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"Honey, I went to a Negro History meetin' tonight," said the voice on the phone. "Well, they had several speakers. . . . There was one pretty young colored girl who . . . gave a nice talk about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and many others . . . and I noticed that everybody would name a couple of folk and then add 'and many others. . . .' Now I can't think about the many others without thinkin' of my grandmother. . . . Toys? She'd pull up a clump of grass, tie it in the middle to make a 'waist line' and then comb the dirt out of the roots so she could braid them in two pigtails, and that would be a 'grass doll' with 'root hair' . . . and the boys got barrel wires for hoops and pebbles and a ball for 'jacks.' Every minute of Grandma's life was struggle. . . . After the kids was off to bed she'd sit in her rockin' chair in the dark kitchen, and that old chair would weep sawdust tears as she rocked back and forth. She'd start off singing real low-like . . . 'I'm so glad trouble don' las' always,' and switch off in the middle and pick up with 'Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry' . . . and she'd keep jumpin' from tune to tune . . . 'I'm gonna tell God all of my troubles when I get home' . . . and she'd pat her feet as she rocked and rassled with death, Jim Crow and starvation. All of a sudden the rockin' would stop and she'd jump up, smack her hands together and say, 'Atcha dratcha!' and she'd come back revived and refreshed and ready to go at them drat troubles. . . . I bet Miss Tubman and Miss Truth would like us to remember and give some time to the many others."
On this New Year's Day, this day of Imani (faith), the final day of Kwanzaa, with the words of author Alice Childress from her book Like One of the Family, published in 1956, we honor all of our sheroes and sister-griots-- our Tubmans, Truths, and many others-- who have brought us thus far by faith, forging our Sister Days.
Through wisdom I have dived down into the great sea, and have seized in the place of her depths a pearl whereby I am rich. I went down like the great iron anchor whereby men anchor ships for the night on the high seas, and I received a lamp which lighteth me, and I came up by the ropes of the boat of understanding. I went to sleep in the depths of the sea, and not being overwhelmed with the water I dreamed a dream. And it seemed to me that there was a star in my womb, and I marvelled thereat. . . . I went in through the doors of the treasury of wisdom and I drew for myself the waters of understanding. I went into the blaze of the flame of the sun, and it lighted me with the splendour thereof, and I made of it a shield for myself, and I saved myself by confidence therein, and not myself only but all those who travel in the footprints of wisdom, and not myself only but all the men of my country, the kingdom of Ethiopia, and not only those but those who travel in their ways, the nations that are round about.
Through wisdom, the best of herself as a woman, Makeda had found her love.
The library in the diaspora. An ancient African institution, the library dates back to Egypt's King Osymandyas, circa 1240 B.C.E. At a time when most libraries in the United States were private and for the rich, one of the nation's first public libraries was founded by African Americans in 1833-- the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons. Then, with growth of the historically black colleges, a new page was added to the story on January 3, 1924, when Sara "Sadie" Delaney opened the Veteran's Library at Tuskegee.
In a unique contribution, Delaney created bibliotherapy -- "the treatment of a patient through selected reading" -- for which she earned international acclaim. Significantly, Delaney's career had begun in 1920 at Harlem's famed 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, which, in 1927, acquired the collection and expertise of noted Afro-Puerto Rican bibliophile Arturo A. Schomburg. From that branch, another keeper of the flame, Jean Blackwell Hutson, would emerge. In her thirty-two years there, she guided the collection from its branch library status to a resource of world renown, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. As a patron once mused, the "branch libraries love people and the research libraries love books." But Hutson was so successful at combining the two that President Kwame Nkrumah invited her to Ghana to replicate, for his newly independent nation, his own youthful quests there as a student.
There are those who would derogate African Americans with trinkets like this one: "If you want to hide something from black folks, put it between the pages of a book." Then there are those who know better. From ancient Egypt to America to Ghana, if you want to find something sacred to black folks, look to how we have built our libraries.
After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, notifying Congress and the military of his plan to free the slaves, three months would pass before the decree became official, and then only on Rebel soil. For Lincoln, the issue was not the slave, it was the war. But you couldn't prove that by the newly free. On New Year's Day 1863, as news of freedom came down the wires and soldiers spread the word, in first a trickle and then a flood, people broke the dam of slavery. Even for those who were not immediately free, in spirit if in no other recognizable form, there was no turning back. Charlotte Brown recalled her liberation on the first Sunday of 1863, January 4. This was the scene on the Virginia plantation, where she had been enslaved:
De news come on a Thursday, an' all de slaves been shoutin' an' carryin' on tell ev'rybody was all tired out. 'Member de fust Sunday of freedom. We was all sittin' roun' restin' an' tryin' to think what freedom meant an' ev'rybody was quiet an' peaceful. All at once ole Sister Carrie who was near 'bout a hundred started in to talkin':
Tain't no mo' sellin' today,
Tain't no mo' hirin' today,
Tain't no pullin' off shirts today,
It's stomp down freedom today.
