Today I speak the names of PROFESSIONAL BLACK HISTORIANS (and I do not include amateur “chroniclers of facts” today, this February 28th). This day is for those individuals who stand, teach, and write only after they have performed extensive study and research.
This day is for those women and men who sit, anywhere from thirty to forty hours a week, wrapped in sweaters in those cold archives going over bits and pieces of paper that contain information until they begin to see a particular pattern or story to that information. Then they raise the “why” and the “how” questions about that information and they begin to piece together a story. Then they develop an analysis because history is not and never has been the regurgitation of names and dates and events. It is not a chronicle of events. History is the analysis of why and how things happen AND if there is no argument, it is not history! (Thanks for that one, Dr. Glenn T. Eskew. Okay, so Eskew is not Black, but he is one of the good ones who recognize the seriousness with which we all must advance and promote our profession.)
So on this day, February 28, 2014, the last day of so-called Black History Month (as if every day is not a part of Black History), I salute my classmates, colleagues, and former professors who work like slaves and dogs for very little money. There are days when you—and you alone—have been the only reason I can get up in the morning and keep moving.
I urge all of you, my colleagues, to remember your worth. If people need your stories and your opinions and your analyses, then those people can actually do something revolutionary and actually respect your worth and pay you like the professionals you are. Yet, if they do not want to pay you or acknowledge you, then they can take their lazy a***** to the dozens of libraries and repositories that you have visited. They can devote the same countless, and thankless months and years of research, research that you have perpetually performed as a matter of professional necessity, routine and courtesy. They can then experience how much they like doing years of your work without so much as a dollar or a “Thank You.” Do not settle my friends. Àṣé, and keep moving.
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.
One of the fun things about teaching history is not only helping young people discover new ideas, but also having them help you, the instructor, re-discover some of those ideas. One of the things we did as a class this semester was revisit some of the music of the early 1960s up to 1980 that had socially conscious and/or protest lyrics. Many of the songs on the following list were songs that I personally remembered and contributed. Yet, many of the songs were discovered by several of my students, along with a few suggestions by a few friends. My students and I had a good laugh about how some people upload music to YouTube in violation of copyright law. Yet, we all agreed that when one video or recording of a song was removed, another video would take its place. So, if any of the hyperlinks below have become inactive, I can only encourage you to do a quick search for the title of the song and/or artist.
My musical repertoire dates back to before Ragtime, thanks to my late birth to parents who were much older than the average age for first-time parents, and who were late born babies themselves. I was tempted to create a mammoth song list that touched on every possible social or political concern for the last hundred years. This list is hardly comprehensive or even representative of all the music that I know of that can be counted as having lyrical content that speaks about some social or political issue. Yet, it remains a great list when one considers that the music represented here is much, much older than the majority of my history students and that these songs still have relevance and meaning. Also, a comprehensive list would be too long to be useful. The idea of this assignment was to get students to look up and listen to music and access other art forms and discover that all of these art forms are important cultural markers which help tell so many stories and contribute to the history of any given era.
Many of my students have commented that too much of the music today seems empty of meaningful content. I agree. So, below is the list in date, rather than alphabetical, order. I hope you enjoy what my students discovered; and I hope you will make your own lists of songs of social consciousness and protest and then introduce those songs, musicians, songwriters, and messages to some young person that you know. You may even learn something new in the process. Peace.
(early 1960s**) “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” by Sweet Honey in the Rock: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5Z1trynEHs (**Many singers have sung “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.” It remains a Traditional Negro Folk Song, adapted by the SNCC Freedom Singers, who began singing it at rallies in the early 1960s. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the vocal group “Sweet Honey in the Rock” was an original member of the Freedom Singers. The version above is a more recent version that she and the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock recorded for a PBS Series titled “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”)
(1971) “People Make the World Go Round” by The Stylistics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EDUBOGTVv0 (One of my students was amazed by the remarkably high falsetto voice of the lead singer. His name is Russell Thompkins.)
(1973) “We Were all Wounded at Wounded Knee” by Redbone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VB2LdOU6vo (This song was only released in Europe in 1973. It was released much later in the USA on a compilation. Redbone was the only Native American Soul/Pop group to have a hit record during the 1970s. That hit song was released in 1974 and titled “Come and Get Your Love.”)
(1973) “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” by Bill Withers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6qhfY-aLnk (This song was recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1972 and released in 1973 on the album Bill Withers at Carnegie Hall.)
