Ronda Racha Penrice

4 Amazing Black Women They Don't Tell You About in School

As with Black History Month, the focus on already well-known figures has been an ongoing criticism of Woman’s History Month. When it comes to black women, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks are on repeat. What makes these much-needed theme months thrive, however, is the spirit of discovery. It’s doubtful that the names Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman, Callie House, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin or Johnnie Tillmon even draw a glint of recognition but they should. In their own ways, each of these women made important contributions to the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice.

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Their Eyes Were Watching Oprah

Those who have taken a black literature course or visited the black section of their favorite bookstore are very familiar with Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. After discovering Hurston's work in the 1970s, Alice Walker ignited a literary renaissance for Hurston and this book in particular spawned countless papers, two major biographies and the Zora Neale Hurston Festival now entering its 17th year. So, ABC's Sunday broadcast of Oprah Winfrey Presents Their Eyes Were Watching God definitely has some high expectations to meet in the literary community. But those expectations do not always sync with those of the general community.

If you are unfamiliar with this landmark work or its creator, let me bring you up to speed. Hurston, as it is now believed, was born in Notasulga, Ala., (not in Eatonville, Fla., as her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road claims) in 1891. Eatonville, however, was where she spent the bulk of her childhood. She loved that it was an all-black town and credited that experience with her self-pride, which led her to dedicate herself to collecting Negro folklore. Those elements found their way into her creative work and though she published many books, Their Eyes Were Watching God remains her most popular.

For years, countless readers have bonded with the character of Janie Crawford, a motherless girl raised by her grandmother. As a teenager, Janie is married off to a much older, but financially-secure man. She, however, meets another man along the road who has big dreams and runs off with him to Eatonville. When he dies, she takes up with a much younger man and this experience helps her rediscover herself. This now classic novel depicts a black woman taking agency for her own life.

To bring this novel, published in 1937, to life, Oprah Winfrey, who has worked on this project for over a decade, enlisted Oscar winner Halle Berry. She also tapped Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, best known for Topdog/Underdog, to adapt the book into a script and Latina director Darnell Martin, best known for the 1994 film I Like It Like That, to direct it.

The film is visually stunning. It looks lush, Southern and rural. Additionally, Halle looks a lot like the Janie Crawford I envisioned when I read the work. Ruby Dee as Nanny, Janie's grandmother, is also fitting, especially since it is this character who is responsible for the novel's key revelation that "de nigger woman is de mule uh de world." Parks' adaptation is pretty faithful.

Although there are lesser known actors in the film such as Nikki Micheaux, whom most of us recognize as the woman tempting Kenny on Soul Food, Terrence Dashon Howard, Lorraine Toussaint and Ruben Santiago-Hudson also show up. It is Michael Ealy (Ricky from Barbershop) as Tea Cake, who will probably delight most female viewers. This, however, really is Halle's movie.

For the most part she's fine. The story is somewhat accelerated but entertaining, with Halle playing Janie from teenager to grown woman of 40. During most of the film, she strikes a very good balance between being delicate and strong. Even still Tea Cake and Janie do not necessarily work for me. Despite real-life rumors of coupledom, here, Berry and Ealy do not have great chemistry.

Oprah disagrees with me. During a session at the Television Critics' Tour, she declared that she would offer her open checkbook and some beachfront property for a kiss like the one Berry and Ealy share. Even more than their lack of chemistry, the music selected for their scenes disturb me even more. At different points, I heard a voice akin to Donny Hathaway's and his sound dates several decades later.

Unlike me, most Hurston die-hards will probably dislike the film from start to finish. The overwhelming majority of black women will enjoy Their Eyes Were Watching God precisely because most of the characters look good and there is a real progressive energy to the film.

For Oprah, who has been involved with the film versions of the black literary classics The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place and Beloved, she's finally made a film version for one of the books she loves most. Additionally, she's said, "I just hope that [the film] introduces the book to high school kids and reading moms and a public that probably never would have heard of her." With Oprah, that mission is so easily accomplished.

A Vital Sign

Given Bill Cosby's explosive comments about the misplaced values among the African American lower class, the many impassioned protests against the MGM film Soul Plane and the recent 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to desegregate the nation's public schools, HBO's latest film coup Something the Lord Made, which debuted May 30, could not have come at a better time.

The largely unknown story of an African American carpenter's collaboration with a Northern-educated white doctor to pioneer the field of cardiac surgery during the era of Jim Crow is a bold and necessary undertaking that underscores yet another quiet yet vital contribution of African Americans. As Vivien T. Thomas, "raptor" Mos Def delivers an award-worthy performance in his portrayal of the soft-spoken yet dignified Southern lab technician who aids Dr. Alfred Blalock (Golden Globe- and Emmy-winner Alan Rickman), a respected white surgeon, in the extraordinary "blue baby" operation (medically known as Blalock-Taussig Shunt) that saved the lives of babies suffering from "Tetralogy of Fallot," a congenital heart malformation that robs the blood of oxygen.

