Small and Fierce and Woman

by Leslye Joy Allen     Weary Self-Portrait 2

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

When I received the news that actor Ruby Dee had passed on, I immediately grabbed the phone and called my cousin and her good friend director-actor Billie Allen.  These two women made history together and enjoyed over sixty years of friendship.  I fondly remembered standing between them and feeling quite tall, although I barely stand 5 feet 5 inches tall myself…

Both of them are/were quite short—Ms. Dee barely stood 5 feet tall, and Billie is not too much taller. Yet, there was always something so big about both of them. Ruby Dee was one of the biggest women I ever had the pleasure to meet and my cousin Billie remains like a bottomless reservoir of wisdom…and then something hit me about both of them.

When a woman is quite small in physical stature, it is quite easy for folks to underestimate her.  As Billie and I reminisced about Ruby, she reminded me of Ms. Dee’s fighting spirit that she demonstrated on more than one occasion. Ruby Dee was talented, brilliant, warm and loving and she took no mess!

I laughed, trying to imagine Ms. Dee—a waif of a woman who made damned good homemade soup, by the way—getting in anyone’s face. Yet, her entire existence of artistry and activism, coupled with her intellectual, culinary, and maternal gifts demonstrated that there is always a subtle beauty and power in being a woman, but an even greater power in being a small woman…No one really expects you to stand your ground until you do it.  I know.  I have encountered a few bullies (male and female) in my lifetime.

Ruby and Billie’s friendship and tenacity never had anything to do with their height or size, but rather with a spirit, a certain fierceness that defied size and gender.  If that fierceness was unleashed at the right moment, it could either empower you or scare the hell out of you—and in that glorious combination and contradiction of both empowerment and fear is what it really means to be a real woman.  This is a lesson that only a woman can teach you and I am eternally grateful to both of them for that lesson.

Billie Allen and Ruby Dee at “Fences” in 2010.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

CCThis Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen & 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 blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author.  All Rights Reserved.

The Change Agents: A Thought for February

By Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                     Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013.  All Rights Reserved.  Self-Portrait.

Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013. All Rights Reserved. Self-Portrait.

Several months ago I heard Black British film director Steve McQueen (not the now-deceased White actor), say that art did not change anything.  I clutched my chest as if I was surely having a massive heart attack at what must be blasphemy.  Later, I figured out what McQueen meant.  Art alters and suspends that space in your head where your creativity and out-of-the-box thinking is located, and then YOU might be able to change yourself or your situation or your mind.  Art is the match or spark, which lights the fire in the potential change agent—YOU!

Now, history has taught us that my brothers and sisters, Black Americans, have, at least since the early twentieth century worked diligently to create art—paintings and sculpture, music and dance, or theatre—that they imbued with the herculean task of changing the way the rest of the world looks at us, and how we look at ourselves.  Too often, the belief is that an artistic representation of us, once seen or experienced, will alter the way others think of us.  This is why so many of my brothers and sisters can hyperventilate until they burst into a sweat (or burst a blood vessel) about a film or television characterization of us that is a pathetic and insulting stereotype or caricature of us that strays far from the truth. Typically, what happens next is a mad search for the most exceptional among us.

This February, 2014, I have been guilty of what WE historians call “chronicling.”  Chronicling is posting basic information about a person or event, often in date order, which we think, or believe to be of “historical significance,” whatever that means.  For Black folks, Black History Month reeks of an unsavory type of history that I, and others, also call “Great Man/Great Woman” history, or “Unsung Man/Unsung Woman” history.  I call it unsavory because it never really satisfies—It is the history of our people whom we see (or have been taught to see), as exceptional, or the exception to the rule.  I am also as guilty of it as anybody else.  Yet, this month, February 2014, in many of my Facebook and Twitter posts, I deliberately focused on Black people that have contributed to or participated in theatre.  I did not do this to simply cast a light on Black folks in the theatre that I think everyone should know about.  It was also designed to cast a light on Black theatre itself, something Black folks, those who were theatre professionals and those who were not, used to participate in on a regular basis as a matter of ritual, as a matter of teaching and learning, as a matter of lifting the spirit.

