Don’t START writing on January 1, 2015. Instead, end 2014 writing and just continue on January 1. The Spirit of Writing: 12 Weeks of Practice. Continue reading
A scary nightmare of ongoing violence against Black women has come to the surface in Indiana. Continue reading
I only learned of the rapes and murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom because of the national and international media blitz from George Zimmerman’s trial and acquittal last summer. I was under a high workload and I packed away … Continue reading
Read my story ARRESTING THE HOGS, on urban friendship and black women in the city, in the latest issue of 5Stories. I give a little sneak-peek below. However before that, many thanks and big appreciation to editor Rohith Chakra for … Continue reading
In April of 2008, at approximately 11:00 pm, a family of three was found slain in a house in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, across the street from a school where I had just spoken to middle schoolers about my writing career … Continue reading
This is one bad sister…If you are in the DC-Bethesda-Baltimore areas, Chelsey Green and The Green Project will be live at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore on July 17th and the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club on … Continue reading
Full Body of Work: From Wikipedia Novels The Lying Days (1953) A World of Strangers (1958) Occasion for Loving (1963) The Late Bourgeois World (1966) A Guest of Honour (1970) The Conservationist (1974) – joint winner of the Booker prize in 1974 Burger’s Daughter (1979) July’s People (1981) A … Continue reading
From the Criterion Collection disc Wise Blood: Taped at the Dorothy Lamar Blount Lecture Series at Wesleyan College in 1960: (videos courtesy of http://www.BrainPickings.Org, with attached article by Maria Popova) While I am overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of inventions raging for slices of … Continue reading
About Marion Ettlinger: Marion Ettlinger graduated from the High School of Music and Art and The Cooper Union in New York City. She has been photographing writers since 1983. Her book Author Photo, containing more than 200 black-and-white portraits shot exclusively in natural … Continue reading
Photo by G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
Maya Angelou, Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South, Dies at 86. (photo by Chester Higgins, Jr., for The New York Times)
In 1929, race riots tore down the little-known area of America once known as “Black Wall Street,” where hundreds of middle-class and upwardly mobile African-Americans sheltered for their own version of the American dream. The community burned to the ground, … Continue reading
You know how you go to the grocery store checkout counter and leave with not only your bags of food, but all those annoying tree-killing printouts from the register and a bunch of coupons for stuff you don’t even eat? … Continue reading
Top Video: The trailer for the reprise of one of my favorite movies of all time, Annie, with more than just one Black guy playing Punjab this time! Clockwise from top left: David Boykin’s Soul Sessions in Chicago every Sunday … Continue reading
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The ongoing conversation about Black Americans in Hollywood ties a new knot: currently, forasmuch as we are proud and excited for our recent successes in Black film productions and critical acclaim, it is talent from the entire African diaspora that … Continue reading
I promised myself I would ‘blog’ here every single week. I would create a post, a literary non-fiction essay I like to call them, since ‘post’ sounds so bite-sized, and I am a Type-A overachiever who has to do everything … Continue reading
If nothing else, Black women can certainly tell a story. And where others are more subdued or might strain unto artificial performance and nearly-rehearsed expression, such embellishments to a tale are attributes we can’t help but deliver automatically. While the privileged classes … Continue reading
This gallery contains 42 photos.
I There is a defining 21st Century Western World story about a Black female Londonder who passed away in her government-subsidized bedsit/SRO flat in 2003, as she wrapped Christmas presents and wrote Christmas cards—and she remained in there, seated on her couch, evaporating … Continue reading
Today, January 15th, 2014, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 85 years old. It is arguable that, in this age of globalization and its increased emphases on the heightened role Americans should play in African diaspora nations and … Continue reading
Black American and Arts Movement Poet, Playwright, Writer and Literary Grand/Godfather to Countless People has passed away at the age of 79 years old. Full New York Times Obituary.
In summer 2013, I attended the American Library Association’s Annual Conference at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago, with my writers group Sisters in Crime. I appeared and worked in our booth before I canvassed the gigantic exhibition arena. This … Continue reading
2013 was a phenomenal year in literature for Black/African-American authors as well as the readers who love them. From a thirtysomething Chicagoan who re-defined the art of the ‘rant’ in her first book of essays (Samantha Irby’s Meaty) to a respected non-fiction author … Continue reading
One day I’d love to write a book just about all the authors I have met or know: who, when, where, why and what it was like to see them in person or what it meant to me at the times. … Continue reading
The Butler is the culmination of what blacks in Hollywood, from its Golden Age unto its present, expected our contested involvement in the movies could, should and would be. And it is the reason why not only African-American people, but all people, will … Continue reading
**Trayvon Benjamin Martin (February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012) was the son of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. He was a junior at Dr. Michael M. Krop High School and lived with his mother and older brother in Miami … Continue reading
I am so excited and overwhelmed with the fabulous things Black American people are doing in the arts now. Everywhere I turn, there’s something new to be proud of. A picture can be worth a thousand words. Not sure if I … Continue reading
Professor, Writer and Director Haile Gerima’s 1975 student thesis film Bush Mama premiered on the independent and student film circuit one year before I was born. I was born in the small-town Midwest: Kankakee, Illinois, a town most people have … Continue reading
The Snowtown Murders, a 2011 film directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant under Warp Films Australia, is an interesting and unusual study. It bears specific affinity to me as a former student who debated the merits of … Continue reading
It is startlingly appropriate that I was introduced to my first gray hair this past evening, at about a quarter to 7 p.m. in the basement of the Logan Center for the Arts on the University of Chicago campus right around the corner from my home. I came out of a bathroom stall to wash my hands and there it was visible in one of the lavatory’s mirrors, uncooperative with my repeated attempts to rub it into what I thought was a dab too much of white coconut oil. I believe there may be another one at the very center part of my head, but I am too nervous to confirm. I am unsure when I conceived the one strand I can not deny, but it delivered itself to me at my left temple right in the area where I am at ironically at risk for a receding hairline; maybe I will have good luck, and my lone gray hair’s siblings will cluster in an area that is expected to evaporate a little bit anyway. Or, maybe this is a silver lining. There’s always hope.
Most comforting about the particular setting and timing of discovery tonight is the obvious: I could have just gone right back home. For what, I am not sure: to have a tantrum, to hold the public bathroom mirror’s verdict up to the scrutiny of my private bathroom mirror’s trustworthiness, to Instagram a photodocumentary no one but I would care to revisit, to wail and moan and get the Holy Ghost, to call my best friends and family with a long-awaited announcement (of the unusual sort)? Thankfully, I stayed where I was. The event in waiting, a film screening of the film My Brother’s Wedding with director Charles Burnett present and introduced by my mentor Jacqueline Stewart, was a grateful distraction to this new fact of my life. The former I love in spirit and the latter I love in person; if I would love the movie or not remained to be seen, but I would never know if I did not stay and follow the hunch that I would.
Therefore, that alternate person inside me who noticed the gray was forced to come and go, with little to trigger or say. The work of a great artist awaited. I was expecting to see friends. And, most basically, I was at the movies for the first time in a long time. I could not spend time to create analogies with my gray hair and the oddly loose lower half of my stomach, or the expansion in the back of my arms, or the fading glory of my teeth, or my missing big house with a white picket fence and family dog. I can not imagine if I had been home with nothing at all to do upon such a discovery, this new dimension to what a woman might call her little “friend.” With so much else to think of in the moment of discovery, my existential crisis could not linger. I told my friends there about the gray hair. And so she was formally born, just as inconsequential as a few extra pounds but nothing close to losing a virginity.
At present, I am 36-years old and this lone gray hair may be the only thing to remind others of it. Even worse, I need the reminder more than others may. I do not have pre-teens blowing up my Smart Phone with their catastrophes or loan requests to me, “Mom.” I do not have babies younger. I have yet to breastfeed. I do not have a mortgage in good standing or foreclosure, nor a husband with his own companion gray head of hair to clue others into how long we have been married–thus how old I could really be. For most of the people who know me, I remain fixated in a perpetual fountain of youth…most known for my dimples, bright smile, funny jokes and abilities to be there at the last minute with no extenuating circumstances to prevent such.
