Olive Senior

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Women on 2014-10-21 21:33Z by Steven

Olive Senior

Olive Senior’s Gardening in the Tropics

Hyacinth M. Simpson, Associate Professor of English
Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Olive Marjorie Senior was born in the parish of Trelawny on the Caribbean island of Jamaica on 23 December 1941. The seventh of ten children, she grew up in the shadow of the Cockpit Mountains and spent her formative years criss-crossing the adjoining western parishes of Westmoreland, Hanover, and St. James. As Velma Pollard points out, “[t]his environment—the topography and the people—is continually reflected in Senior’s poetry and prose” (479). Moreover, as the daughter of a small farmer and a stay-at-home mother, Senior grew up close to the land. Her vast knowledge of local plants, their history, their medicinal and culinary uses, and the rich folklore associated with them— which is evident in a number of poems in Gardening in the Tropics including “Guinep,” “Pineapple,’ “Starapple,” and “Mountain Pride”—is rooted in this early experience. So too are the intimate portraits she paints, in this collection and her other works, of the people whose survival depends on how well they navigate both the physical and social landscape.

In Senior’s immediate family, money was scarce. While not auto-biographical, the poem “My Father’s Blue Plantation” provides insight into the lives of small rural farming families like the one Senior was born in and the hard graft that defines such existence. Even though Senior, who is of mixed race heritage, was born with what Jamaicans term “light skin” and “good hair,” those usual markers of privilege did not set her, or her family, apart from their predominantly African-heritage neighbours in the village of Troy. Class, rather than race, as Senior explains in an interview with Anna Rutherford, was then and still is the main marker of difference in the complex web of Jamaica’s social hierarchy. Because they were poor like their neighbours, the Seniors “lived as a part of the village” (12-13).Troy was, like many other rural villages of the time, close knit. Everyone knew everyone else, and the Senior family was well integrated into their community. Village life was Senior’s first school. A world away from the “refinements” of the city and with no television or cinema and very little radio for distraction, members of the community found instruction and entertainment in the only likely/available source: the oral culture…

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Race, sex, and colonialism

Posted in Africa, Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive on 2014-10-20 20:43Z by Steven

Race, sex, and colonialism

OUPblog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Carina Ray, Associate Professor of History
Fordham University

DJ/Presenter Reggie Yates and Dr. Carina Ray review historical documents

As an Africanist historian committed to reaching broader publics, I was thrilled when the research team for the BBC’s genealogy program Who Do You Think You Are? contacted me late last February about an episode they were working on that involved the subject of some of my research, mixed race relationships in colonial Ghana. I was even more pleased when I realized that their questions about shifting practices and perceptions of intimate relationships between African women and European men in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was then known, were ones I had just explored in a newly published American Historical Review article, which I readily shared with them. This led to a month-long series of lengthy email exchanges, phone conversations, Skype chats, and eventually to an invitation to come to Ghana to shoot the Who Do You Think You Are? episode.

After landing in Ghana in early April, I quickly set off for the coastal town of Sekondi where I met the production team, and the episode’s subject, Reggie Yates, a remarkable young British DJ, actor, and television presenter. Reggie had come to Ghana to find out more about his West African roots, but he discovered along the way that his great grandfather was a British mining accountant who worked in the Gold Coast for close to a decade. His great grandmother, Dorothy Lloyd, was a mixed-race Fante woman whose father — Reggie’s great-great grandfather — was rumored to be a British district commissioner at the turn of the century in the Gold Coast.

The episode explores the nature of the relationship between Dorothy and George, who were married by customary law around 1915 in the mining town of Broomassi, where George worked as the paymaster at the local mine. George and Dorothy set up house in Broomassi and raised their infant son, Harry, there for two years before George left the Gold Coast in 1917 for good. Although their marriage was relatively short lived, it appears that Dorothy’s family and the wider community that she lived in regarded it as a respectable union and no social stigma was attached to her or Harry after George’s departure from the coast…

Read the entire article here.

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Who Do You Think You Are? [with Reggie Yates]

Posted in Africa, Autobiography, Biography, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, United Kingdom, Videos on 2014-10-19 21:55Z by Steven

Who Do You Think You Are? Reggie Yates [with Reggie Yates]

Who Do You Think You Are?
Series 11: Episode 8 of 10
Running Time: 00:59:09
First Aired: 2014-09-25

Presenter and DJ Reggie Yates grew up knowing very little about his father’s side of the family. Reggie sets out on the trail of his grandfather, Harry Philip Yates. His journey takes him to Ghana, where he unravels a complex family history where Ghanaian culture and British colonialism collide.

[Features Fordham University history professor Carina Ray.]

For more information, click here.

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Legacy of the President’s Mother

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2014-10-15 16:21Z by Steven

Legacy of the President’s Mother

Mālamalama, The Magazine of the University of Hawaiʻi System
January 2009 (2009-01-14)

Paula Bender
Honolulu, Hawaiʻi

Stanley Ann Dunham

The candidacy and election of President Barack Obama drew international eyes to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where his parents met. But among some at the university, it is Obama’s late mother who stirs strong emotions of memory and hope.

Stanley Ann Dunham took an unconventional approach to life on both personal and professional levels. Her son’s book portrays her as an innocent, kind and generous; academics who knew her and reporters who have discovered her describe the idealism and optimism of her worldview and work ethic.

In her work, she was not a romantic, rather appreciating the artistic while dealing with the realistic, one contemporary observes.

Dunham was born in Kansas and attended high school in Washington State. Moving to Hawaiʻi with her parents, she entered UH in 1960. In Russian class, she met the first African student to attend UH, charismatic Barack Obama Sr., who moved in politically liberal, intellectual student circles that included future Congressman Neil Abercrombie. They married and had Barack Obama Jr. in 1961.

Obama Sr. left his family for Harvard [University] and then Kenya. Dunham returned to UH, earning a math degree. She pursued graduate work, married another international student, Lolo Soetoro, and returned with him to Indonesia. There she began extensive research and fieldwork and welcomed the birth of daughter Maya Kassandra Soetoro, nine years Barack’s junior.

Although eventually divorced a second time, Dunham is credited with encouraging her children’s appreciation of their ethnic heritages…

Read the entire article here.

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William Wells Brown: An African American Life

Posted in Biography, Books, Forthcoming Media, Monographs, Slavery, United States on 2014-09-29 19:13Z by Steven

William Wells Brown: An African American Life

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
October 2014
624 pages
6.6 × 9.6 in
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-393-24090-0

Ezra Greenspan, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of English
Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

A groundbreaking biography of the most pioneering and accomplished African-American writer of the nineteenth century.

Born into slavery in Kentucky, raised on the Western frontier on the farm adjacent to Daniel Boone’s, “rented” out in adolescence to a succession of steamboat captains on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the young man known as “Sandy” reinvented himself as “William Wells” Brown after escaping to freedom. He lifted himself out of illiteracy and soon became an innovative, widely admired, and hugely popular speaker on antislavery circuits (both American and British) and went on to write the earliest African American works in a plethora of genres: travelogue, novel (the now canonized Clotel), printed play, and history. He also practiced medicine, ran for office, and campaigned for black uplift, temperance, and civil rights.

Ezra Greenspan’s masterful work, elegantly written and rigorously researched, sets Brown’s life in the richly rendered context of his times, creating a fascinating portrait of an inventive writer who dared to challenge the racial orthodoxies and explore the racial complexities of nineteenth-century America.

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Dream of the Water Children: Memory and Mourning in the Black Pacific

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Biography, Books, Forthcoming Media, Monographs on 2014-09-28 20:21Z by Steven

Dream of the Water Children: Memory and Mourning in the Black Pacific

2Leaf Press
October 2014
300 pages
Paperback ISBN-13: 978-1-940939-28-5
ePub ISBN-13: 978-1-940939-29-2

Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd

Dream of the Water Children, at once a haunting collective memory and a genre-bending critical account of dominance and survival, interweaves intimate multi-family details with global politics spanning generations and continents. Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd’s debut work defies categorization as histories and families are intimately connected through sociological ghosts alive in the present. It is a one-of-a-kind ‘non-fiction’ inter-disciplinary evocation that will appeal to not only those interested in Black and Asian relations and mixed-race Amerasian histories, but also a wide general audience including those interested in Asian, Asian-American, Nikkei, African-American, and mixed-race identities as well as multicultural literature, history and post-colonial memoir. Those focused on academic studies such as women and gender studies, ethnic and critical mixed-race studies, social justice curriculum, political histories, memory, feminism, and militarization, etc. will appreciate the profound questions for thought that rise up from the pages. Cloyd’s book not only challenges readers to explore technologies of violence, identity, difference, and our responsibilities to the world, it will also move readers through emotional depths.

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Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews on 2014-08-22 14:54Z by Steven

Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2014
pages 735-739
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2014.0094

L. Lamar Wilson

Jean Toomer’s Cane remains one of the most enigmatic works that emerged during the last century. In the past three decades, critics have probed auto/biography, psychoanalysis, sociopolitical and theological discourse, gender studies, and Toomer’s own critical essays for answers to questions raised by his exploration of racial and national identity and dislocation, black male and female sexuality, and the metaphorical topoi of the United States North and South in the text. Nellie McKay, Robert B. Jones, Rudolph P. Byrd, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Karen Jackson Ford, Mark Whalan, and Kathleen Pfeiffer have unearthed insightful details about the circumstances surrounding Toomer’s formation of a complex racial identity, his life in the immediate years preceding Cane’s creation and publication, and the text’s impact on his subsequent writing and the Afro-modern and postmodern canons.

