Diana Ross and the Hard History Lesson

You didn't even know how significant this appearance was, until now.

Last Sunday, during the American Music Awards show, Diana Ross was presented with a lifetime achievement award. Now, this may seem like a real no-brainer. Though she hasn't had many big hits here at home in many years, her legacy is undeniable. 

Some highlights:

  • Ross grew up in the Brewster-Douglass Projects, considered some of the worst in the nation at the time. They were eventually torn down. She had planned originally going to college to become a clothing designer before her and some friends formed a signing group which eventually became the Supremes.
  • As Motown Records biggest artist in terms of charted singles and sales, she helped propel what was once the largest Black-owned business in the U.S. to prominence among major labels that didn't even know Detroit existed outside of being the home of automakers.
  • When she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress at the 1973 Oscars, she had been one of the few Black people to even make the ballot and brought Black-made films into the mainstream with Lady Sings the Blues. In the film, Ross played icon Billie Holiday, warts and all, bringing newfound attention to the Jazz legend's work. In the 12 months following the film's release, Billie Holiday became the best-selling Jazz vocalist in sales, some 13 years after her death.
  • For her follow-up film, Mahogany, Ross had her contract specify that she would design all of the clothes. Up until then, women often were not costumers in any capacity and Black women doing this task were virtually unheard of. 
  • She openly cultivated her gay audience, even making the #1 spot on Billboard magazine's "Best LGBTQ Anthems" of all time with "I'm Coming Out". 
  • Her best-selling and most critically acclaimed solo album, Diana in 1980, would not have been the success it was after it was finished by then-hot producers Chic. Ross was in a commercial slump, and needed a big hit. However, Ross was unhappy with the mix, and instead of being the good little girl and just accept what was given to her, she left New York City (where the album had been made). Instead of going to Motown's new Los Angeles headquarters, she literally went back home to Detroit with Russ Terrana, an engineer. They would speed tempos, re-record vocals and change entire song sections. As a result of her very hard work with Terrana, she was given equal credit with him on the album. Women in pop music audio engineering is a rarity even today, and Ross become one of, if not the first, Black female engineers on a top-selling music LP.  
  • And, for the haters, after Florence Ballard was booted from the Supremes in the mid-1960's after her unpredictable behavior due to alcohol addiction, Ross paid the mortgage on Ballard's home for many years so that Ballard and her children would not be homeless.

But this is what many of you don't understand, so I am here to explain it's significance.

Ross has been incredibly close to her children and grandchildren, even being present in the delivery room when her first grandchild was born.

During the AMA performance last Sunday, Ross brought her family up on stage with her, including her grandchildren. Last year, Ross was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed to non-military citizens. Ross was given this for her contribution to the arts. 

  • For the unaware, Ross is the granddaughter of slaves. The significance of her award last year was made incredibly special by it being awarded by the very first Black president this country has ever had, Barak Obama. Life has been cruel and unfair to Black people in this country since its inception, but moments like this make me pause and still gives me the hope that was Obama's campaign message nine years ago.
  • Ross never got to meet her grandparents. They had passed away, living in truly horrible conditions in rural Tennessee, many years before Diana was even born. All that is left of their legacy are a few old stories and some stone grave markers in what was once the grounds of the Ross mansion. It was common for slaves to take the last name of their slave owners, which was a means of identifying their "property", as they were once legally referred to. 

Some things are not about you, but they could be.

Ross's grandparents never got to see their granddaughter become the icon she is today, due to a system that removed their identities after her ancestors had their freedom taken and treated as less than human for generations. Though her grandchildren may not realize it now, their grandmother was making a very bold and very personal statement by having them onstage with her that evening.

Take that as your real teaching moment, and with the upcoming family holiday season upon us, you will have ample opportunities do to so.

Love to you all.

Ben Brown Jr.
Ace of Spades PDX

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to top