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Black History Month, day 28
I’ve tried to make many of these entries positive, so as not to suggest that African-American history has been nothing but sorrow. The genius of black poets, leaders, artists, composers, dancers, writers, and organizers is the heritage of African-Americans and other Americans–for that matter, of all of humanity.
Still, there are tragic passages of history I have wanted to include. First, they’re part of our history and think we can learn who we are by learning our country’s history, just as we learn it by knowing our family’s story and our own. Second, they also tell us about the tremendous courage, creativity, and perseverance of African-Americans. It gives me hope for the human spirit even as it makes me feel sick at how cruel and ignorant we can be. And third, they counteract the racism, and internalized racism, that says African-Americans must be near the bottom of the social structure because of some fault within themselves or their culture.
One of the phenomena I didn’t know about until a few years ago is the sundown town: a town where black people were prevented by official policy, enforcement by police or unchecked vigilantes, restrictive covenants, and the like from “allowing the sun to set on them”–in other words, they could pass through, spend money, even work (usually as laborers or domestics) there, but not live there. (There have also been towns that were “sundown” to Jews, Chinese, Native Americans, Mexicans, and others. San Jose, California, now home to more people of Vietnamese descent than anywhere outside of Vietnam, used to exclude Asians.) I touched on this a bit early in the month in my entry about the Green Book. The national expert on it is James Loewen, whose book, Sundown Towns, is a fascinating read; you can also read about sundown towns on his website, and look up towns you know.
Surprise: they will mostly be outside the South. He began his research in his home state of Illinois, and eventually confirmed 456 sundown towns there; in Mississippi he has confirmed only a handful. The phenomenon of white Americans creating white-only towns (sometimes by violently expelling the towns’ black residents) took hold around the end of Reconstruction and was most widespread from 1890-1940. It declined, but didn’t end, then; at the time of his research a few years ago, some towns were still effectively closed to certain groups, usually black people. At its peak, Loewen surmises that “probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African-Americans” (2).
Levittown, the famous planned community that began in New York and was also established in three other states, is widely credited with establishing suburbia and the American middle class. It made home ownership available to blue-collar families. Which blue-collar families? White ones. Black people were not allowed to buy houses there. Repeat this pattern all over suburbia and you start to understand why African-Americans have found it so hard to gain a foothold in the middle class.
For the ambitious and history-minded, Loewen provides a guide to determining whether a given town is, or used to be, sundown. If you enjoy researching genealogy or local history, this is a great project, and Loewen will post your results.
Why bother, especially if the town’s status changed two generations ago? Because the reputation lives on, if not among the people who have always been allowed to live there, then among the excluded populations, with the result that they continue to feel excluded. Without ever being told straight out that people like me (Jews) used to be forbidden to live in Darien, CT, I knew it was a town I didn’t want to drive through, much less live in. I would feel very different about it if the town formally acknowledged its history and apologized for the injustices of the past; until it does so, the impression it gives is that it is content to continue to ride the coattails of ancestral anti-Semitism. Likewise, if a town I live in used to exclude African-Americans, I’d want it to explicitly declare that those days were over and all were welcome, so that it didn’t continue to maintain a de facto exclusion by its reputation.
Black History Month, day 27
I love this. Tip of the hat to Esther Bradley-DeTally, on whose blog I saw it, and thanks also for putting me on to Colorlines. com and arc.org (Applied Research Center: Racial Justice through Media, Research and Activism.
Can you feel the power?
I’m printing it out as a poster for my office window.
Black History Month, day 26
A poem from Audre Lorde:
Who Said It Was Simple
There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in color
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.
and from Rita Dove:
The Bistro Styx
She was thinner, with a mannered gauntness
as she paused just inside the double
glass doors to survey the room, silvery cape
billowing dramatically behind her.What’s this,
I thought, lifting a hand until
she nodded and started across the parquet;
that’s when I saw she was dressed all in gray,
from a kittenish cashmere skirt and cowl
down to the graphite signature of her shoes.
“Sorry I’m late,” she panted, though
she wasn’t, sliding into the chair, her cape
tossed off in a shudder of brushed steel.
We kissed. Then I leaned back to peruse
my blighted child, this wary aristocratic mole.
“How’s business?” I asked, and hazarded
a motherly smile to keep from crying out:
Are you content to conduct your life
as a cliché and, what’s worse,
an anachronism, the brooding artist’s demimonde?
