It’s fitting that I close Black History Month by reading Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. It’s a quick read: one-page biographies (and fun illustrations) of 40 black women throughout history.
I quasi-intentionally read a fair number of black writers this month, including Luvvie Ajayi’s I’m Judging You, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Night Masquerade, Marley Dias Gets It Done, Ronald L. Smith’s middle grade Black Panther, They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery, and Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King Jr.
All were good, and while King and Lowery were perhaps the best examples of black history I read this month, Harrison’s Little Leaders really gives that broad taste of history that leaves you wanting more.
The story of Civil War spy Mary Bowser for example. She worked as a maid for Jefferson Davis’ family in the Confederate White House. Usually we think of Harriet Tubman as the Civil War spy, which is a great story, but it’s engaging to hear from different people.
Abstract expressionist painter Alma Woodsey Thomas is another example. Her mosaic/pointillist style is something I really enjoy. I took some art history classes in college, but I don’t remember covering her (my classes were pretty broad overviews). The Obamas hung several of her works in the White House during the presidency.
The connections between Harrison’s heroes are also another joy to the book. Josephine Baker served as a spy, just like Mary Bowser, smuggling messages for the French Resistance during World War II.
Or there’s Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. When Nichols’ scenes were cut back after a controversial interracial kiss, she considered returning to stage acting. But none other than Martin Luther King Jr., a self-proclaimed Trekkie (?!), convinced her to stay on, arguing for the value of representation (something we still have to champion today).
King was right. Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, would later credit Nichols’ role on a fictional TV show with convincing her to apply to be an astronaut. You can hear that story straight from Harrison in her interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
Even more than the biographies, the artwork of Vashti Harrison is worth checking out. It looks vaguely familiar, like I’ve seen it elsewhere. I hope to see more from Harrison in the future.