Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday With Sam :: A Change Is Gonna Come

From wikipedia:


Upon hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" in 1963, Cooke was greatly moved that such a poignant song about racism in America could come from someone who was not black[1]. While on tour in May 1963, and after speaking with sit-in demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina following a concert, Cooke returned to his tour bus and wrote the first draft of what would become "A Change Is Gonna Come". The song also reflected much of Cooke's own inner turmoil. Known for his polished image and light-hearted songs such as "You Send Me" and "Twistin' the Night Away", he had long felt the need to address the situation of discrimination and racism in America, especially the southern states. However, his image and fears of losing his largely white fan base prevented him from doing so.

The song, very much a departure for Cooke, reflected two major incidents in his life. The first was the death of Cooke's 18-month-old son, Vincent, who died of an accidental drowning in June of that year. The second major incident came on October 8, 1963, when Cooke and his band tried to register at a "whites only" motel in Shreveport, Louisiana and were summarily arrested for disturbing the peace. Both incidents are represented in the weary tone and lyrics of the piece, especially the final verse: There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long/but now I think I'm able to carry on/It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.


After remaining confined to Cooke's notebooks for months of touring, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was finally recorded on December 21, 1963. Recording took place at the RCA Studios in Los Angeles, California during sessions for Cooke's 1964 album, Ain't That Good News.

According to author Peter Guralnick's biography of Cooke, "Dream Boogie", Cooke gave arranger Rene Hall free rein on the song's musical arrangement. Hall came up with a dramatic orchestral backing highlighted by a mournful French horn. For his vocal, Cooke reached back to his gospel roots to sing the song with an intensity and passion never heard before on his pop recordings.


The song made its first appearance on Ain't That Good News, the last album to be released within Cooke's lifetime. The LP did well, peaking at number 34 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, making it more successful than Cooke's previous LP, 1963's Night Beat.

However, Cooke and his new manager Allen Klein thought the song deserved greater exposure. According to Guralnick's book, Klein persuaded Cooke to sing "A Change Is Gonna Come" on his February 7, 1964 appearance on The Tonight Show. Cooke sang the song; unfortunately, any impact it made was dimmed by The Beatles' history-making appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show just two days later. In a further misfortune, NBC did not save the tape of Cooke's performance, which has never turned up in private collections either. RCA Records had bypassed "Change" for Cooke's early 1964 single, instead releasing the tracks "Good Times" and "(Ain't That) Good News". But the company agreed to put the song out as a single late in the year, as the B-side to Cooke's latest potential hit, "Shake." At one of his last recording sessions, Cooke approved an edit to the song that would shorten it by about 30 seconds, increasing its chance for airplay on American radio stations.

Finally given proper attention, "A Change Is Gonna Come" became a sensation among the black community, and was used as an anthem for the ongoing civil rights protests. On R&B radio, the song peaked at number 9 on the Billboard Black Singles chart, and topped many local playlists, most notably in Chicago. The song had more limited success on top 40 radio. By February 1965, the song had peaked at number 31 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart and fallen off. Cooke, however, did not live to see the song's commercial success. On December 11, 1964, he was killed at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California under what some consider mysterious circumstances.


Though only a moderate success sales-wise, "A Change Is Gonna Come" became an anthem for the American Civil Rights Movement, and is widely considered Cooke's best composition. Over the years, the song has garnered significant praise and, in 2005, was voted number 12 by representatives of the music industry and press in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and voted number 3 in the webzine Pitchfork Media's The 200 Greatest Songs of the 60s. The song is also among three hundred songs deemed the most important ever recorded by National Public Radio (NPR) and was recently selected by the Library of Congress as one of twenty-five selected recordings to the National Recording Registry as of March 2007. The song is currently ranked as the 95th greatest song of all time, as well as the seventh best song of 1965, by Acclaimed Music.[2]

Despite its acclaim, legal troubles have haunted the single since its release. A dispute between Cooke's music publisher, ABKCO, and record company, RCA Records, made the recording unavailable for much of the four decades since its release. Though the song was featured prominently in the 1992 film Malcolm X, it could not be included in the film's soundtrack. By 2003, however, the disputes had been settled in time for the song to be included on the remastered version of Ain't That Good News, as well as the Cooke anthology Portrait of a Legend.

"A Change Is Gonna Come" was a precursor to many later socially-conscious singles, including Marvin Gaye's lauded "What's Going On". Al Green, a self-professed fan of Cooke, covered the song for the concert celebrating the 1996 opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Green's live rendition was included in the soundtrack to the 2001 Michael Mann film Ali. James Taylor recorded a version specially for an episode of the same title of the television drama The West Wing. The Allman Brothers Band captured their performance of the song on their 2003 DVD Live at the Beacon Theatre.

