Trailblazing Essence editor on Sarah Vaughan, Newark riots and her mother, a ‘Force of Beauty’
For Mikki Taylor, Take Your Daughter to Work Day meant accompanying her mother, Modina Davis,
For Mikki Taylor, Take Your Daughter to Work Day meant accompanying her mother, Modina Davis, to “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1959.
Except Davis, stylist and assistant to Newark music legend Sarah Vaughan, didn’t need a designated day for that. She constantly stood as an example of what was possible.
When it came to Vaughan singing that Sunday in front of a TV audience of millions, the outward ripples of her velvety, nimble voice carried potential for change into households across the country.
“In a two-minute and 55-second performance, Sarah defied the typical and stereotypical images of Black women that populated movies and television at that time,” Taylor recounts in “Force of Beauty: A Newark Family Memoir,” set for a Feb. 18 release on Audible.
Taylor, who called Newark home, would grow up to become her own “force of beauty,” serving as beauty and cover director at Essence magazine for 30 years, working with celebrities like former first lady Michelle Obama and the Obama family, Rosa Parks, Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Sarah Vaughan on “The Ed Sullivan Show” two years before Mikki Taylor accompanied her mother backstage:
Taylor, who wasn’t yet in grade school at the time, recalls following her mother backstage in New York into a dressing room that was usually the domain of white celebrities. The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on her — Davis made sure of that. With her mother, there was always a “deeper, richer purpose” to everything, she says, including how the present moment could benefit others in the future.
“The performance and our presence in the studios … were more than just entertainment,” Taylor says in the audiobook, which she narrates. “It was a blow to the institutional thinking that regarded us as second-class citizens.”
The making of a style icon
Modina Davis became an architect of Vaughan’s style. She selected gowns, dresses, furs and luxe casual outfits for the singer to wear, giving her a chic pixie hairstyle long before Audrey Hepburn sported one in the 1953 film “Roman Holiday.”
“I always say it was in my DNA,” Taylor, 66, tells NJ Advance Media. She’s currently an editor-at-large at Essence and operates her own branding and communications company. Her previous books include “Commander in Chic,” a 2011 celebration of Michelle Obama’s style, “Editor in Chic” (2018) and “Self-Seduction: Your Ultimate Path to Inner and Outer Beauty” (2003).
When Newark-based Audible approached Taylor about a book, she was excited to tell her family story so she could leave a legacy for future generations. Taylor worked with co-author Deborah Riley Draper, who helped her research her grandparents’ history in the South and move to Newark during the Great Migration.
Taylor, born Michelle Sarah Graves, says her mother, who met Vaughan when they were both students at Newark Arts High School in the 1940s, moved in the same circles as Billie Holiday, Quincy Jones and Lena Horne. She also called Nat King Cole a close friend. Taylor would wake up at the Avon Avenue home Vaughan bought for the family (the singer lived across the street) and have to step over sleeping musicians who were in town for a show.
Davis, who became Modina Davis Watson in 1969 after she married Johnnie Watson following a separation from Taylor’s father, Charles Graves (who was incarcerated in federal prison after a robbery attempt), had left her studies at Howard University to work with Vaughan. She traveled the globe with the singer, who died in 1990. They were gone for weeks or months at a time.
When Davis and Vaughan were in the United States, they used Hackensack native Victor Hugo Green’s “Negro Motorist Green Book” to identify safe spaces for dining and lodging. Outside the U.S., they often found better treatment: Taylor says that in 1959, Davis joined Vaughan in Cuba, where she sang at the Tropicana and smoked cigars with musicians and Fidel Castro.
Taylor’s grandmother, Bessie Boyd, would look after her with the help of a nanny when Vaughan was on tour.
“We were always the only Black people at the Newark Municipal Airport,” Taylor says in the book.
And like Vaughan, who resisted being confined to a “jazz singer” label, she didn’t have to be on TV to make an impression.
“Her visibility was a revolutionary act,” Taylor says in the memoir. “So were her first-class seats.”
Davis, nicknamed “Mo,” was the ultimate role model for Taylor. She’d watch with adoration as her mother stocked a train case with atomizers, rouge and lipstick. On trips to Europe with “Sass,” — Sassy was Vaughan’s nickname — Davis would stock up on various shades of foundation for Black women. In the U.S. at the time, the only foundation widely available was an unworkable shade called “nut brown,” she says.
“It had nothing to do with the skin tone of any African American woman’s complexion she knew, at least not any with the blood still flowing in their veins,” Taylor remembers in the book.
Years later, when the beauty editor would find herself in rooms with marketing professionals who were perplexed by their inability to reach Black customers by selling makeup in the limited range of “dark” “medium” and “light,” she would remember the lengths her mother would go to in securing the right shades. She told the marketing reps that Black women would need to be involved in crafting the language used in products.