It did not matter whether the person(s) had talent or not, theatre was what WE did for each other and for ourselves.  In the early days of the twentieth century, theatre had not yet become the rather parochial profession as some folks think of it today, but rather it remained an essential exercise in the communal rituals we always participated in as a people.  After all, nobody said you needed talent to recite an Easter Speech or to memorize and recite a poem, did they?  Mama, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa all thought you “did good” up there on that stage even if you would never, ever be able to act or sing your way out of a jar, to say nothing of survive an audition.  I say all of this to make a few simple points…

Take one moment and forget about “Great Man/Great Woman History.”  Forget about “Unsung Man/Unsung Woman History,” and begin to look at your mothers, fathers, grandparents and others who belong to so many generations before you as the “multi-talented,” “multi-hat-wearing,” “multi-title-holding,” “multi-I’m-going-to-get-this-done-if-it-kills-me” people that they were.  When you do this, you will begin to measure greatness not by accolades and plaques, but by how well something they did served them, saved them and you, and whether it is or is not possible for you to emulate them.  Then you will find out everything you ever needed to know that never went into a History Book or on the cover of a magazine or in a documentary about our/your people.  You will then find that match or spark that ignites you—the change agent!  Ashé!

Leslye Joy Allen is a perpetual and proud supporter of the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.
Creative Commons License 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 blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author.

A Thought for the Old and New Year

By Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                     Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

One of the first things that came to mind shortly after Christmas and before the New Year was how much my Mom and Dad would have been thrilled and proud that a great film like 12 Years a Slave received great reviews and had enjoyed large viewing audiences.  I would have heard a litany of what they remembered about their childhoods and how far we Black folks have come.  And if they were still alive they would surely have warned me not to hyperventilate about whether or not Santa Claus was Black or some of the foolish and racist slips of the tongue that seem to dominate our current news cycles on most days.

Strangely, my mind goes back to that one scene in the film 12 Years a Slave where after a slave has literally dropped dead from exhaustion while laboring in the fields, you see the slaves standing around a gravesite that they have prepared for their fallen comrade.  Suddenly, a slave woman begins singing the old Negro spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll.”  Then all of the slaves joined in and they sang with a joyous abandon.  At this moment in the movie theater, I completely lost my composure.  I wept so loudly that I had to place my hand over my mouth to muffle the sound.  For days, I wondered why that scene—and not one of the other more horrible scenes where someone was beaten or tortured—caused me to cry like a two-year-old toddler.  Then it came to me.  This was a gift.  The gift was not simply my ancestors’ songs, but their decision that they had a right to sing their songs.

Their gift feels as familiar as a book of black poetry or history or the first time my parents took me to a Jazz concert or to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre or to a Broadway play.  Afterwards, they would always inform me that I must never forget that it was my people that had created the artistry and creative offerings that I had just witnessed.  The lesson was simple—I could perpetually cry about what white folks had done to my people or I could fight for and celebrate what my people had done for themselves and for me, all of which is a balancing act.  Yes, one must call out and fight against racism.  Yet, one cannot allow it too much space in one’s head, lest one descend into perpetual victimhood.  “How much of your energy are you gonna’ give THEM,” Daddy would ask without blinking?

I wept in the dark of that movie theatre, as the slaves on the screen sang with abandon and rejoicing.  It is difficult to count one’s blessings when the world and everyone in it seems to be your enemy.  Yet, that is exactly what the slaves did.  My slave ancestors did not sing with joy because they were happy and content, but rather because the singing allowed them to reclaim their humanity, to reclaim their right to joy.  No degree of inhumane treatment routinely meted out to them by white slave masters could make them surrender their own humanity, or their very human need for joyousness and a belief in the future even when that future was uncertain.  Their gift is still a gift that keeps on giving if you are willing to claim it.  This is what I hope to remember now, and in the New Year.

Peace.

Leslye Joy Allen is a perpetual and proud supporter of the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.
Creative Commons License 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 blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author.

A Personal Bibliography (After “Four Little Girls”)

By Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                     Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

“Books II” by Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013.  All Rights Reserved.

“Books II” by Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013. All Rights Reserved.

When Erich McMillan-McCall, founder of Project1Voice said, “We need a bibliography,” I knew I was about to be called upon to begin pulling together books that focused on the lives and accomplishments of Black women.  I almost declined because there really is no shortage of books written by or about or which target Black women and girls as a reading audience.  The real task was not finding books, but rather which ones should be on the list.   Erich (pronounced “Eh-rish”) asked me to do this as part of his overall focus on Black women, but also in some ways as a response to the reading of the Christina Ham play “Four Little Girls” that streamed live online at the Kennedy-Center’s website at 6:00 PM EST on Sunday, September 15, 2013.