"Mos Def does a great job," says Dr. Koco Eaton, a physician for the Major League Baseball team the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and "nephew" of Thomas. "I think Denzel Washington needs to be put on alert that Mos Def is going to be the next black actor to win an Academy Award. He is just incredible and this film really shows the depth of the characters that he can play, because my uncle was a reserved and quiet yet dignified Southern gentleman and Mos pulls it off. You get the sense that he is understated but yet strong in his convictions."

Something the Lord Made is far from a vanity piece, taking care not to overstate Thomas' contribution to the Blalock-Taussig Shunt. "Certainly, I think, one of the significant things was, in fact, the research element of it," emphasizes Dr. Gary H. Gibbons, Cardiovascular Research Institute Director and Professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. "That's what Vivien Thomas was, the director, or supervisor of Dr. Blalock's research laboratory. And that was really critical because they really innovated a new technique and so, in order to innovate something obviously you don't want to practice on the first patient. And so that means that you have to develop approaches in an experimental laboratory that you think will apply to take care of the patient. It is clear that Vivien Thomas was instrumental in setting up the models and the approaches that Dr. Blalock could practice on before he had the first case some 60 years ago. So, to have someone like Vivien Thomas was clearly critical to this innovation and it is very special that he didn't have medical training on his own."

But such work was even lost on members of Thomas' own family. "I really didn't fully appreciate his accomplishments until I was accepted in medical school and then I had a chance to understand what his contribution was to medicine," shares Dr. Eaton, who is biologically a cousin to Thomas but knew him as an uncle. "So it's kind of one of those things where your uncle or relative is almost the equivalent of Michael Jordan but you never watched basketball."

He further adds, "When I was in medical school, it was an awakening. It was almost a rediscovery of a man. Here he was with his portrait hanging in the hallway, so you got an appreciation. But then as I started to understand medicine and understand the science behind it; then I got a true interpretation of this genius."

Thomas' significance wasn't lost on Gabrielle Union, who plays Clara, Thomas' wife. At a special screening at the Morehouse School of Medicine, she shared with the audience that, thanks to her husband's encouragement, she did not miss this screening even though her father-in-law passed just days before. "It is what my dad would want," she recounted her husband's words to the audience. "He was so proud of you for being a part of this project to begin with and telling this man's story. You couldn't possibly miss it."

No one should miss this story, filled with the very values Cosby insisted that some of us no longer hold dear. Adversity, such as losing the money he saved to attend college, did not stop Vivien Thomas from taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves in a medical environment. He educated himself so well that he was at home around trained medical experts despite being devalued by the white world, and told that what he was able to do in a lab was nothing short of a miracle for a "colored" man. With the support of his wife, he moved his family from the comforts of Nashville to the harshness of Baltimore. He rose above society's limitations with dignity and class, but when pride got in the way of the important work that he loved, he humbled himself and let the work guide him. Through following his heart, he literally helped improve the hearts of others.

But it is also the story of an unlikely and sometimes troubled friendship between an established and renowned white doctor and his "assistant." Dr. Blalock's support of Thomas underscores what the elders of Thomas' generation knew: Only mastery of a craft ensured elevation for black people. In some ways, it is what Bill Cosby was trying to communicate during that now infamous speech. Fifty years following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which is threaded through the film via Thomas' brother Harold's involvement in a lawsuit in Nashville to get equal pay for the city's black teachers, those like Cosby suggest that some have gotten comfortable and forgotten that we have a responsibility to accept nothing less than greatness for ourselves.

Vivien T. Thomas did not get his portrait placed among the most acknowledged minds of medical history by accepting less than his best. The odds he faced were insurmountable, yet with a commitment to excellence, an unwavering love for his family and undoubtedly a strong belief in God, his life serves as a testament of the timeless theme of African American life: There is always a way out of no way.

Chicago native Ronda Racha Penrice, who has lived in both New York and Los Angeles, is a writer currently living in Atlanta, Georgia.

Sister Showcreator

Last year, USA Today ran an article about UPN and, at the time, their four black female executive producers or "showrunners." This season, the grand total is five. It is no secret that UPN, in an effort to establish itself like Fox and the WB before them, has embraced the African American television audience. It is also no secret that the aforementioned networks both loosened that embrace as their white audiences became larger. According to Mark C. Terry, the Chief Financial Officer at Western International Syndication, which distributed It's Showtime at the Apollo for over a decade, this is the way networks like Fox and the WB established themselves. "Clearly," he says, "there's an understanding that there's a market out there that's been underserved. But clearly there's a need and there's an interest on the part of viewers for [shows] targeted towards them." That seems to be the Hollywood formula and at UPN it has been to the benefit of black women working behind the scenes.

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