This is not a review of the film SELMA. However, I will say I saw it on Christmas Day when it was in limited release and let me put it this way—I had one of the best Christmas’ ever. Brilliantly acted, superbly directed. I dig Sister Ava DuVernay because she is a Black Woman, but also a young woman director who is unafraid to use all of the nuances that come with being a woman.
I also learned very quickly that she has two great parents and I see “Daddy’s Girl” written all over her face. Oprah Winfrey is another Daddy’s Girl. I know one when I see one—I was a Daddy’s Girl too. I love my late Mama to death because we had a lot of fun, but Dad was my playmate for life. I thought about my parents when I watched SELMA in the dark of that packed movie theatre on Christmas Day. They would have been so proud; and my tell-it-like-it-is Father would have been one of Ava’s biggest supporters. I can hear his loud mouth right now talking about how “Ava is one baaaaaad young sister!!”
For the first time we have a feature film about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Selma March movement, but also a film where women are highly visible, as are so many other long forgotten foot soldiers. Yet, for a filmmaker to press ahead and make the kind of film that truly honors the Black and White women who made so many sacrifices for civil and human rights takes courage. For a Black woman filmmaker that courage often comes from the fact that in a male-dominated world, when a father approves of his daughter, when he encourages her and believes in her, she never, ever needs another man’s approval.
Mothers are extremely important too, and are always our confidantes and advisors; it is she who helps us navigate in a world full of possibilities and limitations. We watch our mothers make sacrifices and often we later wonder how she managed to make those sacrifices. Yet, our Dads’ support truly matters because sexism is alive and well, no matter how many men that love us try to downplay it. I am a Black woman and because my Dad supported me, I can handle blatant sexism and the occasional lukewarm support I get from some of the men I know and love. Most women know that only a minority of men can be our cheerleaders. Cheerleaders have to perform on the sidelines.
Ava and Oprah know whom their male and female cheerleaders are; an overwhelming majority of those cheerleaders has a pair of ovaries. I have several male cheerleaders, but every once in a while I hear that disinterest in their voices when the subject of the conversation changes from their problems or their work to a discussion about me and what is going on in my life and work. They do not mean me any harm. Yet, when I need to discuss me, I turn to my sister friends. So, in the spirit of that Sisterhood I am going on record as saying I am so very proud of Oprah Winfrey, who never fails to honor all of her people. I am so very proud of Black woman filmmaker and director Ava DuVernay for the exact same reason! My late parents loved Oprah…they did not live long enough to witness Ava…but I suspect they are watching from somewhere in the cosmos! Àṣé!
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.)
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: