New Picture Book Honors Raven Wilkinson, The First African American Woman To Dance For A Major Ballet Company

Photo via: Crystal McCoy/Bonnier Publishing

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. Well how about an entire picture book about the first African American woman to dance for a major American touring ballet company. At the age of 82, living legend Raven Wilkinson will see her story or courage and determination brought to life in the form of a new children's book, entitled: "Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson."

The book begins with a foreword provided by Principal Dancer, Misty Copeland, who has been mentored by Wilkinson as she became the first African American female principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre in 2015. It also ends with a letter from Wilkinson herself to inspire young readers to always follow their dreams even in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles.

Photo via: "Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson"

In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American ballerina to be signed to a major touring company. The New York native performed with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for six years in spite of experiencing many horrors of overt racism, particularly when she toured the Jim Crow south. Often times, she depended on her company mates to help to keep her safe on the road. The threat of racial violence was so intense at times that Wilkinson’s life was in danger and she often had to be confined to her room with the door locked. She recounted an experience in a 2014 interview with "The Point" magazine by sharing:

“I remember one time in Montgomery, Alabama, the tour bus rolled into town, and everyone was running around with white robes and hoods on. There was a rapping sound on the bus door, and this man jumped on in his hood and gown. Several big strapping male company dancers got up and moved toward him. He threw a fistful of racist pamphlets all over the bus before they chased him out.”

Wilkinson pressed on and continued to live her dreams by performing as a character dancer in various productions until her retirement in 2011. "Trailblazer" follows her career, including her tenure with The Dutch National Ballet and The New York City Opera. Alongside her personal letter, the book ends with an illustration of Wilkinson presenting Misty Copeland with flowers following her debut in "Swan Lake" as a newly selected Principal Ballerina. As her mentee, Copeland has been very vocal about the influence of Wilkinson’s career on her own journey. 

Photo via: PBS

In an interview with Time Magazine, Copeland said of Wilkinson: "She's been through so much more than I could ever imagine, in the 1950s and experiencing racism in that time. It just felt like, I can do this,” Copeland said. “It made me feel really empowered not to let the negativity of racism even to this day affect me and my career. I can be strong and persevere and allow my talent to shine beyond the color of my skin.”

Leda Schubert's "Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson" is now available. 


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