by Wanda Sabir
Happy Black History Month. Knowledge is power, something Black people from Frederick Douglass to Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks to Kamala Harris have never taken for granted. If white people would kill a Black person for teaching someone to read, not to mention knowing how to read – enough said! The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s organization, has chosen the theme: “Crisis in Education” for 2017.
Happy Birthday, dear brother Fred Batin, one of the best fathers I know, a man whose children, Wilda and Wilfred, are honored each February by the Mayor’s Office in San Francisco for their academic excellence. Widya is the subject of a film and was honored by the National Council of Negro Women, Golden Gate Section, as a youth leader for her work in developing the Buchanan Mall.
We will miss our dearly departed ones: Great Auntie Olivia Samaiyah Beyah-Bailey (Dec. 1, 1918-Jan. 19, 2017) and Lee Williams (Sept. 2, 1937-Jan. 1, 2017).
27th Annual Celebration of African American Poets and Their Poetry
Join us for the longest consecutive public program in the Oakland Public Library system: “A Celebration of African American Poets and Their Poetry.” We have adopted the ASALH theme, “Crisis in Black Education.” Perhaps James Weldon Johnson was thinking about educational access and equity when he was a high school principal at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida?
Mama Ayanna brought her poetry to last year’s Celebration of African American Poets and Their Poetry, and when Mama speaks, everyone listens. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
In 1900, “Johnson wrote a poem that would become the lyrics to music written by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ was first performed publicly at his school during a celebration for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday Feb. 12.” Only 37 years earlier, Lincoln ended slavery by signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In 1919, the NAACP adopted “Lift Every Voice” as its official song. In 1918 World War I ended, yet in 1919, nothing had changed for Black Americans. That year saw increased racial violence in the United States, documented by history professor and author David F. Krugler in his book, “1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back.”
The African American Poetry Celebration is Saturday, Feb. 4, 1-4 p.m., at the West Oakland Branch Library, 1801 Adeline St., in Oakland. It is free and open to all. We are looking for footage from the previous 26 years. If anyone bought copies from KTOP and can share these VHS tapes with us, for our archives, we would really appreciate it. The featured program, which Wanda Sabir hosts, includes many renowned poets like Avotcja, Steve McCutchen, Paradise, Karen Mims, Charles Blackwell, Gene Howell Jr., Halifu Osumare, Karla Brundage, Leroy Moore, Andre Wilson, Ayodele Nzinga, Darlene Roberts, Tyrice Deane, Nicia Delovely, Chris Harris. This year we will also honor the memory of Lee Williams (Sept. 2, 1937-Jan. 1, 2017).
Maafa San Francisco Bay Area – Feb. 25 National Libation for the Ancestors
We are asking everyone to pour libations Saturday, Feb. 25, for African Ancestors of the Middle Passage to coincide with NCOBRA or the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America’s “Reparations Awareness Day,” 2/25. We could pour at 9 a.m. Pacific Time for Umoja or Unity. In the East Bay, we will meet at Alameda beach: Grand and Shoreline at the water. Wear white.
21st Annual Maafa Commemoration San Francisco Bay Area
At the 26th annual Maafa Commemoration at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, Oct. 9, 2016, sisters gathered with a child at the water’s edge. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
The 21st Annual Maafa Commemoration 2016 was really wonderful! As usual there was magic on the beach – we witnessed a reverse rainbow. As we looked up, the bow was translucent, the color below on our faces. Osumare was telling us that we were the blessing that morning. There were a lot of youth. King Theo brought some of his drummers from Oakland, and the young men really made the ritual strong and powerful.
Sister Bisola’s ring shout was awesome as we surrounded the youth and anyone who needed special healing. Dr. Marcus had us touch each other’s shoulders as we did an ancestral meditation.
Visiting from Elmina, Ghana, Seesta Imahkus Okofu brought affirmation, poetry and greetings from One Africa; we then tossed flowers on the waters. With the Doors of No Return situated behind the altar, the view gave us a different angle and level of contemplation. The day had a sepia hue.
Several of us stayed and talked long into the afternoon with several young men from Richmond, California. One young man shared how he’d been shot recently in a driveby as he stood speaking with friends, some coworkers. Just out of high school, he was working and had the day off that afternoon. We spoke about getting together monthly to talk, perhaps participate in a recreational outing. So far, this has not happened, but we can talk about this and other items when we meet and share. It is to our collective interest to safeguard the well-being of our youth. The first words from my mouth were safety. The youth said he lived with his mom and that he did not feel safe, but had nowhere else to go.