One of the best things about research is that no matter how long you do it, you always find something new. As a historian, and particularly one that focuses on theatre, I am always amazed at the rich theatrical heritage of my own native city Atlanta, Georgia and the tremendous role our Historically Black Colleges have played in nurturing that heritage. There are certainly more facts about this facet of the city than appear on this list, but below are my first five favorite facts:
1. The founder of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the former slave Alonzo Herndon, had a wife that taught Drama and Speech to one of the first academic theatre groups at a historically Black college in the United States. An amazing thespian, Adrienne Elizabeth McNeill Herndon enjoyed a stellar reputation as an interpreter of Shakespeare. Married to Alonzo Herndon, she devoted much of her expertise to the students of *Atlanta University (then an undergraduate institution) in the late 19th century, helping to develop and found the Atlanta University Players (not to be confused with the Atlanta University Summer Theatre) and coaching it into an amazing group of actors that made its debut in 1895. However, Mrs. Herndon was a very fair complexioned woman. African American scholar Dr. W. E. B. DuBois had the best and most humorous story about her. Because of her acting abilities (and the fact that she was not always easily identifiable as Black), Thomas Dixon, a white racist playwright offered Mrs. Herndon a part in his play “The Klansman.” Writing in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in 1927, W. E. B. DuBois noted that Dixon offered her a role in his play in “blissful ignorance of” her race.
2. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre gave its first performance in the summer of 1934 and ran continually until 1977 making it the longest running Summer Stock Theatre in the United States. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre was made up of student and faculty actors & professors, visiting professors (and some local Atlanta actors) from *Atlanta University, Spelman College (all female), Morehouse College (all male), and later performers from *Clark College, and Morris Brown College. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre actors and directors performed five full-length plays over a six-week period, during June and July of each summer from 1934 through 1941 alone. The five-play, six week schedule was not completely abandoned until 1970 when the summer schedule was trimmed to three plays. (*Founded in 1865 Atlanta University was an undergraduate institution as was *Clark College, founded in 1869. During the school year 1929-1930, Atlanta University exclusively became a graduate school. In 1988, however, Atlanta University and Clark College merged and became Clark Atlanta University.)
3. One of the great scientific minds of our time was Morehouse College alumnus Dr. Samuel Nabrit, who earned a Ph.D. in Biology from Brown University in 1932. An accomplished Marine Biologist*, he taught at both Morehouse College and Atlanta University. In 1956, President Eisenhower appointed him to the National Board of the National Science Foundation and he served as Special Ambassador to Niger under President John F. Kennedy. (A biography and obituary on Dr. Samuel Nabrit in the New York Times.) Less well known is that Nabrit was a regular actor performing with the Atlanta University Summer Theatre when he taught at Morehouse College and Atlanta University during the 1930s. (Sidebar: *Marine Biology was the original academic major of actor Samuel L. Jackson, when he was a student at Morehouse College.)
4. A few weeks before her nineteenth birthday, Black Theatre legend (and then Howard University student) Shauneille Perry spent her summer in Atlanta and appeared as the character “Anias” in Alexander Dumas’ “Camille” during the 15th season (1948) of the Atlanta University Summer Theatre, directed by Owen Dodson. Shauneille Perry is one of the first Black women to direct an Off-Broadway play and has a long list of credits for both the stage and the screen. The United States Congress honored Perry in 2011 for her lengthy and prolific career as an actor, playwright and screenwriter.
5. The amazing and rather colorful director-actor-lighting and technical designer Dr. John McLinn Ross, both acted in plays and directed for the Atlanta University Summer Theatre during the 1930s. Like his colleagues who managed and directed the Atlanta University Summer Theatre (the principle director during the 1930s was Anne M. Cooke, a Spelman professor, along with Owen Dodson), he studied at Yale University’s School of Drama. Yet, Ross has the distinction of being the first Black person to receive the Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting, Directing, and Technical Directing from the Yale School of Drama in 1935, only four years after Yale graduated the first MFA graduates in Drama. Atlanta-based photographer & cultural chronicler Susan Ross is the great niece of Dr. John McLinn Ross.
There were four little Black girls whose lives were snuffed out on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963 when a bomb planted by racist White terrorists exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. They were, Denise McNair who was the youngest at age 11, Carol Robertson aged 14, Cynthia Wesley** aged 14 (**Real and Birth name is “CYNTHIA MORRIS”), and Addie Mae Collins was aged 14. When that bomb went off, most Black Birmingham citizens and most Black Americans forgot about the “March on Washington,” held a mere eighteen days earlier on August 28. Not long after the blast, all hell broke loose. The New York Times headline on the following day read (click here for article): “Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls in Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain.“
Birmingham, then nicknamed “Bombingham,” had an ugly history it would take decades to live down. A middle class neighborhood in the city had suffered so many bombings that it was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill,” because angry Whites bombed homes to stop Black people from moving into the area. Dynamite Hill was the neighborhood that honed and developed future Phi Beta Kappa scholar, radical activist, and author Angela Davis. Yet, that is a story for another essay. There are those of us, however, who think the story of what and who we lost on that fateful Sunday morning deserves its place in all the national narratives of American history. I am one of those people; so is actor and activist Erich McMillan-McCall.
