Looking Back and Looking Forward

This last post for 2015 looks back 273 years to the birth of Francis Barber and forward to the hope that children always bring.

Francis Barber by Joshua Reynolds
The 16 July, 2015 issue of the London Review of Books contained a book review of a biography of Francis Barber. Barber (1742-1801) was born into slavery in Jamaica and ended his life in London, a servant and an heir to Samuel Johnson, the famed man of letters. Barber was granted his freedom and a legacy in 1755 by Colonel Richard Bathurst, who brought him to England, before he went into service to Johnson at age ten. Dr. Johnson saw to his education, referred to him with warmth and tenderness. During his tenure in the Johnson household, Barber was remarked upon by members of Johnson's illustrious social circle.

The importance of books, especially ones focusing on positive role models for children, has long been championed by educators, librarians, and social equity activists. Walter Dean Meyers (1937-2014) was a prolific African American author who was one of the first people to write books featuring Black children and young adults, especially Black boys, living ordinary lives.
Walter Dean Meyers
He was the recipient of numerous awards, including ones from the American Library Association and the Coretta Scott King Award for African American Authors. He was the National Ambassador for Children's Literature 2012 and 2013.

In February of 2015, the website Buzzfeed put out a list of 26 children's books which celebrate the accomplishments of Blacks in a variety of occupations. There are many resources available to parents and educators from both libraries and special interest sites. A new year's resolution to bring a positive outlook into the lives of Black children is surely a good thing.


The Arts: The Gifts that Keep on Giving

Noah Purifoy 1966 LA Times photo
"I do not wish to be an artist. I wish only that art enables me to be" Noah Purifoy, 1963 (the Noah Purifoy Foundation).

Mr. Purifoy's statement, his philosophy and guiding principle, is an accurate description of what art does for all of us, whether we are the creators, the consumers, or the sellers of art. Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) created installations and art works from found materials and objects. His work was exhibited in galleries and museums around the country. But, perhaps his greatest legacy, is his outdoor museum in Joshua Tree, California. Purifoy's creations are political and social commentaries on his times. Walking through the outdoor museum is an exercise in confronting uncomfortable truths; questions linger and resurface long after departing the site

Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015) was a painter and printmaker who got
his start with support from the WPA (Works Progress Administration. For this project, he was asked to paint black life in the South Side of Chicago.
Eldzier Cortor
Cortor is best known for his paintings of black women who he felt "....represents the Black race, the continuance of life". He traveled to the Sea Islands of Georgia, painting the lives of Gullah people. With a Guggenheim Fellowship, he toured the Caribbean bringing back ideas about the extent of African influence among many cultures, including the USA. Mr. Cortor's work has been shown in major museums around the country and is much sought after by collectors.

The New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, wrote an opinion piece on November 25, 2015 on the gift and importance of reading. Reading allows the reader to explore, to be exposed to new ideas, to gain insight into the known and unknown worlds. A genre of the book world not often given exposure to the general reader is African American 'street lit'. A recent review in the Financial Times of London, featured the authors K'wan Foye and Ashley and JaQuavis Coleman. These writers create stories about the people, lives, and neighborhoods they grew up in, complete with the problems, issues, and unpleasantness faced by those stuck in the projects. The roots of current street lit go back to Chester Himes, Donald Goines, and Iceberg Slim, (all contemporaries of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler) writing detective, gritty fiction.

Gifts that can be shared, revisited, talked about, that expand horizons, are welcome any day of the year.


Fleeting Glimpses

Looking for evidence of Africans in the wider world is often a serendipitous experience. I was recently traveling for 18 days in Iran. While there have been articles and videos documenting Afro-Iranians and I have mentioned them in this blog before, I was not specifically on the lookout for these people as I was traveling in different areas. I did not expect to find evidence of African notables paying tribute to Darius the Great (550-486 BCE) in Persepolis! The Apadana, a main hall of the kings, is accessed by two monumental staircases. These are carved with figures of the delegates of the 23 nations paying tribute Darius, their ruler. The stairs are carved in black limestone. At the far left side are the delegates from Africa, as shown here:

Africans paying tribute to Darius the Great at Persepolis

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo 1701-1773
The British historian, Simon Schama, has a new book and BBC series out called The Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits. One of the portraits he features, currently on exhibit at London's National Portrait Gallery, is described as the first portrait of an African in Britain. The key word here is 'portrait': there were depictions of Africans in Britain (see the blog post Early Black British on 9/6/13) earlier than this. The portrait is of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an aristocrat who was enslaved by Mandingoes and who ended up in Maryland.  With assistance from numerous people who learned of his plight, he eventually made his way to Britain and then back to his homeland in what is now Senegal. His story is awe-inspiring and most unusual for its time. For more information about a smaller version of this portrait and its current status, see this article here.