For the last 5 years, I have asked no one in particular to bring me my gray hairs. When I have been the only person at a table of fine food to be carded for my usual order of house Merlot, I have remarked: “I’ll be glad when I get my gray.” When I have walked down the streets dressed casually for the day or a bit more polished for work, but approached lewdly by men young and old either way, I have asked for gray hairs; surely, no one irritates my aunts or grandmothers on their ways about town. When I have walked into a community center or artistic venue seeking information or tickets, and had the blase attendant ask me my age after alerting me that I must come with my parents, I have almost pulled out my hair. When I have been in a high-end store or dropped more than an allowance on a necessary adult expenditure, my handlers in these moments have surveyed me less as an adult customer to respect and more as a little Black girl to suspect. I have wished for gray hairs, in hopes I may have been treated a little better.
In the self-deprecating and sad rages that followed the last most gross example of these occurrences, I have come to near tears and butterflies wishing for gray hairs I felt they would certify and dignify me at last: like a girl waiting for her period to get back at bossy adults, or an adolescent scorning the tooth fairy for her dollar under the pillow when one last baby tooth lost will reward so much more payment than that, or a Black woman sat-in at the counter of Woolworth’s to declare that she can not be slighted based upon how she looked. For, it seemed that a scalp of commanding gray hairs would assist me in exercising my full rights as an equal adult worthy of proper comportment and approach by other adults; that such thin and fine miracles could be my silent partners to shed any and all’s presumptions that I was young therefore subordinate, youthful therefore deferred, cute therefore “Seriously?”
And, so now, here they are.
6-month old Jonylah Watkins, shot to death 5 times in Chicago, March 11, 2013 My mind hadn’t really caught up, yet. If not for my new early evening coffee habit, I might not–still–know that the 6-month old child who was … Continue reading
In 2002, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus was forced to end her documentary on the last three months of Oklahoman Wanda Jean Allen, a twice-convicted murderer. Allen was the sixth woman in the United States to be put to death after the … Continue reading
My self-preservationist tendency is to spurn online social media as much as humanly possible for my generation. It seems that Facebook is the new way to pass the kids’ school pictures around…you know, those goofy and darling snapshots stuck on little squares with jaggedly scissored edges? I miss those. Now, I must log in and look for “updates” if I want to know what children I saw home from the hospitals look like today. Mortifyingly, I have learned of dear and turbulating friends’ recent family losses and life struggles from Twitter or Facebook, well behind all the distant acquaintances and disdained former co-workers who instantly “shout-out” condolences onto tiny, 2-second rectangular boxes of comment. My phone calls or paper cards in the mail arrived weeks after the divorces, chemo and burials I could only apologize for by then. From Pinterest, it has become apparent that confidantes are engaged (or married). Shucks! I can no longer pluck my gifted disposable camera from a fluffly lace bucket on my tipsy tumble out of the reception if I want to have pictures later. I can just pin as many as I am inclined to, although there is something raggedy about doing this after the news or festivities I missed have taken place.
Much of this tardy ignorance is the peril of being a sometimes published author but full-time bookworm and introverted writer who is not so readily on the Smart Phone gossip trail. But even from my withdrawed psychic bubble, I can not ignore the dangerous pedestal that digital communication sits upon in our lives and world. There is no way that words on a screen can substitute for the sound of a person’s voice. And- to the point of this writing here- I hope I never live to see the day that this pitifully easy display of words on a screen becomes the subsitute for a decent book in my hands.
In this age of communication that is evaporated at worst and shorthand at best, I must get in on the action if I want to continue to be apart of the world I guess. I must commit to memory nearly a dozen usernames and passwords I attempt to overlap if the websites’ varying quality control requirements so permit. I am hesitant to “stumble upon” too much new, but I have to admit that Goodreads just may be the online feeding ground that sticks with me longer than Myspace is attempting to do.
My publisher had already set up a page for me. There was a dainty icon listed on my Author’s Page. Once I saw that other writers had neat profiles with their pictures, personal control and even structured ways to visit with readers, I sent off my author application to gain control of the page with my books upon them. Truth be told, the primary function of the online platform Goodreads is to subtlely shift good readers back to real books–not just reading them, but also buying them. This is not the place to come if you do not read, nor it is the place to learn. It is the online break for the people who will take off from their latest mundane cyber exhibition (their latest couscous recipe, or fly hairdo), and instead direct that spare time and energy into an intellectual community of those who yearn to read. For any venturer who wanders in its direction quickly learns that he or she is not the truly anonymous star seeking fans in the form of “Likes” and “Follows.” And I would rather see parents ignore reading to their children in order to show the children they are reading, than parents ignore their children because they missed their chance to be pop stars then but are trying to make up for it in the cyberworld now.
Goodreads may be part of the answer to a fledgling, dislocated education industry’s prayers. It has the enormous promise to become a way for teachers and professors across this universe to snatch students in laptop classrooms out of the haze of sneaking onto social media while pretending to type notes. I have been at the head of that class, and even behind it. Neither grown adults nor urban youth cared that I knew they were all entranced in socialization online while I talked to myself to explain what I already knew but they did not. Inevitably, it is always the teachers’ faults when the masses routinely miss homework instructions and fail to hear key points that arrive back into their faces on accredidation or standards exams. With learners hypnotized into a passing of time they can no longer ascertain and coddled for owning the attention spans of flies, it appears to all others that teachers must really be so negligent. “Well, if you insist…” should be the prelude of countless opening lectures and first day of class speeches, when those in charge insist Goodreads must be apart of the grading package. And I do believe all students would grow to love it.
I once remember children most dreamed to win immortality through a baseball bat, basketball, choir solo-worthy voice, ballet slippers, or the academic prowess of future doctors. Now, to simulate the human instinct towards extraordinariness, which once drove Michael Jordan to do layups for 20 hours straight or Tyler Perry to exhaust himself writing and producing plays for an insomniatic decade, today’s sedentary children (and inexusable adults) just power up and chase strangers in the middle of classes or the night. Nothing special required. Just a mediocre personality or message to pronounce.
Goodreads eliminates that hazardous, life-wasting wish. There is hierarchy and structure, but of an appropriate and welcome nature. It is a home with a purpose that is apparent, respected and tenderizing in a certain way. How often do I get online to be whisked back to the days I first held The Chronicles of Narnia in my hands, or found out what happened to Daisy, or learned why there were none? To see book covers and their authors come across the screen is the equivalent of my self-amusing tendency to post my baby pictures online, as opposed to current ones of me that really only show my life is no constant adventure after all. This mandatory humility is progress for any online social media community as popular as Goodreads. These are the days of feverish SEO marketing gurus who promise fame and fortune to any would-be star or tycoon willing to pay to learn how to master Google page rank with keywords. That there should be many other feverish actions behind the words is something this trend overlooks. But, the action of words is the only reason to post, review, share or comment on Goodreads. Fittingly, the demonstrations and camaraderie of all good readers who are reading will quickly shame anyone who is not.
At Goodreads, masses of participants willingly take on the title of “Fan” before running to gather them. Given the wholesome and progressive ratings system Goodreads offers for books (it can’t get any lower than a simply simple “didn’t like it”), the site moves away from the sad regression of the Internet into the primary medium on Earth where grouches and haters are able to safely trash others from afar. It give writers, thinkers, intellectuals and authors a safe haven free from competition with Rihanna, Adele, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Kate Middleton and Jennifer Lawrence. I must thank Goodreads for breaking my habit of zoning out within the latest breaking news on these women, all of whom I love. But they and those of their manufactured statures are too immediately in my face whenever I just want to check MSN or Yahoo! for the weather or local movie times. And, given Hilary Mantel’s recent witch hunt for a complicatingly benevolent lecture and Patricia Cornwell’s incomprehensible past extortions, one would assume hard-toiling writers may only claim that digital stature if there is scandal, misfortune or daggers around them. That’s not fair. There is no other chance for even the most adored and accoladed of authors to compete with the media machines behind that devastating imbalance in society’s values. But on Goodreads, authors are not even forced to try.
Goodreads is not a random community that one is so often forced to contend with online: everyone squished together like crabs in a barrel, any remotely connected opportunity to show face seized- even if the face being shown doesn’t know what they are talking about, or isn’t talking about anything really. And there is no danger of being unwillingly assaulted with a Girls Gone Wild scene, child pornography, mediocre street rap, angry political rant, broadcast schoolyard fight, or even orchestrated and filmed driveby. You do not need side boob, a red carpet or a DUI arrest to own your own corner of cyberspace, but only passion for the first mass-marketed form of entertainment there ever was: printed books. I hope Goodreads maintains its modesty and guards the limitations of its user-driven content to stay as simple, precise and relevant as it is. There are only user gravatars, book ratings, book shelves, book reviews, book groups…and then there are the books. Any place in this new Internet planet we rely on that puts the books in my face that I will never forget reading, needed to read, still want to read and finally will be encouraged to read is good in my book.
