With the calendar about to flip and a new year dawning, it was time for some house cleaning, time to clear a veritable forest of book trees making the path to the computer all the more challenging. During a recent trip to Detroit, I dropped by the Charles Wright Museum of African-American History to chat with my friend Charles Ferrell, who produces some of the most enlightening political and cultural programs in the nation.
On tap that afternoon was the poet and activist Marvin X, and he gifted me with his latest book, “Notes of an Artistic Freedom Fighter Marvin X” (Black Bird Press, 2019). After his opening remarks in which he let the audience know that he was well aware of Detroit’s prominence in the Black Liberation struggle, ticking off names such as Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, the Bogges, General Baker and Imari Obadele, he read one of his favorite pieces. It was compelling, but my preference from a long list of essays was his review of the “Black Panther” film that still had traction.
“While the film is a political disaster by projecting African royalty with its tainted past and/or present, those enamored of African culture will enjoy a boost of cultural consciousness,” he observed. “We Africans are a beautiful people, a cultured people, a people of genius in science and technology. If ‘Black Panther’ replaces sagging pants with dashikis, surely, the film must be applauded.
“If it forces women to throw off their wigs as the woman did in the film, it must be applauded. The music, the chants, the communal dancing, the most colorful costumes and traditional ritual face makeup, should help Africanize a starving population of North American Africans. The technology seemed excessive, although we need to see African people utilizing science, technology, artificial intelligence, time travel.”
This kind of balance pertains in the book, although the bulk of his analysis leans perceptibly to keeping the Black Arts Movement alive, and that makes sense for someone who was/is a vital component of its maintenance.
Later that evening in Detroit, my lifelong comrade Ron Lockett took me to Trinosophes, a club near downtown where pianist Rod Williams was fronting an ensemble. Seated near me was Carole and Bill Harris, and like Marvin, I was given Bill’s latest book, “I Got to Keep Moving” (Wayne State University Press, 2018). It’s a collection of 25 short stories that are necklaced in a fashion resembling Jean Toomer’s “Cane,” and they resonate with the same passionate urgency and cultural integrity. Reading the first story reminded me of Marvin X’s description of coming of age in Fresno, Calif. The people very much resemble the inhabitants of Harris’ mythical and at times mystical homelands in Alabama.
The folk element is redolent as Harris introduces a number of residents who are reluctant to recount the atrocities of their past or they have deliberately put them into the deepest recesses of memory. But Harris is not silent; he speaks for them with that same poetic voice that is often so commanding in his plays. “It was in our ways of doing, in front of them,” he said of the collective survival of the folks against the forces of denial and racism. “Our walking, our wearing, our working that sprouted from the seeds of our need to air our common yearnings and have them recognized and welcomingly accepted and understood as useful, whether any or all of those things were through strength or by being sullen, daring, surly, dragging or through shared wisdom or charms, it gave us confidence in ourselves and became storied examples in our ability to have an inside self, and therefore a belief in our spirit to continue.”
Some of the Blacks in this realistically drawn Alabama landscape are so tough that “even the mules are jealous.” Harris has evoked a time and experience that many migrants from the territory, many who ventured from the menace of the Klan and white oppression, will remember and say amen.
Harris’ tales were still whispering to me when I returned to Harlem, and there waiting for me was Dorothy Butler Gilliam’s “Trailblazer—A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America” (Center Street, 2019). Suddenly, much of what Harris imagined, Gilliam had lived, coming of age in the segregated South and later working as a reporter covering some of the most eventful moments during the civil rights era.
Oddly enough, it was Gilliam’s trip to Africa in the summer of 1961 that proved pivotal in her becoming a trailblazer at The Washington Post. “The trip had given me a chance to show the editors that I could write and think broadly,” she recalled. “I had no experience writing under daily deadline pressure, and this was a real daily newspaper. The editors at the Post were taking a gamble on me. I had to prove I was up to the challenge. I had no idea how difficult or fulfilling that would be, or that I would spend nearly my entire career there.”
And what a productive and rewarding half-century it was, although that should not diminish the years she spent writing for African-American publications. One of the most exciting and harrowing episodes occurred with her first real assignment at the Post to cover James Meredith breaking the color barrier at the University of Mississippi. Readers will be interested to know her feelings about the photographer Ernest Withers, with whom she worked, on learning much later that he was a paid FBI informant.
Gilliam, like Ida B. Wells, Evelyn Cunningham, Era Bell Thompson and Ethel Payne, never shirked from duty or feared speaking truth to power. Her memoir is a chronicle of the nation’s history from a reporter who was an eyewitness and whose stories are as riveting as her own adventurous life.
Three of the book trees have fallen, but staring at me across the room, like a huge redwood, a sequoia of information, is Jeffrey Stewart’s enormous biography of Alain Locke. That’s going to take a Paul Bunyan effort.