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Alice Knox Eaton

writer, performer, and teacher, was born Barbara Davis in Hampton, Virginia, the youngest of four children of Willie Louise Barbour and Collis H. Davis. Her parents were educators at Hampton University, the traditionally black college once attended by Booker T. Washington. Her mother died in 1955, when Davis was only seven years old. Davis graduated from the Putney School in Vermont in 1966, received her bachelor's degree from Barnard College in 1970, and did graduate work at both Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania.

By the age of twenty Davis was publishing and performing her poetry. While living in San Francisco in the mid-1970s, she wrote and performed with Ntozake Shange, Jessica Hagedorn and other spoken word artists all members of a group called the Third World Artists Collective During this time she also worked as a reporter for the San Francisco ...


Jeremy Rich

was born in the town of Thiero, Faranah region, Haut-Guinée province, Guinea, to El Hadj Djeli Fode Diabaté, one of the first men to play a Western-style guitar. Although Diabate’s father tried to teach him to play the large balafon xylophone, Diabate preferred the guitar as a boy. When he was to begin his primary education at a Muslim Quranic school around 1954, Diabate asked his father to buy him a National brand steel guitar. His early engagement with music was relatively unusual in the 1950s and 1960s, when many parents in different African countries did not consider music to be a viable career for their children. Diabate moved to the Guinean capital of Conakry in 1959 a year after the country gained independence from France A friend of Diabate s father Abou Camara allowed the young man to stay with him in the Bonfil neighborhood Diabate s ...


Cynthia Staples

was born in Bloomfield, Kentucky and little is known about his early life. In the 1880s, while singing in his local church, he either received encouragement or independently developed a desire to become a professional singer. In order to accomplish this, he traveled to New York City in that same decade and quickly became acclimated to the musical world. He worked a series of odd jobs to make money so that he could pay for professional voice, language, and music lessons from instructors such as voice coach John Howard. His teachers introduced him to a world of music he had not known before. He fell in love with opera, a classical form of music that, for Drury, was far more uplifting than the popular and too often derogatory minstrel shows of the late nineteenth century.

In 1889 with the aid of private benefactors who today are largely unknown Drury ...


Doris Evans McGinty

According to Jerrold Lytton (as reported by H. S. Fortune in the Colored American, June 1900), Theodore Drury was born in Kentucky of a musical family. He was well read and able to speak both French and German. Described in contemporary reports as thoroughly trained, elegant, and highly professional in bearing, he was considered by some as the first black, highly trained male singer.

It was in New York and the New England states that Drury's early performing experience as a tenor took place, often in support of more established singers. Through these appearances, his name became known and in 1889 he organized the Drury Comic Opera Company. Toward the end of that same year, the company was renamed the Theodore Drury Opera Company and gave concerts of operatic selections under the management of G. H. Barrett. An advertisement in 1889 (New York Age October ...


Vanessa Agard-Jones

culinary anthropologist, poet, performing artist, and journalist, was born Verta Mae Smart in Fairfax, South Carolina, the daughter of Frank Smart. She grew up in Monk's Corner, South Carolina, and as a teenager moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she attended Kensington High School. Grosvenor married twice, first to Robert S. Grosvenor and later to Ellensworth Ausby, and had two children.

Grosvenor's early life in the South Carolina Lowcountry was enormously influential in her later career, grounding her in a cultural milieu that was thoroughly Geechee (or Gullah) in language (her first language was the Creole known as Gullah), in ritual, and perhaps most importantly to her later work, in food. Geechee communities of the American South have retained African linguistic and cultural practices.

At the age of thirty-two, in 1970, Grosvenor published her culinary memoir Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a ...


Gabriel Mayora

gay and transgender activist, theater performer, and U.S. LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) icon, was born Malcolm Michaels, Jr. in Elizabeth, New Jersey. There is no available information about Johnson's parents, but in Michael Kasino's 2012 documentary Pay It No Mind Johnson briefly mentions her mother, though she does not provide her name or occupation; she never brings up her father, suggesting, perhaps, that she was raised in a single-parent household. As a child Johnson attended the Mount Teamon Church, a Baptist church in New Jersey. At age five she started wearing drag; later, when she was thirteen, a boy she knew from school raped her. Reflecting back on this early experience, Johnson identified it as the moment she discovered men could be attracted to other men and act on those feelings (Kasino).

Between the ages of sixteen and twenty two Johnson moved to New ...


Beth Kraig

model, singer, performance artist, and actress, was born in Spanishtown, Jamaica, the daughter of Marjorie and Robert Jones. Her mother was a clothing maker whose design skills influenced her daughter's eventual reputation as a fashion trendsetter. Her father was a minister whose charismatic preaching influenced his daughter's sense of drama. Jones, a twin, was one of seven children, and the large family shared an enthusiasm for music that shaped her childhood ambition of becoming a singer.

