Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Obatala: Creation needs a clear head

Spring, Easter & Creation
The devil tempts but doesn’t force. (Guyana)

Water and chaos were all that existed in the beginning, the Yoruba say. Obatala, one of the orishas (lesser deities) was losing patience with those who didn't share his dream of taming the disorder below heaven.

“What is the use of our powers,” Obatala asked Oludamare, the Creator-God “if we don’t ever use them?”

“The power is yours. You can do what you want with it,” Oludamare said.

“I want to create a world out of chaos,” Obatala said.

“Done. You have my blessing,” Oludamare said. “Just make sure you talk to my son who knows the future. He will tell you what you need to do to succeed.”

"I am on my way, Oludamare. Thanks."

"And stay away from....."

"I know, I know. I can't thrive and drink," Obatala said.

On the advice of Oludamare's son and other orishas, Obatala collected maize, a palm nut, a chain of gold, a five-toed chicken, and a calabash of sand. In addition he carried an egg so sacred that he wrapped it in his shirt, close to his chest.

Seven days after Obatala left to climb down the chain of gold toward water and chaos, no one had heard from him. So Oludamare sent another orisha, Oduduwa, in search of Obatala. Oduduwa, found Obatala drunk on palm wine from a heavenly feast. When Oduduwa could not rouse Obatala, he took the chicken, the palm seeds, and the calabash and completed the journey.

Oduduwa scattered sand from the calabash over the water and he dropped the chicken on the sand. The chicken scratched the sand, and vast land sprang up wherever the sand was scattered. Oduduwa then planted the palm nut in the earth, and from it was created the Yoruba kingdom of Ile-Ife.

Obatala was furious when he found out that Oduduwa took his plan and acted on it. Obatala's heart beat so hard the sacred egg cracked. From the egg flew a sacred bird that dipped and whirled till it created hills and lowlands. Obatala walked around, scattering maize seeds that grew quickly in the new land. Seeing these changes made him even more irritated with Oduduwa, so he sought Oludamare's help.

“Oludamare,” Obatala asked, “Do you think it is fair that Oduduwa gets the credit for my idea?”

“Surely you haven't forgotten why....?” Oludamare asked.

“I just took a little sip of the palm wine to celebrate," Obatala said. "It won’t happen again.”

“There is still work for you to do. If you are up to it.”

“I have learned my lesson. I won’t fail this time.”

“You can use your powers to create men and women,” Oludamare said.

“How do I do that?” asked Obatala.

“Use clay to create forms that look like the gods and the orishas,” Oludamare said, “and I will do the rest.”

Obatala molded clay into different shapes and left them to bake in the sun. He made lots of these bodies and got so thirsty that he took a break. He checked out the newly-grown palm trees and tested some juice to see if it had fermented as yet. He took one sip and then another, and then many more.

When he returned to molding the clay, his eyes and hands were unsteady, but he still thought all the bodies were beautiful. As a result, when Oludamare breathed fireballs of life into these forms, some could not see or hear, walk or even stand.

When Obatala realized what he had done, he promised himself that he would never again touch strong drink. He also pledged to protect those who suffered because of his carelessness.

Until today, Obatala is the protector of persons with disabilities. His followers may eat palm oil, but they must never ever touch palm wine.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Madame CJ Walker, from Cook to Cosmetic Queen

Women's History Month
Queen rule beehive, not king. (Guyana)

Madame CJ Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919)

As a child, the smell of fried hair was a constant. My mother was a hairdresser running her salon from home, and women came to her to create the fantasy that made Madame CJ the first American Black (or white) woman to be a self-made millionaire. Like Madame Walker, my mother used the hot comb to straighten hair.

Black women today seem to have wide choices - heat or chemical, straight or jherri curl, braids or twists, short or long, red or blond, sisterlocks or dreadlocks. Still, Black women need to go the way of Madame CJ Walker if they want to rise in the corporate world, or if their spouses are to create the "right" family portrait as they rise to the top.

Madame CJ Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove. Her parents, who had been slaves, died when she was seven years old. She and her sister later worked as maids, and she married at age 14 - apparently to escape an abusive brother-in-law. She was widowed at age 20, with a daughter to support. She became a laundress, and by 1905 she was a sales agent for a Black woman, Ann Malone who made hair care products.

Of her rise to riches, she stated, “ I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations...I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

In 1906, she married Charles Joseph Walker, and changed her name to Madame CJ Walker. She then founded her Madame CJ Walker Manufacturing Comany to sell hair care products and cosmetics.

Reports do not say how Madame Walker found the means to rise from a white person's kitchen to her own manufacturing plant. One hint is that the way in which she acquired the formula for her hair grower. She said the ingredients came to her in a dream in which a Black man told her how to cure baldness. She also seems to have "borrowed" Ann Malone's formula, and I did not come across a record of royalty payments.

Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman, contributed to the management of the business, but it is not clear whether he brought equity as well. Madame Walker divorced him by 1910, and by 1917 she had the biggest Black-owned business in the US.

To Madame Walker's credit, she never forgot her early struggles, and she tried to use her wealth to create opportunities for others. Thousands of Black women working as her agents earned almost as much in a day as they might have done in a week working as a maid. She helped to raise funds for anti-lynching campaigns, and personally donated $5,000 to the NAACP for this cause. This was the largest gift the NAACP had received up to this time. She also made the largest contribution to saving abolitionist Frederick Douglass' home. In her will, she left money to support Black schools, organizations, and institutions.

When Madame Walker died at age 51, her daughter Lelia succeeded her. Madame Walker was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1992. In January 1998 the USPS issued the Madam C.J. Walker Commemorative stamp.

The discussion of Black women's hair remains relevant enough to have been the subject of Chris Rock's recent movie "Good Hair". From the fifties hot comb straight look, the sixties Afro and the seventies dreadlocks, we now seem to be in the era of the Korean hair weave. What next?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The fire Hattie McDaniel started

Women's History Month
Splinters of wood are the ones that start a fire. (Kenya)

Hattie McDaniel

I grew up understanding Hollywood to be racist and sexist (not to mention age-ist). A plus-sized Black woman like Hattie McDaniel was therefore exceptional in getting screen credits as an actress, no matter how limited the roles she was offered. Two plus-sized Black women featured in this year's Oscar awards. Like Hattie in 1939, Mo'Nique took the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Time will tell how wide a choice of roles will now be offered to Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe (stars of the movie Precious).

According to a Jamaican proverb, "Donkey say the world not level." Lena Horne, even in the Jim Crow era, negotiated contracts restricting the parts she would accept - no maid roles. But Lena (slim, light-skinned) didn't fit the racist Aunt Jemima stereotype any more than Halle Berry or Vanessa Williams today. Plus-sized Black women still face challenges in finding an acceptable range of roles.

Hattie has had her critics for playing roles that stereotyped Blacks. She was a professional singer-songwriter, comedienne, and performer on radio and television. Indeed she was the first Black woman to sing on the radio in America. However, she rarely played any roles, large or small, other than as someone's maid. Hattie won her part in Gone With the Wind by appearing at the audition in an authentic maid's uniform. One film, The Little Colonel, was particularly offensive to the Black community. It showed Black servants yearning for the days in the South when massa was in charge.

