Yarbrough, Camille 1938–
Camille Yarbrough 1938–
Author, singer, educator, activist
Camille Yarbrough’s multifaceted career has included stints as a dancer, an educator, a singer, an actress, a performer, a writer, and a radio show host. Known for her dedication to perpetuating cultural awareness among African Americans, Yarbrough has used her broad range of talents to serve as a voice of inspiration and hope within her community. Her 1975 album, The Iron Pot Cooker, has been heralded as a precursor to modern rap, and her four children’s books have received high praise.
Yarbrough was born in 1938 in Chicago, the seventh child in a family of four boys and four girls. Her father was originally from Alabama, and her mother was from Chicago. Yarbrough had fond memories of growing up in an African-American neighborhood and first became interested in music after hearing the local street merchants singing the blues as they went about their day. When she was 15 years old, Yarbrough happened onto a community center and became involved in the center’s musical program. She also began studying dance at the center. At the age of 17, she was introduced to primitive dance, based on a modified Katherine Dunham Technique, which was taught by Jimmy Payne. Yarbrough also mastered the Martha Graham Technique, and she was soon performing the mambo and the cha-cha in local gigs.
As a teenager, Yarbrough frequented The Tivoli, a Chicago club that drew many of the top performing stars of the African-American community, including Moms Mabley, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and Josephine Baker. Along with being wholly absorbed in the music, Yarbrough was equally enthralled with those performers that spoke out against racism. A decade before the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Yarbrough listened to Baker and others who opened her eyes to social activism.
After graduating from high school, Yarbrough took a job at the Blue Angel, a Chicago-based Calypso club. While at the Blue Angel, she became friends with dancers from New York who were members of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Gaining confidence from the encouragement of the other dancers, Yarbrough took a big step and moved to New York City. Taking a train from Chicago to New York, she found temporary housing with the family of a Puerto Rican dancer she knew. However, her attempt to establish herself in the new city proved unsuccessful, and she soon returned to Chicago.
Once back in Chicago, Yarbrough gained an audition with John Pratt, the husband of Katherine Dunham. Pratt was impressed with Yarbrough and subsequently offered her a job as a dancer. In 1955, at the age of 18, Yarbrough began touring with the 35-member Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Dunham, also an anthropologist who had studied African culture, incorporated many elements of traditional dance into her choreography. As a result, Yarbrough was educated in the traditions of a variety of cultures, including African, South American, and Central American. Yarbrough
At a Glance…
Born in 1938, in Chicago, IL.
Career: Dancer, 1950s-61; stage performer, 1961–; songwriter, 1970s; singer, 1970s–; City College of New York, professor of African dance and diaspora, 1970s-1980s; WWRL-AM, talk show host, 1970s-1980s; author, 1979–.
Awards: Griot of the Year, Griot Society of New York. 1975; Woman of the Month, Essence, 1979; Coretta Scott King Award for Cornrows, 1979; Unity Award in Media, Lincoln University, 1982; Parents Choice Award, Summershine Queens, 1989.
Address: African American Traditions Workshop, 80 St. Nicholas Ave., Ste. 4G, New York, NY 10026.
spent 18 months on tour with the dance company and performed in the United States, Australia, Korea, Japan, New Zealand, and Vietnam, as well as across Western Europe. When the company had a lull in the theater performances, they performed in clubs.
When the tour ended, Yarbrough returned to Chicago and resumed her job at the Blue Angel. In 1960 Dunham assembled her dancers once more, and Yarbrough joined the company for a brief tour of Paris before the company went bankrupt and permanently disbanded. In 1961 Yarbrough moved to New York City once again. This time, with more experience and maturity, she soon established herself as a dancer and actress.
Just six months after arriving in New York, Yarbrough landed her first part on stage, dancing in the Broadway show Kwamina, a story of an African man who falls in love with a white woman missionary. Later performances included Trumpets of the Lord, Cities in Bezique, Sambo, and To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. First staged at the Cherry Lane Theater, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black was Yarbrough’s most successful stage appearance. The company toured 56 cities, playing on college campuses around the country. Excerpts from a personal diary Yarbrough kept while on tour appeared in the New York Times on April 18, 1971. Yarbrough worked on television soap operas Search for Tomorrow and Where the Heart Is during the early 1970s. She also had a small part in the film Shaft, playing the part of Shaft’s sister.
Yarbrough bristled at the racism she encountered as an actress, and she was distressed by the stereotyped roles assigned to black actors. According to DuEwa M. Frazier’s “Taking Her Praise: Profile of Camille Yarbrough, A Renaissance Woman,” Yarbrough said of her acting days: “We were discriminated against as actors and performers. Even the shows you did, some directors would direct you gearing towards racial stereotypes. I was always in trouble for resenting those behaviors, so I would be out of work for a little while.” Her conflict with the image of blacks on stage and screen eventually led Yarbrough away from a career in acting.
