February 28 – Thank You For Fighting

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Today, another February draws to a close, and with it comes the end of Black History Month!! – Season 4. It has been a pleasure researching and sharing these various Black History events, figures, and achievements with you. I’ve also been delighted with this year’s level of engagement in the form of topic idea submissions, book suggestions, guest-written blogs, and follow-up questions/comments.

As I mentioned last year, this annual Black History Wall is part of a larger ongoing battle against Willful Ignorance. Your participation in this experience makes you a part of that fight. With that in mind, please continue the discourse with friends and family, and even if they’re not around, continue to ask yourself:

  • What role does Race play in my daily life?
  • What role does Race play in the world around me?
  • And how can I use this heightened awareness in a positive way?

I believe that simple and straightforward approach will yield important, incremental, beneficial change.

As always, thank you for reading. I genuinely appreciate your participation and commitment.


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February 25 – Archibald Motley, Jr.

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

83 years ago today, the front page of The New York Times featured a story entitled, “One-Man Show of Art by Negro, First of Kind Here, Opens Today. This was the first time an artist of any race had ever made front page news in the NYT, and he just happened to be Black. Who was this influential artist of the Harlem Renaissance?

Archibald John Motley, Jr was born in New Orleans in 1891, but moved to the predominately white Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side as a child. His father worked as a ‘Pullman Porter’ on George Pullman’s sleeper cars. At the time, this was considered one of the best jobs available to African American men, and this income provided Motley with a relatively stable upbringing and education.

After turning down a scholarship to study architecture, Motley chose instead to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago. At this conservative institution he received a classical training while secretly developing his own Jazz-influenced style of Modernist-Realist paintings.

Nightlife, 1943

After graduating in 1918, Motley went on to become a successful painter, often seeking to capture elements of Black-American life previously absent from the art world. With paintings like ‘Nightlife’ and ‘Barbecue’ he introduced American viewers to an urban Black culture that was modern, energetic, and rich in music.

Because of his diverse upbringing and early awareness of racial differentiation, Motley also had a fascination with light and skin tone. Perhaps one of his greatest contributions to art and the American consciousness was his exploration of the diverse skin tones of Black women with varying quantities of African blood. By painting portraits of mulattoes, quadroons and octoroons, Motley subtly introduced non-Blacks to the notion that Blacks are not all the same… that they are, in fact, not actually Black. He hoped that viewers of his art would subconsciously begin to acknowledge that every Black was an individual person possessing a unique character and personality, and that each deserved a ‘fair chance’ before being stereotyped or categorized. He was, in effect, blurring the line between Black and White.

thanks for reading,


The Octoroon Girl, 1925

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February 24 – Major Taylor

February 24, 2011 1 comment

I am an avid cyclist. I love to ride, and living in Texas is a blessing because the cycling season is relatively long. This means that for almost 9 straight months in a year, I spend my weekends in the saddle with my local bike shop, with my city’s bike association, or at fundraising bike rallies. During these rides, I see thousands of miles and thousands of faces… and yet, I can probably count on two hands the total number of Black cyclists I have seen.

This realization led me to do a little research on Black cyclists, which turned up one very surprising result: The first African-American to EVER win a world championship in any sport WAS A CYCLIST! Do you know who this man was?

Long before America had Lance Armstrong or Greg LeMond, there was Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, a Black cyclist who absolutely dominated his sport at the National and International level, despite having to overcome numerous racial barriers to get there.

Taylor was born in 1878 and grew up in rural Indiana. His father worked as a coachman for the wealthy Southard family, who eventually took Taylor in to be raised alongside their own son. When he was 12, the Southard’s gave Taylor his first bicycle, and he became such an expert trick rider that a local bike shop hired him to put on shows outside the store. Taylor performed in a soldier’s uniform, thus giving birth to his nickname, “Major.”

Major started competing in bicycle races in 1891 at the age of 13, and quickly made a name for himself as one of the fastest amateur riders around. Within 5 years, he turned professional and began registering for events ranging from short-distance track sprints to 6-day road races. He won more than half of the races he entered, often in record times, but was met with severe racial discrimination at almost every turn.

“They made things disagreeable for me by calling me bad names and trying to put me down, and they even threatened me with bodily harm if I did not turn back. I decided that if my time had come I might just as well die trying to keep ahead of the bunch of riders, so I jumped through the first opening and went out front, never to be overtaken.”