About Hadiya Pendleton: Hadiya Pendelton (1997-2013) was a 15-year old King College Prep High School sophomore. She was a band majorette and popular honors student. She is survived by her mother Cleopatra Crowley, her father Nate “Anthony” Pendleton, and her little brother Nathaniel Pendleton. She had no arrest history or gang affiliation. Ms. Pendleton’s dreams included attending Northwestern University to become a pharmacist and journalist.
When I grew up in the small town Midwest, if not for the park, then my hardworking blue-collar parents may not have been able to trick me to believe we were, somehow, rich. Near our home, there was the poignantly and appropriately-named “Bird’s Park”—where the inhabitants of our rural Illinois farming and factory town could take their children to enjoy paddle boat rides that brought our fingertips within a hair’s reach of squawking ducks. There was a semblance of a quarry that I raked and burned many a backside sliding down to the bottom of, to sully my feet in the warm, wet sand created by the Kankakee River and to chew stalks of wild sweet grass with my sisters.
My parents stayed above us, preferring the shade while absorbed in friendly chess games. At night, the lightning bugs appeared along with the thirsty mosquitoes, but we always delayed packing up to go home. There were other parks, closer to our side of town where the residents were primarily Black. Each year, annual festivals were held with imported pony rides, basketball tournaments and an official soundstage to show off the best of the town’s talent and community programs. It was one of the few times that my elder relatives ventured out, with coolers for beer and picnic blankets. But, these serene rituals ended.
In the mid-nineties, shortly before I left for college, a killing spree commenced in our town due to heightened gang activity that had its origins in the Chicago and national drug trade. Suddenly, a town that had only been mentioned on the news for its weather became a frequent subject in terms of peculiar violence. Any suggestion of going to a local festival or park barbecue was following by jokes that ceased to be funny: “Well, don’t get shot,” or “Put your bullet-proof vest on under your dress.” I was sixteen, and unafraid. In my mind, I was not going to let people I did not know and some I did inhibit my adventures. The world was mine, and I was going to change it.
This is the mentality our communities’ daughters inherit by nature of knowing us. Only now, as two decades have passed, a new generation of young women can not afford the brazen attitude I was once allowed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the city of Chicago, which was once a tourist mecca selected to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair). Now, it is a warzone. On January 29, 2013, less than 10 days after she had been a beaming majorette in service and homage to our first Black President’s second Inauguration in Washington, D.C., local Chicago high school student Hadiya Pendleton was dead.
The events, well-known locally and a little bit nationally, read like a horror story or an apocalyptic fable or a crude cartoon . King College Prep High School was dismissed for the day. A group of friends rambled home. A rainstorm began. They laughed to the nearest shelter—a park house cover in Vivian G. Harsh park (the park is named for Chicago’s first Black librarian and notable publishing archivist). A man appeared out of nowhere. He jumped the fence to the park. He had a gun. He shot into their group. He ran away. A young Black boy lay bleeding from a gunshot to the leg. Ms. Pendleton was critically wounded in her back. She died an hour later at a local hospital. She was 15. She was an honors student. The shooter remains at large. Her parents live in shock. Her school is in silent mourning. Residents of Chicago are outraged. A nation is unaware. Unlike Trayvon Martin before her, when talking heads and bloggers could run rampant about race and profiling in an ages-old conversation centered upon White supremacy, Ms. Pendleton is not even granted a Wikipedia page for newly modern talks we need to have about Black genocide.
I, too, was like Hadiya Pendleton. When I was near her age, I journeyed to New York City to speak of combusting race relations in our school district. It was nationally televised, and even a few dear friends from the Klu Klux Klan appeared as surprise guests to discount the effects of White supremacy on low black achievement. I returned to my swarm of friends with the mind that I had found my calling—to speak on race through writing and voice, to go live in New York City one day, to maybe attend Columbia University, and to stretch my wings beyond my neighborhood block that appeared microscopic now compared to how it had looked when I had departed for my first plane ride. I had many friends. Our gatherings after school in safe hoards threatened our after-school curfews. They were our displays of burgeoning independence, self-selection and virgin freedom. What kind of world do we live in today so that my simple fraternity with youth my own age could have been my death sentence 20 years ago, so that I would not be at a computer now typing these words that scream for peace?
A $40,000 reward remains for information that leads to apprehension of Hadiya’s shooter. It is unclaimed. Today, $40,000 (a comfortable yearly salary in working class communities) is a high cost to pay for the rest of one’s life if there is retaliation to the informants. Speculation utters that the shooting may have been apart of a gang initiation; new members are required to kill an innocent person to prove their street “cred” and demonstrate a calloused spirit who can murder in an instant if necessary. Speculation hints that the shooter may have mistaken the crowd for a gang due to its number and location on an inconspicuous gang territory, the a version of the misinterpreted societal profiling that led to the assassination of Trayvon Martin one year ago. But since there is no one to answer for this crime, there is no one to give a motive or interrupt what confounds all about it.
If not for our playgrounds, parks, high school stadiums, local community centers, where are we supposed to cultivate the youth who will be our caretakers in the future through their tax dollars and their innovations? What ground do we stake out for them to enjoy the horizon with thoughts that race forward to how they will spend their long lives, as opposed to anxieties that come from behind and tell them to watch their backs? How do we reclaim the once-vibrant psyches of a generation of youngsters now forced into morbid considerations and fears that typically resemble those of the elderly?
There is a vegetable garden in my neighborhood, cultivated by the local homeowners committed to nutrition and fresh produce. A few blocks away, there is a park. It sits oddly abandoned most days—until young men who are rumored to harass and rob passerby collect when school lets out, or early in the night. When I babysat for a toddler near there, the mother warned me against going to that park and instead directed me to one a near half-mile away within a university campus. Although there is both a public elementary and middle school within walking distance of the garden, the home owners are all involved in hectic lotteries, interviews, waiting lists and tuition payments to insure that their children never enter them. The young children of the neighborhood already compete like graduate students for the select few spots in regional private schools. Their parents are that afraid of what might happen to their children at school.
Once, this land was Black Americans’ new garden to overturn soil bloodied at our expenses, to fertilize it anew with the lives, fulfilled dreams and replenished hopes of new generations. Now, we succumb to shipping children to schools far from where they live and leaving the Internet to report our latest slaughters. We have grown just as numb and callous as the shooters who take down innocent children everyday. If we do not pick up signs to march or pens to write, then we may as well pick up guns to shoot too.
**Since the time of this writing, two young men have come forward in relation to Ms. Pendleton’s murder, and criminal proceedings are currently underway in Chicago. After First Lady Michelle Obama attended the young teen’s funeral, Ms. Pendleton’s story came to prominent national attention. Her surviving parents are currently at the forefront of the national debate for gun regulation.
I saw Lincoln. It was my first film of the New Year. I love Sallie Field. I was happy to see Gloria Reuben and S. Epatha Merkerson again, too. And for some reason, that might have to do with him reminding me of one of my best friends’ moms (even though she is a redhead with finer features), I just think Tommy Lee Jones is so cute and real. And Spielberg has widened and brightened my world since JAWS, ET and, of course, The Color Purple. Schindler’s List remains a finger on my hands when I am asked to account for my favorite movies.
However, I am unsure how much to celebrate of a film that took nearly 3 hours to depict our 16th U.S. President from my very own state of Illinois fighting for a world-altering decision to grant equal consideration under the law to Negro Americans- but there is scarcely a Negro in the film. As a matter of fact, in The Lincoln Institute’s online classroom for educators and classrooms, no Black Americans appear on the character or actors credits list which precede the educational content for the film. So essentially, a new generation of Americans will approach and study this film to see and learn how much White Americans actually did love us. Awww…. There will not be time in the classrooms, just as there was not time in the 3-hour film, to show just how much White and free Black abolitionists had to coddle Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to budge on what the wiser consider to have been an aloof approach to federal involvement in slavery and its eradication. Here, even Frederick Douglass could not muscle his way to a significant part. I could be missing an artistic point. Or, I could be being honest: after so much has been done, Black Americans just may never satisfied with anything done about it.
As a Black American woman with many White friends and indeed friends of all races, I was supremely touched to see a cinematic dilation of an amendment that had always just been a mere fact in our history books and shared national conscience. I brought a print-out of Tony Kushner’s script to the theater, offered on Roger Ebert’s website, to trace how the final scenes mapped onto a text where the House debates read as smoothly yet playfully as Shakespeare; Lincoln’s most famous lines could very well become the dozens played and “signifying” typically associated with Black working-class and hip-hop cultures.
