Aretha: A Mini-Multi-Ethnic History Lesson

by Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved

Aretha is/was international and global and pro-Black and pro-people of color long before those phrases became buzz words. But you already know Aretha. She’s part of the soundtrack of my/your life. If you were paying attention, you know about her activism, her once offering to pay Angela Davis’ bail; and the hurt in her voice at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral.  My Dad was there. When he got home he said, “This is the only time I’ve ever heard Aretha sound so destroyed.”  But let’s consider the setting at Atlantic Records that nurtured her after her dad, the Reverend C. L. Franklin decided that Aretha’s voice was as secular as it was sacred; that her piano-playing was as inventive as anyone out there. I always, always wanted Aretha to make an instrumental album of nothing but her on piano, but I digress…

Ahmet Ertegün, our brother from Turkey, along with Jerry Wexler, founded Atlantic Records with the mission to produce some of the best Rhythm and Blues and Soul music ever. They succeeded. Not long after they made Ray Charles a household name, they signed Aretha Franklin, who reigned as Queen on a record label that had no shortage of music luminaries: Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, The Drifters, The Spinners, The Pointer Sisters, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, The Bee Gees, and the list goes on.  The early days for Aretha consisted of recording sessions with musicians, the majority of whom were young white men from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a tiny town that still does not have 15,000 residents. The Black brothers in the band grew up with Rhythm and Blues, but these white musicians took a turn toward the Blues and Soul Music and never, ever looked back. These cats backing Aretha produced some of the most poignant, memorable, timeless, and soulful music in the twentieth century.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Arif Mardin served as Aretha’s principle producer for over two decades at Atlantic Records. Mardin, another musical genius from Istanbul, Turkey impressed the hell out of Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones, so much so that after meeting these two Black American musical giants in 1956 after a State Department-sponsored concert, he became the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Scholarship at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. After Mardin graduated in 1961, he went to work for Atlantic Records. Aretha acknowledged him as the positive turning point in her career.  Together they churned out the hits all of us already know.  He produced that incredible gospel album “Amazing Grace” that everybody still talks about, and still plays.

So what is my point?  Well, the whole concept of globalization has always existed in music and the arts; and it, for damned sure existed with Aretha; and for people of color.  That multi-ethnic colored world that some white folks fear, the one that seems to be suddenly upon us has always been here.  You’ve been grooving to it, remember?  But know this: I don’t just know my people when I see them; I know them when and where I hear them. Marinate on that for a while. Rest in Paradise Queen of Soul, Aretha Louise Franklin.

Copyright © Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

This blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this or any blog authored by Leslye Joy Allen, or any total or partial excerpt of this or any blog by Leslye Joy Allen must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: https://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

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A Word About “A Wrinkle in Time”

 

By Leslye Joy Allen

This is a musing about the film A Wrinkle in Time directed by Ava DuVernay.  This is not exactly a review, but it is a set of thoughts that happened as I read the mixed reviews; and then watched the energy and wanderlust of children I saw in the movie theater watching the film.  I’m not going to spoil it for you, but A Wrinkle in Time is not the same rollercoaster that Black Panther is. These are two different films. Yet, it is ironic (and heartwarming) that Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther, has designated Ava DuVernay his “Big Sister.”  Coogler wrote a beautiful public letter to her; and he also noted in an interview that Ava had to go through some mess that she won’t ever talk about publicly.  I know what Coogler—who I plan to adopt as my son if his parents will share him—meant when he said that Ava DuVernay had gone through some stuff…She is the first Black woman to helm a big budget film and she was adapting Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s book that has been in circulation since the early 1960s. And L’Engle herself had to suffer through 26 rejections from publishers and self-righteous Christians that disliked the fact that she aligned Jesus with the Buddha and other “saviors” in the same book.  So go figure?

Now with that said, let me tell you what I got from A Wrinkle in Time.  First, the hero (or heroine) of the story is a little Black girl named “Meg Murray” (played by the incredible Storm Reid).  Meg Murray is the adopted daughter of an interracial couple, both of whom are scientists.  The first thing you notice about her is that her father’s disappearance is weighing her down socially. Both she and her younger brother “Charles Wallace  Murray” (portrayed by the adorable Deric McCabe) are getting into trouble at school.  Meg wears glasses; the kids tease her; and her grades have slipped.  What also shines through is her love for her father and her occasional doubts about whether or not she will ever find him.  Eventually, she heads out with the help of “Mrs Which,” “Mrs Who,” and “Mrs Whatsit”**, with her little brother “Charles Wallace” and friend “Calvin” (played by Levi Z. Miller) along for the ride.

