Category Archives: Black History

1001 Black Men #777

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The San Francisco Bay Area is home to one of largest communities of bears in the western world. In this context, the word bear refers not to large four-legged creatures of the woods, but to large gay men with big beards.

Despite the number of gay bears in this region, the Black bear remains a rare occurrence. So, when I saw these two gentleman at Books Inc. in the Castro, I knew I had to record the moment for posterity.

Ajuan Mance

1001 Black Men …and Three Black Women: Octavia Butler

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In late summer of 1995, I read Octavia Butler’s KindredIn the summer of 2001 I set out to read all the rest of Butler’s novels. I started with Dawn, the first in the Xenogenesis trilogy, and then I read the novels of the Pattermaster series. I went on to Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, and–finally–I read Butler’s short story collection, Bloodchild.

I did a lot of my reading on the treadmill, over meals, and waiting to check out at the Berkeley Bowl, the grocery store with the longest lines in the Bay Area.

As I made my way through Butler’s startlingly impressive body of work, my thoughts kept returning to the two friends–also Black women–who introduced me to her writing. Although I didn’t read any of her work until years later, it was Camille Brewer’s enthusiastic recommendation of Kindred (“grrrrrrl, it’s deep“) that launched me down the path.

And when I got to that moment in Mind of My Mind, I finally understood why Michele Berger had spoken about that book with such enthusiasm, so many years before.

In 2005, when Butler published Fledgling, her very last novel, my partner purchased it right away. I didn’t read it at first, believing that I wanted to read the rumored third installment of the Parable series before moving onto her latest work. And then, in 2006, Butler died. There was no third novel in the Parable series, and there never would be. I immediately read Fledgling, partly to get a sense of where the writer’s creative imagination had taken her in the last years of her career. It has since become a regular part of my African American literature courses.

With any luck, some scholar somewhere will unearth one last unpublished manuscript, and we’ll all be able to take one last journey into the mind of Octavia Butler, one of the greatest science fiction writers of our time.

Ajuan Mance

 

1001 Black Men … and Three Black Women: Lucille Clifton

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Lucille Clifton was one of the most highly regarded poets of the last half-century. Her career spanned most of the last fifty years, with her work only growing stronger, more imaginative, and more profound over time.

When Lucille Clifton died in 2010, I was stunned, not because I was unaware of her health struggles over the years, but because it never occurred to me that I would never have a chance to meet her. Her work was such a significant part of my life for so long that she felt like a friend.

I first encountered Lucille Clifton’s work back in the 1970s, when I was in elementary school. When I was a kid, my mom took me to the library almost every week, and one day she brought home one of the books from Clifton’s Everett Anderson series. These wonderful picture books revolved around the life of young Black boy, and in the 1970s, books depicting Black children were few and far between. We read all of the Everett Anderson books, or at least all of the ones that were published while I was still young enough to appreciate being read too. That, however, was the extent of my knowledge of Clifton’s work until I was in college.

Imagine my surprise when, in my sophomore year, the poet C.D. Wright introduced our creative writing class to Clifton’s poetry. There was little of the children’s-book-writing Lucille Clifton in the work of the poet Lucille Clifton. Her poetry was edgy, audacious, unflinching, and adult. And when it came to her numerous poems about religion and myth, her work was both sacred and impious, often simultaneously.

Clifton also wrote extensively about motherhood, friendship, marriage, and ancestry; and all of her poems vibrated with an undercurrent of love and wonder–for the women figures so often overlooked in the ancient texts of world religions, for her life’s journey as mother-wife-daughter-sistafriend, for her ancestors both named and unnamed, for the curiosities and wonders that the world has to offer, and for Black people.

I was thrilled to discover this additional dimension of one of my favorite childhood writers, and Lucille Clifton and her poems became regular reading for me during the remainder of my undergraduate years.

Clifton became an even more central part of my life in graduate school. She figured prominently in one chapter of my dissertation (and later in my book, Inventing Black Women); and one of her poems became my daily inspiration during that hectic last year of my graduate program. I was teaching in the Women’s Studies program at the university, I was applying for academic jobs, and I was finishing my dissertation. It was one of the most stressful periods I’d ever experienced, and I needed all the support I could find. Some time during the fall of that year, I posted one of Clifton’s poems on the wall above my computer:

hag riding

why
is what i ask myself
maybe it is the afrikan in me
still trying to get home
after all these years
but when I wake to the heat of morning
galloping down the highway of my life
something hopeful rises in me
rises and runs me out into the road
and i lob my fierce thigh high
over the rump of the day and honey
i ride i ride.

During that make-or-break year in my academic life, this poem was a daily reminder of my own power and persistence.

Throughout the 19 years since I completed my Ph.D., Lucille Clifton has been a staple in my teaching. I have taught her poems in classes both on and off the campuses where I’ve worked, at writing workshops, and even at churches. And when I was called to speak at my grandmother’s funeral service, Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” provided me with the right words.