Other notable artists who have covered the song include Allison Moorer, Jeffrey Gaines, Matt Doyle, Cory Wells, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, The 5th Dimension (in a 1970 medley with The Rascals' "People Got to Be Free"), The Band, Wayne Brady, Billy Bragg, Evelyn Champagne King, Solomon Burke, Terence Trent D'Arby, Gavin DeGraw, the Fugees, the Cold War Kids, The Gits, Deitrick Haddon, Patti Labelle, Solo, Prince Buster, Morten Harket, The Neville Brothers, jacksoul, Ben Sollee, Johnny P, Billy Preston, Otis Redding, Baby Huey (singer), Michael Thompson featuring Bobby Womack, Leela James, Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers (Bobby Hatfield solo), The Gits, Brandy, and The Supremes, The Manhattans, Gerald Alston, Arcade Fire has used the song in support of Barack Obama's nomination for President of the United States. In recent years, the song has served as a sample for rappers Ghostface Killah (1996), Ja Rule (2003), Papoose (2006), Lil Wayne (2007) "Long Time Coming (remix)" Charles Hamilton, Asher Roth, and B.o.B (2009), and Nas's It Was Written album also features a similar opening as the song. On their album The Reunion hip-hop artists Capone-N-Noreaga used an excerpt from the song on the opening track which shares the same title as the Cooke original. British soul singer Beverley Knight says the song is her all time favourite and has performed it live many a time; most notably on 'Later with Jools Holland'. On May 6, 2008, during the seventh season of American Idol, the song was sung by contestant Syesha Mercado as the remaining top 4. After winning the 2008 United States presidential election, Barack Obama referred to the song, stating to his supporters in Chicago, "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America." A duet of the song by Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi was included in We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. In Washington DC, in the days leading up to the Inauguration of Barack Obama, this song could be heard played constantly in the city centre.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday With Nina :: Mississippi Goddam

In the 1960s, Nina Simone was part of the civil rights movement and later the black power movement. Her songs are considered by some as anthems of those movements, and their evolution shows the growing hopelessness that American racial problems would be solved.

Nina Simone wrote "Mississippi Goddam" after the bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama killed four children and after Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississipppi. This song, often sung in civil rights contexts, was not often played on radio. She introduced this song in performances as a show tune for a show that hadn't yet been written.

Other Nina Simone songs adopted by the civil rights movement as anthems included "Backlash Blues," "Old Jim Crow," "Four Women" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." The latter was composed in honor of her friend Lorraine Hansberry and became an anthem for the growing black power movement with its line, "Say it clear, say it loud, I am black and I am proud!"

With the growing women's movement, "Four Women" and her cover of Sinatra's "My Way" became feminist anthems as well.

But just a few years later, Nina Simone's friends Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes were dead. Black heroes Martin Luther King, jr., and Malcolm X, were assassinated. In the late 1970s, a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service found Nina Simone accused of tax evasion; she lost her home to the IRS.

Nina Simone's growing bitterness over America's racism, her disputes with the record companies she called "pirates," her troubles with the IRS all led to her decision to leave the United States. She first moved to Barbados, and then, with the encouragement of Miriam Makeba and others, moved to Liberia.

A later move to Switzerland for the sake of her daughter's education was followed by a comeback attempt in London which failed when she put her faith in a sponsor who turned out to be a con man who robbed and beat her and abandoned her. She tried to commit suicide, but when that failed, found her faith in the future renewed. She built her career slowly, moving to Paris in 1978, having small successes.

In 1985, Nina Simone returned to the United States to record and perform, choosing to pursue fame in her native land. She focused on what would be popular, de-emphasizing her political views, and won growing acclaim. Her career soared when a British commercial for Chanel used her 1958 recording of "My Baby Just Cares for Me," which then became a hit in Europe.

Nina Simone moved back to Europe -- first to the Netherlands then to the South of France in 1991. She published her biography, I Put a Spell on You, and continued to record and perform.

There were several run-ins with the law in the 90s in France, as Nina Simone shot a rifle at rowdy neighbors and left the scene of an accident in which two motorcyclists were injured. She paid fines and was put on probation, and was required to seek psychological counseling.

In 1995, she won ownership of 52 of her master recordings in a San Francisco court, and in 94-95 she had what she described as "a very intense love affair" -- "it was like a volcano." In her last years, Nina Simone was sometimes seen in a wheelchair between performances. She died April 21, 2003, in her adopted homeland, France.

In a 1969 interview with Phyl Garland, Nina Simone said:

There's no other purpose, so far as I'm concerned, for us except to reflect the times, the situations around us and the things we're able to say through our art, the things that millions of people can't say. I think that's the function of an artist and, of course, those of us who are lucky leave a legacy so that when we're dead, we also live on. That's people like Billie Holiday and I hope that I will be that lucky, but meanwhile, the function, so far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times, whatever that might be.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Honoring My Father

TODAY my father would have been 91-years-old. A Tuskegee Airman, for which he was very proud, my father was a strong man who taught me how to care for others, especially when they are needy or sick. I will honor him today by excerpting the Book of Hazelle from Fumbling Toward Divinity.