When she first went to Hollywood, she worked as a maid or a cook because she could not get acting roles of any kind. When finally she appeared in a radio show, she was a maid. Her salary was so low that she had to continue her job as a maid in order to pay the bills. When the NAACP criticized her for taking roles that demeaned her race, she said, "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7."

Racism was a constant for all of Hattie's career. For example, she could not attend the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind unless she were willing to book into a "blacks only" hotel and sit in the Black section of the theatre. In addition, her photo could not appear in any souvenir program for the South. Her friend Clark Gable objected on her behalf and threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere. Hattie persuaded him to attend.

Hattie pushed back where she could. Southern audiences objected to some of her roles because she played maids who were independent, sharp-tongued and by no means subservient. She organized her Black neighbours to stand up against whites who cited a covenant that would have prevented Blacks from owning property in the wealthy area where she bought her home.

Even in her death she encountered race prejudice. She expressed the wish to be buried alongside other film stars. However, the owner of the cemetry refused to allow any Blacks to be interred there. More than forty years later, the current owners relented, but Hattie's family decided not to disturb her remains.

Respect is due to Hattie for her achievements in a time hostile to upward mobility of Blacks. She was the first Black actress to win an Academy award - for Best Supporting Role in Gone with The Wind.

Mo'Nique, the latest on a short list of Black actresses to win Oscars, thanked Hattie “for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.” Mo'Nique has pledged to present Hattie's story on film.

Hattie also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner to be honored with a US postage stamp.

Let us watch the career movement of Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe to see how far we have come since Hattie's day.

Euzhan Palcy shines the sun on dark spaces

Women's History Month
If the sun shone at night many thieves would be discovered. (Africa)

Euzhan Palcy ((1958 - )

Euzhan Palcy's "Sugar Cane Alley" grabbed my heart when I first saw it, and each of the two or three other times I have watched it. I feel as if I know the children, the grandmother, the sugar cane plantation, the boy who leaves the plantation to go to town to get an education. Besides, Palcy is able to draw extraordinary performances from previously unknown actors. This is one film that I prefer to the book.

Euzhan Palcy is rare in her field. She is a Black female director, a Caribbean woman who was born in Martinique. "Sugar Cane Alley" was her first film. It cost less than US$1million to shoot, and it was an immediate hit in the early 1980s when it was made. This film won more than seventeen international awards, including one for Best Lead Actress for the 76-year-old who played the role of the grandmother. It also won the French equivalent of an Academy Award for best feature film.

More people may have seen or heard of Palcy's "Dry White Season", a 1989 movie starring Marlon Brando, Donald Sutherland, and Susan Sarandon. With this movie, Palcy became the first Black female film director produced by a major Hollywood studio.The story is about South Africa and the Soweto uprising, and Palcy researched her material by going to Soweto undercover.

Brando was so impressed with Palcy's sincerity and her social conscience, that he agreed to act in the movie without charging a fee. He received an Academy Award nomination for his performance. Not long after "Dry White Season" was released, Nelson Mandela personally welcomed Palcy to South Africa. The late Senator Ted Kennedy also thanked Palcy for making this film that was so successful in giving a face to the injustice of apartheid.

Brando’s performance in the movie earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and he received the Best Actor Award at the Tokyo Film Festival. Palcy received the “Orson Welles Award” in Los Angeles, and a few months after the release of the film, Nelson Mandela welcomed her South Africa.

"Ruby Bridges" (1998) is a Palcy film that tells the story of a New Orleans girl who was the first to integrate public schools in her city. President Bill Clinton introduced that film to US television audiences.

Palcy's most recent film, "Veterans' Journey" unearthed the story of teenage boys and girls who left their French Caribbean homes to join in defending France in World War II. Because of Palcy's efforts, the French government finally recognised the bravery and sacrifice of these young people. In 2009, President Sarkozy honored them with an award of the French Legion of Honor. He also made Palcy an "Officer in the National Order of Merit", a signal honor. Before that, she had been honored by French Presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.

If you want to check out one film maker's passion for social justice and compassion for humanity, have a look at a Palcy film. You can start with "Sugar Cane Alley" if you haven't yet seen it. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Forward with Yaa Asantewaa

Women's History Month
The warrior wins a battle by pressing forward. (Ghana)

Nana Yaa Asantewaa (around 1840 - 1921)

If I need to top my my courage, I think about Nana Yaa Asantewaa. Like the time a judge closed down her court to try to find a way to lock me up or at least prevent me from returning to her court. She objected to my divulging to the public what was happening in a court to which the public has right of access. Well, I can’t say for certain if Nana Yaa Asantewaaintervened, but the day came and went, and many months of the court hearing came and went, and I remained seated inside that judge's court room.

If I am tempted to do what is easy and expedient rather than what is risky and principled, I think about Nana Yaa Asantewaa. Like staying in the corporate job that was draining away my spirit, but gave me a regular income with benefits (like health insurance), and promised me a pension. But when the security felt like a shackle, Yaa's spirit moved me on.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa did not scare easily. She didn't back down even when Ashanti soldiers, experienced fighters, thought it was wisest to yield when faced with the military might of the British.

This was the early twentieth century. The British Empire was such that the sun could never set on it. Powerful. Strongest in the world at the time and only getting stronger. Boosted by the profits from slavery, the empire was now colonizing as much of Africa as it could.

This British governor Frederick Hodgson thought he show the Ashantis how low they had fallen. One the Ashantis were empire-builders in West Africa, but now the British had sent the Asantehene (Ashanti king) Prempeh into exile. The governor believed the Ashanti were subdued, and he wanted to make sure they understood the extent of their defeat. He insisted on sitting on the Golden Stool.

The Golden Stool. According to tradition, the Golden Stool had floated from the sky and landed on the lap of Osei Tutu, the first Asantehene (Ashanti king). It was made of pure gold. Akomfo Anokye, Osei Tutu's chief priest, said the soul or sumsum of the Ashanti people lived in this Stool, and therefore the Stool was central to Ashanti unity.

Replicas of the Golden Stool existed, but few people ever saw the real Golden Stool, and no one ever sat on it. When an Asantehene was being enstooled, he was raised and lowered over the Golden Stool, but even he could never sit on it. If the Stool were in a room, it was always placed higher than the head of any person in that room. Even today, only the Asantehene and a few trusted advisors ever know where the Stool is stored.

But the British governor Frederick Hodgson was demanding to sit on the Golden Stool. As of right.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa was a part of the secret meeting to decide what message to sent back to Hodgson. She was Queen Mother of Ejisu, an Ashanti state. Her grandson was the King of Ejisu (Ejisuhene) who was exiled in the Seychelles with Asantehene Prempeh. In her grandson's absence, Nana Yaa Asantewaa was the regent of Ejisu.

The Ashanti warriors in the secret meeting found reason not to resist the governor's demand. Some wanted to negotiate with the British for the return of the Asantehene and his advisors, so they thought allowing the governor to sit on the Stool might placate the British. Others thought the Ashantis would be further defeated if they went to war over the Stool,and then they would be treated worse than before.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa disagreed. When she addressed the gathering, she said,

“Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it [was] in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king to be taken away without firing a shot. No European could have dared speak to chiefs of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields."

With that, Nana Yaa Asantewaa took charge of the war against the British. She may not have been in the battlefield, but she was chief strategist.

