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.

Olympic flashback

29 Jul

During the 1936 Summer Olympic Games, James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens won four gold medals in Berlin: He came in first in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump and was part of the 4×100-meter relay team that also took gold. Owens’ success was a poke in the eye of Adolf Hitler, who had hoped the 1936 games would serve as a showcase his Aryan propaganda.

The column below, published Aug. 15, 1936, my father chided Hitler, whom he described as a “one-time Austrian house painter” and a “pervert,” who snubbed Owens. He cited news reports that while Hitler had “received and congratulated in his private quarters the German winners, he was conspicuously absent from his box when the occasion arose that he should extend similar felicitations to the American Negro winners.”

It remains unclear whether the reports of Hitler’s snub are true. The LA Times recently included the story as one of the “Top Ten Olympic Controversies.”

“Perhaps the most enduring myth of the Olympic Games is that Adolf Hitler refused to extend a congratulatory handshake to Jesse Owens, a claim for which Olympic historians have found no supporting evidence. It is clear that Hitler was neither pleased nor impressed by the four gold medals Owens won, even as the German crowd cheered him loudly and mobbed him for pictures and autographs. As Owens pierced the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority, his home country acted with regrettable caution, replacing two Jewish sprinters on the U.S. team. Owens got a hero’s welcome upon returning home, yet as a black man he had to ride the freight elevator to a New York hotel reception in his honor.”

My father’s Aug. 15 column was published the week my grandmother, Malvina Alkins, died. Guest columnists appear in the “Dottings” space in the two issues that followed.

“It is not news to those of you that read Mr. Ray’s columns that he has been an inspiration for many men who later found success in the field of journalism,” wrote Romeo Dougherty, whose bio describes him as a “well-known sports and theatrical writer.”

“To be considered worthy to take his place for even a week makes me feel that I have not labored in vain…,” he wrote in a guest column published Aug. 22, 1936.

“In the splendid showing of our boys in the Olympic Games,” Dougherty added, “we have practically sapped the climax and proved conclusively that we are worthy of being considered in every branch of athletics we seek to enter.”

Today, athletes spanning the African diaspora are representing countries across the world, including Germany.

Immigration nation

4 Jul

“Immigrants signed their names to our Declaration and helped win our independence.  Immigrants helped lay the railroads and build our cities, calloused hand by calloused hand.  Immigrants took up arms to preserve our union, to defeat fascism, and to win a Cold War.  Immigrants and their descendants helped pioneer new industries and fuel our Information Age, from Google to the iPhone.  So the story of immigrants in America isn’t a story of ‘them,’ it’s a story of ‘us.’  It’s who we are.  And now, all of you get to write the next chapter,” President Barack Obama told a group of active-duty service members as he presided over their naturalization ceremony earlier Wednesday.

The ceremony set the perfect tone on Independence Day 2012. As a poisonous strain of anti-immigrant fever runs high in some quarters, the President’s remarks are a powerful reminder that America’s story is at its core the story of immigration.

But it is a complex story; one that the country has been struggling with for decades.

In 1934, one of my father’s fellow New York Age columnists Vere Johns, wrote albeit a bit less delicately:

“Shortly after the Great War, the United States decided that her gates should be closed but for a little crevice where she would allow a few people to slip in each year. In other words, she would keep as many aliens out as possible. But after fourteen years of that policy they are fearing that it was a big mistake and in some way responsible for the depression we are now trying to emerge from . . . .

Speaking of Americans, it is hard to find them. The first ones we claimed to be the Indians and they probably came from somewhere else; then came the Spaniards, followed by the Mayflower boatload of adventurers with no more blue blood in their veins than a cat has. Later came, or rather were dragged here, the Africans, and since then, every country has contributed its quota from Malay to Ireland. The country is one cosmopolitan racial hash, and just try to pick out a pure strain. If everyone were to go back to the land of their origin, all that would be left here is the fleas and the skunks.

But every single one of these groups has made great contributions to the building up of America into one of the world’s greatest and richest nations. America would have been a poor and desolate country with a small population, vast areas of uninhabited land and in a third-rate position,” the Jamaican-born Johns wrote.

My father chronicled his own path to citizenship. In one column published on March 3, 1934, he wrote about the hurdles immigrants scaled to become citizens  — the fees, the educational requirements and some seemingly arbitrary hoops:

“Why all the red tape in a time of peace? We learn that in a time of war ‘citizenship’ is distributed for the asking — the reasons being obvious,”Ebenezer wrote, noting that within just a few years the fees for the process had increased from $5 to $20.

“The educational requirements matter but little to English-speaking Negroes, able to read and write. The questions usually asked are “’What do you know about Abraham Lincoln?’ ‘Who makes the state laws?’ And this writer was asked in addition ‘How many stars are in the American flag? The careful perusal and retention of the contents of a 25 cents book on ‘How to Become a Citizen’ generally solve the educational requirements of becoming a citizen. But there are greater encumbrances and if the theory that that which is easily got is little valued,  citizenship should be valued.”

