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Must-See TV: ‘The Sit-In’

24 May

For one week in February 1968, Harry Belafonte hosted “The Tonight Show,” then the highest-rated late night television show. Belafonte’s guests included Robert F. Kenney, Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, Nipsey Russell, Paul Newman, Wilt Chamberlain, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Sidney Poitier and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

A documentary about that magical week of interviews and performances, “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show,” was scheduled to be screened at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. But along came the coronavirus. Variety reports:

It was 1968, war was raging and racial tensions in America were at a boiling point, dividing the nation. In February, Harry Belafonte stepped in for Johnny Carson to host “The Tonight Show.” It was a monumental moment in which an African American would be the frontman of the most dominant program in late night — and perhaps all of TV — for an entire week. Guests included Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Aretha Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

The doc was scheduled to screen in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, not far from where “The Tonight Show” was filmed in the ’60s, with an after-film discussion that was to have included Belafonte’s daughter, Gina. “We were so excited,” says Richen. “It’s a New York story, and I’m a New Yorker.”

But as with many eagerly anticipated independent films this year, the movie’s launchpad disappeared when the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus, making it a work about the events of yesterday informing today — trumped by the health crisis of the moment.

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Blackfishing Marian Anderson

19 Apr

Easter Sunday marked the 81st anniversary of Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000. She sang outdoors because the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization of white descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, banned African Americans from performing at Constitution Hall which DAR owns.

Marian Anderson - Lincoln Memorial

Five days earlier, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced $22.2 million in new grants including $650,000 for a documentary about Marian Anderson. Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters, is the project director.

I was thrilled the civil rights icon was finally getting the American Masters treatment. The thrill was gone when I found out the Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society is not included in the grant.

NEH - No Funding

Jillian Patricia Pirtle, CEO and President of the Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society, was interviewed by Robert Rapley, a producer and writer for The American Experience. It is ironic the producer of The Abolitionists thinks it’s cool to pick a black woman’s brain for free.

NEH - Robert Rapley

This is Kantor’s second helping of taxpayers’ money for the same project. In 2018, NEH awarded him $75,000 for the “development of a script and trailer for a sixty-minute documentary film on the popular singer Marian Anderson.” This video is the grant product.

Marian Anderson was born and nurtured in Philadelphia. She first performed at Union Baptist Church. When her family couldn’t afford private lessons, members of the congregation pitched in and raised money for a voice teacher. I spoke up in support of preservationist Oscar Beisert’s effort to save the church. In 2015, the historic church was demolished to make way for luxury condos for gentrifiers.

Marian Anderson Church - 7.11.16

I spoke up when residents of Graduate Hospital, the most gentrified neighborhood in Philadelphia, floated the idea of renaming their community “Marian Anderson Village.” African Americans have been displaced but gentrifiers want the cultural cachet of the internationally renowned contralto without the people who look like her.

Graduate Hospital - Marian Anderson Village

Cultural appropriation or blackfishing has no bounds. Karen Attiah, global opinions editor for The Washington Post, observed, “It’s America’s obsession with blackness, and black culture – without black people.”

Blackfishing - Karen Attiah

Michael Kantor is awarded $725,000 for a documentary. Meanwhile, the cultural institution that preserved Marian Anderson’s South Philly rowhouse and keeps her story in public memory is starving for resources.

NEH - No Funding2

Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini once said, “Hers is a voice heard once in a hundred years.” Sadly, blackfishing Marian Anderson is an all too common occurrence.

 

Mapping Philadelphia’s Jazz History

15 Mar

All That Philly Jazz was launched in March 2015. A place-based public history project, we are mapping Philadelphia’s lost jazz shrines from A to Z, from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.

All That Philly Jazz - Wordle - Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue

I was recently interviewed on National Public Radio’s newsmagazine, “Here & Now.” The interview touched on the legacy of McCoy Tyner, Philadelphia’s jazz ecosystem that nurtured young musicians and exposed them to jazz musicians (here and here), and the campaign to save the John Coltrane House, a National Historic Landmark.

Faye Anderson - NPR's Here & Now - March 9, 2020

The podcast is available here.

Memphis Club

1 Mar

March is Women in Jazz Month. Let’s get the celebration started at Philadelphia’s Memphis Club which opened in December 1934.

Memphis Club - Gladys Bentley - 913 N. Warnock Street

Gender-bender blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley opened the fall season. This photo is on view at the National Museum of African American History and Culture “Musical Crossroads” exhibition.

Gladys Bentley - NMAAHC

The drag king pioneer was featured in The New York Times series, “Overlooked”:

When it comes to loosening social mores, progress that isn’t made in private has often taken place onstage.

That was certainly the case at the Clam House, a Prohibition-era speakeasy in Harlem, where Gladys Bentley, one of the boldest performers of her era, held court.

In her top hat and tuxedo, Bentley belted gender-bending original blues numbers and lewd parodies of popular songs, eventually becoming Harlem royalty. When not accompanying herself with a dazzling piano, the mightily built singer often swept through the audience, flirting with women in the crowd and soliciting dirty lyrics from them as she sang.

By the early 1930s, Bentley was Harlem’s most famous lesbian figure — a significant distinction, given that gay, lesbian and gender-defying writers and performers were flourishing during the Harlem Renaissance. For a time, she was among the best-known black entertainers in the United States.

Bentley sang her bawdy, bossy songs in a thunderous voice, dipping down into a froglike growl or curling upward into a wail. In his 1940 autobiography, Langston Hughes called her “an amazing exhibition of musical energy — a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard — a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”

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Merry Christmas

23 Dec

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.