Of that she already had plenty. She showed it most memorably on the day in 1963 when she went into Shalimar’s barber shop in Harlem and asked to have her sleek bob cut away. For a while she had practised hairdressing herself, wielding her hot comb and pressing irons to straighten out those unkempt curls, as white people saw them.
Now she would wear her hair natural. It happened to suit the latest part she was playing; but more than that, it showed her real self, and she felt beautiful. She kept that half-inch Afro for her TV role in “East Side/West Side”, the first main role for a black actress in a series, astonishing Americans because her character had a serious career, as a secretary, and was comfortable in her skin.
She then retained that lean, proud look for years. Many activists marched, but her civil-rights statement was her face on stage and screen. Each time she chalked up a first—the first black woman to win an Emmy as a lead actress, for “Jane Pittman”, and the first to receive an honorary Oscar, in 2018—she considered it not just a chance to be dazzling in ruffles, silk or lace, but a victory for humankind.
Defiance came naturally, as a black woman in a world where black misery was largely ignored and black beauty dismissed. Consigned to a typing pool when she left school, she walked out, declaring that God did not intend her to bang on a typewriter for the rest of her life.
In search of a modelling agency, a path that saw her face in Vogue as well as Ebony and Jet, she sent her photos all over New York, and did not care when her mother threw her out for it.
Hired in a small way in the late 1950s for feature films and off-Broadway, she soon put her foot down. There were roles she approved of, and roles she would rather starve than take.