Entire cities, states and associations banned him from competing against Whites. Race fans booed him, showered him with ice water, threw nails in front of his wheels, and issued death threats. And fellow cyclists and competitors cheated shamelessly to put him out of contention. On one occasion, a cyclist tackled him on the track and strangled him. On a different occasion, another cyclist chased him around the track with knife in hand. Nevertheless, Taylor persisted, hoping to be an inspiration to other Blacks enduring similar treatment.

Taylor was treated terribly in the US. But overseas in Europe, especially in France, he was a celebrity and a hero. His athletic prowess and unbeatable speeds were all the more impressive because he was able to dominate in such a wide range and variety of races. In 1899, he won the world 1 mile track cycling championship, becoming the first African American to win a world title in any sport. Later that year, he set 7 world records in a span of six weeks. And in 1902 he went on a European Tour to challenge the world’s top cyclists, and won an astonishing 40 of 57 races.

Major Taylor competing in Paris in 1908

In 1910, at the age of 32 and finally exhausted from his battles with racism, Taylor decided to retire. Although he retired wealthy from his races, appearances and sponsorships, he would lose everything in the Stock Market Crash and from the self-publication of his auto-biography. Taylor died penniless in 1932 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Chicago.

Today, Major Taylor is remembered and celebrated not only for his remarkable accomplishments in the world of cycling and sport, but also for his grace and class in the face of racial discrimination.

Thanks for reading,


“There are positively no mental, physical or moral attainments too lofty for the Negro to accomplish if granted a fair and equal opportunity.”—Marshall Taylor

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February 23 – Black Dance (?)

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Last December, to celebrate Yujin’s birthday, Netty and I and a group of close friends surprised her with a trip to the (very cool) Wyly Theater to watch the Dallas Black Dance Theater perform their Winter Series: Strength. According to their website, the DBDT is “the oldest, continuously operating professional dance company in Dallas,” whose mission is “to create and produce contemporary modern dance at its highest level of artistic excellence through performances and educational programs that bridge cultures and reach diverse communities.”

The performance that night exceeded expectation with its combination of power, grace, emotion and energy. It was also incredibly varied. In fact, that night, we saw examples of modern Interpretive dance, traditional African dance, Jazz dance, and other beautiful styles for which I don’t know the name… Which led me to wonder: What exactly IS Black Dance?

As it turns out, there is no easy answer to this question. Instead, it is a subject of much debate and countless opinions. Some would say that Black Dance is any dance that originates from the African Diaspora; or that it is any dance choreographed by Black choreographers; or that it is any dance performed by Black dancers; or that it is any dance with a Black theme; etc etc.

But each of these definitions seems incomplete. What about dances that originate from a uniquely American (or European, or Asian) experience? What about dances that were choreographed by White choreographers and performed by Black dancers, or vice versa? What about dances that deal with universal and/or abstract themes? Are any/none/all of these considered Black Dance?

White, female dancer (L) performing for the Columbia City Jazz Company. Sotho dancers (C) entertaining a crowd at a political event in Maseru, Leso. Tai Jimenez (R) was the only Dance Theater of Harlem alumna to find a job in a major classical company, Boston Ballet.

For many, the label ‘Black Dance’ is not only problematic, it is also symptomatic of a deeper racism. After all, why must the distinction be made? Why must a collection of dance styles be lumped together in a generic category called ‘Black Dance,’ especially when there is no ‘White Dance’ corollary? In my mind, the use of such a label does two things.

First, it unnecessarily and unintentionally (or intentionally?) exoticizes all dances within this category, and I would guess that this is both unwelcome and condescending for the artists involved. Second, the label over-simplifies and marginalizes individual works and performers by squeezing them within the confines of a racial construct, rather than letting them stand alone, free from any subconscious notions of what it might mean to be Black.

For Blacks in the dance world, these are real issues of genuine concern. Talented Black dancers are pigeon-holed in their careers, as employers believe them only capable of a certain ‘Black’ style or only appropriate for stereotypical ‘Black’ roles. Meanwhile choreographers, studios, schools and dance companies in search of sponsorships or government funding struggle to balance their artistic vision and individuality with their financiers’ requirements to qualify as ‘Black Dance.’