Near the rue Princesse they had opened
a gallery cum souvenir shop which featured
fuzzy off-color Monets next to his acrylics, no doubt,
plus bearded African drums and the occasional miniature
gargoyle from Notre Dame the Great Artist had
carved at breakfast with a pocket knife.
“Tourists love us. The Parisians, of course”–
she blushed–” are amused, though not without
a certain admiration . . .”
. The Chateaubriand
arrived on a bone-white plate, smug and absolute
in its fragrant crust, a black plug steaming
like the heart plucked from the chest of a worthy enemy;
one touch with her fork sent pink juices streaming.
“Admiration for what?” Wine, a bloody
Pinot Noir, brought color to her cheeks. “Why,
the aplomb with which we’ve managed
to support our Art”–meaning he’d convinced
her to pose nude for his appalling canvases,
faintly futuristic landscapes strewn
with carwrecks and bodies being chewed
by rabid cocker spaniels. “I’d like to come by
the studio,” I ventured, “and see the new stuff.”
“Yes, if you wish . . .” A delicate rebuff
before the warning: “He dresses all
in black now.Me, he drapes in blues and carmine–
and even though I think it’s kinda cute,
in company I tend toward more muted shades.”
She paused and had the grace
to drop her eyes. She did look ravishing,
spookily insubstantial, a lipstick ghost on tissue,
or as if one stood on a fifth-floor terrace
peering through a fringe of rain at Paris’
dreaming chimney pots, each sooty issue
wobbling skyward in an ecstatic oracular spiral.
“And he never thinks of food. I wish
I didn’t have to plead with him to eat. . . .” Fruit
and cheese appeared, arrayed on leaf-green dishes.
I stuck with café crème. “This Camembert’s
so ripe,” she joked, “it’s practically grown hair,”
mucking a golden glob complete with parsley sprig
onto a heel of bread. Nothing seemed to fill
her up: She swallowed, sliced into a pear,
speared each tear-shaped lavaliere
and popped the dripping mess into her pretty mouth.
Nowhere the bright tufted fields, weighted
vines and sun poured down out of the south.
“But are you happy?” Fearing, I whispered it
quickly. “What? You know, Mother”–
she bit into the starry rose of a fig–
“one really should try the fruit here.”
I’ve lost her, I thought, and called for the bill.
and from Alice Walker:
I said to Poetry
I said to Poetry: “I’m finished
Having to almost die
before some weird light
comes creeping through
is no fun.
“No thank you, Creation,
no muse need apply.
I’m out for good times–
at the very least,
some painless convention.”
Poetry laid back
and played dead
until this morning.
I wasn’t sad or anything,
Poetry said: “You remember
the desert, and how glad you were
that you have an eye
to see it with? You remember
that, if ever so slightly?”
I said: “I didn’t hear that.
Besides, it’s five o’clock in the a.m.
I’m not getting up
in the dark
to talk to you.”
Poetry said: “But think about the time
you saw the moon
over that small canyon
that you liked so much better
than the grand one–and how suprised you were
that the moonlight was green
and you still had
one good eye
to see it with
Think of that!”
“I’ll join the church!” I said,
huffily, turning my face to the wall.
“I’ll learn how to pray again!”
“Let me ask you,” said Poetry.
“When you pray, what do you think
Poetry had me.
“There’s no paper
in this room,” I said.
“And that new pen I bought
makes a funny noise.”
“Bullshit,” said Poetry.
“Bullshit,” said I.
I really wanted to post “Seeker of Visions” by Lucille Clifton. To my ears its “walking men / wrapped in the color of death” are the world’s accepted leaders and decision makers, the ones who casually sow death with their international wheeling and dealing, and ever since reading it a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about them and what she is saying to us. However, whoever holds her copyright doesn’t like her poetry to be reproduced on the net. I recommend it.
I bet you have a poem by an African-American woman that you’d like others to see. If so, please post it, or give us the title/poet, in the comments!
Black History Month, day 25
Ella Baker, painted here by Robert Shetterly, was working for the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when students inspired by the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in began sitting in at segregated libraries, pools, and parks–as well as restaurants–in protest. Baker asked the SCLC for some start-up funds and put out a call for student leaders at her alma mater, Shaw University. The result was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which, with Baker as one of their key mentors and guides, went on to organize the Freedom Rides, voter registration of people who were penalized harshly for registering (African-American voters often lost their jobs, or were assaulted, for registering), Freedom Schools, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. SNCC’s John Lewis gave one of the most fiery speeches at the 1963 March on Washington, and under Stokely Carmichael’s leadership it led the Black Power movement–and also dismissed the role of the women who had shaped it into such a force. In the meantime, Baker was forming yet another organization, the Southern Conference Educational Fund.