Maafa 2016: Passing through the Doors of No Return is a profound experience, even symbolically. – Photo: Anyika Nkululeko
I am so happy to have seen so many brothers and sisters whom I met at the ceremony last October since then. One sister hopped out the car the other day when she saw me crossing the parking lot at a store we were both shopping at.
At last year’s Maafa, I walked the ritual circle and gave everyone a button. The buttons were for the 20th Anniversary but I forgot them at home in 2015, so throughout October 2015 until I ran out, I kept buttons in my purse, car and pockets. I ordered another one hundred for 2016. Let me know if you need one and I will bring several to Crab Cove beach in Alameda, Feb. 25, 9 a.m. If you do not hear from me, leave me a message: 510-255-5579.
I would like to have a gathering soon to share Maafa Commemoration experiences, photos and talk about plans for 2017. We could certainly have a film and discussion night, Ubuntu Council Night, to share and resolve issues of concern, have skill building workshops for harm reduction, trauma and trauma healing. We could go to cultural events as a group. “Native Son” at the Marin Theatre Company is one such show, as are Ubuntu Theater Project and the Lower Bottom Playaz performances.
I am thinking about a late February, early March get together. If anyone wants to host it, let me know that too. I was thinking about Keba Konte’s Red Bay Coffee, a lovely space in East Oakland near Fruitvale.
‘All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50,’ an exhibition for the people, extended through Feb. 26
At the “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” exhibit in the Oakland Museum, up until Feb. 26, makes a peacock chair available for visitors to picture themselves as Panthers.
Don’t miss “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50,” which closes Feb. 26 with a Member Night Party. I love David Huffman’s “Traumanauts,” Hank Williams’s “We the People,” constructed from prison inmate clothing, and “Black Righteous Place,” artist Sadie Barnette’s excavation, through COINTELPRO documents, of the history made by her father, Rodney Barnette, which is also touching as is Carrie Mae Weems location dislocation installation.
Weems’s work is always provocative. Her soundtrack narrates the story unfolding on the screen. Then we get up and look at the black and white prints of the Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm and Martin (2008) – where once again Weems enters and interrupts an historic narrative. Curated by Rene Guzman, the marvelous exhibition also employs listening stations where patrons are treated to a revolutionary soundtrack and invited to get on the mic and speak their own truths. Actual pieces of buildings are in cases, evidence that there was something there, before it was no longer there – like a people, erased from collective memory. There is an exhibit which maps the Black Panther Party geographically.
Presentation of the Black Panther Party 10-Point Platform is as bold as its content in the Oakland Museum exhibit.
From the opening gallery where we read the 10-Point Platform boldly printed on the wall, while the iconic peacock chair invites guests to sit and take a photo, to the thoughtful use of space, “All Power to the People” is an engaging walk through history that is interactive as well as informative. Patrons read the stories of powerful party women in their youth, juxtaposed with reflections captured in Bryan Shih’s portraits. Artifacts lie disturbed in display cases while footage rolls nearby with more of the story, like that explored visually in the photo and actual Klu Klux Klan capes worn by participants in a march in downtown Oakland.
There are also dashikis and berets, posters, signs and of course lots of old newspapers with headlines ironically still appropriate today. There is a section on newspaper artists: Gayle Dixon’s work is highlighted, as is, of course, the unforgettable work of Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas. The Oakland Museum of CA is located on 10th and Oak Street, across the street from Laney College and the Lake Merritt BART Station. Visit http://museumca.org/exhibit/all-power-people-black-panthers-50.
Distinguished panel on solitary confinement at The Exploratorium
After Dark Every Thursday Night at The Exploratorium in San Francisco continues its In-the-Balance Series with a panel on solitary confinement. “In My Solitude: The Detrimental Effects of Solitary Confinement on the Brain” is hosted by University of California Hastings College of the Law Chancellor and Dean and John F. Digardi Distinguished Professor of Law David L. Faigman on Thursday, Feb. 16, 6-10 p.m., in the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery on Pier 15, Embarcadero at Green Street, San Francisco, 415-528-4444. Panelists Dr. Robert H. King, Craig Haney, J.D., Ph.D., Jules Lobel, J.D., Michael Zigmond, Ph.D., and Brie Williams, M.D., will discuss the use and impact of neuroscience in the landmark case against long term solitary confinement that resulted in a massive policy change in California’s prison system.