Although Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Carry Me Home gives a detailed account of that fateful Sunday morning when Cynthia, Addie Mae, Carole, and Denise were killed, there is no book written exclusively about these four little girls who died in that church bombing on September 15, 1963.  Indeed, it can be debated that the White racist terrorists that bombed Birmingham, Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that ended the lives of these girls did not specifically set out to kill young Black females.  Often the targets of racial violence were and tend to be Black males, or at least many folks think the targets are always Black males.  After all, two Black boys, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware were shot and killed the same day in the immediate aftermath of the church bombing.  Yet, Black women and girls were not only routine victims of sexual violence, but were often beaten or killed with impunity during slavery, the era of Jim Crow, and well into and beyond the Civil Rights era.  Black female martyrdom and valor in the struggle for human and civil rights is often muted in favor of other types of narratives.  A perfect example of this is how most people view Rosa Parks.

Too often the public (and a few historians) mistakes Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a White person in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 as just an example of what happens when a Black woman simply gets tired of racial injustice.  But it was much, much more than that.  Historian Danielle L. McGuire aptly noted that Parks had a long career of dangerous work as an NAACP investigator in the decades before her fateful act in 1955.  McGuire also reported that the very first question Rosa Parks’ mother asked her after Parks was released from jail for her now-famous refusal to give up her seat to a white bus passenger was: “Did they beat you?”  That kind of question was, at one time, almost as typical for Black women as the sun coming up.

One way to dispel myths and increase our understanding of our lives and the world we live in is to read and do our own research.  One way to honor those four little girls tragically killed on that fateful Sunday in 1963 (and all of our Black heroines) is to examine and celebrate our resilient and diverse and often brilliant Black womanhood, a womanhood denied to them.  So here goes…

The books contained in the .pdf attachment at the end of this blog were my favorites and the first books that came to mind, along with a few marvelous book suggestions about Black female musicians courtesy of my good friend and alumna sister from Agnes Scott College, ethnomusicologist Dr. Birgitta Johnson.

Some books are old and some relatively new.   There are no separate sections where fiction is separated from nonfiction.  The only separate section in this bibliography is a section of books devoted exclusively to and for Black girls from preschool to middle school.  A few parents might find this useful.   I am also happy to report that books for and about Black girls is a growing industry.

My book list is not comprehensive.  For some of you who read all the time, you might find some glaring omissions.  I make no apologies.  I never choose a book simply because it was or is popular, and neither should you.   I also have not been fond of everything on the bestseller list now or in the past.  This list is MY LIST and it is hardly an exhaustive list of all the books I have read about Black women and/or any other subject.  Yet it is a beginning.  For those of you who read occasionally, you might find this list particularly useful so that you can begin that journey where you read and discover new things, new ideas, and new writers.

Now, for those of you who might be tempted to send me some remark about how I left out what you consider to be the “best book ever,” do not despair and save your energy.  The attached bibliography has an important page with a header that reads: “Add Your Favorite Books Here.”  THIS IS YOUR PAGE.  This is where I hope you will begin to write down the authors and titles of those books that have mattered the most to you.  I hope you will create your own bibliography, because if you do, we can begin to shape a real dialogue that is truly about ALL OF US.   I invite you to start one part of your/our journey by clicking here: **By, About, and For Black Women, a Personal Bibliography by Leslye Joy Allen.pdf**

Portable Document Files (.pdf ) have to be opened with an Adobe Reader.  If you have a problem opening the file above, please visit http://www.adobe.com, click on the section near the top of the page that is marked “Download,” then highlight and click “Adobe Reader” and download the Adobe Reader free of charge.

Also be sure to visit the Gist of Freedom, free podcasts devoted to preserving our rich African American History at: http://www.blackhistoryuniversity.com

Leslye Joy Allen is also a perpetual and proud supporter of the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.
Creative Commons License 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 blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

Thorough Good Thurgood

by Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

What could “Thoroughgood” ask for

when he did not dig his birth name?

I like “Thurgood, much better,” he said.

But what else do you do when your classmates at

Lincoln

Wrote stories and poetry as in Langston,

Sang and danced as in Cab,

Redeemed the Gold Coast into a new Ghana as in Kwame?

You did what all of us could do now, IF

We paid that much attention to each other.

We would do what you did:

You built on what you knew;

Rejoiced in what you knew;

and created a New World.

– Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013

**The late U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 with the birth name “Thoroughgood” and he attended the HBCU Lincoln University with poet and writer Langston Hughes, entertainer and musician Cab Calloway and with the future President of the newly independent nation Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) named Kwame Nkrumah.  Marshall died January 24, 1993.

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License 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 blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.