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Happy Birthday, Daddy

24 May

My dad, left, with family friend Hughart Wright. I have no idea where this was, since there were no beaches in Pittsburgh.

Gemini men. My favorite cousins — David Browne and Russell Williams — celebrate their birthdays this week. My ex-husband and fellow co-parent is a June Gemini. My late Uncle James, who stood in in the absence of my father in so may ways, would celebrate his birthday June 10.

And then there is my father himself, who would celebrate his 114th birthday on Tuesday, May 24. (No, that is not a typo!)

The  column below, which he published just after his 36th birthday in 1933, is part birthday lamentation and part history lesson. I had no idea that every territory of the British Empire celebrated Queen Victoria’s birthday. Back then it was called Empire Day.   (And we thought declaring Kate and Will’s wedding day a bank holiday in Britain was a little  much.) My dad apparently didn’t think much of “present horseman and apparently future bachelor king” Edward VIII —  even before he abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. Continue reading

What’s a mother to do?

7 May

Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity sponsored a lecture featuring Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture on May 5.

Recently, Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, gave a talk at Stanford about the challenges he has faced as he develops the museum, which is scheduled to be completed in 2015.  Bunch talked about the “treasures” people often bring him as potential items for the museum’s collection.

Bunch told the story of a pillowcase someone brought him that had been passed among family members for several generations. The pillowcase was embroidered by an enslaved African American woman who had just learned the day before that she would be sold.

The embroidery was a message to her daughter:

“In this pillowcase, you will find a dress, you will find some biscuits, but what you will find is that it’s filled with my love. And though I may never see you again, always know how close you are to my heart. “

According to Bunch, that mother never saw her daughter again.

Bunch’s story put into perspective all the chatter about tiger and helicopter moms. There’s even a new one, snowplow parents  – who try to move all the difficulties out of their children’s lives.  I used to say that most of my black friends thought I was a pushover when it came to parenting and many of my white friends thought I was too tough. I’m not sure what my other friends thought.  In the end, all of our children have made us pretty damn proud.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thande Newton in "Beloved." Winfrey is a member of the advisory board of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In an age when everybody’s got an opinion about how children should be raised, protected, nurtured, etc., the pillowcase story makes it all seem so silly. Who among us would have had the resolve to embroider that farewell before being sold to another slave owner?  Or who would not have been tempted to do what Sethe did in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

Maybe this is a downer as Mother’s Day approaches.  It’s not meant to be.  It’s intended to be a tribute to mothers who, under the worst and best circumstances, did and do their best with every ounce of what they have.  Here’s to our mothers, who made sure we had clothes on our backs and something to eat and who stitched together a legacy of love that has sustained us through generations.

On a more uplifting note, and speaking of generations, here’s what my father wrote for Mother’s Day in 1937.

The New York Age, May 8, 1937

Dottings on Easter

24 Apr

The New York Age, April 11, 1936

Just returned from traveling and am still in the throes of the  post-vacation dig out, so I’ll just let my father’s words speak for themselves. One item was written the week before Easter in 1936. Not sure what that last word is, but you’ll get his point. Don’t shop where they won’t hire you.

The second item was published a week later, the day before Easter Sunday, which fell on April 19 in 1936.

The New York Age, April 18, 1936

Happy Easter to all

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. marries an actress

15 Mar

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is sworn in to the New York City Council by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. From left, Joe Ford; Powell's mother, Mattie; Powell; Powell's wife, Isabel; Powell's father, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and La Guardia, January 1942. Copyright All rights reserved by La Guardia and Wagner Archives

