A Little Girl and “The Nativity”

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

For the record, I am a historian and contrary to popular belief, historians are not social scientists.  History belongs in the category of the Humanities, as in the phrase “Arts and Humanities.”  Art and artists tell stories and so do historians.  We just do it in different ways.

Historians analyze and interpret the past.  We ask “why” something happened and we ask “how” something happened.

There are as many different angles and answers to those “how” and “why” questions as there are historians.  Performance art also does this because no two performances are ever the same; and audience members often see and interpret the same story or song in a hundred different ways.

Yet, I digress.

What I really want to share is a particular story, a story about a little girl who sat in an audience and gave me the best lesson about what the arts, particularly theatre, does for an audience.

I have always been fond of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. Many theatre companies in Atlanta have performed this holiday classic over many decades.

I recall seeing many performances of it by Jomandi Productions and many other local Black theatre companies. In recent years, many directors and playwrights have produced their own version of the “Nativity.”

There was yet another re-imagining of this annual story conceived, written, and choreographed by Patdro Harris as part of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company’s annual Christmas offering that played in December of 2011 at the beautiful Southwest Arts Center.

Yet, a couple of years ago, I witnessed Black Nativity for perhaps the eighth or ninth time.  This time, however, I sat behind a little girl who could not have been any older than five or six years old.  I watched her and nostalgically recalled that my first theatre experience occurred on a visit to New York when I was four and a half years old—I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. in Golden Boy.  However, the little girl watching Black Nativity did more than bring up fond childhood memories for me.

Sitting in the dark at the Southwest Arts Center, preparing myself for True Colors Theatre Company’s version of Black Nativity, I watched this child’s face break out in a wide—missing-tooth—grin as the music, dance, and dialogue began.

She watched the show with wonder, that kind of childhood wonder where everything is brand new.  After the show was over, while I chatted with some folks in the lobby, I watched and heard this child make a dozen comments and ask nearly as many questions:

“Mama, I sure did have a good time.”

“Mama, was the baby Jesus a real baby or was it a doll?”

“Mama what do actors do to make themselves look old?”  “

What does “nativity” mean?

How can the same person pretend to be two different people?

The questions and comments from this child kept coming.  Yet that is what the arts do—art always triggers the imagination.  So I often wonder why some legislators do not realize that part of the reason why schools have difficulty raising students’ Math and Science scores is partially due to the fact that there has been a systematic de-emphasis and de-funding of the Arts and the Humanities.

Being able to memorize and regurgitate information is not a clear example of scholastic aptitude; being able to creatively think one’s way through or out of a problem is an explicit illustration of genuine intelligence.  If you think Albert Einstein created his theory of relativity based only on what his science and math teachers taught him, you are dead wrong.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,” Einstein said.

If you think George Washington Carver did not understand the importance of creativity, think again.  Carver emphasized that, “Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible.”  It is not likely Einstein or Carver would have become the geniuses that they were without a genuine respect for the arts.

That little girl I listened to asking questions in the lobby of the Southwest Arts Center would never have asked the kind of questions she asked her mother had her mother decided not to take her to see a play or a musical.

Black Nativity had stoked her young imagination.  When you stoke children’s imaginations, they ask intelligent questions; and when this kind of inquisitiveness is encouraged, they tend to grow up to be adults who ask intelligent questions.  When you have adults who know the right questions to ask, you tend to get a community that will demand and possibly get better public policy on everything from city services to health care to education.

So, do your community, yourself, and your children one favor.  Take yourself, your children or a child to see a play, a Jazz concert, a ballet, and/or an art exhibit.  Now there is no guarantee that you or any child that you expose to the arts will become the next Einstein or Carver, or even a great performance artist.  Yet, why not give them a shot at being any or all of the above.

Peace.

Copyright © 2012 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.

This Will Not Appear in a History Book or on the News

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Back during the first week of December 2011, late on a Saturday night, my doorbell rang. Since I was not expecting anyone, I was hesitant to answer the door.

“Who is it?”  I asked.

A male voice answered back, “Did you know there is somebody laying at the foot of your yard?”  I answered that I did not know, but that I would be calling the police.  I turned off my lights and peeked out the window. I did not see anything.

Then I became frightened. Was the man who rang my doorbell trying to gain entry to my home? I erred on the side of caution. I dialed 911. After I spoke with the 911 Operator, I again looked out of my bedroom window. This time I saw what initially appeared to be a large object writhing on the street right in front of my home. I felt a lump in my throat.

Soon I saw the swirling reflection of police lights against my closed blinds and curtains. I cracked my bedroom window so that I could hear what was going on outside and peeked through the curtains.

A young, Black police officer repeatedly questioned the man lying in the street.  “What is your name sir?” How did you get here?”  “Do you know where you are?”  “I need you to talk to me so that I can help you, sir.”

