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:

The death penalty debate

1 Oct

At Troy Davis’ funeral today, activist Dick Gregory asked those in attendance to say a prayer or meditation every day at noon that capital punishment will cease.

“You can’t pick and choose when you’re dealing with God’s children,” Gregory said.

Gregory demonstrated that conviction on Sept. 21, when rather than protest outside of the Georgia prison where Davis was executed, he was in Texas, holding an anti-execution vigil outside of the prison where Lawrence Russell Brewer was put to death.

Davis, convicted in the murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer, was executed by the State of Georgia for a murder in which there was no physical evidence tying him to the 1989 crime and in which seven of nine witnesses recanted all or portions of their testimonies.

Brewer was one of three white supremacists convicted in the gruesome 1998 lynching of James Byrd.  Brewer also was executed Sept. 21.

I have spent the past week trying to decide whether I could have stood beside Gregory in Texas.  I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is that no one should be executed in cases like Davis’ in which there remains lots of “reasonable doubt.”

My father, who spent a good part of his career covering court proceedings in Harlem, supported the death penalty. He was convinced it was a deterrent.

“Capital punishment for ruthless murderers should stand until something better supplants it . . . . I think somewhere in Genesis we read: Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed,”  Ebenezer Ray wrote in a column in 1934.

Whether my father changed his views later in life, I have no clue. But even he might agree that Troy Davis’ guilt had not been proved and therefore capital punishment was not appropriate in that case.

Based on his writings about Southern lynchings and the railroading of the Scottsboro Boys, I can assume Ebenezer would have been pleased to know that Brewer and his ilk were headed for the death chamber. But then again, it is likely that when my father was writing in the 1930s and 40s, no one would have even been arrested for Byrd’s heinous murder. No doubt, he would have had a lot to say about that.

I would like to think I am one of those who believe that all life is sacred and that as a civilized society we shouldn’t put anyone to death. But I wasn’t unhappy when Navy Seals blew Osama bin Laden’s brains out. But maybe the rules are different in times of war.

Back in September of 1934, my dad engaged in a fierce war of words over the death penalty with a reader, George Streator,  who accused Ebenezer of being a “muddled reactionary.”  I have to admit, Streator’s description was on point, and his views on the death penalty were more in line with mine.

“Capital punishment will not check murder in America, any more than lynching as a means of keeping Negroes in their places is effective except against the individual. Both the instances cited are instruments of the herd.  In the matter of capital punishment, the herd is sanctioned by the law. In the matter of lynching, the herd invokes its own law. Both are sadistic outbursts,”  Streator wrote.

Check out the debate between George Streator and Ebenezer Ray.

Dearest Ellen-Marie, Where did 10 years go?

25 Sep

Looking for a way to mark the 10-year anniversary of my eldest sister Ellen-Marie’s death, I looked to my father’s column’s for wisdom and inspiration.

On a couple of occasions in honoring the dead, his inspiration came from Thanatopsis, said to be the most famous work of  romantic poet William Cullen Bryant.   It must have hit home for my father;  he  included the poem’s final stanza in a column he wrote after his mother died in 1936. He used it again several years later when honoring the death of a colleague’s mother.

The New York Age, September 5, 1936

My reading of Thanatopsis is that Bryant’s point is that death and dying are part of  life’s natural cycle, to which all of us will succumb.  And when we do, we will join the company of  the wise and the good.  We should not fear death, but live life fully so that when our time comes we will enjoy our eternal rest.

This is not really much consolation when you are in the throes of grief.  When I got that 3 a.m. call on Sept. 25, 2001, that Ellen had died of a heart attack in her sleep, leaving two children and a whole host of other family members and friends, I spent the following days and months alternately wanting to die and fearing that I would.

A decade does give you some perspective. And if tragedy teaches you anything, it is that you must put one foot in front of the other and press on, celebrating life’s abundance every day.

In the last stanza of Thanatopsis, Bryant wrote:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
That innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like a quarry-slave at night
Scourged to this dungeon; but sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him. and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Dearest, Ellen-Marie,

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.

Rest in paradise.

Happy Birthday, Sis

17 Sep

Today is my sister Malaya’s birthday. She is my parents’ second born, a dancer, storyteller, stage mother, earth mother – an artist in every sense of the word. It was preordained. Before she was Nana Malaya Rucker-Oparabea, the name she uses now, she was Marian, named for Marian Anderson.

Marian-Malaya Rucker-Oparabea

I always knew my mother revered the renowned contralto. My mother  admired Anderson’s quiet dignity in the face of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who refused let Anderson sing before an integrated audience in Washington’s Constitution Hall.  To my mother,  Anderson’s victorious concert on Easter Sunday 1939, before  a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial was a milestone in black history.

But for my father the connection may have been more personal. Marian Anderson was  his contemporary. They were both born at the end of the 19th century.  I believe he was smitten.

“With scores of her elated and admiring auditors standing at the footlights literally drinking the melodious strains which flowed from the fountain of her golden voice, Marian Anderson, internationally acclaimed contralto, sang a farewell number on Sunday evening last, he wrote in a review that appeared on the front page of the New York Age on May 14, 1938. “This was Miss Anderson’s final appearance in America this season and was given at the Carnegie Hall.”

After that concert, my father wrote, well wishers “of both races then repaired to her dressing room to shake hands with her and tender their congratulations. She was presented with a beautiful bouquet of tea roses.”  I suppose he witnessed this firsthand. (Did he offer the roses?)

In a Nov. 13, 1943 review of a Pittsburgh concert, also written for the New York Age, Ebenezer called Anderson the “world’s greatest contralto.”

“Miss Anderson was in excellent voice and charmingly gowned,” he wrote. His only complaint was that the “motley” Pittsburgh audience was too subdued.  Yes, there were plenty of compliments from the audience as they left Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, where the performance was held.

“To this erstwhile New Yorker, however, two things were missing from this recital. There were no shouts of ‘Bravo’ from the ‘peanut gallery,’ which was only two tiers up, and there were no American Beauty roses, nor orchids. In brief, Miss Anderson received no flowers. But this is Pittsburgh!”

Ebenezer would come to love, or at least accept, Pittsburgh. He would fall in love with my mother and out of that love would come three daughters, the second of whom was born on this date.

Malaya is very different from her namesake. She leans more toward classical African and Caribbean beats than Scarlatti or Schubert. Of course, these two women came of age in different times. I can only imagine what Malaya would have told the DAR. She might have even taken over the stage.

I’ve often wondered why the only one of the three of us who was named after a historical figure would change her name. The answer is simple. Malaya always has been, and will forever be, her own person.

Happy Birthday, Malaya!

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