New books at Ripberger spotlight legendary Black performers

Published 3:23 pm Thursday, February 15, 2024

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“African Americans and the Arts” is the theme for 2024’s Black History Month. And just in time, there are several new books at the Ripberger Public Library that highlight and explore the artistic contributions of four legendary Black performers.

Ella Fitzgerald is not only remembered as a great jazz singer but a singer who transcended genre, becoming one of the greatest vocalists ever. “Becoming Ella Fitzgerald” by Judith Tick is a highly detailed examination of her life and career, from her difficult childhood, which included a stint at a girls’ detention center, to her early forays into singing. Emphasizing Fitzgerald’s incredible versatility as a vocalist, the author re-establishes the iconic singer in the 21st century pantheon.

Long before Misty Copeland became a renowned Black ballerina, there was the Dance Theatre of Harlem, an international troupe of dancers that sadly has been largely forgotten. Later this spring, “The Swans of Harlem” by Karen Valby will be published and the groundbreaking accomplishments of the five principal female dancers will be chronicled. With the Civil Rights era and social upheaval of the 1960’s as a backdrop, the book explores the thriving artistic community and the demands of being a professional dancer as well as the enduring friendships formed during this time.

Like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday built her musical legacy through jazz. Sadly, her singular talent was overshadowed by her personal life which included substance abuse and often violent relationships. “Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday’s Last Year” by Paul Alexander examines her life and accomplishments, especially her powerful anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit.” This song drew the anger of the U.S. government who harassed Holiday for years to stop performing it. This book is the first published biography about Holiday in nearly twenty years and is an encompassing look at her life and artistry.

“The Queen of Sugar Hill” tells the story of Hattie McDaniel, the first Black woman to win an Oscar. This was a groundbreaking achievement but on the night of the ceremony McDaniel was not seated with the other actors in the film and the studio wrote her acceptance speech. In the aftermath the win was bittersweet as her career did not flourish and she was resented by the Black community for her portrayals of domestic workers. Despite this, she fought for decades to improve opportunities for Black performers. This novel brings to life her struggles and triumphs.

Celebrate Back History Month with a good book!

Holly Howze is the branch manager for the Ripberger Public Library located in Kenbridge. She can be reached at