She had a genius for empowering others to take action, for leading them by helping them find their own authority. She distrusted reliance on prominent, charismatic leaders, saying, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” As she said of her earlier work developing the Young Negroes’ cooperative league, which aimed to give its members economic power through unity, “The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use.” It often is.
Black History Month, day 24
Alvin Ailey is another one of those people, like Romare Bearden or James Baldwin, for whom the “African-American” part in “greatest African-American _______” is obviously true but also misleading and subtly derogatory. Romare Bearden isn’t only one of the greatest African-American collage artists, he’s one of the best collage artists, period; James Baldwin is one of the country’s best essayists and novelists; and Alvin Ailey is one of the best American choreographers–or so I have always heard. He certainly had a huge impact on the public awareness and appreciation of modern dance. According to the Kennedy Center website, “More than 23 million people in 71 countries have seen [Ailey’s 1960 masterwork and signature piece] Revelations–more than any other modern dance work.”
Ailey was born in Texas during the Depression, a time and place of tremendous poverty and danger for African-Americans. He and his mother, who raised him alone, moved to Los Angeles when he was 12, where he connected with his first dance teacher, Lester Horton. He danced for two years before he told his mother about it, and he knew her biases well; according to this brief biography, “When she first came to his dressing room and saw him in stage makeup, she slapped his face.” But then, he kept other important aspects about himself hidden from her view and others’. The person who was deeply upset that I wrote about Bayard Rustin’s being gay will not like this, but Ailey was too. He was part of that generation that was sexually active before anyone knew about this thing called Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and he died of AIDS in 1989, asking his doctor to give his cause of death as “blood dyscrasia” (i.e., an unspecified blood disorder) so that his mother would not have to cope with public shame.
His company is going strong, and so are lots of other black choreographers and dancers, and integrated companies that draw on African and African-American dance traditions. I started this post thinking I’d catch Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater when it comes to my area next month, and after poking around on the net, discovered that there is a festival of black choreographers that’s closer to home, much less expensive, and probably more adventurous, at Dance Mission Theater this weekend.
I love modern dance. Where I went to college, dance was an established major (this is rare; academia has little respect for anything done with the whole body) and there were lots of dance performances, often free or a couple bucks, and of a wide variety of genres due to the school’s strength in ethnomusicology. It was said that no one should graduate without taking Introduction to Dance. My senior year was very intense; I was working on two honors theses, one in religion and one in studio art. They occupied two different areas of my brain, one being a philosophical essay requiring analytical writing and the other being a series of big sculptures out of clay employing the skills of my hands and eyes. Still, both were highly philosophical and psychological in theme, and stressful to execute, especially over the same period of time, and I thought it was a good time to take one class in which I would demand nothing of myself but that I show up. Introduction to Dance seemed just the thing.
I loved it. It was like sculpture in motion. Instead of making it with clay, we were making it with our bodies, and I didn’t worry about whether the choreography we created said something important or even all held together; I could just have fun. Come second semester, I signed up for Modern I. Sometime that winter, I went to a dance performance in the old chapel in the center of campus, and one piece, choreographed and danced by students, knocked my socks off. The dancers moved across the stage with the intensity of army ants. They swarmed up scaffolds and seemed to come from everywhere. The whole building came alive. If I had taken those classes and had that experience two years earlier, I thought then, I probably would have created a different major, something combining dance and sculpture, choreographing sculpture through time.
Ever since then, every couple of years I’ve looked for a dance class nearby, but modern is hard to find. It’s usually jazz or ballet, or something called modern that looks more like what I think of as music-video dancing. (A student in my college’s dance program said that when dancers from other schools visited, the performances contrasted sharply. How so, I asked. “They smile all the time, like you’re never supposed to stop smiling while you’re dancing.” Our dancers smiled only if the dance called for smiling. We were Arty. I liked that.) I took a “Pilates dance” class but it was like doing all the warmups without ever getting to the creative bit. I was looking for something like what I’d done in college: dance not only as craft and exercise, but as art. When I moved to San Francisco a year and a half ago, I looked up dance classes and of course there are lots, but I didn’t feel like I had time for anything but my drawing class on my day off. But reading about Ailey and his company has inspired me to do two things: buy tickets to the Dance Mission Theater for this weekend, and go to a modern dance class this Monday.