My friend, Erich is the founder of Project1Voice, an organization devoted to preserving Black theatre companies and our important historical legacies. I should add that not only is he a multitalented performance artist with credits on Broadway, national stages, and television, he is also a visionary. I say he is a visionary, however, with a very important acknowledgement of the type of communities that both of us grew up in as children. Black women, he emphasizes, were at the center of these communities. Yet, in several of our usual marathon-long telephone conversations, he has lamented that he is bothered by how Black women’s voices are not only muted or unacknowledged in the historical narratives, but also on the stage, and in the arts.
Erich and I are products of a time when to be young and Black and living in the American South did not necessarily mean that everywhere you went there was danger; what it tended to mean was the Black community in which you grew up was supportive, filled with a great deal of love and encouragement. There were threats to our wellbeing, to be sure. Yet, those threats largely came from outside the neighborhoods where we lived. As much as some very sympathetic White liberal folks and some younger Black Americans have erroneously assumed otherwise, our Black parents and elders made sure we had normal childhoods with school, church, piano lessons, baseball games, concerts, plays, parties, and family picnics. They did all of this for us in spite of the racism and the perpetual threat of (and often real) racial violence that characterized much of life for us during the 1960s and 1970s. Erich understands this type of upbringing.
His proactive approach, that provides greater visibility to financially struggling Black theatre companies while engaging educational, civic, and political organizations in this collective struggle for artistic, political, educational, economic, and historical viability is not exactly a new way of doing things. The Black community that I grew up in was filled with folks who could sing, dance, act, organize, who taught school, practiced medicine, ran businesses, and helped elect Black people to political office—This is what we were/are. I loved this Black community, and the activism and the theatre it produced. I still live in the neighborhood my family moved to when I was around the age of eleven. It has not entirely lost those same qualities that it had during my childhood. However, I fear that these types of communities become more rare with each passing decade. At the same time, I am gratified and encouraged by Erich’s embrace of the old collaborative efforts of our neighborhoods and organizations that we remember about our childhoods; and his insistence that those qualities can be modified and used to great affect in the information age. I hope this is the beginning of a new trend.
Sunday, September 15, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of one of our worst tragedies. On this date, Project1Voice, in collaboration with Howard University, African Continuum Theatre Company, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present a reading of the play “Four Little Girls,” written by Christina Ham, directed by Phylicia Rashad. It will stream live online at 6:00 PM EST via the Kennedy Center’s website.
Targeted toward young audiences, this will be one of those wonderful opportunities to sit down in front of your computer screens with your children and your friends to watch this important piece of theatre and history—Free of Charge. You should also check for viewing parties around the country. Additionally, over thirty Black theatre companies around this nation will be presenting “Four Little Girls” simultaneously on the fiftieth anniversary of this national tragedy.
Erich and I both remember neighborhoods where middle class and working class Black families looked out for each other and each other’s children. These facts, however, are precisely why the slaughter of Denise McNair, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley** (**born as “Cynthia Morris,” but cited in the historiography and in most news reports as “Cynthia Wesley“) and Addie Mae Collins was so devastating to Birmingham’s Black community and other Black communities throughout the nation. The reading of this play is not only a way to honor these dead children, but to also recall and remember the kind of stable and warm neighborhoods where all of them and us grew up. Let us honor these little girls by going home again. Peace.
** Shortly after this blog was published, I, Leslye Joy Allen, was contacted by Fate Morris, the brother of the young girl commonly known in historical and news records as “Cynthia Wesley.” Fate Morris insisted that his sister’s real name is “CYNTHIA DIANE MORRIS,” and that authorities recorded her name incorrectly the day of the explosion. Mr. Morris also informed me that he has decided to accept the Congressional Medal for his sister. Originally he and Sarah Collins Rudolph (sister of Addie Mae Collins) had declined this medal. Please read the following article about the survivors of this tragedy: “Survivor of ’63 Bombing Seeks Funds”**
Please join Project1Voice‘s commemoration of the lives of these four little girls: