Archive for the African American Interest Category

Tonight: A Black Lives Matter Burlesque Fundraiser

Posted in African American Interest, British Music Hall, BROOKLYN, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , on February 20, 2017 by travsd

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Stars of Vaudeville #1030: Aida Overton Walker

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Dance, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Aida Overton Walker (1880-1914). singer, dancer, actor, choreographer, comedienne and “Queen of the Cakewalk”.

Born Ada Overton (she later embellished the spelling for professional reasons) in Greenwich Village, Overton was the daughter of a waiter and a seamstress. Her dancing talent was so evident from a young age that her parents provided her with formal training. She was only 15 when she joined John Isham’s Octoroons, an all-black minstrel show in 1895. In 1896-97 she was a member of the legendary Black Patti’s Troubadours.  In 1898, the comely chorine answered a call to model for an advertisement for Walker and Williams vaudeville revue at Koster and Bial’s. This led to her joining the show in the chorus, which then led to her being a featured performer with her partner Grace Halliday. Overton and Halliday performed as the Honolulu Belles in the first of the Walker and Williams musicals The Policy Players (1899).

That year, she also married George Walker and attained star status in the company, essentially becoming a third partner in the most celebrated African American act of the era. Overton was to choreograph all the Walker and Williams shows, as well as Cole and Johnson’s 1911 show Red Moon. The  Walkers became the most celebrated cakewalking couple in the country. Overton was to gain inroads into white society by teaching the dance at private functions. Meanwhile, she was in the process of becoming the top female African American stage performer of her day. In The Sons of Ham (1900) she made a hit with “Miss Hannah from Savanna”.  In Dahomey (1902) was the show that turned the decades-old cakewalk into a dance craze with whites as well; it toured as far as London, where the company gave a Command Performance for King Edward VII. Next came Abyssinia (1905) and Bandanna Land (1907). The latter show featured Overton’s tasteful, refined take on the Salome dance craze then sweeping the nation.

As Salome

As Salome

In 1909 George Walker collapsed while they were still performing Bandanna Land, incapacitated by late-stage syphilis. Overton took over his role in the show in addition to her own, an indication of the scope of her talents. Walker passed away in 1911,but Overton remained in the limelight. She appeared in and choreographed Cole and Johnson’s Red Moon (1909), co-starred with J.S. Dudley in the Smart Set Company’s production of His Honor the Barber (1910). And she toured Big Time Vaudeville. In 1912 she performed her Salome dance at the Victoria Theatre. The following she returned at the head of an entire troupe. She also donated her time organizing benefit shows charities.

When she died suddenly and mysteriously of kidney failure in 1914 it was mourned as a great loss throughout the African American community. She was only 34. Bert Williams would pass away only 8 years later.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Birth of a Movement

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, Silent Film, Television with tags , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the Los Angeles premiere of D.W. Griffith’s landmark film The Birth of a Nation (1914), which like America itself, is epic in scale, unprecedented, innovative — and troubled by a perverse, pathological racism. As it is so emblematic, I return to the subject of this film periodically, as in these previous posts:

On the Complicated Legacy of The Birth of of a Nation 

The Premiere of a 101 year Old Bert Williams Feature

Embargo on Griffith 

The Dark Side of the Jazz Age 

Today there is something new to add to the dialogue. This past Monday, the PBS show Independent Lens premiered the new documentary Birth of a Movement, the story of how William Monroe Trotter, editor of an African American newspaper in Boston, helped launch a nationwide movement to get the film banned. It’s a perfect topic to talk about at the moment. Just as in Griffith’s time, when his film inspired a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, the repercussions of hateful and irresponsible speech are all around us — including, unthinkably, a President who is endorsed by the Klan. Sometimes history not only repeats itself, it gets worse. That’s why it’s a good idea to study it. The film is streaming online at the PBS web site through March 8. Watch it here. 

Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals

Posted in African American Interest, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Child Stars, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by travsd

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I hoped to love Julia Lee’s Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals (2015) because the subject is right up my alley: the social and cultural impact of a classic American film comedy series. But for an academic book I found it curiously half-baked, possessing at once too much and too little of several key aspects of the story it wants to tell.