When the British realised the Ashantis were resisting the governor-general's demand, they took refuge in a fort in Kumasi. Ashanti soldiers kept the British hostage for about four months, beating back all efforts to free the governor general and those who accompanied him. Finally the British were able to send enough troops to push back the Ashanti soldiers.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa was captured, and according to oral tradition, she spat in the face of her the British commanding officer. She and her closest advisors joined Asantehene Prempeh in exile in the Seychelles. However, the British never again tested the mettle of the Ashanti soldiers. In addition, British governors kept at a respectful distance from Ashanti traditions and governance.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa died in exile, and Asantehene Prempeh returned to his kingdom three years later. He made sure that Yaa's remains were returned to the land of her birth for royal burial.

Just over thirty years after Nana Yaa Asantewaa's death, her dream was accomplished. British rule ended and the Gold Coast became independent Ghana.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Queen Nanny conquers mountains

March 20, 2010

Women's History Month

While there is a mountain in your path, do not sit down at its foot and cry, get up and climb it. (Africa)

Nanny, Queen of the Maroons

When we talk bout Grandy Nanny it might sound like fairy tale, but is true. You will know is not a fairy tale because it is not about no blue-eyed blond girl who sleeping till a prince come and wake her. This story is bout a black woman who strong enough to wake up princes and the King of England himself. Even after she dead she still the power to wake up people.

Most of what we know come to us through what the elders tell us. It don’t generally write in book, so if you are one of those who think only what write in book is true, then you can stop listen. Those who know better will tell you that plenty things that write in book not true and some is outright malicious lie. But who want to know the truth will know it when them hear it.

Nanny born a free woman, and she decide to live and die same way. She never ever forget she is Ashanti and royal, not when them grab her and walk her down to the coast. Not when she waiting in the dungeon with some much mess that even rat and roach run away from it. Not when sailors throw Black men over board like them is garbage and try push seed into Black women like them is dirt in planting season.

So when Nanny reach Kingston harbor and the boat dock, she just walk to the mountains and never look back. The spirits call her to freedom and she answer and make the spirits show her the way. Is only fear stop everybody else from doing the same thing, but Nanny never know what fear was. She probably reach to Jamaica round 1700 or so, when the Maroons was already battering the British.

If the Maroon war was simmering before, Nanny take it to boiling point. In them times, Maroon women don’t just live to serve them men. Them help raid the white man plantation and fight right next to Maroon men. Them was warrior-queens. One white man say he see Nanny wearing anklet and bracelet made of teeth of white men she kill in battle.

So Nanny lead the men and women. She show them how to cover themselves with branch so them look like tree. When the white men come up, what them think is trees stand still until the Maroons surround the soldiers and in a short time the battle done. Plenty British troops come into the mountains and don’t leave there alive, or else have to leave behind them gun and bullet or them blood and bones. Along with them pride. For how could these few Black men (them wouldn't want to count the women) make thousands of white soldiers of the British empire beg for mercy?

It was strategy that beat the British, but them never think Black men and women could out-think white people. So them start to say Nanny is a witch. Them say is not a fair fight when Nanny can catch bullet in her arse and fart the bullets back at them. Them say Nanny have a magic pot that boil without fire, and if any white man look into the pot them will dead. Them say she feeding her people with magic pumpkin seed that grow big pumpkins in one week. Them say she have magic herbs that close up cuts and heal every sickness.

The British do them best to find Nanny. She live way up in the mountains in a spot where a lot of people cannot reach to this day. A place so high up that lookouts could see the British coming and blow the abeng as warning. A place where the Maroons could easily trap the British since the white men have to pick them way between rocks in passes holding only one or two man at a time. A place that Nanny help hundreds of slaves to reach if they wanted to be free. A place that the British reach one time but couldn’t manage to hold.

After eighty years of war, the British ask the Maroons to sign a peace treaty. Before Toussaint free Haiti from France, warrior-queen Nanny with her brothers force the British to free the Maroons.

For all those who think Nanny is Anancy story, check this out. Read all the book and newspapers you want, because this is what write down in black and white, Around the 1970s, some white soldiers decide to find Nanny Town. Well, when them get to a certain point, them hear like thunder, and part of a mountain fall down. The soldiers say at night time them hear voices and sometimes see faces. What seem to make the soldiers decide to turn back was one morning when a soldier couldn’t find him watch. Him know him have on him watch when him go to sleep zip up in him sleeping bag. But next morning him don’t see no watch. The soldiers search and search, and up to this day the watch don’t turn up.

Still, today if you want to go to Nanny Town, a Maroon will take you there. But you might want to ask Nanny first.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Women's History Month
When an elder shares, there is peace.(Ghana)

Dame Nita Barrow

Compassion is what marks Nita Barrow for me. Picture a nine-year-old girl coming from the country to live in town. One day she had two brothers (one a baby, really) and freedom to roam to neighbors where she could find children to play with and a game to join in. Later that same day she is sent to live with her aunt, a posh lady who lives in a rich neighborhood, so the neighbors here are mostly white or very light skinned.

The little girl sees the mostly white or very light skinned children, but they don’t see her. Only one other black girl lives on the road, and she becomes the little girl’s only friend apart from classmates who talk to her and sometimes invite her to play ring games at break times. A long time passes before her classmates invite her to their homes for birthday parties.

The little girl is afraid her aunt is going to forget her birthday, and she doesn’t want to seem pushy and ask what the plan is. If she were with her mom and dad she would at least have home made ice cream on the Sunday afternoon closest to her birthday.

When her birthday comes, the little girl gets a cake baked all for her. A whole cake just for her. She can’t remember getting a birthday cake before, with icing. Her mother made Christmas puddings and steamed them in a pot. But this is a regular cake baked in a regular oven and not in a pot with coal to the top and coal to the bottom. This is a magic cake with the brown and yellow swirls.

Nita Barrow made marble cakes for me for all the birthdays from I was nine till I left my aunt-mother’s home to get married. She is the reason my sons always had marble cakes on their birthdays.

Since I had only one neighbor to play with, I read a lot. I was reading the newspapers since I was about four years old, and that got my dad so excited that he bought me Tale of Two Cities. As a result, I resisted even looking at a Charles Dickens book till I was forced to read him in high school. But at my aunt-mother’s house, reading was a way to make believe I was not alone. It also turned out to be a great way to avoid doing chores.

Nita Barrow introduced me to the Little Prince by Saint Exupery, and until today I am never without a copy of that book. I re-read it the whole book two or three times every decade. And I open it a lot more often to re-read my favorite passages.

I considered myself grown up by the time I did university entrance exams, but I still felt like Nita Barrow’s favored little girl when she invited me to have lunch with her between exam papers. She was then the matron of the university hospital, and that was no mean feat for a Black woman at the time. Predictably, the head of the university - a college of London University in colonial times - was white, as were most of the lecturers.

By the time I was on summer holidays at the end of my first year at university, Nita Barrow organized a holiday job for me in the matron’s office. By that time she had moved on from being matron, and the new person was white and British (what else?).

