Was she still alive? The question lingered in the minds of 33 Hardy Elementary School’s fourth graders in San Diego, California after their teacher, Christine Bailey, introduced them to a woman they would not soon forget.

Bailey had set out earlier this year to teach her students about lesser known figures in Black History and stumbled upon a woman whose beauty had graced the covers of Jet magazine and held spreads in Life and Time. A woman who was a pioneer, as the first black singer to perform at the Casino Royale in Washington, D.C. and several hotels in Miami Beach during the early 50s. Her nickname became the Black Marilyn Monroe. She is, Joyce Bryant.

“The littler known people were just as instrumental,” Bailey said. “We should pay homage to them and celebrate what they did.”

Bailey and her students became enamored with Bryant’s style — sexy, with a purpose. Bryant’s signature look included a skintight dress and stunning silver hair.

“In those past times, and some would say they still linger, a woman of Joyce Bryant’s color was not automatically considered as beautiful and gorgeous as she was,” said Jim Byers, Bryant’s biographer and producer of an upcoming documentary called Joyce Bryant: The Lost Diva.

Bryant said her flashy style served a higher purpose — to open stage doors previously closed to Black singers at white-only clubs. Although some of her songs were banned from the radio for reasons more complex than their alleged provocative content, Byers said, her vulnerability and effervescent presence transcended all barriers. Bryant was a hit.

Known as the pit bull of research by her colleagues, Bailey had taken to the Web to find out if she was still alive. In all biographies of Bryant, no date of death was listed. She finally came across the 50 Shades of Black blog where director, Carlton Mackey, had recently posted about meeting Joyce Bryant.

After a few emails, Mackey then connected her with Bryant’s niece and caretaker, Robyn LaBeaud. Black History Month for fourth graders at Hardy Elementary got a lot more interesting. Bailey shared her discovery with the class and the children wrote reports and Bryant’s life while her music played in the classroom. Then, with LaBeaud’s blessing, they wrote and sent her letters asking questions about her life.

LaBeaud read each letter out loud to her “auntie,” but was interrupted by Bryant who laughed at questions about her dancing. She clarified, she was not a dancer. A singer and actress, yes. But not a dancer.

“I don’t know where they got that from,” she said.

Shortly after the letters were exchanged, Bailey and a colleague traveled to Los Angeles to meet Bryant in person. Although the students were not allowed to travel beyond city limits, Bailey shared the pictures, music, stories and joy she experienced meeting the celebrity when she returned.

“We felt like we were like little school girls meeting a super star,” Bailey said. “We were standing outside the house making sure we were on time.”

LaBeaud, a professional chef, cooked lunch for the visitors. They were invited to sit and eat on Bryant’s bed and they spoke with her for more than two hours.

“She’s just an absolute kick in the pants,” Bailey said. “She is as lively and wonderful and sassy as you would just imagine her.”

“I’ve taught for twenty-nine and a half years and I have never had history come to life through this whole process — playing her music, writing letters, then sitting on her bed with her.”

Although Bryant now has Alzheimer’s, she hasn’t forgotten her glory days. She shared stories of her years as an elite in the music industry — rubbing shoulders with other stars like Sydney Poitier, and giving voice lessons to Denzel Washington’s wife.

“She asked us a lot of questions, which made us feel just as important as she was,” Bailey said.

“She made you feel so very comfortable. And to hear how sad it was, her whole life how people took advantage. You’d never know those things when you meet her.”

Bailey made the two-hour trip back home listening to nothing but the sound of Bryant’s voice on her car’s stereo. She placed the two portraits she was given on the walls of her classroom. For certain assignments she still plays the music for the children.

On one special occasion, she and all her students stood up, pressing their legs together imitating Bryant’s iconic dress and sang along to her song. It was in that moment Bailey knew the “teaching moment” of a lifetime.

“I hope they learned that you can be what you want to be if you put your mind to it,” LeBeaud said.

“I think what she taught the kids, and what they picked up is you can be what you want to be. The sky is the limit.”

—Danielle B. Douez

Emory University Grad
 Psychology 2013,
Freelance Writer & 50 Shades of Black Contributor

Meeting the Legendary Joyce Bryant

Joyce Bryant, The Black Marilyn Monroe, The Most Famous Woman I Never Heard Of

For years now, I’ve been hearing the phrase Millenials or Black Millenials when it comes to the young generation of the black community and our way of navigating the modern world. But recently I’ve begun hearing less of the term Millenials and more of the phrase “The New Black.” 

The first time I can actually recall hearing the phrase and having it sink in for thought is when Pharrell appeared on “Oprah’s Prime” and explained his definition of what The New Black is, which he says he’s at the forefront of and embodies.

"The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on," says Pharrell

"I recognize that there are issues. We get judged on our skin….I don’t allow that to run my life. I don’t live my life trying to be black. What I do is, I nurture my curiosity in music. I’m proud to be what I am. The New Black is a mentality. You don’t do things because you’re black. You do things because you’re genuinely interested in something," he adds.

