The London riots and the fire next time

15 Aug

“As much as we regret the spirit of mob violence as manifested by hundreds of Harlemites on Tuesday evening, it is obvious that it was the direct result of a pent-up feud that has lain in the breasts of Negroes for months – and years.”

These words, published in a column my father wrote after a riot broke out in Harlem on March 19, 1935, have new resonance in the wake of the conflagration that spread from Tottenham to Birmingham, UK, last week.

I visited London several times last year, and three news stories made me wonder whether I’d ever left home.

  • Confrontations between students and police during protests against tuition hikes were a regular occurrence throughout the fall. Were it not for the scenes of Prince Charles and Camilla’s Royal Rolls Royce being kicked and jostled and pelted with paint bombs last December, I might have thought I was on a University of California or California State College campus.
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron called the low numbers of blacks at Oxford “disgraceful,” putting the university on the defensive and setting off a verbal firestorm with echoes of the American higher education/affirmative action debate.
  • Then there was the heartbreaking story of Agnes Sina-Inakoju, killed in 2010 when two reported gang members shot into an East London chicken and pizza place. In April of this year, the men, both in their early 20s, were sentenced to life in prison. Sina-Inakoju, 16 at the time of her murder, had dreamed of going to Oxford and by all accounts she was working hard to make that a reality. The tragic tale of a promising life cut short by random and stupid violence could have played out in any city USA.

I wasn’t there when the flames erupted in the UK last weekend, and I won’t presume to have a full understanding of British racial and class politics. But shocking as the murder and mayhem were, it was not surprising.

“The volcano is there and the surface is very thin; it merely needs a slight puncture, and out will flow the destructive elements that foment within,” Ebenezer wrote.

This time, as in many others, the “puncture” was a black man shot dead by police.

The confluence of dreams of the poor ignored, the aspirations of the middle class deferred and the prevalence of drugs and guns and criminality of all kinds, make for a toxic cocktail. Add to it an economic climate in which social services and law enforcement resources are cut and stretched thin on both sides of the Pond, and you can’t help but wonder where the next “volcano” will erupt.


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.

Black valedictorians: the sound of history repeating?

30 Jul

Kymberly Wimberly

Kymberly Wimberly, a 2011 graduate of McGehee Secondary School in Arkansas,  is suing  her school district and its officials, claiming they violated her constitutional right to equal treatment under the law.

According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit claims that a school counselor told Wimberly’s mother in May that the girl had the school’s highest grade point average in the graduating class, but later the mother, who works at the school,  overheard a conversation in which staff said there would be a “big mess” if a black girl stood alone as valedictorian. A white female student was selected to serve as “co-valedictorian,” and both gave speeches at their May 13 graduation.

(According to reports, the school, whose black population is about 46 percent, has had a black valedictorian before, but not since 1989.)

The district’s superintendent, who is black,  told an Arkansas television station that “the second girl took more classes and that a school rule prevents extra course work from penalizing students when calculating grade point averages.”  After they did the math, the superintendent said, the two students’ GPAs were the same.

Sounds like fuzzy math to me, but now it’s in the hands of the court.

Fannetta Nelson Gordon

This tale brings to mind the story of the late Fannetta Nelson Gordon, who in April of this year posthumously received the valedictory recognition she had been denied for 75 years.

Nelson Gordon, who happens to have been the aunt of my oldest friend, Rev. Melana Nelson-Amaker, attended Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School and in 1936 would have been the school’s second black valedictorian. Her sister, Sophia Phillips Nelson, now in her 90s, was the school’s first black valedictorian in 1934. According to a story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “the principal said the school would not have another black valedictorian. So, he pressured a music teacher to change her grades.”

Ebenezer Ray, The New York Age, Oct. 31, 1936

Both sisters were honored by the high school’s alumni association this spring, and the story made national news. We all felt good that even though Nelson Gordon did not live to receive the recognition, an injustice had been righted.

But now we have the Wimberly case. is encouraging those who find this case troubling to write to school district officials. It’s not just about Wimberly, they say:

“McGehee and other school districts around the country should be encouraging all prepared students to challenge themselves academically. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Last year, Black students made up 15 percent of graduating seniors, but accounted for just 9 percent of students taking AP exams. Black students trail far behind White, Asian and Latino students in terms of participation in AP classes, and educators have a responsibility to provide equal access to and preparation for college-level coursework. Kymberly is the rare example of the student whose family believed she could excel in high-level classes, despite what some adults at school told her and students who look like her.”

And however the lawsuit turns out, Wimberly has already won.

Not only did she take   — and ace  — Advanced Placement and honors courses, earning only one B in her entire high school career, according to reports, she had a baby during her junior year and still excelled. (Which, in addition to race, is likely the other elephant in McGehee’s living room.)

“My teachers thought I’d fall flat on my face, but I kept trying to succeed,” she said.

Congratulations, Kymberly, and as they say, “Keep gettin’ up.”

A piano lesson?