This portrait was painted by William Hoare of Bath, England in 1733, a year before Diallo returned to Senegal.


Reflections on Heroes During these Dog Days of August

There is no shortage of people who, during both ordinary and extraordinary times, are heroes to be celebrated because of their quiet courage, determination, and perseverance in the face of racism and obstructionism. Three of these heroes have just recently passed away. They fought and achieved and rose to prominence on the shoulders of those who came before and have become supports for those coming behind them. The three featured today are Amelia Boynton Robinson (August 18,1911 - August 26,2015), Frank E. Petersen Jr. (March 2,1932 - August 25,2015), and Augusta Chiwy (June 6,1920 - August 23,2015).

ABR crossing the Pettus Bridge with Pres. Obama, March 2015
Amelia Boynton Robinson (ABR) was a leading civil rights activist. She was a teacher in Georgia, a demonstrator/instructor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in rural Alabama, and, later in life, a controversial member of the Lyndon LaRouche Schiller Institute. She received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Medal in 1990 for her work in advocating for voting rights. Amelia Boynton Robinson was a character in the 2014 movie Selma.

General Frank E. Petersen, Jr.
General Frank E. Petersen, Jr. was the first black aviator and the first black general in the Marine Corps. General Petersen flew 64 combat missions in the Korean War and 300 missions in the Vietnam War and earned twenty medals for bravery, including the Distinguished Service Medal. He combated racism and obstacles place in his path with valor and never stopped fighting to prove the worthiness of African Americans in the services. His many "firsts" can be learned about in the links above attached to his name. He remained active after retirement as an adviser and educator at the Tuskegee Airmen headquarters and the National Aviation Research and Education Foundation.

Augusta Chiwy 2011 honored for her service to Americans in WWII
 Augusta Chiwy was a nurse in Belgium, the daughter of a Congolese mother and Belgian father and was born in what is now Burundi. She saved hundreds of American soldiers wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. At the time, black nurses were not allowed to treat white soldiers, but a U.S. Army doctor overrode regulations inorder to enlist her much needed help. She was a character in the book and movie Band of Brothers.
Susie Baker King Taylor

Black nurses, especially those in the armed forces, have had to fight for their right to serve with dignity. Susan (Susie) Baker King Taylor  (1848-1912) is considered the first black nurse to serve in the military. (The first black graduate nurse was Mary Eliza Mahoney, 1845-1926). She was born enslaved in Georgia and claimed her freedom in 1862 after Fort Pulaski fell to the Union Army. Her first husband, Edward King, was a black non-commissioned officer in the Union Army. She served with her husband in the First South Carolina Volunteers, 33rd Regiment for the next three years. After the war, she established a school for freed black children. Her husband died shortly thereafter. She moved to Boston, remarried, and became president of the Women's Relief Corps, which gave assistance to soldiers and hospitals.

For further reading and more general information about the history of black women in the military, click here. For more information about black nurses in the Army Nurse Corps, click here


July: a Month of Milestones

July has been a banner month (so far!) for accolades and entries into the history books. We begin by tooting our own horn:! The National Education Association (NEA) has a 150 year history of advocating for the educational rights of all children and particularly Black children. Each year, at the annual Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner, the organization recognizes outstanding contributions made by educators. There are various awards named in honor of those whose efforts and achievements have been guiding lights. One of the awards is the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Award. The historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson was a pioneer in establishing the study of African American history as a rigorous discipline within departments of History at American universities. This year, the recipient of this prestigious award was Dr. Quintard Taylor Jr, the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of American History at the University of Washington, in honor of his founding of the website, to which this blog is attached. Congratulations! A video of Dr. Taylor's speech can be found here.