In doing so, Taylor, who started out as a model for Essence in the ’70s before joining the staff in 1980, helped companies to expand their shades of foundation. In 2017, Rihanna introduced 40 (now 50) shades of foundation in her Fenty Beauty line, instigating industry-wide change. Taylor was overjoyed.
Ultimately, the struggle to secure products and representation for Black women in the beauty industry isn’t about makeup, she says, but visibility and access — the same lanes where her mother and Vaughan broke ground in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
A ‘master class’ in beauty … and therapy
Decades before she was flying on the Concorde in Europe, attending fashion shows in Paris and working in the White House with Michelle Obama, Taylor witnessed the profound effect beauty rituals could have on the local community in Newark.
This “master class” in beauty materialized when her mother opened a hair salon on Clinton Avenue after leaving her job on the road in 1960. Taylor will never forget the difference in the way women carried themselves after sitting in one of the salon chairs.
“They walked in the salon one way and they walked out larger than life,” Taylor tells NJ Advance Media. Women who were considered “the help” were empowered by their trip to Davis’ business. Just seeing her mother at work was an education in entrepreneurship and service, she says.
There, under the dryers, she first observed what she calls “style fellowship,” a ritual in which women found a sense of connection and a therapeutic way of processing trauma.
“They were sharing tips with one another and affirming themselves at a time when Black women were the invisible women,” Taylor tells NJ Advance Media.
Whether exchanging church news, recipes or relationship advice, it was all part of a sacred bond, and one with deep roots, hairstyling having served as a way for Black women to make money when they were banned from other jobs in fashion and beauty. Salons, Taylor notes in the book, would function as hubs of the civil rights movement and larger community “as much as the church.”
She sees her mother’s role as a salon “therapist” in her job as an Essence editor, striving to represent “women of all shades, shapes and sizes,” she tells NJ Advance Media, to “hold up a mirror of Black womanhood.”
Davis died in 1994. Taylor ends her story by casting a vote for Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to become vice president. She taught her own children the importance of service, just like her mother did. She told them what Davis used to say — “If the best is possible, then good is not enough”; “It’s not what people think of you, but what you think of yourself, that counts”; and “To be risk-averse is to be success-averse.”
Taylor’s husband, Philip Taylor, taught in Newark schools for 32 years. Their son, Philip Taylor II, is head boys varsity basketball coach at Barringer High School. Though her family moved to East Orange after a 1969 electrical fire at their Avon Avenue home, Taylor, who now lives in Union County, is in Newark all the time, to go to church, shop and support local creatives, and because she serves on the [email protected] board of trustees.
From 1967 to 2020, ‘history repeating itself’
Newark was the place where Taylor learned so many truths, but when she was at summer camp in Branchburg in 1967, she saw her beloved city consumed by trauma. That was her city in the pages of The Star-Ledger and the Newark Evening News. White campers and their parents were talking about a “ghetto” burning.
“What ghetto?” she said. “This was my home.”
Tanks cracked the pavement as they rolled down the same streets where Taylor’s father drove his Cadillac, where the milkman would deliver bottles of milk with ice chips clinging to the glass, where wagons would come bearing fresh produce.
Taylor, then 13, begged her mother to let her come home from camp. She wanted to help in the fight, she says, during what became known as the Newark riots and the Newark Rebellion, the confrontation between Newark residents, police and National Guardsmen after the July 1967 beating of Black cab driver John Smith by two white police officers.
Taylor, who remained in camp at Davis’ instruction, would later learn that her mother, brother and grandmother had to sleep under the bed because bullets were flying into their home. Looters, she says, knocked out a basement window.
“The Newark that I knew, the people that I knew, this was not their truth,” she tells NJ Advance Media.
During the riots, a police officer who poet Amiri Baraka knew from school hit Baraka on the head with a gun, and other officers started beating him.
Baraka’s son, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, reads from his father’s epic poem, “Wise, Why’s, Y’s” (1995), as part of Taylor’s recounting of the summer of 1967 in the audiobook.
The exodus of Newark residents after the riots — and white liberals who found “new causes to champion” — left the city devastated, much like local businesses with broken windows, she says.
Last summer, as people across the country protested in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, Taylor remembered that summer 53 years ago, she tells NJ Advance Media. The fallout was like the aftermath of an earthquake or hurricane, the defining event in Newark’s own BC-AD timeline, Taylor says.
“I just kept thinking, ‘This is supposed to be the future I dreamed of,’” Taylor says. “But here is history repeating itself. Here is history telling me that the dial hasn’t moved that far forward. Here’s brutality kicking off another rebellion … If we look at humanity, we are still not safe from ourselves.”
Today, she looks at the chasm between the treatment of George Floyd by police, as seen in the 2020 video of his arrest, and the treatment of the pro-Trump rioters at the Capitol in January.
“There are no words,” Taylor says, her voice growing quiet. “But here we are again. And not again, but worse this time around. The remix is worse.”
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Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at [email protected] and followed at @AmyKup on Twitter.