Nita Barrow always treated me as if I were grown up when I was a child, and as if I were her equal when I was grown and she was a high flying international advisor meeting with world leaders. She remained caring and plain-speaking when her brother was the Prime Minister of Barbados and later when she was knighted by the Queen of England and became the first female Governor General of Barbados. . Her conversations with me were always catching up with all I had done since we last met. She never made herself the focus of the conversation, never dropped names, and she had plenty to drop if she chose. She was still baking cakes in her kitchen even when she was Barbados’ head of state.

As soon as we heard Dame Nita had passed on, my aunt-mother and I booked our tickets for Barbados. I don’t feel obliged to attend funerals unless the person is my close relative or a close relative of a close friend. Nita Barrow felt closer than a close relative.

I felt the reach of her love beyond her death when her family embraced my aunt-mother and me as if we also shared their bloodline. We shared all the family’s privileges at the official funeral for Nita Barrow.

Barbadians mourned their loss as if Nita Barrow were everyone’s mother, sister, aunt, grandmother, or best friend. I learned that any child was welcome to visit her in Government House. I heard about a coconut vendor who had his shack near government House. When the police wanted to move him, Dame Nita instructed them to leave him alone and instead to help him improve his location. People who cried real tears for her. The tributes spoke to her dedication to health care, her passion for social justice, her advocacy of women’s rights, and her reputation as a diplomat.

But for me, she remained most of all the person who always treated me as special, moat of all when I was an emotionally fragile nine-year-old.

Eugenia Charles -Iron Hand in Iron Glove

Women's History Month

The value of each woman consists in what she does well. (Egypt)

Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, (15 May 1919 – 6 September 2005)

If I were right wing and conservative, Eugenia Charles would probably be one of my heroes. As it is I admire her for her strength and for not backing down even when I may have preferred her at least to waver.

Grenada was one of those occasions. Perhaps conservatism was in the air when Charles joined with Edward Seaga of Jamaica and Tom Adams of Barbados to invite the United States to invade a Caribbean island. The US had a history of invading non-English speaking islands like Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. But this was an English-speaking island that had once been British.

Grenada’s Maurice Bishop was killed in a disturbance, and the US claimed their troops needed to go to the rescue of American students living in Grenada. The students said they perceived no danger to themselves at any time. Charles stood beside Reagan when he announced the Grenada invasion.

Whatever you might say about her, this woman had guts.

She grew up with few reminders that her grandparents were slaves. Her father started out as a mason and became a businessman and a wealthy landowner. In addition, the family was light-skinned enough to acquire bourgeois status.

Charles he attended Dominica’s only secondary school at a time when poor Black people had to be satisfied with a few years of primary school. She attended university in Canada and the United Kingdom when the most ambitious Blacks could gain degrees only by correspondence courses. Some managed to reach the US where they could work and study at the same time. Charles went on to study law when most women of any color were expected to find husbands to provide for them, and to have children to prove their worth. She made her name as an attorney when a woman’s worth was measured by her husband’s occupation, or by attainment of her children or grandchildren. She was her island’s first female attorney. In a patriarchal society, she raised eyebrows and sometimes caused unkind comment because she never married and never had children. In parts of the Caribbean, a woman like her would risk being called a “mule” or worse. Her deep bass voice might have given even more cause to question her femininity.

But Charles never seemed to care what her critics said about her.

In her policies at home, she was mostly conservative. She veered slightly left in her support for social welfare programs. In addition, she showed her potential as a rebel when she turned up in parliament in a bath suit. She was protesting what she considered to be an absurd dress code.

However, Charles never identified with women’s rights, in a region where women still suffer abuse and indignity based on gender. She also showed little interest in addressing relics of slavery such as barriers based on color and class. Tourists could visit her country, but she tolerated no casinos, no night clubs, and no duty-free shops. She sought to give the people roads and electricity when they demanded jobs and social welfare. Known as the Iron Lady of the Caribbean, and faced two coups d'état. Both were unsuccessful.

She became Dame Eugenia Charles when she was knighted by the Queen of England.

As a mark of her strength, she returned to school when she retired from public office after leading Dominica for 15 years. She then attended the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies. She also became engaged in the Carter Centre, monitoring elections around the world.

A mark of Eugenia Charles' life was that she did well, regardless of whether others agreed with what she did.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Elsa Goveia, the lion's storyteller

Women's History Month

Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story. Benin, Ghana, and Togo)

Elsa Goveia (1925-1980)

Before Elsa Goveia lectured me at university in Jamaica, the history I learned was British or European. I identified with the glories of the (allegedly) Virgin Queen Elizabeth the First not to mention the (allegedly) prudish Queen Victoria of England and the (definitely) adulterous Henry VIII. No wonder that I felt at home when I first landed in England. It took me a while to learn that I was not and would never be British even though my then British passport allowed me to walk into the country with no questions asked.

So who was I? I had to return to some of Goveia’s lessons to discover myself. No, my history was not about men like Raleigh and Rodney who challenged the Spanish empire and won land and gold for “my” country. It was not about Dr Livingstone (I presume) whose supposed discoveries helped Britain entrench itself in Africa. It was not even about William Wilberforce who contributed to the end of slavery after the Jamaican Maroon had already forced Britain to accept a free Black state within a plantation colony. No, mine was not the history of the hunter.

Still, I did not appreciate Goveia when she shared with my class her passion for West Indian history. I can remember her almost in tears when she spoke of slavery, and how offended she was when one of her critics said she was imposing twentieth century values on slavery. She asked, isn’t pain the same no matter who or when or where? Isn’t cruelty the same? Separation from country, theft of freedom, torture, forced labor, rape, break up of family?

Years later, when I was a teacher of history, I was glad to be able to finally be faithful to Elsa Goveia. When she lectured me in my first year at university, I considered any kind of study as an imposition. I had gone to university straight out of school, and this was my first taste of freedom. I had the best of all worlds – no adult supervision, yet my aunt-mother would indulge me with home-cooked meals when I was tired of university food. And I could get my laundry done at home. To add to the freedom without responsibility, my grades from high school allowed me to matriculate, but the university decided I was too young to go straight to second year. I therefore decided that my time was best spent on my social life. I missed one student party that year, on as night when I chose to stay in that night with a friend who had really bad period pains.

One day Goveia told me she was on to my game. She said she knew I was not doing much work, and was using my skill in language and logic to weave a few facts into the essays I presented to her. She told me how much she regretted having to give me a “B” for that particular assignment. In those days, the B was goal accomplished so I could move on to the next grand date with a boyfriend who was not allowed to visit me at home because he was considered too black.

I came to terms with my own blackness in the years I lived in England. I learned that my color meant everything to whites around me. It determined where I lived, worked, and who could be my friends and which restaurants and shops I could feel comfortable in. Most painfully for me, color could also determine which children would play with my baby twin sons. I was almost paralyzed with rage the day I overheard them say to some white children they had just meant, “You don’t mind playing with us, even though we are black?”

So Elsa Goviea’s lectures came to be the flesh of my flesh. My greatest tribute to her came in a poem Kwame Dawes wrote about me. I taught him history at high school, and his poem describes a lesson about slavery. He says I cried as I spoke about the Middle Passage, and he writes about the impact of my emotion on this class of boys. I don’t remember the external tears, but Kwame read my heart accurately.