Whalan’s Letters of Jean Toomer: 1919–1924, published in 2006, and Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank, Pfeiffer’s 2010 response, have been particularly important. Letters gives scholars access to Toomer’s willingness to emphasize whatever aspects of his racial and cultural identity would appeal to black and white literati alike at any given moment during the years bookending Cane’s 1923 publication. Moreover, through Letters, Toomer’s co-dependency on Waldo Frank, his closest friend and mentor at the time, comes into fuller focus vis-à-vis impassioned declarations of artistic allegiance and filial devotion. With Brother Mine, Pfeiffer complicates critical notions of their relationship, offering a chronological collation of epistles between the two men. From Frank’s first letter to Toomer in October 1920, Pfeiffer implicates Frank in encouraging Toomer, who was initially reserved and professional, to open up to his input and affections and to the possibilities of publication available to him as a modernist “Negro” poet. In her introduction, Pfeiffer links the dissolution of their friendship to Toomer’s affair with Frank’s wife, art therapist Margaret Naumburg, and marks Toomer a turncoat. However, she discounts the betrayal Toomer expressed feeling in his autobiography of having been reduced to “a fraction of Negro blood” when, in fact, he desired to create “a synthesis in the matters of the mind and spirit analogous, perhaps, to the actual fact of at least six blood minglings” (qtd. in Pfeiffer 29). Ultimately, it would seem the strictures of America’s “one-drop rule” on the social status of one marked black was as much to blame.

What makes Brother Mine compelling, then, is that which made the earliest English and American readers fond of Pamela, The Power of Sympathy, and other epistolary novels: an intimate look at a complex love story. Readers see two men finding homosocial solidarity as they manipulate the constructs of race in the poetry that would become one of the New Negro Renaissance’s first critically acclaimed works. They also see Toomer offer Frank critical feedback on Holiday, Frank’s version of their trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina, which their letters often romanticize—while offering scant details. They read some of the most honest confessions in print of a white American man’s obsession with and hunger to embody blackness, and they witness Toomer deftly navigating his multiracial identity. As he and his beloved Jewish brother reach for a raceless identity neither can attain in America, readers watch them commit the ultimate crime: interracial love. Frank’s gleeful interest in the black American experience is palpable as he alludes to the pleasures and challenges he and Toomer encounter as they venture into the US South. Moreover, it is clear that Frank is living vicariously through Toomer’s relationships with his grandmother, best friend Ken, and on-again, off-again girlfriend Mae. What emerges from their dialogue is both men’s problematic conception of a kind of Lacanian jouissance subsumed in blackness, which Toomer calls a “soil [that] is a good rich brown” that “should yield splendidly to our plowing” in an August 3, 1922, letter in which he makes final plans for the pair’s Spartanburg excursion (59).

Central to the poetic re-envisioning of Cane that emerges in Brother Mine is the homo-social desire that permeates every page. As Pfeiffer notes, the almost…

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The “Passing” of Elsie Roxborough

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2014-06-05 01:50Z by Steven

The “Passing” of Elsie Roxborough

Michigan Quarterly Review
Volume 23, Issue 2 (Spring 1984)
pages 155-170
ISSN 0026-2420 (Print)
ISSN 1558-7266 (Online)

Kathleen A. Hauke (1935-2004)

Driving her fashionable Ford roadster from Detroit to Ann Arbor, Elsie Roxborough arrived at the University of Michigan as a freshman fifty years ago last fall. She was the first Negro student to live in a University dormitory. Her classmate Arthur Miller, an aspiring playwright and fellow reporter on the campus newspaper, called her “a beauty, the most striking girl in Ann Arbor. She was light-skinned and very classy. To a kid like me, she seemed svelte, knowing, witty, sexy.” With her own group in Detroit, the Roxane Players, she produced Langston Hughes’s play Drums of Haiti, and charmed Hughes as she had charmed boxer Joe Louis some years earlier. Elsie Roxborough was “the girl I was in love with” in 1937, Hughes wrote in his autobiography. Upon graduation, Roxborough “passed” into the white world. The next time most of her friends heard of her was in 1949 when an eight-column headline in the black newspaper Michigan Chronicle announced her death from an overdose of sleeping pills. Hughes kept her photograph over his writing table for the rest of his life.

Who was Elsie Roxborough? What became of her, and what did she represent? A piecing together of her life suggests that her fate was to dramatize the truth of Hughes’s poem “House in the World”:

I’m looking for a house
In the world
Where the white shadows
Will not fall.

There is no house,
Dark brother,
No such house
At all.

Elsie Roxborough started out to shake the stigma of color; when that proved impossible, she joined step with the oppressor. Her life as a disguised alien in the middle reaches of the white social register did not satisfy her ambition or her pride. Perhaps no happy ending awaited her. The welcome thawings of racial prejudice after the war, and the first signs of a civil rights movement, would only have mocked and embittered her in the years of her deception. A happy child become desperate, she is a case study of the “dark sister” excluded by the American Dream…

Read the entire article here.