AND IT CAME TO PASS in those days that Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. One week later, during the second week of May in the nineteen hundred and forty-fifth year, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe ended.

In the first weeks of August, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. On the fourteenth day of the month, Japan announced its surrender—so long as it could keep its emperor—and World War II, a most devastating war in terms of material destruction, global scale, and lives lost, ended.

Hazelle returned from the Philippines, where he had been stationed since the nineteen hundred and forty-second year, and found that the country he’d left behind wasn’t too kind to Negro servicemen returning from war.

Hazelle came back through California with a few of the others he’d attended Tuskegee with in the nineteen hundred and thirty-ninth year. After hanging out in the Arizona desert, he returned to Tennessee, to the city of Beale Street and barbeque, basement slow dances and jazz, three years before Elvis moved in from Tupelo, Mississippi.

Still, Hazelle couldn’t find work. And so it was on the fifteenth day of January in the nineteen hundred and forty-sixth year that he went up from Memphis, Tennessee, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on a Greyhound bus. “Mighty nice day for a bus ride,” said Hazelle looking up at the driver from the curb. “What’s your name, sir?”

“Frankie,” the driver responded.

“My name is Hazelle, but you can call me Mister Charlie.” His tone was respectful with a hint of sarcasm. Hazelle tipped his hat to Frankie, flashed his gold tooth and moved to the back of the bus. And so he went up on a Greyhound Bus to the beer capital of America where his one-and-only brother Willie Lee said it was easier for a Negro man to find work.

Hazelle the second son was born by a midwife to Lee and Emma Ball Hickman in Inverness, Mississippi, sometime in the second month of the year.

Apparently, on the day he was born, no one glanced at the calendar. If someone had, they failed to record what day it was.

It wouldn’t become clear until the nineteen eighties exactly when Hazelle was born (and even then, his wife would ferociously debate the date or attempt to conceal the obvious), but throughout most of his life, Hazelle observed his birth on the twentieth day of February, in the nineteen hundred and twenty-fourth year.

Whenever he was born, one thing was clear without refute—Hazelle was jazz’s fraternal twin. Hazelle may not have been born in New Orleans, but he and jazz grew up together in the nineteen twenties, matured in the thirties, and took to the world in the forties. Hazelle claimed to have met Bessie Smith, heard Louis Armstrong play live, and auditioned for one of Billie Holiday’s back-up singers in Harlem—all before entering the service at the age of sixteen.

Believing himself sixteen-years-old in nineteen hundred and forty, he had to lie to gain entrance into the service, which only admitted young men of eighteen. Hazelle was blessed with a full head of gray hair at the ripe age of twelve (or sixteen, as the case may be). The service had no difficulty believing him to be nineteen.

And so it was that Hazelle entered the Army Air Force and concerned himself with the taking off and landing of airplanes. During the Second World War, he became a plotter. When he got to Milwaukee, Hazelle pursued his desire to work at a civilian airport.

Dressed up sharp, Army Air Force papers in hand, Hazelle took the long trolley ride from Sixth and Vine streets, where he lived with his brother, through the south side to General Mitchell Field, Milwaukee’s municipal airport.

He had called ahead for the interview, and over the phone, the hiring manager thought that Hazelle’s military plotting experience made him a very good candidate for the job of air traffic controller.

“Hazelle Hickman to see Mister Black about the plotter job.”

The eyes of the bifocaled receptionist with the fire-engine pompadour and pale, freckled skin scanned his tweed pants, his matching jacket, his rust and brown tie with the gold slanted stripes, his silver hair, and his colored skin and replied, “You can have a seat there and he’ll be right with you.”

Hazelle did what he was told, as he had for at least the last six years. Outside the window, he could see the two-engine prop planes rising and landing. Even though an emergency crash landing he’d endured during the war rendered him unwilling and unable to ever get inside those winged steel vessels again, airplanes would always deserve his wonder with their miraculous ability to defy the maw of gravity and take flight.

More than a dozen planes had come and gone while Hazelle waited patiently for Mister Black to be right with him. Finally, the pale-skinned woman emerged from behind a windowed door on the other side of the waiting area. “I’m so sorry that you’ve waited so long and that no one was able to call you before you came all this way. I’m so sorry, really I am. I wish I was able to help you, but the position was filled just today.” Her face flushed red as her mountain of hair. “You know what? Maybe I can help,” she continued, raising the pitch of her voice as though she’d made a remarkable discovery. “Consider this your lucky day. If you check downstairs in personnel, I know for a fact that there are several openings for second- and third-shift janitors.”

“Thank you, ma’am. You tell Mister Black there that I sure hope God blesses him.” He tipped his hat as he walked out the door. “You have yourself a real nice afternoon, ya hear?”

And so Hazelle became an interior decorator, a waiter, a cook, a chef, a house painter, and even pondered a career as a nightclub singer and a recording artist—oh, how that tenor voice could croon!—before he began his thirty-plus year tenure in office services at the Pabst Blue Ribbon Company. But before he met Pabst, he met the woman with whom he’d spend the rest of his life.

