By Bobbi Booker
Donald Bogle’s road to uncovering the lives of Black entertainers started in the library of the Philadelphia Tribune that he would comb through while tagging along with his father (then a Tribune executive) on Saturday visits to the office. He recalled being transfixed at the obituary image he discovered of songtress Billie Holiday sporting her trademark gardenia. Already a movie buff, Bogle recalled that he “got caught up in the careers of all these personalities, the moments when they first became successful, the years they peaked as artists, and the periods afterwards when some slipped into decline.” The unique perspective Bogle has as an eyewitness to history has been shared in several books he’s authored including “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films,” “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams,” and the prize-winning biography “Dorothy Dandridge.”
Bogle continues his historical trek and celebration of America’s “dark divas” in the newly designed and updated “Brown Sugar: Over 100 Years of America’s Black Female Superstars” (Continuum Paperback, $34.95). Originally published in 1980, “Brown Sugar” was also the basis for the four-hour, four-part, documentary that appeared on PBS traverses the career trajectory African American women entertainers have blazed from the 19th century through the new millennium. “There are three new chapters (and) 165 new pages, so it’s almost twice the length of the original,” explained Bogle. “If anyone has the first one, it’s probably going to become a collector’s item because it’s designed in a different way with different photos that we couldn’t include in this one.”
An interpretive history, “Brown Sugar” is not only about the accomplishments but also the sometimes heart-wrenching struggles and tragedies of highly talented and ambitious women who set out to announce themselves to the world – and while doing so, surmounted extraordinary obstacles, both professionally and personally. Included are profiles and lavish images of Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, Leontyne Price, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Pam Grier, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Oprah Winfrey, Lisa Bonet, Jasmine Guy, Lauren Hill, Queen Latifah, Beyoncé and many others.
“The old women (entertainers) most of them came from very tough backgrounds and they were often improvised. Many of them rose out of poverty, which makes their achievement all the more remarkable that they climbed out of that to get to international success. Today, Beyonce and even Whitney Houston grew up in a middle class household, and even Janet Jackson’s (childhood) was even dysfunctional, but it wasn’t what we’d call hardcore ghetto. That’s something that has changed very much for the women.”
Contemporary artists continue to reveal— sometimes unintentionally —that they are inspired by the artist of old and continue to include stylistic dance movements in contemporary. There is an intangible yet intertwined history the women of Brown Sugar share by the dent of commonality as Black women. According to Bogle, this remarkable tradition is largely unknown or not understood—or simply unacknowledged.
“Beyoncé and Josephine (share a) kind of sexuality that is there and the movements as well. You can see that if you see old footage of Josephine Baker. You can see these connections because Josephine Baker moved in a way that white women did not move and that is part of this thing that’s been past on to someone like Beyoncé. A current star might not be aware of where all this has come from. The other thing that Beyoncé has—and there is a connection with these women in the past whether it’s Josephine Baker or Bessie Smith or certainly Ethel Waters—is that Beyoncé never comes across as some sort of woebegone ghetto girl. She exudes this glamour and the idea that she really was born for this life of extravagance and displays a fundamental optimism in her performances. She also has a sense of humor and all of that connects back to these women of the past. You don’t necessarily see that with white female superstars.”
“Brown Sugar” is not only about music stars. It is an unexcelled examination of the lives, careers, and sometimes-contradictory images of African American goddesses of pop culture: the movies, television, music, and theater. Lavishly illustrated, “Brown Sugar” is a pioneering book – for example, in Bogle’s application of the operatic term “diva” to pop goddesses. “One thing about the length of the new book is that there are so many more women working,” said Bogle. “Again, that doesn’t mean that they are working the way that they want to. What we do have now are these women who are able to command multi-million dollar contracts that really were unheard of (before). Someone like Diana Ross and Donna Summer, in the past those women did well and had really good deals for the time, but not like the deals later. Also the women now have their own sort of conglomerate. Beyoncé has the House of Dereon clothing line and these other things that she’s putting together, in addition to her singing career. It mirrors what happens with stars like Jay-Z, P. Diddy. So you do have that sense of women marketing themselves in a certain way and really creating something else besides their music.”
=Originally published in The Philadelphia Tribune on Sunday, July, 22, 2007=