Stomp it down!
An' when she says, "Stomp it down," all de slaves commence to shoutin' wid her: Stomp down Freedom today-- Wasn't no mo' peace dat Sunday. Ev'rybody started in to sing an' shout once mo'. Fust thing you know dey done made up music to Sister Carrie's stomp song an' sang an' shouted dat song all de res' de day. Chile, dat was one glorious time!
In the 1940s, Estelle Carter was a retired teacher in her late seventies living in New Bedford, Massachusetts. When her great-nephew visited, she would always send him home with a gift-- a morsel of history collected over the years. "Did you know that your great-grandfather was a druggist?" she once asked, planting seeds of the state's first African American pharmacist in the soul of the child who would follow her footsteps instead. Grown into an educator and historian, Robert Carter Hayden Jr. would patch together the quilt of Carter family history with pieces bequeathed by his great-aunt.
In the winter of 1971, the sad task of disassembling a deceased cousin's apartment yielded Hayden Grandpa Carter's notebook!-- a handwritten treasure with its proprietary formulas for such compounds as Carter's Toothache Powder. News of his find unlocked his mother's memory of an old photo: "Robert H. Carter, First Colored Pharmacist in Massachusetts!" His father recalled a brown paper bag in the cellar. In it was a certificate dated January 5, 1886: "This is to certify that Robert H. Carter is a registered Pharmacist . . . hereby vested with the authority to conduct the business of a Pharmacist by law." Then, in 1977, after years of gingerly prodding her for an interview, his ninety-two-year-old grandmother, Parthenia Harris Carter, related the moment that would chart a family's destiny. In 1864 or so, shoveling snow for a local pharmacist after school, young Carter had found a wallet stuffed with money and turned it over to his employer. In reward, the pharmacist apprenticed him. Mastering the science at age twenty, Carter later opened his own store-- powering his family for the century to come.
In life, today's family fortune is the snow shovel find a century ago; empowered with the gifts of knowledge and pride, we just never know where our inspired moments will lead. . . .
In 1961, the University of Georgia, then 176 years old, had never admitted a black student. That ended on January 6, when Charlayne Hunter heard a voice on the phone blurt "Congratulations!" The legal suit filed on her behalf had been won. Federal Court Judge William Bootle had ordered her and co-plaintiff Hamilton "Hamp" Holmes admitted to the university. With the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision upheld (see May 17), white America could no longer presume admissions excluding blacks solely on the basis of color.
In the battle over segregation, the central issue-- education-- is always lost. So, too, is principle. The fundamental wrong is this: a public institution funded by the tax dollars of people both black and white denies blacks access to their funds for the benefit of whites. That exploitation was at the root of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's attack on segregation. But how did the students themselves feel? "Even in the best high school in Atlanta, we had hand-me-down textbooks and our labs were certainly not as well equipped," Hunter has said. Credit was due black teachers for the fact that black students were able to compete at all, given the conditions. "We didn't want to go to school with white people-- that wasn't it. It was those facilities they had." And how did these pioneers perceive their role? Said Hunter, "I was really much more interested in integrating the place and Hamp was much more interested in desegregation."
Still today, North and South, the nation is divided by objective: segregation versus separation; integration versus desegregation. Perhaps one day we will be united by a common objective-- education.
Alice Walker was closing out a notebook begun eight years earlier-- closing out a chapter in her life and beginning a new one as well. "Next month I will be forty," she wrote on January 7, 1984. "In some ways, I feel my early life's work is done, and done completely."
Her first story, "To Hell with Dying," had been published by Langston Hughes in 1967, when she was only twenty-three. Since then, she had returned the favor with a children's biography of the then-often-forgotten Hughes and delivered to our midst three volumes of poetry; two novels; two volumes of short stories; numerous essays; the book that would earn her the Pulitzer Prize, The Color Purple, later adapted for film; and the resurrected voice of a literary foremother too long lost to our collective inner ear, Zora Neale Hurston.
How did almost forty feel? "Great spirit, I thank you for the length of my days and the fullness of my work," she wrote, expressing our sentiments as well as ever. "Thank you again. I love you. I love your trees, your sun, your stars and moon and light. Your darkness. Your plums and watermelons and water meadows."