“I met her almost as soon as I got to Milwaukee. It was forty-six and I couldna been here for more than a month. I went to a USO dance at the Pfister Hotel. They had these events for veterans every so often. They were social gatherings where all the beautiful young ladies might come and give us handsome gentlemen a bit of their time and attention. It was one of the few events back in the day where black and white folk could mingle. They even had a big band. Live. You better believe couples were cuttin a rug, jitterbuggin all over the dance floor.

“I hadn’t yet picked out any beauties to test my toe and get my heart a-jumpin. Then my buddy, Smitty, stopped in the middle of our conversation and raised his eyebrows. He motioned for me to turn and look at the little bit of heaven standin just behind me with a smile on her face bright as a Mississippi morning. I walked right over to her.

“‘Well, hello sunshine,’ I kinda half sung in my best Nat King Cole impersonation. If a colored girl could blush, her face woulda glowed hot as the Arizona desert.

“I reached for her hand. ‘Before you try kissing it,’ she said, pulling her hand gently away from the path to my lips, ‘why don’t you take me on the dance floor and introduce yourself properly.’

“How can a man with a heartbeat resist that? They say it only happens in fairy tales. At the first sight of her, the very first sight, I knew it was love. So I guess you could say our fairy tale started on the dance floor that very night.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday With Billie :: Strange Fruit

From Wikipedia:
"Strange Fruit" was a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. He published under the pen name Lewis Allan.[3][4]

In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, possibly after having seen Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana.


He published the poem in 1936 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol/Allan had often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself. The piece gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.[5] (Meeropol and his wife later adopted Robert and Michael, sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage and executed by the United States.)[6]

Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday. Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation, but because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing it. She made the piece a regular part of her live performances.[7]

Holiday approached her recording label, Columbia, about the song, but the company feared reaction by record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its co-owned radio network, CBS.[8] Even John Hammond, Holiday's producer, refused. She turned to friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" for him a cappella, and moved him to tears. In 1939, Gabler worked out a special arrangement with Vocalion Records to record and distribute the song.[9] Columbia allowed Holiday a one-session release from her contract in order to record it.

She recorded two major sessions at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. "Strange Fruit" was highly regarded. In time, it became Holiday's biggest-selling record. Though the song became a staple of her live performances, Holiday's accompanist Bobby Tucker recalled that Holiday would break down every time after she sang it.[citation needed]

In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday suggested that she, together with Lewis Allan, her accompanist Sonny White, and arranger Danny Mendelsohn, set the poem to music. The writers David Margolick and Hilton Als dismissed that claim in their work, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song. They wrote that hers was "an account that may set a record for most misinformation per column inch". When challenged, Holiday—whose autobiography had been ghostwritten by William Dufty—claimed, "I ain't never read that book."[10]


Barney Josephson recognized the power of the song and insisted that Holiday close all her shows with it. When she was ready to begin it, waiters stopped serving, the lights in club were turned off, and a single pin spotlight illuminated Holiday on stage. During the musical introduction, Holiday would stand with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer. Numerous other singers have performed the work. In October 1939, Samuel Grafton of The New York Post described "Strange Fruit": "If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its 'Marseillaise'."


When I stumbled upon this website, I was floored.

Searching through America's past for the last 25 years, collector James Allen uncovered an extraordinary visual legacy: photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs at lynchings throughout America. With essays by Hilton Als, Leon Litwack, Congressman John Lewis and James Allen, these photographs have been published as a book "Without Sanctuary" by Twin Palms Publishers . Features will be added to this site over time and it will evolve into an educational tool. Please be aware before entering the site that much of the material is very disturbing. We welcome your comments and input through the forum section.

Experience the images as a flash movie with narrative comments by James Allen, or as a gallery of photos which will grow to over 100 photos in coming weeks. Participate in a forum about the images, and contact us if you know of other similar postcards and photographs.
Recently a close friend of mine who grew up in Maine, who had never heard of lynching, spontaneously burst into tears when I described this horror of our nation's past over lunch. The detail that seemed to get to him most were the postcards sent around inviting people to the well-attended lynching parties.

I recommend viewing the flash movie option above. The commentary elicits chills.


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Put Your Foot In It: The Culinary Reach Of The African Diaspora

Okra from my farm in Maine.

THIS BOOK will be in my hands before month's end.

In the final chapter of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (Bloomsbury, Jan. 4), Jessica B. Harris looks at the culinary cosmos leavened by the narratives of the African diaspora. The Bryn Mawr alum, a tenured professor at Queens College who holds a Ph.D. from NYU, beckons the reader into a sacred, long-loved cookery where iron pots of gumbo and the aromas of praline and molasses speak to the centuries, continents and cultures traversed by African-Americans.

Harris, the author of 11 cookbooks, uses her latest to follow the foodways of the diaspora, from the West African vendors selling pepperpot on the streets of Philadelphia to the chuckwagon cooks in the Westward migration. Throughout, Harris traces the story of African-American chefs who found cooking as a means of expression and social mobility. Harris will read from High on the Hog at the Free Library Feb. 1.

City Paper: Why write this more historically based book instead of another cookbook?

Jessica B. Harris: I thought it was time to start the dialogue about the history of this food, and the history of its people as seen through the food. We live in a world of cookbooks — Lord knows, I've contributed 11 to that world — but this is just a deeper, perhaps more thoughtful, study of it.

CP: In High on the Hog, you go back to dishes that were popular in the 18th century, many of which we don't see in the same form anymore. Has this influenced how you cook?

JH: Actually, no. I cook the same way as always. There's food that I research and there's food that I eat every night for dinner. In some cases, I will cook traditional African-American dishes for celebrations or traditional dishes from the diaspora.

CP: Have we lost some of this traditional food in our culture?

JH: Not that much has been lost, actually. People eat okra, people eat sesame, people eat watermelon. All of these are ingredients that came from the African continent. Much of what we eat on a daily basis is food and foodstuff that comes from Africa. We just are largely unaware that they do. ... Did you have a cup of coffee this morning?

CP: Yes, several.

JH: In fact and indeed, coffee originated in the Ethiopian Highlands. That's what I mean. Most of us don't know that.

Read the rest....

I didn't know it. Learn something new everyday.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Sunday With Paul :: Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen


Paul Robeson, a great American singer and actor, spent much of his life actively agitating for equality and fair treatment for all of America's citizens as well as citizens of the world. Robeson brought to his audiences not only a melodious baritone voice and a grand presence, but magnificent performances on stage and screen. Although his outspokenness often caused him difficulties in his career and personal life, he unswervingly pursued and supported issues that only someone in his position could effect on a grand scale. His career flourished in the 1940s as he performed in America and numerous countries around the world. He was one of the most celebrated persons of his time.

Narrative Essay

Paul Leroy Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898, the fifth and last child of Maria Louisa Bustill and William Drew Robeson. During these early years the Robeson's experienced both family and financial losses. At the age of six Paul and his siblings, William, Reeve, Ben and Marian suffered the death of their mother in a household fire. This was followed a few years later with their father's loss of his Princeton pastorate. After moving first to Westfield, the family finally settled in Somerville, New Jersey, in 1909, where William Robeson was appointed pastor of St. Thomas AME Zion Church.

Enrolling in Somerville High School, one of only two blacks, Paul Robeson excelled academically while successfully competing in debate, oratorical contests, and showing great promise as a football player. He also got his first taste of acting in the title role of Shakespeare's Othello. In his senior year he not only graduated with honors, but placed first in a competitive examination for scholarships to enter Rutgers University. Although his other male siblings chose all-black colleges, Robeson took the challenge of attending Rutgers, a majority white institution in 1915.

In college between 1915 to 1919, Robeson experienced both fame and racism. In trying out for the varsity football team, where blacks were not wanted, he encountered physical brutality. In spite of this resistance, Robeson not only earned a place on the team but was named first on the roster for the All-American college team. He graduated with 15 letters in sports. Academically he was equally successful, elected a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society and the Cap and Skull Honor Society of Rutgers. Graduating in 1919 with the highest grade point average in his class, Robeson gave the class oration at the 153d Rutgers Commencement.

With college life behind him, Robeson moved to the Harlem section of New York City to attend law school, first at New York University, later transferring to Columbia University. He sang in the chorus of the musical Shuffle Along (1921) by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, and made his acting debut in 1920 playing the lead role in Simon the Cyrenian by poet Ridgely Torrence. Robeson's performance was so well received that he was congratulated not only by the Harlem YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) audience but also by members of the Provincetown Players who were in the audience. While working odd jobs and taking part in professional football to earn his college fees, Robeson met Eslanda "Essie" Cardozo Goode. The granddaughter of Francis L. Cardozo, the secretary of state of South Carolina during Reconstruction, she was a graduate of Columbia University and employed as a histological chemist. She was the first black staff person at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. The couple married on August 17, 1921, and their son Paul Jr. was born on November 2, 1927.

To support his family while studying at Columbia Law School, Robeson played professional football for the Akron Pros (1920--1921) and the Milwaukee Badgers (1921--1922), and during the summer of 1922 he went to England to appear in a production of Taboo, which was renamed Voodoo. Once graduating from Columbia in 1923, Robeson sought work in his new profession, all the while singing at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. Offered an acting role in 1923 in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings, Robeson quickly took this opportunity; he had recently quit a law firm because the secretary refused to take dictation from a black person.

