Three books arrived recently to join the veritable forest of tomes crowding the space around my desk. Soaring atop the stack, and rightfully so, was “Sacred Nile” (BCH Fulfilment & Distribution, 2021) by noted photographer/historian Chester Higgins with text by Betsy Kissam. The book is a fabulous collection of Higgins’ photos and on every page it’s perfectly accompanied by Kissam’s informative text.
From the opening photo and caption, Kemet (Egypt) where King Ramses is depicted kneeling to be anointed by the Holy Father to the book’s end with a beautiful shot of Tis Esat, the Blue Nile Falls, Higgins and Kissam invite and then enthrall readers with the wondrous history that has blossomed along the fertile river. Ancient Kemet, and especially Ethiopia and Nubia have been constants for Higgins’ camera and journeys, and that devotion leaps from the pages in colorful images of people, artifacts, and the Nile’s glorious effusions.
Everything about the book from its title to the combined wisdom of the authors is sacred. With each reading a Higgins photo or the words of Kissam takes you deeper into the mystery and majesty of these splendid kingdoms. This is a book that Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Dr. John Henrik Clarke would cherish it, and it’s one that should stand for the ages it has so remarkably captured.
“Sometimes Farmgirls Become Revolutionaries—Notes on Black Power, Politics, Depression, and the FBI” (Black Classic Press, 2021) by Florence L. Tate and Jake-Ann Jones chronicles the social and political activism Tate delivered to a sundry of organizations at home and abroad. Tate joined the ancestors in 2014 but leaves behind an autobiography that vividly details her journey and commitment as a “movement” woman. Her eventful life spanned the civil and human rights era, and she was a ubiquitous presence whether at the side of Marion Barry, SNCC, Kwame Ture, or the cadre of Pan-Africanists she befriended and shared a foxhole.
Two revealing episodes about her life will probably attract readers, particularly those of her movement cohort, will be her disclosure of the clinical depression (obviously exacerbated by the FBI’s harassment) that marked her days and her honest confession about her support for UNITA, the Angolan organization funded by the CIA and South Africa. Both situations are dispatched dispassionately with the kind of integrity that often characterized her fight against racism and imperialism. She was a caring mother, a dyed-in-the-wool freedom fighter, and one whose story should resonate for her former comrades and future revolutionaries.
Closer to my Harlem doorstop is Kevin McGruder’s “Philip Payton—The Father of Black Harlem” (Columbia University Press, 2021) and to some extent it picks up where the author left off in his book “Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890-1920.” In fact, it’s practically impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other, and McGruder’s meticulous concern for the facts and the community’s history are compelling. Not only in McGruder’s telling is Payton the centerpiece in Harlem’s development, particularly from a housing standpoint, but his life ramifies to touch so many vital aspects of Black America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Payton, as McGruder notes, did not allow his race to stultify his march to success, “I have not found my color an obstacle to my success,” he said, recounting the words of Booker T. Washington. And in many respects, he was Washington writ large in Harlem where his pioneering efforts opened an ever-widening path for those Black Americans who arrived in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a feisty Black urbanite who was determined to accommodate the housing aspirations of his people. McGruder’s portrait places him warts and all in the vortex of a Harlem coming of age.