Black History Month, day 23
Who am I kidding. This letter is for everyone: for those who were meant to perish and for those whose innocence is indicted here because it is the “innocence” of those who do not wish to see.
My father and my sweetie both spoke this week of the importance of James Baldwin to them, naming him when I asked people for their favorite African American writers. Now I’ve gotten to a passage in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow quoting from The Fire Next Time, a book I haven’t read since American Lit, in 11th grade. Baldwin is writing to his nephew.
This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it . . . . It is their innocence which constitutes the crime . . . . This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you that you should perish. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being, You were expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity . . . . You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp on reality. But these men are your brothers –your lost younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become. It will be hard, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off . . . . We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you and, Godspeed. (The Fire Next Time, 5-10)
He wrote that fifty years ago. It’s a drop in the ocean of anti-African bigotry going back before the transatlantic slave trade, but fifty years still seems like a long time to keep our eyes on the prize. A long time to hold on.
Black History Month, day 22
What I want to write about for today is how Haiti went from a brutally oppressive slave plantation to an independent nation, but what I mostly know about Haiti is how little I know. I just find it intriguing, for several reasons: how widespread the revolt was, a real grassroots movement. How they defeated England, Spain, and Napoleon, for heaven’s sake. How the successful revolt by slaves got the attention of US Americans: definitely that of northern abolitionists and southern newspapers, who commented on it, and surely that of enslaved people as well. The question of whether the Haitian revolutionaries were inspired by the US war of independence (seems likely enough), in which case there is an elegant circling-round, with our revolution partially inspiring theirs, then theirs in turn inspiring our “next revolution,” the Civil War. The interesting personalities of the leaders, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Boukman Dutty (I’m finding myself wanting to read a biography of each, and I almost never read biographies). How complex the racial and class relationships were, with a caste of black landowners, maybe even an aristocracy, such as never existed in the antebellum US South. How after the Haitians established a free republic, they waged a war to free the slaves of the Dominican Republic. How, nevertheless, their leaders were not agreed on whether to sustain a democracy or set up new autocracies.
If there were any sense of fair play in world politics, everyone would keep their hands of Haiti–a country that had overcome so much, the only one where slaves reasserted their rights and took over to the point of establishing a new republic, should be hailed and helped by all democracies from then on. (I know, naive. I also have this idea that people who survive cancer should all live to old age and never die of something as ridiculous as a car accident.) Obviously it doesn’t work like that, and not only because Haiti’s leaders vacillated between democracy and dictatorship. The US, far from seeing Haiti as a sister in freedom, invaded in 1915 and set up a puppet government, just one of many cases of the US invading a Caribbean or Latin American country at the behest of corporations. Of course, then-president Wilson was such a white supremacist that, far from rejoicing to see a former slave state gain freedom and equality, he probably found it galling. Again, if black people could run a country, what did that say about his harsh judgment about “governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes” after the Civil War? (Read his chapter on Reconstruction in his History of the American People, volume IX, if you can stand it.) We’ve meddled in Haiti ever since.
Black History Month, day 21
I love children’s literature. If I didn’t have a child to read to, I’d just have to sit in the children’s section of the library without one. And of course, we have a large bookshelf full of the books we loved as kids.
The characters and the authors of these books are overwhelmingly white. Most of them were written before 1975, many long before, and few publishers then sought out people of color, or encouraged them when they came along. For that matter, as of 2001, one editor writes here, there were still very few African-American writers and illustrators in the field, and a 2007 book by an education professor observes the same thing. And yet, John Steptoe, who wrote and illustrated the gorgeous Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters during his sadly short career, said plainly: “I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people. I am the rule. By that I mean there are a great many others like me where I come from.”
When children read, they need to see people who look like them. This truism, once doubtful in my mind, has become a rock-solid fact since I began spending my days with a small child. The munchkin identifies strongly with people in the books she reads, and most of all with people like herself. To illustrate: she frequently, even obsessively, points to a character on each page and says “I want to be that person.” It is almost never an animal, and it is almost never a boy: it’s a girl. If the girls are only minor characters, she identifies with one of them, putting herself on the margin of the story (thank you, J. K. Rowling, for Hermione Granger–your wizarding world is still male-dominated, but you did put one smart, brave, complex girl in the marquee). If there are no girls in the story, she chooses no one. Fortunately, things have come a long way since A. A. Milne and J. R. R. Tolkien, and female characters are no longer merely a token presence in children’s books. But whom would she see who looked like her if she were black?