Today, when people ask me why I am involved in human rights advocacy, I search for answers. But I suspect I owe much of my activism to Elsa Goveia’s view of West Indian history.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Law that dies here and burns there

Women's History Month

If the fire of the law dies here and burns there, it is not operating properly. (Ghana, Burundi)

Remembering Mothers of Braeton Seven

This is for women who lose their sons in war that seems to offer poor Black men choices of prison or cemetery. This week I go to Washington DC on behalf of one mother who lost her son – killed by Jamaican police – in 2002. She wants an acknowledgment that the state did wrong, that is all.

Today is the anniversary of another day when agents of the Jamaican state took seven lives in one incident on Seal Way in Braeton. Police said they were defending themselves in a shootout. However, neighbors testified that they heard the young men begging for their lives or repeating the Lord’s Prayer in between gunshots heard between 5 and 5.45 that morning. Neighbors said the last gunshots were fired between 6.30 and 7 am. They said the police were then finishing off one of the young men discovered to be still alive. For further information please click here

Six of the seven had gunshots to the head, even though the police claimed that they were outside the house and the boys inside when the shootout took place. Later the police claimed that they managed to enter through a door that was mysteriously left open, and that they killed all the men (without sustaining any injuries) in a pitch black house. Six policemen were tried for murder and acquitted.

Many Jamaicans still believe the police account of the shootout, or else they think that the young men deserved to be killed because they were probably up to something in the early hours of the morning of March 14, 2001.

I spoke to several young men in Braeton who told me that it was only by the grace of God that they were not among those slaughtered in that house. The previous evening, the seven men were among others playing against women in a domino game (the women won), and then had gone to the house at Seal Way to “run a boat”. This refers to the communal practice of preparing a meal from what the members can contribute. Saltfish and dumplings were left on the ground after the shootings took place.

Tamayo’s mother was under medication when I visited Braeton the day after the killings. For all I know she still needs medication to come to terms with what happened to her son, named after a Cuban astronaut who was the first Black man in space. His father, a union representative, was determined to bring his son’s killers to justice.

Tamayo, about nineteen years old, had stayed away from home that night because of an argument with his dad. Apparently he stayed nearby with a relative, and from there he heard shooting and the voices of his friends. He then reportedly rode his bicycle toward the house, shouting, “People, people, you going to let the youth die just like that? Help them!” Tamayo’s dad was unable to remain in the courtroom the day the police showed “Tamayo’s bicycle in a tape of the murder scene.

His father broke down also when Tamayo’s college papers arrived shortly after his death. He was accepted to attend a Canadian university. .

Dane lived next door to Tamayo. His father was an engineer, and his mother had migrated to the US. She didn’t hear about Dane’s death for months after the incident. She was institutionalized because of mental illness and there was a question of how to break the news to her.

Like Tamayo, Dane was staying away that night because of a confrontation with his father. He was about twenty years old, attended trade training school, and hoped to be an engineer like his father.

Lancebert’s parents had migrated to the US. He would already have followed them, but for a bureaucratic slip-up. About nineteen years old, he had attended a prominent high school. At the time of his death, he lived with his aunt and grandmother.

Andre was a tradesman who lived with his mother and was in close touch with his father. He spent eight months in jail accused of possession of a firearm. No evidence was ever brought to court – no gun, no witness – and a judge ultimately threw out the case.
On the night of the incident, Andre stopped at the Seal Way house after visiting a girlfriend. Apparently had his toothbrush in his hand when he was killed – three gunshots to the head. .

Curtis attended school and was also the caretaker of the death house. He was allowed to live there till the owners, who had migrated, decided whether they wanted to sell or rent. His father had been murdered when he was a child, and his mother had gone to the US. For ten years she had hoped to be able to regularize her status and send for her son. Because she was undocumented, she was not able to return to Jamaica to attend her son’s funeral.

Reagon, fifteen years old, was the youngest of the boys. Both parents lived overseas, and older siblings cared for him while his mother arranged for him to join her in the UK.

According to reports, he tried to explain to the police that he lived nearby and wanted to return home. He received twelve shots, and was reportedly killed on the pathway outside the house.

Chris’s mother died when he was two years old, and his grandmothers, aunts, and an uncle raised him. He had therefore lived in several homes during his seventeen years. A prominent high school acquired him because of his skills as an athlete, and then let him go because he couldn’t read and write well enough to keep up his grades. He was the one the police sought on that night, for the murder of a policeman. Forensic evidence showed that a policeman’s M16 blew out Chris’s brains while he was kneeling on the floor.

As recently as two weeks ago, an attorney tried to justify the murders of these seven young men. She said one of them (unnamed) had raped the daughter of one of her employees. Even with her training, she didn’t seem to believe that young man was entitled to due process – presumption of innocence till proved guilty in a court of law. For further comment on operation of the law in Jamaica, please click here

Due process. Keep the young men alive if they are held unarmed and post no threat to anyone’s life. The mothers who feel the unending belly pain of loss of their sons ask no more from the state.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi - firm as stone in wind

Women's History Month

A stone is never overturned by the wind. (Democratic Republic of the Congo)

Aung San Suu Kyi

Today, Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced as Ong San Soo Chee) is under house arrest. Today, a lot of women around the world are under house arrest by their cultures, their traditions, or their husbands. Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest by her government.

Those of us who live in what we may call democracies can consider voting out whom we don’t want, and sometimes we are lucky enough to find whom we like to vote into power. But the military in Myanmar (known as Burma when I was a child) hasn’t allowed voting in 20 years. And the military junta has had Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest for 14 of those 20 years. They say she is trying to topple their regime, and she says she wants freedom for her people.

Some activists like Aung San Suu Kyi are silenced permanently. Her father was assassinated when she was two years old. In 1988, when she first asked the Myanmar government to give the people a voice, the junta killed about 10,000 persons who dared to demonstrate for freedom. Others have since been killed for disagreeing with their government.

The junta would be relieved if Aung San Suu Kyi would leave Myanmar. The rulers have in the past invited her to leave, on the understanding that she would not be allowed to return. She could choose to be an exile, as she has strong overseas contacts. She studied in India, attended Oxford University in the UK and did further study in the US. She also worked at the United Nations in New York for three years. In addition, one of her brothers lives in California and is a US citizen. Her children, whom she is not able to see, live in the UK. But Aung San Suu Kyi is not looking for personal freedom. She is looking for freedom for her country, for all the people in her country.

Well, the junta is once again under pressure to seem democratic, so elections are due in Myanmar some time this year. The last time the junta felt forced to call elections was in 1990 when Aung San Suu Kyi won 82 per cent of the ballot even though she was under house arrest at the time. The junta solved that problem by refusing to recognize the election results. This time the junta has passed a law by which persons with convictions cannot be members of political parties, let alone run for office. Besides, the junta found fresh reason to re-arrest Aung San Suu Kyi just before she was due for release on May 27, 2009.

In mid-May last year, Kyi had an unexpected and uninvited visitor. Normally, she can see only her maids and her doctor, and occasionally foreign visitors. Somehow this man, John Yettaw, was able to elude security and swim across a lake to enter Aung San Suu Kyi’s home. He said he came to bring her a warning that came to him in a dream. Yettaw, 53 years old, was soaking wet and exhausted, and Aung San Suu Kyi allowed him to rest in her house till he was able to swim back across the lake. Yettaw was imprisoned for his action, and was recently released. Aung San Suu Kyi was tried and sentenced to three years’ hard labor, subsequently commuted to house arrest. She will be confined till after this year’s show of democracy.