Claudia Alexander 1959-2015
Claudia Alexander passed away this month. She was a brilliant, pioneering planetary scientist who worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. She supervised the Galileo mission to Jupiter and "managed the United States' role in the international comet-chasing Rosetta project". She conducted landmark research on the evolution and interior physics of comets, Jupiter and its moons, solar wind, and numerous other topics.

Renee Powell is one of only seven women, and the only Black woman, to be inducted this past week into the membership of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland, the home of golf.
Renee Powell b.1946
After Althea Gibson (professional tennis player and golfer), Powell is the second Black woman to play on the LPGA tour. Powell's start in golf was the result of her father Bill Powell's pioneering efforts in building Clearview Golf Club, in East Canton, Ohio to give African Americans access to golf. He began by acquiring enough land to build a nine-hole golf course and finally a full 18-hole course. Today, Powell runs the Club.

Finally, while not July milestones, two milestones in the golfing sector passed away this year. Charlie Sifford and Calvin Peete. Mr. Sifford was the first African American golfer to play on the PGA tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004. Mr. Peete won more PGA tours than any other African American at the end of the 20th century.


Exploration and Travel

James Beckwourth
Little is known about exploration by people from Africa to other parts of the world, whether on and off the continent. If "African Explorers" is Googled, up comes information about European and Arab explorers to and in Africa. If "Black Explorers" is Googled, up comes information about five Black explorers: Esteban Dorantes also known as Estevanico (c1500-1539) (there is an excellent new work of fiction from his point of view, The Moors Account by Laila Lalami) ; Jean-Baptiste-Point DuSable (1745-1818); James Pierson Beckwourth (1805-1866); Matthew Henson (1866-1955); and Mae C. Jemison (1955-). These five people were/are explorers of water, land, cultures, and space. The common characteristic they share is a curiosity about the world around them and the desire to seek, to see what is out there, to explore.

There has been the implicit assumption that, in general, Africans didn't leave the continent unless on a slave ship. There was, however, considerable exploration, migration, and movement undertaken by Africans for a variety of reasons, the main ones being trade, famine and climate change, and war. There is a plethora of  theories about Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact with people in South America made by Polynesians, Chinese, Japanese, Arabs, Medieval Europeans,Welsh, and one that explorers from Africa also reached there. Africans were in the Roman Armies in Britain as generals and emperors; they were in Medieval and Renaissance Europe; they were present in many far-flung places and times.

There are suggestions each year made in these posts on how to organize ideas and get inspiration for travel: Thinking of Travel: Armchair and Otherwise (via books); Armchair Travel 2013 (via music); Thinking of Travel 2014: World War I (via visiting war memorials). Exploring museums, art museums and galleries, National Parks, libraries, theatres, concert halls are all terrific entries into new worlds.


Black Communities in Surprising Places

The Middle East is home to a variety of ethnic, religious, cultural, and ex-pat communities. Prior to the drawing of national boundaries in the early twentieth century with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, major cities (Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Tehran, Beirut, etc) were the political and cultural centers. Smaller cities and communities were built around tribal, clan, religious sects and based on trade, farming, and other economic activities.

There have always been relations between the Middle East and countries in north and sub-Saharan Africa, through the trade of goods and slaves and the spread of Islam into Africa. However, little has be written about the establishment of communities that evolved into Iraqi Blacks, Afro-Iranians, or Afro-Jordanians. Some of these communities go back to the seventh century when people were brought in as slaves. Slavery was finally outlawed in the region by the 1920's, although many claim it went on until the 1950's.

Jalal Dhiyab Thijeel, assassinated 2013
The largest and best known black community is that in Basra, Iraq. There are roughly 1.5 million black Iraqis. While they have been able to own property, there has been discrimination in all other aspects of life. Black Iraqis rarely marry outside their community and if a white Iraqi woman marries a black Iraqi man, her family usually makes life very difficult for her. There have been no black elected officials. It had been hoped that the fall of Saddam Hussein would lead to increasing visibility for these people: life under Saddam had been very difficult. African American members of the military were very surprised to come across black Iraqis when they arrived in Basra! Explore the links in this post to learn about this community and its attempts to gain political, social, and economic parity.