I would love to hear about your favorite children’s books that are by African-American authors and illustrators, and/or feature black characters.
Here are some of mine. An * means they have prominent characters who are black, an @ means they’re by a black author or illustrator, though of course I often don’t know anything about them but their name. In some cases, like Bette Greene and Ezra Jack Keats, I know they aren’t African-American, but I might be missing some who are.
* Island Counting 1 2 3 by Frané Lessac. Our favorite counting book, with terrific illustrations of an unnamed Caribbean island, and lots of fun things to find (e.g., on the “four” page there are four vanes on the windmill, four donkeys, four leaves on each plant, etc.).
@ Everywhere Babies, a board book I love for many reasons, but one of them is that families of all types and colors are featured without any comment, just as if families just come in all gender combinations, age combinations, and colors! Imagine!
* ABC A Family Alphabet Book, written by Bobbie Combs, illustrated by Desiree Keane and Brian Kappa. All of the parents are same-sex couples, and many are black.
* The Snowy Day, A Letter to Amy (naturally a childhood favorite), and the others about Peter and friends by Ezra Jack Keats
* Bear on a Bike, written Stella Gladstone and illustrated by Debbie Harter
* @ Lift Every Voice and Sing, words by James Weldon Johnson, illustrations by Elizabeth Catlett
* @ I Want To Be, written by Thylias Moss, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.
@ for that matter, anything illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
@ Freight Train and anything else by Donald Crews
* Chicken Sunday, Patricia Polacco (Polacco, who is white, has several books with prominent African-American characters–this is the only one of them I’ve read)
* the Max and Kate stories that are featured in each issue of Ladybug.
Moving on to books for older kids:
* Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, Bette Greene
* Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, Louise Fitzhugh
And the best African-American picture book we haven’t seen:
A Little Bit of Soul Food, Amy Wilson Sanger. As far as I know, Sanger isn’t black, and if this book is like the others of hers we have, it shows no people, but they are such great portrayals of one aspect of a culture–its food. Yum Yum Dim Sum and My First Book of Sushi are perennial favorites in our house.
I bought for Munchkin, but haven’t read with/listened to with her yet, Hip Hop Speaks to Children. She seldom wants to listen to music, preferring audiobooks in the car. It looks great, though.
Black History Month, day 20
It’s my drawing day, so I went looking for figurative drawings by African-American artists and found some beauties.
Self Portrait, by Samella Lewis. She was 19 years old.
“Morning Is Here, No Dawn,” by John Thomas Biggers (photo #4 in the slideshow). Actually, this one is a lithograph, but wow, what a draftsman.
Also, just today we went to SFMOMA and I was intrigued by the very different kind of work of Mark Bradford: very large collages, or assemblages–or given his process, maybe the term is disassemblages–made of many layers of found paper. By the time we got to that floor, the munchkin was very anxious to get to the children’s room, so I only got a peek. I will have to go back and spend a long time looking at these without a child in tow.
Black History Month, day 19
Pitchers and catchers are reporting. Looks like it’s time for a visit to the Negro Leagues.
Professional baseball was not really officially segregated; it didn’t have to be. After 1900, teams maintained their no-blacks status through a “gentlemen’s agreement,” to use one of the more bizarre misnomers in our language. Baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, deserves a lot of the blame, as various managers tried to add black players to their teams (sometimes even passing them off as Indians or white) but were prevented from doing so by Landis. In the 19th century, baseball teams had frequently been made up of a mix of races.
If baseball had been integrated during his lifetime, Josh Gibson would very likely be remembered as the best player in major league history (as it is, he’s widely considered the game’s greatest catcher). In a short career–he died at age 35, a few months before Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers–he posted incredible stats, even allowing for the purported inaccuracy of Negro League and Caribbean records. He is sometimes referred to as “the black Babe Ruth,” but given Gibson’s approximately 800 career home runs (Ruth hit 714; the MLB record holder, Barry Bonds, hit 762) and his career batting average of .359 (Ruth’s was a mere .342), the Babe ought to be called “the white Josh Gibson.”
A particularly nasty strain of racism in baseball implies that black players don’t make good pitchers or catchers–not coincidentally, the brains of the team. Apparently the advocates of this point of view never heard of Gibson, or pitcher Satchel Paige either.