Earth to Eartha?
Eartha Kitt has grown to become an iconic and pioneering spirit that has inspired and engineered a new idea of black excellence while defeating the racist expectations of white America. With he style and haunting grace she has climbed the ranks to legendary status.
EARTH TO EARTHA: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF EARTHA KITT
Born January 17, 1927, on a cotton plantation near the small town of North in Orangeburg County, South Carolina. Kitt comes from very humble beginnings being the offspring of a black and cherokee mother and a white plantation owner. Kitt doesn’t even have a birth certificate. Her mother gave her away at a young age in order to make a better life for herself and her other kids. Eartha was very fair due to her mixed lineage. After being bounced around from house to house she ended up in New York where her love for entertainment blossomed. Living two lives she used her stage name, Eartha Kitt to live out her suppressed emotions. Eartha Kitt got to do everything that Eartha Mae couldn’t. She claimed her own reality and didn’t let reality claim her.
Kitt began her career as a member of the Katherine Dunham company in 1943 and remained a member of the troupe until 1948. She always admired Katherine Dunham’s beauty and elegance. It is a common thought that Kitt got a lot of her mystery and sexuality from her time at the Katherine Dunham Company. Kitt began her illustrious career as a dancer with Ms.Dunham’s company after a serendipitous encounter outside of a theater.
Kitt talked about her motivation for ceasing every opportunity for success. “Starvation is a strong motivator,” she says. “And, also, the fact that I was unwanted, in every sense of the word. The blacks didn’t want me because I wasn’t black enough, and the white people didn’t know what I was. From the moment she entered Dunham’s company, Kitt did more than merely survive. She learned how to move, how to perform, how to capture an audience’s attention on a stage crowded with dancers.
The next chapter of her life was in Paris where she was looked at a s the next Josephine Baker after leaving the Katherine Dunham dance company. Kitt’s unique style was enhanced as she became fluent in French during her years performing in Europe. She spoke four languages and sang in eleven, which she effortlessly demonstrated in many of the live recordings of her cabaret performances.
She stayed in Europe for a while because she became a quick favorite. The broadway musical, “New Faces of 1952” is what brought Kitt back to the states with a success to call her own. As an actress Eartha Kitt has a large range. She has in the course of her career played everything from Oscar Wilde’s Salome to Helen of Troy in Doctor Faustus to, and of course Catwoman. She sung beautifully with Nat King Cole in “St. Louis Blues” and co-starred eloquently as a prostitute opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in “Anna Lucasta”. Kitt also found home in live performances. She recorded many hit songs like (“C’est Si Bon,” “I Want to Be Evil,” “Santa Baby,” “Goldfinger”) and became a major nightclub star in the process.
Kitt was active in numerous social causes in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1966, she established the KIttsville Youth Foundation , a chartered and non-profit organization for underprivileged youths in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Kitt supported the group’s efforts to clean up streets and establish recreation areas in an effort to keep them out of trouble by testifying with them before the House General Subcommittee on Education of the Committee on Education and Labor.
A woman who seemingly lived above color lines, sure of her blackness but creative and free enough to create regardless hit a roadblock of sorts when she was invited to the white house. As well as being extremely talented and gifted she also made sure to give back. Her generosity and love caught the eye of first lady at the time LadyBird Johnson. Invited to lunch with the First Lady and 39 other prominent American women, Kitt was asked her thoughts on crime, poverty and other social woes. She replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids repel and take pot. The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs.Johnson, we raise children and send them to war.” The room went crazy. White America was not ready for Black people, especially black women that spoke up . Soon after she was blacklisted and branded “a sadistic nymphomaniac” by the CIA. Years later, she learned that the CIA had started a dossier on her a week after the White House comments.
Ultimately Kitt had to find work outside of the United States for work. She even had to go as far as Hong Kong and Manila to find work. While on her hiatus from america she married John William McDonald, an associate of a real estate investment company, on June 6, 1960. Together they had one child, a daughter named Kitt McDonald, born on November 26,1961. Later in her creative career she returned to the musical charts. Her song, “Where IS My Man”, the first certified gold record of her career. The song became a standard in discos and dance clubs of the time and made the Top 10 on the US Billboard dance chart, where it reached No.7. Kitt found new audiences in night clubs across the UK and the United States, including a whole new generation of gay male fans, and she responded by frequently giving benefit performances in support of HIV/AIDS organizations. In a 1992 Dr. ANthony Clare, Kitt spoke about her gay following, saying: “We’re all rejected people, we know what it is to be refused, we know what it is to be oppressed, depressed, and then accused, and I am very much cognizant of that feeling. Nothing in the world is more painful that rejection. I am a rejected , oppressed person, and so I understand them, as best as I can, even though I am a heterosexual.”
A woman that moves to the beat of her own drum, Eartha Kitt is no stranger to obstacles. She faces them with strength and courage and always comes out on top. From being born into terrible circumstances, to being held back by a dance troupe and America at large this black woman made room for herself in places where she was told there was none. With her haunting presence and warm manner she is an icon and nothing less a mother to superstars of this generation. May her generous manner and resilience live on forever.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks: An interpretive history of Blacks in American films. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001.
Delgadillo, Theresa. “Singing” Angelitos Negros”: African Diaspora Meets Mestizaje in the Americas.” American Quarterly 58.2 (2006): 407-430.
Hogan, Lawrence D. A black national news service: the Associated Negro Press and Claude Barnett, 1919-1945. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Pr, 1984.
Kitt, Eartha. Alone With Me. H. Regnery Company, 1975.
Royster, Francesca T. Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era. University of Michigan Press, 2013.
Williams, John L. America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Miss Eartha Kitt. Quercus, 2014.
Wiggins Jr, William H., and Lectionary Team Cultural Resource Commentator. “CONTEMPORARY HEROES AND HEROINES DAY.”
Wlodarz, Joe. “Beyond the Black macho: Queer blaxploitation.” The Velvet Light Trap 53.1 (2004): 10-25.