Episode 56: Illuminating the activism of Black women

Jeanne Theoharis (Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College) and Yoruba Richen (Directory of the Documentary Program at Newmark Graduate School of Journalism) share a deep knowledge of the civil rights movement and a keen interest in reinterpreting and promoting the “fables” that often get flattened or distorted or abbreviated in the collective retelling. They accomplish this in their work as a historian and as a filmmaker. Yoruba is the director, most recently, of How it Feels to Be Free, a documentary that gives literal voice to Ruth Feldstein’s 2013 book. The film presents the stories of six iconic African American women entertainers – Lena Horne, Pam Grier, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, and Cicely Tyson – who champion civil rights and challenge racists stereotypes. HIFTBF is available to watch as part of the PBS American Masters series and is being screened at the Athena Film Festival through the end of March. Jeanne and Yoruba discuss the making of the film, including the perennial challenges of finding/accessing archival footage as well as funding. They also consider other recent screen narratives of Black lives, both historical – Ma Rainey, Fred Hampton, Billie Holliday – and contemporary, including Yoruba’s recent film The Killing of Breonna Taylor.

Jeanne is the author of the award-winning The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press, 2013) and has recently published a new edition for young people. In this episode, Jeanne describes the origins of her activism and of her focus on African American history, which includes time spent as a student of civil rights leader Julian Bond.

We can look forward to a continuing dialogue between Yoruba and Jeanne who are collaborating on an upcoming project about Rosa Parks.

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