Although All God's Chillun brought threats by the Ku Klux Klan because of the play's interracial subject matter and the fact that a white woman was to kiss Robeson's hand, it was an immediate success. It was followed in 1924 by his performances in a revival of The Emperor Jones, the play Rosanne, and the silent movie Body and Soul for Oscar Micheaux, an independent black film maker. In 1925 Robeson debuted in a formal concert at the Provincetown Playhouse. His performance which consisted of Negro spirituals and folk songs was so brilliant that he and his accompanist, Lawrence Brown, were offered a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. Encouraged by this success, Robeson and Brown embarked on a tour of their own, but were sorely disappointed. Even though they received good reviews, the crowds were small and they made very little money. What Robeson came to know was that his talents in acting and singing would serve as the combined focus of his career.

Acting and Singing Career

Robeson's acting career started to take off in 1928 when he accepted the role of Joe in a London production of Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. It was his singing of "Ol' Man River" that received the most acclaim regarding the show and earned him a great degree of attention from British socialites. Robeson gave concerts in London at Albert Hall and Sunday afternoon concerts at Drury Lane. In spite of all this attention, Robeson still had to deal with racism. In 1929 he was refused admission to a London hotel. Because of the protest raised by Robeson, major hotels in London said they would no longer refuse service to blacks.

Much attention was given to Robeson's acting and singing and he was embraced by the media. The New Yorker magazine in an article by Mildred Gilman referred to Robeson as "the promise of his race," "King of Harlem," and "Idol of his people." Robeson returned briefly to America in 1929 to perform at a packed Carnegie Hall. In May of 1930, after establishing a permanent residence in England, Robeson accepted the lead role in Shakespeare's Othello. This London production at the Savoy Theatre was the first time since the performance of the great black actor Ira Aldridge in 1860 that a major production company cast a black man in the part of the Moor. Robeson was a tall, strikingly handsome man with a deep, rich, baritone voice and a shy, almost boyish manner. The audience was so mesmerized by his performance in Othello that the production had 20 curtain calls.

Accolades for outstanding acting and singing performances were prevalent during the 1930s in Robeson's career, but his personal and home life were surrounded by difficulties. His wife Eslanda "Essie," who had published a book on Robeson, Paul Robeson, Negro (1930), sued for divorce in 1932. Her actions were encouraged by the fact that Robeson had fallen in love and planned to marry Yolande Jackson, a white Englishwoman. Jackson, whom Robeson called the love of his life, had originally accepted his proposal but later called the marriage off. It was thought by some who knew the Jackson family well that she was strongly influenced by her father, Tiger Jackson, who was less than tolerant of Robeson and people of color in general. With his marriage plans cancelled, Robeson and his wife came to an understanding regarding their relationship, and the divorce proceedings were cancelled.


Robeson returned to New York briefly in 1933 to star in the film version of Emperor Jones before turning his attention to the study of singing and languages. His stay in the United States was a short one due to his treatment by the racist American film industries and because of criticism by blacks regarding his role as a corrupt emperor. Upon returning to England, Robeson eagerly immersed himself in his studies and mastered several languages. Robeson along with Essie became an honorary members of the West African Students' Union, becoming acquainted with African students Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, future presidents of Ghana and Kenya, respectively. It is also during this time that Robeson played at a benefit for Jewish refugees which marked the beginning of his political awareness and activism.

Robeson's inclination to aid the less fortunate and the oppressed in their fight for freedom and equality was firmly rooted in his own family history. His father William Drew Robeson was an escaped slave who eventually graduated from Lincoln College in 1878, and his maternal grandfather, Cyrus Bustill, was a slave who was freed by his second owner in 1769 and went on to become an active member of the African Free Society. Recognizing the heritage that brought him so many opportunities, Robeson, between 1934 and 1937 performed in several films that presented blacks in other than stereotypical ways. He acted in such films as Sanders of the River (1935), King Solomon's Mines (1937) and Song of Freedom (1937).

On a trip to the Soviet Union in 1934 to discuss the making of the film Black Majesty, Robeson not only had discussions with the Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein during his trip but was so impressed regarding the education against racism for schoolchildren that he began to study Marxism and Socialist systems in the Soviet Union. He also decided to send his son, nine-year-old Paul Jr., to school in the Soviet Union so that he would not have to contend with the racism and discrimination Robeson confronted in both Europe and America.

Robeson continued acting in films confronting stereotypes of blacks while receiving rave reviews for his success in singing "Ol' Man River" in the 1936 film production of Show Boat. He also embarked on a more active role in fighting the injustices he found throughout the world. Robeson co-founded the Council on African Affairs to aid in African liberation, sang and spoke at benefit concerts for Basque refugees, supported the Spanish Republican cause, and sang at rallies to support a democratic Spain along with numerous other causes. At a benefit in Albert Hall in London, Robeson is quoted in Philip Foner's Paul Robeson Speaks as saying "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." This statement echoed a clear and focused direction of Robeson's personal and professional life.

