Not Just Black & White: Dido Elizabeth Belle

In the halls of Kenwood House, a mysterious portrait has fascinated art scholars for hundreds of years. On paper the story seems generic. The Earl and Countess of Mansfield commissioned it, and it portrays their two nieces, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Murray. It’s only when you look at the portrait you see the story, in particular that of the woman on the left, Dido. Dido had an unusual circumstance, she was a mixed-race noblewoman in 18th Century England. More crucially, this portrait depicts both Dido and Elizabeth in equal stature, at a time when any non-white subjects was portrayed in a subservient (if not outright racist) position. This portrait is a main plot device in Amma Asante’s 2013 film Belle, chronicling the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, and her unique social position. Continue reading Not Just Black & White: Dido Elizabeth Belle

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Respect Me as a Human Being: Jackie Robinson

I spent a lot of years searching for my personal Civil Rights hero. History classes taught me the big names: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, President John F. Kennedy. None of them connected with me. None had the mixture of goodness, integrity, and grit that makes someone my hero. Continue reading Respect Me as a Human Being: Jackie Robinson

More than Mammy: The Life of Hattie McDaniel

The situation for African-American actors in Hollywood is a constant topic of discussion in the industry, and for good reason because it needs improvement. (Remember the #OscarsSoWhite controversy a couple years back?) Black History Month seems like the perfect time to look back at the past for a source of inspiration that black actors working today can utilize going forward. The first African-American Oscar nominee and winner was Hattie McDaniel for 1939’s Gone With the Wind. She won for Best Supporting Actress. Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award win is an undeniable example of why she is a fascinating pioneer. Continue reading More than Mammy: The Life of Hattie McDaniel

The Love Story That Changed a Kingdom

How much social prejudice would you endure to change the world?

In the 1940s, the interracial marriage of Prince Seretse Khama, heir to the Bechuanaland throne, to an English clerk, Ruth Williams, shocked the world. The couple faced criticism from his royal uncle, but soon won over the people of his nation, who were reluctant to lose his leadership. Having banned interracial marriage, the South African government exerted pressure on the United Kingdom to have him removed from power. Since England relied on inexpensive South African gold and uranium, they investigated his leadership, then suppressed the report (which found him fit to rule) and sent him and his wife into exile in 1591.

Both governments allowed Seretse to return with his wife after he renounced his throne. Discontent with farming, he founded the country’s first Democratic Party, which beat the other parties in the elections, and made him Prime Minister. When Botswana gained independence, he became their first president. Botswana was the world’s third-poorest country, with a minimal infrastructure and rampant illiteracy. Seretse instituted strong measures against corruption, adopted market-friendly policies to foster economic development, promised low and stable taxes to mining companies, liberalized trade, increased personal freedoms, and promoted non-racism, which led to Botswana having the fastest-growing economy in the world between 1966 and 1980.

Liberation from his kingship enabled Seretse to help set in place a fair democratic system which gave his people a choice in national elections! Seretse took something negative that had happened to him (the loss of his status and role as a monarch) as the result of greed and global policies and shaped the world toward a greater future, instead of mourned his loss.

The film A United Kingdom focuses on the social injustices waged against Seretse and Ruth, beginning with their meeting and courtship, and ending with his return to Botswana after his exile. It shows the racism on both sides as Ruth finds few Africans willing to support or interact with her, and rejection from the whites in Africa, and her father disinheriting her. White men harass them on a London street; Seretse’s sister and aunt ream her over the coals for “daring” to marry him and destroying all he has built; the couple endure forced separation, when the government refuses to let him return to Africa, where she waits for him.

But there’s also an outpouring of support, in England and in Africa, as the people gather to prevent the government from removing Ruth, and stand up for Seretse remaining in power when called to a vote; they refuse to turn up when the government wants them to oust him; in London, reporters and crowds gather to cheer them on.

From an objective stance, the marriage jeopardized all the wonderful ideas Seretse had for the future of his nation. In a racist world, it made both sides uncomfortable, flouted all the social conventions of the period, and elicited abuse toward them as a couple. Marriage is hard and having half the world want you to fail and fall apart makes it even harder.

Or does it?

Sometimes when the world stands against you, it strengthens your bond. Seretse could not see into the future, he could not know he would bring Democracy to Botswana. He operated on his love of Ruth, which everyone around him argued was selfish, but it flouted conventions that needed challenged. There is the slow path to racial progress and the fast one which creates controversy, forcing racism into the public eye.

Seretse and Ruth remind us that the greatest changes can require the biggest sacrifices, and sometimes, the worst persecution. Much of what happened, they brought on themselves in the belief the world was more progressive than it was. In a crucial scene in the movie, a ragged-looking Ruth admits, “I think we misjudged the situation.”

They did, but then they made the best of it, to work together for their mutual benefit, to protect and love one another despite all odds, and to become a symbol of unity between races and nations. It’s a beautiful lesson about the world-altering power of true love.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

To Sidney, with Love

Sidney Poitier. How do I describe a man who stood beside Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963? How do I describe a man who often was the only African American on the set of his movies? How do I describe a man who makes me laugh and breaks my heart because I know the beleaguered characters of racial injustice he played was also a role he lived? Continue reading To Sidney, with Love

Celebrating Black Heroes

This month, Femnista celebrates remarkable individuals throughout history who have left an impression on us, either through their contributions to social advancement, entertainment, or who lived extraordinary lives simply because society would not allow them to do otherwise. We invite you to join us as we explore some of our favorites, and share your heroes with us in the comments! Continue reading Celebrating Black Heroes