African-American History Month: Josephine Baker

“There’s one thing I’ve learned you’ll never be punished for…giving.”

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I saw The Josephine Baker Story (1991), but I do remember being captivated.  I had to have been pretty young because the scenes of topless Josephine, played by Lynn Whitfield, in her banana skirt embarrassed me; I distinctly remember being flushed in my cheeks, but still unable to turn away.  I had never seen a woman portrayed so starkly before, and I was mesmerized by her glamor, beauty, and aggression.  It’s been one of my favorite films ever since.

It wasn’t until high school and an assignment in African-American studies that I really started to discover who the woman behind the show biz truly was.  It’s been said she was the most photographed woman in the world; photographers and painters sought her out across countries.  Endlessly independent, Josephine swept her way through a whirlwind of men.  Being as she never had to depend on a man for monetary stability, she found it easy to discard them when things grew ugly.  Born in 1906, Josephine Baker got her start touring with the Dixie Steppers in 1919, but got the opportunity to hone her craft in Paris in the early ’20s.  La Revue Nègre, the show that lured the beautiful Baker to Paris in the first place, proved to be a major turning point in her career. Josephine and her dance partner at the time, Joe Alex, dazzled their Parisian audience with the Danse Sauvage.  In nothing but a feathered skirt, Paris rewarded Baker’s daring unveiling with applause and critical accolades.  When La Revue Nègre closed, Josephine starred in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater. It was in this revue that she donned her infamous costume–16 bananas strung into a skirt–cementing her European celebrity status.

 She did not fare so well in her own country, however.  In 1936, she returned to the United States to star in the Ziegfield Follies; the show received scathing reviews.  The New York Times in fact called her a “Negro wench”, and Josephine returned to France licking festering wounds.

“[The Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty?” 

 Singing for the troops during WWII, Josephine began to feel a distinct nudge she hadn’t since she was a little girl.  The separation of black and white gnawed at her, and it wasn’t long before she began to do something about it.  She fought the segregation of the troops while aiding the French Resistance.  Finally, coming back to perform in the United States in the ’50s and ’60s, Josephine refused to perform in segregated clubs or eat in establishments that wouldn’t serve other blacks.  Always vocal, both lyrically and socially, Josephine forced the American public to see what it refused to see: a nation living in hypocrisy.  Eventually, Josephine did return to Paris, but not before leaving an indelible impact on the US.

Her “Rainbow Tribe”–12 adopted children of multiple nationalities–stood as her final testament against racism.  She is quoted as saying, “I think they must mix blood, otherwise the human race is bound to degenerate. Mixing blood is marvelous. It makes strong and intelligent men. It takes away tired spirits.”  The last song of her last set before her death in 1975 was “The Times Are a-Changin'”, a song that truly imparts her feelings about people that hold on to the ugliness of racism.  Sung with such intensity, Josephine’s passion about humanity wafts above the music, both resounding and clear.

African-American History Month: John Henry

African-American history is about the celebration of black history and culture.  While there are a great many African-Americans in our history that risked their lives to oppose laws and constructs that prevented racial equality, there are some black people in our history that we discuss simply because of their effects on our culture and the inspiration their existence has given us.

The same is true of John Henry, a steel driver, believed to have been born a slave sometime in the 1840s or ’50s.  While his story is arguably legend only, his tale stands as a monument of inspiration for black Americans as one of our first role models.  Following emancipation, John and his wife leave the plantations for the western frontier looking for jobs and a place to settle; there, they happen upon a crew laying track for the C&O railroad.  Each man on the crew is promised 50 acres of land on the opposite side of the Alleghany Mountains if they can complete the job by the deadline.  Because John stood over six feet tall, a giant in those days, and a former field hand used to extreme outdoor conditions, he was perfect for the job.

Quickly the legend around him grew.  As the deadline drew closer, men and task masters from other crews began to use steam-powered drills to complete the laying of the train tracks and the digging out of the rock of the mountain.  These machines took away the jobs the crews, comprised of mostly African-Americans and immigrants, needed to earn land for shelter and food and creating a livelihood in the west.  Seeing the plight of the workers, John challenged the machine to a contest.  The story goes that John won that contest, armed with two sledgehammers, but died shortly after from exhaustion.