In 1939 Robeson stated his intentions to retire from commercial entertainment and returned to America. He gave his first recital in the United States at Mother AME Zion Church Harlem where his brother Benjamin was pastor. Later on in the same year Robeson premiered the patriotic song "Ballad for Americans" on CBS radio as a preview of a play by the same name. The song was so well received that studio audiences cheered for 20 minutes after the performance while the listening audience exceeded the response even for Orson Welles's famous Martian scare program. Robeson's popularity in the United states soared and he remained the most celebrated person in the country well into the 1940s. He was awarded the esteemed NAACP Spingarn Medal (1945) as well as numerous other awards and recognitions from civic and professional groups. In the American production of Othello (1943), Robeson's performance placed him among the ranks of great Shakespearean actors. The production ran for 296 performances--over ten months--and toured both the United States and Canada.

Robeson's political commitments became foremost in his life as he championed causes from South African famine relief to support of an anti-lynching law; in September 1946 he was among the delegation that spoke with President Harry S Truman about anti-lynching legislation. The meeting was a stormy one as Robeson adamantly urged Truman to act, all the while defending the Soviet Union and denouncing United States' allies. In October of the same year when called before the California Legislative Committee on Un-American activities, Robeson declared himself not a member of the Communist Party but praised their fight for equality and democracy. This attempt at branding him as un-American was successful in causing many to distrust his political commitments. Regardless of these events, Robeson decided to retire from concert work and devote himself to gatherings that promoted the causes to which he had dedicated himself.

In 1949 Robeson embarked on a European tour and in doing so spoke out against the discrimination and injustices that blacks in American had to confront. His statements were distorted as they were dispatched back to the United States. Although Robeson got mixed responses from the black community, the backlash from whites culminated in riot before a scheduled concert in Peekskill, New York, on August 27, 1949; a demonstration by veteran organizations turned into a full-blown riot. Robeson was advised of this and returned to New York. He did agree to do a second concert on September 4 in Peekskill for the people who truly wanted to hear him. The concert did take place but afterwards a riot broke out which lasted into the night leaving over 140 persons seriously injured. With such violence surrounding Robeson's concerts, many groups and sponsors no longer supported him.

By 1950 Robeson had received by so much negative press that he made plans for a European tour. His plans were abruptly halted because the United States government refused to allow him to travel unless he agreed not to make any speeches. With no passport and denied his freedom of speech abroad, Robeson continued to speak out in public forums and through his own monthly newspaper, Freedom. Barred from all other forms of media, his own newspaper became his primary platform from 1950 to 1955. His remaining supporters encompassed the National Negro Labor Council, Council on African Affairs, and the Civil Rights Congress. The NAACP openly attacked Robeson while other black organization shunned him in fear of reprisals. Undaunted by these negative responses, Robeson traveled the United States encouraging groups to fight for their rights and for equal treatment. Even though he suffered from health as well as financial difficulties, Robeson held firm to his convictions and published in 1958 his autobiography Here I Stand through a London publishing house.

On May 10, 1958, Robeson gave his first New York concert in ten years to a packed Carnegie Hall. When the concert was over, he informed the audience that the passport battle had been won. From 1958 to 1963 Robeson traveled to England, the Soviet Union, Austria, and New Zealand. He was showered with awards and played to packed houses throughout his travels. After being hospitalized several times throughout his trip due to a disease of the circulatory system, Robeson returned to the United States. Much had changed since the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and school integration were in full enactment. Robeson was welcomed on his return by Freedomways, a quarterly review which saw him as a powerful fighter for freedom. A salute to Robeson was given in 1965 which was chaired by actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee along with writer James Baldwin and many other admirers.

Eslanda "Essie" Robeson died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 68 and Robeson went to live with his sister Marian in Philadelphia. He remained in seclusion until he died there on January 23, 1976; on his 75th birthday four days later a "Salute to Paul Robeson" was held in Carnegie Hall. Paul Leroy Robeson's funeral was held at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem before a crowd of 5,000.

On February 24, 1998, Robeson received a posthumous Grammy lifetime achievement award. His honors are numerous, as Robeson's life is being depicted through exhibits, film festivals, and lectures. Upon the centennial of his birth on April 9, 1998, at least 25 U.S. states and several countries worldwide hosted celebrations of his life and work in every conceivable manner.

Paul Robeson was truly a man who saw a commitment to the oppressed, and particularly black people, as a much more profound calling than the accolades he received for his astonishing talents. His extraordinary voice and engaging acting abilities would have undoubtedly brought him more fame, fortune, and approval than the activist role he pursed instead. It is because of this clear vision of justice that he is remembered as a great American and a great citizen of the world.


Duberman, Martin B. Paul Robeson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
Foner, Philip S. Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews 1918--1974. New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers, 1978.
Jackson, Kenneth T., and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. Supplement Ten, 1976--1980. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995.
"Robeson Receives Posthumous Grammy." New York Times, February 25, 1998.
Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Williams, Michael W., ed. The African American Encyclopedia. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1993.