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He Wouldn’t Cross the Line

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive on 2014-05-31 15:15Z by Steven

He Wouldn’t Cross the Line

1951-09-03 (Volume 31, Number 10)
pages 81-94
ISSN 0024-3019

Richard L. Williams [transcribed by Steven F. Riley]

Herb, Betty and Fern Elizabeth Jefferies take the sun on a sandy stretch of beach in front of a hotel at Cannes

Herb Jeffries cheerfully pays the price of choosing his race

The social sensation of the season on the French Riviera was the extravaganza wedding, with a parade and music by blaring jazz bands, of Negro Clarinetist Sidney Bechet and his white bride. The singing sensation of the Riviera was another, younger and paler American, built like a basketball player, who was appearing before nightclub audiences in slate-blue slacks and an open-throat black velvet shirt to croon ballads in a black velvet baritone. He was in such demand along the crowded Côte d’Azur that he had to divide his time between three establishments, hustling from the expensive Carroll’s Beach Bar near Eden Roc to two populous spots in Juan-les-Pins.

The American’s name is Herb Jeffries. The story behind his career, if he had told it, would have dumbfounded the people who flocked to hear him sing, or who met him sunning on the beach with his slim and pretty wife, daughter of a Chicago economist, and their effervescent 3-year-old daughter.

Jeffries is a personable, broad-shouldered fellow, a good deal more robust-looking than most practitioners of the crooning profession. He stands 6 feet 1½ inches tall, weighs 199 pounds, has dark curly hair and a mustache, smoky blue eyes and a vaguely Latin or Cesar Romero look about him. He could pass for, and is often mistaken for, a Spaniard, an Italian, a Mexican, a Portuguese, an Argentine and occasionally a Jew. He has scrupulously elected to “pass” for nothing but what he is—a light-skinned Negro.

The story of Jeffries—his experiences on both sides of the color line—is a revelation of race prejudice in all its forms from the curious to the cruel. In his chosen field the quality of his voice has proved more important than the shade of his skin. An $85-a-week singer six years ago, he now makes over $50,000 a year, largely from record royalties and nightclub dates. His highly stylized vocal records, like Flamingo and Basin Street Blues, often sell 300,000 to 750,000 copies. His is the kind of voice that once led Ella Fitzgerald, a more famous singer, to lean across to her husband while listening to Jeffries and sigh a one-word tribute: “Wow.” Yet while the Jeffries voice is becoming famous the Jeffries face is still virtually unknown. The reason is not pleasant: he has found that it is all but impossible for a Negro artist, or even a three-eighths Negro, to meet the general public as a movie star or (with such rare exceptions as the TV Amos ‘n Andy) on sponsored television or radio network shows.

Jeffries’ refusal to “pass” and his somewhat ambiguous facial appearance have let him in for so many kinds of prejudice and mistaken identity that he is practically a one-man minority group. A few months ago, in the club car of the Santa Fe Chief rolling eastward to Chicago, he struck up a conversation with a Jewish clothing merchant. They chatted in Yiddish, which Jeffries has spoken fluently since his childhood in Detroit, and the talk was largely about anti-Semitism. Finally the businessman turned to Jeffries and said sympathetically, “Being that you are a Jewish performer, you must run into it all the time.” Replied Jeffries, deadpan and still in Yiddish, “Look—us Jews get it, the Italians get it, the Negroes get it, the Irish get it—things are tough all over!”

He is in a position to know. People are forever jumping to conclusions about his race, but he rarely bothers to disabuse them, let alone get indignant about it. One afternoon in a Los Angeles store, riding in a crowded elevator with a friend, he stood aside to let a woman leave. As he lifted his bundles clear, one package caught the back of her hat and tilted the brim rakishly over her eye. She turned on him and blazed, “You Dagoes—you’re all alike, shoving people around just like Mussolini!” Then she flounced out, and Jeffries’ apology was cut off by the closing car door. “I just turned to my friend and laughed,” says Jeffries. “What good would it do to get mad about things like that?”

Herb Jeffries knows exactly how it feels to be discriminated against as a Jew. Several years ago, house-hunting with his white bride, the former Betty Allensworth, a Pasadena Rose Bowl princess of 1941, he sat in a real estate office, ready to close a deal for a house in a Los Angeles suburb. Jeffries noticed that something seemed to be bothering the salesman. Looking embarrassed, the man blurted, “You know, the people in that neighborhood—well, frankly they’re all Gentiles and they might not make people who were—different—feel at home, if you see what I’m driving at. . . .”

“I do,” said Jeffries. “And I’m certainly glad you told us. We do have Jewish friends who might come out from time to time. Matter of fact we even have Negro friends who might be visiting us. Well, no hard feelings. Let’s just call the deal off.” And without enlightening the salesman he and Betty thanked him and left.