In creating this drawing of Clifton, I encountered her poems anew, through the eyes of other people who love her work. Sometimes, when you are really, truly touched by a book or a body of work, it can feel like it belongs only to you. But, browsing through the many blogs and websites on which Clifton’s most loyal readers have paid homage to the poet and her words, I have come to enjoy the other side of truly appreciating a writer–the community of her fans.

***

For a literary biography of the poet, with detailed information about her faculty appointments, awards, and award nominations, along with a full bibliography of her publications, check out the Lucille Clifton page on The Poetry Foundation website.

Ajuan Mance

 

1001 Black Men … and Three Black Women: Anna Downer

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Although the title of this online sketchbook is 1001 Black Men, I wanted to share with you three pieces that I created in memory of some of the African American women whose talent and courage have inspired me every day.

The first is Anna Downer. Born and raised in Connecticut, she worked her way up to the status of Head Stewardess on the S.S. Arctic, a 2800-ton steamship in the Collins Line, widely believed to be the most luxurious cruise line to be based in the U.S.

On September 27, 1854, the Arctic collided with the French steamship S.S. Vesta. The iron-hulled Vesta tore a hole in the wooden-hulled Arctic, and over the next several hours, the Arctic sunk, killing every woman and child onboard. The only survivors were men, and most of those were on the ship’s crew. Anna Downer was among the casualties but, as the ship’s captain reported after his rescue, she died a heroine. When he encouraged her to leave the ship and board one of the lifeboats, she refused, saying, “Captain, I am willing to pump as long as I can work my arms!”

Ajuan Mance

 

1001 Black Men #676

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From the CNN.com obituary by Douglas Hyde:

Jim Kelly, who parlayed his martial arts skills into a successful but brief career in action movies, has died. He was 67.

Kelly’s former wife Marilyn Dishman told CNN that the actor died Saturday of cancer, but did not elaborate.

Kelly worked as a martial arts instructor in Los Angeles when he was tapped for his first role in the action movie, “Melinda.” But he is best known for his work in the 1973 Bruce Lee film “Enter the Dragon.”

Kelly’s appearance in the movie was brief — fans lamented he was offed too soon — but his electrifying Afro, lanky 6-foot-2 frame and his wisecracks left an impression.

Producers came calling. And he capitalized on the attention by taking on the title role in “Black Belt Jones” the following year. A spate of other roles followed throughout the 70s, most notably “Three the Hard Way,” but then dried up.

In later years Kelly took up tennis professionally, becoming a ranked player on the USTA senior circuit.

“I never left the movie business,” Kelly told The Los Angeles Times in 2010, when a retrospective DVD set of his movies came out. “It’s just that after a certain point, I didn’t get the type of projects that I wanted to do.”

Ajuan Mance

1001 Black Men #675

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From “Remembering Amiri Baraka with Politics and Poetry” by Annie Correal (New York Times):

Mr. Baraka, born Everett LeRoy Jones, and later known as LeRoi Jones, was by turns a Beat poet, a fiery playwright, a strident follower of Malcolm X, a Muslim and a Marxist.

Those who spoke praised Mr. Baraka’s passion, his persistent vigilance over the politics of Newark, and his grit, even as they tried to reconcile his tumultuous past.

In his eulogy, Mr. West called Amiri Baraka “a literary genius,” who wrote his way into the mainstream yet, “at the same time, was willing to reject the white establishment and say, ‘I am going to raise my voice.’ ”

“  ‘If you reject me,’  ” he added, invoking Amiri Baraka, “ ’I’m going to be in solidarity with the wretched of the earth.’ ”

Mr. Baraka was widely praised for his work, notably “Blues People: Negro Music in White America,” a 1963 historical survey of black music, and the 1964 play, “Dutchman,” which won an Obie Award. However, in the course of his six-decade career, critics accused him of being homophobic, misogynistic and anti-Semitic.

In 2002, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he performed a poem widely perceived as anti-Semitic, “Somebody Blew Up America,” in which he suggested Israeli leaders had prior knowledge of the attacks. To oust him as New Jersey poet laureate, state officials eliminated the post. His relationship with his birthplace was often a troubled one.

The former mayor of Newark, Sharpe James, said after the services, “He was our challenger in Newark. He was our agitator for progress.”

Ajuan Mance

1001 Black Men #674

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From the Rolling Stone Magazine obituary by David Browne:

The oldest of nine children, Havens grew up in Brooklyn’s poor Bedford-Stuyvesant, the son of a factory worker who played piano; as a teenager, Havens formed a gospel group in high school. Although at one time he said he hoped to be a surgeon, he left home at 17 and landed in Greenwich Village. When he wasn’t painting portraits of tourists to make money, Havens was playing the folk clubs there. Among those who noticed him was Dylan: “One singer I crossed paths with a lot, Richie Havens, always had a nice-looking girl with him who passed the hat and I noticed that he always did well,” Dylan wrote in his memoir ChroniclesVolume One.