29 Jul

Huntington, Pennsylvania, Daily News, July 14, 1938

Before there was Rupert Murdoch and Wendi, his pie-spiking wife; before the celebrity sphere was all a twitter about  51-year-old actor Doug Hutchison marrying a reportedly 16-year-old Courtney Stodden,  there was Herbert David Boutall, 63, and his 16-year-old bride, Ann

Dubbed a “hot weather item,” in my father’s column on July 16, 1938,  the item wasn’t about the temperatures  at all. It was about a May-December romance that made headlines across the nation.

“Both of the characters in this February-December drama are white, but what of it?” my father wrote.  “One newspaper carried a picture of the elderly Romeo lifting his youthful bride-to-be, just to show his retained strength.“

Boutall,  a widower from Athol, Mass. is quoted as saying: “The only ones in the neighborhood who object to the marriage are a couple of old maids who think I should marry someone nearer my own age. My answer to them is that when I buy a piano I don’t want an antique. I want one that plays.”

“Boutall should be careful about making assertions about purchasing antiques,” Ebenezer wrote. “His young bride might awaken some fine morning to realize that she has done just that.”

In hindsight, Ebenezer might have taken his own advice about making assertions. Ten years later, he would end up in his own May-December romance. My mother, certainly no child, was only 22 years my father’s  junior,  which doesn’t come close to the Boutalls’ 47-year age difference. Still, it’s a reminder that you never know when your own words will come back to bite you, especially when you are talking about “old” people. .

I followed the Boutall marriage in the archives of the Boston Globe. More than 5000 spectators lined the streets for the wedding on July 11, 1938.  The church only seated 120.  In August, a subsequent Globe article intimated that the couple was thinking of selling their New England farm and moving to England, where Herbert was from.  A year later, they were still in Athol, according to the Globe headline: “Farmer, 64, wife 17, will mark first year of marital bliss today.”

Then in May 1940, the Globe announced that the “May–December couple proud parents of a girl.”  They had a son the next June, but, alas, on April 10, 1943, the Globe announced, “Gap of 47 years too much for Athol pair, so they’ve separated.”

The paper quoted Herbert as saying, “If she wants a younger man she can have one.”  According to that Globe article, Herbert was headed to England to work in a war plant.  His wife and children moved back in with her parents.

Perhaps she got a new piano. Continue reading

‘Lift Every Voice’ 2.0

25 Jul

After I posted that last piece on “Lift Every  —  or is it Ev’ry? — Voice and Sing,” a friend sent me a video of jazz singer Rene Marie’s rendition. You’ll notice that the person who introduces her  — he calls her Rene “Martin” instead of  “Marie ” — announces that she is going to sing “our” national anthem.

When I first watched the video, I was unaware of the context, so when he said “our” I didn’t know which “we” he meant.Turns out that the occasion was the State of the City address in Denver in 2008 and the audience was expecting a straight up “Star Spangled Banner.”

Apparently, Marie’s rendition caused quite a stir, to put it mildly. WARNING: If you venture into the comment thread that accompanies the video, you might need an antacid.

One might argue that Marie should have at least given city officials a heads up. In her defense, she says no one would have complained had her offering included another traditionally patriotic song such as “America the Beautiful.”

I think it’s a brilliant mash-up. What do you think?

I’ve also included a rendition by Talisman, a Stanford University a capella group.  Enjoy this one too.

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’

23 Jul

On July 16, 1938, my father devoted most of his column to James Weldon Johnson, a true Renaissance man who died in a car accident in Maine on June 26 of that year.

“Mr. Johnson’s demise marks the end of a brilliant and varied career. During his lifetime he had wrought in the capacity of lawyer, author, educator and diplomat,” my father wrote. “As a diplomat he represented the United States in Venezuela and at Nicaragua. As author he gave us several interesting books on the life of the Negro. As educator he was instructor on creative literature at Fisk University and New York University. As a composer, he gave us amongst other numbers, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ otherwise known as the ‘Negro National Anthem.‘

After posting the lyrics, Ebenezer wrote: “The late Mr. Johnson’s contributions to the Negro in the form of an anthem clearly reveal the depth to which his thoughtful soul travelled. In it he bade us rejoice, he bade us hope, he bade us pray and, none the least, march on!”

Preach, Daddy!

“Set to music by his brother Rosamond Johnson, its melody lingers in your ears. The only ‘blue note’ is that it is not heard more often from the lips of persons for whom the author wrote it,” he added.

By the way, Cameron McWhirter, has an excellent column on James Weldon Johnson on The Root.

Continue reading

Julian Marshall Williams, pioneering journalist, scholar

16 Jul

My cousin Julian and I had just begun to get reacquainted. We hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, but we were new Facebook friends, fellow bloggers and journalists.

“I need your advice on something,” Julian wrote in an email last spring. “What do you think of my creating a blog designed to post news about our wonderful aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.? There is so much talent in our family, and we are doing so many great things.”

In another, he wrote to say that he liked this blog. “I am so proud of you, my dear cousin! Keep up the good work.”

“It’s so great to reconnect with you,” I wrote back. “When Zuri gets back to Atlanta, we’ll have to meet somewhere, maybe Savannah.”

Tragically, Julian is being laid to rest in Savannah today. His sudden death on July 6 at a young 58 makes no sense to me. Frankly, it makes me mad. Continue reading

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