Hidden Figures, the motion picture about three African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA and became key factors in the success of our nation’s ‘Space Race’ in the 1960s, was an exceptional film that chronicled a trio of unsung heroines.
Due to the film’s critical and financial success, two important feats were achieved; publicizing the groundbreaking works of Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn and Katherine Johnson while highlighting the need to explore, and pay homage to, other unacclaimed innovators.
Today, in honor of Women’s History Month, Dallas’ Bishop Arts Center’s “Speaker Series” will examine African-American female singers of the 19th Century. Featuring award-winning historical fiction and romance novelist, Beverly Jenkins, the discussion will educate audience members in particular about the life of soprano and opera singer Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, AKA Sissieretta Jones.
After years of formal study in music In 1892, Sissieretta performed with theatre troupes, the lauded Fisk Jubilee Singers and later, the British Royal Family and four consecutive U.S. Presidents. The church-cultivated performer became the first African-American woman to perform at what is now Carnegie Hall and became known as
“The Black Patti,” a nickname equating her talents to another premiere vocalist, the Italian Adelina Patti. Despite her wealth, fame and trailblazing efforts in the prejudicial era of Jim Crow, Sissieretta died ill and impoverished at 65 in 1933.
“Our Speakers Series, which we’ve done for the last five years, has always featured icons within the black community,” says Theresa Coleman Wash, Playwright and Executive Artistic Director with the Bishop Arts Theatre. She and Jenkins discussed the event earlier via conference call. “Emma Rodgers, who owned the Dallas bookstore Black Images for nearly 30 years and knows authors around the world, recommended inviting Beverly.”
“I’ve been highlighting mostly women of color” in her books for the last 22 years, Jenkins added. A Detroit native, Jenkins specializes in historical romantic fiction and has written over 30 novels, earning an NAACP Image Award nomination in 2013. Her latest book, Breathless, was released earlier this year.
“When I lecture across the country, I discuss the women who’ve been forgotten or not highlighted in the history books, just to bring them back to life and let people know that, in spite of the lemons that America has given us for the last 300 years or more, we manage to make lemonade. Sissieretta Jones deserves to be remembered for the strides she made, the medals she won, the ceilings she busted. That’s part of my mission. The books are a painless way to share that great history.”
At the Speaker Series, Wash says that audience members, whether they purchase tickets today in advance or at the door, will witness Jenkins’ presentation and be able to participate in the Q&A session afterward. Fans of the popular author can also bring copies of her books to be signed and the owners of The Dock Bookshop, an African-American bookstore located in Ft. Worth, will be in attendance with novels on-hand for purchase. A complimentary glass of wine is also included.
“It’s important that our stories be told our own voices,” Jenkins says. “I recently read a statistic that said only 25 percent of the books written for children of color also had authors of color. That’s just awful. Only we can tell our stories with the layers, textures and nuances that we experience in everyday life. Those details make us who we are as African-Americans.”