‘Death of a Salesman’
Ubuntu Theater Project presents “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller on Friday, Feb. 10, at 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. through Sun 3/5 @ 7 pm at the Brooklyn Preserve, 1433 12th Ave., Oakland. Ubuntu is theatre by and for the People. Visit ubuntutheaterproject.com. Tickets are sold online for $15-$35 and at the door each night on a pay-what-you-can basis so that no one will be turned away for a lack of funds.
Not only did the Women’s March on Washington draw three times the crowd at Trump’s inauguration the day before, but across the Bay Area, 200,000 people marched – here, in Oakland. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
This season Ubuntu explores the human side of significant political and cultural shifts across the globe: As numerous communities cry for mercy in the midst of suffering, how can we, in an increasingly polarized society, find the grace needed to hear – and respond to – the cries of others?
“Death of a Salesman” is an American classic that delves inside the soul of a middle-aged businessman who cannot come to terms with the reality of a changing America. Arthur Miller’s prescient masterwork is a dire warning of the hollowness at the heart of the American Dream. As suicide rates among middle-aged white men in the United States rise faster than among any other demographic, promises to reclaim an America of yesteryear found resonance among a large portion of American voters in November. We are once again at a moment when attention must be paid! But, how? To whom? From whom?
Ubuntu frames this American classic as a fever dream of a dying salesman, revealing how “Death of a Salesman” is both a timeless myth speaking to the current crisis of American identity and a radical call for compassion uniquely suited to the current moment.
On the fly
The Art of Living Black (TAOLB) at the Richmond Art Center, opens Jan. 10 and will run until March 2. The reception and artist talks will be held on Sat. Feb. 4, 12 noon to 5 p.m. RAC is at 2540 Barrett Ave. Richmond, www.richmondartcenter.org.
Second Saturday Reception, Feb. 11, 7-10 p.m., with the Broun Fellinis Live Jazz Event at the Museum of the African Diaspora. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents “Clas/sick Hip Hop,” a dance and music double bill featuring Amy O’Neal’s Opposing Forces and UnderCover Presents: A Tribute to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on Feb. 16-18.
Young women, looking confident and tough enough to tackle Trump, showed up in force for the Women’s March in Oakland on Jan. 21. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
V-Day at UC Berkeley! “The Vagina Monologues” will be performed Thursday-Friday, Feb. 9-10, 7:20-10:00 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 12, 1:30-5:00 in the Pauley Ballroom, ASUC MLK Student Union, 2495 Bancroft Way at the intersection of Telegraph and Bancroft, Berkeley. “The Vagina Monologues” is an episodic play written by Eve Ensler. It is performed in communities and on college campuses across the nation to raise awareness to issues that affect women.
Proceeds from the event are donated to local organizations that support and provide resources for survivors of sexual violence and other forms of gendered violence. This year one of these organizations is California Coalition for Women Prisoners. The theme for this year’s UC Berkeley production of “The Vagina Monologues” is “Healing as Resistance: Stories of Radical Self-Love.” ADA accessible. For information: [email protected].
“Black Virgins Aren’t for Hipsters” is back! Feb. 10 (8 p.m.), 11 (8 p.m.) and 19 (5 p.m.) at Tribe Oakland, 3303 San Pablo Ave., Oakland.
“Black Choreographers Festival Here and Now 2017” is Feb. 11-26 in Oakland and San Francisco. Featured on Feb. 11-12, in Oakland at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., are Delina Patrice Brooks (film screening and conversation on Sunday only), Alexander Zander Brown and the Earth Dance Mafia, Ibrahima Diouf, Deborah Vaughan and Dimensions Dance Theater, Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Saturday only), Nafi Watson and the Bahiya Movement (Sunday only) and Phylicia Stroud. Featured in San Francisco at Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St., Feb. 18-19 are Byb Chanel Bibene and the Kiandanda Dance Theater, Gregory Dawson, dawsondancesf, Maurya Kerr and tinypistol, Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Sunday only), Robert Moses and Robert Moses’ Kin, and Raissa Simpson and PUSH Dance Company. Featured Feb. 25-26 in San Francisco are Chris Evans, dana e. fitchett, Ashley Gayle and Noah James, Stephanie Hewett, Sheena Johnson, Erik Lee, Carmen Román (film screening on Saturday only), Dazaun Soleyn, Nafi Watson and the Bahiya Movement (Saturday only), and Jamie Wright and The DanceWright Project (Sunday only). Tickets are $10-$30. To reserve tickets online for the first weekend in Oakland, visit brownpapertickets.com/event 2793342. To reserve tickets online for the following two weekends in San Francisco, visit brownpapertickets.com/event/2793299. Group discounts are available for groups of 10 or more: Call 866-553-5885.