Lincoln validates my life choice to forbid my American origins in slavery, segregation and discrimination from defining and restricting my relationships by and to only those who share these origins. It was a relief to see that White men and people who held the most power were also varied in how they wanted to define and restrict their lives–without a monolithic commitment to dehumanizing my people, but instead wide variance in their feelings about this humiliating historical period for their people. And maybe that was the entire point of the film, beyond showing Lincoln’s distressing and nearly-debilitating conundrums: to move our nation closer to face values, understanding, acceptance, peace and healing by giving a diversified portrait to the scores of White men who were not “like that” back then.
It is a necessary and admirable point. But I still missed seeing firsthand just whom these unequal Black American people were, from Abraham Lincoln’s weary and haunted eyes. Mrs. Lincoln’s Black assistant and seamstress (Reuben) figures prominently at her side throughout and stays a dutiful object around which the Lincolns’ Negro sentiments pivot. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Jones), the primary covert operative in the Republican playbook to outlaw slavery, has an interesting relationship with his housekeeper (Merkerson) as well. A mute bundle of Blacks appears in the balcony at the final voting to pass the 13th Amendment that changed history for Black people across the world; in essence, the climax of the film is this January 31, 1865, Congressional voting day that decided Black Americans would no longer be vulnerable to sudden kidnapping from our native homelands to serve as unpaid, tortured workers on American soil.
Despite Spielberg’s heavy hand in filming nearly palpable visions of human barbarity inflicted upon Jews in Schindler’s List, soldiers in Saving Private Ryan and African Middle Passage travelers in Amistad, Lincoln can hardly be considered gruesome; it is quite gentle given its Civil War setting. Its merits of realism lie strictly in its eerily-evocative ambience of Civil War America, almost as if the actors and crew had journeyed through a time capsule back to mid-nineteenth century America to show us how we may have seen it then if we had gone too. About as flinching as it gets is a numbing scene where blood drains from a creaking wheelbarrow before the severed and mangled body parts of amputee soldiers are dumped into their ready-made collective burial plot; I can not remember if two or three Black men push the wheelbarrow, but more or less would not change my point.
Spielberg omits a grand finale showing Abraham Lincoln’s April 14, 1865, assassination at the Ford Theater (that I remember being mercilessly quizzed on as early as 5th grade). Instead, a character just announces it. The grand finale he wished to leave with us, the last frame in our picture of Abraham Lincoln, is a calmed man hoping for happiness after the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to outlaw slavery in the whole of the United States of America and change the whole world as a result. John Wilkes Booth, who ended Lincoln’s life, is not even a character in the film. So I have to hope Spielberg gave similar pause and aesthetic judgment to the omission of Black Americans in a movie where Black Americans are the primary characters discussed.
“Now,” Eva looked up across from her wagon at her daughter. “Give me that again. Flat out to fit my head.”
“I mean, did you? You know. When we was little.”
“No. I don’t reckon I did. Not the way you thinkin’.”
“Oh, well. I was just wonderin’.” Hanna appeared to be through with the subject.
“An evil wondering’ if I ever heard one.” Eva was not through.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it, Mamma.”
“What you mean you didn’t mean nothing by it? How you gone not mean something by it?”
“Awww, Mamma? Awww, Mamma? You settin’ here with you healthy-ass self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a been two holes full of maggots if I hadn’t.”
“I didn’t mean that, Mamma. I know you fed us and all. I was talkin’ bout something else. Like. Like. Playin’ with us. Did you ever, you know, play with us?”
“Play? Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895. Just ‘cause you got it good now you think it was always this good?”
And here, a mother and daughter in Ohio, America, circa-Depression, discuss their “relationship”—why exactly they live in the same home unto that moment, why they are two grown women shelling peas together, what they have to show for it and each other.
In Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, published by Alfred Knopf at a time when “Black Power” commingled with Blaxploitation and Black revolution, three generations of impoverished Black whores—the third generation being educated, city-dwelling and experienced with “White men”—confront each other and their interior mysteries within their grand pre and post-Depression Ohio mansion. How is the home still standing? Who has passed through it? Who dies off within it? Who returns to claim it? Why are all levels occupied by vestiges of characters we would love to know better but almost hate to know at all—three alien and adopted toddler mulatto brothers who appear oddly the same and who finally wind up with the same name as a result (The “Deweys”), a cracked-out original son and brother torched in sacrifice when he will not rehabilitate (“Plum”), a good girl-bad girl-good girl come home who will preserve herself before she practices the good old African-American commitment and sentiment of never putting the family elderly into a nursing home (“Sula”). Not only does Sula finally throw the one-legged matriarch Eva into a nursing home and go on about what will be a shorter life than she can admit she had hoped, but she also departs from her best friend she has grown up with and formed herself with—a willowy, flexible and malleable character named Nel, that type of best friend who would forgive a friend for condescending her, patronizing her, losing touch with her and sleeping with her husband.
Sula, in many ways, is an ugly novel. I was introduced to it as a junior and wandering English student at the University of Chicago, in a course entitled Fiction of Three Americas, by a psychoanalytic, Americanist and Joyce-loving professor who was a novelist as well; this book is what finally anchored me into a reason to study English. That he would choose Sula, above all other of Morrison’s works, was a tribute to the awesome illusion of poetry as prose with the purpose of exposing the “put-down” Black American mind like never before. Thankfully, my mind was not put down in the course. I held a wonder in my hands each day that I carried a work to class and could speak freely on it; Sula proved to be the most wondrous of them all.
The final progeny in this slim trilogy of 3 generations, Sula, provides the title character and turning moments of the novel. Sula has learned, and seen, and experienced beyond the village, township, subdivision, rural area or neighborhood where her home of the “Bottom” is situated. It is Sula, 10 years beyond her departure from the town and her sincere questioning of where her life might be headed near the provincial, “Man-loving” life is not nearly as limited to it as she once thought it was but that ultimately it may be grandly limited to this place—for here is the only place where she may remain a Queen Bee, a Diva who controls things, a woman large and in charge, an influence and not just a participant. In the space of ten years that Morrison questionably leaves absent from the novel, betwixt when Sula leaves her residence of “The Bottom” and how she returns, a bildungsroman of girlhood gone good, the best it could have been, a discovery of a self and a return to the place that made that self.
There are not many things to love about Sula, but there is everything to love if these are your generations, these are your stories and you know these women in some way or fashion. Morrison discusses the constipation of the tertiary matriarch’s son, Eva’ Plum, nearly 20 years before that matriarch discovers that Plum has a severe drinking and drug problem in the basement of her home. Eva “gallops” down her staircases and burns Plum up as a result. Yet, when Eva’s eldest daughter Hannah is burning to death due to an accident and oversight in the home, it is Eva who hurls herself outside of a high story window to rescue Hannah. And in the novel, it was Hannah who first brought up and discussed “love.” Aphrodite would balk. This “love” is not what one would expect.
Hannah’s crime, committed during a conversation with her mother Eva and over the ritual of shelling peas, was to, simply, ask about “love.” Among these rooms, these doors, this house, these women, these men, and these generations of sisters one minute and mothers to daughters next, there is no room for love. There is only room for getting by, surviving, one day at a time, and “Hi, how ya doin’?” to the people or things that one might think matters. Anything beyond that is open to chance, to luck and to impossibility in this world of pre and post-Depression era working class Blacks that Toni Morrison so beautifully captures—for their honesty, loyalties, realities, gumption and strong, high heads.
One would be hard pressed to find any public demonstration or clue as to an inherently “mad” or “angry” person lurking on the surface or even deep inside of Michelle Obama. In the elite class of First Ladies in which she resides and with 50 predecessors before her, Mrs. Obama ranks among Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy in terms of recognition, studiousness, diligent work and an identity of her own entirely separate from her world-leading husband. In terms of public visibility and community exposure that the African-American Obamas have had to consider their primary job it seems, she ranks second to none. While former first ladies hosted scant events in the big home during the week and rushed to country abodes in order to be ornaments of the home, Mrs. Obama has a packed scheduled of global dignitary events with hubby, media appearances, and even hauling lumber on Extreme Homemaker (in a delightful episode that covered a rehab for a home of female veterans).
The first and only time we have seen the First Lady angry is when she should have been: after having been called as such by a new book without having to do a thing to earn it but be among the most popular people in the world. I will not dignify the book which made such accusations by giving it more free promotion than it has already earned with such a disrespectful publication during a time this country has other realities to address; there is no time for theatrics. I will only provide a glossing of Black women who are never mad or angry–except when they needed to be. And she changed the world with it.