Science Fiction

Science fiction is an important component of fiction. Often dismissed as not 'serious' or 'literary', nothing could be further from the truth. Within the discipline, there are various sub-genres: highly technical/scientific, fantasy, speculative, and combinations of them. One of the most important aspects of science fiction is the ability of authors to address and deal with current problems in a futuristic or speculative context, allowing for social criticism, creative problem-solving, and clinical dissection of  issues in a way that allows the reader to think about and look at them in a new light. There is a rich science fiction tradition among African American and African writers, including societies, online forums, reading lists and suggestions on Goodreads, magazines devoted to female black writers and female black science fiction writers.

Samuel R. Delany b.1942
Two of the African American "founding stars" of science fiction are Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. While Mr. Delany accepts the accolades, he points out in his essay Racism and Science Fiction, that there were a number of black writers in the "proto-science fiction" movement going back to the mid-1800's (a list of these individuals can be found in his essay at the link above). Mr. Delany has won four Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards in his writing career and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, located in Seattle, in 2002.

 Octavia Butler was the recipient of two Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards, and a MacArthur Genius Award. She was inducted (posthumously) into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, and was the recipient of numerous other literary awards. 
Octavia Butler, 1947-2006

The following list of authors, with links to information about them, should lead to hours of reading and learning about the this deep and rich literary tradition.
Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Charles Saunders, N.K. Jemison.
Nalo Hopkinson, winner of a Locus Award for Science Fiction. Milton Davis, Tina McElroy Ansa, Nnedi Okorafor, Balogun Ojetade, Valjeanne Jeffers, and Phyllis Alesia Perry.


Black Farmers in America

The excitement surrounding urban farming in the African American community and beyond (see the post brings to bear the question of what is happening to rural African American farmers. Small farmers (Black, White, Latino) all around the country have struggled in the face of industrial, corporate farming practices. But the plight of Black farmers has been particularly acute in light of various historical circumstances, including the difficulties of becoming landowners rather than sharecroppers, tenants, or farm laborers.  Present day issues have ranged from loan discrimination to ownership/land rights disputes.  Early efforts to organize the African American and White farming communities resulted in the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in 1934.
Will Scott, National African American Farmers Assoc of CA
Early on in the Obama Administration, promises had been made to rectify the loan discrimination issues in the Department of Agriculture that had been festering since at least the Clinton Administration. It took until early 2014 for settlements to be made. While not satisfactory to all parties concerned, a major milestone was finally reached. However, this lawsuit has highlighted the problems facing the modern Black farmer in the Midwest, South, and the West. These links have really insightful and important information.

One of the earliest successful Black farmers was Junius Groves and his wife, Matilda Groves. Born into slavery in Kentucky in 1859, he made his way to Kansas in 1879 and became a successful farmer, food scientist, entrepreneur. He acquired the title, Potato King of the World for the incredible number of shipments he made. In fact, Union Pacific Railroad built a tract to his property because of his shipping quantity! The Groves founded the community of Groves Center and sold small tracts of land to African Americans. They also built a golf course for African Americans. The successes of the Groves and their descendants underscores just how much ground has been lost over time: in 1920, 14 percent of American farmers were Black; today, it is one percent.

There are signs of hope as young Black families make moves into small-scale farming. Whether in New York State, Washington, DC, South Carolina, or elsewhere, these families are engaging their communities through CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers' markets, and towns.


Happy New Year 2015

This past year, 2014, was a year of learning and growth. This blog covered a wide variety of topics, which I hope readers found interesting and spurred them to do further research. The topics showcased African Americans enriching the history, culture, and civics of our nation. Links to the posts of 2014 are listed below. If you missed any, please check them out! And, as always, check out for new additions to the website

The Codification of Freedom
Automobile Design & Manufacturing: A Different History
Oratory and Debate
Black Women: A Proud Legacy
May Day
Remembering Maya Angelou: An Occasion for Reflecting on the Importance of Poets
Thinking of Travel 2014: World War I
Surprise! Magicians
Architectural Design in America
Fruits of the Vine