I was raised among queens.
They didn’t hold court in grand palaces, but in the orphanages, prisons and rest homes of our rural community. They were more concerned with service than subjects; more mindful of what was in your heart than a crown on your head. The regalness, the real power, lay in their character. It was my mother, my aunties, the volunteers at my church – no task was too menial and no person wasn’t worth saving. At Christmas, I remember my mom taking gifts to the orphans and ensuring the elderly in our neighborhood had food for the holidays. Even now years later, she still leads a small band of women into rest homes and prisons visiting those so often forgotten by their families.
When I started writing my upcoming release, Queen Move, I wanted a woman like that at its center. It’s not that Kimba is visiting rest homes and prisons, though I have no doubt she would. Compassion manifests in a million different ways if we let it. My character is an activist whose life’s work is shaping public policy through the leaders she helps elect. She is powerful in all the ways you’d expect and vulnerable in myriad ways you could miss at a glance. She’s a TIME 100 kind of woman. Influential and inspiring.
In honor of all the queens out there making powerful moves, whether heralded on magazine covers or reigning in their neighborhoods and communities, undetected by most, I wanted to share four of my favorite queens. Four women I admire and see something in their lives worth modeling.
Much of Queen Move takes place in Atlanta, a city I know well. I lived there for twenty years, moved away and returned in March. As we were running errands and reacquainting ourselves with the city (by car, of course because we’re the smart people who moved in the middle of a pandemic and can’t leave the house without masks and gloves), my husband pointed out a road in the east part of the city.
Eva Davis Way.
Gentrification has come for this part of town, as it has for so many others, but there are still shadows of what the area used to be, and in some places, what it remains. A single mother of eight, Eva Davis and her children relocated to the city and were among the first residents in East Lake Meadows in 1971. The housing project quickly became infamous for its crime and poverty, conditions only exacerbated by the state’s heinous neglect. Outraged, Davis became president of the tenants association and organized rent strikes against the Atlanta Housing Authority, demanding improved conditions. Davis often landed on the front pages of newspapers and on the evening news, shining a glaring light on the awful conditions, an assault on human dignity.
When drug dealers turned the housing project into a war zone plagued by soaring crime and addiction, Davis continued to rally for redevelopment. She famously presented her case with a line of drug dealers in the back of the room thinking to intimidate her.
They did not succeed.
When you drive through that neighborhood today and see the YMCA, the charter school, the PGA golf course – that is her legacy. The community organizer also assisted with voter registration for the likes of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, for whom the airport is named, Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis and many leaders she trusted to make a difference for the people who needed reform most.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin had this to say in Davis’ obituary: “I’m not sure the redevelopment would have been possible without Eva. She had the confidence to ask the right questions, to engage in robust debate and to approve compromises necessary for the project to work. She was a community leader who broke all the stereotypes of race, gender and class.”
There is now a PBS documentary examining her life and acknowledging her contribution.
And an eponymous street in the vey neighborhood she fought to save.
QUEEN QUOTE: “We tore down hell and built heaven.”
To be such an accomplished filmmaker, Ms. DuVernay has been on the public radar for a relatively short amount of time. In her past life, she was a publicist in the biz, but garnered wide public recognition in 2012 when she became the first black woman to win the US Dramatic directing award at Sundance for what was only her second feature film. A mere two years later, she directed Selma, which garnered critical praise, including an Oscar nomination for best director, the first time a black woman has been singled out for that honor. Comb through Ava’s history and you’ll find a long, winding line of “firsts and only’s.” She headbutts glass ceilings for a living. As a storyteller, I’m always awed by the marriage of her conviction and imagination. She says that art and activism grow from the same root because both imagine better possibilities. That is the place from which I write. My books often twine fictitious happily ever afters with difficult realties because I want to see things change, and I will use my platform, even if it is only as wide as a kindle, to voice my sincere desire for better possibilities. In addition to wrenching truth-based stories like the Emmy Award-wining When They See Us, she has taken the time to show black people simply loving and living like in Queen Sugar and the Cherish Anthology on OWN. I’m not only an author, a creative, but a businesswoman who self- publishes and helms the majority of my writing projects from top to bottom. This has often allowed me to slip past the gatekeepers when they might have kept me out, and enabled me to find a readership far broader than I may have otherwise. Ava’s sensibilities inspire me to do that whenever I can. She is also trailblazing in the area of gender equality in Hollywood, achieving full gender parity on her latest series, with 50% of her crew comprised of women.
Queen Quote: “I don’t want a chair at the table. Or even three or even half anymore. I want the table to be rebuilt in my likeness and in the likeness of others long forced out of the room.”
