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Happy Thanksgiving

20 Nov

My father plagiarized himself frequently, most notably in his Thanksgiving columns. In 1934, 1936 and 1938, he wrote about the Pilgrim fathers, who in 1623 faced “their second winter of hunger, cold and peril” until, after a day of prayer, sighted “a ship loaded with friends and supplies.” He ended every one of these columns with the question of whether “Negroes” should be thankful. He would give a nod to the Scottsboro Boys, who were  incarcerated in Alabama. A favorite refrain was that the  “Negro’s winter is still on” and the ideals of safety and happiness continued to elude American blacks.

In 1939 his column still included these elements, but had a more optimistic tone. That year, President Franklin Roosevelt decided that Thanksgiving should be celebrated the next to the last Thursday of the month, rather than the last Thursday, which had been American tradition dating back to the end of the Civil War.

“Now, in the year of 1939, Americans find themselves sandwiched between two Thanksgiving Days,”  Ebenezer wrote. According to my father about half of the nation’s bosses  “preferred to adhere to the traditional (Lincoln’s). . .”

Apparently, my father  thought the whole debate was silly.

“It is safe to say that the idea of giving thanks on this day has been lost in its routine acceptance. It is now rather a day of feasting. And to hear the opposition tell it, one is almost moved to believe that there IS a difference between gormandizing vittles and guzzling corn liquor on one Thursday as against another Thursday. But this is a Democracy.”

Under Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini, he asserted, the “thanksgiving edict” would have come without choice and accepted with the “clicking of the heels. Dictators’ proclamations have but one ‘alternative': yes or YES.  . . Not in America. And that’s a good reason for giving thanks – any day.”

Ebenezer gave his customary nod to the Scottsboro boys.  Five of the original nine were still imprisoned. “Should the question of Thanksgiving Day penetrate those prison walls, those lads could well ask: What have we to be thankful for on the 23rd or the  30th of November?” he asked. “Their oppressors quibble over trifles.”

“Quibbling over when one should give thanks is hardly productive of the spirit of gratefulness  – at that. “

As for me, I’m giving thanks every day that America is changing, as evidenced by the recent election. Thankful that more Americans will have access to health care and that women will have agency over their own bodies. That race-baiting and big money don’t always prevail and that the Supreme Court’s activist slide will be slowed.

No doubt, our nation is still deeply divided between those who “want to  take their country back” and those who want to move forward.  But, as Ebenezer said,  “This is Democracy.”

By the way, I was going to wait until tomorrow to add a photo of President Obama pardoning a turkey, but I thought this video said more about thankfulness.

Dottings on a presidential reelection: Hate me if you dare

11 Nov

I’m re-posting an entry I originally published in February of 2011, which seems like ages ago. Last Tuesday, We The People overcame voter suppression campaigns, lies, bungled debates and obscene amounts of campaign spending to reelect President Barack Obama and to put down efforts to make him a one-term president. Now that the Florida vote has been counted, I thought I would add this year’s final electoral map.

The New New Deal, 2008, Photo illustration by Arthur Hochstein and Lon Tweeten. ( F.D.R. photo by Associated Press. Obama photo by John Gress, Reuters.)

“Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said of Republicans during his reelection campaign in 1936.
Sound familiar? I wish.
Perhaps President Obama will take a page from FDR as he gears up for the 2012 campaign.
After all, these fightin’ words turned out to be winning words for FDR.
In honor of Presidents’ Day, I offer a column published by my father, Ebenezer Ray, on Nov. 14, 1936, shortly after the shellacking Roosevelt doled out to his opponent, Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas,  in 1936. Prior to the election, my father had written columns endorsing Roosevelt. But his support was not a given.  His employer, The New York Age, was a traditional supporter of the Republican Party.  The paper opposed the Democratic Party nationally because of its tolerance  of southern segregation.

