I was personally saddened to learn of Eartha Kitt's death today because I had the extremely rare privilege of meeting and interviewing the lady in October of 1988, 20 years ago this year. She was appearing in Follies at the Shaftsbury theatre in London's West End. I needed a big star to launch my new education magazine and was wondering which one to approach when I heard that my idol was in town. And what a meeting it was!
Of course her agent was rather sceptical when I made my request. "Who are you?" "What is Education Impact?" "Is it the kind of magazine Miss Kitt would wish to be quoted in, especially as that would be your first copy?' "Can we see a sample?"
No, they couldn't see a sample, because we were not a big publishing house. This was a not-for-profit tiny venture to bridge cultural gaps in Britain. It was brought into being to enhance dialogue between the communities within education at a time when minorities were treated on an invisible level. I must have argued my corner pretty well because soon I was granted an interview with Eartha, but only for '30 minutes, maximum' I was warned.
I am not one who is at all nervous, but being in the presence of such a legend felt nothing short of amazing. I never thought I would ever meet Eartha Kitt all the way here in England, as she hardly ever granted interviews. So I kept pinching myself to make sure I was there in her dressing room. She was very sceptical of me, kept me waiting 15 minutes, then was very serious and apprehensive when she saw me. I was just learning my writing craft at the time so she had nothing to fear about being misquoted. I had my tape recorder. But she initially treated me like the usual journalist - with a lot of distance and suspicion.
"And what is your magazine about?" She asked, looking uncomfortable and serious.
Bridging cultural gaps
I proceeded to explain it. I had just left teaching and, having been exposed to the biased and prejudiced attitudes within the education environment, I had vowed to do something about it by putting a Black perspective, a minority one, to reach across to the White community. To encourage greater understanding between cultures and much greater tolerance. Unknown to me, this was a subject dear to her own heart so she began to relax a little and I started my interview. A few excerpts from the interview are quoted below.
The dressing room was small, cosy, warm and full of colourful plants of variegated hues. Among this thriving scenery Eartha looked fragile, vulnerable, yet supremely defiant. She knew exactly where she was coming from, where she was now, and no less certain of how she had arrived there. So what part had academic education played in her unqualified success?
"None. I learnt how to read and write, but that was about it. I was an orphan. My mother gave me away. I was working all my life. Whatever came along I had to do it. I had to take care of myself or get married and have 70 children. So I chose to be independent. I took the cards God gave me and dealt with them in my own way."
If she gained so little from it, can there really be any value to her, or others, in having an education?
"For a discipline, yes, and learning how to think, yes. But, to me, academic education does not usually teach you how to adapt yourself to every day living. It is quite different when you get out into the big world and realise that there is more to life than just reading and writing. School is supposed to teach you how to think and use what you have learnt, but learning History, for instance, what does that do?? Teaches you, maybe, how to understand another person's culture. But, in fact, when you get out into real life you may find that those people you are trying to exchange cultures with very often are not, per se, in the mood for cultural exchange. So, if we learn in schools how to adapt ourselves to - and appreciate - other people's cultures, I think we would have a better understanding of what relationships between people, in general should be all about.
Personally, looking again at the history being taught today, I really think that those books should be re-written. In American history books, and British ones too, we learn how powerful the white man was, but it does not include how equally powerful black people were....So history to me is a false interpretation of man's existence. It is written from only ONE point of view."
While we were warming to each other, I couldn't help but notice how beautiful she was: the huge round saucer-like eyes, the massive smile flashing perfect teeth and smooth toned skin, pulled taut over high, haughty cheekbones. I couldn't believe she was 60 years old. She looked so young. I dared to ask her how she would explain such great charisma?
I had obviously spoken out of turn because the large round eyes seemed momentarily bigger as they flashed towards me disapprovingly. "I don't ask myself questions like that as I do not want to know the recipe." Point taken!