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The London riots and the fire next time

15 Aug

“As much as we regret the spirit of mob violence as manifested by hundreds of Harlemites on Tuesday evening, it is obvious that it was the direct result of a pent-up feud that has lain in the breasts of Negroes for months – and years.”

These words, published in a column my father wrote after a riot broke out in Harlem on March 19, 1935, have new resonance in the wake of the conflagration that spread from Tottenham to Birmingham, UK, last week.

I visited London several times last year, and three news stories made me wonder whether I’d ever left home.

  • Confrontations between students and police during protests against tuition hikes were a regular occurrence throughout the fall. Were it not for the scenes of Prince Charles and Camilla’s Royal Rolls Royce being kicked and jostled and pelted with paint bombs last December, I might have thought I was on a University of California or California State College campus.
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron called the low numbers of blacks at Oxford “disgraceful,” putting the university on the defensive and setting off a verbal firestorm with echoes of the American higher education/affirmative action debate.
  • Then there was the heartbreaking story of Agnes Sina-Inakoju, killed in 2010 when two reported gang members shot into an East London chicken and pizza place. In April of this year, the men, both in their early 20s, were sentenced to life in prison. Sina-Inakoju, 16 at the time of her murder, had dreamed of going to Oxford and by all accounts she was working hard to make that a reality. The tragic tale of a promising life cut short by random and stupid violence could have played out in any city USA.

I wasn’t there when the flames erupted in the UK last weekend, and I won’t presume to have a full understanding of British racial and class politics. But shocking as the murder and mayhem were, it was not surprising.

“The volcano is there and the surface is very thin; it merely needs a slight puncture, and out will flow the destructive elements that foment within,” Ebenezer wrote.

This time, as in many others, the “puncture” was a black man shot dead by police.

The confluence of dreams of the poor ignored, the aspirations of the middle class deferred and the prevalence of drugs and guns and criminality of all kinds, make for a toxic cocktail. Add to it an economic climate in which social services and law enforcement resources are cut and stretched thin on both sides of the Pond, and you can’t help but wonder where the next “volcano” will erupt.


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 black press: A beacon of light in the racial darkness

6 Feb

Credit: Library of Congress

If you plan to be in Pittsburgh between Feb. 11 and Oct. 2, check out “America’s Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier,” which will be on exhibit at the Heinz History Center.  The Courier, where my father worked when I was a young girl in Pittsburgh, is celebrating 100 years of service to the black community.  In its heyday, the Courier had 400 employees and its readership spanned the country.  The Courier was a strong voice against segregation and particularly lynching. Pullman porters were enlisted to surreptitiously “drop” the papers along their Southern train routes.

“These papers were not welcomed in those states and oftentimes were confiscated and destroyed to keep African-Americans from reading newspapers,” Samuel Black, the exhibit’s curator, said in a recent interview with CBS Pittsburgh.

Robert Lavelle, an old family friend, who as a young man was responsible for coming up with those delivery routes,  was interviewed for The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, a film by award-winning  filmmaker  Stanley Nelson.  Lavelle said that even though Pittsburgh was a relatively small city, the Courier had a name well beyond its borders  “because it had tried to reach out to black people, no matter where they were, and we would try to send papers to those people. And as the people in those places became more numerous in terms of circulation, then those people would get a column in the Courier and maybe even on the front page of the Courier,  and pretty soon that place had an edition of the Courier. So the Courier developed 13 editions and we would send papers to these various,  regional places like the Midwest edition, the New England edition, the Chicago edition, the Philadelphia edition, and the Southern edition  . . .  We’d send them down by seaboard airline, Atlantic coastline railroad, down through Florida and all those places.”

My cousin Russell Williams

On a personal note, my cousin Russell Williams recalls a visit his family made to Pittsburgh:
“Back in 1958, as my father finished his Ph.D. at Michigan State, we traveled back to South Carolina (where he taught at SC State), and we stopped in Pittsburgh to see Ebenezer and Mary Ray and their three daughters (Mary was my father’s favorite cousin).  I remember Ebenezer taking us to the Pittsburgh Courier offices to show us how a newspaper was produced, and I carried home with me a souvenir (a piece of type) from that trip — a very interesting keepsake to my just-turned-seven-years-old
mind.  Years later, I came to understand the important role that the Courier played nationally, and was very proud that I had a relative who had contributed to that impact.”

As I was four years old at the time and have no recollection of that visit, I was moved by Russell’s  story.

Well before my father moved to Pittsburgh and joined the Courier, he tipped his hat to the Negro press as well. In 1935, the New York Age celebrated its 50th anniversary.