FDR’s 1936 landslide.    Credit: 270toWin

Referring to himself in typical self-deprecating fashion, Ebenezer wrote: “This newcomer and political dunce failed to be convinced (1) that President Roosevelt was not the fit and proper person to guide the destiny of this country for the next four years and (2) that the Republican candidate was the better man.
. . . With his avalanche of votes in favor of the New Deal went the Negro vote, local and national, despite the fact that President Roosevelt represents the Party which disenfranchises the Negro in the South. Wherefore the Negro vote?
According to the man in the street, in the barbershop, in the restaurant and other proletariat among whom this writer moves, prosperity is the paramount issue. Up to 1929, they contend there was discrimination in the South, but we also had prosperity. Since 1929, and especially during the last Republican regime, there was still discrimination in the South but NO prosperity. In President Roosevelt is seen the capability of bringing prosperity from around  that elusive corner, made popular by Mr. Hoover.”
To illustrate his community’s support of the New Deal, Ebenezer described the changing atmosphere in the bank at the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Ave.
“In these premises, until president Roosevelt’s bank holiday, was situated the unlamented Chelsea Bank.  During its declining months one could easily race a bull about the premises without harming a depositor.  Nowadays, occupied by the Dunbar National Bank, during business hours the premises resemble a market rather than a bank. Of great concern to the poor man is the knowledge that whatever part of his earnings he is privileged to save is SAFE.
The great majority has reelected Roosevelt. ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God,'” Ebenezer concluded.
Robert Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration, who is now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a column before the midterm election last fall, titled “Why Obama should learn the lesson of 1936, not 1996,” In it, Reich said: “The relevant political lesson isn’t Bill Clinton in 1996, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.”

Library of Congress

Reich continued:”By the election of 1936 the Great Depression was entering its eighth year. Roosevelt had already been president for four of them. Yet he won the biggest electoral victory since the start of the two-party system in the 1850s.” Reich wrote that while the key to Clinton’s victory was a booming economy, the key to Roosevelt’s was setting himself apart from the greed of the Republicans and their financiers and standing up for and with everyday people.

Back to Ebenezer’s column: At the end he offers a brief review of the theater adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a Hitler type character who attempts to dominate the United States:
“The capacity crowd which attended the Adelphi Theatre on West 54th Street Thursday evening last . . . is better testimony to the entertainment value of It Can’t Happen Here than any reviewer can write. For, after all, ‘It is the guest who is the judge of the meat,'” Ebenezer wrote.

From Barbados, with love

24 May

Zuri Adele on Accra Beach, Barbados

CHRIST CHURCH, BARBADOS, May 24, 2012 — Zuri, my sister-in-law Tracy and I are in Barbados for a little R&R after a whirlwind Spelman Commencement Weekend. It also happens to be my father’s birthday. He would be 115.

In a column he published shortly after his 43rd birthday  in 1940, he uses the occasion to commemorate Empire Day, the birthday of Queen Victoria, with whom he shared a natal day:

“It is difficult  if not at all impossible for ye paragrapher to forget Empire Day, though we may be many years removed from the British Empire, because it was on that day our late beloved mother told us we ‘came from somewhere in a box.’ Most readers of this column think we should have been left in the box.”

Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a specialist in Barbados genealogy who is going to try to help me get to the bottom of that box.

For today we’ll take a tour of the island, hit the beach and pour a ibation in honor of Ebenezer’s birthday.

The New York Age, June 1, 1940

‘I have learned to be racial’ and other observations after 11 years in America

31 Dec

In a column my father wrote on the eve of the new year in 1934, he recalls seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time 11 years earlier. He arrived on Ellis Island aboard the SS Fort Victoria on Nov. 1, 1923 at age 26, 48 hours after leaving Bermuda, where he worked as a printer for six months.

His entry seemed relatively easy. From the sound of it, he passed the physical and intelligence tests and the interrogations immigrants were put through fairly handily and headed straight for Harlem.

The biggest tests were yet to come: As he put it, he had to learn to be racial, to understand Jim Crow, both the southern and northern varieties. He had to weather the Great Depression and witness America’s promise and its shortcomings.

