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.

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?

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