Tag Archives: harlem

Telling it like it is

8 Aug

At an outdoor concert featuring Aaron Neville in San Francisco’s Stern Grove yesterday, I was taken back to being 11 or 12 years old when  my sister Ellen-Marie asked me to pick up Neville’s first hit, “Tell it Like it Is,” from the neighborhood record store. My friend Rosalyn and I were headed there for our own 45s, probably something along the lines of the Marvelettes or the Supremes. (Rosalyn and I were part of our own junior girl group called the Trangualettes  – don’t ask – and we lip-synced a mean “Don’t Mess with Bill.”)
Rosalyn and I were barely out of  elementary school. Ellen was in high school.  And even though WAMO, the one black radio station in all of Pittsburgh, played everything from R&B to blues to jazz  —  the white radio stations didn’t play black music back then —  we didn’t really have our ears tuned to Aaron Neville . . . yet.

On Sunday, as I listened to Neville’s still silky rendition of that 1967 ballad, I searched my memory for all of Ellen’s teenage crushes and suitors. I wondered who she might have been thinking about as she played that record. It could have been that she simply knew then what we’d all come to know, Neville’s capacity to make us swoon.

Romance aside, I suspect that song spoke to Ellen-Marie because it got to the core of who she was — direct and honest. Aggravatingly so. Sometimes brutally so. And not only did she take truth-telling seriously, she did not understand why others were incapable of doing the same.

Our mother, who was often given to being coy and indirect, used to drive Ellen-Marie crazy. I’m sure I did too, as I have a tendency to bury my ledes. Editorial writing was good training for getting to the point.

Ebenezer, on the other hand, was not one to mince words. Here are some gems I’ve found so far. All are excerpts from his “Dottings of a Paragrapher” column in the New York Age.

Dec. 22, 1934:  “When the white man ‘lifts his foot off the neck’ of Negroes and when the Negro in turn lifts his own tiny foot off his own neck, when a Negro reporter, writer, cartoonist,  or etc. can go to the News office and apply for a job with the  assurance that he has the same chance as his white brother, his color regardless, then it will matter whether he is called colored, Negro,  or Aframerican.”

June 1, 1935: “Although time often permitted, I have never availed myself of the opportunity to attend the hearings of the  Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, firstly because I could never clearly see why five white men should be appointed on such a committee when it is highly improbable that even one Negro would be appointed to any committee to inquire into conditions in any white community.”  [Note: The 14-member commission, appointed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia following a 1935 race riot in Harlem, included several prominent blacks.]

May 30, 1936: “On a recent evening, what was scheduled to be an ‘all-star artist recital’ turned out to be just a parade of the ambitious, plus a little stardust.
How a promoter of this affair ever got together such a mixture is beyond imagination. It was little short of capital offense to associate the beautifully voiced Doris Trotman-Earle and Constance Berksteiner White with some of the other untutored apologies for singers. It was little short of a capital offense to place one sartorial blunder, in particular, on any program. He murdered ‘Then You’ll Remember Me’ — and all who had to listen to him certainly will.
Liberal applause followed all the efforts. It must have been admiration for their ‘nerve’ — or maybe the audience was made up mainly of relatives.”

Ouch! Ellen-Marie got it honest.

What’s a mother to do?

7 May

Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity sponsored a lecture featuring Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture on May 5.

Recently, Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, gave a talk at Stanford about the challenges he has faced as he develops the museum, which is scheduled to be completed in 2015.  Bunch talked about the “treasures” people often bring him as potential items for the museum’s collection.

Bunch told the story of a pillowcase someone brought him that had been passed among family members for several generations. The pillowcase was embroidered by an enslaved African American woman who had just learned the day before that she would be sold.

The embroidery was a message to her daughter:

“In this pillowcase, you will find a dress, you will find some biscuits, but what you will find is that it’s filled with my love. And though I may never see you again, always know how close you are to my heart. “

According to Bunch, that mother never saw her daughter again.

Bunch’s story put into perspective all the chatter about tiger and helicopter moms. There’s even a new one, snowplow parents  – who try to move all the difficulties out of their children’s lives.  I used to say that most of my black friends thought I was a pushover when it came to parenting and many of my white friends thought I was too tough. I’m not sure what my other friends thought.  In the end, all of our children have made us pretty damn proud.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thande Newton in "Beloved." Winfrey is a member of the advisory board of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In an age when everybody’s got an opinion about how children should be raised, protected, nurtured, etc., the pillowcase story makes it all seem so silly. Who among us would have had the resolve to embroider that farewell before being sold to another slave owner?  Or who would not have been tempted to do what Sethe did in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

Maybe this is a downer as Mother’s Day approaches.  It’s not meant to be.  It’s intended to be a tribute to mothers who, under the worst and best circumstances, did and do their best with every ounce of what they have.  Here’s to our mothers, who made sure we had clothes on our backs and something to eat and who stitched together a legacy of love that has sustained us through generations.

On a more uplifting note, and speaking of generations, here’s what my father wrote for Mother’s Day in 1937.