After hearing this, I remember trying to soak in the whole interview and not having time to fully process those statements.  But what I do remember vividly was how offended most of my friends were about his statement that The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues, which seemed to completely overlook the effects of slavery and the state of oppression, poverty and violence that black people still live in - especially the ones who aren’t rich and have a “Happy” image.

While I applaud the idea of instilling pride and creativity and self-love in my fellow black people, I also know that’s only half the work. It’s not about just changing the mentality of black people; it’s also about changing the way the rest of the world sees, values and treats us. Because it’s fair to say that many of the black men and women who have been victims of racism, inequality and (police) violence thought well of themselves, but that didn’t stop them from being oppressed or extinguished by racist people.

It wasn’t until I heard the phrase brought up again in a recent Hot 97 interview with Childish Gambino that I heard the phrase, or at least the concept, brought up in a way that seemed to resonate with me. While chatting with host Peter Rosenberg, Gambino talked about the racism he still endures despite his stardom and his so-called non-threatening appearance.

"Being young and black in America is schizophrenic. You have to kind of change who you are a little bit all the time to for people to even respect. Like, for people to even understand you. I have to hold myself a certain way and wear a certain thing to get a cab, and sometimes I may not even get a cab," Gambino explained, later adding that he’s been threatened with violence by cops, even though he’s famous.

“That’s the thing,” he said, speaking about white people being in places of power. “People feel like that’s an attack on something. It’s like ‘I get it. I understand. You guys are in charge. You don’t want to lose the power. I totally get it’…I’m not hating on that. I totally understand. I get it. I’m just saying there’s got to be a sense of balance. Same thing with cops. It’s like ‘I get it. You’re putting your lives in danger also. But what am I supposed to do when a cop who’s a bad person does something? Who am I supposed to tell? I would call you guys, but at the same time I know what’s gonna happen.’”

Despite the overwhelming racism, Gambino went on to say that Black people are the cultural tastemakers and that we need to understand our value in our capability to shift the world.

"We are cultural influences. That’s what black kids are. They really change the culture of not just America, but the world," said Gambino. "The cultural stuff, someone can take ownership of it really easily. Like, "Or Nah?" somebody can trademark that really easily. All of our stuff comes from what we can do…and then it gets appropriated. That’s kind of our job, we just have to quantify the worth of it."

However, Gambino went on to dismiss the idea of calling our young culture The New Black, explaining that naming it would just lead to appropriation.

"Like I would like to think I’m a leader of whatever movement is happening. People call it ‘new black.’ People call it whatever, but I don’t want to name it cause it’s bs to name it. As soon as it gets named that’s when you start marketing it. And it’s like ‘Ah, this is hipster.’ Cause hipster was cool until it became hipster…And then it became monetized. Same thing with Hip Hop. So, whatever this thing is. Whatever’s happening. Like whenever Jaden Smith tells me he’s like ‘I’m real excited for whatever’s happening.’ He can feel it. I can feel it.”

Later on, Gambino appeared on “The Breakfast Club” and talked about race again. While chatting with host Charlamagne Tha God, Gambino explained his controversial Twitter poem about Mike Brown’s shooting, in which he lamented the violence and racism that all black people face, and said he wished he could be “big and white” to overcome such hardships

Although Charlamagne argued that black people focusing on inequality and seeing white people as being somehow above them was instills an inferiority complex in us all, Gambino responded that his words are not really about wanting to be white, but about wanting the freedom that for so long has only been given to those with white privilege.

“Because whiteness is blankness,” the rapper said. “It’s because they look at it as a blank slate. Like when you come in, you can be anything. When I walk in even if I have a bowtie, they might be like ‘Is he Muslim?’ They’re not going to do that with a white dude. White people are a blank slate. We are not. People bring stuff to it because there’s not a lot of us, so they only judge us on the seven or whatever they know. So, that’s what I’m trying to say. I want to be a blank slate. As a black person, I constantly have to know what a person is assuming about me. That’s what I’m saying.”

I can’t necessarily claim to be part of The New Black. I’m not sure that such a phrase resonates with me or honors the black men and women who came before me. But what does resonate with me is Gambino’s honesty about racial issues in America and his belief in himself and other black people that we do have the power to create art and change the world in the process. That we do have the freedom to be interested in whatever we want, whether it be considered black or white or alien or whatever. That mindet speaks to the geek in me, the writer in me, gayness of me, and the blackness of me. 

At the end of the day, whether you’re a young or older black person, it’s safe to say that all we’ve ever wanted is freedom to be both infinite within ourselves and have an infinite amount of possibilities and chances, like everybody else, in the real world. That idea goes beyond phrases and time; that simply speaks to being human. Hopefully, with each passing generation of black people, we make our way closer and closer to that goal of equality in freedom.

Nicholas Harbor

Freelance Journalist, storyteller and blogger for 50 Shades of BLACK