Recalling another writer's words, she thought, "One plum was left for me. One seed becomes an everlasting singing tree!" Thankfully, the gods have kept her waiting and promised her/us more than one. With the mighty fruit fallen from her tree, she has served as host at The Temple of My Familiar. There, in the glare and doom, she exposed the practice of female genital mutilation, which had scarred centuries of girls en route to womanhood. The seed she planted raised an international outcry-- the sound of women's voices climbing freedom's song.
That African Americans have made every sacrifice to build the United States is a fact far deeper than the history of slavery. Indeed, African American men have seen combat in every military campaign from the nation's earliest days. Yet, well into the late twentieth century, no black woman was ever able to join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)-- not on the basis of simple racist exclusion but by the manipulation of regulations that would bar blacks by means that spoke more to the history of racism than of patriotism. As recorded in the New York Times of January 8, 1978, that changed when Karen Farmer became the first African American woman to produce documents proving her ancestor's participation in the Revolutionary War.
Why would a black woman want to join the DAR-- the group that had so flaunted its racism in the face of our great Marian Anderson (see April 9)? The fact that Anderson would later be allowed to perform at Constitution Hall after being snubbed did not absolve the sin. For some, to become a DAR member was to prove a point. For along with a denial of membership came a denial of the sacrifices made by the black men who risked personal freedom to side with the Americans, hoping to free their entire families, when siding with the British would have granted the enslaved immediate personal liberty. To some applicants, the issue was principle. Then, as W.E.B. Du Bois would titter in his June 1929 editorial in The Crisis, there were the others. . . .
"My friend, who is in the Record Department of Massachusetts, found a lady's ancestry the other day," wrote Du Bois. "Her colored grandfather was a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and through him she might join the D.A.R. But she asked 'confidentially,' could that matter of 'his-- er-- color be left out?'"
In one landmark week of January 9, 1943, Time, Newsweek, --and Life magazines all published features on the same "light-brown, soft-spoken young Negress." That was the way the white press spoke of African Americans back then-- and that was when they were being complimentary.
But Lena Horne possessed rare beauty and talent in anyone's book. From her start as a chorus dancer at the Cotton Club at age sixteen-- a job she left school to take when her mother was extremely ill-- Lena Horne had hit the Hollywood jackpot in ten short years. Added to her own hard work, three strong black men encouraged her film breakthrough. Actor-singer Paul Robeson and the NAACP's Walter White befriended her on the same night, after hearing her sing at the trendy Café Society, the only nonsegregated New York club south of Harlem. If there was an opportunity, she should take it, they said; her style and regal demeanor would do wonders for the image of the race on-screen. Robeson pressured MGM to treat her well from his post inside the industry; White used his NAACP clout on the outside. And walking straight up the steps of MGM with her for contract talks was her father. Teddy Horne looked MGM boss Louis B. Mayer straight in the eye and told him nobody would make a maid or a buffoon of his Lena; she didn't need the job that badly. She was signed to a seven-year contract, and the publicity mills started rolling, leveraging her nightclub appearances into box office capital.
"When Lena sings at dinner and supper, forks are halted in mid-career," wrote Time. "She has broken every Savoy-Plaza record," reported Newsweek. --"Young Negro with haunting voice charms New York," gushed Life over a photo spread. Soon every black soldier would paste her picture in his footlocker. The war had been on for a while-- on two fronts.
Lucie E. Campbell was one of the most influential music directors in the history of the National Baptist Convention. Elected in 1916 as director and pianist of the youth choir, which sang at services throughout the convention week, "Miss Lucie," as she was called, wrote a new song virtually every year until her death in 1963. Among them, her classic "He Understands, He'll Say 'Well Done,'" written in 1933, kept her status as a living legend growing. Such annual offerings, a tradition begun with "Something Within" in 1919, would place her among the leading composers in the history of African American church music.
On a cold, wet Memphis day in the winter of 1919, perhaps this one, Miss Lucie was shopping at a local fish market in the Beale Street district when she observed an incident between a blind street singer and some men who apparently loved good gin as much as they loved good music. Exiting a local bar, they spied Connie Rosemond, his feet wrapped in rags, and asked the impoverished singer to play some "good ole Southern blues." He refused, explaining that he only sang for the Lord-- hymns and spirituals. The "bribe" of a tip rose to five dollars before the men would believe Mr. Rosemond's protestations that he only sang songs that came from "something within." Inspired, Miss Lucie wrote: "Something within me that holdeth the reins, / Something within me that banishes pain, / Something within me. I cannot explain. / All that I know there is something within."
That year, Miss Lucie invited Rosemond to premiere the song he had inspired at the National Baptist Convention. Its story of a true believer was a success. From 1919 on, a new Lucie Campbell song became an annual convention event and an instant addition to the repertoire of church choirs nationwide.