As is well known, Hal Roach’s Our Gang series of comedy shorts was groundbreaking in its integration of African American actors into its all-kid casts. Since the series ran for 20 years, the kids were periodically replaced as they aged out. Over the life of the series there were four key African American kids in the series, each taking his turn as the star, almost like a relay race. The first two, Sunshine Sammy and Farina were the undisputed stars of the series during their stints. The second two, Stymie and Buckwheat, were among the most popular and best known in the films, but appeared during the years when Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla held center stage. The tag team element suggests a structure in four sections, each focusing on each of the young actors. It’s latently there; Lee’s own book suggests it. The strongest element in the book is the biographical material on these four child actors.

The problem is that in her attempts to broaden the scope of the book and make it more ambitious, Lee doesn’t go nearly far enough. There is some commendable background on blackface minstrelsy and stereotypical stock characters like the pickaninny and zip coon, but not nearly enough to justify the title of the book. There was at least a century of backstory leading up to Sunshine Sammy’s screen debut; it didn’t happen in a minute. Likewise, the author’s familiarity with the films themselves strikes me as superficial, or at least there is scant evidence of any deep engagement with the films in the writing here. There is some description of a very few films, but surprisingly little and without much insight. In that respect, this is not a book I would recommend to film or comedy buffs, most of whom will be light years ahead of the author in terms of their familiarity with the material. Also, there is virtually nothing about what was happening in OTHER films of the same period. Other child stars, other African American stars, other comedy stars. She reveals a lack of breadth in her familiarity with the scope of her subject when she trots out The Jazz Singer for the millionth time, as though that were some sort of key blackface movie, when its only landmark aspect was sound. I find an emphasis on that movie in this context dilettantish. Blackface was ubiquitous in 1927. And what was happening on stage at the time? In comic strips? It’s necessary to compare and contrast all this material for any kind of true picture to emerge and it’s just not here. Some of the backstage interactions she quotes from primary source material are clearly studio press release fluff, to be regarded with a grain of salt at best, but the author communicates little awareness of this. And while it is appropriate for the other (white) actors in the series to be backgrounded in this book, perhaps not as much as has been done here, as one gets no sense of their personalities, or how the white kids and black kids compared in terms of screen time, and so forth.

Lee’s book does give a nice sense of the inherent contradiction of the racial aspects of Our Gang. It broke much new ground, by having an integrated cast, by humanizing its African American actors…even while it perpetuated muted iterations of traditional stereotypes now distasteful to us. During the TV era, Lee tells us, whites in the South protested the broadcast of the films because they were too sympathetic to blacks, then a few years later groups like the NAACP protested the showings because of the stereotypes! Ya can’t win for losing. But from the perspective of 2017 they make wonderful teaching tools, and charming ones too. So from that angle, I’d recommend Lee’s book, especially to young people and newbies. Its heart is in the right place even if it needs a lot more elbow grease to transform it into the book the subject deserves.

 

A Series of Posts for Black History Month

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , on February 1, 2017 by travsd

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February is Black History Month.

This year it arrives at a time of deep sadness. The Black Lives Matter movement was picking up momentum last year, but with the election of X%$FR#@ to the Presidency, as always seems to happen, that movement has been overtaken by a tsunami of “greater priorities”, becoming just one of a seeming thousand fronts people of conscience need to do battle on. Justice for the black community ought to remain a priority even as injustice for all becomes the general law.

I have done close to 450 posts on subjects relating to African Americans, beginning with profiles on scores of black vaudeville performers, jazz and blues musicians, the problematic issue of blackface minstrelsy, numerous black writers and more. Over the last couple of years, I have done an increasing number of pieces on race relations and pieces on African American history, spurred on by revelations by my own family’s past…and present. I have black nieces and nephews; they deserve every opportunity and advantage I’ve had, and frankly more.

