During my lifetime I’ve seen a lot of progress on race relations in this country. I can still remember my first television commercial featuring African-Americans. It was for Crest toothpaste, and it featured middle-class suburbia, except the family was black. It was unusual enough to interrupt our family dinner. No big deal today.
We’ve come far enough along that reminders of how things used to be can be downright jarring. For example, I’ve just read an account of Misty Copeland, the first black ballerina to be a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, and her relationship with one of her mentors, Raven Wilkinson. Wilkinson was a dancer in the 1950s whose experiences are told in a new picture book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, written by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III.
Wilkinson, a New Yorker, literally risked death to dance in the South when it was illegal for black and white dancers to share a stage. She had her first encounter with the Ku Klux Klan in Montgomery Alabama in 1957. As she remembers, “It looked like it was snowing out, but actually, the KKK were everywhere. There was a convention. The [hotel] manager said, ‘You can’t dance tonight. Go to your room, stay in your room, lock the door, and don’t come out and don’t let anybody in.’” A cross was burned outside her window. She ended up dancing in Europe before returning to the U.S. in 1974 to dance with the New York City Opera until her retirement at age 50.
Although Copeland owes a lot to Wilkinson, racism is still very much present. As Copeland tells it, “A lot of dancers in my generation have been told the same things she has been told. The one difference is that the world outside ballet has changed. We won’t be told to leave the company because our safety is at risk, but I had a similar experience being told to pancake my skin a lighter color to fit in with the rest of the company. I’ve talked to so many dancers who have had it even worse than [what] I’ve experienced. Raven and I both have a light complexion, but darker dancers have experienced much worse.”
Yes, we’ve come a long way. But we still have a long way to go.
My source is ” ‘A Lot Is Still So Much the Same’: Misty Copeland on Decades of Racism and Ballet” by Olivia B. Waxman (http://time.com/5098808/misty-copeland-raven-wilkinson-book/?). The photo is from that article.