WHEN YOU LOOK at Alexa Canady, you notice her piercing eyes and the confident smile, the determination, the struggle and the brain power that made her the first black woman neurosurgeon in America.
You see writer Maya Angelou sitting in front of a silky, flowing backdrop, her hands clasped at her knees, her face showing the kindness and gentility that make for poetic beauty.
And then you see three-time gold-medalist runner Wilma Rudolph, graceful, agile and strikingly beautiful at age 41, poised in a starting block position, ready to bolt to capture another one.
You are surrounded by such inspiring images at the "I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America" photo exhibit at the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center. The exhibit, which opens today, includes portraits of 75 women, some well-known and many unsung, who have achieved great things often in little ways.
In little ways, like those of Priscilla Williams, a proud, kind-faced mother of 14 children although she gave birth to none. The inscription that accompanies her photograph reads, "Her life of hard work and dedication to the family is typical of the lives of many unsung heroes."
The exhibit is the result of a two-year project by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker, who set out to capture the spirit and determination of black women who have succeeded despite poverty, racism and sexism.
"These people are living legends," said Doris Wallace, volunteer coordinator of education at the museum. "Many of these people have made accomplishments that will never be made by anyone. Some others are unsung heroes."
The exhibit is composed of large black-and-white photographs accompanied by quotes. (The photos and quotes are available in a book, published under the same title as the exhibit.)
Lanker has gathered women from all walks of life, including dance, theater, science, social services, politics and the military. Among the more well-known personalities he's captured on film are talk-show hostess and producer Oprah Winfrey, actress Cicely Tyson and dancer Katherine Dunham.
Among the less well-known but notable are Brig. Gen. Sherian Cadoria, one of four female generals and the highest-ranking black woman in the Army; Faye Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America since 1978 and the first woman to head the nation's largest family-planning agency; and Ruby Forsythe, teacher in a one-room schoolhouse on Pawley's Island, S.C., for more than half a century.
The photographs place some of the women in their environments: Canady is shown wearing surgical garb in the operating room. Other photographs have a plain background, yet still capture the women's pride and dignity simply by showing the gleam in their eyes and the expressions on their faces.
Lanker writes that all the women "have dreamed of a world not only better for themselves but for generations to come, a world where character and ability matter, not color and gender." His photo exhibit opened in 1989 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, where it broke attendance records by attracting more than 160,000 people.
Norman Ross, coordinator of the Cultural Arts Program for the Urban Services Agency, says this exhibit is the biggest to date at the Eubie Blake museum. It takes up five rooms on the first and second floors.
The "I Dream a World" exhibit runs until Oct. 12 at the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center, 409 N. Charles St. Museum hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Free admission, but donations are accepted. For information, call 396-1300.