Nana Malaya’s birthday celebration

1 Oct

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My sister, Nana Malaya Oparabea, celebrated her 60th birthday in style Sunday, Sept. 30, at Busboys and Poets, in Maryland. It was an extravaganza of turquoise — her favorite color — art, culture and family, broadly defined. If you have photos from the party, send them with caption information and I will include them in the slideshow.

Samuel L. Jackson: This is no time to sleep

28 Sep

Samuel Jackson in “Do the Right Thing”

Samuel L. Jackson has been trying to get us to wake up since he played the DJ in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Twenty-three years later, he’s back at it. This time his call is grounded in a real life battle.

With 39 days till the election on Nov. 6, we all need to do our part to ensure a free and fair outcome. There are forces out there that are using every means at their disposal to suppress the vote. We must use every means necessary to make sure they don’t prevail.

Jackson makes the case as only he can. As Sam might say, let’s keep the %^&* snakes out of the *&^% White House.

Death and other rumors

16 Sep

Whenever I think about making a major purchase – anything that might require a credit check, I brace myself for responding to rumors that I am dead.

Eleven years ago after my sister Ellen-Marie died, I wrote letters to all of her creditors informing them of the sad news. Things seemed to be going smoothly until I got a very sympathetic note from American Express expressing their condolences that Elaine Ray had died.

No, no, no, no, I wrote them back. I am very much alive. Although my own card, and card activity, have ever lapsed, I am periodically asked to prove that I indeed am still among the living.

It’s a good thing I don’t live in Texas.

Two weeks ago a federal court struck down a law requiring voters in Texas to have a government issued ID in order to vote.  Texas was among several states, including my home state of Pennsylvania, that have passed voter ID laws in the name of stamping out fraud, even though they have come up short when it comes to providing data that significant voter fraud exists.

The real reason for these laws is as cynical as the Jim Crow era tests that required blacks who dared to show up at the polls to “count” the jelly beans in a jar before they could vote. It’s about power. Power in the hands of black people, Latinos, young people — anyone likely to vote to reelect President Barack Obama.

Pennsylvania’s Republican House majority leader said it best when he ran down a list of his party’s accomplishments: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to Win the state of Pennsylvania. Done.”

But back to dead people. Texas’ voter ID law may have been struck down, but its efforts to suppress the vote appear alive and well. With just weeks before the presidential election, they are purging their rolls of dead voters. No problem with that, except that many of the people who’ve been purged are not dead.

Terry Collins, a high school nurse in Houston, told National Public Radio that she received a letter indicating that she was dead and noted that other blacks she knew who also weren’t dead had received letters too. When she tried for three days to call to correct the information, she was left on hold for an hour each time.

“We’re required by law to maintain a clean and accurate voter registration list, and we’re attempting to comply with that mandate,” Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, told NPR. He added that people who got the letter who are not dead should just show up at the polls and they will be allowed to vote.

If you believe that, I have a jar of jelly beans that will test your math skills.

Still, we didn’t let the forces of disenfranchisement win then, and we can’t let them win now.

I’ve seen this before, I’ve lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote,” Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia) said at the Democratic National Convention. “And we have come too far together to ever turn back. We must march to the polls like never ever before.”

Accepting democracy in theory, while nullifying it in practice

3 Sep

 

“Democracy is predicated upon the principle of majority rule. In applying this principle to our political life, we find that our politico-economic masters have done an excellent job by accepting Democracy in theory, while they nullify it in practice. Through numerous subterfuges, such as race, poll tax, the domination of the two political parties by our economic rulers, literacy tests and other ways, democracy has been trampled under foot by a brazen but powerful minority. This minority has succeeded in dividing the majority on the bases of race, religion, sex, and what not, with the result that on election day they go to the polls, not as propertyless, exploited people seeking socioeconomic and political justice, but as white vs. blacks, good vs. bad, and so forth,” Frank Crosswaith, letter to the editor, the New York Age, Oct. 8, 1938.

One of the added delights of this research into my father’s writings is stumbling upon the voices of his colleagues and contemporaries.  For weeks, I have been looking for something that might have some historical resonance to the voter suppression activities that are taking place in 2012. I also was looking for something that might be appropriate for Labor Day.

I found a twofer, not among my father’s columns, but in a letter to the editor that ran in his paper written by Frank Crosswaith (1892-1965), a New York labor leader.  Born in what is now the U. S. Virgin Islands, Crosswaith came to New York at the age of 13 and devoted his life to improving labor conditions for workers, particularly those in Harlem.  A biography on the New York Public Library’s website describes him as “one of the most effective organizers of black workers in New York City,” during the 20s and 30s.

Though Crosswaith was based in Harlem and worked closely with unions that had significant numbers of blacks among their ranks, he also embraced and championed the cause of the white working class. He ran as the Socialist candidate for several statewide offices and although his election bids were unsuccessful, he drew strong multiracial support.

Periodically, Crosswaith and my father gave one another a nod in print. Crosswaith wrote a letter praising one of my father’s columns, which Ebenezer then printed in his Dottings space on Jan. 1, 1938. My father once singled out Crosswaith as one of the few orators who took spoke on the streets of Harlem who were worth listening to and would not massacre “the King’s English.”

