February is Black History Month, so we asked Drag Race superstar Shangela Laquifa Wadley to give us her top 10 African-American icons.
Shangy took things one step further and ranked her favorite divas of color in a list that spans music, acting, literature, politics, activism and more.
Yes, she was black. She was Egyptian—and Egypt is in Africa. Therefore, she was an African queen, much like my sister Bebe Zahara Benet. Not like Elizabeth Taylor, a white woman that played Cleopatra in the movie and just wore a lot of black eyeliner (and who had semi-black best friends like Michael Jackson).
I’m down with Queen Cleo because she was the last Pharaoh of Egypt, counted Julius Caesar and Marc Antony among her lovers, and will always be remembered for her great power. Not like Miss Cleo, who will always be remembered for her psychic phone scams.
Born a slave, Miss Harriet escaped to the North in the mid-19th century. Now she could have just sat at the house and knit some flags like Betsy Ross, but H.T. was a fearless leader: Using the Underground Railroad, she helped more than 300 slaves escape to freedom.
Every black person should know Whoopi as the legendary Celie from The Color Purple. I mean, Roots was okay, but you don’t know black triumph until you can recite the line, “I may be black, poor…I may even be ugly. But dear God, I’m here!” It’s basically the “Born this Way” of the late 1980s.
Whoopi is one of only ten people to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Tony, and Oscar award—and, as a comedian, I’ve been inspired by her since the first time I saw her on screen in Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Yes, she might be known to the teens as the old black lady that sits opposite the white ladies on The View, but trust, Whoopi has made her mark. Don’t sleep on Celie!
Now y’all know I enjoy a good read. And if famous black people want something read—and read for filth—they go to Miss Maya. Her voice was iconic, her words painted pictures. I live for Miss Maya.
But truth be told, I hope she collected some lovely residual checks from all the girls performing her poem “Phenomenal Woman”—which happened at every black talent show for at least four years straight.
Ask your homegirl at work.
Yes, she wore a diva fish church hat to Obama’s inauguration, but that’s not the main reason Aretha ranks high in my history book. She’s rocked the nation for years with her music and helped bridge racial gaps in the ’60s and ’70s.
The original RiRi (take that Rihanna), Aretha will live forever through songs like “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, “Think” and, especially for the gays, “Deeper Love (Pride)”.
Plus, she and I both have it in our riders that we must have fried chicken backstage.
Y’all know the story: She got on the bus. She sat down. She didn’t get up. And she basically became the mother of the civil-rights movement. Werq, Miss Rosa!
I live for a diva that takes a stand—or in this case, a seat.
I don’t think there’s one Shangela fan that didn’t expect to see Mrs. Carter on this list. Beyoncé is my Number One stage inspiration (tied with Tina Turner—shout out Nutbush!).
Shut up! This is my list of dynamic divas in black history, and I can’t even think of the word “dynamic” without thinking of stage and screen mega-diva Jenifer Lewis.
The undisputed black mother of Hollywood, Jenifer has played everybody’s mama (Whitney Houston, Tina Turner), and will be executive producing her own film Ventura Blvd. She has been a great mentor and friend to me, and always inspires her interview audiences to ask, “what am I doing today to make a better tomorrow?” Continue to werq it Ms. Jen! #JeniferLewisAndShangelaOnYouTube
Obama is the first black male president but did you know that, in 1972, Shirley became the first black woman to run for the country’s highest office? Better learn that history, boo! A pioneering politician and a voice for women and African-Americans, she was also the first black woman elected to Congress. C’mon political fish!
The ultimate role model, O worked her way up in the world, made smart business decisions, stacked her coins to a billion and consistently gives back to the children. If Gayle and Stedman would stop fighting over which one gets to be First Lady, Oprah would be President by now.
Black people love Oprah because she represents someone who has achieved the American Dream and remained humble. Well, that and the fact that she gave out free cars on her show!
Honorable Mention: RuPaul (duh!)
I restricted this list to actual women, so RuPaul was disqualified on a technicality. But she’s definitely sickening enough in full fish mode to be worth mentioned. In the pageant world, we call this award “Best Non-Finishing Finalist.”
Good luck next time, Mama Ru. Add more dancers in your talent and more stones to the gown and we’ll see ya next year!
Catch Shangela on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 3, Thursdays at 8/7c on VH1.