Black History Month Recognizes Eartha Kitt (1927-2008)

By: Tatiahna Turner

Eartha Mae Kitt was born January 17, 1927 on a cotton plantation in South Carolina. It is believed that Kitt was conceived by rape, her father being a white man with the last name of Keith and her mother who was of mixed ancestry (Cherokee and African). Throughout her life Kitt was unaccepted by different communities due to her skin tone. At age 8 her mother Annie Mae Keith (later changed to Annie Mae Riley) married a man who was unwilling to except Eartha due to her lighter skin complexion. As a result, her mother sent her away to live with her aunt in Harlem, New York. Her aunt began to pay for dance and piano lessons, and it was there in New York that Eartha’s spark for showbiz was ignited (huffingtonpost.com).

Around 1943, as a young teenager, Kitt decided to try out for an African-American dance company known as the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. She received a spot as a dancer and vocalist and traveled around the globe with the dance company. While touring with the company in Paris, Kitt sparked the interest of a nightclub owner and quit the dance company to perform at the nightclub. She quickly learned French, and won over the hearts of French fans. In 1952, Kitt was cast in a Broadway show known as New Faces. This stardom led to her eventually signing a recording contract where she made one of her biggest hits “Santa Baby”.  Kitt continued acting throughout her old career and was even casted as “Catwoman” in 1967 for the television series Batman (earthakitt.com).

Kitt faced a major career setback in January of 1968 when during a White House luncheon she made anti-war comments. When asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War, Kitt responded by saying “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the streets. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they will be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”  This statement upset the First Lady and caused her to cry. Later on during a Q&A session Kitt began to apologize for her previous statement, but ended the apology by saying, “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.” Kitt was not at the time aware of what a severe impact these statements would have on her career. She was blacklisted in the United States for years and had to travel abroad to Europe and Asia to find work. In 1974 Kitt returned and resumed work in the United States (huffingtonpost.com).

Eartha Kitt married businessman John William McDonald in 1960 and gave birth to her daughter, Kitt McDonald, whom she said was the greatest joy in her life. Some of Kitt’s most recent roles in films and television include Disney films such as The Emperor’s New Groove where she voiced a villain named “Yzma”, and Holes where she played a character named “Madame Zeroni”. She also starred in the 90’s sitcom Living Single, a role that landed her a nomination for the NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. Miss Kitt passed away on December 25, 2008 of colon cancer. She is survived by her daughter and grandchildren, and remembered by the world for her distinct voice, captivating personality, and major contributions to the world of the arts (manything.org).

 

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