"I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you." - Frida Kahlo
Anna May Wong was a native Los Angeleno and the first Chinese-American movie star. She landed her first film at 17 years old in the silent The Toll of the Sea and later appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express.
Though she was a talented actress, she struggled to avoid being typecast. What’s worse, she occasionally was passed over for Asian roles when producers hired Europeans instead of her.
In 1951 Wong became the first Asian lead in a U.S. television show when she starred in “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong”.
I got dressed in my traditional Indian regalia, but there was a man, he was the producer of the whole show. He took that speech away from me and he warned me very sternly. “I’ll give you 60 seconds or less. And if you go over that 60 seconds, I’ll have you arrested. I’ll have you put in handcuffs.”
- Sacheen Littlefeather in Reel Injun (2009), dir. Neil Diamond.
Mai Tai Sing and the chorus-line dancers in a 1940s Forbidden City nightclub publicity shot.
Young Zulu woman having her hair or headdress done. South Africa. ca. early to mid 20th century
Protest against the Vietnam War, Black Panthers, Washington, DC. 1969.
[Credit : Bruno Barbey]
The Supremes in Paris c. 1960s
'Zitkala-Ša, a Yankton Sioux Native American woman who made her mark as a champion of Native American rights and as an accomplished author and musician. She and her husband, Raymond Bonnin, founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926 to advocate for full citizenship rights for Native Americans.’
Eartha Kitt photographed by George Silk, 1955
The “Queen of the Cakewalk”, Aida Overton Walker addressed Black writers/critics’ disregard for and criticism of the acting profession in a December issue of The Freeman. After first addressing the main topic at hand, she proceeded to suggest proactive steps that could prepare up-and-coming black performers for the stage. Below is an excerpt from her article:
"I have stated that we ought to strive to produce great actors and actresses; by this I do not mean that all our men and women who possess talent for the stage should commence the study of Shakespeare’s works. Already, too many of our people wish to master Shakespeare, which is really a ridiculous notion. There are characteristics and natural tendencies in our own people which make as beautiful studies for the stage as any to be found in the make-up of any other race, and perhaps far more. By carefully studying our own graces, we learn to appreciate the noble and the beautiful in ourselves, just as other people have discovered the graces and beauty in themselves from studying and acting that which is noble in them. Unless we learn the lesson of self-appreciating and practice it, we shall spend our lives imitating other people and depreciating ourselves. There is nothing equal to originality, and I think much time is lost in trying to do something that has been done and "overdone," much better than you will be able to do it."
The Freeman (Dec. 28, 1912) - Link
Anna May Wong's Certificate of Identity, August 18, 1924, National Archives at San Francisco.
She was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles to a Cantonese-American family that had lived in America since at least 1855. However, being an American didn’t matter in a time when people of Chinese descent were being heavily legislated against. Beginning in 1909, any people of Chinese descent entering or residing in the US, regardless of the country of their birth, had to carry a Certificate of Identity with them at all times. Even at the peak of her fame, Wong still had to carry papers like the one above to prove she was allowed to be here. Read the rest of the article.