In the 2nd installment of #BlackHistoryOvaFlo, I’ve decided to focus this month’s Black History moments on the Generation FleX era and specifically, all of the #Bad & #Black &a #Black & #Bad women of the era. I’ve been writing extensively about the period of 1980-2000 as of late and how this particular period in Blackness shaped the current attitudes and trends of today.
As the 80’s and 90’s drift further and further into our memories, now more than ever we can begin to see the impact that many of the Generation FleX pioneers are having on today’s popular culture. For me, I’ve written about how Queen Latifah inspired meto create FBIL Magazine because Khadijah did it. I launched the Generation FleX Podcast last month because of the seeds “The Insane” Martin Payne planted in me as a youngster. Now more than ever, the 1980-2000 period is seeing its influence like never before.
But who influenced Generation FleX? Before there was a Janet Jackson, Carol Mosely Braun, Whitney Houston, or Angela Bassett, there was an army of women breaking records, dominating their respective fields, and cementing their place in history. These trailblazing women knocked down many of the barriers impeding Black Womanhood. All of us, in one way or another, stand on the shoulders of someone else. From 1965-1980, the years preceding the beginning of Generation FleX, these 30 women made it happen. This list is not just limited to music and television: politics, religion, the arts, higher education, and business are all represented.
Generation FleX: The ForeMothers
Few artists can claim they were as politically enthralled and committed to Blackness than The High Priestess of Soul Nina Simone. A classically trained pianist, Simone used her God-given gifts to bring attention to the heroics of the Civil Rights Movement through song. Many of her works became Black Power standards including “Mississippi Goddam,” a tune she penned in honor of Medgar Evers, “The King of Love is Dead,” a tune composed just one day after Martin Luther King was murdered, and “Young, Gifted, & Black,” a Civil Rights battle cry she penned in honor of her late friend Lorraine Hansberry.
Mary J. Blige, Natalie Cole, Adele, Christina Aguilera, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Faith Evans, Martina McBride, and Amber Riley, have all cited her as the biggest influence in their career. Beyond the fact that she is probably your favorite singer’s favorite singer, no other woman has represented Blackness on a larger scale than that of Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul became one of Martin Luther King’s closest friends and fundraisers – often lending her voice to benefit concerts on behalf of the famed minister. Her signature hit “Respect” became the Civil Rights mantra in 1968. In 1972, she released Young, Gifted, and Black and its title track of the same name. Later that year, her gospel album “Amazing Grace,” became the highest selling gospel album of all-time – a record that still holds today. She refused to perform for an all-white crowd in South Africa – she would only perform for an all-Black crowd or integrated – and demanded that the tour in the nation be handled by a black owned booking agency. All Hail The Queen!
There are fewer names more recognizable and iconic on the political front than that of Angela Davis. Davis was first bitten by the “activist bug” as a teenager when, in 1964, her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama was rocked by the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. Davis’ pursuit of freedom and liberation for all people brought her unwanted attention and eventually made her the number one enemy of one of the most powerful governors at the time – Ronald Reagan. In 1970, Davis was charged with three counts of murder after a confidant of hers used a gun registered in her name to kill 3 people in a jailhouse escape. Davis went in hiding but eventually was arrested and incarcerated for 18 months. Her capture and arrest spawned the “Free Angela Movement,” that stretched from the streets of Oakland to South Africa. Davis was eventually acquitted of all charges. Her iconic afro continues to be a symbol of liberation for melanin-coated people all over the world.
When it is all said and done, and history has its way, Assata Shakur will be remembered as the single most important symbol against imperialism and oppression. In 1973, Shakur was arrested and charged with the murder of a New Jersey police officer. After six years of incarceration, she escaped prison and fled to Cuba where she has lived in exile ever since. Assata Shakur continues to be somewhat of a folklore legend among Black communities who have viewed her daring escape as a modern day runaway slave from the horrendous and treacherous conditions of the United States Plantation. As of 2016, the US government is offering $1,000,000 for her capture and return to the US. Assata’s daring escape and exile in Cuba is one of the greatest examples of the principles that Generation FleX stand upon: unconditional and unequivocal liberation in the face of any adversary by every means available. #HandsOffAssata!
Suzanne de Passe.
