Truth-telling & Exile: One Moment with Eartha Kitt

The singer and actresss Eartha Kitt has died at 81. She was born on a cotton plantation near Columbia, South Carolina, daughter of of a very young African American woman who had been raped by the son of the white plantation owner. 

There are many things to note about her long career and rich life -- and we will leave all but one of them to others.

For the moment, let's just tell the story of Eartha's bold disruption of the Johnson White House during the Vietnam War -- and her confrontation with LBJ's wife Lady Bird.

It was January 18, 1968. and Earth Kitt had been summoned to the White House which someone else might have thought was a great honor. But Earth Kitt shared the mounting fury within the United States over the war in Vietnam and widespread poverty.  And she decided to confront the President openly.

Eartha had been invited to a "Women Doers" luncheon because she was  perceived as a supporter of LBJ -- after her  stand on some previous legislation. Ah, but there was more going on with her. As President Johnson stepped in the door she confronted him about the condition of children -- now that more and more families had full-time working parents. Johnson mumbled something about plans for social security.

But Eartha had prepared herself for a bigger confrontation: During the question period, Eartha stood up and tore into the government, saying, among other things:

"I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my guts. I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. And Mrs. Johnson, in case you don't understand the lingo, that's marijuana."

 

 

There was, reportedly stunned silence. It was said that Lady Bird Johnson broke into tears. And the record shows that there followed by a gushing of reactionary remarks, including by  Betty Hughes, wife of the New Jersey governor, who said, "These young people are still juniors. They have to be regulated. I hope we adults are still in control."

Eartha told the press afterwards: "If Mrs. Johnson was embarrassed, that's her problem."

You get a sense of the role of censorship and repression in the American arts by studying how Eartha Kitt was blacklisted after this incident. The whole country was in upheaval, a huge and growing section of the people were opposed to the war. But there was punishment for those who spoke out like this and who (supposedly) "abused their position" of prominence and official respect.

Jobs dried up for her in the U.S., and Eartha Kitt spent much of the rest of her life performing in Europe.

Her 1962 song, "I want to be evil":

More recent performance "everything changes"

Interview

 

People in this conversation

  • Guest - entdinglichung

    Eartha will be missed deeply ... a great voice!

  • Guest - Linda D.

    Damn I'm getting old...but my grandmother took me to see Eartha Kitt in the film NEW FACES OF 1952...and I think it is also to Ms. Kitt's credit (and the producers of New Faces) that even way back then, she was one of the few women of color who was a pioneer, relentless and unrepentant in the world of music and culture. From that era, Dorothy Dandridge didn't fare so well...but Eartha Kitt was inspirational.

  • Guest - coffee buzz

    Eartha Kitt contributed a huge amount to the entertainment industry.. and it was so funny to find out that she was a voice in "The Emperor's New Groove"

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