Like thousands of people of African descent from the Caribbean, the family relocated to the United States to seek more opportunities. They settled in Syracuse, New York, in the 1960s, with the parents preceding their children to the United States and then reuniting the family in 1964 in their new home. Jones continued her education in Syracuse and enrolled in Syracuse University in 1968 where she focused on ...


Sybil Collins Wilson

was born Karen Lemmons in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a biology teacher and her mother was a psychotherapist and poet. At the age of eight she and her two sisters moved to Newton, Massachusetts with their mother after their parents divorced. Around the same time Lemmons’s love for movies began to develop, although she was not interested in just being an actor—she wanted to direct.

Lemmons’s first acting role was in a television courtroom drama, You Got a Right, playing the role of a young black girl who integrated a school. In her late teens she appeared in the 1979 television movie 11th Victim after which she began to appear onstage with The Boston Children s Theatre She later attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University but decided to leave to study history at the University of California at Los Angeles UCLA ...


Joan F. McCarty

actress, singer, and producer, was born Rosetta Olive Burton, the daughter of Harold Charles Burton and Marie (Jacques) Burton in New York City's Hell's Kitchen (now Clinton) neighborhood. Her father was a licensed engineer and plumber and was active in the political arena both locally and nationally. When Rosetta was very young, her mother fell desperately ill after giving birth. The nearest hospital refused to admit her because of her race, and she died of pneumonia.

As a youngster, LeNoire suffered from rickets, a weakening of the bones usually caused by inadequate vitamin D and/or calcium in the diet. Doctors reset her legs, but she wore leg braces until 1924 when she was thirteen. At this time she began to take music lessons from the legendary composer Eubie Blake, who continued to be a mentor and friend until he died in 1983. Bill ...


Elton C. Fax

Aubrey Lyles was born in Jackson, Tennessee. He and Flournoy Miller formed a partnership that remained unbroken until Lyles died in New York City on August 4, 1932. Miller and Lyles toured Tennessee in a comedy act. Lured by Northern big-city promises of fame and wealth, they went to Chicago, Illinois, where they were hired by Robert Motts to write for his Pekin Stock Company, a well-known black theater group. Their first play, The Mayor of Dixie (1907), was such a hit that Motts decided to send it to New York City. Since he did not include the two young Tennessee writers in his plans, Miller followed the show as its property man and Lyles as valet for the star, Harrison Stewart.

In New York Lyles met celebrated comedian Ernest Hogan, who engaged Lyles and Miller to write Hogan's biggest hit, The Oyster ...


Donna L. Halper

was born in Jackson, Tennessee, the oldest child of Robert and Lena (Bishop) Lyles. Little is known about Aubrey Lyles’s childhood, although in a 1926 interview with the Pittsburgh Courier, he said his father was a musician who hoped he would one day lead an orchestra (“Miller and Lyles,” p.10). Robert Lyles died when Aubrey was still a boy, and his mother remarried in 1894; he and his sisters were raised by their mother and stepfather, Jack Boone. In 1903 Aubrey enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, planning to become a doctor. However, he soon abandoned that plan when he discovered a love of performing. While at Fisk he met upperclassman Flournoy Miller, and the two began a collaboration that would last for nearly three decades. (Several online sources have claimed the two were childhood friends, but there is no evidence of this.)

In one instance Miller ...


John G. Turner

was born in Natchez, Mississippi to a mixed-race Pennsylvanian cabinetmaker and his slave. Upon his death, McCary’s father freed his mother and two siblings in his will, yet assigned McCary as a slave to two of his own siblings. Also known as Okah Tubbee and William Chubbee, he escaped slavery as a young man and took refuge in New Orleans, later heading north to St. Louis.

In 1846 McCary using the name William went to Nauvoo Illinois which the Mormons were at the time leaving under the threat of persecution from anti Mormon mobs Showcasing a penchant for assumed identities that characterized his subsequent exploits McCary presented himself as an Indian chief He was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints and married a white Mormon woman named Lucy Stanton Bassett The couple soon left Nauvoo for Cincinnati Ohio where McCary gained prophetic influence over ...


Eric Gardner

also known as “Millie-Christine,” entertainers, were conjoined twins born to an enslaved couple named Jacob and Monemia, who were owned by Jabez McKay, a Columbus County, North Carolina, blacksmith. The twins quickly became a local sensation in the wake of the success of the original “Siamese Twins,” Chang and Eng Bunker (conjoined twins made famous by showman and entrepreneur P. T. Barnum) and the growth of the national circus movement. Before the McKoy twins were a year old, McKay and his partner John C. Pervis arranged for them to be exhibited throughout the area; soon after, their career was taken over by a manager named Brower, and they were sold to North Carolina businessman Joseph Pearson Smith. By this point, though, Brower, who was in possession of the young girls, had been swindled and the girls were stolen away to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where, in 1854 ...


