From Harlem to ‘Bountiful,’ Cicely Tyson tills the soil for many

24 May

triptobountiful1I hope I can remember where I put my keys when I’m her age, I thought as I watched Cicely Tyson perform the other night. Forget remembering all of my lines in a Broadway play.

Tyson is the central character in The Trip to Bountiful, which is currently playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. It’s not that I’m surprised that Tyson is amazing. I’m just appreciative of her longevity, her beauty and her tenacity.

Wikipedia has Tyson born in December of 1933, which would make her 79. The New York Times puts her at 88.

During the performance I kept thinking how Tyson had paved the way for the success of other members of the Bountiful revival cast, which includes Vanessa L. Williams, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Condola Rashad.

I admit, there were times when, even with a few tweaks to the set, (There’s a sign in the bus station that points to a “Whites Only” waiting room.) I was hyper-aware of the fact that a black family’s experience in Jim Crow Texas might have been a little different from the one playing out on the stage.

According to the Times, it was Hallie Foote, daughter of playwright Horton Foote, who wanted to do the play with an African American cast. She’d long envisioned Tyson in the role of Carrie Watts. For her part, Tyson said she’d always wanted to do the play. Human longing for home is universal, she said

“They just took down the house I lived in at 311 East 102nd Street,” she told the Times. “I used to walk by and feel like I could still see my mother in the window.”

Tyson’s parents, like my father, whose birthday would be today, immigrated from the West Indies and settled in Harlem. To say that her mother did not support her choice of career would be an understatement.

“My mother didn’t talk to me for two years,” Tyson said in an interview on CBS’ Sunday Morning.

But Tyson persisted, and she was judicious about the roles she accepted. She refused to take parts that did “nothing to enhance the race itself or women.”

Tyson won two Emmy Awards for her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman — one for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries and a special honor for Actress of the Year. She also got Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her performance in Sounder.

Now she’s nominated for a Tony Award for Bountiful.

Whatever window her mother is watching from, I’m sure she is proud.

‘The Dream is Now’

24 Apr

My father walked off a boat in 1923 and checked in at Ellis Island. He was a black man. His path to citizenship couldn’t have been easy. But he wasn’t forced to hide in the shadows, worrying that he might be deported to Barbados. He was able to pursue his dream and become an American journalist.

Alejandro Morales, Ola Kaso, Jose Patino and Erika Andiola have not enjoyed that privilege. They came with their families as children to the United States, the only country they know as home. They are the embodiment of the American Dream. They’ve been good citizens, great family members and excellent students. Yet their dreams have been deferred by an America that refuses to fully embrace them.

Morales, Kaso, Patino and Andiola are the subjects of a new documentary The Dream is Now, which chronicles these young people’s efforts to earn their citizenship.

Morales has wanted to be a Marine since eighth grade, but he can’t without a Social Security number.

Patino, who graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in mechanical engineering, works low-skilled construction jobs because he can’t get hired as an engineer.

Kaso wants to become an oncologist and was accepted to the University of Michigan, but her future was put on hold while her family’s status was reviewed. During a routine meeting with immigration officials, she was handcuffed to a chair in a basement hallway of a detention center for several hours.

Andiola
, who has met with everybody from Sen. John McCain to White House adviser Valerie Jarrett as an advocate for the Dream Act, was granted permission to work, but her mother was put on a bus headed for Mexico — in chains.

The film is part of a movement of the same name launched by Laurene Powell Jobs and her organization, the Emerson Collective. Produced by award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, The Dream is Now, also places their struggles in an historical context. It’s the next battle in the civil rights movement.

Recently, the Associated Press changed its stylebook to include this proviso: “Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.”

I appreciate the spirit of the AP’s decision. Words have power, and that’s the point. But what I would appreciate even more is for America to stop criminalizing our children.

And yes, Morales, Kaso, Patino and Andiola and other “Dreamers” are our children.

Watch the film
. Join their movement.

Making it right: The Scottsboro Boys and the Central Park Five

22 Apr

On Friday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed legislation that paves the way for posthumous pardons of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white women. For nearly a decade, my father used his New York Age column to remind his readers of what he called a travesty of justice.

“We cannot take back what happened.  But we can make it right moving forward.  That’s why I’m signing this legislation,” Bentley said on Friday.  “It’s important to clear the names of the Scottsboro Boys.”

Ebenezer would say it’s about time.

I’m glad it didn’t take 8more than 80 years to clear the young men who served 7 – 13 years for the rape of Trisha Meili, better known as the Central Park jogger. Still, these young men have not been afforded the full measure of justice.

On April 19, 1989, Meili was brutally raped and beaten nearly to death in the park by Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer.

It just happened to be on a night when a couple of dozen teenagers ran through the park, some assaulting, robbing and harassing people.

Ken Burns chronicles the case in his latest documentary, The Central Park Five, which premiered on PBS last week.  . In the film, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise admit that they were in the park that night and witnessed some bad behavior. But none of them knew anything about a rape until New York City police, determined to wrap up the case, force fed them details and manipulated them into confessing.

