More Than Oprah

Many people are aware that Oprah Winfrey is the richest black woman in America, with a net worth of more than 2.8 billion dollars (which still doesn’t put her in the top 10 richest American women). She is, however, in the top 10 richest self-made billionaire American woman – and the only African-American woman to make the cut. But long before Oprah, there was Sarah Breedlove.

Success Started Early

Breedlove was America’s first self-made female millionaire. Born in 1867, she was an orphan by the age of 7, a domestic by the age of ten, and married her way out at 14. After several marriages that ended in widowhood or divorce, in 1905 Breedlove began her own line of beauty and hair care products for African American women (under the name Madame C.J. Walker), many of whom were going bald because of the harsh lye soaps of the era. The need was great, her products worked, and she went on to become an American philanthropist.

To a degree. Marjorie Joyner was one of her employees. Marjorie became the first African American woman to be issued a patent – for the first machine to permanently wave hair (no Toni kits back then!). However, she never saw a dime for her creation – the royalties and rights went to Madame C.J. Walker! Next time you go to a salon or use a home perm kit, remember to think of Marjorie Joyner.

When we think of African-American women in history, we seem to get stuck on Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Coretta Scott King, but they are just the very tip of the iceberg.

The Long Hard Climb for Recognition

It’s been a slow, hard climb for African-American women. While Hattie McDaniel won a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone With the Wind in 1939 (the first African American to do so), a Best Actress award didn’t come until Halle Berry won in 2001 for Monster’s Ball. That’s a long wait. While the first white woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was in 1909, the first African-American woman wasn’t until the great Toni Morrison won in 1993. Although actress Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame showed African-American women as educated members of space crews in 1966 (and gave television’s first interracial kiss), Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut, didn’t make it to space until 1992. To this day, African American women are disproportionately victims of more violent crimes than any other group of women – by more than double. While more African-American women are enrolled in college than any other group (9.7%), they make up only 8% of the workforce, and earn only 64¢ on the dollar compared to 78¢ for white women; 21% of African-American women live in poverty, compared to just 9% of white women. Only now, decades later, are we beginning to appreciate the remarkable contributions of African-American women in the fields of science and math, such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who helped launch NASA’s space program by doing the math in their heads.

Making Strides

While there is still so far to go in equalizing opportunities for minority women, the 21st century has shown remarkable gains, with not only Condoleeza Rice becoming National Security Advisor and then Secretary General under President Bush, but with Michelle Obama becoming the First Lady of the United States.  African-American women continue to enter politics, with record wins in 2018, including the first African-American women elected to Congress from Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. So grab a novel, a biography, a great DVD on the lives and achievements of African American women, and catch up on some of the great history you never learned about in school.

 

         

  

             

Strong Girls, Stronger Women

stb-jaylah-3While previewing the DVD for Star Trek: Into Darkness (as if I didn’t see it in the theater and wasn’t buying it myself 5 days later), I realized that Jaylah, the lead female character, is everything I want my daughters and granddaughter to be: strong, brave, smart, resourceful, a planner, a leader, and even when emotionally wounded, she never, ever gives in. Surely one of the strongest female leads ever, without losing her femininity in the process, like Grace Jones as May Day in A View to a Kill, or Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It may even be safe to say that Jaylah’s the strongest female lead ever in Star Trek itself – and no, not even Uhura, who, although she could kick butt, was often saddled with lines like, “Captain, I’m frightened.”

And that made me start thinking on who the strongest female leads might be. By strong I don’t mean nastiest or most vicious goal-driven women, no Joan Crawfords or Cersei Lannisters or Erica Kanes. I mean women or girls who started out ordinary, but when faced with impossible odds, had the grit and determination and education and smarts to work their way into survival.

First on almost any list is Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, from Alien. While you can say it ec93835d9542a13ce50f467297565f63already took guts and grit to be a warrant officer aboard a deep-space ship, finding out your mission was a suicide run to bring back an alien life form and you’re its food can either send you screaming in helpless panic (as Lambert did), or make you hike your bra straps and shoot first. Ripley is a real woman – no makeup, no unrealistic sexy uniforms, and not afraid to be pushy when she needs to be. And almost 40 years later (can it possibly be that long?) Alien still holds up on every level of film making; truly, a masterpiece.

katniss_prim_hugKatniss Everdeen is also a favorite for strongest female: just sixteen at the start of The Hunger Games, Katniss is already a survivor, having raised a sister and cared for a dysfunctionally depressed mother following the death of their father, in a world where people are kept in line through fear and starvation. Sacrificing herself to the Hunger Games to save her sister is just the start; surviving the Hunger Games not once but twice, surviving on luck, wits, and the smarts acquired through a lifetime of survival makes Katniss a formidable – but sympathetic and realistically feminine – heroine.

