Tag Archives: journalism

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.

The Maryland, D.C. connection

17 Apr The Williams house on the Farm

Recently,  I left what my father would have referred to as an unkind “Jupiter Pluvius” behind in California to attend a professional meeting in D. C. While I was in the area, I took a bit of a trip down memory lane. My first stop was a visit with my oldest friend, Melana – we’ve known each other since we were eight  –  and her husband Derek. Then I hung out with my niece M’Balia and her sons, Shomari and (Little) Ron. M’Balia and I drove up to Havre de Grace, Maryland, where my mother spent many a summer with her cousins   – the Williams branch of the family. This family of 10 kids was legendary in our household.

Clockwise from top row, My mother's cousins Mildred, Irving and Ruth, my niece M'Balia, yours truly, Cousin Jimmy, husband of Cousin Catherine (seated next to him), Cousins Eva and Mary.

They grew up on a farm on Old Robin Hood Road.  Their mother, Hattie,  and my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, were brother and sister. The Williams’s were highly educated with doctoral, medical and other professional degrees many, but not all, from historically black institutions. And they called my mother “Willie,” short for Wilhelmina, her middle name. This probably had to do with the fact that there were a lot of Marys on both sides of the family.  When M’Balia and I made our plans to visit the farm in Havre de Grace, we expected to visit with the three cousins who now live in the house they grew up in and their sister, Catherine, who built a home on the land after she and her husband, Jimmy, retired.  But they must have sent out the word, because every living sibling showed up to greet us. They shared family stories, read this blog with fascination and encouragement, cheered on M’Balia, who was on the cusp of earning her first degree in criminal justice with high honors. And they insisted on treating us to lunch.

I found out some things: Why their eldest sister, Ruth, was not listed on the 1930 census document I found. (She was already married and had left home.)

I also learned that my mother’s nuclear family was the second for her father. That John Henry had had a first marriage and that I  have a living cousin named Rosie  I never knew existed.

The Williams house on the Farm

As for my father, my mother’s cousin Eva said, surprisingly, that she had only met him once, when he and my mother came for a visit to the farm. “He was very quiet,” she recalled.

On to D. C. I had a chance to visit with my friend Laurence, who I met when I first came to Stanford in 1995. Back then,  her oldest son, Benjamin, and my daughter, Zuri, were just five years old. The last time I’d seen Laurence, she and I, her husband, Michel, and their daughter, Chloé, braved the frigid January weather to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration.

And speaking of  D. C., I found this column my father wrote following his first visit to the nation’s capital in the fall of 1934. Unlike the chilly but glorious weather I enjoyed the weekend I was there, he saw the city on what sounds like a particularly rainy day.
I wonder what he would have thought about the fact that the nation has its first black president. I passed the Old Executive Office Building, which he mentions was under construction in 1934 and is covered with scaffolding today.

“Washington, with its tree-bedecked boulevards, is a beautiful city  – even on a rainy day,” Ebenezer wrote.  “Au revoir, I hope not goodbye.”

Questioning Clarence Thomas’ compassion, again

3 Apr

Last week, a majority in the U. S. Supreme Court rubbed salt in a decades-old  wound. It denied John Thompson, a man who spent 18 years in prison  – 14  on death row –  for crimes he did not commit, $14 million in damages awarded him after he was exonerated.  Thompson’s case sounds like something that took place in the  1920′s and 30′s, not  the 1990s.

In 1984, Thompson was arrested in the murder of  a man from a prominent New Orleans family. According to NPR, another man, Kevin Freeman, also was arrested for the murder, but he made a plea deal in exchange for testimony that he saw Thompson commit the crime. Prosecutors in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, then run by Harry Connick Sr. (Yes, the singer’s dad)  needed more ammunition to seek the death penalty against Thompson, who had no violent felonies on his record. So they trumped up a carjacking charge against him and railroaded that case through.  Once Thompson had a violent felony on his record, the carjacking conviction, prosecutors were able to convict him of the murder and send him to death row.

A  team of lawyers from the law firm Morgan Lewis, took on his case. They thought they had exhausted every one of his appeals. (A date for Thompson’s execution was set seven times.)  He was just weeks away from execution when a legal team investigator found evidence  (on microfiche!) that ultimately resulted in Thompson’s exoneration, not only for the murder but in the carjacking case as well.

Here’s the legal background on the case described by Dahlia Lithwick  in Slate: “In 1963, in Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors must turn over to the defense any evidence that would tend to prove a defendant’s innocence. Failure to do so is a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. Yet the four prosecutors in Thompson’s case managed to keep secret the fact that they had hidden exculpatory evidence for 20 years. Were it not for Thompson’s investigators, he would have been executed for a murder he did not commit.”

Once exonerated, Thompson sued the district attorney’s office arguing  that it was liable for failing to properly train its employees on the requirements of Brady. A jury awarded him  $14 million, which was upheld by federal district and appeals courts.  Connick, Sr. was among the petitioners who challenged the lower court rulings in the Supreme Court.

In writing the majority opinion,  Justice Clarence Thomas acknowledged that prosecutors have an obligation to see that justice is done, and agreed that in the case of John Thompson they fell short. However, Thomas, who once portrayed  himself as a victim of  high-tech lynching,  said prosecutors should not be held responsible for training  – and thus the corrupt conduct  – of the attorneys under their authority.

Thompson is coming out  the better man in all of this. He says what bothers him most is that the Supreme Court decision  opens the door for district attorneys to turn a blind eye to misconduct on their staffs.