The man did not answer. Soon, the young officer started walking to my door.  He asked me if I had seen anything out of the ordinary. The only thing I could say was that a man rang my doorbell and told me that someone was lying in the street in front of my house.

The police officer told me the man lying in the street was incoherent, and that an ambulance would arrive soon. He thanked me for contacting the police. “That man that came to your door should have called the police rather than ring your doorbell,” he said. I agreed. I told the police officer that this kind of thing was not customary in my neighborhood.  He told me to be careful and said goodnight.  I thanked him for his courtesy.

Before I closed my door, the ambulance arrived. The police officer and the paramedics picked the man up, placed him on a stretcher, lifted him into the back of the ambulance which soon sped away. It was a strange moment for me for a variety of reasons.

I still live in a Southwest Atlanta neighborhood where most neighbors know each other, can go next door to borrow a couple of eggs, and Saturday mornings are devoted to mowing grass and raking leaves. I also recall that I had been an adult for a good long time before I saw anyone in Atlanta who appeared to be incoherent and homeless.

A few folks that I have met in recent years who migrated to Atlanta from some larger urban northern communities informed me right away that they grew up seeing homeless people. That depressed me almost as much as thinking about that poor man lying in the street.  Yet, there is another way of looking at the events of that particular night.

There was a time when those of us who are Black and who call Southwest Atlanta home were not welcomed here; a time when you were more likely to be harassed (or dealt much worse) by an Atlanta police officer. There are folks that would argue that the police still occasionally treat us that way. I will not argue that they are entirely wrong. However, I am always concerned when any of us paints one group or one profession with the same broad brush. I learned yet another important lesson.

The man who came to my door that night might have called the police himself.  Instead, he passed that obligation to me. At least he DID SOMETHING and SAID SOMETHING. He also took a risk that I, as a woman, would never have taken—He rang a total stranger’s doorbell to alert them to a problem in front of their home.  I have met folks who would have seen someone lying in the street and then driven on about their business.

I also met a young Black police officer who addressed me with courtesy and who treated an unfortunate, incoherent man with concern and respect. I watched him help the paramedics get this man into the back of ambulance.

People like this police officer, someone who was simply doing his job, are rarely, if ever, in the history books; and they do not make the evening news either. Yet, we can spread the word about the work they do.

It would not hurt if each of us occasionally acknowledged and said “Thank you” to those sisters and brothers who simply do their work and their duties with dignity and cheerfulness.

Tell your neighbors, friends, and co-workers about that nice young brother that always smiles and says “Hello” when he bags your groceries or the young Black female student who always gets up and offers her seat to an elderly person whenever an elderly person boards MARTA or the police officer who truly serves and protects.

At one time or another, all of us have spent too much time discussing the latest gossip with friends and family.  However, let us also make a point to acknowledge and celebrate the folks, our folks, who do the right thing everyday. They are out there when we bother to look; and there are plenty of them right here in Southwest Atlanta.  Peace.

Copyright © 2012 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.

Soldiers, Scholars, and “Black Redtail Angels” in Southwest Atlanta

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre & Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student                                               Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

“White American bomber crews reverently referred to them as “The Black Redtail Angels” because of the identifying red paint on their tail assemblies and because of their reputation for not losing bombers to enemy fighters as they provided fighter escort to bombing missions over strategic targets in Europe.” –Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Dryden (1920-2008) from A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman

Back in early December 2011, I received an email from a cousin that contained a trailer from the movie Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen directed by Anthony Hamilton, produced and largely funded by George Lucas.  Not long after I received the email with the trailer, I was thinking about my one and only meeting with the late Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. “Chuck” Dryden.

I had called Dryden when I briefly served as an intern for a World War II Oral History project.  When I called him, he looked at his Caller ID and determined that I was calling from a phone in Southwest Atlanta.  He told me to hang up the phone and come on over.  With no hesitation, I drove to his home, which was about six minutes from my own.

Dryden was a decorated Tuskegee Airman, and one of many Tuskegee Airmen that lived in Atlanta, which is home to more Tuskegee Airmen than any other city in the nation.  A member of the famous 99th Pursuit Squadron, and later the 332nd Fighter Group, it was Dryden who led a group of six Black fighter pilots in aerial combat in Italy in 1943—This was the first time in aviation history that Black pilots in the U. S. Army Air Corps engaged an enemy in aerial combat.

I spent an afternoon at his home in Southwest Atlanta back in the summer of 2007 where he told me how he had to be perfect as a fighter pilot if we were going to stop Hitler’s Third Reich and if he and others were going to prove that Black men made excellent fighter pilots.

That afternoon I learned that he was much, much more than a fighter pilot.  I had owned his memoir A Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman for years, but at that time, I had not yet had an opportunity to read it in its entirety.  However, from what I had read and from my conversation with him, it was apparent that he was very much a scholar.

