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Telling it like it is

8 Aug

At an outdoor concert featuring Aaron Neville in San Francisco’s Stern Grove yesterday, I was taken back to being 11 or 12 years old when  my sister Ellen-Marie asked me to pick up Neville’s first hit, “Tell it Like it Is,” from the neighborhood record store. My friend Rosalyn and I were headed there for our own 45s, probably something along the lines of the Marvelettes or the Supremes. (Rosalyn and I were part of our own junior girl group called the Trangualettes  – don’t ask – and we lip-synced a mean “Don’t Mess with Bill.”)
Rosalyn and I were barely out of  elementary school. Ellen was in high school.  And even though WAMO, the one black radio station in all of Pittsburgh, played everything from R&B to blues to jazz  —  the white radio stations didn’t play black music back then —  we didn’t really have our ears tuned to Aaron Neville . . . yet.

On Sunday, as I listened to Neville’s still silky rendition of that 1967 ballad, I searched my memory for all of Ellen’s teenage crushes and suitors. I wondered who she might have been thinking about as she played that record. It could have been that she simply knew then what we’d all come to know, Neville’s capacity to make us swoon.

Romance aside, I suspect that song spoke to Ellen-Marie because it got to the core of who she was — direct and honest. Aggravatingly so. Sometimes brutally so. And not only did she take truth-telling seriously, she did not understand why others were incapable of doing the same.

Our mother, who was often given to being coy and indirect, used to drive Ellen-Marie crazy. I’m sure I did too, as I have a tendency to bury my ledes. Editorial writing was good training for getting to the point.

Ebenezer, on the other hand, was not one to mince words. Here are some gems I’ve found so far. All are excerpts from his “Dottings of a Paragrapher” column in the New York Age.

Dec. 22, 1934:  “When the white man ‘lifts his foot off the neck’ of Negroes and when the Negro in turn lifts his own tiny foot off his own neck, when a Negro reporter, writer, cartoonist,  or etc. can go to the News office and apply for a job with the  assurance that he has the same chance as his white brother, his color regardless, then it will matter whether he is called colored, Negro,  or Aframerican.”

June 1, 1935: “Although time often permitted, I have never availed myself of the opportunity to attend the hearings of the  Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, firstly because I could never clearly see why five white men should be appointed on such a committee when it is highly improbable that even one Negro would be appointed to any committee to inquire into conditions in any white community.”  [Note: The 14-member commission, appointed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia following a 1935 race riot in Harlem, included several prominent blacks.]

May 30, 1936: “On a recent evening, what was scheduled to be an ‘all-star artist recital’ turned out to be just a parade of the ambitious, plus a little stardust.
How a promoter of this affair ever got together such a mixture is beyond imagination. It was little short of capital offense to associate the beautifully voiced Doris Trotman-Earle and Constance Berksteiner White with some of the other untutored apologies for singers. It was little short of a capital offense to place one sartorial blunder, in particular, on any program. He murdered ‘Then You’ll Remember Me’ — and all who had to listen to him certainly will.
Liberal applause followed all the efforts. It must have been admiration for their ‘nerve’ — or maybe the audience was made up mainly of relatives.”

Ouch! Ellen-Marie got it honest.

The Claude Neal lynching

5 Jun

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson‘s hard-to-put-down chronicle of the Great Migration,  she describes the lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida in 1934.

It is  a gruesome tale of unspeakable acts, including the mutilation, hanging, rehanging, dragging and shooting of one  man.

And though we can only hope that this orgy of gratuitous hate and voyeurism was what Wilkerson says was “perhaps the single worst act of torture and execution in twentieth-century America,”  we know it was illustrative of the reign of terror, humiliation and intimidation that prevailed in the American South well into the 1960s.

“Across the country, thousands of outraged Americans wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanding a federal investigation,” Wilkerson writes. “The NAACP compiled a  sixteen-page report and more files on the Neal case than any other lynching in American history. But Neal had the additional misfortune of having been lynched just before the 1934 national midterm elections, which were being seen as a referendum on the New Deal itself. Roosevelt chose not to risk alienating the South with a Democratic majority in Congress at stake. He did not intervene in the case. No one was ever charged in Neal’s death or spent a day in jail for it,” Wilkerson adds. Continue reading

The Maryland, D.C. connection

17 Apr The Williams house on the Farm

Recently,  I left what my father would have referred to as an unkind “Jupiter Pluvius” behind in California to attend a professional meeting in D. C. While I was in the area, I took a bit of a trip down memory lane. My first stop was a visit with my oldest friend, Melana – we’ve known each other since we were eight  –  and her husband Derek. Then I hung out with my niece M’Balia and her sons, Shomari and (Little) Ron. M’Balia and I drove up to Havre de Grace, Maryland, where my mother spent many a summer with her cousins   – the Williams branch of the family. This family of 10 kids was legendary in our household.