“My life was spared despite the efforts of many prosecutors from Harry Connick’s office who sought my conviction and execution over 18 years. They’re the criminals they made people believe I was,” Thompson told the Associated Press.

“If I’d spilled hot coffee on myself, I could have sued the person who served me the coffee,” he told The New York Times. “But I can’t sue the prosecutors who nearly murdered me.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, left, and Elena Kagan with President Obama. What would my father have made of this photo?

My father, Ebenezer Ray,  would have inveighed against Justice Thomas’ cruel and convoluted decision. He would, however,  have stood with the  female justices on the court, particularly Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, in an unusual move, read her dissent  aloud:

“From the top down, the evidence showed, members of the District Attorney’s Office, including the District Attorney himself, misperceived Brady‘s compass and therefore inadequately attended to their disclosure obligations. Throughout the pretrial and trial proceedings against Thompson, the team of four engaged in prosecuting him for armed robbery and murder hid from the defense and the court exculpatory information Thompson requested and had a constitutional right to receive. The prosecutors did so despite multiple opportunities, spanning nearly two decades, to set the record straight. Based on the prosecutors’ conduct relating to Thompson’s trials, a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney’s Office.

“What happened here, the Court’s opinion obscures, was no momentary oversight, no single incident of one lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady‘s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish. That evidence, I would hold, established persistent, deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney’s Office bears responsibility . . . “

Ginsburg was joined in her dissent by fellow justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, (Who also took the lead in the discussion of the merits of the gender discrimination class-action suit against Walmart this week.)

When my father was writing his columns and covering the courts in New York, the idea of female  justices serving on the highest court in the land would have been a fantasy.  In fact,  he wrote a column published Feb. 22, 1936, in support of women serving as jurors in New York:

“Women’s fight for equal suffrage was a desperate and historical one. She won it,” he wrote. He credited Jane Todd, a Westchester County assemblywoman, with securing passage of a bill in the state assembly that would enable women to serve on juries in New York state.

“Negroes are not barred from jury duty in New York, yet there is almost total absence of men of color in jury panels. Should Assemblywoman Todd’s bills become law colored women might exhibit a different tendency. We could well appreciate a few colored faces in the present all-white atmosphere of the criminal courts jury box,” Ebenezer wrote.

Unfortunately,  having “a few colored” faces in the jury box or even on the highest court of the land guarantees nothing.

In 1991, after Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court,  I wrote an editorial for the Boston Globe titled “A question of compassion.” I had written extensively about the sexual harassment charges made by Anita Hill, however,  this editorial was about how he had publicly and dishonestly, castigated his own sister and her children for their “dependence” on public assistance.

“As the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts hearing on Thomas’ confirmation, questions regarding his dishonest portrayal of his sister will not come up,” I wrote. “But his failure to appreciate the difficulties of overcoming racism, poverty and male privilege –  difficulties he has witnessed firsthand   –  suggests that he will have even less compassion on the bench for strangers who appear before him.”

Almost 20 years later, Connick v. Thompson stands as a reminder that Justice Thomas has not changed.

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

The legacy of Mary Ray

26 Feb mom_portrait

Last Monday, when I found myself having trouble getting out of bed, I just assumed it was the winter pall, or maybe the martinis I had consumed over the President’s Day weekend. But as much as I was inclined to, as Jamie Foxx sings, “blame it on the alcohol,” (By the way, did anyone see the Glee take on that song last week?) It was something more profound.
On Thursday, while I was visiting the local Family History Center searching for more pieces of the Ray family puzzle, I came upon my mother’s death record. Yep. Feb. 21, 2002. Nine years ago last Monday.
I thought about waiting until next year to pay tribute. It will be the 10th anniversary of her death, a milestone of sorts. But the future  is not promised, as we all know, so I’m going to do it now. After all, there is no end to the gifts my mother poured into me. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say next year.
I dug out an article I wrote for Essence in 1986 titled “How to get out of that rut and make life an adventure.” I used my mother as an example of someone who did that every day.
“My mother has always had a positive, energetic spirit and a sense of adventure unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever known,” I wrote in that Essence article. “A firm believer in going for the gusto, she ran track without the benefit of Wilma Rudolph as a role model. She was the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. And while many of her peers were settling down with their own families, she was relocating to a strange city to take a new job. When she did marry and had my sisters and me, her world and her adventurous spirit simply grew. ‘There is no excuse for boredom,’ she’d say as she dragged us (and any other neighborhood child who happened to be within her reach) to dance classes, music lessons, museums, concerts, libraries and amusement parks  — all on public transportation. And as my sisters and I came of age and began moving around to new jobs, new cities, new countries and new adventures, she was always there with her motherly caution, ‘Please be careful,’ and ‘Get some rest,’  — all the while saying ‘Go head, girl!’”
And I know she’s saying it now: To her daughter Malaya, who is still dancing, teaching and storytelling with a passion; To her granddaughter, M’Balia, who is about to get her degree all while working full time and raising three children and getting them through school and college. She’d say it to my daughter, Zuri, who is getting her acting on in London and will be an intern at  the Cannes Film Festival in May. She’d say it to her granddaughter Kamaya, who has taken her big brother Jeremy, under her wing as he has determined to turn his life around. And, of course, she would say “well done” to her  famous nephew Lamman, not just for his accomplishments as an actor, but for being a man with such a good, good heart.
My mom died on February 21, 2002 at 82. The weekend before, she had attended an AKA luncheon and the symphony. She was so active that when her friends didn’t hear from her in one 36-hour period, they knew something was up. They found her sitting in a comfy chair with her feet up, a cup of tea within reach.
She lived life fully to the end. That’s the best legacy she could leave.

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