Angry Black Women:
Fannie Lou Hamer
Rae Lewis Thornton
As I compose my first blog of 2012, I know it could very well be my only blog or at least one of just a few. I am nervous and frightened at the future of my lifelong passion and chosen profession: writing. Forasmuch as I could be tapping out my latest novel at this moment (as opposed to a short-term sequence of thoughts in a blog), readers and literary enthusiasts could be reading my novels (or any novels) at this moment. But many are canvassing the net for the instant gratification and fast-paced philosophies of The Blog.
I would be remiss to unrecognize or ignore that I am using a blog format and system to announce this announcement…
There is enough strange and messy about being an artist who bares my soul and any impressions of others’ souls on my mind in a book; but to add my personal or regular shenanigans–from frolicking with my niece, to seeing a bad movie, to lunching with my dad–into the pot of words in the world to be found about me is stranger and messier by far. More than the assassination of an infinite number of trees as a necessary evil my industry of publishing depends on, the wildfire success of Internet writing has proven to be the most pressing danger and threat to the craft of fiction and its essential engagement by a public. While we do have a critical mass of the world’s population writing now (and reading), it is from an explosion of writing online which means that Internet celebrity and prominence are more attainable in this era than a damned good book. I do not care when my favorite authors discover a new recipe or have a successful online date or climb Mount Everest. I care when they make me weep or wince with their art.
In high school, I used to press the “Power” button on my mechanical typewriter after my family had gone to bed and go to town on whatever my imagination fancied. Usually, I was driven by the latest time-tested book an English teacher had assigned. Now, I approach my latest in a series of laptops I am known to burn up with so many options I usually wind up frozen—before drifting. Twitter? Facebook? LinkedIn? Myspace? WordPress? Huffington Post? I used to have a blog roll of my favorite friends and writers. I love them, so it was natural. But I no longer do. I was spending more time reading their micro-chapters than I was writing my own.
Ask anyone what makes the person who whines “I want to write” different from the person who declares “I am a writer.” The answer will usually boil down to one trait: Discipline. Before I learned that there was a global machine behind the impressive displays of mental acuity and wit organized into the brightly colored spines of books in my public library, at home and at school, I knew that those we knew as authors were ascribed undesirable characteristics which seemed foreign to my lively high school life and impending future. Solitary. Cranky. Snobby. Addicted. Withdrawn. Nocturnal. Depressed. Stormy.
My own ephemeral forays into a cerebral and introverted category of person aside, I would have to become a published author to learn that the personality compartments of most writers were less likely to fit into such dark and stark ledgers. As a matter of fact, such ledgers were not possible if one were to be the “entertainer” that most writers must be in order to promote, promote, promote—or die. I have never seen or met a writer of long tomes or masterpiece attempts who could afford not to work terribly hard.
Instead, I saw the grueling pace of speaking engagements, teaching, reading and manuscript advising of poets who work among even less profit margins than fiction and non-fiction artists. I saw magicians of le mot achieve noteworthy and acceptable split personalities, in their instantaneous switches from long days and nights of solitary toil with Microsoft Word as a lone companion into smiley tours in bookstores, book clubs, book groups and festivals with neverending companions. The ball in our court is so heavy that elusive popularity is more anguishing than it was in high school. 24/7/365 Twitter or Facebook Apps in between calling Mom, Constant Contact, and online social media gurus-for-hire seem to be weird shortcuts to that end. They are not hard work.
One of my fondest memories as an author is meeting a prolific New York novelist in her hotel room in Chicago when she visited for a reading. In between our drinks and dashes to the Hard Rock Hotel conference center for special events that week, she stood up straight at her computer typing out her latest novel with one hand and ironing her best meet-and-greet slacks with another. There were no assistants to crisp her pants like bacon as she savored finding the perfect word, no entourage to shield her email address from all who asked. By then, I was on the way to never coming out as a “writer” again. I needed to stay in. I did not see myself as suited to be an online attention whore, and I had always found boarding or riding planes alone to be a dismal activity. I formed these conclusions as a phenomenon developed behind my back which remains to be tamed or explained: people sitting at home or work on computers gaining audiences virally and beyond demoralizing reproach of editing or workshopping. The possibilities may have expanded: I do not have to be a harried writer in a bookstore signing , or a VIP carrying my own flight bag. Now…I can Blog!!!!! But 5 years after these revelations came to me and the toddler stage of blogging has passed into piss-and-vinegar adulthood, I am still a writer in bookstore signings. And, I can still find my books in the library or bookstores. This is how it should be.
If any group of artists on the planet should not suffer dilution of celebrity, it is writers. We exist in a profession where the time to produce a work is significantly longer than most—even muralists determined to cloak buildings that are blocks long, or musicians recording legendary albums which will be pressed out weeks after the last editing strokes. We strive to reach audiences through a medium and method which plays a dastardly trick on its strivers, amateurs and dreamers. Anyone can turn on a computer or put pencil to paper, so anyone can write books—right? The illusion of ease with writing was already a formidable roadblock to authors and poets collecting the leisures and luxuries of our cohorts in the fields of entertainment. Now, keyboards with WiFi are as well.
While other entertainers find their most positive tabloid coverage being unearthed pictures of their first tap dance performances at 6 or breakout starring roles in school plays at 12, writers find it taken for granted that we learned to recite the alphabet at 3, fashion penmanship at 6, master Mavis Beacon at 13, and finally produce books at 50. The writer’s tell-tale backgrounds of lifelong geekiness or shewd insights into what most never notice or reveal is neglected. And now that anyone with a computer can be the writer of their own blog, it is not even required. It usually saddens me when people really believe—and they do—that becoming a writer is as simple as asking any one you can meet: “Can you write my story?” While films about writers certainly centralize melancholia, unrequieted or fiery love, addictions, and passionate force behind finishing the novel that will win the Pulitzer, most writers are not that volatile or vain. Yet, blogging and online social networking almost depend on the two.
The hidden disciplinarians of fiction, non-fiction and poetic writing are spared the commitment to vanity that many entertainment industries often fatally require. But in the name of vanity, I speak out for my genuine and sincere writers in this world who would be doing so no matter if Blogger had not given so many instant audience in paragraphs or if the shrunken wit of Twitter did not exist for any member of society who can write a sentence without knowing how to diagram one. Writers would be writing journal, newspaper or magazine articles in our print publications that are steadily dwindling. Writers would be writing copy for music product, or playbills, or obituaries. Writers would be critics, striving to be noble at it. Chances are that these statements do not apply to 80% of people “writing” online. Why, then, have book sales declined and even school book orders evaporated? My guess is all are online.
I cringed when software developed and computers evolved for any rapper or musician with a computer and microphone to press out an album, really a zeroxed CD. I do, however, smile and decline politely when one of these homemade records is offered to me as I hit the local fried fish joint. Let’s face it. If everyone who aspired to entertain or making a living off of talent circumnavigated the industries that both set and limit its access, we would have fewer doctors, attorneys, nurses, administrative assistants, cafeteria workers and people to pick up our trash in this world. We all have our own unique callings, and the calling to rise as the crème de la crème of talent is one in which risk, uncertainty, and social sacrifice is paramount. Few want to really ride it. Anyone can kill two birds with one stone in an office, fashioning their latest micropiece in their chosen subject area—whilst on the clock, or either paid vacation. Not as many eschew the comfort of employment for MFA programs or English majors or independent presses and newspapers they must fuel, and those who do write in occupational comfort often commit to the discomfort of rising at the crack of dawn or eating into sleep at night in order to compose masterpieces. Brutal honesty is also a trait of writers. Time theft prevents that.
But that remarkable conscientiousness of a sincere writer, who would rather miss out on sleep or Saturday night fever in order to write and still actually do the day job they are being paid for–until Stephen King’s editor calls–is testimony to the hover of diluted celebrity that most authors expect and obey. As blog numbers rise and rise and kids learn Textlish before English, let’s hope more writers keep writing for what can be remembered beyond last week or month. Otherwise, whatever will be tested or taught?