He goes on to chronicle his path: When he initially tries to begin the process, it’s during a presidential election year. He’s told to come back after the election. On the appointed day, he returns and declares his intention to denounce King George V. He waits three more years, fulfilling the five-year U.S. residency requirement. When it’s finally time for him to make his application, he brings with him two witnesses who can vouch for his character. But one has only known him for three and a half years – the requirement was five. His application rejected, he had to start the process again.  My father arrived at Ellis Island in the autumn of 1923. He became a citizen in the spring of 1930.

Luckily my father was continuously employed, even during the worst periods of the Great Depression. There was talk back then of denying pubic assistance to non-citizens and there were threats to deport them.

So nothing that he went through comes close to what some immigrants face today and the “encumbrances” he described don’t even come close to the sacrifices made by the 25 individuals who were sworn in at the White House Wednesday.

“All of you did something profound,” Obama said. “You chose to serve.  You put on the uniform of a country that was not yet fully your own. In a time of war, some of you deployed into harm’s way.  You displayed the values that we celebrate every Fourth of July — duty, responsibility and patriotism.”

Amen.

Race and casting on the Great White Way

30 Jun

Could an all-white cast ever pull off an August Wilson play?

It’s a provocative question that might not be answered for a few decades.

New Yorker theater critic John Lahr raised the issue last December when he set the blogosphere atwitter suggesting that black casts should not attempt Tennessee Williams’ work.

“And no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson,” Lahr posted as part of his Christmas wish list on the New Yorker‘s culture blog.

The late Wilson probably would have agreed with Lahr, but for the producers and the multiracial cast of A Streetcar Named Desire currently playing on Broadway, Lahr’s comments were fighting words.

Blair Underwood, who plays the brutish Stanley in the production, said, “Having a multicultural cast is analogous to marrying some people’s daughters, because they don’t want it. But that’s OK. That’s what progress looks like, and progress is never easy.”

Nicole Ari Parker, who pretty well nails her Broadway debut as Blanche DuBois, said of Lahr’s comments: “I kind of respect his courage in a way. To come out in 2011 or 12, and say such a dismissive, kind of uninformed racial comment, he’s putting it on the table. The only way we can really affect any kind of change is if this white critic really tells how he feels, and he did.”

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Looking back on some old issues of my father’s paper, The New York Age, it seems like deja vu all over again.

In 1938, Wilella Waldorf of the New York Post, wrote that putting on the Mikado “with a cast of Negroes is just about as silly as it would be if the British Government were to revive Porgy and Bess in London’s West End with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the title roles.”

The editors of the Age called Waldorf’s column, an “asinine effusion.”

The irony is that the Mikado is set in Japan and the Japanese characters were played by white actors.

My father did not weigh in on Waldorf’s comments, but apparently enjoyed the 1938 Broadway production of Swing Mikadowith its “torso shaking of the beefy girls and the terpsichorean efforts of the more petite ones . . . ” In 1939 another all-black production The Hot Mikado opened on Broadway. Someone apparently liked the idea.

I think Ebenezer would have enjoyed this version of Streetcar. He often complained about the dearth of black casts on Broadway’s stages. He would have been pleased by the fact that several current Broadway hits have significant black casts  -  The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Memphis, Clybourne Park. In addition, James Earl Jones plays a former U.S. president in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, a play set in 1960. (Talk about colorblind casting!) Corbin Bleu is playing the role of Jesus in Godspell, and Raven Symoné has the lead in Sister Act.

My father also complained in the 30s and 40s that few black folks supported the theater, even in Harlem. I can’t speak for Harlem venues today, but black theater goers packed the house during last Saturday’s Streetcar matinée.

Streetcar is definitely worth the price of the ticket. I enjoyed seeing screen actors Underwood, Parker and Wood Harris bring their talents to the stage. The cast also included a number of Broadway veterans, including Daphne Rubin-Vega, Count Stovall and Carmen de Lavallade. Terrence Blanchard composed the music.

Knowing some of the history of Louisiana, it was not a stretch to imagine that the fair-skinned black DuBois sisters could descend from wealthy Louisiana landowners. I admit that I shivered reflexively every time Blanche referred to Stanley as an ape. I had to remind myself that Williams did not have a black man in mind when he wrote those words.

But back to my original question: Could/should an all-white cast ever perform an August Wilson play?

Wilson was an outspoken critic of colorblind casting. He advocated instead for more support of black playwrights.

“To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigation from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our present, our difficult but honorable history in America; is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large,” Wilson said.

I wonder, though, if there are not universal truths in Wilson’s examinations of the black experience that might someday resonate with others. Why not a Fences with a white family or an adaptation of Jitney featuring Puerto Rican or Dominican livery drivers?

Would Congress pass Father’s Day today?

