On this day January 17: Magnificent ally, Eartha Kitt

eartha kitt january 17
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Eartha Kitt came into this world on January 17, 1927. A friend to our communities in good times and bad, she was also one of the most charismatic entertainers to ever grace stage or screen.

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Born on a cotton plantation, Eartha Kitt grew up in poverty. However, her talent saw her placed at a revolutionary new learning institute later known as the High School of Performing Arts.

In her early twenties, Eartha recorded hit singles, appeared on Broadway and began her movie career. In the late 60s, she replaced Julie Newmar as Catwoman on Batman. As TV Guide noted, “Though she only appeared in five episodes, Kitt remains one of the show’s most recognizable figures to this day.”

The White House

However, in 1968, the American political establishment turned on the black, female superstar.

Lyndon B. Johnson had become president in 1963 following the assassination of  John F. Kennedy. America then had 16,000 military personnel supporting the South Vietnamese regime against its Communist northern neighbour. However, Johnson greatly expanded the American presence, turning Vietnam into one of the most defining issues of the 1960s.

In 1968, his wife Lady Bird invited Eartha and 49 other women to the White House to discuss ‘juvenile delinquency’. She intended a polite little affair that would generate positive publicity. However, during the luncheon, she asked Eartha Kitt about the Vietnam War. Unlike most visitors, a visit to the White House did not intimidate Eartha and she answered straight.

“Mrs Johnson – we raise children and send them to war… You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel.”

Lady Bird Johnson burst into tears and Eartha Kitt became Public Enemy Number One.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Lady Bird Johnson apologised to the nation for Eartha Kitt’s ‘outburst’.

“I’m sorry that the good constructive things the speakers on the panel said were not heard – only the shrill voice of anger and discord.”

Thus, Eartha Kitt became branded an angry black woman, unable to control herself in polite company. The FBI and CIA opened files on the singer/actress, they spread false rumours, and Eartha found herself unofficially blacklisted.

For the next decade, she focussed on her audiences in Europe and Asia. She eventually made a triumphant return to the US, starring in the Broadway spectacular, Timbuktu!

Where is my man

The first certified gold record of Eartha’s career came in 1984 with her recording of the dance megahit and gay anthem ‘Where is my Man’.  The success of that song inspired recordings of ‘I Love Men’ and ‘Cha Cha Heels’  featuring Bronski Beat.

Eartha Kitt headlined numerous benefits for HIV/AIDS and retained a gay audience all her life.

A supporter of same-sex marriage, she said her empathy for her gay audiences stemmed from a shared sense of oppression and rejection.

“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 than rejection. I am a rejected, oppressed person, and so I understand them, as best as I can, even though I am a heterosexual.”

Read more: January 16 <— On this day —> January 18

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