As I said earlier, there is no easy answer to What IS ‘Black Dance?‘ or even to Should There BE a ‘Black Dance?‘ But even in the absence of delineated path, it’s a question worth pondering and discussing, both as it relates to Dance specifically, and more broadly, as it serves as a metaphor for all forms of segregating nomenclature.

Having said all that, Dallas Black Dance Theater has a company full of truly gifted dancers performing works by very talented choreographers, and I would highly recommend checking them out if you are in or around the Dallas area. As it turns out, ‘Intensity’ from their Cultural Awareness Series is running from today through Sunday. For more information on their event line-up, and to buy tickets, please visit their website at http://www.dbdt.com/

thanks for reading,


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February 22 – The Fresh Prince

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Yesterday I briefly mentioned Will Smith in my BHM intro and how, despite his best efforts, he has not won an Academy Award for his acting skills. Luckily for him, he is a man of multiple profitable talents, and it was his musical gifts that earned him the first Grammy ever awarded for Best Rap Performance. Do you know what his stage name was, and what song he won for?

Back in the 1980’s, before he was the Will Smith you know today, Willard Christopher Smith, Jr. was better known in the music industry as The Fresh Prince, a rap vocalist from West Philadelphia. After a chance meeting/collaboration with Jeff Townes at a local house party, the two became quick friends and decided to form the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff &The Fresh Prince. DJ Jazzy Jeff brought a unique style of turntable scratching called Transforming, while The Fresh Prince distinguished himself with playful, story-telling lyrics decidedly free of the profanity and content prevalent in many other rappers’ songs.

The group’s first single, “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” was released in 1985, while Smith was still in high school. The song was a hit, and gave them the opportunity to release their first album, Rock the House,in 1987 and to tour with major acts like Run DMC and Public Enemy. In 1988, they followed Rock the House with their sophomore album, Hes the DJ, Im the Rapper,which went multi-platinum and made them overnight stars. It was he album’s lead-off single, Parents Just Dont Understand, which won them the first-ever Grammy for a rap/hip-hop song, beating out other memorable groups/songs of the day:

  • LL Cool J – “Going Back to Cali”
  • Salt-n-Pepa – “Push It”
  • J. J. Fad – “Supersonic”
  • Kool Moe Dee – “Wild Wild West”

DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince would continue to put out hit songs and albums. They won a 2nd Grammy in 1991 for “Summertime,” their most successful single ever. In 1993, Smith stretched himself by taking his first lead role in the film Six Degrees of Separation, wowing critics and audiences alike for his performance. This marked the beginning of his successful movie acting career while simultaneously signaling the unofficial end of his partnership with Townes. The two remain friends, and still occasionally collaborate on Will Smith’s solo music performances.

Thanks for reading,


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February 21 – Sidney Poitier

February 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Last night, Yujin and I watched The Karate Kid on Netflix. Not the original one with Ralph Macchio-san and Mr. Miyagi, but the new one with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. We were both fairly impressed with little Jaden’s acting ability, and of course started comparing him with his famous actor father, Will Smith. And as we started to run through all the movies we’ve seen the elder Smith in, we began to realize that he’s actually played a wide variety of roles, and done all of them pretty well. Well enough, in fact, to be nominated twice for an Academy Award. But he’s never won one.

This Sunday, many will gather around their televisions to watch the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. Will Smith wasn’t nominated for anything, so he’s not a contender. But can you name the first African American to win the Oscar for Best Actor?…

Born prematurely and weighing only three pounds, Sidney Poitier’s chance for survival looked bleak. His father, certain that his son would not survive, obtained a shoebox in which he planned to bury him in. As fate would have it, Poitier survived. As an adult, he went on to become a leading actor who graced the screen with the portrayal of powerful black characters.

Sidney Poitier was born in Miami, Florida, but grew up in Cat Island, Bahamas where his father worked as a farmer. At the age of sixteen, he moved to New York. While looking for a job in the newspaper, Poitier came across an employment advertisement for an actor. While he tried out for the part and did not get the role, it was the start of his pursuit of acting.

Poitier enrolled at the American Negro Theater in New York. He began acting in plays, and finally received a movie part in 1950 in the film No Way Out. Poitier received supporting roles in Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958). For the latter, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. His second nomination came for his role in the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. It was for this role that Poitier became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.

As far as Poitier films go, two other personal favorites: To Sir, with Love and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.

Thanks for reading, and Happy Birthday to Nina Simone and Barbara Jordan!


