Juneteenth 2019

17 Jun

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Jump for Joy: Duke Ellington and Social Change

9 Jun

Legendary composer, bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington was not an outspoken activist. His activism was expressed in benefit concerts, non-segregation clause in his contract and his music. In the 1960s, Ellington was asked when he was going to compose a civil rights piece. His reply, “I did my piece more than 20 years ago when I wrote Jump for Joy.”

Duke Ellington-Jump-For-Joy

Debuted on July 10, 1941, at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, the musical addressed African American identity and representation. For Ellington, showcasing black excellence was an act of resistance to racial caricatures. Although Jump for Joy received rave reviews, it ran for only 122 performances. The musical never made it to Broadway. The “Great White Way” was not ready for Ellington’s unapologetic blackness.

Nearly 80 years later, audiences still jump for joy when they hear songs from the musical, including “I’ve Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good) and “Rocks in My Bed.”

Black Music Month 2019

2 Jun

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Black Music Month, the brainchild of music mogul and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Gamble and broadcast executive Ed Wright. Radio personality Dyana Williams, the “Mother of Black Music Month,” breaks down the origin of the celebration.

2019 also marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in British North America. Music helped the ancestors survive the dehumanization and barbarity of slavery. This mandolin was crafted by a slave circa 1800s. It is on display at the National Constitution Center.

Mandolin4

The ancestors used music to express their grief and sorrow. In 25 Black Gospel Songs that Have their Roots in Slavery, BlackExcellence.com wrote:

This traditional Negro spiritual dates back to the slavery era. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child expresses despair and pain. Furthermore, it conveys the lack of hope of a child who’s been torn from the parents. The word sometimes is repeated several times, which can be interpreted as a measure of hope, as it suggests that occasionally this child doesn’t feel motherless. This child can represent a slave who, in the trafficking process, has been separated from something dear to his or her heart (such as a spouse, home country, parents, children, siblings, and so on) and is yearning for it.

Music was a form of resistance. Again, from BlackExcellence.com:

Wade in the Water is a Negro spiritual song that teaches slaves to hide and make it through by getting into the water. It’s a perfect map song example with lyrics that offer precious coded directions.

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Joe Biden’s Great American Novel

20 May

On Saturday, Joe Biden kicked off his third presidential campaign. Biden said he chose Philadelphia for his campaign launch and headquarters because “this was the birthplace of our democracy”:

So why do we begin this journey in this place – Philadelphia? Because this was the birthplace of our democracy. It was here that two of the most important documents in the world’s history were written.

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Those words formed the American creed. Equality. Equity. Fairness. America didn’t live up to that promise for most of its people, for people of color, for women.

It is self-evident blacks were not included in the nation’s founding documents. The Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner. Biden said, “Just look at the facts, not the alternative facts.” Fact is, African Americans were stripped of their humanity and deemed the property of “We the people.” Chattel slavery was not a broken promise. It was foundational to the nation’s economy and political representation.

In 1787, slaveholders and their sympathizers were holed up in Independence Hall fixing the Constitution to preserve African Americans as their property. Slavery is enshrined in the third clause of Article IV, Section 2:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

At the same time, others were fighting to end slavery.

Pennsylvania Abolition Society

Biden’s campaign kickoff was held on the anniversary of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of segregated public accommodations if they were “separate but equal.”

Plessy v. Ferguson

White and Colored Water Fountain

The Jim Crow regime was not dismantled until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Biden’s assertion about “One America” begs the question: When have we ever been “One America?”

Joe Biden - One America

Fact is, Biden’s revisionist history is not novel. Brushing aside slavery, America’s original sin, is the “American creed.” As the nation commemorates 400 years of African American history, we must continue to fight to ensure our story is told and preserved in public memory. Does that make us angry? Novelist and cultural critic James Baldwin observed:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.

Stay woke.

Preservation Month 2019: Gentrification and Displacement

5 May

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. What matters to me is the loss of historic places that hold the ancestors’ stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

A recent report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that Philadelphia has the fourth highest rate of gentrification. The 34-page report is encapsulated in a statement by Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan who lays bare that gentrification and cultural displacement go hand-in-hand:

Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants.

The demographic moving to Philly does not look like the demographic that is being displaced. At the same time Usdan gushes over Philadelphia’s rich history, he plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. For Usdan, black history apparently is not American history.

As I commented before the Philadelphia Historical Commission when the property was nominated for listing on the local register, this places matters:

Henry Minton belonged to an elite guild of caterers and was a leader in the free black community. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that Minton “wielded great personal influence, aided the Abolition cause to no little degree, and made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do Negro citizens.”

There is not much more to add other than Minton provided freedom fighter John Brown “with bed and board” shortly before his raid upon Harper’s Ferry. It should also be noted that Minton is listed on the iconic Civil War poster, “Men of Color, To Arms!” Clearly, the nomination satisfies Criteria A and J for Designation.

The provenance of the front façade is a distraction. The property is not being nominated because of its architectural significance. So the National Register roadmap for evaluating integrity is irrelevant. Viewed through the African American lens, it’s not about bricks and mortar. It’s about recognizing that our stories matter. African American history matters.

Commission members acknowledged the property does indeed meet the criteria for designation. Still, they reversed the unanimous decision of the Committee on Historic Designation and voted to toss the building on the trash heap of history.

Henry Minton Residence - Committee on Designation Vote

#PhilaHistorical Commission Vote to Decline Designation - April 12, 2019

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to British North America. While African American history is more than slavery, our story begins with the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” in Virginia. So whether one focuses on 1639 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Philadelphia or 1939 when Billie Holiday first recorded “Strange Fruit,” the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.

So where’s our story? I will talk about disappearing blackness on WHYY Radio Times on Thursday, May 9, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 am. The station can be heard in Philadelphia and New Jersey. You can join the conversation on Twitter (@whyyradiotimes) or call 888-477-9499.

Ironically, WHYY is in the footprint of Pennsylvania Hall, a purpose-built meeting place for abolitionists that was burned to the ground by a pro-slavery mob three days after it opened. Philadelphia’s mayor, firefighters and police stood by and did nothing.

Pennsylvania Hall Marker

Pennsylvania Hall - WHYY

Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney does nothing as black presence is erased from public spaces.