Book event: David Billings, author of “Deep Denial,” will be speaking at the North Berkeley Library at 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19. (The library is being opened especially for this event.) He’s then speaking that evening, 6-9 p.m., at the Eric Quesada Center, 518 Valencia St., San Francisco.
Sunday, Feb. 12, Jazz in the Neighborhood presents Eclectic Squeezebox Orchestra with Avotcja and School of the Arts Latin Big Band led by Melecio Magdaluyo, at 5:30-9 p.m. at DOC’s LAB, 124 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, $10; tickets: http://www.ticketfly.com/event/1410547-electric-squeezebox-orchestra-san-francisco/.
“Music of the Word” at Cesar Chavez Library in Oakland, 3-5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, 3301 East 12th St. at 33rd Avenue. Visit http://www.avotcja.org/upcoming-events.html. Kahil El’Zabar and the New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble at EastSide Arts Sunday, Feb. 5, 6-8 p.m., 2277 International Blvd, Oakland, www.eastsideartsalliance.org.
Living Artist presents artworks that include goauche paintings, fused glass and mixed media, photo prints and prints embracing humanity at the Laurel Bookstore, 1423 Broadway, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, 5-8 p.m. is the reception. Oakland Museum’s “All Power to the People: The Black Panthers at 50” closes Feb. 26. Don’t miss it or the special programs. Visit museumca.org.
The 3.9 Art Collective presents ‘A Call for Beauty’
“A Call for Beauty,” curated by the 3.9 Art Collective, is up through Feb. 28 at Root Division, 1131 Mission St., San Francisco. Gallery hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 2-6 p.m., 415-863-7668 or [email protected]. The 3.9 Art Collective took its name from a report in the San Francisco Bay View newspaper of draft 2010 Census figures saying the city’s Black population had decreased dramatically – to 3.9 percent of the total population – and adopted the statistic as an act of resistance.
“The word ‘Black’ now is synonymous with ‘vanishing’,” the collective writes on its website. “According to the 2010 census, the African American population in San Francisco has declined to 3.9 percent, in a city that has always considered its cultural diversity as one of its strengths. Where once stood a people who were vibrant, productive and an integral part of the city’s daily life, African Americans are on the verge of dissident status.
“This collective, created by San Francisco artists Nancy Cato, Rodney Ewing, Sirron Norris, William Rhodes and Ron Moultrie Saunders, has adopted this statistic and forged a banner of support and resistance. Their work represents their creative contribution to the African American existence, enriching the greater San Francisco artistic community with their narratives and perspectives born from being members of a diaspora community. The work may not stem on the side of exodus, but to paraphrase the poet Dylan Thomas: ‘We will not go quietly into that good night.’”
Six days a week, Lava Mae’s two buses and one trailer roll up to different spots throughout San Francisco. Equipped with bathroom and shower stalls that hook up to fire hydrants, they provide 20 minutes of privacy, cleanliness, comfort and “radical hospitality” to those who need it.
‘Coming Clean San Francisco’
“Coming Clean San Francisco” is a multi-media exhibition amplifying the intimate experience of homelessness through the artist’s lens. A cultural intervention and a first time collaboration between Fouladi Projects and Lava Mae based on a shared belief that art as a cultural tool has the capacity to elicit a visceral, almost cellular reaction in a way information cannot, challenging us to push beyond the stereotypes that frame our current perceptions.
“Coming Clean SF” will feature weekly evening programming at Fouladi Projects, 1803 Market St. at Guerrero, San Francisco, 415-621-2535 gallery, 415-425-2091 cell. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 12-6 p.m. Artists include Amy Wilson Faville, Elizabeth Lo, Danielle Nelson Mourning, Ramekon O’Arwisters, Joel Daniel Phillips, Yon Sim and Kathryn Spence. The exhibit is on view Jan. 10 through Feb. 25.
