In our annual tribute, we salute the strength, courage and wisdom of inspiring Black women
“One is rarely brave on one’s own,” says Dr. Maya Angelou, reflecting on what shapes a woman’s boldness. “We come up from the ground like trees. We have roots, and they determine how we will have the courage to do what we do in life.” The aspirations that drive the women you are about to meet are vastly different. Some are working to protect our children; others are securing our health and our self-esteem; others are defending our nation. What they have in common is a rooted sense of purpose that gives them the courage they need to press forward. May their boldness encourage us all
“Shirley Franklin knows the city’s heart.” —Andrew Jackson Young, Jr., former mayor of Atlanta and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
Atlanta’s first female mayor stunned an audience of journalists and city leaders during a press conference last November with the statement that, as a little girl, she had been sexually assaulted by a friend’s father. Her revelation came as she announced the Dear John campaign, the city’s aggressive plan to end sexual exploitation of underage girls in Atlanta. “Atlanta is a major hub for human trafficking and exploitation,” says the 62-year-old mother of three adult children. “The only way to reverse the problem is to acknowledge it. I imagine that’s why I told my story.’’ Franklin’s task force aims to ensure that there aren’t any more young victims. “These men are breaking the law. We want to make it clear that this is not acceptable.” —Tatsha Robertson
Get involved with her cause Tapestri, Inc. is an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization dedicated to ending violence and human trafficking. For more information on how you can help, visit Tapestri.org or call 404-299-2185.
“Chandra is someone who has an immense sense of purpose and responsibility.” —Anika Noni Rose, DREAMGIRLS
For the Grey’s Anatomy breakout star, self-confidence didn’t always runneth over. “I was always questioning, ‘Lord, what in the world am I doing here, and why haven’t I gotten fired yet?’” says Wilson of her early days in musical theater. “Fortunately, I’ve been in the presence of people who’ve let me know I’m good enough where I am.” Whether it was her mother; her Broadway patron, George C. Wolfe, who directed her in Caroline, or Change; or her role model, director–choreographer Debbie Allen, Wilson has had someone rooting for her. Now it’s her turn to uplift others. She’s starting a program in her native Houston for high school seniors and adults who wish to study the arts. Says Wilson, “I just want to continue the giving.” —cori murray.
Get involved with her cause Make a difference in a young person’s life by nurturing her creative genius. Wilson’s Sermoonjoy Foundation supports art students with scholarships and grants. For information, visit chandrawilson.com.
“These women should be recognized for their commitment to this country.” —Michele S. Jones, retired Command Sergeant Major, Army Reserve
The Black Female Cadets of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point
The 73 young Black women currently at the academy know they will likely be sent to Iraq after graduation. Each day they balance a rigorous academic curriculum with military training that includes weapons instruction and combat drills. They must also cope with grim news from the battlefield, like the death last year of 2nd Lieutenant Emily Perez, the first Black female West Point graduate to be killed in Iraq. “Emily was from the class of ’05, so it hit close to home,” says cadet captain Marjana Mair, 23, of Perez, who was the highest-ranking woman of color in West Point history. Yet Mair feels confident about going to Iraq. “Instead of the draft, I’d rather they send someone who wants to go, like me.”—cynthia gordy
Get involved with their cause Find out ways you can support our soldiers through America Supports You, a nationwide program started by the Department of Defense, at americasupportsyou.mil.
A MOTHER’S LOVE
“They’ve chosen to stay out there and fight, knowing it’s an uphill battle and that some consider their actions controversial.” —Reverend Al Sharpton
Kadiatou Diallo, Marie Dorismond and Valerie Bell (from left)
When Marie Dorismond and Kadiatou Diallo heard about the shooting of Sean Bell, an unarmed Queens, New York, man who died last November on his wedding day in a storm of 50 police bullets, they rushed to the side of Sean’s mother, Valerie Bell. Both had lost their sons to police violence in New York—Amadou Diallo in 1999, Patrick Dorismond in 2000—so they understood her pain. The two attended Sean’s funeral and a protest march in the weeks following. Recently three of the five officers who fired at Sean were indicted on criminal charges. “My husband always said Sean would be famous,” says Bell, who held a 50-day vigil last winter to focus media attention on her son’s killing. “I never thought it would be like this.” The mothers are now bonded by their struggle against racial profiling and police brutality. Says Diallo, 48: “I draw strength from working hard to effect positive change.”—c.g.
