Without a doubt, I have found lessons for my own life from celebrity autobiographies. While I have read through a whole list, there are three in particular that I have re-read over the decades. Over the past 20 years, I have noticed that each time I read them, I find new meaning that I did not have the life experience to understand previously. I highly recommend all of them to young, creative people for birthday and graduation gifts. I feel that, sometimes, it is nice to see that someone like yourself went through the same struggles on the way to greatness.
Success Is a Job in New York: The Early Art and Business of Andy Warhol by Donna De Salvo, Trevor Fairbrother, J Miller, and Andy Warhol
Published in 1987, the same year that Warhol died, this autobiography of the famous painter, playwright, and curator was partially authored by the artist himself. This autobiography particularly discussed his early life. Among the fascinating facts I discovered about Warhol was a childhood illness that shadowed him for the rest of his life. Called St. Vitus’ Dance or Syndenham’s chorea, it is a disease that is often instigated by Streptococci bacteria. It is associated with neurological damage and obsessive compulsive disorder.
St. Vitus’ Dance is speculated to have been the cause of Warhol’s life-long hypochondria and fear of doctors. As someone that suffered from severe migraines throughout childhood, I found that Warhol had the same characteristic solitary “sickly child” childhood I had. I also loved the fact that he had to work hard to get far in his career by starting out as a lithographer for advertisers in NYC when he was a young man.
This Little Light of Mine: The Fanny Lou Hamer Story by Kay Mills
Sometimes, as a woman with a multiple minority status (disabled, queer, female, Arab, Southerner, rural-raised, and of Muslim heritage), I find it difficult to find a celebrity I can relate to. When I read the biography of Fanny Lou Hamer in the mid-1990s, that all changed. Hamer was born in 1917 in Sunflower County, Mississippi. A Black civil rights celebrity, in many ways she was far more marginalized than other Black women of her time. For example, she was not able to have children because she was forced to be sterilized due to a plan produced by the state of Mississippi to reduce the number of poor Blacks. In addition, she was a sharecropper, she was the youngest of 20 children, she was poor, and the county she lived in was especially oppressive to Black people.
Despite being beaten nearly to death for her activism for civil rights, Hamer continued to travel the country speaking her mind. She risked her whole life to stand up to injustice. It is thought by many that she was braver than other civil rights leaders of her time, and she had the battle wounds to prove it. As someone directly affected by the Patriot Act, I often re-read Hamer’s biography to remember what it is like to have true strength when your own country turns against you for the color of your skin.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley
Reading about Malcolm X has always been a favorite of mine because he was one of the first Muslim-Americans that I was aware of. While I have Muslim relatives from overseas, I did not know an American-born Muslim when I was growing up during the 1980’s. Because there was no internet when I was a child or regular access to books that educated kids on Islam, it was from this biography that I got my first taste of what American Muslim culture was like. One passage still stands out to me to this day.
The story that captivated me the most was about Malcom X when he was in middle school. During that time, he was isolated from his siblings and parents in foster care. He attends a school where he is the only non-white. Despite the fact that he is smart, he is told that he should work with his hands instead of his head because he is Black. Growing up in a school in Western Kentucky where I was the only person of Middle Eastern descent, I had had a similar experience. This anger Malcolm X felt about not being valued for his smarts and being isolated for his race as a no-good-nik left a big impression on me. After reading that book in 7th grade, I knew that I had to believe in myself, no matter what racist people said to me about being stupid, and go to college.
The Dirty Version: On Stage, in the Studio, and in the Streets with Ol’ Dirty Bastard by Mickey Hess and Buddha Monk
An established Kentucky author and college professor, Mickey Hess has published many books and papers about rappers. Maya Angelou said, “I think a number of the leaders are, whether you like it or not, in the hip-hop generation. And when they understand enough, they’ll do wonders. I count on them.” This quote is one of the inspirations behind the biographical work Hess will be publishing on November 4, 2014 by HaperCollins.
About the upcoming celebrity biography, Hess says, “I spent three years writing the book with Buddha Monk, one of Dirty’s close friends, who toured with Dirty and produced songs on his albums. So the book has the insider perspective it needs, and to bring in other perspectives I interviewed other people, such as Dirty’s widow Icelene Jones, who is the administrator of his estate. We wanted the book to show a full view of Dirty’s complexities and contradictions, because he is too often remembered for the handful of outbursts and stunts that caught the attention of the TV news. People who knew him, though, knew he was so much more. The book presents a loving tribute that still faces his controversies head-on.”