This past week we lost two icons, Jessye Norman the famed opera singer and Diahann Carroll the brilliant and talented actress. These two trailblazers redefined grace. Their unique talents changed the perceptions of Black women at home and abroad. More importantly, their presence made other Black women see themselves in a new light. We sadly mourn losing these two women who both reflected a certain regal quality that made all of us stand just a bit taller and walk with our heads just a bit higher.
I was fortunate enough to meet Jessye Norman a few times in 2018 at various events for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. I got the sense that Ms. Norman saw in Stacey Abrams a shared trailblazing spirit and a work ethic that inspired and built up others. That is what Ms. Norman did throughout her career for young opera singers and that is clearly what Abrams has done in the state of Georgia. As I told Ms. Norman about my book “Black Ethnics,” she expressed interest in reading it and when I asked her where I should send a copy of the book, she replied in her famous precise low key drawl, “Caaaarnegie Hall.” I was surrounded by a few other Black women at the time and we all laughed so heartily. Just imagining Carnegie Hall, one of the oldest and most respected musical institutions, collecting Ms. Norman’s mail made us laugh in a way that expressed the pride and sheer wonder to be in the presence of this iconic Black woman. A woman who clearly overcame countless obstacles both on and off the opera stage.
Just as I was processing the passing of Jessye Norman, we lost Diahann Carroll. I have been rewatching old clips of “Dynasty” and Ms. Carroll was the definition of glamour and beauty. So many young girls looked at her and saw a Black woman who could go toe to toe with the wealthy and powerful in her furs and jewels. Some knew her from her award-winning performances on the stage, while others respected her for her groundbreaking work on “Julia” in which she was the first Black woman ever to headline her own television show. In “Julia,” Ms. Carroll was a single mother and a professional, and set the bar for television mothers for countless actresses in years to come. My favorite Diahann Carroll role was that of Whitley’s mother Marion Gilbert on “A Different World” when she would verbally tussle with Patti LaBelle. I smile each time thinking of those episodes.
Both women helped shape the perception of myself as an intelligent and talented Black woman. Even more so, they helped me see the unique and diverse beauty in all of my sisters. Thank you Ms. Norman and Ms. Carroll, rest in power queens.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” and the co-host of the new podcast FAQ-NYC.