John Henry’s true origin has been debated by many scholars, but the general consensus sets the story in West Virginia and the forging of the Big Bend Tunnel, where a towering statue of John Henry stands to this day.  I was inspired to write about John Henry because, not only is he a black American icon about whom I was relatively ignorant, but thanks to my son, I was enlightened by.  He saw a Disney video about John Henry that in turn inspired him to learn more about our culture and other icons about which we hear very little during this month of recognition.

The primary question seems to be if John Henry was a real person.  As with Paul Bunyan, the establishment of the glorified west is forged with the tales of Herculean giants clearing forests with one fell swoop and drilling through mountains with only a steady hand and a 20-pound sledgehammer.  But it doesn’t really matter whether John Henry actually beat a machine to the other side of a mountain.  It is the hope and inspiration this tale provides for African-Americans.  John dedicated his life to a cause; he gave it so that others could pass on through–literally.  The fact that his sacrifice contributed to a tunnel through which thousands of people travel daily only enhances the legend and the weight of that sacrifice.  He is now immortalized at the entrance to that tunnel.

Watch the video that inspired my son and me, Disney’s An American Legend, narrated by none other than James Earl Jones.  I know you’ll find it as fascinating as we did.

African-American History Month: Whitney Houston

I had a totally different plan for this morning’s blog post.  However, in lieu of breaking events, I felt compelled to write about an inspiring black artist, Ms. Whitney Houston.

Whitney celebrated her 18th birthday on the day I was born.  So it is quite surreal to be writing this memorial, knowing that my entire ’80s experience was a soundtrack written by her.  Even my favorite scene in Coming to America is the cover Eddie Murphy’s character Randy Watson botches of “Greatest Love of All”.  There are pictures somewhere, I’m sure, of my cousin and I jumping around my aunt’s living room in tutus and pink wigs singing “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”.  The face of American pop is forever changed because of her amazing voice, and there are an insane amount of artists who owe their careers to her.  And although the last decade of her life was tumultuous, to the extent that my 10-year old son had no idea who she was, she defined the ’80s and ’90s and set the standard for greatness so that the Beyonces and Adeles of the world could even have a shot at the limelight.

While The Bodyguard (1992) was not an astounding movie, the soundtrack soared with hits.  One of my favorite Whitney songs came from that film (and no, it is not “I Will Always Love You”).  “Queen of the Night” was my jam for like six months.  I still have the cassette tape of the soundtrack…although it will most likely not play because I wore the thing out.  Her subsequent movies always had an amazing touch of her grace on the soundtracks: The Preacher’s Wife (1996) and Waiting to Exhale (1995) all have classics I still have on my iPod.

Not ironically, Whitney (and Mariah) songs are the graveyard for most singers entering into competitions because incredible vocalists like her are difficult to imitate.  If you happen to pull it off, it sounds like karaoke; and when you tank it…well, you tank hard.  Yet, singers aspire to do precisely that–because if you can effectively sing a Whitney song, well, you’ve arrived.  Jennifer Hudson did a beautiful job at last night’s Grammy Awards Tribute; she was able to sing it well and make it her own, instead of attempting to sing it the way Whitney did.  Because let’s be honest: there is no one who really can.

And that’s what we loved about her: that she was refreshingly original with a voice that couldn’t be mimicked or copied.  When  one of her songs played, the voice was unmistakable, and your heart swelled with warmth and joy.  She sang pop songs with a gospel feel: her ballads made you wave your hand in the air and sway; her dance tracks had you all but shouting in the aisles.  She was a breath of fresh air in the darkest of times and everything we celebrated at the best of times.  Her death is truly a loss of not only a remarkable voice and incredible talent, but a beautiful spirit, unfortunately tragically taken too early from our lives.

Rest in peace, Whitney.  You will be missed.  

Whitney Houston: August 9, 1963-February 11, 2012.

African-American History Month: Huey Newton

“I heard God call
So I got my gun and waited;
When He arrived, I realized

He was taking the gun from my head.”

When I saw the Roger Guenveur Smith portrayal of Huey P. Newton in A Huey P. Newton Story (2002), I was not only blown away; I was stirred–to the very core of me.  Until I watched the movie, I admittedly had no idea who Huey Newton was; I had never heard of him or understood the love he had for his fellow African-Americans.  There are reports, of course, that he was “crazy”, and, in his later years, both drug and alcohol addicted.  In the movie, directed by Spike Lee and recorded live during Smith’s off-Broadway production, Huey chain smokes throughout the entire set.  While it is clear that the man was not only amazingly talented and wildly intelligent, it is left to the audience to determine if Newton was plagued by paranoia or some form of schizophrenia as he describes his issues with and philosophies about the American system.  Either way, the body of work is profound and is most assuredly a must-see.  (You can find the full film on YouTube here.)

Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther organization in 1966-7, is recorded as a militant, gun-toting barbarian, set to correcting injustices in Oakland, CA by force and resistance of local law enforcement.  As we all know now, the movement spread like wildfire across the country, many government leaders and factions depicting its members as a threat to national security.  While their doctrine can indeed be viewed as extremist, every operation with an expectancy for change is inspired by the social injustices derived by one’s environment.  California, at the time, had its own violent Birmingham occurring in its streets; and, while method can certainly be questioned in this instance, it took the same courage for Newton to resist violently as it did for Martin Luther King to resist peacefully.  There was equal threat in pursuing equality–although on different paths, both Martin and Huey met with the explosive end of a bullet.

“Sometimes if you want to get rid of the gun, you have to pick the gun up.”

Following Huey’s release from jail, he was able to revamp the focus of the Black Panther party to include and incorporate programs that actually assisted the black community.  He began programs like Children’s Free Breakfast which fed the African-American children in the community before school.  Still others provided testing for sickle cell anemia, free coats for those who needed them, and housing programs that attempted to get equal opportunity housing for black Americans in inner cities.  The party even established a school, the Samuel Napier Intercommunal Youth Institute.  However, the Black Panthers, and Huey, were never without controversy.

Huey P. Newton’s history is laden with accusation of murder, assault, and malice–whether or not he actually did these things is merely a deflection to what he really stood for: the freedom, education, and equality of all African-Americans, that the institution upon which America stood remove its oppressive hand from those suffocating beneath it.  And without his strides and the movement that followed, our lungs would still be begging for air.


African-American History Month: MLK

In honor of African-American History Month, I’m going to do several posts this month about people I feel are underrated and amazing black Americans.  Just like any other moment of recognition, we should not limit our conversation of African-American culture to the month of February.  However, it is an injustice to ignore the few opportunities we get to embrace that culture, and I am proud to use my blog as a testament of that tradition.

I found an incredible poem about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today that I want to share with you.  Of course, he’s not necessarily underrated; most Americans do already know about him and are familiar with his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech.  However, it pains me that many companies and state governments no longer recognize Martin Luther King holiday as a mandatory memorium.  Outside of federal workers, there are many of us, including me, who come to work on the observed holiday without so much as a slight mention of Dr. King’s accomplishments and sacrifices.  While he was not perfect, he stood as an incredible monument to the struggle of African-Americans in the ’60’s and fought the principalities and injustices that kept black Americans shackled for generations.  Without his leadership, I believe the face of the country would be quite different; we certainly would not have a black president in our White House, that’s for sure.

It’s a morbid injustice to allow this holiday to be a “floater”, one we can decide to take (with our own leave, of course) or work.  The observation of Dr. King’s birthday should remain mandatory for every business, corporation and government office nationwide, whether or not your staff is predominantly black.  He didn’t just change the fate of black Americans; he changed the world with his indelible peace and amazing perseverance and fortitude.  To shuffle through a day to honor him without so much of a brief mention of his contribution is a saddening show of disrespect, and a man who has achieved that much deserves much more than that.

Enjoy the poem below, visit the new monument in Washington DC if you have the opportunity, and embrace African-American culture and history this month.  I certainly plan to!


Remembering A Life

By Nordette Adams

I remember him in the misted vision of toddler years
and again in girlhood, the booming voice on TV,
someone grown-ups talked about, eyelids flapped wide.
Elders huddled ’round the screen enraptured,
in fear for him, in awe.
I remember him.
His words swept the land, singing our passion.
Dogs growled in streets. Men in sheets.
Police battering my people. (Water, a weapon.)
Yet my people would rejoice … And mourn.
I remember him, a fearsome warrior crying peace,
a man—blemished by clay, the stain of sin as
any other, calling on the Rock—
Death’s sickle on his coat tails,
yet he spied glory.
Shall we walk again and remember him,
not as the Madison Aveners do,
but in solitude and hope
with acts of courage and compassion,
with lives of greater scope
carving fresh paths of righteousness?
I remember.
© Copyright January 2004 Nordette Adams