Even in the 21st century, diversity in film is struggling. Given how hard it is to talk about in 2018, can you imagine how brave someone had to be to challenge this in the 1930s Jim-Crow Era?

Well, Freddi Washington did – she actively refused to conform to Hollywood’s definition of beauty.

Fredi Washington, the woman who said “no”

For decades, society’s standards of beauty have remained cruelly constant: thin-lipped and light-skinned. The entertainment industry, in particular, has always chased a need to fulfill white society’s standard of beauty. But thankfully, there are women like Fredi Washington who bravely busted standards in times when it could have threatened her survival.

In the 1930s, Fredi Washington defied what society defined as African-American. She had stunning green eyes and pale skin. As she grew, she took a liking to music and acting and set her sights on the entertainment industry. However, at the time, the business wanted P.O.C. performers were willing to “pass.”

Why “pass” when you could alter the course of history?

“Passing” was when lighter-skinned P.O.C.s pretended to be white to acquire certain privileges. And in an oppressive society like that, who wouldn’t hope on the opportunity? Actually, this rejection of culture was damaging for many, despite how it might have furthered their careers. So, as Washington found her place in the entertainment industry, she refused to conform to the white ideal of beauty.

Washington embraced her African-American culture and found a powerful voice in the vibrantly artistic period of the Harlem Renaissance. From there, she began to perform as a chorus girl, then starred in stage productions, and eventually went on to perform with the Duke Ellington. Quite a glow-up, am I right? But she didn’t limit her awesome advocacy to the music industry.

Washington only got even more amazing

During a time when African-American women didn’t star in films intended for white audiences, Washington took on a role that contradicted this entirely. She starred in Imitation of Life, a film that zeroed-in on the overlap of race and gender like never before. The film was a smash in the box office, yet Washington didn’t find much work after it ended. However, she wasn’t about to retire from her career as an activist.

She continued to courageously battle the idea of “black inferiority” in the entertainment industry. Washington fought for better roles and working conditions for African-American actors, as well as serving as a consultant during the casting and creation of movies involving racial themes. Her bravery in rejecting the idea of “passing” was only the start of a remarkable stretch of epic African-American advocacy in the entertainment industry!