The Legends of sports, arts, and culture are leaving us. They are ascending to the Ancestral World, and we are left to reflect on the lives they lived, the things they accomplished, the barriers they dismantled, and the legacy they have left us. In just a 3-day span of time we have lost Bill Russell, 11- time national basketball champion and social justice warrior, Nichelle Nichols, the iconic star, and barrier breaker as the first African-American woman in a leading role on a television series, and Mary Alice, the fiercely talented Tony and Emmy award winning, and quietly gracious actor of film, television, and stage. When we lose our beloved ones so quickly and all at once, it reminds us of how much they have given us and how many barriers they have dismantled over their storied and incredible careers. These are but three of the many that have left this plane of existence within the last year. If it had not been for them, and others like them, so many of us would not be doing the things that we are currently doing or engaging in sports, arts and culture at the heights and levels that we currently do. These icons were “Way Makers.” We owe them our gratitude and our commitment to make something more of the legacy they have left with us.
The ways in which these three people leaned into their talent and their place in history took tremendous courage, tenacity, and perseverance. They took the opportunities they were afforded by virtue of their incredible talents and abilities and challenged their respective industries to see Black people differently, to literally SEE Us, and not measure us only by the color of our skin but more fundamentally as important contributors, collaborators, equal partners, and participants in industries that had historically minimized the roles Black people could play and the levels at which Black athletes could participate. They each endured different types of racism, resistance, and other challenges but each one of them pressed forward and leaned into the knowledge that they were opening doors for those of us who would come behind them. As we now consider it a “normal” occurrence for Black athletes to receive awards for MVP, or Man/Woman of the Year, or Best Athlete of the Year, etc., Bill Russell set records in the NBA and in ALL of sports that have never been broken. So, no matter how the “game” has changed, those “changes” might not have been possible if not for the work and sacrifices of Bill Russell.
As a little Black girl growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I did not see myself on American television until Ed Sullivan introduced the Supremes or Nancy Wilson, or Aretha Franklin on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” All the television shows were with All white casts, telling all white stories. The only Black people I saw were maids, butlers, and other subservient minor characters. Nichelle Nichols broke that color barrier with the creation of her iconic role Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original television series “Star Trek “ that promised “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” It truly did that for all of us with a multicultural and multi-ethnic company of actors aboard the USS Enterprise. Ms. Nichols played that role from 1966-1969. It also earned her accolades for breaking stereotypes that had limited Black women to acting roles as servants and included an interracial onscreen kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.
Mary Alice is much more personal for me. I met her when I first came to NYC to join the NY Shakespeare Festival’s 1977 Broadway production of “For Colored Girls…” She was so gracious and authentic, breaking all the stereotypes about fame and acting. Her quiet, elegant, and humble spirit left me with a sense of awe and a recognition that I was standing in the presence of greatness. Her long and
illustrious career cannot be adequately captured here. Suffice to say she deeply impacted my life, the way in which I saw myself as an artist and an activist moving forward. I remember watching her in “Fences” on Broadway playing opposite James Earl Jones. She won a Tony Award for that performance in 1987 and was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 2000.
Let us never forget to give thanks for those who have gone before us and truly made “a way outta no way.” They are LEGENDS and they have left us an incredible LEGACY.