“She has the courage to take her pain and turn it into inspiration for our personal healing. Maya Angelou is a warrior woman, lifesaver, healer, dreamer, lover, queen.” —Susan L. Taylor
Dr. Maya Angelou
When asked to describe her own boldness, Dr. Angelou, 79, demurs, preferring instead to elaborate on what it means to live boldly. “Living with humor, compassion and style—that’s bold,” says the celebrated author, poet, educator, director, actress and civil rights activist. “It’s about being brave and bodacious.” What it is not about, she says, is accepting any label that diminishes. “Black women of another generation would never stand for being called bitches and hos,” she says. Dr. Angelou, whose message of hope and unity permeates everything she does, says we shouldn’t be afraid to be kind to one another. “Black women need to compliment each other more,” she explains. “Pat someone on the shoulder as you pass by. You have no idea how you encourage a person when you do this.” —vanessa bush
`Marian Wright Edelman said, `Service is the rent we pay for living.' I love that.' —Holly Robinson Peete
Holly Robinson Peete
On a balmy Sunday morning, actress and activist Holly Robinson Peete is at home, floor-managing her four young children with equal parts grit and grace, never raising her voice but never losing sight of what she expects from them. Balancing 2-year-old Roman on her hip, Holly watches affectionately as her three other children—9-year-old twins Ryan Elizabeth and Rodney, Jr., and 4-year-old Robinson—bang out an impromptu concert on the piano for their visitor. The music gets louder and more discordant as the kids try to outdo one another, and Holly moves smoothly to cut it off. She then herds us all into an adjacent room to view her photos of a recent family trip: The Peetes were part of a contingent that accompanied Oprah Winfrey to South Africa to inaugurate her new leadership school for girls. Holly glows with excitement at the idea of Oprah giving such an enormous gift to a population that has so little, a present that will endure for generations to come. It is a thrill she gets in some measure from running HollyRod Foundation, the nonprofit she and her husband, Rodney Peete, founded ten years ago to assist those living with Parkinson’s disease. “Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘Service is the rent we pay for living,’ ” says Holly. “I love that. Running a nonprofit can be rough, but a philanthropic high is like no other. It’s all about balance.”
The actress’s reputation for balance is rare in Hollywood. Instead of relationship-hopping and contract disputes, she is known for a strong 12-year marriage to her spouse, a former NFL quarterback; her close-knit family and a steady career that spans almost 20 continuous years in television. Her first series was 21 Jump Street, in the 1980’s, and her most recent is the dramedy Football Wives, an ABC pilot slated for the fall.
At home, Holly is charmingly ordinary, dressed in jeans, purple Ugg boots and a T-shirt, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. The 41-year-old is as trim and wiry as a teenager. She has a wide-eyed quality that makes her seem younger than her age, perhaps a permanent effect of being the daughter of Matthew Robinson, the actor and writer who portrayed the beloved character Gordon on Sesame Street in the 1970’s. Robinson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the relatively young age of 46, and it was his long, spirited but ultimately losing battle with the disease (he died in 2002) that inspired Holly to start the foundation. Her father, by the way, is a complicated figure—a role model and touchstone but also a problematic parent in Holly’s childhood. He left the family when she was 9, forcing her mother, Dolores (who is also her manager), to move from their native Philadelphia to the great unknown of Los Angeles. But Holly seems not to harbor any ill will; she says her father’s condition actually made them closer. “I thought I had done something wrong as a daughter, and he broke down one day and said, ‘No, that’s not it,’ ” she recalls. “I learned that his own father had mentally checked out after his sister, my aunt, died of scarlet fever because a White hospital wouldn’t treat her. There was a lot of hidden pain in his life that my father didn’t share.”
That wasn’t Holly’s only father issue. Until he retired from the NFL, two years ago, Rodney was also largely absent—gone half the year for training and regular season play. This meant that for much of the marriage, Holly did the child rearing on her own. The situation was compounded when Rodney, Jr., was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Next to her father’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, Holly says, learning that her son has autism was the most devastating moment of her life. Her husband and mother resisted the diagnosis until Holly gave them both an ultimatum: Get on board with seeking treatment for Rodney, Jr., or get gone. “I was going to leave my husband and divorce my mom,” she says emphatically. “I knew we had to roll up our sleeves and not go into denial. With autism, early intervention is important. We had to get those therapies going.” Her family quickly came around, and Rodney, Jr., is now a personable boy in the process of being mainstreamed at school. But the experience of raising an autistic child has been painfully educational for Holly.