Before the film was over, I watched little girls and boys of all shades and ethnicities in the movie theater watch a little Black girl literally save the world.  WE have never had a Black girl be this kind of hero in a film.  I watched two little girls get up in the theater and dance their own little dance to Sade, who came out of semi-retirement to lend her musical gifts to this film. I watched a young 40-something Black father sit with his 11-year-old daughter; and I watched him glance at her like my own father did when he was watching to see if I was enjoying a movie.  I had my moments of nostalgia and I would be lying if I said you shouldn’t bring along a few tissues.  Yet, what the film delivers most is staunch warnings against uniformity, against not believing in yourself, and against making decisions solely based on fear.  Before it’s over you think about everything from those times when you were jealous, when you were mean to someone or when you underestimated others or yourself. It is, as one person wrote, “A love letter to children.” And in this moment it was a little Black girl that delivered it.

Now, a few reviewers got it right when they said that this film is a family movie where kids are the primary and central audience.  (A reviewer named Mark Hughes wrote an incredibly insightful review of A Wrinkle in Time for Forbes Magazine which honestly surprised me. He thought so much more about the intersections of race and gender than most white or black movie reviewers that I have ever read, so I read what he wrote twice.)  Children need their own space and their own entertainment.  In an increasingly ADULT-centric world of self-absorbed adults, it is mandatory.  But for me, the film meant so much more.

I haven’t been a little Black girl for a long time.  I’m now an AARP Black woman.  But like “Meg Murray,” I know what it means when your father believes in your intellectual abilities.  We still live in a male-dominated world; and with less than 7 percent of CEOs being female and only 14 percent of films in Hollywood directed by women and even fewer directed by women of color, the numbers reinforce this domination, which is why director Ryan Coogler’s support of Ava DuVernay and his acknowledgement of what he knows she and women go through matters tremendously.  WE don’t get this kind of support and acknowledgement too often.  And girls and women get judged all the time based on nothing more than their physical appearance.  In this film we see what that looks like and how it feels. Importantly, Black women and girls who are assertive, who give themselves permission to be righteously angry, and insist on their right to take charge of their lives are often called the typical “Angry Black Woman” or worse; they’re/we’re called “B*tches.”

In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murray’s alleged faults become what she uses to change the world she inhabits. Those faults become her strengths. The film, like few others, gives young females the right to have flaws like all other human beings. For a change, and for a couple of hours, little Black girls in particular, and girls in general are not forced into those tragic two-dimensional “either/or” boxes. Instead, it becomes okay, even if only in fantasy, to be exactly who one is rather than some stultifying version of what the world and society expects one to be.  That’s all I’m going to tell you except take a child with you to see this film. If you have forgotten what it feels like to be a kid, I am so very sorry for your tragic loss.  Kids have an uncanny way of seeing things clearly when the adults miss the lessons or avoid the lessons altogether.  That’s why I love children and hang around them every chance I get…Without them, I/we would be amoral and dumb as a box of rocks!

**Author Madeleine L’Engle insisted that the abbreviation “Mrs” have no period in her book A Wrinkle in Time.  That idiosyncracy has been respected in this blog.

This blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this or any blog authored by Leslye Joy Allen, or any total or partial excerpt of this or any blog by Leslye Joy Allen must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: https://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

A Thought About Black Panther

By Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2018 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

“Royal Purple” by © Leslye Joy Allen

This is not a review of the film Black Panther.  This is a brief musing about what crossed my mind after I saw this film.  First, Black Panther is unapologetically “Black.” I use “Black” here to indicate that while the film is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, it also includes Africans of a variety of ethnicities, African Americans and a genuine nod to the entire African Diaspora most of whom are descendants of former slaves in the West.  I am a member of that African Diaspora. The film also gives a few cultural nods to the Ndebele, Yorùbá, Maasai, and Akan peoples on the African continent (thank you, actor-vocalist-friend Saycon Sengbloh for pointing this out first).  The film gets the multi-facted roles of African women so very right.  The film also has some serious messages unlike any messages you have ever heard in a Marvel Super Hero movie.  Don’t worry, if you have not seen it yet, I’m not going to ruin it for you.  All I can say is that it is an entertaining joy ride of a film that will make you think…really, really think.  With that said, here’s what I thought about immediately after I saw Black Panther.

