulle, taffeta and silk, and were decorated with delicate embellishments of handmade flowers, intricate beadwork, and jewels. Ann created wedding, ball and cotillion gowns for elite families, and she was best known for designing the Trapunto-styled wedding gown and attendants’ dresses for the 1953 wedding of future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier to then Senator John F. Kennedy. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Black Lives Matter: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi

Black Lives Matter
Patrisse Cullors (bottom), Alicia Garza (top), and Opal Tometi (middle) created a national movement by organizing themselves and others around the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media. It was their response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the 2012 murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Stunned and frustrated by the verdict and determined that this would not happen again, these gifted women pooled their skills, talents and commitment in a public call to action to combat racism and oppression…The #BlackLivesMatter movement has forced many in America to confront the legacy of racism and inspires those who are concerned about justice and equality. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Susie King Taylor (1848–1912)

Susie King Taylor
Susie King Taylor became the first black army nurse during the Civil War. She openly taught former slaves in a school in Georgia when it was against the law to teach black people to read, and she published Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, about her experience during the Civil War. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000)

Gwendolyn Brooks
Whether Gwendolyn Brooks was standing on a stage in front of 2,000 people or speaking to a public school class of 25 students, she captivated audiences with the power and simplicity of her exquisitely crafted words…Gwendolyn grew up on the South Side of Chicago and wrote about the lives, struggles and celebrations of everyday people where she lived. She was the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1949 for Annie Allen, and she was nationally recognized as one of the most influential writers of the 21st century. (© Erin K. Robinson)

Dorothy Irene Height (1912–2010)

Dorothy Irene Height
Dorothy Irene Height was a lifelong activist and leader in the Civil Rights and women’s movements and served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and an executive in the YWCA. Throughout her life, Dorothy followed her mother’s motto, “lifting as we climb.” At a very early age, Dorothy became a “joiner,” participating in lots of church and school activities including music and sports. She competed in local and national oratory contests, consistently aiming for excellence. Dorothy recalled, “By the time I was 25, I had already shaped my life’s work” as a champion of social justice…Dorothy’s many awards included the 1994 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 2004 Congressional Gold Medal, and many honorary doctoral degrees. President Barack Obama dubbed her “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement.” (© Erin K. Robinson)
Nadine Daher About the Author: Nadine Daher is a digital intern at Smithsonian magazine. She is a senior at Northwestern, where she studies journalism and international studies. Read more articles from Nadine Daher and

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