Sometimes I wonder what the ‘democratic’ world is saying or doing about the injustices done to Aung San Suu Kyi for her peaceful and determined activism. Where is the voice of India that gave her the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding from India and Rafto Human Rights Prize? What of the European Parliament that gave her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom? What of the US that presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom? To top all of these honors, Aung San Suu Kyi also received the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle against the dictatorship.

Perhaps we can allow our voices to be heard for Aung San Suu Kyi – what do you think?

You can find information on the US campaign to free Aung San Suu Kyi at

Friday, March 12, 2010

No chains for Mirabal Sisters

Women's History Month

A woman will be twice bound when her chains feel comfortable. (Egypt)

The Mirabal sisters

What price freedom? Three of the four Mirabal sisters paid with their lives. Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic (Dom Rep) ordered them killed.

I can understand why lots of women have limited their activism to stirring a pot of black beans and rice, or ackee and saltfish. Sometimes the rule of a husband is enough, so why challenge the state?

The Mirabal sisters must have wanted to just mind their own business. Patria and Minerva knew only Trujillo from the time they were little girls, and “Teresa was born when Trujillo (also known as El Jefe) was the ruler of their country. They could have accepted their fate like thousands of other people. They could have believed that they had no choice, because anyone who opposed El Jefe met death after imprisonment and torture. Everybody had to be a member of his party. If you worked for the government, you had to contribute a tenth of your salary to his party. If you were caught on the street without your party care, you could be arrested. If you had a daughter and she was biracial with boobs and hips, you had to keep the daughter locked away from el Jefe. As he grew older, his tastes in sex partners grew younger. And you couldn’t say no when he came calling or. More usually, sent one of his men for your young daughter.

But Minerva told him no. She would not be one of his throwaways after an episode or two. Nor would she be one of the women who was his sex slaves, held with golden chains studded with diamonds. She said no, and then he had his eyes on her for other reasons - she must be punished. Still, he played with her, the way my dog will play with a lizard he intends to kill. Minerva wanted to see an end of tyranny, and she studied law. Trujillo allowed her to graduate, but not to get her certificate as a lawyer. So she knew law, but could not apply what she knew to help her people.

How did Trujillo have so much power?” Well, the United States invaded Dom Rep in 1916, and remained there till 1924. Trujillo was prominent in the army the US created, and Trujillo “won” Dom Rep’s presidential elections in 1930. A judge ruled that the elections were fraudulent, but he had to run away to save his life. Immediately he took office, Trujillo assumed the powers of a tyrant.

The Mirabal sisters must have wanted to mind their own business, looking after their husbands, having babies, and waiting for grandbabies. But they chose sure suicide. They knew that El Jefe’s spies would report on them, and that they would put themselves and their families in big trouble. This is one of the reasons that many women take the safe route. They may end up frustrated wives and miserable mothers, but they die in their own beds. They don’t get sent to prison and don’t know who is taking care of their children. They don’t have to wait for a few minutes of visiting time just to get word about a first step or a new tooth. They don’t have to have to be beaten up or raped in prison, or get cigarette burns in delicate places.

The Mirabal sisters became part of the resistance to El Jefe. They grew up privileged, and presumably they could have migrated to a safe place, But they joined a secret group and their code name was “Mariposas”, “Butterflies.”

And, predictably, El Jefe crushed the butterflies. Several times he had locked up Minerva and Teresa and tortured them. He locked up three of the sisters’ husbands. Finally he decided to eliminate them. He ordered them killed when three of them were on a journey to visit their husbands in prison. They and their driver were shot dead, and the car thrown over a cliff so El Jefe could say it was an accident. Dedé, the fourth sister, became an only child in a day.

The sisters were murdered in 1960, almost two years after Fidel Castro ousted the dictator Batista from Cuba. The Castro regime showed the people of the Dominican Republic that a dictator could be overthrown. Besides, Castro supported the people’s desire for freedom, and Trujillo was bitterly opposed to Castro, especially as many Dominican exiles found protection in Cuba.

Trujillo was assassinated in 1961. He at first received a state funeral, but the people were so fed up with him, that ultimately they threw out his family and voted for Trujillo’s remains to be taken out of the Dominican Republic.

In 1994, Dominican author Julia Alvarez published, “In the Time of Butterflies”, a novel about the sisters’ struggle for freedom. In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly made November 23 (the date the women were assassinated) the International
Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Today, Dedé, the remaining sister,keeps alive the memories of the Mirabal sisters.

Were the Mirabal sisters right to choose freedom? Was the cost worth it? You be the judge – and share what you think.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Aggie Bernard Feeds The Strikers

Women's History Month

There is no beauty but the beauty of action. (Morocco)

Aggie Bernard

Slavery suppose to end in 1838, but here was 1938 and Aggie Bernard still seeing de boss, di backra man, treat Black people like dem less than slave. People earning little or nothing and cannot feed dem children. Dem sick and cannot afford to go doctor. And backra still riding in him carriage and living in him big house. His children can go to high school and university, and poor man pickney can barely finish primary school. Maybe the girl or boy get to teacher’s college if dem pass them third Jamaica local exam. If dem do well, dem might become head teacher or police. Dem could turn preacher too, but not in any church where backra put him collection.

So black people as a whole have to cut cane same way like in slavery, or lift load at the wharf, or work as gardener in massa yard or maid in him house. Plenty men who want job get prison instead. Police lock them up for vagrancy which is de same as walking round looking for something to do because you can’t find work. And if police drape dem up by dem pants waist and dem protest, good and all police say them cuss bad word and charge them what money them don’t have for “indecent language”.

Aggie see all that and feel it to her heart. So she not really surprise when de cane workers in Frome rise up. Little after dat she see de wharf workers in Kingston join in and say enough is enough.

Alexander Bustamante and St William Grant come out and stand up for de workers. Busta was a brown man who live abroad for a time. Before de strike, most people didn’t know too much about him. St. William was a Black man and a Garveyite. He never hold back or look behind him when him talk about how Black people need to free themselves from slavery. Any time him talking on de street corner you want to see how crowd gather and clap him.

When the canefield workers buss out at Frome, St William busy up himself getting people to sign petition to try and make backra listen to dem before worse come. Like me granny used to say, “Stop quarrel before fight come.” Busta travel to Frome so him was de man on spot just in the canefields just like later on when the workers at the wharf go on strike.

Aggie follow up a lot of what going on round her. She notice dat when de police arrest Busta and St William Grant, Busta tell dem not to touch him and dem leave him alone. But dem tek dem club and beat St William to the ground. When police lock up de two of dem, Busta get bed to sleep on, and St William sleep on de cold concrete. No matter what, it look like colour still rule. Still and all, Aggie willing to support whoever can get backra to treat Black people like dem have flesh and blood.
So when she see the wharf workers on strike, Aggie stand up with them even though she was not a wharf worker. And on of the dockworker that she know name David McLaughlin say to her, “Empty bag cannot stand up, Miss Aggie. If people cannot get food, hungry belly might force dem to go back. Then backra will treat dem even worse. You can do anything for us?”