The documentary is heartbreaking. Police ignored or neglected the fact that there was no physical evidence that implicated any of the boys. They ignored the fact that the boys’ “confessions” were not only inconsistent with the facts that law enforcement  knew, but also with each others stories. One of the most heartbreaking scenes  is watching the prosecutor take a videotaped confession from Wise, the oldest of the five, who was 16. She read him his Miranda rights, told him he had a right to a lawyer, a right to remain silent. But  Wise was  exhausted after hours and hours of intimidation, interrogation and promises that he would soon be allowed to go home, tells a made-up story implicating himself and his acquaintances.

“If this had happened in 1901, they would have been lynched, perhaps castrated and their bodies burned and that would have been the end of it,” Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, said in the documentary.

“But this was New York City,  1989, , said LynNell Hancock, now a journalism professor at Columbia University. “It was not Jim Crow South, and yet the same words are being used with the same damaging results.”

I remember tearing up when I picked up the New York Times in 2002 and read that the whole thing had indeed been a lie.  Reyes,  who by then was in prison for other crimes, confessed to the rape of Meile. His DNA was in the police files all along. It  was the only DNA on Meile’s belongings. The worst part: While officials were railroading the boys, Reyes continued to rape and murder women.

With his confession, the convictions of the five were vacated by a New York State Supreme Court judge.  The City of New York, however, has refused to admit any wrongdoing. A civil suit filed on behalf of the young men in 2003 has yet to be resolved.

No amount of money will give these men back their youth, bu eas Alabama Gov. Bentley said, New York City cannot “take back what happened,”  but the city can and should make it right.

A national holiday, an inaugural address and the continuum of progress

21 Jan
obama_king

President Obama at the Martin Luther King Memorial in D.C. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Imagine it. The United States of America inaugurating its first black president not once, but twice.

My father probably could never have imagined it. Martin Luther King, Jr. could only have dreamed it.

Yet their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are witnessing it under sunny skies in DC and on the airwaves across the nation.

That we are celebrating Inauguration Day on the day we celebrate King’s life,  reminds us of the continuum of progress.

When civil rights leader Myrlie Evers-Williams came up to the podium  to give the inaugural invocation, I was reminded of  the assassination of her husband, Medgar.  In 1963, in my lifetime, it was  heresy in many quarters to suggest that a black person should exercise one vote, much less amass enough votes to be elected to the highest office of the land.

When Beyoncé came to the microphone to sing the “Star- Spangled Banner,” I could not help but think about all of those columns my father wrote singing the praises of Marian Anderson, whom the Daughters of the American Revolution deemed unfit to perform in Constitution Hall.

When I see Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama, and Marian Robinson in all their beauty and elegance, I can’t help but think about my Essence magazine days, when mainstream advertisers didn’t want to associate their products with black women.

When President Obama included the Stonewall Riots in the same breath as Seneca Falls and Selma, it indicated how far he and the nation have come on the issue of gay rights.

When this year’s inaugural laureate, Richard Blanco, the son of Cuban exiles, offered his poem “One Today,” I thought of those like my father, born in other countries, who believed so much in America’s promise even as they were keenly aware of its shortcomings.

As President Obama said in his Inaugural address:

“Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action .  .  .

You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.

Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

Image

Thanks, Mom, and Happy New Year

29 Dec

mom_me_pittsburgh_king_cropped“I certainly missed you the last few days – Misplaced my teeth – just found them. Thought I’d have to begin school without them  . . . the thought was devastating!”

I spent most of Friday, Dec. 28, which would have been my mother, Mary Ray’s 93rd birthday, reading letters like this one.

I missed her too. Even those times when I would be called upon to help her find her misplaced dentures.

Most of my mother’s  notes were chronicles of her life as an empty nester, her reviews of cultural events, her updates on neighbors, friends and relatives and her travels.

mom_happy_for_youWish you could’ve been at Uncle James’ on Sunday past. It was beautiful,” she wrote in a card dated Aug. 23, 1977.  Then she listed the relatives whom I’d missed during her trip from Pittsburgh to New Jersey.

“Cousin Mollie said she had a magnificent time. Diane and her daughter were there; John, Jr. and Larry and family. Peanut [my cousin Robert] has a son named Lyle – looks just like him.” [It's actually Kyle; we're now Facebook friends.]

“All of Aunt Evie’s sisters and some of their families were there.” She referred to my cousin David as “The Lover,” and mentioned my cousin Michelle, whose eldest son was just a “fat baby boy of 10 months,” back then.

She loved her grandchildren: “You wouldn’t believe that my little Xmas tree is still up,” she wrote on Jan. 24, 1978.  “Waiting for a visit from Chano and Lamman. They didn’t get over for the holidays, but boy did they enjoy the toys everyone sent them.”

