We caught up with FAD volunteer Angelica to talk about why she is so inspired by 1920s performer and ‘Queen of Happiness’ Florence Mills.
Angelica, you have chosen Florence Mills as your Black Icon. What drew you to her story?
“I was drawn to Florence Mills because of what people called her; The Queen of Happiness. I wondered what she must have done in her life to receive such a title.”
What is it about Florence that impressed you so much?
“Wow, where do I start? She was very successful in the 20s/30s. She was known for her high pitch voice and incredible dances. Even though she was black, she was so talented that people couldn’t deny her a platform. Because of this she broke down lots of racial barriers.
However despite her success Florence and other black performers still experienced harsh and overt racism. The difference is she used her fame to speak out against racial injustice. One of her ambitions was to create an all black cast theatre production, which later became a reality; the legendary Blackbirds.
I think what moved me most in my research were the stories of her selflessness. She was a very charitable person and always put others first. She would go above and beyond to help her friends and family with whatever problems they were facing. Even on her death bed she would want to sing to her loved ones to keep them happy. Supposedly her last words where ‘I don’t want anyone to cry when I die. I just want to make people happy, always’.”
What have you learnt from Florence as a role model?
“To be unique in your creative work. Florence Mill’s unique performances made her irreplaceable; it helped her to get so many opportunities and led to her success. I believe being unique and creative is a good way to overcome the barriers that young people like me might face today.”
How do you think she compares to modern role models?
“I don’t think she does, and it would be wrong of me to try and compare her to anyone today. What I think is really interesting is she used her success to break down lots of racial barriers; she spoke out against racism and helped to provide a successful platform for other black performers. Today I feel like everything has become a competition. A lot of black performers today (not all) do not want to get involved in racial issues because it might mess with their ‘brand’, they don’t speak out. I think it’s all become a bit superficial compared to Florence’s time.”
Is this project, and learning how to use archives, helping you in any way?
“Yes! In my own creative work I want to challenge the stereotypes that are held against black people. I want to do this by broadening the perspective of our culture, showing the more positive and empowering element to our history.”
As a volunteer, and a young person, why do you think archiving and retelling these stories is so important now?
“It’s important because there is a lot of misinformation about the lives and history of black people in Britain, which effects how we are seen and treated in this society. The stories that are normally told about black history are very limited. The consequence is that young black people grow up with a loss of identity. We sometimes have negative beliefs about ourselves. I hope by looking at the archives and sharing what we find can inspire all young people and give them a sense of their own history and identity.”