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The Roots of Jazz and Blues

12 Apr

Is jazz black music? Is the Pope Catholic?

A 1959 documentary, Cry of Jazz, sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”

In 1979, jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams drew a picture of the history of jazz for the slow learners.

Mary Lou Williams HistoryTree

The roots of the blues were planted in 1619 when Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia on a slave ship. Jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron observed:

America provided the atmosphere for the blues and the blues was born
The blues was born on the American wilderness
The blues was born on the beaches where the slave ships docked
Born on the slave man’s auction block

If your ancestors didn’t pick cotton from “cain’t see in the morning till cain’t see at night,” Benny Turner wants you to know who sang the blues first.

Harriet Tubman Day 2020

8 Mar

Like most enslaved African Americans, Harriet Tubman did not know her date of her birth. So we remember the “Moses of Her People” on the date of her death, March 10, 1913.

In 1990, President George W. Bush proclaimed March 10 “Harriet Tubman Day”:

In celebrating Harriet Tubman’s life, we remember her commitment to freedom and rededicate ourselves to the timeless principles she struggled to uphold. Her story is one of extraordinary courage and effectiveness in the movement to abolish slavery and to advance the noble ideals enshrined in our Nation’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

After escaping from slavery herself in 1849, Harriet Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom by making a reported 19 trips through the network of hiding places known as the Underground Railroad. For her efforts to help ensure that our Nation always honors its promise of liberty and opportunity for all, she became known as the “Moses of her People.”

Serving as a nurse, scout, cook, and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman often risked her own freedom and safety to protect that of others. After the war, she continued working for justice and for the cause of human dignity. Today we are deeply thankful for the efforts of this brave and selfless woman – they have been a source of inspiration to generations of Americans.

In recognition of Harriet Tubman’s special place in the hearts of all who cherish freedom, the Congress has passed Senate Joint Resolution 257 in observance of “Harriet Tubman Day,” March 10, 1990, the 77th anniversary of her death.

Cynthia Erivo starred in Harriet, the biopic for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Erivo also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for “Stand Up” which she co-wrote with Joshuah Brian Campbell.

I will stand up for Harriet Tubman at the Harriet Ross Tubman Monument in Bristol, Pennsylvania.

Harriet Tubman Memorial Monument, Bristol, PA

Sadly, partisan politics has delayed release of the Harriet Tubman $20 bill until 2028. Meanwhile, sections of Dixie Highway in Florida will be renamed in tribute to the iconic freedom fighter.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

15 Jan

Visualizing Slavery

15 Dec

The oldest-known photograph of enslaved black people with cotton was recently purchased at auction for $324,500 on behalf of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Visualizing Slavery

Sabrina Imbler reports:

The image is simple haunting. Ten enslaved African-American people stand in front of a two-story, white clapboard building, some with baskets of cotton on top of their heads. A boy bows his head in the lower-left corner, his back to the camera. It’s a quarter-plate daguerreotype, a little larger than a deck of cards but brimming with details visible only when magnified: the individual leaves of the plants encircling a well, the woven wicker of the baskets. The antebellum photograph, believed to date back to the 1850s, is the oldest-known image of enslaved people with cotton, the commodity that they were forced to harvest.

Recently, at Cowan’s American History auction, the Hall Family Foundation purchased the photograph for $324,500, on behalf of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. “I had never seen an image like this before,” says Jane Aspinwall, the curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

Images of enslaved African-American people are relatively rare, and were almost always taken at the behest of the slaveholder, according to critic Stephen Best in “Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive,” published in a 2011 issue of the journal Representations. “However exhaustive one’s catalog of the visual archive of slavery, it will always be lacking in works by slaves themselves,” he writes.

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Visualizing Racism

8 Dec

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Still, the fight over the meaning of the South’s Lost Cause continues.

Picture this: Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said the Confederate Flag was hunky-dory until Dylan Roof “hijacked” it from the descendants of slave owners and their sympathizers for whom it symbolized “service, and sacrifice and heritage.”

Haley’s spin is fake news. William T. Thompson long ago spilled the tea on the meaning of the Confederate flag.

Confederate-Flag-Design

The symbol of white supremacy was weaponized during the Jim Crow era as African Americans fought for equal protection under the law and civil rights.

Confederate Flag - Don't You Wish You Were White

Confederate Flag - We Want a White School

A recent issue of the Washington Post Magazine is devoted to photography that documents struggles with racism. Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson wrote in the introduction:

Racism is this nation’s telltale heart beating ominously in the collective subconscious. From time to time we come to believe we have expiated and silenced it once and for all. But then it is back — changed, perhaps attenuated, but unmistakable.

[…]

This is how the war against racism goes: progress, setback, optimism, despair — a cycle that frustratingly repeats and yet somehow inches us forward. Racism may be worse than in the recent past, but the individual and collective punishment it metes out is a shadow of what black Americans suffered a half-century ago. We have no choice but to believe that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. We have somehow taken a detour, however, and must find our way back to the true path.

This issue is devoted to photography that documents this moment — not just our external struggle with racism, but the internal struggles as well. Some of the images are beautiful and unsettling. Some are jarring. If some make us uncomfortable, that is progress. An easy conversation about racism is not a real conversation at all.

The full issue is available here.

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

1 Dec

Later this month, I will give a talk on the Green Book at the Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia. I first wrote about “The Negro Motorist Travel Guide” in 2015. That year, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digitized Victor Hugo’s travel guide which was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBook Collage

The now-iconic publication is experiencing a renaissance. Countless news articles, essays and blog posts have been written. A documentary, Driving While Black, will air on PBS next year. In June 2020, a Green Book exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service will begin a three-year tour. The first stop is the most famous Green Book site, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Lorraine Motel

Over the course of 30 years, dozens of Philadelphia businesses were listed in the Green Book. Most were located in South Philadelphia, then the heart of the African American community.

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

Almost 70 percent of Philadelphia’s buildings were constructed before 1945. So it’s not surprising there are 45 extant Green Book sites. A few are vacant; most have been repurposed. Five are in the same business including the Hotel Carlyle which was first listed in the Green Book in 1948 and is doing business under the same name.

Hotel Carlyle Collage

The Paul Robeson House talk is sold out. To arrange a presentation for your organization, university, school, etc., contact the #GreenBookPHL Project at greenbookphl@gmail.com.