On  this day in 1933, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the assistant minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church (The church where my ex and I married, by the way) wedded  a “showgirl” named Isabel Washington.
According to my former Boston Globe colleague and Powell biographer Wil Haygood, the relationship caused a stir. “The older deacons recoiled, as did his father. Showgirls stayed out late, danced with gangsters, drank gin. Adam Junior knew better. There were veiled threats that his father would not give him money.”
In  my dad’s  “Xcuse Me” column published three days after the wedding, you have to get to the penultimate paragraph before he even mentions the names “Adam” and “Is,” but it is clear before then who the column is about.
By the way, in Roman mythology, Jupiter Pluvius was the rain-giver who ended droughts.
I didn’t have any luck finding a photograph of the wedding, but I did find this photo from Powell’s swearing in to the New York City Council in 1942.  That was in nine years after the wedding.  From the look on his mother’s face, she still had not gotten over it. :)

The New York Age, March 18, 1933

A King’s reach: My father’s take on the Royals

26 Feb

When I suggested to my daughter, Zuri, that she would love the Oscar winning The King’s Speech and that it would be great for her to see it in London, where she is studying abroad, she revealed that her drama professors were not so keen on it. “They see it as propaganda for the monarchy.”
There is also a lot of buzz in the American and international press about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the film. Bertie’s stutter was not really that bad, Winston Churchill was not really that fat and  he was not so forcefully opposed to King Edward VIII‘s relationship with a twice-married Wallis Simpson. More seriously, some argue that throughout the late 1930s the royal family and much of the British establishment favored appeasement of Hitler’s regime.
My father was a bit of a gusher when it came to the Royals.

“A King Dies,” Ebenezer proclaimed in a column on Feb. 1, 1936. The far-flung British Empire, with its approximately 500,000,000 inhabitants of all colors mourns today! George the Fifth, its ‘Sailor King’ is dead! He passed away in his 71st year of life and in the 26th year of his reign. From far-off New Zealand and Australia to the Dominion of Canada, from India to the remote Falkland Islands and the West Indies, flags are at half-mast; bells have tolled, theatres closed, night clubs darkened — business had come to a standstill, all in reverence to a departed monarch, loved by his people, and of whose greatness historian will testify.”
But in true fashion, Ebenezer brought the king’s death back home to America.

King George V

“The passing of the British monarch had its repercussion here in the House of Representatives when Speaker Byrns [Joseph W. Byrns, D-Tenn] put forward a resolution that the body adjourn out of respect to the dead king. Representative [Martin] Sweeney of Ohio was the dissenting voice. His objection was based on the grounds that his kin lost their lives during the time of the Blacks and Tans (Britain opposing the independence of the Irish Free State) and according to the New York Times Washington correspondent, Mr. Sweeney ‘is unwilling for the legislature of a democracy to honor the memory of a king in whose names the bullets went winging’  Speaker Byrns ignored Mr. Sweeney. Negroes might sympathize with Mr. Sweeney in the loss of his kin, but it is natural that they at the same time reflect on the atrocities which are committed under America’s ‘democracy” In the first place we have hundreds of lynchings which have taken place in the direction from which Mr. Sweeney hails and against which Congress up to its last session refused to enact legislation. Many a Negro has lost his innocent kin by these barbarous methods. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the constitution as they apply to Negroes are openly violated in the South. Under the shadow of the Capitol’s dome, Negroes have been denied use of the House Restaurant and even in the North Negroes are systematically and occasionally discriminated against in government and private institutions. Lastly, we come to the persecution of the nine Scottsboro lads. Within the columns of the issue of the New York Times which voices Mr. Sweeney’s objection we read that the trial was being conducted for the fourth time amidst the most prejudiced atmosphere perhaps known to any court in a civilized country.”

As for the brief reign of Edward VIII and the Wallis Simpson scandal, my father initially had high hopes for the young king whom he described as a “super-salesman, athlete, flier, sportsman and one of the most socially beloved princes, whose magnetic personality was already evident. “

But upon Edward’s abdication, he was less charitable. “I still think Edward strayed somewhat from the ‘manor born.'” he wrote in a later column. He was born heir-apparent to a throne when the world respected it. He could easily have lived closer to its shadow.  Love intoxicates a man; marriage sobers him up, someone once said. And what if the inevitable hand of retribution moves to arouse Eddie from his intoxication, brought on by Wallis Simpson’s potion of third-rate ‘love!'”