After recording two albums for a small label, Havens hooked up with Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. With that, Havens’ visibility jumped up a new notches. In 1966, Havens was signed to Verve/Folkways, who released his classic Mixed Bag that year. Havens already had a growing audience thanks to albums like 1968’s ambitious blues-folk-psychedelic double LP Richard P. Havens, 1983, when he signed up for Woodstock. Recalling his trip into the grounds by helicopter, he later said, “It was awesome, like double Times Square on New Year’s Eve in perfect daylight with no walls or buildings to hold people in place.”

Havens wasn’t supposed to be the first act to open the festival; that slot originally was intended for the band Sweetwater, but that band wound up being stuck in traffic. Backstage, co-organizer Michael Lang approached Havens and practically begged him to go on instead. “It had to be Richie – I knew he could handle it,” Lang later wrote.

After performing a half-dozen songs, Havens ran out of material – until, he later said, he remembered “that word I kept hearing while I looked over the crowd in my first moments onstage. The word was: freedom.” Havens began chanting that word over and over, backed by his second guitarist and conga player, and eventually segued into the gospel song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” which he had heard in church as a child. The combined, surging medley wasn’t just a crowd-pleaser; it later became a highlight of the Woodstock movie, which also immortalized Havens’ orange dashiki. (What many didn’t know at the time was that Havens wore dentures, which also gave his singing voice a unique tone.) “My fondest memory was realizing that I was seeing something I never thought I’d ever see in my lifetime – an assemblage of such numbers of people who had the same spirit and consciousness,” he later recalled of Woodstock to Rolling Stone.

Ajuan Mance

 

 

 

1001 Black Men #673

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On September 14, 2013, 24 year-old Jonathan Ferrell, a former Florida A&M University football player, was shot and killed by a Charlotte, North Carolina police officer while seeking help for injuries sustained in a car accident.

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From “Jonathan Ferrell’s Autopsy Results Spark Suit” by Trymaine Lee:

The family of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed North Carolina man shot and killed by police shortly after he dragged himself from a violent car crash and sought help from neighbors, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

The lawsuit comes after autopsy results show that most of the bullets that hit Ferrell the night he was killed struck him with a downward trajectory, suggesting that he may have been on his knees or on the ground. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Randall Kerrick fired a dozen shots at him, according to the family.

Ferrell was hit with 10 of those bullets and died on that early morning last September in Charlotte, not long after crashing his car along a dark, rural road.

“He was only seeking help,” Ferrell’s mother, Georgia, said during a press-conference on Tuesday morning, a day after the lawsuit was filed in North Carolina Superior Court. “I don’t know if it will bring peace,” she said of the lawsuit, “but I pray that they don’t kill no one else’s child.”

Ajuan Mance

 

 

1001 Black Men #672

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From “Some Things You Didn’t Know About Albert Murray” by Paul Devlin (Salon.Com):

The writer Albert Murray passed away on Sunday evening at age 97. His life was long and busy, and he found many hours in the day—so many that substantive obituaries, such as the one that appeared on Page 1 of yesterday’s New York Times, can’t possibly do it justice. Nor can I. But here, at least, are a few things you might not know about one of the most original stylists in American letters, a philosopher of the blues, who championed resilience and improvisation against the cold certainty of life’s uncertainties, and helped articulate and explain the dynamic synthesis that is American culture, as much black as it is white, if not more.

As a photographer, he was a serious amateur. And yet two of his photographs are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did this happen? They are photos of a block, Lenox Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets, and they are also studies for “The Block,” one of Romare Bearden’s most ambitious works, which has been called a critique of Robert Moses along the lines of Jane Jacobs, and which was conceived on the terrace of Murray’s apartment, overlooking the block. You can watch them discuss it on Murray’s terrace in 1981. Murray gave titles to many of Bearden’s works, wrote wall text for his art. When Bearden had to write something, Murray often ghostwrote it

….

Albert Murray taught James Baldwin how to swim, in France in 1950. He criticized Baldwin harshly in a 1970 essay, but they appeared in a 1977 documentary together. He was generous to young people trying to learn and harsh on established figures when he thought they were faking it. He liked television: Soul Food and A Different World. Sometimes we watched golf on television together over the phone.

Albert Murray crashed on Ma Rainey’s couch. He wrote a recommendation letter for Tom Wolfe.  He forgot what he did with a letter of praise from Saul Bellow. (I found it eventually, though Mr. Murray didn’t seem too concerned about it.) When Bill Clinton moved his office to Harlem, he sent over an aide with some kind of “Bill Clinton” medal for Murray. But Lyndon Johnson is the president who understood Murray. And vice versa. Murray’s South to a Very Old Place (1971, a finalist for the National Book Award) includes a rollicking verbal jam session in which middle-aged and elderly black folks in Mobile riff on the Civil Rights movement. Johnson’s former aide Jack Valenti wrote to Murray in 1972, and told him that LBJ read the section out loud to him, adding, “you should know that the President found what you wrote, poetically and structurally, as well as emotionally, to his taste.”

Ajuan Mance