The Wattis Institute presents Tongo Eisen-Martin
Artist David Hammons has spent a lot of time with poets over the years – Darius James, Steve Cannon, Ben Okri, the late John Farris, to name a few. San Francisco poet Tongo Eisen-Martin spends a lot of time with other poets. For this event, he brings together his community of peers for an evening of poetry and performance. This event, Feb. 21, 7 p.m., at the California College of the Arts Wattis Institute, 360 Kansas St., between 16th and 17th streets, in San Francisco, features performances by poets Josiah Alderete, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Raina Leon and Andrea Murphy and music by Lewis Jordan and Akinyele Sadiq.
This is the seventh event in CCA’s The Wattis Institute’s year-long season about and around the work of David Hammons.
Shola Adisa-Farrar performs live in California for the first time since the release of her debut album, “Lost Myself.” She has two Bay Area dates: Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the Black Cat, San Francisco, two sets, first at 9:30 p.m. Reservations should be made at http://www.blackcatsf.com/event/shola-adisa-farrar or by calling 415-358-1999.
The second show is Thursday, Feb. 16, at the Soundroom, Oakland. The concert begins at 8pm. Doors open at 7 p.m. For tickets, go to http://m.bpt.me/event/2777325.
The Mighty Ring Shout and Its Spirituals
At the West Oakland Branch Library, 1801 Adeline St., Saturday, Feb. 18, 1-3:30 p.m., Friends of the Negro Spirituals (FNS) will present an education program consisting of a presentation on the amazingly exciting, often high energy and almost forgotten Ring Shout, which includes African traditions of call and response, dance, storytelling, African spirituality, communicating in code and honoring the ancestors.
With audience participation, Angela Thomas, FNS’ education co-chair and song leader, will demonstrate singing the shout spirituals, handclapping and beating the stick that takes place in the Ring Shout; there will be video clips of it also.
Come prepared to learn what the Ring Shout is. What are its origins and meanings? Was it a new song created by enslaved Africans and African Americans to replace older traditions outlawed by their captives?
African American Quilt Guild of Oakland’s Annual Demonstration
Celebrate African American History Month with the African American Quilt Guild of Oakland’s Annual Demonstration and Workshop. Supplies will be provided so that you can make your own quilt. All levels and ages are welcome, at the West Oakland Library, 1801 Adeline St., Saturday, Feb. 25, 1-4 p.m.
‘Star Trek: 50 Artists. 50 Years’ at Chabot Space and Science Center
On Friday, Feb. 3, from 6 to 10 p.m., as part of the $5 First Friday, Chabot presents a galactic night of exploration into the cosmos and beyond, celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Star Trek” and the opening of “50 Artists. 50 Years.” Visitors will participate in fun, interactive and family-oriented activities exploring the intersection of art and science throughout the center.
On Saturday, Feb. 18, from 6 to 10 p.m., adult visitors will have their last chance to experience “Star Trek: 50 Artists. 50 Years” during a themed closing reception with space-inspired cocktails, a hands-on Theremin live musical performance and space music-making demonstration highlighting the evening. Visitors will also learn about the possibility of life on other planets from Berkeley SETI Research Center Chief Scientist and Star Trek fan Dan Werthimer, among other activities sure to “engage” the most avid “Star Trek” fan. The Feb. 18 event is ages 21-and-over only. Stay updated on additional event highlights soon to be announced at www.chabotspace.org
Oakland Symphony Essentials preview Event Feb. 7 at Oakland Intertribal Friendship House
Music Director Michael Morgan and the Oakland Symphony continue their annual exploration of world orchestral music traditions this season with “Notes from Native America,” Friday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre. The concert will feature music by award-winning composers Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and John Wineglass plus Northern California’s own Su-Nu-Nu-Shinal Pomo Dancers. The Symphony will perform “Clans” and “Hymns” from Tate’s “Lowak Shoppala” (“Fire and Light”) with narrator and men’s chorus and Wineglass’ “Big Sur: The Night Sun.” Completing the program will be Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.
The Symphony’s “Notes from …” series has become a popular mainstay of the Bay Area music scene and annually explores symphonic music, both new and traditional, from cultures that may be less well known to audiences. Free lobby entertainment, no-host drinks and pre-concert talk begin at 7 pm. Tickets are priced $25-$80 and may be purchased at www.OaklandSymphony.org.