The New York Age, May 8, 1937

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. marries an actress

15 Mar

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is sworn in to the New York City Council by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. From left, Joe Ford; Powell's mother, Mattie; Powell; Powell's wife, Isabel; Powell's father, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and La Guardia, January 1942. Copyright All rights reserved by La Guardia and Wagner Archives

On  this day in 1933, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the assistant minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church (The church where my ex and I married, by the way) wedded  a “showgirl” named Isabel Washington.
According to my former Boston Globe colleague and Powell biographer Wil Haygood, the relationship caused a stir. “The older deacons recoiled, as did his father. Showgirls stayed out late, danced with gangsters, drank gin. Adam Junior knew better. There were veiled threats that his father would not give him money.”
In  my dad’s  “Xcuse Me” column published three days after the wedding, you have to get to the penultimate paragraph before he even mentions the names “Adam” and “Is,” but it is clear before then who the column is about.
By the way, in Roman mythology, Jupiter Pluvius was the rain-giver who ended droughts.
I didn’t have any luck finding a photograph of the wedding, but I did find this photo from Powell’s swearing in to the New York City Council in 1942.  That was in nine years after the wedding.  From the look on his mother’s face, she still had not gotten over it. :)

The New York Age, March 18, 1933

‘Lady Lorraine’: Mystery solved

31 Jan

In a column my father published Feb. 10,  1934, he devotes the last paragraph to a young girl he refers to as “Lady Lorraine.” In honor of her ninth birthday, Ebenezer waxed on about her “ladylike qualities,” her accomplishments in the classroom and her big feet. He wrote that she “threatens to outGarbo Garbo’s legendary feet.” How rude, particularly considering that Lorraine was his landlord’s daughter.

Initially, when I posted that column, I was rather curious about who Lorraine was and whether she was some long lost half-sibling. Then I remembered that the 1930 Census record I found a few months ago lists my father as a “lodger”  in the home of Glantis Harris, his wife, Edith, son Harcourt and daughter Lorraine. She was five at the time of the Census, so turning nine four years later makes it all add up.

They lived at 434 St. Nicholas Ave. in New York. The rent for the entire place — I assume it was an apartment since there were other families listed at that address  — was $80! In addition to my father, the other lodgers included Irving Hines, also a printer from Barbados, and a Philip Carrera, who is listed as a musician from Trinidad.

(By the way: He would later marry a woman who sported a size 11 shoe, and two of his three daughters  — not including yours truly  — had feet like their mother.)

‘Emperor Jones,’ ‘Huck Finn’ and that ‘n’ word

23 Jan

Last week, I weighed in on the debate about the novel Huckleberry Finn in my colleague Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven. There’s a current debate over a new edition of the novel in which the word “nigger” is replaced by the word “slave.” While the intention is noble, I think it misses the point.

My argument is that those who teach the novel need to be fully aware of what they are teaching, the feelings the novel and the word “nigger” evoke and the specific classroom context they find themselves teaching in.

The debate over the use of the word is not new. My father wrote about it in the column below in 1933. He did not mention Huckleberry Finn, but he referred to the repeated use of the word in Eugene O’Neill‘s  Emperor Jones, the 1933 film version of which featured Paul Robeson in the lead.

“Brutus, or Emperor Jones, an obviously uncultured Negro, rises from obscurity in his nation’s South to the dizzy heights of self-appointed Emperor. He makes his way [as] a Pullman Porter, a gambler, a member of a chain gang, a coal passer on a steamer, a bartered slave – and even leaves a few murders in his wake. In his ascent he encounters no institutions of learning – his vocabulary is broken and ungrammatical from the onset – yet Negroes expect the word ‘Negro’ in his uncultured diction. . . . Harlemites don’t have to go to see Emperor Jones to hear the profuse use of the objectionable word, just pass by any group of street-corner loafers, or listen carefully from your apartment window.”

He noted that in Barbados, it was the speaker  – not the spoken to  – who was looked upon as uncultured when the word was used. He took issue with  one of his fellow New York Age columnists, who was Jamaican, who generalized that in the West Indies the word was used to refer to the black laborer.

“He has made the same mistake so many of us make – that of characterizing a West Indian by his knowledge of his own native brethren. There are scores of tropical islands and a few colonies, and there are also a few noticeably different though minor traits in each island’s group. In Barbados – and we have them – a Negro laborer is known as a “laborer,” and not as a nigger.
Thousands of Negroes must have lived and died in the island of Barbados without the regretful realization that he was a Negro. Without a doubt we have our racial handicaps, but the fact is not repeatedly thrust down our throats. Our financial status – or lack of it – seems our greatest handicap. A printer is a printer not because he is a Negro, but generally because he as not financially able to be what he might consider better . . . ” (I wonder if he was referring to himself.)

One of the comments on the Book Haven discussion, accused those of us who were concerned about teaching and reading Huckleberry Finn of hypocrisy.

The reader said,  “many who defend the unlimited freedom of artists to create graphically sexual and blasphemous photos at public expense in the name of freedom of speech and against the bugabear of censorship (even though these images hurt and offend many) now seem willing to bend the same principles, for what? Because some people will be hurt and offended by the N word? And the people who will be hurt and offended are who? The same people who listen to music whose lyrics use the N word constantly?Anybody besides me see this as a huge contradiction?”

Talk about generalizations! Is this person suggesting that all of the people who are offended by the use of “nigger’ in Huckleberry Finn are not offended by the use of the word in rap lyrics? Black people have been conflicted about the use of the word in the public sphere for decades. Remember when Richard Pryor came back from Africa and vowed never to use the word again?

Robeson himself stopped singing the word in renditions of  Showboat‘s “Ol’ Man River” that he performed in recitals. (He did not change the lyrics when he appeared in Showboat productions.)  In those recitals, he replaced he word “nigger” with “darkies.”   “Colored folks,” has been used in revivals of Showboat since the mid 40s.

Ebenezer was of the mind that if black folks stopped using the word, perhaps others would stop using it too.

“When Negroes cease to include the word ‘nigger’ in their vocabulary, white playwrights may rally to the cause and exclude it from their scripts,” my father writes. “How soon will that be? How soon? We prefer not to think.”

How about 77 years and counting?

The New York Age, October 7, 1933

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