Kaara Baptiste’s first assignment

12 Jan

Last summer when Kaara Baptiste asked for my advice about getting into journalism, I refrained from telling the young Stanford graduate to run as fast as she could from a field that seems to be on life support.

What I did suggest was that she get out there and write, do some freelancing.  I don’t remember whether it was Baptiste or I who first introduced the idea of  contacting  Henrietta Burroughs, a tireless wonder who publishes East Palo Alto Today, a community newspaper.  It was Baptiste who followed up with Burroughs and landed her first assignment: Me.

Here’s a link to the article, “Journalist Elaine Ray finds her roots.”

Great job, Kaara.

‘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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Langston Hughes, my father, Joseph Stalin and Jesus

23 Dec

I don’t yet know what my father thought of Langston Hughes‘ work in general, or whether their circles crossed in Harlem. But just after  Christmas Day in 1940, Ebenezer had some choice words for one of  Hughes’ most controversial poems, titled Goodbye Christ. Here’s the poem:

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day, I reckon—
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible—
But it’s dead now,
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers—
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s Church,
Even to THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
You ain’t no good no more.
They’ve pawned you
Till you’ve done wore out.

Goodbye,
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all—
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME—
I said, ME!
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Not a different government, but a better one

11 Dec

Since Wednesday, Dec. 7, the 70th anniversary of  Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, I’ve been trying to get to the library to see what my father wrote about the bombing and/or the United State’s entry into World War II.

Here’s what he wrote in a column published in the New York Age Dec. 20, 1941:

“The war which has engulfed all Europe for the past two years and brought about the downfall of about five times as many nations, has come to these United States. At times it has been said to be a white man’s war, but more often it has been conceded to be a war which effects all peoples. The latter is especially true at this time.

“Japan, in its tri-partite alliance with Mr. Hitler and Il Duce, is the one to strike the blow; her two partners in crime join the fracas with expected precision. Mr. Hitler has designs on dominating the world in what he calls a ‘new order,’ which is the same old slavery humans have known down the ages dressed up in twentieth century clothes. Mr. Hitler includes all peoples of the world in his new order, and that includes Japan and Italy which, because of its military weakness and Mussolini’s gullibility, is already under Hitler’s heel. He includes the people of the U.S.  because the ultra-freedom they enjoy would have psychological effect on his slaves in Europe.  They would yearn for the same things.”

Ebenezer takes on fellow columnist George Schuyler, who apparently continued to view Hitler as little different from imperialist Britain.  In the early years of the war, many other black journalists had urged America to not throw stones at Hitler while injustice marred its own glass house. Many changed their minds when U.S. Navy ships were  attacked.
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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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‘It can only get better from here’

24 Oct

The other day someone asked me if I was worried that my daughter, Zuri Adele, was pursuing a career as an actress. It’s a question I get a lot. And as always, I responded with a confident no. I’m not. For one thing, she’s talented. For another she works hard. She’s smart, and she’s not going to starve. And, besides, it’s not as if I could discourage her if I wanted to.

( Hair by Kim Alladice-Paul)

Our family is full of people with artists’ souls who chose more “practical” paths out of necessity. I believe she has what it takes to make it.

I admit that today’s news that Tyler Perry had cast Kim Kardashian in his next movie gave me pause, but I recalled the advice veteran producer Reuben Cannon gave Zuri a few weeks ago during a talk at Morehouse College. Zuri asked Cannon what serious actors should do to survive when they are competing for attention with reality stars and people who are famous for being famous. Cannon’s advice was not to worry about them. Focus on the craft, he said. Excellence will win out in the end.
Last Spring, Zuri attended the Cannes Film Festival as an intern with Creative Minds in Cannes. In this video montage, Zuri gets the last word: “It can only get better from here,” she says.

Let’s all hold that thought.

Cannes 2011 Teaser from Sarah Wilson Thacker on Vimeo.

Flash mobs and family trees

11 Oct

It’s Sunday morning. We’re standing outside Highland Bakery in midtown Atlanta waiting for our brunch party to arrive. We tell the hostess there will be eight. Then comes a text. Better make that 10. Another text: How about a dozen? Text: Can we add two more? Four more? After a while I lose count.

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We make our own family reunions. Wherever. On the spot. Sunday’s was a melange of the Williams, the Rays, the Alladices and the Cains. From Atlanta, Macon, D.C., Stanford, Chicago.

“So how is he/she related?” He’s my mother’s cousin Otto’s son. That’s cousin Catherine’s granddaughter. Byron’s daughter. Judy’s daughter. Ricky’s daughter. Darryl’s sister. Joy and Jasper’s eldest. Then there were the godchildren, the boyfriends, the sister/girlfriends and ex-girlfriends who will always be family.

The hostess finally said, “We’re never going to be able to seat you at one table.”
No problem. We hope it is always like this: a family capable of its own flash mob.

***

And speaking of family trees, if you are in the Atlanta area next weekend, be sure to check out Tree at the Horizon Theater. Written by award-winning writer Julie Hébert, Tree is a masterfully crafted, complex tale about family ties – those we know about, those we come upon by accident and those that have been purposely kept in the closet with the skeletons.

Tree is a story about letters. Love letters, written between a young white man named Ray and a young black woman, Jessalyn, in the 50s. A love so tender, so pure and naive that the young lovers were willing to defy Jim Crow and every other southern Louisiana convention to be together. Well, nearly every convention. Ultimately, they couldn’t make it work. So they buried their dream and moved on.

But memory, like love, is a hard thing to suppress.

When Ray dies and his adult daughter, Didi, finds hundreds of Jessalyn’s letters, she tracks down Jessalyn, by then living in Chicago, her mind ravaged by dementia. She wants the letters her father has written to Jessalyn so she can complete that 50-year-old conversation.

The story had the potential to be overwrought and full of clichés. But in the hands of Hébert and with fine acting and directing, the language is poetic, even at its most profane. The characters are authentic and the story intriguing.

Tree runs Wednesday, Oct. 12 through Sunday, Oct. 16, at Horizon Theatre 1083 Austin Avenue NE, corner of Euclid and Austin Avenues.
The cast includes Donna Briscoe, Megan Hayes, Geoffrey D. Williams and Joy Brunson and is directed by Lisa Adler.
Here’s a clip:

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