Josephine Baker

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During the 1920s, the banana-skirt-wearing dancer-singer became a sensation in Europe for her unapologetic display of sensuality. Despite being a major star in integrated Paris, she still found racism rampant back home, and her sophistication and theatrical prowess were rejected when she tried to return to the American stage in the late 1930s.

Eartha Kitt

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The singer-actress gave the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, a piece of her mind about the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon in 1968. Kitt’s tirade left the first lady in tears and resulted in the seductive entertainer being blacklisted from many U.S. venues for nearly a decade.

Anita Hill

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Amid confirmation hearings for the nation’s second black Supreme Court justice in 1991, Hill came forward to testify about the character of then-nominee Clarence Thomas. What’s telling about this scandal isn’t so much that the testimony made for high drama but, rather, that it revealed to the nation, and the black community especially, that too often in sexual harassment cases, it’s the woman’s character that gets put on trial rather than that of the alleged perpetrator. Thomas played the race card to detract from the accusation—and, sadly, it worked.

Lani Guinier

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Many remember the civil rights scholar-attorney as the Clinton administration’s nominee in 1993 for assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Shortly after the nomination, critics picked what they wanted from her law-review articles and began writing editorials, calling Guinier Clinton’s “Quota Queen.” Those attacks snowballed and ultimately resulted in her nomination being withdrawn. Guinier later made history by becoming the first black woman to receive a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School.

Vanessa L. Williams

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The first black Miss America was de-crowned in 1984 after nude photographs surfaced of Williams in compromising positions with another woman in an issue of Penthouse magazine. Conspiracy theories circulated within the black community that this was an effort to smear what was then a new face of American beauty. Rather than destroy the talented actress-singer, however, the controversy obviously made Williams more determined than ever. She has since thrived in a celebrated career involving music, television and the Broadway stage.

Alice Walker

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The writer—who became the first black American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983, for her novel The Color Purple—received much vitriol from certain quarters of the black community in response to the novel. In 1985 it was adapted for the silver screen by Steven Spielberg, which sparked a national conversation about abuse, racism and abject poverty. Walker’s brave storytelling inspired new generations of readers and writers to take up the work of black feminists who tell difficult stories and are not afraid to raise their voices.

Star Jones

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The sassy, smart personality made one of the most talked-about exits from a TV show in a long time when she left The View in 2006. The controversial departure stemmed, in part, from Jones apparently having misled the public about how she was able to drop a significant amount of weight. The episode was a rare display of a black woman not asking permission to exit—she owned her space and exuded an enormous amount of grace and power.

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