In addition to the concert, Oakland Symphony will present a special pre-concert Essentials event Tuesday, Feb. 7, 6:30-8:30 pm. The free admission evening will feature talk and performances by flutist Emiliano Campobello, vocalist Kanyon Sayers-Roods, Vincent Medina, Michael Bellanger, All Nations Drum and Yvonne Marshall. Food will be provided by Wahpepah’s Kitchen. Intertribal Friendship House is located at 523 International Blvd in Oakland. The event is free, but reservations are required, at https://oaklandsymphonyessentials-notesofnativeamerica.eventbrite.com.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’
Raoul Peck, director of “I Am Not Your Negro,” reflects on James Baldwin’s ability to articulate the cognitive dissonance Peck felt as a Diaspora man born in Haiti, who came of age in Patrice Lumumba’s Democratic Republic of Congo. Tossed abroad on waves of political uncertainly and unrest, young Peck, at the age of 8, and Baldwin, at 24, both knew exile. Though he attended schools in the United States, France and Germany, the splayed root worker finds his voice in the work of Baldwin. Peck says: “James Baldwin was one of the few authors I could call ‘my own’ – authors who were speaking of a world I knew, in which I was not just a footnote or a third-rate character. They were telling stories describing history and defining structures and human relationships that matched what I was seeing around me.” He says, “I could relate to [him].”
“I Am Not Your Negro,” which opens theatrically Feb. 3 nationwide, presented an opportunity for the director to play it forward, to salute Baldwin at a time when no one but a James Baldwin would admit that the emperor has taken off his robes. Just this truth, stated in Baldwin’s matter-of-fact tone or uttered similarly by Samuel Jackson (narrator), makes the film refreshing. Equally compelling is Baldwin’s voice reflecting aloud what it meant to lose his friend Martin, after losing Medgar and Malcolm. He says he is not going to weep at King’s funeral, then stumbles into Harry Belafonte’s arms.
The friendship and political collaboration between James Baldwin and Medgar Evers is discussed in the new film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” illustrated by this photo. In the top right corner of the photo, upside down, is written “March63,” probably the month it was taken. If so, this was just three months before Evers was assassinated in his driveway – probably this driveway – on June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, by a white supremacist.
A man of strong emotions, we feel the loss as director Raoul Peck moves the lens from then to now, from Mississippi to Ferguson. Baldwin states, “The story of the Negro is the story of America,” as the activist’s voice collides with lyrics: “I am a Black man in a white world” while images of white youth holding bats face Martin Luther King and other freedom fighters ready to die for democracy – if this is what it would take.
This discovery of a text, a forgotten, unfinished, unpublished text of his hero is the stuff of fairytales and wishful thinking. Could Peck believe his good fortune? What spin would he put on Baldwin’s words? How would he translate the work into a visual medium? For ten years, Peck has had access to Baldwin’s writings and the blessings of Baldwin’s sister Gloria Karefa-Smart, who after giving Peck keys to the treasure, shared a “pile of neatly (and partly crossed out) typewritten pages and letter” with the director. This last bit of writing just what Peck needed and forms the nexus of the work. These typed words open the film, give it context and history, the prelude the story of a nation, a nation built on a legacy of racism and white supremacy.
What house does Baldwin reference in his working manuscript title, “Remember This House”? He speaks often of houses in his work, whether that is a solitary room in a house, a street that talks about houses and the people that live in them or the absence of many houses on mountain tops.
Death sets up a certain dilemma, art often a way to unpack the heaviness attached to grief and loss. In 1979, Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent about a new project, one where he would examine the lives of three men who were killed within five years of one another: Medger Evers (June 12, 1963), Malcolm X (Feb. 21, 1965) and Martin King (April 4, 1968).
Malcolm X is surrounded by reporters in this photo from the film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” which uses many historic photos that, like this one, are not well known.
Not only does Peck give the 30-page manuscript a place to stretch, the film also hosts Baldwin as interlocutor along the thematic tightrope he has walked all his life. Peck’s film is perhaps a sequel to the powerful tribute to Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket” (1989), directed by Karen Thorsen.
“Remember This House” stands as kindling is stacked against the barn next to the kerosene next to a box of matches. If Baldwin’s seminal essay collections, “The Fire Next Time,” juxtaposed with “Notes of a Native Son” and the “The Price of the Ticket,” serve as prelude, then what Peck has crafted here in Baldwin’s words against a backdrop of historic and contemporary images and music is a call to action fueled by pertinent yet unanswered questions.
The film is methodic and slow. It is as if we are on a train, perhaps a Mule Train, like the one assembled for the Poor People’s Campaign Settlement at the capital in spring 1968 – a trip Martin King missed, felled by an assassin’s bullet.
Baldwin is such an analytical thinker that “I Am Not Your Negro” requires a certain commitment to truth. Peck’s film and Baldwin’s words are an American history primer “For DUMMYS ®” – it is a civil rights march through a history papered by Black bodies hanging, buried and butchered. Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” challenges audiences, a challenge significantly lightened by a charismatic Baldwin who appears often on screen in the film with his lovely laugh, humor and riveting eyes.
He has a way of laughing the initial sting away; however, the grandson of enslaved Africans does not forget or let anyone else forget what it feels like to be Black and American then or now.
Nambi E. Kelley’s ‘Native Son’ at MTC
For those who don’t know author Richard Wright, his seminal text, “Native Son,” looks at the made in America phenomenon, the American Negro. Both Wright and Mary Shelley situate their tales in bleak, dark settings where the protagonists, Bigger Thomas and the creature (Adam) are pawns in creation mythologies authored by devils, the Daltons and Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Perhaps more native or indigenous because of its patent, the protagonist Bigger Thomas has issue with the psychic occupation he feels every day of his life. There is no slumber, no rest. He says, “They own the world,” as whiteness intrudes his waking dreams. Frankenstein’s creature agrees when he learns sadly that his master both fears and hates him.
Playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Wright’s novel (1940) for stage, under the direction of Seret Scott at the Marin Theatre Company with a cast handpicked for the synergy created in their portrayal of this iconic, historic character, resonates a century later at a time when Black lives still do not matter. The world young Bigger, 20, was being birthed into was not one he looked forward to. His mother Hannah recalls her boy’s reticence to enter a world meant to destroy him – if not his life, then his dreams. Her son did not want to leave the sanctity of the womb, a place where there was comfort, love and safety for a place he knew instinctively he would not find the same nurturing or support.
In the Marin Theatre Company production of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” William Hartfield plays The Black Rat and Jerod Haynes is Bigger. – Photo: Kevin Berne
Home for Bigger is a place where he is surrounded by enemies whom he was powerless to defend himself against – he could not even escape them in his dreams, as whiteness seemed to control everything his mind touched. Similar to other iconic Black warriors castrated during puberty rites, like Malcolm Little and even the fictional Walter Lee II, Bigger doesn’t stand a chance.
When Bigger is offered a job by his slumlord apartment owners, he is not grateful; he takes the job because his mother all but forces him into it. Driving rich white people around does nothing for his ego – it’s not his car, and white people make the youth nervous, especially his boss’s daughter, Mary, and her communist boyfriend, Jan; both drink too much and both want to be his friend.
As the two sandwich Bigger between then and offer him a drink from a decanter, he wishes they would stop intruding into spaces carefully designed to keep the races apart. He is well-rehearsed in his role and knows such familiarity can only lead to his destruction. His stage manager is The Black Rat, a clever creature whom Bigger knows intimately.
Bigger tries to kill or silence the rat who keeps showing up in his apartment, but the creature won’t die. Similar to a whiteness which colors his aspirations or life, Black Rat advises Bigger, rehearses his lines with him, like a catechism: “You are nothing; you will amount to nothing.” The two are connected at the hip, conjoined, inseparable – yet even here, Kelley and Wright’s Bigger is allowed agency. The murders he commits real, yet also symbolic.
Though Bigger knows his role well, there is a part of him that refuses to settle for such a dismal life – he remembers his father’s death. He went out with a blaze, like a comet. Yet, all the native son feels is fear. He is so frightened by a life shrouded in Blackness.
Giulio Cesare Perrone’s set is stark, empty – the scaffolding suggests a psychic and material interior we do not see. There is nothing between Bigger and the world – no insulation, no walls, no heat, no love. He lives in the “between,” neither here nor there. His only solace is following the rules which Black Rat reminds him of. Bigger is subject to all the elements – freezing cold when we meet him and blazing heat when he gets the position at the Daltons.
The Daltons’s system of economic exclusion as property owners and developers incubate a reality which produces boys like Bigger Thomas. How can the Black boy dream when he cannot see beyond the confines of the prison where he and his family are entrapped? Yet, if not for himself, Bigger dreams for Buddy, his brother, who is smart. He dreams a legitimate life for his gifted sibling.
It is almost as if Mrs. Dalton, like Oedipus, blinds herself. However, the self-mutilation is not out of shame. She and Mr. Dalton are blind to their systemic acts of terrorism. Hannah, Bigger’s mother, knows there are other more attractive apartments available, but Dalton Associates will not rent these flats to Black people. Mr. Dalton’s gifts to the NAACP and to local recreation centers where Bigger plays pool have no impact on the trajectory Bigger and other Biggers find themselves tumbling into. Reminiscent of Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool” (1960), Wright’s nemesis is “real cool. He left school. Lurk(s) late. Strikes straight. Sing(s) sin. Think(s) gin. Jazz(es) June. Die(s) (all too) soon.”
With Jerod Haynes as Bigger are Rosie Hallett as Mary and Courtney Walsh as Mrs. Dalton in the MTC staging of “Native Son.” – Photo: Kevin Berne
Actualized only by his criminal behavior, Bigger is anonymous until he is “wanted.” OJ Simpson suffers a similar fate when he is accused of killing his white wife. Murder is his claim to fame. It is as if this monstrosity is central to Black manhood. Even Jan, Mary Dalton’s communist friend, fails to own his part in the tragedy. Whiteness does not ask for self-reflection, so as Bigger and Black Rat reflect on circumstances and try to do a bit of damage control themselves and can’t, they realize that the world Bigger occupies means nothing but trouble for the Black man.
That Mrs. Dalton so easily jokes with Bigger about her blindness and how easily it was for her to give it up, points philosophically to an innate callousness and carelessness of the system of white supremacy and racial hatred.
Bigger is beaten physically by the police when he tries to protect his mother, and psychologically by the world, which only works for white people. There is no reward, so Bigger runs, chased by nightmares all too real. Even if he is the only one who can see and hear Black Rat, whom the family thinks is dead, until Black Rat reappears like a talisman. Black families on Chicago’s Southside know there is no poison strong enough to rid their lives of this pestilence. Black Rat’s reincarnation is guaranteed by societal circumstances then and now. It is what W.E.B Dubois calls double consciousness – the public and the interior self – The Rat vs. Bigger Thomas.
Bigger despises not just the white world, more so he despises his cowardliness, that is, until he musters nerve to slay the ghost which haunts him. Only then can he stand as a man, and stop running. Only then does the fear dissipate like the filament of a bad dream. Rat and Bigger struggle for life – however, Black Rat has to die for Bigger to live. Rat is an accommodationist, while Bigger wants to be a man. Rat would settle for being a Negro, a manufactured concoction no one respects, not even other Negroes, but, given the duality, when Bigger disappears, so does he.
From Chicago native Jerod Haynes in the title role and his alter-ego, William Hartfield’s The Black Rat, to Rosie Hallet as Mary, the rich girl who tips the cart over, she and her boyfriend Jan (Adam Magill) responsible for the immediate mess; to Ryan Nicole Austin’s “Bessie,” Bigger’s girl whose love for the “monster” gives her a hangover. Then there is Dane Troy’s Buddy, Bigger’s kid brother who sees through Bigger’s bravado to his fears and C. Kelly Wright’s Hannah, Bigger’s mother, who pushes her son and pushes her son until he backs into himself.
The Bigger Thomas story situated in the rest of the world, the part that counts, is occupied by others – others like Mary’s parents, the intentionally blinded Mrs. Dalton (actress Courtney Walsh) and her husband and the detective (actor Patrick Kelly Jones). There is no compassion for Bigger or his family or his community. In fact, some Black people are angry and afraid Bigger’s criminal behavior will further reduce the size of the Negro world and make it harder for them to live in communities white America has allowed them access. They have gotten used to going without, not so Bigger, who is a lot like his dad.
Don’t miss this riveting production at Marin Theatre Company through Feb. 12 that put Nambi E. Kelley’s “Native Son” at the center of its 50th anniversary season. MTC is located at 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Visit marintheatre.org or call 415-388-5208.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at [email protected]. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.
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