Category Archives: In Memoriam

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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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

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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

1001 Black Men #671

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Note: Willie Louis was born Willie Reed, in Greenwood, Mississippi.

From the New York Times obituary, by Margalit Fox:

The truck was going “real fast,” Willie Reed testified, as it came down the main road near Drew, Miss., on an August morning.

A green and white 1955 Chevrolet — that year’s model — it passed Mr. Reed as he was walking to the store, turned into a nearby plantation and parked in front of a barn.

In the cab, Mr. Reed said, were four white men. In the rear were three black men, plus a fourth — a black youth hunkered down in the very back of the truck.

Soon afterward, Mr. Reed said, he heard “somebody hollering” and “some licks like somebody was whipping somebody” coming from the barn.

The youth in the truck was named Emmett Till, and he would not be seen alive again.

The next month, the 18-year-old Mr. Reed, after braving intimidation from one of the suspects and walking through the thicket of Klansmen massed outside the courthouse, testified in open court to what he had seen and heard.

The son of a family of black sharecroppers, Mr. Reed was spirited out of Mississippi immediately after the trial. He changed his name to Willie Louis and lived discreetly in Chicago, where he worked as a hospital orderly.

Mr. Louis, one of the last living witnesses for the prosecution in the Till case, died on July 18 in Oak Lawn, Ill., a Chicago suburb. He was 76.

Till, had he lived, would have been 72 this Thursday.

The murder of Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan visiting family in Mississippi, and the ensuing trial are watershed moments in the civil rights movement, galvanizing public attention on the deep perils of being black in the Jim Crow South.

Though the two white men tried for the murder were acquitted, the testimony of Mr. Reed was considered so powerful that it made him a hero of the movement — albeit a quiet, accidental and long unsung one, who spoke of the case only rarely and with obvious pain.

“Willie Reed stood up, and with incredible bravery pointed out the people who had taken and murdered Emmett Till,” the filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who interviewed Mr. Louis for his 2003 PBS documentary, “The Murder of Emmett Till,” said Wednesday. “He was from Mississippi, and somewhere in his heart of hearts he had to know that these people would not be convicted. But he did what he had to do.”

For decades, Mr. Louis told no one of his involvement in the case. Even his wife, Juliet, whom he married in 1976, did not learn of it until eight years later, when a relative told her.

He began speaking about it publicly only in recent years, with the release of Mr. Nelson’s film and another documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” (2005), directed by Keith Beauchamp.

“I couldn’t have walked away from that,” Mr. Louis told the CBS News program “60 Minutes” in 2004, speaking of his decision to testify. “Emmett was 14, probably had never been to Mississippi in his life, and he come to visit his grandfather and they killed him. I mean, that’s not right.”

Mr. Louis was born in Greenwood, Miss., in 1937 and as a youth lived with his grandfather in Drew. He worked in the fields picking cotton and received little formal education: though he was 18 at the time of the trial, he was only in the ninth grade.

On Aug. 21, 1955, Emmett Till arrived in Money, Miss., about 30 miles from Drew, to stay at the home of a great-uncle, Moses Wright. On Aug. 24, Till visited Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a store in Money owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant.

Inside the store, Mrs. Bryant later testified, Till grabbed her hand and made a sexual suggestion. Leaving the store, according to some accounts, he let out a wolf whistle.

Early in the morning on Aug. 28, Mr. Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam abducted Till from his uncle’s home. His body, brutally beaten, shot in the head and weighed down with a cotton-gin fan laced round his neck with barbed wire, was found in the Tallahatchie River three days later.

Ajuan Mance

In Memoriam: Brothers/Saints

The Owuo Atwedee Adinkra (“the ladder of death”) symbolizes mortality and the transitory nature of existence.

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So far, in the 1001 Black Men series of drawings, I have focused on depicting the Black men I encounter in my daily life in the East Bay. I draw the men I meet or who simply catch my eye.

For the next week or so, though, I’d like to change course. The next several drawings depict men of African descent who have died during the last 12 or so months. Although I never met any of the Black men memorialized in these posts, my deep feelings of connection to their artistry, their activism, their achievements, and–in some cases–their suffering made the news of their loss feel local and personal.

You will notice that, in each of the drawings in this grouping, I use compositional and symbolic elements taken from early North African and Mediterranean portraits of the saints. I was influenced, in particular, by some of the Coptic Christian paintings of Ethiopian Icons.

Each figure is surrounded by a halo. Also called a nimbus and sometimes shaped as a triangle, it can be either an outline or a solid shape. Though often associated with sacred images, the nimbus/halo has historically been used to depict figures of importance, including saints and holy figures as well as military, political, or cultural heroes.

With each post, I will include a brief excerpt from a recent biography or obituary.

Ajuan Mance