In that Oct. 8 letter to the editor in the New York Age, Crosswaith singled out Sen. Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (D-South Carolina). According to Wikipedia, Smith earned his nickname while serving in the House of Representatives when he said: “Cotton is king and white is supreme.”  Smith opposed women’s suffrage, arguing that it would apply the same rights as the 15th Amendment had granted to “the other half of the Negro race.”

During the 1938 Democratic Convention, Smith walked out when he saw that a black man was going to offer the invocation.

“Some day,” Crosswaith wrote,  “we are confident the people both black and white — the poor people who work in the mills and mine, in factory, on railroads in the school houses and on the farms will get wise to the Smiths and others who have kept them consigned to a life of long hard labor, who have robbed them of their labor power, who have prevented them from getting a full view of life, who have narrowed their vision to a glimpse of life only from behind the squalid walls of the slums. Some day these people will rise up; the scales of ignorance will fall from their eyes, they will learn at last to appreciate the power which is theirs through their numbers and their vital importance to industry and agriculture. And when that day comes, the bogey of race superiority, so attractive today, will be exposed for what it is: namely a device to weaken the ranks of the Negro and the white working class and thus continue the exploitation by a clever, scheming minority. “

To Cotton Ed Smith and “others of his ilk” Crosswaith had this message:

“Have your fun while you may . . .  Today is your day. In the very nature of things yours can be but a temporary victory which the united and enlightened action of all workers irrespective of race, creed, color, sex or nationality will inevitably destroy.“

‘Won’t Back Down’ in Pittsburgh

26 Aug

“He went to my high school!” I gestured excitedly in the movie theater last night. It was during the preview of “Won’t Back Down,” a film scheduled for release in late September. The cast includes Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ving Rhames and Holly Hunter. And it also features Bill Nunn, whose father and grandfather worked with my father at the Pittsburgh Courier. Bill, well, we called him “Bubby,” also is a Morehouse grad.

Bill Nunn with Elizabeth Banks in Spider-man. Source: The Pittsburgh Courier

What I hadn’t noticed until I got home to read up on the film, is that it was shot in Pittsburgh.

And it’s about parents who take a stand to make sure their kids get the quality education they are entitled to. Gotta love that.

I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’ll try not to judge it based on the trailer, which seems pretty high on cheese.

I’ll go see it, though, just to see Bubby, who plays the school principal, and the Pittsburgh skyline, which makes my heart flutter.

Happy birthday, Cousin Irving

18 Aug

This video, made in 2005, features my mother’s “baby” cousin Irving Williams and the work he and his wife, Elvira Fenton Williams, have done with the people of Tanzania, the Gambia and other developing countries.

Irving’s educational accomplishments alone are impressive. After graduating from
Havre de Grace Colored High School in Maryland, he attended Morgan State, Howard University Medical School and the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. He did a fellowship in adolescent medicine at Harvard.

He’s a devoted husband to Elvira, and a loving father to his four accomplished children: Irving, Donna, Andrea and Michael. He’s a super grandfather, brother, uncle and cousin.

He is funny and infectiously positive, a joy to be around.

Irving spent his early career in pediatric and adolescent medicine in Milwaukee and Boston. Then in 1974 the family went to Tanzania to help establish a pediatric sickle cell clinic for the Ministry of Health there. Inspired by that experience, he and Elvira ultimately founded Adventures in Health Education and Agricultural Development (AHEAD), Inc..

Founded in 1981, AHEAD works to reduce and eliminate disease and premature death, cultivate and advance healthy living and to foster sustainable environmental activity. The organization’s programs have helped more than 1.5 million children.

Cousin Irving celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this week, and even though the video is seven years old, it remains a fitting tribute. Thank you, Cousin Irving, and many happy returns.

Alex Haley, the griot

12 Aug

“When the griot dies, it is as if the library has burned to the ground,” Alex Haley wrote in the acknowledgments to his groundbreaking book Roots.

I thought the quote made for a perfect lede to the editorial tribute I wrote in  the Boston Globe when Haley died in 1992.

My editor saw it differently.  He had never heard of the word “griot,” which refers to the person in the African village who keeps the oral history alive, whether through stories or music. At that time, the word was not in the dictionary.

Cut.

The lead  I ended up with was another quote from Haley:

“‘For the last decade. I haven’t been a writer. I’ve been the author of Roots. I’ve got to write,’ Alex Haley lamented in an interview that appears in this month’s issue of Essence magazine. Haley had just begun to do that when his life was cut short by a heart attack.”

That I managed to get Essence magazine in the lead of a Globe editorial is pretty impressive. Nevertheless, 20 years later, I still bristle at the conversation with my editor.

I also wrote that  “Roots inspired persons of all backgrounds throughout the world to research their family trees.”

True.

He also can take some credit for inspiring at least the titles of The Root and The Griot, two major blogs focused on the African American experience.

Haley would have celebrated his 91st birthday this weekend.

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