What with his assured and friendly manner, his confident baritone voice and his prosperous-looking dress, Jeffries is never called “nigger” to his face, never turned away by headwaiters, never snooted when he walks up to a desk clerk. He has had subtler experiences than these.

One night in 1949 when he was singing at the Red Feather, a club in Los Angeles, a patron called him over to a table. He introduced himself as a foreign-born movie producer, spoke warmly of Jeffries’ talents and urged Herb to take a test for a starring role in a new picture opposite Gene Tierney or Hedy Lamarr.

“I thought he was a phony,” Jeffries says. ‘Then I found out he wasn’t, and he found out—when I told him—why I couldn’t play a romantic part like that. “But tell me,” he asked, ‘why do you want to be a Negro? You could be anything!”

“That’s right,” I told him. “I have been. I’m a chameleon. But I decided some time ago that the Negro people need all the good, intelligent, unbelligerent representatives they can get in this world, and I’m trying to be one. If I thought the Jewish people needed it more, I’d be a Jew.’ That’s what I told him, and that’s how I feel.”

The key to his feeling is the word “unbelligerent.” No militant, chip-on-shoulder radical about race relations, he may shift the rhythm of Ol’ Man River to suit his style but, unlike Paul Robeson, never shifts the lyrics to fit his politics. His argumentation never goes beyond making others examine their beliefs and their reasons for holding them. One night in a New York club where he was singing he sat down at a table with some guests. In the subdued light his features, which sometimes have a Negroid look, seemed to belong to a Latin from Manhattan or to a man from anywhere.

“Isn’t it funny,” one of the guests said to him, “I’ve heard your records and until tonight I’d always assumed you were colored, but you’re not . . . are you?”

“What do you mean, colored?” Jeffries asked him.

“Why, I mean anybody with Negro blood, I guess.”

“How much Negro blood does it take?” Jeffries asked gently.

“Well, I’d always heard that if you had any Negro blood you were Negro and that was that,” the guest said uncomfortably.

“Like two drops of it, for instance?” Jeffries persisted. “Then it can’t be such inferior blood, can it? If you had a black paint that was so powerful that two drops of it would color a bucket of white, that’d be the most potent paint in the world, wouldn’t it? So if Negro blood is as strong as all that it must be pretty good—maybe I’d better find out where I can get some more of it.

“I’d never thought of it that way,” the guest reflected.

“I always think of it that way,” Herb Jeffries smiled.

Wife to a chameleon

His wife has learned to feel the same way and to consider herself an adopted representative of the Negro people. Although she entered upon her mixed marriage at 27 and with her eyes open, Betty Jeffries has had to make some drastic adjustments in playing the role of wife to a chameleon. A sense of humor has helped her. One day in Los Angeles, walking her daughter Fern to the grocery store, she stopped to say hello to a neighbor.

“You know, we’ve lived here for years,” said the gray-haired woman, “but so many new people have moved in, we almost feel like strangers. Wouldn’t you and your husband and daughter come by for supper some night next week? I’d like to get acquainted.”

Betty Jeffries said they’d love to. The neighbor went on: “Mrs. Jeffries, tell me—those colored people who’ve moved in next door to you . . . doesn’t it bother you?”

“I don’t know whether they’ll bother me or not,” said Betty evenly. “We don’t know them yet.”

“What I’m trying to say is, I just don’t like Negroes,” the neighbor persisted, “and I’m too old to change now. I’ve lost boarders, you know, who simply refuse to live in the same neighborhood with colored people.” So Betty told her how she felt about it: that Negroes, like everybody else, deserved to be judged as individuals; that some were bad and some were good, but that she didn’t think it would do much good for her to get up on a soapbox and say so.

“By the way,” she said casually as she took Fern’s hand and started on, “I think you ought to know that my husband and my baby and I are all colored.”

The woman’s jaw dropped. After a dazed moment she swallowed hard, rallied and said, “All right. You’ve taught me a lesson—I do see what you mean.”

The Jeffries did go to dinner and are now good friends of the elderly couple, but the story illustrates one of the many things that are different about a mixed marriage. For Herb and Betty Jeffries a new acquaintance can never be casually acquired; each one is a potential problem, and it is possible to make friends only with those who either lack prejudice or are willing to shed it.

This is a fact of life that Herb Jeffries’ mother had to learn the hard way, which is the inevitable way. She was a widow who had taken her two small daughters to live with her family in Port Huron, Mich., when a singing troupe came to town one day. According to local custom, the singers were put up in local homes, and one Howard Jeffrey was billeted with the family of the young widow. Despite the color gap between them—she was Irish and he was a mixture of Negro, Indian, French and English—they fell in love. It was one thing, however, for the family to extend its hospitality to a traveler and quite another for him to court their daughter. When she married him some time later, the family stopped speaking to her for 10 years.