Paul Robeson's papers are in the Robeson Family Archives, Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington D.C.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Free African Americans In The Colonial Era

Free African Americans in the Colonial Era

When Crispus Attucks earned his unfortunate claim to fame as a victim in the Boston Massacre, he was not a slave. He was one of the relatively few African Americans to achieve freedom in colonial America. Although freedom is clearly desirable in comparison to a life in chains, free African Americans were unfortunately rarely treated with the same respect of their white counterparts.

There were several ways African Americans could achieve their freedom. Indentured servants could fulfill the terms of their contracts like those brought to Jamestown in 1619. In the early days, when property ownership was permitted, skilled slaves could earn enough money to purchase their freedom. Crispus Attucks and many others achieved liberty the hard way — through a daring escape. It only stands to reason that when faced with a perpetual sentence of bondage many slaves would take the opportunity to free themselves, despite the great risks involved.

Another way of becoming free was called manumission — the voluntary freeing of a slave by the master. Masters did occasionally free their own slaves. Perhaps it was a reward for good deeds or hard work. At times it was the work of a guilty conscience as masters sometimes freed their slaves in their wills. Children spawned by slaves and masters were more likely to receive this treatment. These acts of kindness were not completely unseen in colonial America, but they were rare. In the spirit of the Revolution, manumission did increase, but its application was not epidemic.

Free African Americans were likely to live in urban centers. The chance for developing ties to others that were free plus greater economic opportunities made town living sensible. Unfortunately, this “freedom” was rather limited. Free African Americans were rarely accepted into white society. Some states applied their slave codes to free African Americans as well. Perhaps the most horrifying prospect was kidnapping. Slave catchers would sometimes abduct free African Americans and force them back into slavery. In a society that does not permit black testimony against whites, there was very little that could be done to stop this wretched practice.

Benjamin Banneker (November 9, 1731 – October 9, 1806) was a free African American astronomer, mathematician, surveyor, almanac author and farmer.


Thursday, February 03, 2011

Quote For The Day

"MEN GO abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering."

--Saint Augustine

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Negroes For Sale

The Victims of the Slave Trade:

During the century of the domestic trade, roughly equal numbers of males and females were sold away. The exception was the Louisiana sugar plantations, whose population made up some 6 percent of the nation’s enslaved. Importation to New Orleans, where many sugar planters bought their enslaved workers, was about 58 percent male, and traders sent very few young children to that market. The exhausting labor in the cane fields took an exceptionally heavy toll on the laborers’ health, and the demands of the sugar planters meant that the southern Louisiana market tended to import particularly strong workers.

The shortage of women in their childbearing years due to the gender imbalance in purchasing practice made the region unique in North America for having a marked excess of slave deaths over births.

Speculators preferred to purchase what they termed “young and likely Negroes” – mainly teenagers and young adults. They wanted men with the immediate ability to perform hard labor and the potential for a long work career. The merchants also looked for young women with many years of childbearing ahead of them.

Only about 5 percent of the males and 6 percent of the females sold were over thirty. Documentary evidence shows that with the exception of Louisiana, males between ten and twenty-nine years old comprised 72 percent of the trade but only 43 percent of the United States’ total enslaved population. Children under ten made up about 18 percent of the trade and most, especially the under-eights, were sold together with their mothers.

To be “sold down the river” was one of the most dreaded prospects of the enslaved population. Some destinations, particularly the Louisiana sugar plantations, had especially grim reputations. But it was the destruction of family that made the domestic slave trade so terrifying. Francis Fedric, who was born in Virginia and sold away in Kentucky, recalled the scene:

“Men and women down on their knees begging to be purchased to go with their wives or husbands, … children crying and imploring not to have their parents sent away from them; but all their beseeching and tears were of no avail. They were ruthlessly separated, most of them for ever.”


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Black History Month begins today. I'm quoting the following from here.

So, let’s begin with our beginning in this country – the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Over the course of more than three and a half centuries, the forcible transportation in bondage of at least twelve million men, women, and children from their African homelands to the Americas changed forever the face and character of the modern world. The slave trade was brutal and horrific, and the enslavement of Africans was cruel, exploitative, and dehumanizing. Together, they represent one of the longest and most sustained assaults on the very life, integrity, and dignity of human beings in history.

In the Americas, besides the considerable riches their free labor created for others, the importation and subsequent enslavement of the Africans would be the major factor in the resettlement of the continents following the disastrous decline in their indigenous population. Between 1492 and 1776, an estimated 6.5 million people migrated to and settled in the Western Hemisphere. More than five out of six were Africans. Although victimized and exploited, they created a new, largely African, Creole society and their forced migration resulted in the emergence of the so-called Black Atlantic.

The transatlantic slave trade laid the foundation for modern capitalism, generating immense wealth for business enterprises in America and Europe. The trade contributed to the industrialization of northwestern Europe and created a single Atlantic world that included western Europe, western Africa, the Caribbean islands, and the mainlands of North and South America.