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Happy 120th birthday

24 May

 

May 24 would have been my father’s 120th birthday.

I don’t know what would resonate with him today, but back in the 1930s, when he was in his mid-to-late 30s, he was given to quoting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his birthday.

For three consecutive years, in columns that ran near May 24, Ebenezer would quote the same lines from Longfellow’s “The Spanish Student,” a play in three acts.

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“Approaching one of those inevitable milestones imposed by Father Time, this paragrapher pauses in reflection and does a little audible thinking. Methinks Longfellow was correct when he wrote of persons born on May 24. ‘The strength of thine own arm is thy salvation.’ But I think he stretched his optimism a bit far when he said, ‘Behind those riftless [sic] clouds there is a silver lining [sic]; be patient,’” my father wrote in the New York Age, May 28, 1934.

Longfellow actually wrote “rifted clouds,” and in at least one edition, that one line was not about a silver lining. It was, “there shines a glorious star!” Also, I could not find any verification that the 19th-century poet and essayist was specifically referring to those who were born on May 24.

But, ok, Dad.

More often than not, my father used his weekly column for a little of this and a little of that. In one paragraph, he would rail against racially discriminatory hiring practices in Harlem and in the next, he would chide an acquaintance for falling under the spell of Father Devine. Then he’d wax about a social event or musical performance that moved him. Often, he used his column to express his outrage about lynchings and the trumped-up charges against the Scottsboro Boys. During the years when my father was quoting Longfellow in his birthday columns, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression; Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had begun their reign. You couldn’t fault him for seeing no rift in the clouds.

These days, the press is literally being punched and kicked simply for the “crime” of asking questions.

A Republican Congress is poised to denude health care, the environment, public education and women’s agency over our bodies.

Our president and his family are raiding our treasury.

Law enforcement officers who kill unarmed black and brown civilians, including children, do so with impunity.

Immigrants are being harassed, deported and maligned.

White supremacists in this country have been given license to spew hate and kill.

Has anyone seen a glorious star lately?

Actually, yes.

When a Supreme Court majority (that includes Justice Clarence Thomas!) rejects North Carolina’s voter suppression efforts.

When reporters fight back with fierce investigative journalism.

When constituents yell “you lie” at those to try to sell us alternative facts.

When we forge authentic alliances strong enough to demolish and deconstruct silly walls.

When we vote like our lives depend on it, because apparently, they do.

So, in honor of Ebenezer’s 120th birthday, I will take a few liberties of my own with Longfellow:

Only the strength of [OUR] own [COLLECTIVE] arm[S] will be [OUR] salvation.

Let’s get to work.

 

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Happy Birthday, Ebenezer

24 May

My father would be 117 years old today. Eighty years ago his birthday wish was for a typewriter with the same configuration of keys as a Linotype machine.  I wonder what he would think of our writing implements and communications platforms today.  A dear friend recently gave me a bracelet made of typewriter keys. I’m wearing in honor of my Daddy’s birthday today.

 

‘If I were mayor of Harlem’

15 Apr

Last  Thursday, I got a call from a fellow blogger, Valerie Bailey, who was doing research on a Ted Yates, a black newspaper columnist whose career overlapped with my dad’s. I told Bailey, whose fascinating video blog is febone1960.net, that the name was familiar, and that I would get back to her if I found anything.

Then,  while  looking for a column to feature this week, I came across one my father published on April 14, 1934 titled “If I were Mayor of Harlem.” It is one of several “If I were . . . ”  pieces Ebenezer wrote, including “If I were editor ” and “If I were the Hitler of Harlem.” (I’m not quite ready to delve into that one.)

Under the headline of the mayoral column was a note: “With apologies to W.W.” Could that be Walter White, then head of the NAACP? Not sure.  What I did find was a note in another  of my father’s columns that referred to  Ted Yates. That column was likely what led Bailey to me.

In the April 14, 1934 column, my father rails against “soap box orators,” those who used the street corners of Harlem as their bully pulpits. My father, staunch defender of the King’s English that he was, seemed less offended by their opinions and more put off by their imperfect grammar.

“Those allowed on Lenox Avenue would have to pass a grammatical test by answering three questions on the principles of correct speaking. One of these questions would be: Why should IS not be used for ARE, not ARE for IS? Most of them, having apparently paid little attention to such principles, their elimination would be easy.”

Ebenezer also pledged to deal with teenagers who frequented movie theaters on school nights and who “interrupt older patrons  with their premature bits of sophistication” and parents who kept their little ones out past their bedtimes.

“I would give power to police officers to issue summonses to parents and guardians seen hauling tired looking little children behind them from theatres between 10 p.m. and midnight. In court they would be fined. Later than midnight they would be put in a cell without a bed so they could realize what it is to be sleepy and not be able to lie down. “

Further, he would call a press conference for the black press, with editors from the rival  New York Age and the Amsterdam News sitting front and center. “Then I would advise them to bury the hatchet.”

Back to Ted Yates: In a column published a month later, there is a note under the subhead “Petty Larceny.”  It read, “Ted Yates column: If I Were Mayor of Harlem in the Afro-Amer. After all, Ted, there is still something you can glean from an ancient rag.”

I guess Yates, who wrote for the Age and a number of other black papers,  borrowed that line for one of his own columns published in the Afro-American, which was based in Baltimore, but had a national edition. I’ve done a bit of searching in the Afro-American’s archives, but haven’t turned up the Yates’ column in question yet.

Perhaps my dad should have taken his own advice about burying the hatchet.

Click “continue reading” for the full column: BTW: Tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was nicknamed “The Mayor o Harlem.”
Continue reading

And then there’s Maude

26 Mar

Scanning Ebenezer’s columns on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, my heavy eyelids were brought to attention by this line at the bottom of a column dated Feb. 24, 1934.

“News was received Friday last of the death of my sister, Maude Victoria, aged 25 years, at her home in Barbados, B.W.I. May the sod rest lightly on her.”
What?
I know about his brother, Noel (Alkins), also a newspaperman, who lived in Barbados; his mother, Malvina (Chase Alkins). And there was a niece, Carman Alkins, who I assumed was Noel’s child. Sad that Maude Victoria (no last name was given) died so young.

‘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

Balancing the city budget; the Episcopal Church;

28 Aug

The New York Age, November 24, 1934

A West Indian federation? ‘A plant of slow and tender growth’

3 Aug

. . .

The New York Age, August 4, 1934

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