Black Panther has stirred up a genuine sense of pride in Black Americans that we don’t get to feel with this much enthusiasm too often.  It has taken decades of hard work to undo some of the psychic and spiritual damage done to Africa’s descendants in the West who have endured brutal chattel slavery, Jim Crow, systematic racism and discrimination, police brutality, you-name-it.  It has taken decades of hard work and scholarship to undo some of the psychic and spiritual damage done to Africa’s descendants in the West who, for centuries, were told that Africa had no real history, no real contributions to civilization when all of what these descendants were told is/was/remains patently false.  However, it is dangerous to over-romanticize any history; to make any and every description of our African ancestors totally positive. Black Panther, in its own unique way through fiction, de-romanticizes history by showing us a multi-ethnic, multi-generational Wakanda with all the friction and righteous compromise and conflict such diversity can foster.  You leave the movie theater proud, but fully aware that Africans (and we African descendants) have tremendous gifts and flaws not because we are or ever have been inferior or superior, but rather because we are human.

I remember a lecture given by the late African scholar, Dr. Ali Mazrui back in 1996 where he stated that to deny Africans the ability to be wrong was also the same as denying them their humanity.  Dr. Mazrui was always controversial.  He said the only African-American activist that he had any real respect for was Randall Robinson, the founder of Trans-Africa. When asked why he only dug Robinson, Dr. Mazrui said, “Robinson not only raises his voice when Whites do something wrong to Africans, Robinson speaks out when Africans are doing something to wrong to other Africans.”  I’ve never forgotten that statement and what that statement truly means.

When you love your people, you praise them when they are right and you don’t make excuses for them when they are wrong.  You work to correct them.  You speak out against racism, colonialism, and the exploitation of your people no matter who the adversary is.  That lecture by Dr. Mazrui, and so many lectures given by visiting and former professors drove home that I could not afford to care as much about how Africans and African-descended peoples looked to the rest of the world more than I cared about how well or how poorly they/we all were doing.  If you love your people you don’t worry about what their image is and how it affects you as much as you worry about their well-being, period.  Black Panther shows just how difficult that can be, but it also shows that it can be gloriously done…

Now, if you don’t exactly understand this post, it is probably because you have not seen Black Panther yet.  It could also be because you know very little about the continent of Africa’s very complicated history.  However, my points will be clearer once you’ve opened a few books and taken the ride to Wakanda.  So, get to the movie theater.  You won’t be disappointed.  Wakanda Forever.

Copyright © 2018 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

This blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this or any blog authored by Leslye Joy Allen, or any total or partial excerpt of this or any blog by Leslye Joy Allen must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: https://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

How I Maintain Peace and Equilibrium

by Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Adire Eleko cloth (Yorùbá, circa 1960)

The following is simply a few of my methods for maintaining a sense of balance and a sense of peace.  This is not for everyone, nor should it be.  Each individual must find where their sense of balance is…The following I learned from my late mother and father, a few late cousins, several former professors, some friends, and from my students and the young people I mentor:

I believe in spending time with and listening to young people. Children, adolescents and young adults not only need guidance but I also need their guidance. Only they can tell me how they feel or how they arrived at a particular opinion. I ask them to teach me something and they always do; and just as I learn something new, they also feel empowered because an older person needed their assistance and advice and respected their capacity to give it.

I avoid negative people. That person (or people) who never has anything nice to say about anything or anyone can ruin an otherwise great day. I avoid them as much as possible or altogether.  (Included in this group are whiners, complainers, moochers, and those who are chronically lazy.)

I expect good treatment and greet almost everyone with a smile; and 99 times out of 100 I get that good treatment and friendliness back. Most people will smile back and speak, but even if they do not smile back, I do not lose anything by smiling and being friendly.  A kind word to a waiter or customer service representative has often gotten me a few perks.

I stop from time-to-time to take a snapshot of a flower, a sunset or a view that catches my attention. Occasionally, I have pulled over on the side of the road to do this. When I look for beauty I often find it.

I turn off the news. I have purged myself of the affliction of addiction to bad news, to horrifying news, to doom and gloom.  Yes, there are plenty of problems that need and should have my attention and my activism. Yet, a combination of activism and cynicism does not work for me; neither does feeding off of the gore and bad policies that have overtaken most news outlets.

