Tag Archives: journalism

‘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

The ‘racial ills’ of the Episcopal Church

28 Nov

“The Episcopal Church might find an antidote for its racial ills by first cleaning house, and then by directing its evangelistic and missionary activities toward those barbarians in the South who ruthlessly violate the constitutional rights of Negroes, denying them fair and impartial trials when accused of offences they seldom commit. Toward this appalling condition, the Episcopal Church has been noticeably apathetic,” Ebenezer writes.

Here is a link to information on Rev. Alexander McGuire, who founded the African Orthodox Church in response to racism in the Episcopal Church.

The New York Age, February 16, 1935

Black airmen, then and now

21 Nov

Ebenezer Ray's grandson Lamman Rucker, "Black Angels Over Tuskegee" Photo: MarkGlennStudio.com

In the middle of this column, under the heading “The Goodwill Flight “Ebenezer  talks about a goodwill flight to the Caribbean and South America that was undertaken by Dr. Albert Forsythe and C. Alfred Anderson. They were dubbed the “first transcontinental Negro flyers.”

New York Times obituary on Forsythe in 1986, said: “In 1933, Dr. Forsythe and C. Alfred Anderson became the first black pilots to complete a cross-country flight, traveling from Bader Field in Atlantic City, N.J., to Los Angeles. The flight, along with trips to Montreal and the Caribbean in 1934, was made in an attempt to break down the color barrier in aviation.”

An obituary of Anderson, who died in 1996, recalled: “He and Forsythe made the first land plane flight from Miami to Nassau in 1934. They island hopped throughout the Caribbean, to the Northeastern tip of South America. They overflew the Venezuelan straits and landed in Trinidad as national heroes.” It described Anderson as a mentor to Tuskegee Airmen.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, a pioneer black aviator and respected instructor at Tuskegee Institute. (U.S. Air Force photo)

I also found a 1933 Time magazine story about their trip.

The itinerary did not include a visit to Barbados, which was a disappointment to those, including my father,  with connections to the island.  The column and the letter make it sound like the pilots were black Americans, but according to his obituary, Forsythe was born in the Bahamas. Perhaps there was a little bit of Caribbean rivalry.

The connections here are a little uncanny. Lamman Rucker, Ebenezer’s grandson, is co-producer of  Black Angels Over Tuskegee, a play about the Tuskegee Airmen. Lamman, who plays Elijah in the production,  is a founding member of the company, The Black Gents of Hollywood, an all-male ensemble devoted to redefining the images of African American men in entertainment.

The cast of "Black Angels Over Tuskegee"

In a few weeks I’ll be headed for Barbados, my father’s birthplace. I’ve been there only once, back in 1984 and only for a couple of days. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the place, perhaps beginning the journey of finding family. It is interesting that while in his thirties, my father’s emotional connection to the island still seemed very strong. My impression was that later in his life, by the time he was married and living in Pittsburgh, that connection seemed to be lost, or at least frayed.
I can’t tell whether “The little Englander” my dad  quotes is him or someone else. (Editor’s update 8/3/11: It’s possible it is his brother, Noel, who worked at the Barbados Advocate.) Perhaps I can find the archives of the Barbados Advocate while I am there.

The New York Age, January 12, 1935

‘The Negro is a marked race’

6 Nov

“Not many generations out of slavery, and forging our own existence despite heavy odds, the Negro is a marked race, hence our activities share the spotlight of constant scrutiny. when we reach the height of success none will be able to deny us our rightful share of recognition and applause. We should strive to leave great footprints in the sands of time,” my father writes below.
But I cannot help but think that 75 years later it’s still not so easy.  In this so-called “post-racial era,” the struggle continues. I’m sure my father could not have imagined that in his children’s lifetime America would have a black president. And though Barack Obama has reached the “height of success” by any measure, he continues to be a member of a “marked race.” Conservatives cry that they “want to take their country back,” which is code for we want to take the country back to a time when having blacks in power was only a dream. They call him elitist, which is code for “uppity Negro.”

I also found the last item, about the assaults on domestics by the men they work for, interesting. That’s one subject that was not broached in The Help.

As he did when he wrote about the illegal numbers, or so-called “policy games,” Ebenezer expressed sympathy  for prostitutes, who he referred to as “pavement pounders.” He argued that the lack of legal means available for these men and women to support themselves made it almost impossible for folks to avoid “easier money.”

“When social and economic agencies move to protect their youngsters vice crusades will not be necessary; when they do not – vice crusades will be ineffective,” he said.

P. S.: I’m still trying to find a source of information on the Mills brothers and the incident my father notes regarding their being barred from watching white baseball players play in Detroit.

The New York Age, March 23, 1935

Printer’s ink, the life blood of democracy

30 Aug

With current assaults on the press, including in South Africa, of all places, this column is validation that the fight continues.

The New York Age, December 8, 1934

My father, Mr. Laby and Blumstein’s Department Store

31 Jul

When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, my sisters and I were forbidden from buying anything from Mr. Laby’s corner store. Mr. Laby, who was Jewish, ran the store with his wife (who was much nicer than her husband). There was no issue of him not hiring black clerks, because the store was strictly a family run operation.  Mr. Laby treated his neighborhood  customers with disdain  – there were no white people in the neighborhood, so we were the store’s customer base. My sister Ellen-Marie told me that Mr. Laby also was known for shortchanging children! One day, I  ventured into the store with my friend and neighbor  Freda Williams. (I was not buying anything myself, so technically was not disobeying my parents.)  After buying her candy, Freda asked Mr. Laby for a bag for her purchases. He refused, she insisted.  I had a feeling this was a not the first time this ritual had played out. Mr. Laby proved no match for Frieda and, finally, exasperated, he  handed Frieda the bag, which she immediately crumbled into a ball and threw back at him!  We ran from the store as he yelled at us in Yiddish.
Like all the other rules in our house, I thought the Laby’s store prohibition was instituted by my mother. But given my father’s strong feelings about Blumsteins  — did he really call them “Hitlers?” — I think Ebenezer may have initiated our family boycott.

The New York Age, July 14, 2010

What happened in 1927?

30 Jul

There are some interesting bits of historical information, such as Marcus Garvey’s wife’s divorce complaint and his eventual deportation and  the acquisition of the Schomburg collection by the Carnegie Corporation. Schomburg has particular meaning to me, as it was at the 135th Street library that I found these columns. Didn’t know the Amsterdam News tried to go daily  – for a day. I didn’t know anything about Florence Mills, a well-regarded singer, dancer and comedienne who died of tuberculosis.
Why my father chose June 30, 1934 to reprint a list of 1927 events from another publication is beyond me.

The New York Age, June 30, 2010

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