The very first time I saw Edwidge Danticat was on the Oprah Winfrey stage in 1998, as one of the earliest authors handpicked by Ms. Winfrey to have the distinction of a title for the Oprah’s Book Club. The title was Danticat’s first novel: Breath, Eyes, Memory. I paid undivided attention to the soft-spoken, gentle mannered, chocolate, dimpled and precisely-worded young author. A Haitian best friend from Brooklyn had mentioned this woman to me–for Krik? Krak! I recall I had not had the time to borrow it yet. I must admit. After I met her on Oprah Winfrey, I went out and bought her works the very next day. Funny…I would certainly listen to a friend who always gave me the best books, but I would fast run out to spend my money when Oprah Winfrey said so? What she has done for Black American female writers in America, in making her selections of our works with no pretention of “diversity,” but just a predilection for damned good books, is unprecedented.
During her tenure as more than a talk show queen, Oprah Winfrey was lauded for her book club…but why? Sure, she got millions of Americans reading. Her golden stamp of approval guaranteed that major bookstore managers and publishing publicists would stay very busy, in these times where people are too hypnotized by Facebook to pick up a real book. The writers she put at the forefront of American daytime audiences, like rock stars running the late night television circuit, were a collection of everyone from the unknowns that she launched into the pages of Poets & Writers to deceased heavyweights that only English teachers wagged fingers for us:
William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Andre Dubus, Billie Letts, Jane Hamilton, Pearl Buck, Gabriella Garcia Marquez, Wally Lamb, Barbara Kingsolver, Joyce Carol Oates, Leo Tolstoy, Ken Follett, Anna Quindlen, Sue Monk Kidd, Charles Dickens, Alice Sebold, and so on and so forth. The list of Black American men and women she featured includes the little engine Ernest Gaines and the elegant behomoth Maya Angelou. Most of her book selections were written by women. In the earliest years of the club, the majority were titles by Blacks. Winfrey practiced quiet diversity.
Beyond the hard books she placed into American circulation at rates higher than when they debuted, Winfrey’s cinematic contributions to American film have done more for Black women’s literaturethan anything besides her own book club. She is second only to the Black academy’s tenacious study, collection, archiving and documenting of our books from the last 150 years of bravery in continual publication (despite continual negation of our voices). More people heard and saw her heartfelt and dramatic “You told Harpo to beat me!” than actually read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple book (1985); the same goes for the droves of people, of all races, who flocked to Broadway for The Color Purple musical she spearheaded and funded to international acclaim. Without her, it may have just had a novelty run for a few seasons.
Despite the fact that Beloved (1998) ascended Toni Morrison to unprecedented critical acclaim and meritorious notoriety, it took 15 years for one like Oprah Winfrey to guarantee it would reach audiences onscreen. Her television roles (as lead actress and producer, respectively), in The Women of Brewster Place (1989) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005), gave the world a visual rendering of Gloria Naylor’s and Zora Neale Hurston’s decades-old work. Previously, those books had only haunted the most astute Black women readers and college classes of stalwart professors who would not let such names remain unspoken.
Winfrey’s dissenters, and there were many, accused her of pandering too much to “soccer mom” culture and slighting her own people by building schools in Africa–at the expense of Black women’s issues or concerns, or rescue of American projects with notoriously dismal rates of academic ambition, or higher concentrations of Black guests.
She could have done little more. She could have created a Book Club centering upon names, faces and complexions such as hers–with a taskmaster’s attitude to America to “englighten” themselves on Black writers. The affirmative action undertones would have knocked the works down a peg or two, made them more pathetic than majestic. She could have made sure to include a token Black writer in a predictable pattern…one every month or year. She did not. Some years had several. Some had none. The arbitrary democracy of her selections forced the true categorization of Black women’s works to finally shine brightest and highest: These are not Black writers’ books…these are just the best books on the planet. Here is a list of books that I would love to design a college academic course around, celebrating Ms. Winfrey:
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines
The Meanest Thing to Say, The Treaure Hunt, The Best Way to Play by Bill Cosby
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Paradise by Toni Morrison
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
River, Cross My Heart by Breena Clarke
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Cane River by Lalita Tademy
Sula by Toni Morrison
The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier
Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan
Biography found at American PBS Masters: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/lena-horne/about-the-performer/487/
About the Performer
Even in her eighties, the legendary Lena Horne has a quality of timelessness about her. Elegant and wise, she personifies both the glamour of Hollywood and the reality of a lifetime spent battling racial and social injustice. Pushed by an ambitious mother into the chorus line of the Cotton Club when she was sixteen, and maneuvered into a film career by the N.A.A.C.P., she was the first African American signed to a long-term studio contract. In her rise beyond Hollywood’s racial stereotypes of maids, butlers, and African natives, she achieved true stardom on the silver screen, and became a catalyst for change even beyond the glittery fringes of studio life.
Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Lena Horne became one of the most popular African American performers of the 1940s and 1950s. At the age of sixteen she was hired as a dancer in the chorus of Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. There she was introduced to the growing community of jazz performers, including Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. She also met Harold Arlen, who would write her biggest hit, “Stormy Weather.” For the next five years she performed in New York nightclubs, on Broadway, and touring with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra. Singing with Barnet’s primarily white swing band, Horne was one of the first black women to successfully work on both sides of the color line.
Within a few years, Horne moved to Hollywood, where she played small parts in the movies. At this time, most black actors were kept from more serious roles, and though she was beginning to achieve a high level of notoriety, the color barrier was still strong. “In every other film I just sang a song or two; the scenes could be cut out when they were sent to local distributors in the South. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of a chance to act,” she said. “CABIN IN THE SKY and STORMY WEATHER were the only movies in which I played a character who was involved in the plot.” Her elegant style and powerful voice were unlike any that had come before, and both the public and the executives in the entertainment industry began to take note. By the mid-’40s, Horne was the highest paid black actor in the country. Her renditions of “Deed I Do” and “As Long as I Live,” and Cole Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things” became instant classics. For the thousands of black soldiers abroad during World War II, Horne was the premier pin-up girl.
Much like her good friend Paul Robeson, Horne’s great fame could not prevent the wheels of the anti-Communist machine from bearing down on her. Her civil rights activism and friendship with Robeson and others marked her as a Communist sympathizer. Like many politically active artists of the time, Horne found herself blacklisted and unable to perform on television or in the movies. For seven years the attacks on her person and political beliefs continued. During this time, however, Horne worked as a singer, appearing in nightclubs and making some of her best recordings. LENA HORNE AT THE WALDORF ASTORIA, recorded in 1957, is still considered to be one of her best. Though the conservative atmosphere of the 1950s took their toll on Horne, by the 1960s she had returned to the public eye and was again a major cultural figure.
In 1963, she participated in the march on Washington and performed at rallies throughout the country for the National Council for Negro Women. She followed that with a decade of international touring, recording, and acting on both television and the silver screen. Horne had found in her growing audience a renewed sense of purpose. All of this came crashing down when her father, son and husband died in a period of twelve months during the early 1970s. Horne retreated almost completely from public life. It was not until 1981 that she fully returned, making a triumphant comeback with a one-person show on Broadway. LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC chronicled Horne’s early life and almost fifty years in show business. It ran for fourteen months and became the standard by which one-woman shows are judged. Throughout the past twenty years, Horne’s performances have been rare yet welcome occurrences.
Much has changed since the 16-year old who was Lena Horne danced her first tentative steps across the stage of the Cotton Club. Through myriad triumphs and challenges, she paved the way to stardom for countless others in the entertainment industry. Her continued musical, theatrical, and political efforts grew with the times and met each new decade with courage and grace. But, if one thing hasn’t changed, it’s Horne’s ability to break our hearts with her shimmering resonant voice, singing songs like “Black Coffee” and “Stormy Weather.”
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Around the age of 30, and in ensuing years after, I finally learned what had made many of my elders, who saw me as their high-achieving young heroine, so frightened at what could happen to me later on in life—when the grace, smarts, manners, comportment, hard work ethic and do-gooder character, which rewarded me with admirers of all races in my youth, could start to turn against me in adulthood. The attributes which had once overwhelmed and busied me with fortifying attention as a tween and teen would later overwhelm with me as an adult, due to either not enough attentions or all the wrong attentions; my spiritual, mental and psychological adaptation would be a violent, stubborn one.
At 16 years old, the NAACP of my small Illinois hometown determined it would protest the school district I was a local star, standout, participant and benefactor of. The reason? The discomforting school pregnancy, suspension, drop-out and truancy rate was most probably in direct relation to a nearly 50/50 Black/White student population. An entire population of Black students attended a district with scarcely a Black teacher in the schools. The leaders of this movement claimed White students were either going to college or guaranteed good jobs in town through their parents and otherwise, as Black students were more often steered to jail, technical schools and short military careers. Their solution was to pull Black students out of the school district and into makeshift church schools until the powers-that-be achieved more balance in racial representation. For me to protest as part of this movement, I would have had to leave school the year before college admissions were sealed and with a near straight-A honors average. I needed my grades. Although my family worked honestly and hard, my opportunities to college were most definitely tied to scholarships that a Senior Year lacuna would jeopardize.
