Book Highlight - "I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America"
by Renee-Noelle Felice

Angela Davis, one of the African American women highlighted in the book, seen here at an SPC rally in October 2006. Photo: Andy Mager

The format of I Dream A World (Brian Lanker; Stewart, Tabori & Change, 1999) is simple: a black & white photographic portrait on one page; excerpts from an interview with the woman in the portrait on the opposite page; a very brief biographical sketch in a slender column at the edge.

In her foreword, Maya Angelou gives us some historical perspective: "Black women whose ancestors were brought to the United States beginning in 1619 have lived through conditions of cruelties so horrible, so bizarre, the women had to re-invent themselves. They had to find safety and sanctity inside themselves or they would not have been able to tolerate those tortuous lives. They had to learn to be self-forgiving quickly, for often their exterior exploits were at odds with their interior beliefs. Still they had to survive as wholly and healthily as possible in an infectious and sick climate…

The photographer, Brian Lanker, … has discovered women whose images show us the high cost of living and the rich reward of thriving…These women regard us, understand us, gaze through us into a beyond alien to our most common view…. The sameness of their gaze informs us that they will not be removed, that indeed although they are shaken, bruised, and uprooted, they are determined to remain."

But it is Lanker himself, writing in the Preface, who hands us the key to understanding the activism of his subjects: "…All of the women in this book have dreamed of a world not only better for themselves for generations to come, a world where character and ability matter, not color or gender. As they dreamed that world, they acted on those dreams[,] and they changed America."

Here, the ultra-famous (Oprah Winfrey, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis) rub elbows with widows who have made names for themselves: Coretta Scott King became the president and CEO of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and chairperson of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. Myrlie Evers was appointed Commissioner to the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, and authored For Us the Living. Rachel Robinson, once an Assistant Professor in Clinical Psychiatry at Yale School of Nursing, is president of the J.R. Development Corporation and still chairs the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

Show-business phenomena Sarah Vaughan, Cicely Tyson, Leontyne Price, Lena Horne, Ruby Dee, and Marian Anderson share the spotlight with folksinger/activist Odetta; Eva Jessye, choral director for Broadway's first production of Porgy and Bess, and Katherine Dunham, dancer-choreographer, and performing arts center founder. Here, too, are Grammy-nominated jazz stylist Ernestine Anderson; "Mother" (Willie Mae Ford) Smith, "the mother of gospel music;" storyteller Jackie Torrence; LaMama Experimental Theatre Club-founder/director Ellen Stewart; Beah Richards, actor, poet and playwright; and prima ballerina Janet Collins, "the first black artist to perform on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House." "I felt like a doorknob," Collins told Lanker. "I was the dancer who opened the door."

There are elected officials among these dreamers, too. We meet California Assemblywoman, Majority Whip Maxine Waters, and Congresswoman Yvonne Braithwaite; Texas Congressional Representative Barbara Jordan; Unita Blackwell, the first black woman mayor in Mississippi, and former chair of the Black Women Mayors' Caucus; Carrie Saxon Perry, the first black woman mayor of a major US city (Hartford, Connecticut); Kentucky State Senator Georgia Davis Powers; and Congresswomen Harriet Elizabeth Byrd (Wyoming) and Shirley Chisholm (Brooklyn, New York), the first black woman in the country elected to the House of Representatives. "I have met far more discrimination as a woman than being black in the field of politics," said Chisholm. "Nobody calls on black women to find out what they're thinking about because we're always part of somebody else's agenda…I want to organize black women in this country so that they'll become a force to be reckoned with."

There are other activists, as well. Bertha Gilkey, founder and president of Urban Women, Inc., began fighting for welfare and tenants' rights at the age of fourteen. Newspaper editor Daisy Bates led the "Little Rock Nine" in the 1957 fight to desegregate Central High School. Dr. Anna Arnold Hedgeman was a member of the cabinet of New York City's Mayor Wagner for four years and the only woman on the administrative committee calling for the 1963 March on Washington.

Johnnie Tillmon is founding chairperson and director of the National Welfare Rights Organization. She says, "I believe in rhetoric to a certain extent. But you can only rhetoricize so long and then you have to deal with fact…sometimes I had to start a mess to get to the facts."

Ruby Dee comments, "The world has improved mostly through people who are unorthodox, who do unorthodox things." Every woman in this book easily meets this criterion.

Renee-Noelle Felice is a local storyteller and writer.