Although I lived in New York for several years in the 80s and still often see the city as a second home, it was not until this week that I set out like a tourist and visited the Ellis Island Museum and Liberty Island, where I finally saw the Lady up close.

It was probably divine intervention that kept me from there until now. It has so much more resonance.

Happy New Year, dear readers. Thanks for taking this journey with me.

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Should Negroes be thankful?

20 Nov

In 1934, the United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression. The Scottsboro Boys had been locked up for more than three years. Lynchings were rampant, and many states still denied black folks the right to vote.

Ebenezer was not pleased.

“Three hundred and 11 years ago, a disconsolate group of humans who have since come to be known as the Pilgrim Fathers were facing their second winter of hunger, cold and peril,” my father wrote in his column published Dec. 1, 1934. [In the age of linotype, I suppose it was customary for the Thanksgiving column to come out after Thanksgiving.] “The spring crop of corn had been withered by a long drought; the vegetable gardens had been destroyed by fire. A day of prayers was declared, which was followed by a refreshing rain. Almost simultaneously a ship loaded with friends and supplies was sighted. The Governor proclaimed a day ‘for public thanksgiving.'”

My father went on to add that since that day in 1623, the United States had celebrated other days of thanksgiving in the midst of national crises:

“In the first year of his office, President Washington issued a proclamation making Nov. 26, [1789] [Typo alert! The actual column says 1879] a day of ‘national thanksgiving’ for the establishment of a government designed for safety and happiness. When the Civil War was slowly drawing to an end, President Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as a day of national thanksgiving ‘for the defense against unfriendly designs without and signal victories over the enemy who is of our own household.'”

But what did Thanksgiving mean for black people in America in 1934?

“As another Thanksgiving Day approaches, can the Negro as a race really be thankful for many material blessings? . . . Even the individual materialist may have much to be thankful for – he may be in good health, his family as well, he may even have a job and everyone knows that that is much to be thankful for nowadays. Yet the Negro as a race still needs much to complete his reasons for Thanksgiving Day in this anno domini 1934. He is still the victim of ruthless exploitation by an unyielding capitalist system; he is still being denied many constitutional rights as a citizen, including the right to vote in many states; he is still being discriminated against even under the dome of the nation’s capitol; he is still the victim of brutal lynchings. Nine Negro boys are nearing their fourth year of incarceration in an unsympathetic Alabama prison for a crime they did not commit, while a coterie of lawyers strive valiantly, but almost ineffectively to stave off a legal lynching of them.

“The Negro still needs sound reasons for a real honest-to-goodness Thanksgiving — his winter is still on, his ‘corn is still withered’ his ‘ship loaded with friends and supplies’ still to be sighted; his ‘government . .. for safety and happiness’ has not yet been established.'”

So, as Thanksgiving 2011 approaches, those of us fortunate enough to be employed, to have homes, health and abundance should be grateful. We also should continue the fight for those among us who continue to endure the chill of injustice.

Here’s the column in its entirety:

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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.

That ‘threshold’ business

4 Jul

“So we married,” my father wrote in his column a couple of weeks after he said, “I do’ to Lucille Manning, his first wife. In an April 29,1939 New York Age article describing the wedding, there was not a hint of sarcasm. But even as a newlywed, Ebenezer could not resist.

“Irrespective of what one hears and knows, yet something gets by you,” he wrote in his column on May 6, 1939. “We hadn’t heard of this ‘carrying your bride over the threshold’ business until very recently. What strikes us is, suppose we had married that hell-cat with plenty of pois — avoirdupois. ‘What strength can’t do art and resolution will,’ they tell us. Art would have failed. Resolution would have gotten us a piano-mover.
“We carried our 120 pounds over. She smiled broadly. We grinned. Who said a man isn’t born a chump?”

I’m sure we will never know who the “hell-cat” was. I trust Lucille appreciated his sense of humor.

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