Aggie know if she take the workers’ side, good and all the backra missis that she work for would fire her. But she could see how the men dem mouth corner white. Yes, that is what she could do. Feed the men them while they on strike. She just have five shillings and six pence in the threadbag she keep in her bosom, but she remember how her granny could make a pot stretch. She get some bread, plus some coffee and sugar, and the men (especially David) glad for the food from her hand. . She never know where the next food coming from, but when other people see her feeding de workers, dem join in too. Who have food bring food, and who have money bring what dem have to buy food.

And the workers dem stand up to backra. Two weeks dem stay off work and leave the goods on the dock. Meantime. Busta tell backra nothing will go on till the workers get what money dem ask for. And Busta cousin Norman, a brown skin lawyer who talk nice, help out too. Is him get Busta out of prison.

And after two weeks the workers get an increase. And Busta form a union so backra couldn’t just do what him want to do and poor people have to suck it up. Aggie herself join Busta union. When Busta and him cousin Norman split up, she join Norman’s political party.

She also marry David and keep her own name.

When she die in 1980, she get an official funeral, and they bury her in the National Heroes Park.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Travelin' with Harriet

Today's post is by Askhari Johnson Hodari

Women's History Month

The train does not wait for the passenger. (Mozambique)

Harriet Tubman


i found the shirt i have with her name on the back. Harriet. The shirt i wore when i ran the marathon. 26.2 miles. When you run a marathon, everyone, thousands of people stand on the sidelines and cheer. These people call your name. i knew if someone, if anyone called me Harriet, i could and would keep going. i knew hearing her name would keep me keeping on. With her name on my back, i would not quit. i kept heading north or south or in whatever direction i was going in. Who knows after more than 11 miles, 17, 21? Harriet knew.

Harriet is a 26.2-mile woman. A 30-mile woman. A thousand mile woman.

She is beautiful to me.

i woulda been her sisterfriend. Kept her secrets. Brushed her hair. Rubbed her temples when those blinding heachaches attacked her. i woulda done something to hurt John Tubman for having another woman in her bed. i’da cut him.

i woulda comforted her. Been her Ben, her Rit, her Marry. Been her more than friend. Her “go with.” Her “road dawg.” i would not have made her wait for me. Not asked her to wait with me. i’da looked for freedom with her.

i woulda learned to read and write just so i could warn her when we saw “wanted posters.” Dead or alive. Tell her `bout the Fugitive Slave Law. `Bout how the entire U.S. government had been called on to chase down and hunt free Blacks. Hooded, apparently mentally impaired, dressed as a man talking in tongues, i’da known Harriet on Saturday night. Told her that no matter how fast or far we ran, they would always be lookin’ for us; and smiled when she put on a disguise and pretended to read the newspaper or pulled a pistol. i’da told her there was nothing in the U.S. worth keeping if we couldn’t be free even though she already knew that. i’da moved to Canada with her, then.

i would not have turned back. Never made her pull her gun. On me?

i’da rubbed her shoeless feet. i’da let her get some sleep with that $40,000 bounty on her head.

She would not have been the only woman, Black or white; free or slave to plan, lead or carry out
an armed expedition against enemy forces during the Civil War. No. i’da been her “next to;” her “go to;” her “can you?”

i’da been real sweet home Alabama nice to Nelson. i’da sat in a rocking chair next to her in her home for ex-slaves with nowhere else to go. i’da told her she was better than Moses.

Lawd, Lawd, Lawd, i have always loved her.

i’da felt for moss as we escaped. i would not have let a woman only five feet tall walk through the dark looking for the North Star alone.

She was alone. Following the North Star. Heading somewhere free, on foot.

"I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scared, and foot-sore bondmen and women, who you have led out of the house of bondage and whose heartfelt `God bless you’ has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom." –Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman, August 28, 1868

Araminta “Minty” Ross.

What manner of woman is this?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Lavinia Williams' natural gift of dance

Women's History Month

She who is naturally gifted in anything becomes expert in it. (Hausa)

Lavinia Williams

I met Lavinia Williams when she was my summer school dance tutor. At midlife, I had finally attained my childhood dream of attending dance classes. The dances I did at my colonial-type school were Irish reels and Scottish jigs. Now, with Lavinia, my blood could throb to the beat of Africa. If my hips seemed contained by memories of my British schooling, I would hear her say, “Energy! Energy!” Freedom at last!

In 1953, the Haitian government hired Lavinia to work with Haiti’s National Folkloric Troupe. A year later, she founded the Haitian Institute of Folklore and Classic Dance, and became director of Haiti’s Theatre du Verdure.

She remained in Haiti for 26 years, helping to develop dance schools in Guyana and the Bahamas as well, and training hundreds of dancers.

Lavinia was seventy when I met her, and she was doing unbelievable splits and leg raises. I credit her with my acknowledging myself to be a dancer today, even if I missed out on dance classes as a child. She brought me in touch with the spirit of Katherine Dunham – she learnt Caribbean dance from Dunham and was a lead dancer in Dunham’s troupe for five years. She connected me to Alvin Ailey’s Dance Center School where she taught in the 1980s. Most of all, she put me in touch with my ancestors through her links to Haitian Vodou culture.

Born in Philadelphia in 1916, she died in New York in 1989. Her daughter Sara Yarborough, a professional dancer raised in Haiti, continues her tradition.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Katherine Dunham, High Priestess of Dance

International Women's Day

“A lioness does not need to roar to keep the crowd in awe.” (Africa)

Katherine Dunham

As a child who yearned to be a dancer, I was familiar with Katherine Dunham and her School of Cultural Arts. Eartha Kitt studied there, as well as Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. In addition, Dunham created the Dunham Technique, a style that is currently taught in dance schools. I recently came across a newspaper photograph of Dunham teaching her style in Jamaica.

It was no wonder then that I grew up thinking Dunham was a Caribbean woman. Like fellow anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, Dunham studied African roots of Black culture. Dunham lived for several months in the Maroon community of Accompong, and experience she described in her book, “Journey to Accompong”. Her study of the African Shango led her to Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago, as a result of which she choreographed her “Shango” dance.

Dunham retained a connection with Haiti throughout her life. She researched Vodou rituals for her thesis, “Dances of Haiti, Their Social Organization, Classification, Form and Function". Dunham was also initiated as a Vodou priestess. Her close friend, Dumarsais Estime, became the President of Haiti. She remained supportive when he was overthrown and exiled to Jamaica. As recently as 1992, Dunham went on 47-day hunger strike to protest the United States foreign policy of discriminating against Haitian boat people. President Jean Bertrand Aristide recognized her principled position by awarding her Haiti’s highest honor, and by terming her “Spiritual Mother of Haiti.”

She visited Haiti for long periods of time, and in the 1940s she bought property there containing a spring that is sacred in Vodou. Dunham provided free medical services on her property for poor Haitian people. Today, despite the arid nature of most of Haiti, that property remains a mini-forest.

Dunham holds a special place in my heart for her activism, and for her refusal to comply with Jim Crow laws. She once refused to perform after she discovered that Black residents could not buy tickets for her show. One of her pieces created controversy because it dramatized the lynching of Blacks in the South. She refused to sign a Hollywood contract that would have required her darker-skinned members to be replaced.