Her new home was in a polyglot section of Detroit, with a Negro family next door on one side and a Jewish family on the other. There, across Fourth Avenue from a synagogue. Herb Jeffries was born Sept. 24, 1914. However much their mother and sisters may have suffered for having gone beyond the pale, Herb and his younger brothers Don and Howard were hardly aware of it in childhood. They attended the synagogue because their friends did, and by the time they started in at Lincoln School, then 95% Jewish, they could sing the old Jewish religious chants as well as their playmates.

When Herb was 11 his father died, and his mother gave her daughters their choice of living at home or going to live with her own family. One daughter, Fern, elected to stay. Her older sister jumped at the chance to put Fourth Avenue behind her. On her 16tn birthday she rejoined the white side of the family, and while time has softened her attitude somewhat, she has dreaded the thought that her children’s friends and her own in Detroit might learn about her Negro stepfather. She has referred to her mother’s second marriage as “that awful mistake,” and once grimly said that if the family secret ever came out, “I might be found in the Detroit River.”

“Up to the time she left home,” Jeffries says, “we boys just didn’t think about color. If both our parents had been Negro we’d probably have grown up accepting the fact that we were too. As it was, we knew some of our relatives were light and some were dark and that we were lighter than our father, and wc never even wondered why. But when we asked Mother how come Sis had left home, she sat us down and told us that while she and Sis and Fern were all white, we were sort of in-between children, part white and part Negro. As the oldest, she said, I’d be the first to have to face it—that in some ways I was in for a rough time.” He was, but he did not have to face it at once. After high school, an office boy’s job at a local radio station and a singing engagement at a place in his neighborhood, Herb struck out for New York at 17.

“I didn’t even know there was such a place as Harlem,” he says. “I used to sing in Greenwich Village joints for a dollar or so a night, and did my sleeping on the subways. I wasn’t getting anywhere at all, except in my sleep. Then one night I heard Rudy Smith, a colored Dwight Fiske type of pianist, over in the old Nut House, and talked him into letting me sing Say It Isn’t So with him. Rudy was great—he took a liking to me, got me a place to sleep up in Harlem, began coaching me and teaching me about jazz.”

One day Smith took Jeffries to a Club Ubangi “breakfast dance,” introduced him to the Negro crowd and accompanied Herb while he sang Trees. “It was corny, but it broke up the joint,” Jeffries says. “For some reason those people went crazy for my stuff. I thought, boy, this is for me—here are the people who appreciate me!”

It was then, Jeffries believes, that he made up his mind to be a Negro. Years later, in Hollywood, the late cowboy star Buck Jones tried to change Herb’s mind and his race. He outlined a brazen plan under which Jeffries would drop his identity, go to South America for a year to learn Spanish, then return with loud fanfare under a new name as Jones’s discovery. Jones would foot all the bills, in return for first rights to his protege’s services as a caballero starring in horse operas.

“I was almost tempted,” Jeffries muses, “because by then I’d learned how things are stacked against you as a Negro. But besides the fact that we’d probably have been found out, I suddenly asked myself just what the hell I had to run away from, or be ashamed of. So I turned Buck down.”

From New York young Jeffries beat his way to Chicago, where he landed singing jobs with Erskine Tate’s and Earl Hines’s Negro bands by trying out during intermissions. At 25 he wandered on to Los Angeles, where he sang in “after hours” joints for whatever change he could pick up off the floor, worked as a busboy and made his movie debut. Later he trekked back east with the Four Tones, a Negro quartet, making personal appearances with some cheap sepia Westerns in which he had played the lead—pictures with titles like Harlem Rides the Range.

Visiting in Detroit after the tour, Jeffries dropped in at the Graystone Ballroom, where Duke Ellington, an old acquaintance of the family, was appearing with his band.

“So you’re the ‘Bronze Buckaroo’ now,” Ellington greeted him. “How you doing?”

“Oh, great,” Herb lied. “Just finished my personal appearance tour. I’ll probably be going back to Hollywood to make some more pictures.”

“Yeah?” grinned Ellington. “Anything wrong with you that $80 a week with me wouldn’t cure?”

“Just give me that contract!” said Jeffries.

He jumped for joy

The Ellington recording of Flamingo, with an unusual vocal by Herb that lapsed from words into a wordless primitive cry, established Jeffries as a promising singer—and identified him with many jazz fans as a Negro. Before leaving the band to go on his own, Jeffries starred in Ellington’s famed revue, Jump for Joy, which ran for 18 weeks at Los Angeles’ Mayan Theater.

“Everybody said I was crazy to leave Ellington—including him,” says Jeffries. “But I reminded him that he’d had to do the same thing once, and that as long as I stayed just a dance-band singer I’d get the usual 10 or 20 bucks for a recording, and never any royalties. So he wished me luck and said the job would always be there just in case.”

