The Wind at My Back
Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor Raven Wilkinson
Misty Copeland made history as the first African-American principal ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre. Her talent, passion, and perseverance enabled her to make strides no one had accomplished before. But as she will tell you, achievement never happens in a void. Behind her, supporting her rise was her mentor Raven Wilkinson. Raven had been virtually alone in her quest to breach the all-white ballet world when she fought to be taken seriously as a Black ballerina in the 1950s and 60s. A trailblazer in the world of ballet decades before Misty’s time, Raven faced overt and casual racism, hostile crowds, and death threats for having the audacity to dance ballet.
The Wind at My Back tells the story of two unapologetically Black ballerinas, their friendship, and how they changed each other—and the dance world—forever. Misty Copeland shares her own struggles with racism and exclusion in her pursuit of this dream career and honors the women like Raven who paved the way for her but whose contributions have gone unheralded. She celebrates the connection she made with her mentor, the only teacher who could truly understand the obstacles she faced, beyond the technical or artistic demands.
A beautiful and wise memoir of intergenerational friendship and the impressive journeys of two remarkable women, The Wind at My Back captures the importance of mentorship, of shared history, and of respecting the past to ensure a stronger future.
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ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
It’s only in trying and keeping going that you achieve, you can’t expect that it’s all going to happen for you just because you’re out there pointing your toes nicely. You have to open your mind and heart, and you must believe in yourself and have faith and hope.
— Raven Wilkinson
On an unusually cold evening in late March, I nestled on my couch with my feet up after a long day. I caressed my belly to soothe my growing son, who was in a restless mood, kicking up a storm. With his “grands battements,” he seemed eager to let me know he wanted to “get out” and see the world, and I certainly couldn’t wait to meet him. I lay back, eating sunflower seeds—my favorite snack as a child had become somewhat of a comfort food now that I was an adult. As I cracked open the salty shells, I wondered if my son would enjoy them like I had with my dad. Already, I was assessing the world around me, from the smallest, most ordinary items, like my favorite snack, to the largest challenges, like the state of the justice system and the destruction of the environment, in terms of how they would affect him. Like I imagine most mothers who are expecting do, I fantasized about introducing my child to my many loves that make life beautiful: music, from Mariah Carey to Beethoven, Japanese gardens, and Marius Petipa ballets. But I also worried about the realities of bringing a Black boy into the world— exposing him to the war, racism, and inequality that are part of our current reality. I am so grateful to have an incredible partner in parenthood, my husband, Olu.
Even though our nation had made so much progress, and the reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd had brought so many honest conversations to the forefront, like countless Black mothers before me, I nursed high hopes and huge fears about what the future held for my boy. Who would my son be? What would he want to become? Would he find himself one of only a handful, a “rare” and highly scrutinized few in the field he was most passionate about? Would doors be open to him, or would he have to break them down with the help of so many others who had tried before him? I couldn’t help but think of my own journey to being “the first” Black female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. I wanted his path to be smoother, but in the pit of my stomach, I grappled with a deep anxiety that it wouldn’t be.
That night, I didn’t feel like reading or binge-watching a favorite series. The Senate hearings for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson were in full swing. I wanted to witness history in the making, so I turned on C‑SPAN to see what I’d missed that day.
Judge Brown Jackson sat calmly at the table, her hands neatly folded before her, maintaining her composure as questioner after questioner sought to paint her as “soft on child pornographers” in her sentencing practices, interrupting her as she attempted to answer, and distorting her record beyond recognition. She never raised her voice; she never lost her temper in a situation in which any normal human being would have been justified in exploding. I watched her in one moment literally swallow her outrage and take a breath before responding evenly and respectfully with well-reasoned facts. I believed I knew what kept her centered. As I watched her sit there stoically, taking everything that was thrown at her, I imagined she was thinking: “I’m the first. I’m in the room. Many fought for me to be here. No one said it would be easy. There are those who are determined to see me live up to every stereotype of the emotionally undisciplined angry Black woman, and I won’t. This is bigger than just me.”
It was the same act of will that enabled my mentor, Raven Wilkinson, the first Black ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, to take the stage in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1957, mere hours after being thrown out of the “whites-only” hotel where the company was staying and relegated to the “Colored” hotel on the other side of town. I felt in my bones the courage and emotional discipline that it took for Judge Brown Jackson to sit in that Senate chamber, the portrait of dignity. There was nothing to be gained by “going off.” Part of the price of being the “first” is taking the body blows and keeping your eyes on the prize. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson sat alone but stood for so many. She stood for everyone who had striven to break a barrier and reach the pinnacle in a country that for most of its history has relegated African Americans and other people of color to second-class citizenship.
Since the founding of our country, we African Americans have had to petition for the recognition of our full humanity, let alone equality. Like every Black ballet dancer I knew, I’d experienced the discounting of my abilities purely based on the refusal to see Black people as equals, capable of succeeding in traditionally “European” art forms. Throughout our careers, we were confronted with people who doubted that we “belonged” and saw us as unworthy of practicing the art form in which we’d trained for most of our lives.
From the time a serious practice of ballet was first brought to the United States by Russians fleeing the Revolution, Black dancers had aspired, like other Americans, to learn this classical dance form. Long before Arthur Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there were the American Negro Ballet and the New York Negro Ballet. When white conservatories wouldn’t accept students of color in Washington, DC (a common form of discrimination in dance schools across the country), two courageous Black women, Doris W. Jones and Claire H. Haywood, founded the Jones-Haywood Dance School in 1941. Back then, and even at times still today, Black ballet dancers have been told it is not “our” art form, that our bodies and technique are not “refined” enough. Why were white people born in America, who hadn’t danced ballet before it was introduced to this country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, any more qualified to dance it than Black people were? Ballet quickly became yet another wedge to divide the people of our country and the world into the “civilized” and the “uncivilized,” the “true citizens” and the “outsiders.”