She died in May 2006 at age 96.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

How Lena Horne Carried the Load

Women's History Month

It's not the load that breaks you down, it's the way you carry it. (Lena Horne)

Lena Horne

When I was a child, I was in no doubt that Lena Horne was my mom’s favorite singer. We had no victrola or radio at home, so mom introduced me to Lena Horne by singing “Stormy Weather” and showing me photos of Lena in celebrity magazines. As a child I mostly associated Lena with days when hurricanes or heavy rains kept me from playing outdoors with my friends. I learned to love and admire her later.

Mom’s photos of Lena puzzled me. Was she really Black? Hollywood film-makers seemed to have comparable difficulties with her skin color. They darkened her make-up as they feared she might not be easily identified as a “negro”. In colonial or even post-colonial Jamaica, people as light-skinned as Lena were offended to be called Black. Many of these shade-conscious Jamaicans were shocked to find that Jim Crow laws applied to them. On the contrary, Lena consistently identifies herself as Black.

Both sides of Lena’s family were mixed – African, European, and Native American. Her grandfather was an inventor and she grew up in an upper middle class Black community. Her grandparents raised her as her parents divorced when she was a small child, and her mother went away to find work.

In 1933, when Lena was 16 years old, she dropped out of school and joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in Harlem. She later toured with bands, notably led by such persons as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. By 1941 she had made a record with RCA Victor.

She was primarily a nightclub performer until talent scouts persuaded her to start a movie career. Lena became the first Black American performer to sign a long term contract with a major Hollywood studio.

She was never featured in a leading role. In those days, Black roles needed to be incidental to the story so sequences with Black actors could be edited out without loss to the storyline. Besides, there were codes blocking the possibility of inter-racial relationships in films, especially if they were shown in the South.

In the 1950s, Lena left Hollywood and concentrated on performing in nightclubs. She also made several television appearances in the decades that followed.

Lena was known for her civil rights activism. She worked with Paul Robeson, and as a result was blacklisted as a "Communist sympathizer". She performed at a rally with Medgar Evers, attended the March on Washington, and worked with Elinor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws.

She received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991.

Do you or your elders have any memories of Lena Horne? Please share.

Billie Holiday: Blues Pay Dues

Women's History Month

You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation. (Billie Holiday)

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday bends every note almost to breaking point. She punctures every phrase with pain and passion. She combines reason and feeling in a mix that (for me) no one else has equaled.

She was born Eleanora Harris or Eleanora Fagan in 1915, and died 44 years later. According to birth records, her father was “Frank DeViese”, now believed to be a made up name. Her father seems to have been Clarence Holiday. Sandra Fagan was thrown out of her home when she was thirteen years old and pregnant with Billie. Fagan and Holiday later married for a short time, and Billie was raised mainly by her mother and other relatives. Eleanora later took the name "Billie" from a screen star called Billie Dove.

Billie had a difficult childhood. Her claim of being raped at ten years old, together with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to reform school. She remained there for two years, and then moved to New York City with her mother. In 1929, Billie’s mother surprised a neighbor raping Billie, and the man was convicted for committing the offence.

For a while, by Billie’s account, she worked as a prostitute, and spent time in prison for solicitation. Her musical “training” was singing along with records by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and she never learned to read music. She started her career by singing for tips in Harlem, working various clubs till (according to legend) a talent scout discovered her.

Billie was signed with Brunswick Records where she had room to do what she did best - improvise the melody line to fit the emotion. She had a close relationship with Lester “Prez” Young who gave her the nickname, “Lady Day”. She was also one of the first Black women to work with a white orchestra.

"Strange Fruit", Billie's song about lynching, proved too controversial for Colombia, her recording company at the time. She ultimately recorded it for Commodore and later for Verve.

In 1947, Billie was arrested on a drugs charge, and she was sentenced to a prison term. On her release, she performed at a come-back concert at Carnegie Hall. Less than a year later, she was arrested again for drugs believed to belong to her drugs dealer boyfriend. Her problems with the law limited her ability to work in clubs, but these difficulties may well have increased the emotional impact of her recordings.

Her autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues" was published in 1956.

On May 31, 1959, Billie was admitted to hospital with liver and heart disease. The police raided her hospital room and arrested her as she lay dying.

Today’s jazz and pop singers benefit tremendously from Billie’s legacy. In 1987, she was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the United States Postal Service introduced a Billie Holiday postage stamp in 1994.

Boobies in satin, a gardenia in her hair, Billie never accepted the plantation as her fate. Bless you, Lady Day!

For more information, please see “Billie Holiday, the Official Site of Lady Day”

I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings about Billie.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bessie Smith, Free-spirited Empress

Women's History Month

If you want your eggs hatched, sit on them yourself. (Haiti)

Bessie Smith was one of the great blues singers. She was also an independent-minded woman who allowed nothing and no one to contain her. Indeed, Bessie was so rambunctious that today's paparazzi would have plagued her, and today's tabloids would have relied on her exploits for their sales.

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894 (or 1898, or 1900). Her father was a laborer and Baptist preacher who died when Bessie was very young. By the time she was nine, her mother died as well, and Bessie’s older sister headed the family.

Bessie and her brother Andrew earned money for their household by singing and dancing on the street. When Bessie was 18, she was hired as a dancer by the company that included Ma Rainey. The two became friends, and Ma Rainey is credited with helping Smith to develop stage presence.

In 1923, Bessie was signed to Columbia Records, and ultimately made almost 200 recordings. She made some particularly memorable recordings with Louis Armstrong.

Working busy theatre circuits and tent tours as well, she became the highest paid (and therefore most newsworthy) entertainer of her day. She was popular with Blacks and whites, and was termed “The Empress of Blues”.

Bessie seemed to live the blues, and was willing to fight to correct anything she saw as mistreatment. She was six feet tall and weighed about two hundred pounds, with a voice to match her size. She would use her fists on managers, employees or singers who got on her wrong side. Reports say she once knocked down a man who was bigger than she, because he was harassing her and her friends. When the man stabbed Smith, she chased him in the street till she fell down from loss of blood.

When she caught her then husband in an affair with one of her chorus girls, she beat up the woman and threw her off a parked train. Then she chased her husband down the railroad track firing at him with his own gun. The words of “Please Help Me Get Him Off My Mind” express Smith’s views on the about-to-be-ex–husband:

It's all about a man who always kicks and dogs me around
It's all about a man who always kicks and dogs me aroun';
And when I try to kill him, that's when my love for him come down.

In "Empty Bed Blues" she sings of a lover whom she suspects of infidelity:

Lord he's got that sweet somethin' and I told my girlfriend Lou
From the way she's raving, she must have gone and tried it too

Bessie was not necessarily faithful, and she apparently preferred dark-skinned lovers (male or female). According to reports, she regularly slept with one of her chorus girls, and also had an affair with her male pianist. Further, she once was jailed after a fight with another woman over a male dancer.

The circumstances of Smith’s death sparked more controversy and drew more attention than she received during her lifetime. Writers of the time claimed Smith died because a white hospital refused to attend to her after she was injured in a car accident. However, it appears that she had bled to death before she reached the Black hospital to which she was taken. Seven thousand persons attended her funeral.

Inheritors of Smith’s legacy include Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Aretha Franklin


When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at