We discussed history, politics, art, World War II, U. S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the upcoming “Democratic Presidential nomination” of Barack Obama, and of all things: my Master’s thesis.  He insisted that I tell him more about my research on the White politicians that made up the Georgia Know-Nothing Party, a group that did not want Georgia to secede from the Union as the South reeled from the election of Abraham Lincoln.

I should add that we also talked some mess!  I noticed a picture of Dryden and his beautiful and brilliant wife Marymal Dryden.  She was not there when I visited, but I remember reading one of her essays.  The handsome couple stood there in the photo with the Arizona sunset as their background.

“You remember that scene in the movie Waiting to Exhale where Angela Bassett burns up all of her ex-husband’s stuff in the car,” he asked.  “Yeah,” I answered.  “Well, we are standing right there in that same spot where she burned up everything.”  We both burst into laughter.

He could not stand upright, as he had been afflicted with a severe stroke.  Yet, his mind was razor sharp.  He thought U. S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was dangerous.  Moreover, of more than a dozen WWII vets that I spoke with, ALL of them thought this way.  In less than a year after my wonderful visit, Lt. Col. Dryden passed on to the ancestors.

Not long after his death, a young woman in one of my history classes informed me that she would be attending the United States Air Force Academy.  In one of our conversations where we talked about everything from the fact that the Air Force had fewer Blacks than any other part of the armed services, she told me that she met Lt. Col. Dryden before his death.

When I asked her about their conversation, she looked me straight in the eye and said that Dryden’s face lit up when she introduced herself and told him she was planning to go the United States Air Force Academy.

He told her, “When you get to the Air Force Academy, you give THEM HELL!”  We both laughed because we knew what he meant, and we offered no apologies for his pointed audacity-filled instructions to her to kick some you-know-what at the Air Force Academy.

Nearly four generations her senior, Dryden let this young sister know that his expectations of her were high.  He also knew that his vote of confidence in her abilities would buttress her against any doubts she might develop should she encounter those individuals who thought the United States Air Force had no need of Black female officers and pilots.  Like every other Tuskegee Airman I know of, Dryden never lost his swagger, his sense of possibility.  Like many other men and women of his era, he expected much from himself and from all of us who were born after him.

Dryden and my parents were contemporaries.  I am a late born child—my mom turns 91 years young this year.  If my father were living, he would be turning the age of 92.  The men and women of Dryden and my parents’ era not only lived long enough to see the world change, but they were largely responsible for changing it.

Folks my age and younger often complain about what needs to be done to create racial and economic justice.  Many of us have been vocal critics of our elders, and often our analyses of what did or did not work in the past have been correct.  However, if there is any lesson to learn from the “Black Redtail Angels,” and our elders from the World War II era and beyond is their dedication to education and their examples of extreme sacrifice.

These men and women—Black and White— those in the military and those keeping the home front, were in their twenties when Adolph Hitler threatened to destroy any semblance of racial or ethnic equality in Europe and elsewhere.  I shudder to think of how different the world might have been had he and his minions been successful.

We often forget that the Third Reich did not just target Jews for extermination.  It exterminated and planned the extermination of Poles, and all Slavic peoples, persons with mental and physical disabilities, Gays and Lesbians, and yes, Afro-Germans.

We owe folks like Lt. Col. Dryden and Lt. Col. Hap Chandler, a White fighter pilot from Toccoa, Georgia.  Not long after I met Chandler, I learned that he had shown up at a meeting of Georgia’s Tuskegee Airmen to thank them for keeping him alive and to apologize for the awful way that “members of my race treated you.”

Chandler also had that same swagger, intellectualism, and expectation that I noticed about Dryden.  In the late 1940s, he also belonged to that small but growing number of White veterans who had to reassess their erroneous beliefs about alleged “Black inferiority” that remained endemic to every aspect of American life and was the very basis of the social and economic order of the American South.  I should add that Chandler was cool.  He drove a Jaguar and arrived for his interview wearing a suit and tie and holding hands with his seventy-year-old girlfriend.

The Tuskegee Airmen, and other Black World War II veterans came back home to the United States and demanded equality from a country that denied them the very thing they had fought for abroad.  The modern-day Civil Rights movement began with the efforts and work of all of these men and women.

They went to college (or back to college) in record numbers under the G. I. Bill.  They sought advanced degrees, pursued well-paying skilled jobs in new industries, started businesses, and swelled the numbers of the Black middle class so that you and I could do much of what we are able to do now.  They bought homes and sent kids to college.

They registered and voted in every election.  They marched with and sometimes paid to get civil rights activists, students and radicals out of jail.  They set examples for us to follow and repeat, and made some mistakes for us to study and avoid, but they never stopped moving and searching for new ways to create a more just and equitable nation for their children and grandchildren.

They did all of these things without computers, cable television, the Internet, email, blogs, social media or cell phones.  We should do no less.  Peace.

Copyright © 2012 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.