Sarah Connor of Terminator fame would round out my top three: a simple waitress who thought she was minding her own business until she’s hunted down by a terminator from the future – because when push comes to shove, Sarah will become a serious survivalist to save her son – a son who will grow up to be the leader against the machines that take over the world. Sarah is thrown into an impossible situation but comes out on top through sheer determination and a survival instinct that won’t quit.

Why so many women from science-fiction? That’s a good question. Perhaps it’s because “strong” women in literature or film are often seen as detestable power-hungry ladder-climbers who will use murder or sex to achieve their goals, and it is only in the realm of “fantasy” that women are allowed to be every-day humans, both strong and vulnerable at the same time, without boob jobs and fake nails. Yet the real world is peppered with incredibly strong women – Anne Frank, Malala Yousafzai, Margaret Sanger, Harriet Tubman, and so many more. Not one of them is sexualized by the media, either.

turn_me_loose_it_s_ashleySo, to be fair, there are literary women who also struggled against formidable odds: Scarlett O’Hara’s entire world was ripped from her by the Civil War: her income, her inheritance, her mother, her husband (whether or not she wanted him alive) wind up Gone With the Wind. She takes charge in a time and place when genteel women did not do that, and through guile and determination pulls her life and the lives of her family back together. And as the anti-Scarlett, I would include Mammy, who carried on through war and starvation, caring for former slaves and slave-owners alike, facing the same dangers as Scarlett but with even less means or social approval. In The Color sofiaPurple, yes, Celie has to survive an ugly life, but to me Sofia is far more of a tough cookie, taking her lumps and even prison because she won’t take the abuse anymore. Sofia is limited by society, but she’s every bit as tough as Katniss.

And moving further away, I would also nominate Maria, from West Side Story. She’s sixteen and stands between two warring gangs for love. The Sharks don’t frighten her. The Jets don’t frighten her. The police don’t frighten her. She gets in the face of each and every west-side-story-1961-dvdrip-moviecenter-avi_snapshot_02-16-56_2016-07-21_15-39-34one, standing up for what she believes in. No one is telling Maria what to think or do.

I could add more – Elizabeth Swan, Marion Ravenwood, Molly Weasley, Natasha Romanov – but if you’re looking for role models for girls and teens, real women who aren’t villainous or overly sexualized or vacuuous but incredibly strong and resourceful, there are plenty to choose from.

Classic Spinoffs

Have you read any classic books? Even if you haven’t, you can still enjoy the books on this list. These are inspired by classics as they tell the stories of supporting characters, are prequels or sequels to the classic stories, or even retell the classics themselves. Read them all!

gertrudeandclaudius Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike  
This prequel to Hamlet tells the story of Gertrude Queen of Denmark before the action of Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins. Updike brings to life Gertrude’s girlhood as the daughter of King Rorik, her arranged marriage to the man who becomes King Hamlet, and her middle-aged affair with her husband’s younger brother.

 

MadameBovarysDaughter Madame Bovary’s Daughter by Linda Urbach
This continuation of Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary finds twelve-year-old Berthe cast off by society in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide and sent to live with her impoverished grandmother, from where she eventually rises through the ranks of Charles Worth’s famed fashion empire.

 

thebeekeepersapprentice The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or, On the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King   
In 1914, a young woman named Mary Russell meets a retired beekeeper on the Sussex Downs. His name is Sherlock Holmes. The Great Detective is no fool, and can spot a fellow intellect even in a fifteen-year-old woman. So, at first informally, then consciously, he takes Mary as his apprentice.

 

julietsnurseJuliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen   
A new telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, from the perspective of Juliet’s nurse. In Verona, a city ravaged by plague and political rivalries, a mother mourning the death of her day-old infant enters the household of the powerful Cappelletti family to become the wet-nurse to their newborn baby. As she serves her beloved Juliet over the next fourteen years, the nurse learns the Cappelletti’s darkest secrets.

ruthsjourney Ruth’s Journey by Donald McCaig
A prequel to one of the most beloved and bestselling novels of all time, Gone with the Wind. The critically acclaimed author of Rhett Butler’s People magnificently recounts the life of Mammy, one of literature’s greatest supporting characters, from her days as a slave girl to the outbreak of the Civil War.

 

revenge Revenge by Stephen Fry  
This brilliant recasting of the classic story The Count of Monte Cristo centers on Ned Maddstone, a happy, charismatic, Oxford-bound seventeen-year-old whose rosy future is virtually pre-ordained. Handsome, confident, and talented, newly in love with bright, beautiful Portia, his father an influential MP, Ned leads a charmed life. But privilege makes him an easy target for envy, and in the course of one day Ned’s destiny is forever altered.

thehistorian The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
A woman discovers that the past of her family is connected to the stories of Vlad the Impaler, the man who inspired Dracula and must decide whether to follow her father in a hunt that nearly brought him to ruin years ago, when he was a vibrant young scholar and her mother was still alive.

 

deankoontzfrankenstein Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein: Prodigal Son
This is a retelling of Frankenstein set in New Orleans. In the 19th century, Dr. Victor Frankenstein brought his first creation to life, but a horrible turn of events forced him to abandon his creation and fall away from the public eye. Now, two centuries later, a serial killer is on the loose in New Orleans, and he’s salvaging body parts from each of his victims, as if he’s trying to create the perfect person. But the two detectives assigned to the case are about to discover that something far more sinister is going on…

widesargassosea Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys  
Jean Rhys brings into the light one of fiction’s most mysterious characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane EyreSet in the Caribbean, its heroine is Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Rochester. In this best-selling novel, Rhys portrays a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.

monsignorquixote Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene
When Father Quixote, a local priest of the Spanish village of El Toboso who claims ancestry to Cervantes’ fictional Don Quixote, is elevated to the rank of monsignor through a clerical error, he sets out on a journey to Madrid to purchase purple socks appropriate to his new station. Accompanying him on his mission is his best friend, Sancho, the Communist ex-mayor of the village who argues politics and religion with Quixote and rescues him from the various troubles his innocence lands him in along the way.

There are many, many more books that are inspired by the classics. Sometimes even classics are inspired by other classics! What are your favorite classic spinoffs?

In the Public Domain

 dressIn the past few years we’ve seen a sudden resurgence of fairy tales, bombarded by big-screen live-action versions of Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror (which came out the same year, just for overkill), Maleficent, Cinderella, Oz the Great and Powerful, the soon-to-be released Peter Pan (October 9), Alice Through the Looking Glass (spring 2016, reprising the 2010 cast of Alice in Wonderland), Beauty and the Beast (2017 release date) and so many more. While some of these have been spectacular (who can forget Cinderella’s dress!), did you ever wonder why?

It’s more than just the fact Hollywood can’t seem to come up with anything original lately, or that remakes are a fad. Movies cost huge coin to produce – truly, hundreds of millions of dollars, from pre-production through movie rights to scripting, set design, music, choreography, lighting, costuming, and advertising. One of those big costs is often acquisition of rights – buying the rights to the material from the original author. In the case of fairy tales, the cost of that right is Zero, and that is a producer’s favorite number. Zero means you can do whatever you want with the material. Yes, you could feasibly make (and I’m sure it’s been done) a very dirty film of Snow White, Cinderella, and Ariel and no one can stop you, as long as you don’t reference anyone else’s version.

We’re accustomed to believing that Disney or Touchstone or some other major Alice in Wonderland.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smartcompany created Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, and so many other cherished films. In fact the answer is no, they did not. They only made their own version of them. Many of Disney’s greatest tales were old folk tales and fairy tales, borrowed from collections by Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm, or bought way back when from J. M. Barrie or Rudyard Kipling. The original tales were often a bit different and usually very dark (Mermaid is a very murderous tale; the Little Match Girl freezes to death, etc). They all have one thing in common however: they are all in what’s called the Public Domain. That means they are not copyrighted, and anyone can make their own version of the tale. The stories don’t have to be bought, no author has to be fought with, and a producer can do whatever he or she wants to the story.

