By Robert E. Johnson
JET Executive Editor
Eartha Kitt, the sensuous song- stress who seduced success by selling sexy songs in seven languages on nightclub stages on six of the seven continents, is now hooked on two loves—Black America and Black South Africa.
Gossip has it that her hometown love, Black America, is “macking” (pimping) her, and Black South Africa is still spaced out on Cloud Nine, believing the year-old romance is merely a dream.
Last week, as Miss Kitt pre pared to observe the seventh anniversary of her first love, the Kittsville Youth Foundation, in the once riot-ravished area of
, the words of a middle-class Negro woman echoed in her ears: Los Angeles
“Eartha, honey, are you still down there in
Watts? What the hell do you knock yourself out for? You know damned well all they’re going to do is kick you in your derriere. You know darn well our people don’t appreciate anything. You are just wasting your time.”
It has been seven years since Miss Kitt, who earned her first dollar by spending all day on
plantation picking 100 lbs. of cotton, started teaching Afro Cuban dances to some 40 doubting Black children in South Carolina Watts. The skepticism of the children was shared by their parents who were wondering how long would it last.
Every Saturday since, upward of 100 male and female students, ages 5 to 22, have been participating at Miss Kitt’s school to learn primitive, traditional African and modern dances. Additionally, they are taught personality development, visual poise, grooming, oice, diction, physical fitness and are of their skin and hair.
Miss Kitt, who is slated to re turn to London later this month to resume her starring role in a hit stage play, isn’t in Watts every Saturday of her life, but whenever she is in Los Angeles or nearby cities, she flies in to personally take charge of the three-hour-plus teaching chores. Two former students of the Kittsville Youth Foundation (KYF), Willola Brown and Tabula Idrgun, handle the teaching duties when Miss Kitt is elsewhere displaying her talents as a singer, actress, dancer and linguist.
The internationally-acclaimed entertainer’s labor of love with ghetto Blacks did not begin seven years ago in
Watts. It started 20 years ago, in 1953, in the Harlem YMCA.
Then a successful dancer with Katherine Dunham’s world famous dance troupe, Miss Kitt devoted some of her leisure time to giving dance lessons to Black children whose parents could not afford to enroll them in commercial schools of dance. She asked nothing in return but care and concern.
Like one of white history’s hid den Black heroines, Madame Marie Laveau of
, Miss Kitt is as sensitive as she is sensuous in her devotion to her Black involvement. In the kitchen of her palatial home in New Orleans , Miss Kitt talked about Madame Laveau. Beverly Hills
“She was a wonderful woman who went about doing good for the sake of doing good. She obtained no reward and ofttimes met with prejudice and loathing. She would always be with those who needed help,” Miss Kitt recalled of the Civil War era Voodoo Queen.
Noting that it was her former mother-in-law, Mrs. Nora McDonald, who compared her to Madame Laveau, the entertainer quoted Mrs. McDonald as saying to her: “You are so much like this woman. Your doors are always open, but nobody wants to believe that you want to help people for the sake of helping.”
While it is true that she has been excessively vulnerable to criticism growing out of her marriage to white real estate investor William McDonald, from whom she is now divorced, Miss Kitt keeps on caring and it may come as a surprise to her to learn that, in Kittsville, she is being cared about, too.
“You can’t find anyone more dedicated than she is,” offers Mrs. Ella Mae Evans, program coordinator for KYF, whose daughter, Wanda, credits Miss Kitt for inspiring her to attend college as a result of her dance contact with the star in 1966.
“Eartha Kitt has showed me a lot of things that have carried me farther than I realized,” confided 17-year-old Deborah Tillman, who started in Miss Kitt’s 1968 class and last year put together a show, America All Dressed In Black. The success of her daughter’s show prompted Mrs. Tiliman to exclaim: “I’m sorry that there just aren’t enough Kitts to go around.”
This sentiment was echoed by Mrs. Frankie Guy, who has four daughters, a niece and two cousins enrolled in the dance classes.
“Many parents are inspired just now that Miss Kitt is down here,” observed Mrs. Millie Brown, whose daughter, Willola, was one of Miss Kitt’s first students and is now her assistant instructor.
“It’s a tremendous effort on the part of Miss Kitt and on the part of the community for this ongoing program,” notes Mrs. Inez Austin, director of management for the Los Angeles Housing Authority. “There are a lot of positive things happening here but we don’t get the publicity,” she added.
If her presence in a ghetto will turn the spotlight of publicity upon worthy causes which she supports, she welcomes the publicity.
Since leaving the ghetto of North, S. C., when she was eight years old to live in Harlem’s, by the time she was 14 she had experienced the ghettos of New York, London, Paris, and many other cities. Now, after two decades of show business travels, she is able to observe: “All ghettos are alike, except maybe for the price of a sandwich.”
But the one ghetto which has also found a special place in her heart is in
, Swaziland . Although she was bitterly assailed and criticized last year for playing to segregated audiences there, Miss Kitt explained that she did it to turn the spot light to one of the worst crimes against Black humanity—South Africa’s racial apartheid. South Africa
“I made it specific before I took the South African dates that I would lead a mixed group, as boss, because on the stage, we are not politicians, we are human beings and should be treated as such,” she said. “I also made it specific that I would be free to go wherever I wanted to go because I wanted to see this apartheid with my own eyes since I could see much more than by reading a newspaper.
“I never saw such stupidity,” Miss Kitt revealed. “They put a pencil in your hair and if it falls out then you must be Black. Well, if something as stupid as that is happening, then maybe someone can do something equally stupid to correct the situation.”
The first stupid thing she did was to get involved.
“We started an organization called SPEED (Stars Performance Endowment with Education Development). We ask every artist who comes to
, Black or white, to leave at least 2½ per cent of the earnings behind for the education of the Black and colored Africans, and management is asked to match it. And I don’t think that any artist should go without that attitude of mind,” she emphasized. Here’s the reason: “The whites don’t have to pay for their school, their uniforms, their books—and their parents are usually wealthy. The Black kids have to pay and their parents earn only an average of $20 a month.” South Africa
There is another organization called LEARN (Let Every African Read Now), which is interested in building schools for the Blacks.
When asked if she would be interested in raising money to build schools for Black children by sell ing for $3 little pieces of paper representing bricks, Miss Kitt seized the opportunity and spent as much as three hours each day in shopping centers selling the paper bricks. “With $1,500 you can build one school,” she learned. She raised enough money to build three schools which now bear her name.
Looking back upon the experience, Miss Kitt says:
“I think I am very lucky because I work in show business and I have the opportunity to travel everywhere in the world that I choose to go and get paid. But monetary pay to me is not enough, because you can only make so much money and you can only own so many homes and so many garments, but it is the brain that has to be learning all the time."
Content with her two loves, Black America and Black South Africa, Miss Kitt is possessed by only one other love that is more rewarding: her 11-year-old daughter, Kit, who is now a sixth grade student.
Miss Kitt looked at a wall plaque, pointed to the quotation which, she says, sums up her feelings:
“All expansion is life. All contradiction is death. All love is expression, all selfishness is contradiction. Love is, therefore, the only way of life. He loves, lives. He who is selfish is dying.”