Before there was a Shonda Rhimes or Debbie Allen, there was Suzanne de Passe. Serving as the “First Lady of Motown” in its inaugural years, de Passe was instrumental in developing The Jackson 5 and several other prominent Motown acts. Her production credits include: The Jackson 5 Mini-series, The Temptations, The television shows Sister, Sister and Smart Guy, The Zenon: Girl of 21st Century series, It’s Showtime At the Apollo: The Television Series, and Motown 25.
There are fewer names as synonymous with Black Excellence than that of Diana Ross. Aside from sitting at the helm of one of the most successful girl groups in music history, Diana Ross flawlessly glamorized Blackness in a way we had never seen before. In 1972, Diana Ross played Billie Holiday in the cult classic “Lady Sings the Blues” which she earned an Academy Award nomination. She has consistently been cited as a chief architect of the Disco era and has reached inconic status in the Gay community. And who could forget her legendary performance alongside Michael Jackson in “The Wiz?”
A chief vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement, Diane Nash staked her claim as one of the most fearless and uncompromising student leaders in during the 1960’s. In 1965, she played a monumental role in organizing the Freedom Rides across the US south as well as other non-violent forms of resistance. Nash was instrumental in organizing the “March from Selma to Montgomery,” an act many believed was key in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Fearless to the boners, Nash once told Attorney General Bobby Kennedy that she was not afraid to march into Alabama because she had already signed her will. #BAWSE
Vinette Justine Carroll.
In 2016, Black women on Broadway have become the standard – but that wasn’t always the case. In 1972, Carroll became the first Black woman in history to direct a play on Broadway. It’s hard to believe that Black women weren’t given these type of opportunities given the immense talent of the era. Carroll, born in Jamaica and reared in The West Indies, has been credited with being an early innovator of the “The Gospel Song-Play,” a style best seen today in Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise.
In 1968, Diahnn Carroll shocked the world when she became The FIRST Black woman on television to star in her own television show. Not only was this monumental at the time, Ms. Carroll did so in a period when the only roles on television for Black women were domestic or house servants. Her first movie role was alongside Dorothy Dandridge in the film Carmen Jones. She has appeared in I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, the film adaptation of Maya Angelou’s memoir and was also one of the first Black women to be nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Claudine alongside James Earl Jones. More recently, Generation FleX will remember her as being the mother of Whitley Gilbert on A Different World.
One of the lesser known names on this list, Micki Grant’s career serves as fundamental stepping stone to many Generation FleX careers. In 1965, Grant became the first African – American woman to appear in a day-time soap opera. She went on write several Broadway plays and went on to win several distinguished awards including a Grammy for Best Original Score. Grant’s broke through color barrier at a time when there were literally and handful of Black women on television.
Provocative. Controversial. Downright filthy. Whatever your opinion is of Miss Jackson, one thing must be for certain: Millie Jackson’s impact on Hip-Hop is undeniable. Some have credited her with being an early pioneer of the art of rap and the first woman to ever rap on an song. Her “Gives No F*ck” attitude and ownership of her sexuality in a male dominated field was later inherited by Salt-N-Pepa, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Trina, and Nikki Minaj.
In 1968, Barbara Watson became the first African – American and first woman to serve as Assistant Secretary of State under the President Lyndon B. Johnson. In a time when future Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton were only dreaming of someday occupying such a space, this Black woman was actually doing it.
One of the most celebrated actresses of our time, history will probably remember Ms. Dee as one of the chief architects of the Civil Rights Movement. She and husband Ossie Davis served as key organizers of the Martin Luther King March on Washington in 1963. She was the first Black woman to appear in the Shakespeare Festival in a lead role. She was a vigorous fundraiser for the Southern Leadership Christian Conference and was a close friend of Malcolm X. Throughout her 70 year career, Ruby Dee fought on behalf of Black people in the arts and in the larger society.
If you ask the average person who was the first Black woman to run for President of The United States, they would probably tell you Shirley Chisholm. They would also be wrong as hell. That honor belongs to Charlene Mitchell who in 1968, became the first woman to run for President of the United States. Charlene has been a member of the Communist Party since the 1950’s and has not given a single F*ck since then. She continues to be an image of inspiration for feminist scholars and political scientist alike.
Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi. It was the name given to her by a Yoruba High Priest at the tender age of 13. When Chaka was just a teenager, she was already singing songs in Swahili and other native African languages on the Southside of Chicago. Persuaded by fellow Generation FleX Forefather Fred Hampton, Chaka Khan joined the Black Panther Party at the age of 16 after leaving her parent’s home. She was a fundraiser and community organizer for the organization and to this day, remains a vocal proponent of the positive impact the Black Panther party had on her community and the city of Chicago.
Lilian Lincoln Lambert.
Lilian Lincoln lands on this list for two reasons. One, she is one of the most successful Black Business women of the last 50 years. Two, She was the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Business School in 1968. She is a Howard University alumni and former Bowie State professor. Her business ventures went on gross more than $20 Million in revenue after starting with just $4,000 in savings. Lambert created paths in both higher education and entrepreneurship that continue to be navigated to this day.
There are few women on this list that reached the national prominence and international acclaim as Mahalia and still fought tirelessly on behalf of Black communities. After meeting Dr. Martin Luther King at the National Baptist Convention in 1956, Mahalia quickly became one of the most important assets of the Civil Rights Movement. King often times called on her to be both a chief fundraiser for the SCLC and his owner personal spiritual muse when the times got tough. Mahalia passed on the gift of spirit vocal activism to her protégé and goddaughter Aretha Franklin who she’d basically raised as her own after her mother passed away. Jackson sang at both The March on Washington and King’s funeral in 1968. Her commitment to Civil Rights would remain steadfast until her death in 1970.
Is there a more recognizable writer from the period of 1965 – 1980 that that of Maya Angelou? I would challenge anyone to answer that question. Beyond the fact that her signature piece and electrifying memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Maya Angelou’s doesn’t get the credit she deserves for being a fierce supporter of both Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X. She worked tirelessly on behalf of SCLC as a fundraiser and chief organizer as well as field hand. Just prior to Malcolm X’s assassination, she was preparing to assist him on several projects he was working on at the time. Angelou was as Black and as fierce as they came; she never missed an opportunity to proclaim her Blackness.
Every single Black woman in an elected position will likely point to this woman as being their biggest inspiration. Shirley Chisholm was the First Black woman FROM A MAJOR PARTY (This is key) to run for President. Additionally, she is also the first Black woman to serve in Congress and is the first woman in history to win a major primary caucus.She was so bad, President Richard Nixon feared her influence and official declared her an a “political enemy” in 1972.
“The Orginal Soul Sistah,” Pam Grier is best remembered for her roles in the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s. Pam Grier represented and symbolized Black female sexuality and empowerment in a time when women of all creeds and ethnicities were simply fighting for relevance. Grier often portrayed characters that bucked the stereotypical roles of hookers and domestics often reserved for Black actresses at the time. She was fine, she was fly, and was an unapologetic Black woman.
Marsha P. Johnson.
In 1966, Malcolm Michaels, having grown tired of an identity he could not relate to, changed his name and Marsha P. Johnson was born. Johnson would go on to be a trailblazing figure on the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgender scene. She was a fierce organizer in New York and is credited with bringing drag culture to mainstream. She was a key figure in the Stonewall Riots that rocked a New York neighborhood in 1969. Johnson – who some credit with being the initiator of the riot – went on to become a leading voice in gay rights and social acceptance of alternative lifestyles. She helped co-found S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) an organization that provided support for people in the LGBTQ community.
Fannie Lou Hamer.
Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t a particularly glamorous woman; she was a timekeeper from a small town in Mississippi. But, if anyone has earned their spot on this list and has done so with little dispute, it would be her. Fannie Lou Hamer became one of the lead organizers of voting rights for Black folks in the early 1960’s. A charismatic speaker and dynamic singer, Hamer used her words and voice to rally those into action. In 1964, she helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in an attempt to select Black delegates to represent Mississippi in the general election. Hamer’s efforts led to the federal government revising delegation procedures – allowing for Blacks to seek delegate seats. Of all the things she accomplished, she is probably best known for the phrase “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
In 2013, Aja Brown shocked the nation when she became the mayor of Compton at just 31 years old. Her ascension to the highest office in the city was impressive – as it should have been. Aja Brown is the direct political descendant of Doris Davis – the first African American woman to be elected to a major Metropolitan area of the US. Davis too was elected in the City of Compton.