16 Jun

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Ebenezer didn’t seem to have much to say about Father’s Day. He didn’t acknowledge it in his columns. He never mentions his own father — whose name, Joseph Ray, I have had to glean from his marriage licenses. He doesn’t utter the name of his stepfather (He might not have liked that term; let’s say his mother’s husband) James Alkins, whose name I found by piecing together information from obituaries and death certificates. And since he was not a father at the time of his New York Age writings — and would not become one until he was 50 years old — he didn’t have any first-person insight to offer.

When I look at the history of Father’s Day, it makes more sense. Although Mother’s Day gained full recognition in the United States in 1914, Father’s Day would not gain equal status until 1972, when President Richard Nixon made it a permanent national holiday.

The effort to recognize fathers began in 1910 by Sonora Smart Dodd. Her father, William Jackson Smart, a Union Army veteran who reared his six children in Spokane, Wash. after his wife died in childbirth, deserved more props, Sonora thought. After hearing a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, Sonora told her pastor that fathers should have a similar holiday. According to Wikipedia, she initially suggested her father’s birthday, June 5, but the pastors didn’t have enough time to prepare their sermons, and the celebration was deferred to the third Sunday of June.

So what happened between 1910 and 1972? Politics, according to Wikipedia.

A bill to accord national recognition of the holiday was introduced in Congress in 1913. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson went to Spokane to speak in a Father’s Day celebration and wanted to make it official, but Congress resisted, fearing that it would become commercialized. President Calvin Coolidge, [a Democrat] recommended in 1924 that the day be observed by the nation, but stopped short of issuing a national proclamation. Two earlier attempts to formally recognize the holiday had been defeated by Congress. In 1957, Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith [a Republican] wrote a proposal accusing Congress of ignoring fathers for 40 years while honoring mothers, thus “[singling] out just one of our two parents.” In 1966, [Democratic] President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day. Six years later, the day was made a permanent national holiday when [Republican] President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972.

It’s a good thing. Can you imagine the current Congress trying to pass a law recognizing Father’s Day? I can just imagine House Speaker John Boehner insisting that President Obama was trying to gain political advantage by spending time with Sasha and Malia. Donald Trump would probably insist that the president’s daughters are not really his.

Of course, I’m just being silly. I hope . . .

But when we despair over the attempts to pass campaign finance reform or a jobs bill or to hold on to the Affordable Care Act, keep in mind that it took Washington 60 years to fully recognize Father’s Day.

Have a happy one!

Harlem Jubilee

3 Jun

I love this emblem, “ER” of course stands for Elizabeth Regina,” but my father and I also share these initials.

My father would have loved all the pomp and circumstance associated with Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. After all, before he was a naturalized American, he was technically a Brit.
Apparently, he was not the only Harlemite with an affinity for the Crown. In 1937, a year after King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, ascended to the throne, folks on this side of the Pond went all out to reenact the Coronation Day celebration taking place in Great Britain.

In a column published in the New York Age on May 21, 1937, my father wrote:

“On Wednesday evening last (May 12) British patriotism reared its head in no uncertain terms here in Harlem when approximately four thousand persons, motley as motley is, descendants of British soil and their descendants, jammed the spacious Rockland Palace, where a Coronation Ball and Pageant was held under sponsorship of the Church of St. Ambrose, of which the Rev. E. Elliott Durant is rector.

Sir Gerald Campbell, British Counsel General, Lady Campbell and an official and family entourage added distinguished patronage.
National colors flew liberally from the gallery of the casino. The Union Jack was there, no doubt. . . .

Conservative and discriminating faces looked down from the gallery at the horde of dancers below. For this night they were Britain’s aristocracy, the dancers below the proletariat.

As one observed the revelry of the fashionably dressed ladies and their escorts, and the occasional greeting of friends, one was inclined to ask whether it was patriotism that prompted the turnout, or just another social affair. But when the rafters of the casino literally shook with legion voices raised in singing the British National Anthem, followed by Rule Britannia, one quickly concluded that when origin of birth is accentuated, the span between it and the land of one’s adoption is brief, very brief. The singing of the Star-Spangled Banner climaxed this song fest.

It was long after midnight when the replica of the Coronation took place. Preceded by a procession of ‘representatives’ of various colonies, Gordon Ward, by selection of the church, was bestowed the paraphernalia befitting a King. The Queen was represented by Mrs. Ulrica Baird, chorister. Mrs. Baird’s selection was by acquisition of 1,340 votes. Her closest runner-up was Miss Alma Simmons, ‘Queen of Scotland’ with 1,228 votes. Murcott Wiltshire, lay reader, essayed the role of Archbishop. Africa was not forgotten, as Acolyte Charles Cheesman, portraying Haile Selassie, received a rousing ovation from the spectators.”

Ebenezer goes on to quote Rev. Durant, a native of Barbados, who said:

“’It is joy unspeakable to me to address you on this most joyful occasion, which comes to us once in a generation. Once we were Britishers and now we are Americans. But because we were good Britishers, we are now better Americans.’”

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