Throughout my career, like so many other Black dancers, people have wanted to push me toward modern dance, which is considered freer, “wilder,” and therefore more suitable to someone of my heritage. Yet my dream was ballet from my first class at thirteen, wearing gym shorts on a basketball court at the Boys and Girls Club of San Pedro. It was the dream of Erica Lall, Courtney Lavine, Aesha Ash, Tai Jimenez, Janet Collins, C.line Gittens, Marion Cuyjet, Delores Browne, Virginia Johnson, Alicia Graf Mack, Joan Myers Brown, Anne Benna Sims, and my mentor, Raven Wilkinson. Like Raven, several of the ballerinas I mentioned were first exposed to the art form when their parents took them to a performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the most famous touring company of the thirties, forties, and fifties.
People sometimes dismiss the performing arts as peripheral, a nonessential luxury, and yet our national identity is defined in part by our culture. To be marginalized from a culture is to be marginalized from citizenship. The pandemic, and more recently, the war in Ukraine have reminded us of the vital role the arts play in asserting our common humanity. Whether it’s Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell singing from his balcony on the Upper West Side every night in the depths of sheltering in place during the pandemic or pianists playing for arriving Ukrainian refugees as they crossed the Polish border, such artistic expressions of empathy may not have saved lives, but they restored hope by reminding us of our capacity to create remarkable beauty in the midst of suffering.
As I finished watching the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, I was filled with a sense of sorrow. One senator had waxed nostalgic about the “good old days,” when a white male nominee had been peacefully and uneventfully confirmed in a matter of hours . . . back in 1798. Then a right-wing pundit demanded that Judge Brown Jackson produce her LSAT scores to prove her worthiness. Clearly, in spite of the progress that her nomination is supposed to represent, the racial hierarchy and the coded language that reinforces it are still very much alive. Black Lives Matter becomes as much a question as a statement when we read the news and witness the continuing verbal and physical brutality against Black people.
On that March night, I felt the anxiety of every Black parent who wonders how to teach their child to reach for the sky, that anything is possible, when some still don’t believe you deserve to even be “in the room.” I felt the anxiety that all parents feel about the state of the world and the particular fear of Black mothers for the actual physical safety of their sons. Over the years, I’ve learned to look to lessons from the past to help answer questions about the future. So, in this moment I called upon the spirit of one of my guiding lights, Raven Wilkinson, the first Black woman to receive a contract with a major ballet company— in 1955, when full‑on discrimination was actually legal in the United States.
Reflecting on Raven’s remarkable journey and undefeatable faith and optimism reminded me that the source of power and dignity that Black Americans have cultivated over four hundred years is stronger than any racist theory: our tradition of the elders mentoring the young, both within families and with “chosen family.” Because there are so many barriers left to break, we are completely dependent upon one another, and the person on whose shoulders we stand owns our “firsts” as much as we do. Whether in medicine, law, business, politics, or the arts, our elders’ sacrifices and suffering were the down payment on our opportunities, and therefore our triumphs are their triumphs.
What one generation begins, another finishes.
Opera singer Camilla Williams, the first Black woman to sing a lead role at the New York City Opera, paved the way for Marian Anderson’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera twelve years later. Thanks to actress Diahann Carroll, who was the first Black woman to star in her own network series, Kerry Washington, Tracee Ellis Ross, Viola Davis, and dozens of others now routinely star in successful shows and films. Constance Baker Motley, the first Black female federal judge, forged a path for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first African American female Supreme Court justice. Alvin Ailey founded a groundbreaking interracial American dance company. At his request, former dancer Judith Jamison took over for him and made it one of the most successful dance organizations in the world. Anne Raven Wilkinson, who became the first Black ballerina in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, among others, created a path for me. My journey would have been impossible without her career, her example, her love, and her friendship. I would never have become the first African American female principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, America’s national ballet company, without her. She passed away in the winter of 2018, but I carry her with me every day and in all that I do.
Raven taught me through her example that, as they say, “When and where I enter, the whole race enters with me” is not just a burden and a pressure, but it offers the promise of possibility. Once we break a barrier or shatter a glass ceiling, we make it possible for other dreamers to enter the space that once excluded us and thrive. Raven’s teachings have given meaning to every plié I do and every performance I give. She showed me that we dance for all those who came before us and the many who will hopefully come after us. She held my hand through the ups and downs of my career. In her own life, she kept her head high through the “one step forward, two steps back” dance of civil rights in our country. And in spite of all she endured, she never surrendered to bitterness. Of all the gifts Raven gave me, one of the greatest was the gift of hope.
Some dreamers never get to meet their heroes and inspirations. How lucky I was to travel an important part of the road of life with mine. In Raven’s spirit of love and generosity, I share our story.
Raven was and remains “the wind at my back.” For all those dreaming an “impossible dream,” I hope you find the wind at yours.
"Anyone lucky enough to have seen Misty dance knows the perfect balance of power, grace, joy and purpose that pours out from her. She’s no less wonderful a writer. This story of Misty and her muse, idol and mentor, the inimitable Raven Wilkinson, is a beautiful love letter and an inspiring tribute."—Amanda Seyfried, actress