The African American Interest section of Travalanche is here.  Also, there is a search function in the right hand section of this blog; enter keywords like names or “black” + “vaudeville” to narrow in on specific subjects. And below are some links to past posts I thought might be of special interest today. We’ll be adding several new pieces as the month goes on:

In Which I Learn My Family is Not Unsullied by America’s Original Sin 

A Post Touching on Indentured Servitude, Slavery & Labor

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Juneteenth Message (on the Stars and Bars) 

Slavery and Racism in the North 

The Civil War Never Ended 

Black Vaudeville

A Bert Williams Feature

More on the Import of the Bert Williams Feature 

Zora Neal Hurston 

Reviving the Genius of Zora Neal Hurston 

Let America Be America Again

A Gallery of Great Blues Artists

The Meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King 

Amiri Baraka

The Black Panthers 

Richard Pryor

Crash Course in August Wilson 

Daughters of the Dust 

A Black Lives Matter Protest

Godspeed, Obama 

Let America Be America Again

Posted in African American Interest, AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, BROOKLYN, CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests with tags , , , on January 21, 2017 by travsd

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Travalanche was dark yesterday in observance of the National Tragedy. Rather than rubberneck at the slow motion car wreck in Washington we opted to go to our nearby Brooklyn Museum, where they were holding a marathon reading of Langston Hughes  1935 poem “Let America Be America Again”. It was moving and illuminating to hear it read by people of different ages, races, ethnicities, genders, etc. It was the perfect message to be taking in, a message of working toward the promise of America instead of doubling down on the worst of her lapses and trespasses.

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Godspeed, Obama

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , on January 19, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the last day in office of the best President I will probably ever see in my lifetime — certainly the finest man to serve as President.

The Right has a weird tendency to speak disparagingly of Obama’s inspirational rhetoric as if that were somehow nothing, as though trying to connect profoundly disconnected people back to whatever meaning still remains in what has become a cold, materialistic, violent nation was some kind of fool’s errand. But a leader needs to get people on board before he can take them anywhere. Obama tried very hard to do that. He tried to include people. He had no shady agenda of  trying to enrich his cronies like, well, just about every other President of my lifetime. It’s hard for me to think of the Bushes, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, or Johnson without sense memories of corruption; the Oval Office as pig sty. Like the archetype of the Holy Fool, like the Quixotic hero in a Frank Capra movie, Obama just tried to do the job, tried to make people’s lives better, and for that he was vilified, slandered, blocked and thwarted at every turn. At times, that was actually his opponents’ only agenda — they literally said so. They literally had nothing better to do than stop him from succeeding, even if his efforts would have helped the country.

I’ve often wished Obama were a good deal nastier, less a gentleman, so he could put these petty, beady-eyed pink weasels in their place. Even now, he’s doing more to be civil than a good many of us would do. Would you have a decent word for this oozing cyst whom America’s troglodytes have selected as his successor? Shake Trump’s hand? Give him advice? Attend his inauguration? Be diplomatic when referring to his dangerous inadequacies? After he waged an entire campaign to cast doubt on your American citizenship? And promises not only to undo everything you just did, but everything EVERY President EVER did? I sure as hell wouldn’t. I’d change all the passwords, glue all the desk drawers shut, saw the legs on all the chairs, then move two blocks away from the White House and start a Think Tank called BREAK TRUMP INTO LITTLE PIECES, with a neon sign out front blinking that name. But if Obama acted that way, he wouldn’t be the man we admire. In the age of going low, as the First Lady put it, the Obamas believe in going high.

The only thing that makes me happy about the fact that this is last day is that, in my hero worship, I’ve always seen him as a kind of love child of Lincoln, King and Kennedy, and that particular combination has always made me constantly fear for his safety, lest someone who hates him and those three martyred leaders see the same thing. I pray for him all the time, and I’ll still do it after he leaves office. Because, for a people that goes around spouting noble words on patriotic holidays, there’s an awful lot of dark hatred in this land. To such an extent that on the rare occasion when someone of real character makes it to the highest office in the land, his skin color makes people go berzerk. Something tells me that very shortly some of the very people who rejected him will be fervently wishing for his return.

For more thoughts on the outgoing President, and all of his predecessors, go here.

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