Like so many of my generation, I first encountered Reese Witherspoon in iconic movies like Election, Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde. As incredible as she was in those roles, and Oscar winning and nominated performances Walk the Line and Wild, it was just the tip of the Reese-berg. She has been top of the pile, not only for the marquis, but behind the scenes for some of the most successful creative ventures of recent years. Her production company, Hello Sunshine, has produced projects like The Morning Show, HBO’s Big Little Lies and the upcoming projects Daisy Jones and the Six (yay, Taylor Jenkins Reid!!), and Where the Crawdads Sing.
The things she chooses to produce center women’s power, aspiration and our complexity. She has also proven herself to be a reliable ally for women of color. That has never been more clearly showcased than in her current HULU limited series, Little Fires Everywhere, an adaptation of Celest Ng’s book, which beautifully examines the fascinating intersection of class systems, femininity, race, power and privilege. Her co-star and producing partner Kerry Washington confirmed with his quote: “I trust her. There’s not a lot of people in this business that I trust with my full inner life the way that I trust Reese. We really revealed ourselves to each other, and I never felt like in that nakedness we were unsafe. That’s not always true in the workplace. That you have that kind of phenomenal trust.”
Over the last few years, she has emerged as a powerhouse, not just in Hollywood, but in broader culture. How delighted were we to discover she’s a bonafide bibliophile? Like Oprah before her, she has become the new book whisperer for many women who trust their next read to Reese’s Bookclub. And I adore that she wasn’t a snob about romance, but has selected two romance authors as book club picks so far, Chanel Cleeton and Jasmine Guillory. And last, but certainly not least, CLOTHES! Bringing all that fire (pun totally intended) straight to your closet with Draper James, her clothing line, inspired by her southern roots and easy charm. She is a juggernaut creative and businesswoman driven by her convictions and propelled by her imagination.
Queen Quote: “I made a conscious decision about eight years ago to start my own company, because I wasn’t happy with the choices that were being made for me, and I didn’t see a place to exist within the industry. There just wasn’t a spectrum of storytelling for women that I felt like was representative of the world that we walk through and that our daughters are seeing on film and television.”
I found this queen much too late. A game recognize game post from Rhianna brought the remarkable Cacsmy Brutus, a Haitian-American model, to my attention:
“A queen. A force. A powerhouse beauty that brought her strength to the @savagexfenty stage this year inspiring so many across the globe. Rest In Power sis.”
That post sent me on an expedition to find out more about the woman they called Mama Cax. Through her Instagram account, a richly lived life emerged. A cancer survivor, she was diagnosed with bone and lung cancer when she was fourteen years old, which ultimately resulted in a hemipelvectomy, an amputation all the way to her hip, a surgery only 1% of amputees have. She was bionic beauty in motion. That doesn’t only refer to her prosthetic, but to the strength of her character and the steel of her fortitude. In a world that would discount a body like hers, one that was not “whole”, as un-beautiful, she embraced the full audacity of herself, taking seen-ness to a level most will never experience – the runways of high fashion. Every time she strutted in a show or smiled for a camera that would export her image to millions, she strode forward for the disabled so often erased from the conversation of beauty. Recognized as a “Visibility Crusader” by Glamour as one of their Women of the Year in 2019, she spoke candidly of the young girls with limb differences dreaming new dreams after seeing what she did with what she had; how she shone, representing the too-often less seen.
As a mother of a child who is severely impacted by autism, I know how society can “reduce” those who are other-abled; how in a room they sometimes conveniently disappear. It makes me admire Mama Cax that much more, the WATCH ME in her walk, the hope in her smile, and the grit in her spirit. She lived out radical self-love that reverberated around the world. In December of 2019, she went on to rest in power, but the legacy of what she did for body positivity and visibility for the disabled lives on. Seeing what she accomplished against incredible odds, provokes me to eliminate excuses and to never let someone else’s expectations shape my path. If Mama Cax could do it, what’s stopping me???
Queen Quote: “Scars, we can hate them all we want but at the end of the day they still remain part of us, they tell our stories of struggle and survival.”
Queen Move by Kennedy Ryan, out May 26th!
The boy who always felt like mine is now the man I can’t have…
Dig a little and you’ll find photos of me in the bathtub with Ezra Stern.
Get your mind out of the gutter. We were six months old.
Pry and one of us might confess we saved our first kiss for each other.
The most clumsy, wet, sloppy . . . spectacular thirty seconds of my adolescence.
Get into our business and you’ll see two families, closer than blood, torn apart in an instant.
Twenty years later, my “awkward duckling” best friend from childhood,
the boy no one noticed, is a man no one can ignore.
Finer. Fiercer. Smarter.
Tell me it’s wrong.
Tell me the boy who always felt like mine is now the man I can’t have.
When we find each other again, everything stands in our way–secrets, lies, promises.
But we didn’t come this far to give up now.
And I know just the move to make if I want to make him mine.
**QUEEN MOVE will have the special pre-order and release week price of $3.99. After that, the price will increase.**
Pre-order your copy today!
Apple Books: https://apple.co/2JGiqD7
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