Larvester Gaither

was born John Lester Nash to John Lester Nash, Sr. and Eliza Armstrong in Houston, Texas. “Johnny” Nash, as he was widely known, soared to fame on the wings of the ubiquitous hit song “I Can See Clearly Now,” which reached number one on the Billboard 100 chart in 1972, where it remained for four weeks. The song has been covered by hundreds of artists across many genres, including jazz player Kermit Ruffins, blues musician Ray Charles, rock group The Rolling Stones, and reggae artist Jimmy Cliff. Although much of his musical acclaim is identified with the song’s success, Nash is also credited with stimulating an American taste for rock-steady Jamaican reggae. In a very substantial way, Nash helped set the stage upon which the legendary Bob Marley triumphed with his internationally acclaimed music.

Nash s formative years were spent in Third Ward Houston where his father worked ...


Jeremy Rich

was born in Mbaise, Imo State, Nigeria, the fourth of eight children born to her father, a banker, and her mother, a teacher on 3 May 1979. Both parents viewed education as extremely important. Nnaji showed interested in drama at an early age and in 1987 at the age of eight was a child actress on the Nigerian soap opera Ripples After she completed primary school Nnaji went to the Methodist Girls High School in Yaba where she had a daughter Chimebuka Nnaji was extremely protective of her daughter s privacy and would not discuss the details surrounding her birth or the name of the child s father Chimebuka was largely raised by Nnaji s parents Nnaji graduated from secondary school and enrolled at the University of Lagos where she focused on drama and the arts She appeared in commercials for products such as Omo washing powder and ...


Jennifer Lynn Headley

cultural critic, historian, performance and installation artist, photographer, writer, and activist, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother, Lena, emigrated from Jamaica to Boston in the 1920s. She earned a BA from Wellesley College in Spanish and Economics and an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Iowa, studying-in its renowned Writers' Workshop. From Iowa, she moved to New York City and began writing for the Village Voice and Rolling Stone as a rock critic. She changed her career course with her first performance pieces in the 1980s and her critical writings about art and its effect on students and peers.

O'Grady's first performed as Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire, loosely translated into Ms. Black Middle Class; her alter ego was a rowdy uninvited guest to numerous high-profile art exhibitions. Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire Goes to JAM (1980), Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Goes to ...


Diane Hudson

artist, was born in Newark, New Jersey, to Lucille Lancaster and William Pope II. His mother worked as a reporter, an office worker, nurse, and housewife, and his father was a factory worker and clothes presser.

Self-proclaimed the “Friendliest Black Artist in America,” Pope.L is a multidisciplinary artist whose broad-based conceptual performances aggressively address consumerism, racism, class, and gender. The unusual name, Pope.L, was given to him at birth by his mother, the L representing her maiden name, Lancaster. Pope.L would later recall, “As mum would say, she only got one letter” (interview with the author, July 2004).

Pope L didn t really commit to a life of art until he was a junior in high school although he remembers a female art teacher in grammar school encouraging him His grandmother he tells me was very much for his becoming an artist No one in my family ...


Ondra Krouse Dismukes

poet, performance artist, and novelist, was born Ramona Lofton at Fort Ord military base near Monterey, California, one of four children. Sapphire and her family lived on and off army bases in California and Texas for the first twelve years of her life. She suffered sexual abuse from her father as early as age three. When Sapphire was thirteen, her father retired from the army and moved to Europe. Following her parents’ separation, Sapphire and her siblings moved with their mother to South Philadelphia, her mother's hometown. Soon after their move her mother abandoned the family, and Sapphire moved back to California with her siblings, to Los Angeles.

At age twenty-one Sapphire hitchhiked to San Francisco, where she attempted to reconstruct her life after bearing the burden of being guardian to her two siblings. In 1973 she enrolled in San Francisco City College as a premed ...


Dustin Garlitz

was born in Wilmington, Delaware, the son of Matthew M. Shipp, Sr., a Delaware police officer, and Gertrude Quinton, a nurse. The trumpeter Clifford Brown was a family friend growing up in Delaware. Shipp attended the University of Delaware, and then the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. At the New England Conservatory he studied with saxophonist Joe Maneri. As a young musician Shipp also studied with Dennis Sandole, who gave music lessons to the young John Coltrane.

Shipp moved to New York City in 1984, where he has been based since. In 2000 he became curator of The Blue Series on Thirsty Ear Records. Shipp has led his own trio for over two decades, and has performed in duo settings with bassist William Parker, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell violinist Mat Maneri guitarist Joe Morris and saxophonist Ivo Perelman among a number of others He performed in ...