After becoming seriously ill from contact with toxic chemicals, which required a stay in the hospital, Yarbrough began seriously studying her cultural heritage and writing poetry and music. Eventually she developed a show, entitled “Tales and Tunes of an African American Griot,” which she performed for two years. Out of that show she produced the elements of her album The Iron Pot Cooker, released in 1975 by Vanguard Records. The album title references the practices of female Nigerian doctors who traveled about with iron pots in which they would mix and cook herbs and healing mixtures.
The Iron Pot Cooker received renewed attention in February of 2000 when Vanguard re-released the album on compact disc. The 47-minute production featured the single “Take Yo’ Praise,” which appears on track 4, track 7 (remix), and track 8 (dance remix). Fatboy Slim’s extremely popular cover of the song, titled “Praise You,” ignited renewed interest in Yarbrough’s original version. Other songs on The Iron Pot Cooker include “But It Comes Out Mad,” “Dream/Panic/Sonny Boy the Rip-Off Man/Little Sally the Super Sex Star (Taking Care of Business),” “Ain’t It a Lonely Feeling,” “Can I Get a Witness,” and “All Hid?” Yarbrough’s only album later earned her widespread recognition as the foremother of rap.
Yarbrough incorporated songs from the Iron Pot Cooker into her performances, which were a mixture of song, dance, storytelling, and cultural history. She became known for appearing on stage in traditional African dress, complete with flowing African wrap gowns and long African earrings. Along with her highly acclaimed stage performances, Yarbrough served as a professor of African dance and diaspora in the African Studies Department of the City College of New York for 12 years. She also worked as a radio broadcaster, anchoring a late-night talk show on WWRL-AM, which focused on issues of concern to the African-American community.
In 1979 Yarbrough published her first book, Cornrows. Aimed at children fourth grade and above, Yarbrough used Cornrows as a vehicle to tell the stories of great African-American activists. Mother and Great-Grammaw spend the day telling a young sister and brother of the great deeds of such heroes as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. The matriarchs also talk about black entertainers and writers, including Langston Hughes, Harry Belafonte, and Aretha Franklin. Great Grammaw also reminisces about her childhood days in Alabama, explaining the significance of the cornrows hairstyle. The day is ended when Father returns home from work, thus completing the uplifting image of the African-American family who thrives on their cultural heritage. Cornrows won the Coretta Scott King Award.
Yarbrough published her second children’s book in 1989. Winner of a Parents Choice Award, Shimmer-shine Queens is a novel that, like Cornrows, stresses the importance of cultural heritage. Cousin Seatta becomes the character through which knowledge is imparted to the story’s protagonist, a young girl named Angie. Angie learns from Cousin Seatta about the past struggles of the African-American community and the future opportunities that cannot be squandered by ignorance or destroyed by negative images within the community.
In 1994 Yarbrough published her third children’s book, Tamika and the Wisdom Rings. Written for third through fifth graders, the book tells the story of eight-year-old Tamika, who lives with her older sister and parents in an inner city apartment complex. When her father is murdered by drug dealers, the family must move into a much smaller apartment and struggle to overcome numerous obstacles. Tamika and the Wisdom Rings is an uplifting story of the importance of inner strength and perseverance.
Little Tree Growing in the Shade, Yarbrough’s fourth publication, once again aimed at children, was published in 1996. Horn Book Magazine reviewer Henrietta M. Smith noted, “Yarbrough has skillfully woven the variegated threads of African-American history into a memorable story for young readers that speaks of the rich culture of the Africans brought in captivity to America.” The little tree growing in the shade refers to the African-American people who refuse to give up despite ongoing struggles to survive. Set in a concert at the park, Sister asks Daddy, “Why are they called spirituals?” The question affords Daddy the opportunity to tell the family stories of their culture and its heroes.
Yarbrough remains a voice in the African-American community as songstress, poet, and activist. During the early 2000s she continues to stage her performance for numerous cultural events. In August of 2002 she hosted and sang for the annual African Voices Rhymes, Rhythms and Rituals Music and Poetry Concert in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. She is associated with The African American Traditions Workshop and continues to perform at multicultural events.
The Iron Pot Cooker, Vanguard Records, 1975. Re-released in 2000 by Vanguard.
Cornrows (poems for children), Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1979.
The Shimmershine Queens (juvenile), G. P. Putnam’s, 1989.
Tamika and the Wisdom Rings (juvenile), Random House, 1994.
Little Tree Growing in the Shade (juvenile), G. P. Putnam’s, 1996.
Black American Writers: Past and Present, Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1975.
The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Rollock, Barbara, Black Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books, 2nd Ed. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988.
The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1996.
Billboard, October 23, 1999.
Booklist, September 15, 1994; April 1, 1996.
Essence, January 2001.
Horn Book Magazine, September-October 1996.
School Library Journal, December 1979.
“About the Author: Camille Yarbrough,” Ancestor House, www.ancestorhouse.net (July 25, 2003).
“Camille Yarbrough,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 25, 2003).
“Camille Yarbrough Iron Pot Listening Party,” Start Up Music, www.startupmusic.com/listeningparty/camille (July 25, 2003).
“Taking Her Praise: Profile of Camille Yarbrough, A Renaissance Woman,” Ancestor House, www.ancestorhouse.net (July 25, 2003).
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