I pick my battles. Not every battle is worth the tension and heat it generates. If the battle only allows me to blow off steam, if it resolves nothing nor makes me any income nor pushes me any closer to my goals, then I do not need to participate in that battle. When the battle helps me or someone else, then I might fight it.

I maintain an inquisitiveness about spirituality, the arts, about my ancestors, and I do the research.  For example, I love the idea that the Yorùbá people (along with their many Afro-American descendants in the Americas) believe that procreation is also a form of art.  A sense of wonder about creation and creativity (artistic and otherwise) without the rigid dogmas of organized religions is a better path for me to stay connected to my Creator, and all of creation.

I hope anyone who reads this finds (or has found) his or her own path to peace.

Àṣé!

Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

This blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this or any blog authored by Leslye Joy Allen, or any total or partial excerpt of this or any blog by Leslye Joy Allen must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: https://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

 

I Celebrate Them

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By Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen.

People that know me well (and some people that barely know me), know that I am a huge advocate for theatre.  I’m a Historian, an Oral Historian, and at the insistence of actors Margo Moorer and Keith Arthur Bolden, I’m also a dramaturge.

I saw the play “FENCES” that was written by the magnificent and late August Wilson decades ago.  Wilson was that rare African-American playwright that thought the particular culture of ordinary Black Americans was as worthy of a story to tell as any other story on earth…And he was right…He was damned right…

One of the joys of being an Oral Historian is interviewing people, many of who will never see their names in a book or newspaper.  Yet, what they can tell us about any particular period of history is invaluable precisely because they will tell you the truth about how any public policy affected them or did not affect them…which is why I always celebrate them…because they are so very important…and sometimes their stories are told in books and in films when most people least expect to see their stories told…So…

I am celebrating the fact that Denzel Washington and Viola Davis have brought the stage play FENCES to life as a film…and I am not going to lecture about how many people need to go to see this film or to see plays…

And I am positively, deliriously delighted to see Viola Davis win the Golden Globe for FENCES; and I am delighted that the story of the African American FEMALE scientists who helped put a man on the moon is now brilliantly portrayed in the film HIDDEN FIGURES. Now, what I am about to say in the next few lines matters to me and to a lot of women…

It is rare when Black women (or women in general) receive any visible, tangible praise or remuneration for having brains. Women get called on for advice and to listen to people’s problems; and women get praised for their physical beauty and politeness and tact, but we rarely get praised for being smart…and we rarely get paid for being smart…

Now, while I can almost hear all the good men I personally know getting ready to challenge me on this, I want to remind everybody of one important thing…

President Barack Obama actually awarded the Medal of Freedom to Dr. Katherine Coleman Johnson who is the subject of the film HIDDEN FIGURES, a film that traces her and many other Black women’s mathematical and scientific contributions to the race to place a man on the moon.  The Medal of Freedom is the highest award a president can give to a civilian American.  Actor Taraji P. Henson portrayed Dr. Katherine Coleman Johnson in the film HIDDEN FIGURES.  However, Dr. Johnson won this Medal in December of 2015 and it was featured in a news story in the New York Times and in a few other mainstream newspapers…But

this Medal of Freedom award did not particularly resonate and become viral news with too many folks…Hell, even I stumbled on it much later in mid-2016 and I wondered why I did not know much about this Black woman, myself…But I’m not angry with anybody…and I’m not calling any names because…

When I was a little Black girl growing up in Atlanta, a beautiful and regal and talented and supremely intelligent and gloriously Black woman named Diahann Carroll received death threats from White folks via mail because she was a Black woman who portrayed a widowed nurse named “Julia Baker” on a TV show called “JULIA” back in the late 1960s…and there are folks that think I ought to forget about that…but I will not forget it…and

I, and so many other young Black girls from that era, dreamed of a day when young Black women like Ava DuVernay and Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis and so many other glorious sisters would occupy places in the sun and tell great stories…and I know I am leaving out about three dozen names of some other wonderful sisters, but I am going to ask you all to fill in those extra blanks and go support these young women whenever you can…and I can say that after witnessing my sisters with talent and brains be too often ignored that…

I lived long enough to see enough of them shine without asking anybody’s permission…and I am going to live even longer to see them shine even more and tell some more great stories, and ask no one’s permission to do so…Àṣé.

Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

This blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this or any blog authored by Leslye Joy Allen, or any total or partial excerpt of this or any blog by Leslye Joy Allen must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: https://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.