At that time, as Class President and Miss Junior Kankakee of the integrated town, I saw the NAACP’s arguments as somewhat valid. it made sense to me that Black women and men could better understand and “relate” to Black young people, so that more Black teachers would not overreact about minor behavior issues and they would better recognize displays of genius which cut against the prevalent models set by White behavior, culture and identity. Yet, I had always been sequestered in honors classes and surrounded by higher achieving friends of all races. For whatever reasons, we were clearly self-determined. The methods of petitioning and partitioning our district into makeshift all-Black church schools, conducted by retired teachers, was antagonistic to all I had learned in Black History Month. These were today’s crusaders, talking now. It was such an oddity to me that we were at this backwards point in race relations that I penned a letter to the newspaper stating I did not agree with the boycott, we should not look to segregate schools, parents should get involved in steering children’s futures and we all needed to pray.
I still agree with the last two, at this age of over twice 16.
My letter galvanized the NAACP’s threats into a movement. It freed up Whites to start writing in their opinions for much more “hope” that we could “all get along.” It spurred Blacks to write in with their own experiences, usually counter to mine. I was profiled in the newspaper, and taken from my afterschool jobs, studies, church activities and extracurricular projects to be a local celebrity. My desperation to cover acne accelerated. Within weeks, a national television show in New York had heard tale of the news in our small town; suddenly, I was to be swept off to New York City in order to be the foil to low black achievement (and White blame) on national television. It was my first plane trip. I was excited, and ready.
However, concerned and active Blacks who had swept me up into scholarship pageants and Debutante Cotillions approached me gently regarding this new role I played. They did not give personal attack, as some NAACP leaders in town chose to do, for an outcome I had not asked for. They attempted to enlighten me to the fact that this movement had not begun with Black parents of outstanding children like me, who were lucky enough not to need too much intervention from teachers in order to do well. We were the rare exceptions–not the rules. They attempted to explain I was unaware of how the majority of Black children were serviced poorly, unattended to and written off at levels far below their full potentials. I always listened and smiled through their pointed lectures. I thought I was saying something peaceful and that our forefathers would have wanted. These other protestors were more still, calm and serious. A distillation of the speeches I frequently heard from them is this:
“You don’t understand. You’re pretty, nice and helpful. You were obviously already moving on a higher path, long before you got to school. They are going to like you more, treat you differently and see you as something to take credit for. You are not going to feel the same high discipline these others get, and you are going to have them trying to help you just so they can say they were apart of one of our successes. You will see, when you get older, that all that stops the moment you are out of a place where you can be identified quickly and easily as one of our exceptional people. Once you get out of school and into this world, your life is going to turn into having many more surprises, pressures and battles than you can ever imagine now.”
The surprises, pressures and battles actually started the moment I crossed over the threshold of just “winning Black student”…to well-known local television star, publicly articulate woman and example of model achievement. In the weeks before the show, television show producers called my parents and me incessantly. I was amused at how they directed my mother to speak of me, since she had been doing so all my life: she confirmed how early I started talking, made it clear I worked hard and no one had to tell me to, emphasized how well I wrote and that I wanted to go to college, and confirmed to them that they had an authentically inauthentic Negro to depict. We were small-town, working class people. We had many strangers call to to congratulate us but even more acquaintances decide not to speak to us. It appeared we were betraying the race.
I spoke with the television show more briefly, since I was handling my life and new role. I mostly wanted to know where Columbia University was, and to journey there since I was going to go to New York for the television show. Our limo driver made the detour to the school’s Morningside Heights campus, and I sat on the steps of the main building with plans to apply. I did several times to different programs, and always got in. Oddly, when I became a novelist at 27, I was unaccepted into their English PhD program. These producers who arranged this stop also promised me VHS tapes of my television show. The producers were like the rest who wanted to contribute to my obvious success story; they encouraged me to give the tape to colleges. Their promises were enthusiastic and energetic. But, we would never hear from them after our show.
My parents and I journeyed to the New York production set to receive the firsts of many surprises I would earn over the years: attempts to test my will, give me new challenges to reckon with immediately, emotional shutters and shocks that add for us what others don’t have to deal with it, and expectations of a thrill in how we will handle this (rather than help). We had been informed that all the show’s guests were people from my hometown. It was only once we arrived that producers explained Former Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke would be a guest on the show as well. I knew who he was, what he stood for and what it meant for me. I was stunned. I felt the life drain out of my meticulously-curled hair, perfumed chest, polished toes and high spirits. My father pulled me to the side to immediately scrutinize this. He told me: “I’m sorry, but as much as these people spoke to us, they had to know this man was coming on the show and did not tell us. If you don’t want to go on, you don’t have to.”
I decided to go on the show, as I said I was going to do. The show’s producers were clearly wrong, but I would not be right by taking my free trip to New York and going home with an appearance. As we prepared to go on and I sat with my parents, one of the producers expressed concern that their little star guest (me) was “boring.” This was before the days of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich and a host of other ridiculous productions who cull the majority of their cheap content from Black guests who screech, fight, snatch wigs off, stomp their feet and otherwise appear sadly stunted. The television producers told me to “Pep up, babe.” In fact, I was quite pepped–sitting with my legs crossed, hands folded in my lap and a soft voice as I had been taught. Despite calling me because I wrote a letter to rival an experienced journalist, the producers expected a neck-rolling, head-jerking, loud and gyrating woman they saw on television. Their reactions to me foreshadowed what would be a terrible experience.
The producers did not really care who I was or what was most respected about me. Here, I was not “Black” enough. The audience thought so as well. They represented the ditch many Blacks face once they over-achieve: complete and total estrangement from our own people and near disdain for being “different” enough to embody the enemy. Our words of encouragement and advice remain distrusted, spit back at us, not taken and just as rebelled against. The moment I shared my experiences as well as my reasons for disagreeing with the implementation of segregation in the mid-nineties, audience members booed me and jumped up hurling insults. The audience cross-examined me to points of having to raise my voice. My mother had to stand up to explain that we were not necessarily rich, just stable. Imagine? A people who are so hurt that a poor child’s mother has to explain she is not rich just so the masses will back off of hurting her. Once my mother, father and I were sufficiently pissed off to vigorously respond to the attacks, the producers ran to me with glee: “Good job!” They did not care for the issue at hand. They wanted a show. And a bunch of Black people shouting at each other is more of a show than a Black audience celebrating one of their own for good grades.
What was most startling about the experience is how much the host, producers and audience were nearly committed to seeing me act “ghetto.” pitched, explosive and physically animated if they must defend themselves against high pressure from one of more people. There are plateaus of composure; many Blacks have had to become nearly catatonic or diseased by high blood pressure to contain the stress inflicted by a world of prejudice and discrimination. You would think others would take into account all the stress prejudice and discrimination must bring Black people, to treat us more tenderly and gently.
I have experienced the opposite. People have treated me worse because they hold stereotypes of Black people as volatile, angry, mad and dangerous. And of course, if you are a nice person with good intentions but the signals around you keep affirming you are dangerous, you will grow so frustrated with the weirdness such signals bring that you will start to look just like that. I have lost several jobs in this fashion–unable to understand how or why I could be the most chipper and happy person in the offices, yet I was always the one being corrected or giving apologies demanded by White others who were so on edge in my presence. My confusion eventually subsided into the very anger I did not have to begin with, but which these White others’ prejudiced delusions finally caused.
I have a grand-cousin who earned two degrees in social work as a lifelong Chicagoan. She raised six children and paid off a home. She raises her grandchildren. She has never been arrested. I relay words she shared on how to cope with this unfortunate aspect of our existences: “Yes, sometimes I am in situations and everybody is just acting weird. They look like they’re snarling. They keep on asking me the same questions over and over. They act like I’m hurting them or something. They attack anything I say. If I move or get up to go the bathroom, they flinch like I’ve pulled out a gun. And I’m just as nice and happy as a besty bug. It always sneaks up on me. But I have to stop myself and say ‘Oh, I forgot I was Black.’ Cause you know, we forget that. Why would we be thinking about being Black? But, once I remember that I have Black skin and these White folks have spent their whole lives being told and taught that those with Black skin were savages, and poor, and unrefined, and unintelligent, and needy, and ungodly I understand what is going on around me and I don’t go so crazy I.”