“Today is M’Balia’s birthday, so they’re all here,” she wrote on Aug. 30, 1976.

In each letter she shared her worries. “Ellen will need some rest!!!” she scribbled along the side of a note dated Sept.  18, 1976. (I believe she was referring to the fact that my sister Ellen-Marie had just returned from a trip to Tanzania.)

“They’re trying to work out their difficulties. I’ve suggested a professional counselor,” she wrote about another relative and her husband.

Then there was my mother’s love life: “Uncle Fred has his house almost completely painted outside and wants me to select new furnishings, drapes and carpeting,” she wrote in one letter.  In another: “He went on a Northwest trek with the AAAs from Western Pa. “Timing was bad for me, so was the cost, and he couldn’t afford it for us both.”

She never ended a note without dispensing some advice: “Glad the job is shaping up,” she wrote shortly after I’d taken my first job in Boston. “Don’t make any hasty moves until you thoroughly investigate any situation. Some sorority sisters might help.” [I assume she was referring to my search for housing.]

On her troubles with high blood pressure, she wrote: “It’s something that runs in the family. We seem to be victims of stress. Please watch it!”

She also was generous with her praise:

“Your March article in Essence is excellent. Keep up the good work.”

“So very happy for  you, (Always) but particularly now as you join the Boston Globe staff.

But to her, being a good friend was as important as any professional accomplishment.

“I’m so proud of you, particularly as a very caring person. Pam and others are lucky to have you as a friend!” she wrote in May of 1988.  “Continue to care about others and to render assistance in some small way when you can. Sharing our knowledge and comfort with our fellow man is truly our purpose for living on this universe or any other.   You will be blessed manifold!”

mom_holidaycard_900

It was as if she was talking to me from the grave, setting the stage for my New Year’s resolutions.

“I’d like for you and Ellen to keep the family home for a while. Daddy worked hard to acquire it. It took all his savings for a down payment. You may find it worth your while one day,” she wrote.  She ended that same note with,  “P.S. Don’t mourn for me. I enjoyed life and living and loved my family dearly! Mom!”

That note was not dated, but based on its other contents, it was written in the 1970s. She definitely got a lot more living and loving in before she died in 2002.

Well, ok, then Mom. I hope you are resting well, dispensing your wisdom and comfort from whatever “universe” you happen to be on.

Happy New Year to all, and here’s to “manifold” blessings in 2013.

Don’t sell us short

9 Dec

“Thanksgiving Day gone, the Christmas season with its busy shopping days approaches. In this respect Negroes of Harlem and vicinity will contribute their full share. The opportunity therefore presents itself for them to observe how much of this money spent is returned to them in the form of employment.”

My father wrote these words in a column dated Dec. 5, 1936, in which he lamented the fact that 75 percent of the patronage of businesses on 125th Street  “comes from Negroes. Yet even the casual observer may note that Negroes comprise less than 25 percent of the employees on that street.”

Ebenezer chided Blumstein’s Department Store, one of his frequent targets, for its announcement in the black press the year before that it had employed “60 Harlemites” on its staff.  He argued that it would be hard to find 60 black employees in Blumstein’s with a microscope and that some of those department store workers may well have lived in Harlem, but they were not black.

“Negroes are not interested in how many Harlemites the Blumstein store or other stores on 125th Street employ.  They are interested in HOW MANY NEGROES ARE EMPLOYED.  And we take this opportunity to tell these store owners that Negroes expect a commensurate share of employment as clerks in these stores during this Christmas season.”

Jobs and economic parity for black Americans are on the wish list this Christmas season as well.  The national unemployment rate has declined to 7.7 percent.  The rate of black unemployment, while lower than it was, is 13 percent.

With this in mind, black leaders met in Washington recently to set an agenda for keeping the black community from a steeper fiscal cliff.  The meeting was convened by Marc H. Morial, President & CEO of the National Urban League, Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP, and Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.  The communiqué issued after the meeting outlined five key areas of focus.

urbanleague_historic_event_rb

Photo: National Urban League

* achieve economic parity for African-Americans
* promote equity in educational opportunity
* protect and defend voting rights
* promote a healthier nation by eliminating healthcare disparities
* achieve comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system

“We African American civil rights and social justice leaders come together on the heels of another historic election — one in which African Americans played a crucial and decisive role in securing a second term for the Obama Administration, and in the outcomes of numerous U.S. Senate, U.S. House, gubernatorial, state legislative, mayoral and other races across the nation.

“We, the undersigned organizations are bound by our common goal to protect, promote and defend the rights, well-being and opportunity of 42 million African Americans.

“As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Great March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we must have a seat at the table to fully leverage the talents, intellectual capital and contributions of our leaders to craft a domestic agenda that brings African Americans closer to parity and equality, and fulfills the promise of these milestones.”

Just as my father wanted to ensure that neighborhood merchants did not take black Harlemites’ dollars for granted, black America expects that its considerable political clout be fully appreciated as well.

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.

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