Shortly after they parted, Jeffries came close to sinking into oblivion. Driving through Arizona with one of his brothers, he was trapped in their car when it left the road near Gila Bend and overturned. For nearly a year, recovering from a dislocated pelvis, he was mired in discouragement. Even when he regained the use of his legs, he felt it was hardly worth the trouble to resume his career. Songsmith Leon René, coauthor of Sleepy Time Down South, tried to haul him out of his despair. René was forming a recording company to exploit his own songs and needed a vocalist. Jeffries wasn’t too interested at first. But about the same time, Maurice Duke, an artists’ manager and producer of Monogram musicals, stepped in to help speed Jeffries’ rehabilitation.

“Jeffries didn’t even want to step out of his house,” Duke says. “He didn’t want to get out in front of people again. ‘In white places,’ he’d say, ‘I’m a nigger. In Negro places I’m a Negro who wants to be a white man. There isn’t any in-between place where I’m just a human being.’” The limping Duke would tell him, “Look at me— I’ve been a polio most of my life, but that hasn’t stopped me from being a success in my own way—and I don’t have a great talent, a voice, like you have.”

With both Leon René and Duke working on him, Jeffries first stirred himself enough to design a label for Rene’s new Exclusive Records. Then he recorded a few songs. Shortly, when the records began to sell, he became both the company’s major asset and its sales promotion director. His vocals pushed its “Magenta Moods” album to a more than 400,000-copy sale, and his recordings of When I Write My Song (a steal from Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah), Body and Soul and Jeffries’ own I Left a Good Deal in Mobile were hits.

On the strength of Jeffries’ new vogue on records, Maurice Duke eased him into nightclub engagements, and he began doing shows for the Armed Forces Radio Service. Duke shrewdly built him up as a popular artist but not a “race” artist. He was singing at the Circle Club, a jazz spot on Hollywood Boulevard, when he and Betty Allensworth met. Betty had graduated from Pasadena Junior College, where she had been chosen a Rose Bowl princess, and had a degree in English literature from Northwestern University in Evanston, near where her father lived. Some time later, when Betty returned from a visit to Chicago and began working at Bullock’s Wilshire, she and Herb began going together.

Betty Allensworth knew all along that Herb was part Negro; having been brought up in a family that had no strong feelings about racism, she saw nothing wrong in being friendly with him. But because she knew that the relatives with whom she lived in Beverly Hills would see nothing right in it, she never asked Herb out to the house. On Jan. 3, 1947, without telling her family, they flew to Tijuana, Mexico and were married.

Their elopement had a legal basis as well as a romantic one, for California then had, like 29 other states, a law prohibiting racial intermarriage. It was a comparatively mild statute—far milder, in fact, than the unwritten law that such unions violate—since it left the definition of “Negro” and “white” up to the courts, and the only penalty was nonrecognition of the marriage. In some states the laws go so far as to declare that anyone with any fraction of Negro blood is a Negro, and in seven states Herb and Betty would have been subject to as much as 10 years in jail had they dared to marry within the state borders.

“I wanted to keep the marriage a secret at first,” says Betty Jeffries, “because up to a point in a singer’s career the youngsters who buy his records like to think of him as single. But finally, when I was pregnant and beginning to show it, I had to tell my relatives that we were married. They got quite hysterical about it, as I knew they would. Their last words, when I left for good, were ‘What if you have a coal-black baby?’ I told them—as calmly as I could— that such a thing was biologically unlikely. And as I walked away I said, ‘You can be sure that if the baby is coal black I’ll love it any way because it will be mine!’”

Light-haired Fern Elizabeth Jeffries was born Nov. 3, 1947, and the relatives in Beverly Hills have never seen her. When friends ask about Betty, the relatives say vaguely that they think she is living in Chicago. They deny any knowledge of Betty’s marriage, and like Herb’s half-sister in Michigan they prefer to pretend that he does not exist.

None of this surprises Betty. What has surprised her is that she has encountered a formidable amount of prejudice among some Negroes. “I’d have thought that being the victims of so much prejudice they might not feel it themselves,” she frowns. “But some of them resent the fact that Herb didn’t marry a colored girl, and resent me for keeping him from it.”

Like any young married couple the Jeffries have built up a circle of good friends, but theirs has special limitations. It includes Betty’s father, Allen Allensworth, a Chicago economist and commodities expert. Mr. Allensworth likes his son-in-law but wishes Betty had told him in so many words whom she was marrying, instead of assuming that he could figure it out for himself. The circle includes Herb’s mother, an intelligent woman who still says, although she long ago recrossed the racial line that she stepped over, that “I’m not ashamed of my marriage. I like my downtown (Negro) relatives and my white relatives too. They all have their own lives to live, and I don’t try to change their minds…”

Beyond the circle, the Jeffries know, are many people who sincerely feel that even a mixed marriage, if based on love and respect, is made in Heaven—and many others who regard it as a deadly sin and its participants as outcasts. Whenever Betty is asked why she married a Negro, and whenever her husband is asked why he married a white girl, the answer is the same: “We fell in love.”

