Queen Latifah and the Legacies of Black Power

Queen Latifah at The People’s Choice Awards at the Nokia Theater, January 8, 2014, Los Angeles (Shutterstock)

Dana Elaine Owens, also known as Queen Latifah, is renowned for her dynamic acting roles in films and TV series such as Set it OffLiving Single, and the most recent drama series The Equalizer. Although a prominent actress, Owens is also revered as one of the “First ladies of Hip hop.” Like female rappers such as Roxanne Chante, MC Lyte, Yo Yo, and others, Owens helped pave the way for Black women in the Hip Hop industry. Born in the generation that came of age amid and after Black Power and the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Owens’ racial and gendered expressions of freedom give us a glimpse into the lasting legacies of Black Power and women’s liberation.

The Black Power era’s notions of racial consciousness influenced Black life and identity. Historian Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar explains the how Black nationalist organizations such as the Nation of Islam furthered Black Power ideologies of Black pride, resistance, and self-determination. Consequently, Black empowerment manifested in the vocabulary of the 1970s and the adoption of African and “Muslim-sounding names” in Black communities grew in popularity. Inspired by the concepts of Black self-awareness and racial consciousness, young Owens embraced the new nomenclature.

Owens described the adoptions of non-Eurocentric names as Black people’s attempt to find “a sense of self that went beyond what they thought society had to offer.” Owens adopted the Arabic name “Latifah” meaning delicate and sensitive. She explained,

Latifah was freedom. I loved the name my parents gave me, Dana Elaine Owens. But I knew then that something as simple as picking a new name for myself would be my first act of defining who I was — for myself and for the world … Becoming Latifah would give me the autonomy to be what I chose to be.

Like many who professed Black Power, Owens sought to combat white supremacy, in part, by rejecting Eurocentric standards. By adopting the name “Latifah,” Owens recuperated her identity as she denounced Eurocentric monikers and conceptions of Black inferiority.

Owens continued to reclaim a Black identity that centered on Black empowerment but also articulated her gender politics. For instance, by adulthood Owens incorporated the title “Queen,” completing her stage name “Queen Latifah.” During the Black Power era Black women also embarked on the quest for women’s liberation. One method Black women utilized to defend their womanhood was by pushing against negative stereotypes rooted in historical racism such as the mammies or seductresses. Historian Ashley Farmer explains the significant role Black women played within the Black Power movement; they not only resisted racism and discrimination but they also challenged sexist ideas of womanhood. Like her Black Power foremothers, Owens resisted negative tropes of Black womanhood, and did so through language. For instance, Owens regarded the term Queen as an individual, spiritual, and communal designation and explained as she grew wiser, “I gained more knowledge of who I am and where my people came from… [Queen] was a title that I adapted that I feel all Black women hold.” Owens did not view the term Queen as solely being an emblem of her identity, but a term of unity that she associated with Black women and the larger Black community. For instance, Owens articulated, “when I say I’m Queen Latifah it has nothing to do with rank it has something to do with how I feel spiritually. As far as my descendant. All Black people came from a long line of queens and kings that they never knew about.” Through her adoption of Black Power nomenclature, Owens renounced white supremacy through her expressions of racial and gender politics.

Owens’ racial and gender politics were not only displayed through language but also her stylistic choices. For many Black Americans, clothing acted as political symbols and expressions of racial consciousness. During the Black Power movement, Afrocentric garb heightened in popularity. Afrocentric fashions, or soul style, included African-inspired prints, dashikis, adornments, etc. Like the adoption of Black Power nomenclature, Afrocentric attire acted as an expression of Blackness. Afrocentric garb allowed Black people to fashionably opposed Eurocentric beauty standards. Like others, Owens embodied Afrocentricity and simultaneously used her stylistic choices to oppose white supremacy.

To Owens, style transcended fashionable trends; instead, they were intrinsic expressions of Black identity. Latifah wore Afrocentric attire as a representation of a diasporic Black identity. She stated, “I thought about who I was. Queen Latifah. Delicate, sensitive, kind. A queen like the women of Africa … I was wearing my heart. I wanted to deliver a message.” Early in her career, Owens often dressed in Afrocentric attire ranging from colorful cloth, African-inspired prints, Kufi hats, turbans, or militaristic garb. Owens’ stylistic choices acted as intentional representations of Black pride and racial consciousness as she explained, “my style is Afrocentric dress. Africans were very proud people and I wanted to display that in a modern way. My style and my music is one really.” The connections between style and her artistry were visible in Owens’ 1989 debut album cover, All Hail the Queen.

On her album, Owens conveyed Afrocentricity and gender politics through her attire and powerful imagery; she stood firm and tall in the center of an all-white background wearing an all-black militaristic uniform. Instead of a typical military hat, Latifah wore a matching black turban or headdress. In the right corner of the album is a circle with an all-black Africa at its center. The words “QUEEN LATIFAH” and “ALL HAIL THE QUEEN.” These words were written in Pan-African colors, red and green, while they surrounded a black African continent. Through her All Hail the Queen cover art, Owens expressed Black nationalist and Pan-Africanist ideologies. Her style exuded leadership and strength as she stood beside the African continent articulating diasporic Black unity. Not only did she convey these notions through her garb and symbolism, but she also displayed them through her stance and demeanor.

Owens’ style also involved her expression of “Queenliness.” She defined Queenliness as “an attitude that starts on the inside and works its way out. The way you hold your head up make you a queen. It’s a simple body language that exposes what you truly feel inside.” Owens displayed racial consciousness and a diasporic Black identity through an Afrocentric style. Furthermore, through militaristic garb and nomenclature, she embraced Black empowerment and new visions of Black womanhood. Examining Owens’ embodiment of Black Power provides us with deeper insights into the lasting legacies of movements for Black liberation. Owens’ embodiment of Black Power and recuperation of Black womanhood shows us how ideologies of racial and gender empowerment interconnected and continuously shaped Black identity and culture well into the late twentieth century.

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Mickell Carter

Mickell Carter is a doctoral student in the department of history at Auburn University. Her research interests include Black Internationalism, 20th-Century Social Movements, and the intersections between politics and culture. Her current project examines linkages between Black men’s style during the Black Power Movement, Pan-Africanism, and masculinity. Mickell is also a Graduate Fellow and Research Assistant where she interviews Bloody Sunday Foot Soldiers and documents their experiences. She has written for a number of venues including: the AAIHS’s Black Perspectives, the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project’s Warbler newsletter, the American Historical Association’s Perspectives, and the Washington Post. She is also a host of the New Books Network in African American Studies podcast. Prior to becoming a PhD student, Mickell taught high school social studies in her hometown, Columbus, Georgia. You can follow her on Twitter @MickellCarter.