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Harlem Jubilee

3 Jun

I love this emblem, “ER” of course stands for Elizabeth Regina,” but my father and I also share these initials.

My father would have loved all the pomp and circumstance associated with Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. After all, before he was a naturalized American, he was technically a Brit.
Apparently, he was not the only Harlemite with an affinity for the Crown. In 1937, a year after King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, ascended to the throne, folks on this side of the Pond went all out to reenact the Coronation Day celebration taking place in Great Britain.

In a column published in the New York Age on May 21, 1937, my father wrote:

“On Wednesday evening last (May 12) British patriotism reared its head in no uncertain terms here in Harlem when approximately four thousand persons, motley as motley is, descendants of British soil and their descendants, jammed the spacious Rockland Palace, where a Coronation Ball and Pageant was held under sponsorship of the Church of St. Ambrose, of which the Rev. E. Elliott Durant is rector.

Sir Gerald Campbell, British Counsel General, Lady Campbell and an official and family entourage added distinguished patronage.
National colors flew liberally from the gallery of the casino. The Union Jack was there, no doubt. . . .

Conservative and discriminating faces looked down from the gallery at the horde of dancers below. For this night they were Britain’s aristocracy, the dancers below the proletariat.

As one observed the revelry of the fashionably dressed ladies and their escorts, and the occasional greeting of friends, one was inclined to ask whether it was patriotism that prompted the turnout, or just another social affair. But when the rafters of the casino literally shook with legion voices raised in singing the British National Anthem, followed by Rule Britannia, one quickly concluded that when origin of birth is accentuated, the span between it and the land of one’s adoption is brief, very brief. The singing of the Star-Spangled Banner climaxed this song fest.

It was long after midnight when the replica of the Coronation took place. Preceded by a procession of ‘representatives’ of various colonies, Gordon Ward, by selection of the church, was bestowed the paraphernalia befitting a King. The Queen was represented by Mrs. Ulrica Baird, chorister. Mrs. Baird’s selection was by acquisition of 1,340 votes. Her closest runner-up was Miss Alma Simmons, ‘Queen of Scotland’ with 1,228 votes. Murcott Wiltshire, lay reader, essayed the role of Archbishop. Africa was not forgotten, as Acolyte Charles Cheesman, portraying Haile Selassie, received a rousing ovation from the spectators.”

Ebenezer goes on to quote Rev. Durant, a native of Barbados, who said:

“’It is joy unspeakable to me to address you on this most joyful occasion, which comes to us once in a generation. Once we were Britishers and now we are Americans. But because we were good Britishers, we are now better Americans.’”

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

A King’s reach: My father’s take on the Royals

26 Feb

When I suggested to my daughter, Zuri, that she would love the Oscar winning The King’s Speech and that it would be great for her to see it in London, where she is studying abroad, she revealed that her drama professors were not so keen on it. “They see it as propaganda for the monarchy.”
There is also a lot of buzz in the American and international press about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the film. Bertie’s stutter was not really that bad, Winston Churchill was not really that fat and  he was not so forcefully opposed to King Edward VIII‘s relationship with a twice-married Wallis Simpson. More seriously, some argue that throughout the late 1930s the royal family and much of the British establishment favored appeasement of Hitler’s regime.
My father was a bit of a gusher when it came to the Royals.

“A King Dies,” Ebenezer proclaimed in a column on Feb. 1, 1936. The far-flung British Empire, with its approximately 500,000,000 inhabitants of all colors mourns today! George the Fifth, its ‘Sailor King’ is dead! He passed away in his 71st year of life and in the 26th year of his reign. From far-off New Zealand and Australia to the Dominion of Canada, from India to the remote Falkland Islands and the West Indies, flags are at half-mast; bells have tolled, theatres closed, night clubs darkened — business had come to a standstill, all in reverence to a departed monarch, loved by his people, and of whose greatness historian will testify.”
But in true fashion, Ebenezer brought the king’s death back home to America.

King George V

“The passing of the British monarch had its repercussion here in the House of Representatives when Speaker Byrns [Joseph W. Byrns, D-Tenn] put forward a resolution that the body adjourn out of respect to the dead king. Representative [Martin] Sweeney of Ohio was the dissenting voice. His objection was based on the grounds that his kin lost their lives during the time of the Blacks and Tans (Britain opposing the independence of the Irish Free State) and according to the New York Times Washington correspondent, Mr. Sweeney ‘is unwilling for the legislature of a democracy to honor the memory of a king in whose names the bullets went winging’  Speaker Byrns ignored Mr. Sweeney. Negroes might sympathize with Mr. Sweeney in the loss of his kin, but it is natural that they at the same time reflect on the atrocities which are committed under America’s ‘democracy” In the first place we have hundreds of lynchings which have taken place in the direction from which Mr. Sweeney hails and against which Congress up to its last session refused to enact legislation. Many a Negro has lost his innocent kin by these barbarous methods. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the constitution as they apply to Negroes are openly violated in the South. Under the shadow of the Capitol’s dome, Negroes have been denied use of the House Restaurant and even in the North Negroes are systematically and occasionally discriminated against in government and private institutions. Lastly, we come to the persecution of the nine Scottsboro lads. Within the columns of the issue of the New York Times which voices Mr. Sweeney’s objection we read that the trial was being conducted for the fourth time amidst the most prejudiced atmosphere perhaps known to any court in a civilized country.”

As for the brief reign of Edward VIII and the Wallis Simpson scandal, my father initially had high hopes for the young king whom he described as a “super-salesman, athlete, flier, sportsman and one of the most socially beloved princes, whose magnetic personality was already evident. “

But upon Edward’s abdication, he was less charitable. “I still think Edward strayed somewhat from the ‘manor born.'” he wrote in a later column. He was born heir-apparent to a throne when the world respected it. He could easily have lived closer to its shadow.  Love intoxicates a man; marriage sobers him up, someone once said. And what if the inevitable hand of retribution moves to arouse Eddie from his intoxication, brought on by Wallis Simpson’s potion of third-rate ‘love!'”

My father was wrong about that love affair. Edward and Wallis stayed together until Edward, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication, died of cancer in 1972.

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