Up to now they have felt no cause for regret; they think of themselves as being more happily married than most people. They are full of plans: Jeffries recently finished a picture called Disc Jockey, in which he appears with Tommy Dorsey, Ginny Simms, Sarah Vaughan and 24 top radio record-spinners. In France he has been on several Radio Diffusion Française shows and has been asked to do more, as well as make new recordings. He has found no discrimination in two trips abroad, but that does not tempt him to become an expatriate: when the Jeffries come home this fall they want to buy a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, with a workshop where Herb can tinker with cameras and model planes and trains. Eventually, when his voice gives out, he expects to know the movie business well enough to work as a director and producer.

Jeffries would not change places with anyone—or at least would never admit it. But there are times when he has reason to be bitter. There are also times when Betty, alone at home while he is singing at his work, looks at Fern and wonders: what will she do when she grows up and has to make her own choice? And how will she feel about us if people make her suffer just because she happened to be born?

The snubs that Herb Jeffries and his family have endured have forced him to do a lot of thinking about his place in the world. ‘The Creator,” he says earnestly, “had a plan. He wasn’t just blowing bubbles, and I don’t think he put any race on earth just to be persecuted. The Negroes that he put here have no need to ask for sympathy or to be belligerent, either. They’ve come far, they’ve produced a lot of champions, and I think that being part of them has been an honor. If the Creator should ever give me the choice of being whatever I wanted to be, I’d say let me be just what I am—because I’ve been a lot of people, you see, where most of us get to be only one.”

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Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 by Dagmar Schultz (review)

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Gay & Lesbian, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Women on 2014-05-05 17:30Z by Steven

Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 by Dagmar Schultz (review)

African Studies Review
Volume 57, Number 1, April 2014
pages 237-238
DOI: 10.1353/arw.2014.0038

Patricia-Pia Célérier, Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York

Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 is a 79-minute documentary in English and German, directed and produced by Dagmar Schultz. An academic and close friend of Lorde’s, Schultz also co-edited (with May Opitz and Katharina Oguntoye) the book Farbe Bekennen: Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (1986; translated as Showing our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991), which marked the beginning of the “Afro-German movement.” Schultz contributed her own archival video and audio recordings and footage to the documentary, adding testimonies from Lorde’s colleagues, students, and friends. Released in 2012, twenty years after Lorde’s death, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 is an homage to the African American writer’s tremendous contributions as well as a useful complement to two other documentaries: A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde (1995) by Ada Gray Griffin and Michelle Parkerson, and The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde (2002) by Jennifer Abod. Schultz’s film has attracted significant attention and received the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Barcelona Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 focuses on an understudied period in the life of the prolific author and activist, the time when she traveled between the U.S. and Germany to lecture and visit friends. It features her relationship to the black diaspora and her mentoring role in the development of the antiracist struggle and the Afro-German movement before and after the German reunification. In true feminist fashion, the documentary links the personal and the political, representing Lorde’s ongoing fight against cancer, her inspiring presence at feminist consciousness-raising meetings, her carefree dancing at multiracial lesbian parties, and her partnership with the poet Gloria I. Joseph.

The film highlights Lorde’s part in building bridges among women of color, feminist, and LGBT social justice movements, in “hyphenating” black Germans. In doing so, it contextualizes the history of major cultural shifts in the late ’80s/early ’90s in Germany. It speaks to audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with Lorde’s work by articulating themes that are at the core of the writer’s production: for instance, the meaning of intimacy and sharing, and the radical role a creative understanding of difference plays in personal and intellectual growth.

Although valuable as a testimonial and politically committed film, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 unfortunately lacks a strong coherent form, its point of view neither sufficiently clear nor technically grounded. Because the filmmaker does not provide a theoretical or narrative perspective (apart from documenting Lorde’s life), the archival images and interviews overtake the film, which in turn seems dated, as if it had been produced twenty years ago. The viewer is not pulled into the story early enough, and the editing does not compensate imaginatively for the somewhat haphazard manner with which the documentary proceeds.

Should we consider, nevertheless, that the historical and political value of such a film overrides issues of filmic quality and narrative coherence, especially because it was made on a tight budget and is a labor of love? A documentary cannot be considered as merely reproducing cultural (feminist, Afro-German, LGBT) meaning, but also as creating (new) meaning. Unfortunately, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 does not sufficiently demonstrate an awareness of the different ways of understanding and theorizing women’s lives that are available today. As a recording of social life and a travelogue, it does accomplish the two goals of the documentary genre: it informs and educates. Like feminist films of the 1970s, it celebrates the clamor of women’s voices and the rising up of women of color and gay women. It sheds light on the diversity of women’s lifestyles and choices and the issues in gay politics. But how do these images of Lorde inform our current understanding of feminism and feminist practices? What spaces does Lorde’s legacy occupy today? These questions are not answered by the film. In addition, because it does not suggest an awareness of the discursive and technical changes that have advanced the…

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