There have been few actress to force Black women to confront their Blackness through their craft on such a consistent basis than that of Cicely Tyson. Through her career that has spanned nearly 6 decades, Lady Tyson has been very particular about the roles she has accepted. Cicely Tyson has been credited with being at the forefront of two hairstyles that took Black America by storm in the 1960’s: In the early 60’s, Tyson appeared (as one of the first and few) on a prime-time television show sporting a short natural. Some point to this hairstyle as being the beginning of the afro being accepted among women of color. Tyson would become a Trend Queen again when she appeared on television sporting African cornrows – a first in American television history.
Tracy Africa Norman.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, Tracy African Norman was an international modeling phenom. She walked runways of global influences in the fashion industry and coveted several top of the line endorsement deals. Norman did all of these things as a closeted transgender. She appeared on the cover of Vogue and was the first Transgendered person to model for a Clairol campaign. Norman’s whirlwind career came to a halt when Essence Magazine‘s Susan Taylor refused to publish a spread of her after finding out she was born a man.
Over 40 years ago, a caramel complexioned – Black woman by the name of Beverly Johnson graced the cover of Vogue Magazine – a first for any woman of color. Johnson, who had been the constant target of discrimination and racial bullying, rose through the ranks of the fashion industry to become one of the most celebrated models in recent history. If you were to ask Tyra, Naomi, and Alek who was Queen, they’d all answer by simply bowing down. And who could forget Johnson’s unforgettable appearance on “Martin” as Ms. Trinidad when she almost caught that #FADE from Gina? Classic.
Not only was Barbara Jordan the first Black woman to hold a congressional seat from the south, she did so from the most “confederate” of confederate states – Texas. Jordan’s soaring rhetoric and booming voice commanded all that heard her voice to stop and pay attention. She became Congresswoman in the “Golden Era of Black Politics” from 1965-1975, a period that saw Blacks being elected to city and state elections. She played a pivotal role in the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. In 1976, she delivered a breathtaking keynote at the Democratic National Convention. She is as bad as they have ever come.
While most of Kitt’s fame, notoriety, and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement came before 1965, the “Original Black Cat” made the ultimate sacrifice in 1968 when she used an invitation to the White House by Lady Bird Johnson to critique the Vietnam War. Her words were so biting and Eartha-like that it brought the First Lady to tears. Kitt’s career stalled tremendously and she never gained the notoriety she once had. A known champion for integration, Kitt would refuse to perform for any crowd where Blacks were not allowed to see her perform. She was once discouraged from performing at the Apollo because opponents said that “Black people wouldn’t understand.” She was so popular at the Apollo that she went from performing 2 shows a day to 5 to accommodate all that came to see her.
The wife of famed Ebony Magazine Founder John H. Johnson, Eunice Johnson forged her own legacy in 1958 when she created the Ebony Fashion Fair – a traveling fashion exhibition that showcased Black models and up and coming designers. Johnson used the Ebony Fashion Fair to not only enhance the brand of Ebony, she leveraged its popularity to demand that mainstream designers use more Black models. In 1973, after growing disillusioned from the lack of make-up choices for Black women, Johnson launched Fashion Fair Cosmetics for African – American women.The Ebony Fashion Fair has raised nearly $55 million dollars for Civil Rights organizations over the years. Josephine Baker.
Before Diana Ross, Dorothy Dandridge, or Lena Horne, there was the incomparable Josephine Baker. Although a majority of Baker’s contributions came before 1965, (She was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture) her later years in life were dedicated to bringing awareness to racism and discrimination both at home in the United States and abroad. She was offered an unofficial administrative position in King’s SCLC after his death in 1968 by his widow Coretta but turned it down. She was the only woman to address the crowd at the March on Washington 5 years prior. Many consider Baker the first international female entertainer ever – paving the way for a litany of woman to walk behind her.
Pat Parker was an early Gay and lesbian activist of the 1960’s and 70’s. She worked as a member of the Black Panther Movement and used her poetry and writing to bring attention to issues impacting oppressed communities. In 1980, she founded the Black Woman’s Revolutionary Council.