Happy Black History Month! This is the 4th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.
The focus of today’s blog is Tracey “Africa” Norman, the Black trans model whose career has helped break barriers in beauty and fashion for people of color and trans individuals. She is also recognized as the first trans model to work in the fashion industry.
This is her story.
To Be A Woman
Tracey Norman was born in 1952 and grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Although she was assigned male at birth, Tracey “Africa” Norman always knew she was a woman. She told The Advocate last year, “…I’ve never identified with the word trans or being trans. I guess, because of the time difference. And I didn’t grow up around gay people. I only had women around me. I watched how they talked, conversed with each other, how they walked, how they sat. I was just enthralled with the femininity of a woman and that’s what I wanted to be.”
According to her interview with The Cut, Tracey’s mother supported her in her identity, but her father tried to change her. She said he tried to get her into boxing. He left the family when she turned 6 and he wasn’t a big part of her life after junior high school. Tracey also says in the interview that since then, she has spent more time with him and she feels he is proud of her for all she has accomplished.
Discovery and Start of Career
Tracey’s modeling career really took off when she literally snuck onto the set of a casting call for Italian Vogue photographer, Irving Penn. They booked her for her first two-day shoot and soon after, she signed with the Zoli modeling agency. She modeled extensively and got the opportunity to travel for jobs. That same year in 1975, Tracey most notably became the face of Clairol’s Born Beautiful hair dye. Her face appeared on the box for No. 512, Dark Auburn.
Everything changed for Tracey when someone outed her on the set of a shoot for Essence Magazine in 1980. She described it happening in the middle of a shoot. The editor-in-chief Susan Taylor stopped the shoot when someone came to tell her Tracey’s assignment as birth. Then, after that, she told The Cut, “That’s when I knew. The way that [Susan Taylor] looked at me through the mirror, it was different. She was looking for the person that this hairdresser told them that I was”. After that, Tracey received no more jobs.
What It Means To Be A Trailblazer
After spending some time in Paris with her close friends, Tracey worked after that in sales, at burlesque clubs, and got involved with the drag-ball community. She is 69 today and recently, Clairol Hair Dye re-signed her as a model. Tracey “Africa” Norman is a trailblazer for the Black and brown trans community who broke barriers for others following her career path. She told The Advocate: “I have learned over the years that anybody of color who is a trailblazer — and I fall into that category — are the ones that pay the price for other people to benefit from, or to continue the fight. I started realizing that after Martin Luther King. They assassinated him. He was a trailblazer. There are other people that were trailblazers in the art who were blacklisted, like Nina Simone, that were trailblazers in their craft and got destroyed because of their skin color and their beliefs. But they were all trailblazers and they left a door for somebody to follow through.”