Dear Eartha Mae Keith,
I remember, they called you “the most exciting woman in the world,” “America’s Mistress,” Miss Kitt, Mother Eartha, and with a mischievous chuckle and a guttural cat’s growl to follow, Kitty. It was not for some time that you would earn these names. First, you had to be a young coloured girl in the segregated south. Born on a cotton Plantation in South Carolina on January 17, 1927 with no knowledge of who your father was and only a vague idea that the woman who took care of you was your mother, you lived a rather unstable childhood to say the least. The world around you saw one thing; your skin was too light. It was later presumed that your father was a white man, possibly the son of the plantation owner, but you would never know his name. At the tender impressionable age of three, you became familiar with rejection’s countenance at the doorsteps of family members and strangers when your mother gave you away, and abuse from those who let you in. Starved, beaten, and drudged, you found solace later, when an aunt took you to New York and you enrolled in what is now known as The New York School of Performing Arts.
It wasn’t just your family. Though the art and entertainment world embraced you for some time, even inviting you to become the first black cat woman when no interracial cast had been shown on U.S. television, the American people were divided. To be two things at once was equivalent to being neither, and your mixed race left you without a concrete racial identity. The divisive nature of the union of two races within one woman etched in you a scar of painful rejection. Only more rejection followed when you were blacklisted by the CIA for vocalizing your opposition to the pointless war in Vietnam at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. So much of me in the controversy you stirred. I sprung from your troubles persistent, like a wildflower or a weed. Again in 1984, you visited South Africa on tour and helped build a school for South African blacks, also making the effort to visit impoverished neighborhoods. You were a walking symbol of unity for both races, refusing to perform before segregated audiences. And if there were no black people in the audience you would carry a tuxedo for a stand in black busboy, or whoever was at your disposal, to forcibly integrate the audiences.
It was in Europe that you found your niche, in the smoky spotlight of cabarets. In the glorious light of the television screen, well-mannered tigress on a stage, parading your long legs around the room and audaciously, you propelled your voice into the earth’s atmosphere. Speaking four languages and belting out sonorous waves of visceral emotion and passion in seven, you let the roll of a French tongue stun your listeners into submission. You sang danced and growled your way into the heart of audiences in 100 countries.
I was in your narrative, the one of the mixed girl no one considered pretty, but was undeniably sultry. The one with pedestalled cheek bones and narrow eyes with a penetrating gaze to match. Did you see me with those eyes? I was there. There I was in every extension of your leg, in every rise and fall of your curves. In more than fading pretty, in an unforgettable voice echoing in time, a heavy step in the perpetual drying concrete of life. You paid great prices for being yourself and you saw the value in every sacrifice, best of all you knew it was worth it.
You were born a powerful presence, sweating me from your pores, you created a beautiful woman twice. Once explicitly, a swollen belly followed by a birth, a small fleshy life breathing as proof. The second was conjured privately from within her, up from Eartha Mae sprung unapologetic Eartha Kitt, the woman who would take the place of the unwanted rejected child who was given away to strangers.
There is beauty in the woman who is mixed, with light brown skin and no religion. If they ask for me, they’ll all tell them, I’m in the Kitten herself, in her conquest of every room she entered, in outspoken veracity. Your existence is proof of beauty in the unexpected places and people. When you don’t know where or who you’re from, you can still know where you want to be , who you want to be. When all you’ve ever had to be is self-reliant in order to survive, you find that when you can rely on others you do not, you continue to rely on yourself, you continue to work and you never compromise for the needs of another. You also never compromise for love. Falling in love is to fall in love with yourself and for people share it with you.