BOOK REVIEW: Black women of substance share philanthropy, sisterhood and success

McClatchy InteractiveJanuary 10, 2008 

Strike up a passionate conversation with this gem of a book titled, "Jewels: 50 Phenomenal Black Women Over 50." This delightful coffee table volume presents reflections on living from women of various hues, backgrounds and achievements.

Author Connie Briscoe and photographer Michael Cunningham educate those curious about the lives of influential black females, both famous and unknown. Black and white photographs combine with telling words to compose an album of high achievers. All are over the age of 50; and each portrays resiliency, adversity, a strong family bond and a desire to succeed. Read on to become acquainted with a few of them.


Resiliency is most evident in the life of Ruby Dee, actor, activist, author and wife of the late Ossie Davis. She describes herself as an activist "who just was." She was reared in a tense environment and remembers the day she was arrested for protesting.

" ... but as I got older there were lynchings and picket lines and marches and funerals and sometimes so much violence you couldn't go to work."

Dee, now 83 years old, began her acting career in 1939 and starred in the movies, "A Raisin in the Sun" and "Jungle Fever." Her superb role in "American Gangster" snagged her an award for "Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role," at the 2008 Screen Actor Guild Awards (SAG). She recently received her first Oscar nomination for "Best Supporting Actress" in the very same film, "American Gangster." This blockbuster movie, starring Denzel Washington, is based on the true story of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas.


Brenda Stubbs shares her story of survival as a single mother. A reading specialist, she offers her son, Okorie, a stable and loving environment. Stubbs proves her theory of raising children solo and successfully. Today, Okorie, an English teacher, is a successful husband and father.

"My advice to other single mothers is to celebrate your sons and daughters. Be excited about everything they do, praise them for efforts big and small, and minimize arguing. Allow them to have good relationships with their fathers. Make them feel loved and appreciated."


Financial consultant Deborah Nedah is also very independent and strong. She survived the death of two brothers and the emotional frailty of her mother. Her biggest test was raising her nephews ... a test she passed with flying colors.


Johnetta Betsch Cole believes when it comes to success, the role of ancestry is key. "You can't know who you are if you don't know how you grew up," she says. "When I look at who I am today, I can see direct paths back to where I was born and who my family was … because you have given so much, much is required of you. And so the idea of service strongly motivates me."


A strong grandmother and determination to succeed led Nikki Giovanni, poet, writer, activist and educator to follow her dreams. Nominated for the "Spoken Word Grammy" in 2004, Giovanni is happy with life ... writing sustains her soul.

"I spent summers in Knoxville with Grandmother. She was my biggest supporter and she was very politically active. If you were around my grandmother, you were politically active. That's why much of my poetry deals with political and social issues. She taught me that you always have time, even if you don't always have money, and to give what you have. I'm a big fan of volunteerism."


Verna Cook, national president of Black Women in Sisterhood for Action (BISA), establishes a special bond with other female philanthropists by providing college scholarships for young black women. Most impressive is her education at Bethune-Cookman College as an undergraduate. She credits founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune for providing the education and the courage to live out her dreams.

"Dr. Bethune lived in a house on the college campus and many of us would stand around and wait for her to come out. She would put her hands on our heads and say ' Remember, you kids, enter to learn and leave to serve. I'm proud of my little black boys and girls.' She was a great educator. She is my role model. I want to be just like her."


Marita Golden, like Ruby Dee, says resiliency is one of her strongest traits. Her very first novel, "Long Distance Life," was inspired by her mother. Golden, author and founder of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, recalls her mother' mantra, "Life was a gift and it was to be lived fully."


Victoria Roberts and S. Epatha Merkerson emphasize preparation and being at the right place at the right time.


Explore a collection of autobiographies that are honest and inspirational. Sure, there are many books out there worth reading, but only an impressive few are worth displaying as a potential conversation piece. "Jewels: 50 Phenomenal Black Women Over 50" is not only beautiful literature for your coffee table, it's also a great book to read!

Karla Mass is a content producer with McClatchy Interactive. You may reach her at

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