On that show, and in my life, I forget I am Black. And, I let others know I do not appreciate their actions or I am upset. I came to know that my stuttering and furrowed brow would not be considered signs of distress for others to immediately come to my aide for—as I saw being done to White heroines in the movies. For me, these would be certifications of a “ghetto” beast lurking inside that was a desired complication of the inauthentic Negro I most often represented. I would be either left on my own to hear them, or punished even more than the events which caused any changes in me already had punished me. Later in life, this would involve clear unfairness on my jobs, assaults by men, cocky and aggressive handling by police, and constant backlash or distrust among White friends who never outlasted whatever situation we were fated to sit within.
On the show, the pressures to account for my “ghetto” life hindered the capabilities of the audiences to hear what I was saying: self-reliance, spiritual cores, hard work and finding people who uplifted one’s talents could surmount the racism our town was assigning to great teachers who helped many of all levels. Yet, the presence of my two parents in the audience and my clearly pronounced speech made me an imposter in these hardcore New York Blacks’ world. It followed in a year where I was more nervous and scared to wear my pageant crown on cars and floats in Black communities; I would answer for it the next day in school, hear I was not “pretty” and be accused of “acting White.” In the rural cornfield towns and fairs, Whites would clap and cheer. I did not understand why I was certainly something to see for many. Was I a zoo animal? I was not “Black enough” for my own people, and often unsafe in the masses of them. I would never be “White enough” for other people, and most often unsafe in the masses of them. I was unsure where I belonged.
What I remember most about the show is coming back from it, still juggling studies and attention, being both congratulated and despised. Of course, there was envy. A group of girls determined they were going to tax my nerves with low blows and insults until I approached them. I politely explained I did not enjoy or appreciate being called names. The girls exploded into a storm of “Bitch this!” and “Bitch that!” I walked away. A teacher noticed their volatile outburst through the halls. She reported them to the office. Within minutes, I was also called to the office to face an Assistant Principal. He had my suspension slip ready. The other girls had provided my name as “starting” a fight with them, although I was nowhere on the scene of this fight. In my own defense, I did not gain exoneration; I provided his ammunition. I admitted I had asked my victimizers why they taunted me. He looked redeemed and stated: “You started it.” He added: “We’re cracking down on Black girls fighting.”
I was being suspended as Class President and a woman who had just journeyed onto television to defend the school as not being discriminatory. I was truly stunned. I did not know how to respond. The Black principal honed in on my nearly frozen scramble to grab my purse before I had to walk, inconsolable and shocked, through the hallways. I am not sure how graceful I was supposed to behave in that moment. But he saw me roll my eyes, throw my hands up in the air and grab my purse off his desk to leave. Another student at another school would be perceived only of having “hormones” (or maybe in shock from being suspended). But, I forgot I was Black. For me, the perception was: “See…attitude…that’s what we’re talking about and cracking down on.” I was not the Class President honors student who was flabbergasted at how I could be suspended for other girls taunting me; I was just another mad Black woman with attitude. And attitude had never gotten a White student suspended. He justified his harsh punishment of me after the fact of the offense.
I had been in running to be the Valedictorian or Salutatorian of my high school class. Suspended from work and exams, this was impossible. The teacher who had turned the other young ladies in ran to the office to state that she would have never brought in the girls who were screaming in the hallways if she had known I would wind up suspended along with them. She also stressed she had never even seen me talking to these girls. My honors English teacher confirmed I had been sitting in class on time and leading a project, to show I had no interest in staggering in hallways yelling obscenities. The entire situation made no sense. The senselessness of the moment and the insistence on my punishment–from a drama created by Black girls and enforced by a grown Black man–shattered a part of my faith in who I was at that time.
I came home early and found my father had taken the day off of work. By the time I was home, the full reality of what had just happened set in. My father raced to school to demand an explanation. He asked why the situation had not been treated as a simple argument, to be cured with a Peer Mediation session or principal’s office visit. This principal was relentless. My father would not hear too much of the principal’s explanation that the school district had entrusted him to put an end to “Black girls fighting.” Then it all made sense. My father explained “You can’t make a martyr out of my daughter.” But this man could–and he would lie to do it. He inflated my behavior in his office and told my father: “You think your daughter is so sweet and nice. You should have seen how she acted in my office.” Given the story of me he hinted at, one would have thought I threw all his papers off his desk and tried to turn it over. I am dumbfounded, to this day, as to why this grown adult Black man was so resolute about punishing the star Black student of his school. I guess post-traumatic slave disorder is real. From the attacks a largely Black audience had given me on a television show, to the attacks from Black student body members once I returned from being on television, to a senseless attack from upper administration, it seemed as if I had been lied to. The primary reward in studying and working hard seemed to be violent backlash.
Numbed, I coasted through my Senior Year without the same torpedo for highest grades I was known for. What was the point? If I was going to stay up for good grades into the wee hours of morning once I worked several afterschool jobs, and exhaust myself as an active leader in my school and community…but apparently, none of this would count when it really mattered. I would be just a “mad Black girl” (and soon “mad Black woman”) if there was ever a hint of conflict hovered above my head: no fair trial, no weighing of all evidence, no consideration of my side, no belief that maybe I was scared or hurt. As I had planned, I applied to and was accepted by many colleges. I started my first relationship and romance. Spending time with him and going to work became my priority. I had lost faith in being a good “student.” Unto today, I would rather sit home in a loving relationship and go to work to make money than subject myself to trying to achieve greatness in this still-prejudiced world.
This was a first point when fissures started to invade my skull, for a future volcanic quake of my brain which climaxed in my early thirties when I made the mistake of being immersed among too many White people at once: in my jobs, graduate school English program, my apartment building and my neighborhood. Though it did not know it back in high school but I would certainly realize it in my thirties, my solid faith in the dream of uplift quaked, too. I saw that none of my White or Asian academically-talented peers rushed breathless our Honors Chemistry exams, after being subject to fights and suspensions caused by dropouts who rumbled in the streets. I wanted a world and path and life so peaceful and unencumbered. Any African-American who has achieved a fraction of what they set out to do will tell you a peaceful and unencumbered path is impossible. Some quietly accept prejudice and discrimination, and probably are the best off for it. Others, like myself I admit, talk very loud.
Those tough elders whispered their own lullabies to me back then and it would take more life for me to understand their messages: to conserve energy for a lifetime of condemnation, despite all evidence to the contrary. The Talented Tenth live on. We probably are a Talented Half by now. There is rest in Black suburban enclaves, Black-owned firms and non-profits, Black colleges. Black parents approach me when I speak at schools or events. I have waxed poetic about the power of education, living your dreams, blah blah blah. Their firefly children run in the world now. If they are expressive or smart, they are stopped often and marveled over. They get to feel special. They do not yet have an ongoing relationship or history with the words ‘prejudice’ and ‘discrimination’–let alone instant recall as to how they feel. These parents have heard my speech about education, art and goals. They have sat quietly, arms folded, eyes lowered, lips pursed. They have congratulated me, and smiled. They ask, quietly: “Should we tell them?”
We all know Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, a photograph known for its quintessential nudge to contemporary hearts to remind us of that bottoming out in our nation’s history. How many Black mothers were there at that time, and how many of their stories have not traveled unto now? Certainly, the evocative image of children curled unto a mother’s dry breasts deserve no critique. Yet, the tenements of Harlem and the flats of Bronzeville and the underground hovels of the South have no internationally-recognized images to mark the force of this event on their lives. Is it taken for granted that we have always been and may always be in a Depression? Or, were we just not counted as there? Are we counted now?
I found some interesting shots of Black women done by Eudora Welty, online at Corbis.com. Why were they nice suprises to me?
In these times, I found some pictures of us looking certifiably glamourous, raw, and fly. The puzzle of visual placement of African-American female images, from the countrified to the well-to-do to the sexual, have seemingly remained unsolved. Must we be downtrodden, barge-toting and potato-sack wearing unfortunates in order to be appreciated, or must we be creamy displays of uber-sexual excess, to melt into most cerebral pots? The consideration of our Migrant Mothers alongside our visually-accepted beauties has a gradient of approval, examination and interpretation that either cuts most of us out or celebrates far too wide.
Looking at us in the ranges and predicaments of glory we are capable of, I at least proclaim Black women may have been the greatest things to come from the camera’s invention–whether to document the historical genocides and modern chaos of our nations (still), or to exhibit the flowering of ingenues from what was then and still sought for extermination. And we are still here… Enjoy!