 

New York Age Nov. 2, 1935

“For fifty years, The Age has lived; for fifty years it has been an articulate voice of the Negro race; for fifty years it has weathered economic storms; for that period it has outlived its own shortcomings, and the shortcomings of the people it set out to serve,” Ebenezer wrote in a column published Nov. 2, 1935. “On the threshold of its new era, it is natural that it pauses to look back on its past on the path it has tread, a path strewn with pitfalls, a path decorated with the glory of achievement; a path nonetheless dotted with journalistic wrecks. Much of the paper’s success must be measured in the friends it has made; much of its power can be measured in the enemies it has made. No man can get very far without creating a few enemies here and there. The man whom everyone loves is insincere. The Age‘s supporters flaunt its greatness; to many it is a beacon [of] light in this — their world of racial darkness.”

Celebrating Black History

30 Jan

One of the added treats of finding these columns of my father has been taking note of  the other writers and scholars with whom he shared space in the New York Age:  Black conservative George Schuyler and his wife Josephine Schuyler; Arthur Schomburg, after whom the Schomburg Library for Research in Black Culture is named (Back then Schomburg, who was of Puerto Rican origin, went by “Arturo”); and historian, author and educator Carter G. Woodson.  Woodson founded Black History Week, which was  scheduled for the  second week of February, bracketed by the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. (According to Woodson, Douglass, who was born into slavery, did not know his actual birthday, but chose Valentine’s Day. Black History Week is, of course, the precursor of  Black History Month, which we begin celebrating Tuesday.  According to Wikipedia, “The expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month was first proposed by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University [my graduate school alma mater] in February 1969. The first celebration of the Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970.”
Woodson also founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization that was founded in 1915 and still exists today. He wrote more than a dozen books, including The Mis-Education of the Negro.
Woodson argued that black people, particularly black youth, need to have a full picture of their history and historical contributions in order to develop the self worth it takes to pursue economic, political and social equality.
“If you teach the Negro that he has achieved as much good as others he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race. Such an effort would upset the program of the Nordic in Africa and America. The present control of Negroes could not thereafter be maintained. The oppressor, then, must keep the Negro’s mind enslaved by inculcating a distorted conception of history,” Woodson wrote in a New York Age column published August 17, 1935.

Send the Rockefellers, Fords and Mellons to war first

8 Jan

It’s an age-old argument:

In his March 9, 1935 “Dottings” column, Ebenezer wrote about legislation forwarded by Wisconsin Democratic Congressman Thomas O’Malley, calling for the wealthy to be drafted for the U.S. military first.

“Individuals with the highest income must be sent to the point of hostilities before any other individuals called to service,” the bill read.

The only other reference I could find on this legislation was in a book titled Wealth, War & Wisdom by Barton Biggs.

Ebenezer wrote: “It has long been conceded that munition makers, financers, and all those who hope to profit by war do more to incite such outbreaks than all the assassinations of archdukes put together. But fortunately for them, and unfortunately for others, these men generally stay at home lounging in soft-cushioned chairs and otherwise enjoying themselves while so-called patriots, who have nothing to gain, wallow in mire and are exposed to all hardships, making cannon fodder for ‘the enemy,’ while defending ‘their country.'”

In the latter half of the column Ebenezer offers a counter argument to fellow West Indian writer Donald Moore, whom my father quoted extensively in his “Dottings” column on Jan. 26 of that year.  The column examined the recommendations of what was called the Closer Union Commission, which was considering a West Indian Federation.

“Such a federation, amongst other things, would eliminate the present burden of several high-salaried government officials who are sent out from Downing Street, England and have little interest in the country over which they lord,” Ebenezer wrote.

“We do not want to be misunderstood.  Our correspondent is justified in being skeptical or cynical because present day Imperialists in Britain as well as overseas distinctly object to sharing the burden of trusteeship with those over whom they have appointed themselves trustees. . .  In each British colony, therefore, the color question has to be tackled and the racial prejudices and  disabilities which arose out of slavery and which are very much alive in spite of Emancipation have to be overcome before concessions which are given to other British subjects are obtained by men of color.”

Guest column: The Closer Union Federation

8 Jan

Ebenezer offers his space to colleague Donald Moore. You’ll see in the “Dottings” column March 9, 1935, that Ebenezer offers his own take on the Closer Union Federation. If there are to be any changes in or of the present system of government which has been, and is still, a system of futility,” Moore wrote, “then let those changes be the elimination of said system and a government as given to the Irish, take its place for the general progress of the islands and their people.”

The New York Age, January 26, 1935

Merry Christmas, Joe Louis, the Communists, the Scottsboro Boys and Mother

25 Dec

Joe Louis 1935

I love the fact that my father gave a shout out to his mom, whom he said was responsible for all that was good in him.  (Sadly, he used the same line nine months later when she died.) He also sent greetings to Joe Louis, the “uncrowned king,” “the Scottsboro lads with a sincere hope for their ultimate freedom,” and  the Communists who took up the Scottsboro Boys cause and saved their lives. There was some reluctance among supporters of the NAACP about whether the Communists efforts on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys would hurt their cause.  Ebenezer did not seem to have those concerns. He did give props to the NAACP for its “untiring efforts on behalf of the Negro race.”

The New York Age, December 28, 1935

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