panIn the United States, copyright is generally good for the life of the author plus seventy years (in some instances, it is extended to as much as 120 years). If the author has good descendants and they renew on behalf of the estate, it can continue further. This is how Peter Pan is now in the public domain: J.M. Barrie died in 1937; his copyrights have expired. Treasure Island is a free e-book, because it’s in the public domain. Gone With the Wind will enter into public domain in 2031. Many of the early silent films are also free for making use of. This also holds true with music: that’s why so much classical music is used in movie and TV soundtracks: no one has to pay a penny to use it. You can tour the country playing Beethoven and Mozart all you want, and you never have to pay them a dime. Their works, like Shakespeare, and Byron, and even the Bible are all available for public use and performance.

Yes, Anne is now the public's darling, too.

Yes, Anne is now the public’s darling, too.

Now, that’s not to say you can pick up a copy of a play and start performing it for money. While the play and its characters are not under copyright, the person who planned out/composed/wrote the playbook or libretto has a copyright on the booklet or sheet music you are using – their “version” – which is why school plays cost so much (the same way “Snow White” is a public domain tale, but “Disney’s Snow White” is most definitely under copyright). Unless you’ve taken the idea of Romeo and Juliet and written up your own version, you’re going to wind up having to pay someone somewhere for your performance of the material.

Here’s one list of free public-domain books available on ebook, including both adult and children’s classics: https://www.goodreads.com/list/tag/public-domain.

So whether you look forward to some of the new, spectacularly beautiful versions of old tales coming out, or grumble about how much more money does Disney need rehashing their own blockbusters, remember the reason: movie studios are cheapskates, and copyrights don’t last forever.

Fairy tale fact: Cinderella is the most universal fairy tale. Almost every culture has a version of it. The very first known “Cinderella” story can be traced back to the story of Rhodopis, a real Greek slave girl from Thrace who married the King of Egypt. That story is from 7 BC! Our current version of Cinderella (Cendrillon) goes back to the late 1600’s France, a French version by Charles Perrault.

Why Gone With the Wind Is My Favorite Book

On May 3rd, 1937, more than 76 years ago, Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer

Gone With the Wind

Prize for Fiction for her epic Gone With the Wind. 76 years later, GWTW is still a powerful book, read anew by readers young and old.

My husband had recommended for a long time that I read GWTW, and it was on my to-read list for some time. We had distractedly watched the first half of the movie sometime in spring 2010, but I did not start reading the book until April 2011 for our Classics Club here at the library.

GWTW can appear to be a daunting book for those who do not typically read lengthy tomes. But from that opening page, when we are introduced to the indomitable Scarlett, on her way to a party, and we are drawn into a world we will never want to leave, or stop reading.

Oh, Scarlett, Scarlett. Some who have read the book or seen the movie, simply “can’t stand Scarlett.” Well, that’s the point. We are not meant to like Scarlett. She’s perhaps literature’s most misunderstood character. When we first meet Scarlett, she is an impetuous 16 year old lusting after Ashley and looking for excitement. Scarlett stumbles on her journey, making terrible choices, wrong decisions, and sometimes ruining the lives of others (and sometimes purposely). She can be annoying, manipulative, and deceiving. But Scarlett at her core loves her home and her family. By the end, Scarlett has realized how her foibles have affected others. She has lost everything.

My husband has rightly pointed out that Scarlett is representative of “the Old South” before the Civil War. The South had to lose everything in the war, including some of that impetuousness like Scarlett has, before they can learn from their mistakes and rebuild. Scarlett is torn down, lost everything, just like the South was during the Civil War, but together the two can start anew.

We rewatched GWTW while I was reading it for Classics Club, and I’ll never forget the ending. I had not reached that part in the book yet, and I yelled at the tv. “What! What! This is not right! This is not how it happens in the book! It can’t be!” And I ran up the stairs, grabbed the book and read the ending. Oh my. It was how the book ended. I’m still indignant over the ending. But I have two sequels to make the story complete, in my eyes.

GWTW is, in my opinion, our American novel. It speaks to our American experience in terms of struggle, triumph, and the American dream. It’s an epic novel about a society that no longer exists, a way of life that will never be again. GWTW is about more than Scarlett, it’s about a way of life that was destroyed and a people who have to find their way in an unfamiliar world.

GWTW is one of the few books I give 5 stars.