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When celebrity luster gives cover to how America judges its own

Jessye Norman and Diahann Carroll remind us of the unfair burden placed on icons of color

People who hold up the late Jessye Norman, left, or Diahann Carroll as exemplifying America’s promise, that hard work will inevitably lead to reward, ignore the women’s own struggles , Curtis writes. (Gregg DeGuire/WireImage/Getty Images file photos)
People who hold up the late Jessye Norman, left, or Diahann Carroll as exemplifying America’s promise, that hard work will inevitably lead to reward, ignore the women’s own struggles , Curtis writes. (Gregg DeGuire/WireImage/Getty Images file photos)

OPINION — I am not one of those folks who see celebrities as larger-than-life icons to be worshipped and admired. Usually. But the recent deaths of Jessye Norman and Diahann Carroll hit me in the gut because those two amazing women were at once larger than life and so very real. The reactions to their accomplishments also illustrate an American or perhaps universal trait — the ability to compartmentalize, to place certain citizens of color or underrepresented citizens on a pedestal, at once a part of and apart from others of their race or gender or religion or orientation.

It allows negative judgment of entire groups to exist alongside denials of any racist or discriminatory intent. There are a lot of problems with that way of thinking. It places an unfair burden on the icons, a need to be less a human being than a flawless symbol. And it uses them as a rebuke to others who never managed to overcome society’s obstacles.

Most destructively, it allows behavior that punishes those not so talented, fortunate or lucky.

In the same week the country mourned these famous and fabulous African American women, its leaders, without much notice, shifted political policy to reduce spending on food assistance and to again add roadblocks to limit legal immigration, targeting programs that affect many, but disproportionately touch those with ready-made negative narratives.

The Agriculture Department’s move would cut trim monthly benefits by as much as $75 for one in five struggling families on nutrition assistance. “If the three proposals become final and are implemented, millions of [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] participants will have their benefits reduced or cut altogether — particularly seniors, people with disabilities, and working families — and 500,000 children will lose access to school meals,” Kate Leone, the chief government relations officer at the advocacy group Feeding America, said in a statement.

Ohio Democrat Marcia L. Fudge, who chairs the House Agriculture  subcommittee on nutrition, said in a statement, “Whether it’s the hypocrisy of preaching states’ rights while restricting states’ flexibility or espousing smaller government while putting more bureaucratic barriers in place, the President and his Administration are fully engaged in open war on the American poor.”

A presidential proclamation, issued in the last week, would deny visas to lawful immigrants who cannot prove their ability to obtain unsubsidized health insurance within 30 days of entry, unless exceptions apply, a move that would most affect low-income newcomers.

The stories that would hold up Norman or Carroll as exemplifying America’s promise — that hard work will inevitably lead to reward — ignore the women’s own struggles as well as the fact that it was others in their families and communities who offered support when society hit back at them.

Parts of their stories are not so different from others who fall through the cracks, something both women recognized with their work fighting for justice.

Norman commanded stages, presidential inaugurations of both parties and the Place de la Concorde in Paris and enthralled audiences — and yes, myself included, once at Carnegie Hall. All the while, she credited those who made her success possible, from family to teachers to opera pioneers such as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. Norman established a free after-school arts program in her native Augusta, Georgia, for underserved students, taking on the responsibility for those who would follow.

“It’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist,” she once said. “It does. It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice.”

Carroll, born in the Bronx and raised in Harlem, conquered every medium. She won a Tony award for a musical Broadway giant Richard Rodgers wrote with her in mind, and embodied a television character, “Julia,” whose very ordinariness as a hardworking young professional and widowed mom made her a groundbreaker in a racially divided and still largely segregated country.

Carroll walked on to the quintessential prime-time soap opera “Dynasty” and owned it, and appeared opposite both Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier (so much gorgeous on the screen). It’s ironic that her performance as a loving mother of six navigating an unforgiving welfare system in “Claudine” won her an Oscar nomination while a nonfictionalized version would merit only scorn. Nevertheless, she brought vulnerability and humanity to the part.

I most remember the image of her walking hand-in-hand with another of my favorites, James Garner, at the March on Washington in 1963, when taking a political stand could harm a Hollywood career and when I squinted at the black-and-white TV from home, looking for my three eldest siblings and mom somewhere in that enormous crowd.

It’s no surprise that Carroll hosted a fundraiser in her Beverly Hills home for Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential bid.

While never letting America see them sweat, Norman and Carroll did the hard work, and not just for themselves. It’s depressing that honoring them segues so easily, for some, to grinding forward with policies made palatable by the lens that simplistically and unfairly judges many with whom both have shared similar struggles.

Holding contradictory ideas is hardly unusual. This is, after all, a country that slid from an African American first family whose scandals included wearing a tan suit and baring well-sculpted arms to a president who touts his “great and unmatched wisdom” while he shreds the constitutional concept of co-equal branches of government.

Donald Trump, awash in imperfections, carries the burdens of no one but himself, with every curse and insult held up by many supporters I’ve spoken with as proof of his authenticity.

Perhaps that’s why it is so important to take notice of two women whose excellence transcended their fields even as their success absolves some of honestly looking at America’s relationship with members of the complex and diverse mosaic who define it.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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