“You really find out who your friends are,” she says. “When your kid is struggling at 4, being disruptive, and he stops getting invited to parties and play dates, it hurts.” Holly admits she went through her own period of denial and grief, though not for long. “I had this moment when Rod was in this school where many of the kids were much more severely affected than he was—he was like the poster boy,” she recalls. “That’s when I thought, This could be so much worse.”
It’s a supreme balancing act, admirable by any standards. Yet when it comes to her own career, some say that the actress has stuck too much to the middle, staying in the comfort zone of television instead of aspiring to movies, the brass ring for most actors. Holly says the choice was conscious. “After I started having kids, I really didn’t want to do film,” she says, citing the logistical headache of being away on sets for months at a time. But Holly is plenty excited about her new series, Football Wives, which costars Gabrielle Union and Ving Rhames. She says the show is good for her family values. “Rodney says to me, ‘The nonprofits are nice, but Mama needs to do a little for-profit now,’ ” she says, laughing again. “Time to get back to work!”
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a Los Angeles writer.
Get Involved with her cause to learn more about The Holly Rod Foundation, visit hollyrod.com or call 866-HOLLYROD. To get more inmformation about autism, contact Cure Autism Now at CUREAUTISMNOW.ORG OR 888-8-AUTISM.
“Her capacity for forgiveness in the face of adversity is the embodiment of grace.” —Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick
Kai Leigh Harriott
Her body may be confined to a wheelchair, but Kai Leigh Harriott’s generous spirit knows no bounds. At age 3, she was hit by a stray bullet when a teenager fired three errant shots in her Boston neighborhood. After months of rehabilitation and nearly three years of waiting for a trial, Kai Leigh finally came face-to-face with the man responsible for her paralysis. She astounded everyone in the courtroom by addressing the shooter and forgiving him. “My heart told me that it was the right thing to do,” says the soft-spoken 6-year-old. Kai Leigh’s mom, Tonya David, plans to start the New Beginning Foundation, a nonprofit designed to help other families in similar circumstances. “I want to give back the way others gave to us,” she says. —zulaika jumaralli
Get involved with her cause Mail letters of support, gifts or donations to the Kai Leigh Harriott Fund, Citizens Bank, 572 Columbia Road, Dorchester MA 02124.
“She is relentless. Anything she wants to do, will get done.” —Johnnetta B. Cole, president, Bennett College
Marian Wright Edelman
Standing with her 5-year-old granddaughter, Ellika, as Rosa Parks lay in state at the Capitol, Marian Wright Edelman said to her, “Never forget what one Black woman can do to change this country.” As founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), Edelman, 67, has spent the past 30 years fighting for policies and legislation that protect children. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she enlisted the help of Hollywood wives such as Malaak Compton-Rock and LaTanya Richardson Jackson to help fund 14 new Freedom Schools in the Gulf Coast. Scheduled to open this summer, they will provide children with quality summer- and after-school education. —wendy l. wilson
Get involved with her cause Establish a CDF Freedom School in your area, sign a petition to enact health insurance for all kids, join the CDF Action Council, or make a donation at CHILDRENSDEFENSE.ORG.
“She has an amazing voice and an amazing spirit. She’s overcome adversity and blossomed.” —Sylvia Rhone, Universal Motown president
On the surface, the R&B songstress has a picture-perfect life: a successful career, an NBA hubby and an adorable 5-year-old daughter. But the 32-year-old can also add survivor to her life’s résumé. In 2003 Tamia learned she has multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that weakens the body’s central nervous system and causes extreme fatigue. Not one to shrink from a challenge, Tamia educated herself about the illness. “People of color have to be aware of their medical status and be persistent with their doctors,” she says. Over the past four years, Tamia has spoken out publicly about leading a productive life with the disease. “Forget about trying to get through the storms,” she says. “Life is about learning to dance in the rain.” —bridgette bartlett
Get involved with her cause For more information on multiple sclerosis or to send a donation for research, contact the National Multiple Sclerosis Society by visiting nationalmssociety.org or calling 800-FIGHT-MS.