My father was wrong about that love affair. Edward and Wallis stayed together until Edward, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication, died of cancer in 1972.

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.”

‘Emperor Jones,’ ‘Huck Finn’ and that ‘n’ word

23 Jan

Last week, I weighed in on the debate about the novel Huckleberry Finn in my colleague Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven. There’s a current debate over a new edition of the novel in which the word “nigger” is replaced by the word “slave.” While the intention is noble, I think it misses the point.

My argument is that those who teach the novel need to be fully aware of what they are teaching, the feelings the novel and the word “nigger” evoke and the specific classroom context they find themselves teaching in.

The debate over the use of the word is not new. My father wrote about it in the column below in 1933. He did not mention Huckleberry Finn, but he referred to the repeated use of the word in Eugene O’Neill‘s  Emperor Jones, the 1933 film version of which featured Paul Robeson in the lead.

“Brutus, or Emperor Jones, an obviously uncultured Negro, rises from obscurity in his nation’s South to the dizzy heights of self-appointed Emperor. He makes his way [as] a Pullman Porter, a gambler, a member of a chain gang, a coal passer on a steamer, a bartered slave – and even leaves a few murders in his wake. In his ascent he encounters no institutions of learning – his vocabulary is broken and ungrammatical from the onset – yet Negroes expect the word ‘Negro’ in his uncultured diction. . . . Harlemites don’t have to go to see Emperor Jones to hear the profuse use of the objectionable word, just pass by any group of street-corner loafers, or listen carefully from your apartment window.”

He noted that in Barbados, it was the speaker  – not the spoken to  – who was looked upon as uncultured when the word was used. He took issue with  one of his fellow New York Age columnists, who was Jamaican, who generalized that in the West Indies the word was used to refer to the black laborer.

“He has made the same mistake so many of us make – that of characterizing a West Indian by his knowledge of his own native brethren. There are scores of tropical islands and a few colonies, and there are also a few noticeably different though minor traits in each island’s group. In Barbados – and we have them – a Negro laborer is known as a “laborer,” and not as a nigger.
Thousands of Negroes must have lived and died in the island of Barbados without the regretful realization that he was a Negro. Without a doubt we have our racial handicaps, but the fact is not repeatedly thrust down our throats. Our financial status – or lack of it – seems our greatest handicap. A printer is a printer not because he is a Negro, but generally because he as not financially able to be what he might consider better . . . ” (I wonder if he was referring to himself.)

One of the comments on the Book Haven discussion, accused those of us who were concerned about teaching and reading Huckleberry Finn of hypocrisy.

The reader said,  “many who defend the unlimited freedom of artists to create graphically sexual and blasphemous photos at public expense in the name of freedom of speech and against the bugabear of censorship (even though these images hurt and offend many) now seem willing to bend the same principles, for what? Because some people will be hurt and offended by the N word? And the people who will be hurt and offended are who? The same people who listen to music whose lyrics use the N word constantly?Anybody besides me see this as a huge contradiction?”

Talk about generalizations! Is this person suggesting that all of the people who are offended by the use of “nigger’ in Huckleberry Finn are not offended by the use of the word in rap lyrics? Black people have been conflicted about the use of the word in the public sphere for decades. Remember when Richard Pryor came back from Africa and vowed never to use the word again?

Robeson himself stopped singing the word in renditions of  Showboat‘s “Ol’ Man River” that he performed in recitals. (He did not change the lyrics when he appeared in Showboat productions.)  In those recitals, he replaced he word “nigger” with “darkies.”   “Colored folks,” has been used in revivals of Showboat since the mid 40s.

Ebenezer was of the mind that if black folks stopped using the word, perhaps others would stop using it too.

“When Negroes cease to include the word ‘nigger’ in their vocabulary, white playwrights may rally to the cause and exclude it from their scripts,” my father writes. “How soon will that be? How soon? We prefer not to think.”

How about 77 years and counting?

The New York Age, October 7, 1933

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