Clockwise from top row, My mother's cousins Mildred, Irving and Ruth, my niece M'Balia, yours truly, Cousin Jimmy, husband of Cousin Catherine (seated next to him), Cousins Eva and Mary.

They grew up on a farm on Old Robin Hood Road.  Their mother, Hattie,  and my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, were brother and sister. The Williams’s were highly educated with doctoral, medical and other professional degrees many, but not all, from historically black institutions. And they called my mother “Willie,” short for Wilhelmina, her middle name. This probably had to do with the fact that there were a lot of Marys on both sides of the family.  When M’Balia and I made our plans to visit the farm in Havre de Grace, we expected to visit with the three cousins who now live in the house they grew up in and their sister, Catherine, who built a home on the land after she and her husband, Jimmy, retired.  But they must have sent out the word, because every living sibling showed up to greet us. They shared family stories, read this blog with fascination and encouragement, cheered on M’Balia, who was on the cusp of earning her first degree in criminal justice with high honors. And they insisted on treating us to lunch.

I found out some things: Why their eldest sister, Ruth, was not listed on the 1930 census document I found. (She was already married and had left home.)

I also learned that my mother’s nuclear family was the second for her father. That John Henry had had a first marriage and that I  have a living cousin named Rosie  I never knew existed.

The Williams house on the Farm

As for my father, my mother’s cousin Eva said, surprisingly, that she had only met him once, when he and my mother came for a visit to the farm. “He was very quiet,” she recalled.

On to D. C. I had a chance to visit with my friend Laurence, who I met when I first came to Stanford in 1995. Back then,  her oldest son, Benjamin, and my daughter, Zuri, were just five years old. The last time I’d seen Laurence, she and I, her husband, Michel, and their daughter, Chloé, braved the frigid January weather to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration.

And speaking of  D. C., I found this column my father wrote following his first visit to the nation’s capital in the fall of 1934. Unlike the chilly but glorious weather I enjoyed the weekend I was there, he saw the city on what sounds like a particularly rainy day.
I wonder what he would have thought about the fact that the nation has its first black president. I passed the Old Executive Office Building, which he mentions was under construction in 1934 and is covered with scaffolding today.

“Washington, with its tree-bedecked boulevards, is a beautiful city  – even on a rainy day,” Ebenezer wrote.  “Au revoir, I hope not goodbye.”

‘Lady Lorraine': Mystery solved

31 Jan

In a column my father published Feb. 10,  1934, he devotes the last paragraph to a young girl he refers to as “Lady Lorraine.” In honor of her ninth birthday, Ebenezer waxed on about her “ladylike qualities,” her accomplishments in the classroom and her big feet. He wrote that she “threatens to outGarbo Garbo’s legendary feet.” How rude, particularly considering that Lorraine was his landlord’s daughter.

Initially, when I posted that column, I was rather curious about who Lorraine was and whether she was some long lost half-sibling. Then I remembered that the 1930 Census record I found a few months ago lists my father as a “lodger”  in the home of Glantis Harris, his wife, Edith, son Harcourt and daughter Lorraine. She was five at the time of the Census, so turning nine four years later makes it all add up.

They lived at 434 St. Nicholas Ave. in New York. The rent for the entire place — I assume it was an apartment since there were other families listed at that address  — was $80! In addition to my father, the other lodgers included Irving Hines, also a printer from Barbados, and a Philip Carrera, who is listed as a musician from Trinidad.

(By the way: He would later marry a woman who sported a size 11 shoe, and two of his three daughters  — not including yours truly  — had feet like their mother.)

Would hang Mr. Ray, a ‘muddled reactionary’

3 Sep

This second letter is the one my father refers to in his column on Sept. 15, 1934. The same arguments on capital punishment are still being argued today. As for me, I would have to agree with Mr. Streator, though not on the hanging part :). My dad wrote the original column on Sept. 1, 1934.

The New York Age, September 8, 1934

Negro, colored or Aframerican; It’s the oppression that needs to be addressed

2 Sep

“When the white man ‘lifts his foot off the neck’ of Negroes and when the Negro in turn lifts his own tiny foot off his own neck, when a Negro reporter, writer, cartoonist,  or etc. can go to the News office and apply for a job with the  assurance that he has the same chance as his white brother, his color regardless, then it will matter whether he is called colored, Negro,  or Aframerican”

The New York Age, December 22, 1934

City sales tax; Negro representation for Harlem

31 Aug

The New York Age, December 15, 1934

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