“We suffer pain, we hang tight to hope, we nurture expectations, we are plagued occasionally by fears, we are haunted by defeats and unrealized hopes . . . The hopelessness of which I speak is not limited. It’s in everything. There is not racial or ethnic domination of hopelessness. It’s everywhere.” – Sidney Poitier

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February 18 – The Amistad

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Thanks again to Dan for sharing the story of the German Coast Rebellion yesterday!

In keeping with yesterday’s theme, we shift now from one slave rebellion to another. Today we turn our attention to the fascinating story of a Spanish slave ship, a rebellion at sea, a capture in US waters, and an international court battle involving no fewer than 7 parties. Do you know the name of the ship and/or the outcome of the trial?

So I’m guessing that only people who were African American Studies majors or who watched the 1997 film by the same name would be familiar with the story of The Amistad. In researching slave rebellions, this was easily one of the most amazing events I came across.

In June 1839, the Spanish slave ship La Amistad set sail from Havana, Cuba with 49 slaves in tow. These men, women and children had been kidnapped from Africa and smuggled to Cuba (a Spanish colony at the time) to be sold and put to work. On July 2, while en route to Puerto Principe, one of the Africans named Joseph Cinque managed to free himself and the others from their shackles using an iron file. With Cinque leading the charge, the slaves revolted, killed the captain, the cook and several crew members, and effectively took control of the ship.

Incapable of sailing the ship themselves, they spared the lives of two crew members, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, and using the captain’s personal slave Antonio as a translator, they instructed Ruiz and Montez to turn the boat towards Africa. Instead, the sailors tricked them and took them North, eventually dropping anchor just outside of Long Island, NY.

The Freedom Schooner Amistad is a replica of the original Spanish vessel La Amistad

As the rebel slaves went ashore to gather food and water, the Amistad was spotted by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney of the USRC Washington, who took custody of both ship and slaves. Hoping to lay claim to (and profit from) “property seized on the high seas,” Gedney presented them to US District Court of Connecticut, a state where slavery was still technically legal.

As the proceedings began, 7 distinct parties would file suit in connection with the Amistad and its cargo.

  1. Gedney wanted to be given legal rights to both ship and slaves so he could sell them for profit.
  2. Mssrs. Green and Fordham, who were present in Long Island when the ship docked, and who claimed they assisted in arresting the rebel slaves, wanted the same as Gedney, claiming they ‘saw it first.’
  3. Ruiz and Montez, the surviving crew members, claimed all property was rightfully theirs and wanted it returned.
  4. The Office of the US Attorney for Connecticut, representing Spain, wanted all property returned to Spain.
  5. Antonio Vega, the vice-consul of Spain, claimed the captain’s slave Antonio belonged to him, and wanted him back.
  6. Jose Antonio Tellincas and Mssrs. Aspe and Laca, Spanish subjects living in Cuba, claimed property on board the ship belonged to them, and wanted it returned.
  7. And finally, the Africans on board claimed they were never slaves to begin with, and therefore nobody’s property to be returned. New York City merchant Lewis Tappan and the abolitionist movement formed the “Amistad Committee” to raise money and a legal defense for the Africans. They were represented in court by attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin and translator James Covey.

The initial charges of mutiny and murder were dismissed immediately by the court on the basis that the alleged events had taken place on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters, and were therefore out of Connecticut court’s jurisdiction. Then, based on translated testimony by the Africans, Baldwin charged Ruiz and Montez with assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment. The men were arrested and eventually deported to Cuba, leaving the other 6 parties to debate the fate of the ship and its cargo.

Composite image of Cinque, leader of the ‘rebel slaves,’ and Roger Sherman Baldwin, their attorney

Ultimately, the court found that the slaves had been unjustly captured in Mendiland (present-day Sierra Leone), sold to a Portuguese trader, and transported illegally to Havana. As such, these Africans were NOT slaves, but rather the victims of an illegal kidnapping. To the relief and joy of the Africans, they were released and taken to live temporarily in Farmington, Connecticut. There, the Amistad Committee provided them with lessons in English and Christianity for 2 years. In 1842, the 36 surviving Africans finally returned home to Mendiland.

As for the other parties, Spain was denied its claims, as were Green and Fordham. The slave Antonio was returned to the vice-consul, and the remaining property was divided between Gedney, Tellincas, Aspe and Laca.

thanks for reading,


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