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800px-Augusta_Savage2C_H-HNE-20-87Augusta Savage, 1892-1962, American sculptor, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary about a glamorous movie star who would have preferred to be recognized as the brilliant inventor that she actually was: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. And I realized that lately I seem to be learning about many women whose achievements failed to garner the fame of their male contemporaries.

No time like the present to start honoring them. Here is the story of an African-American sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance.

Wikipedia has a good entry. “Augusta Christine Fells was born in Green Cove Springs (near Jacksonville), Florida on February 29, 1892, to Edward Fells, a Methodist minister, and Cornelia Murphy. Augusta began making figures as a child, mostly small animals out of the natural red clay of her hometown, Green Cove Springs Florida.

“Her father was a poor Methodist minister who strongly opposed his daughter’s early interest in art. ‘My father kicked me four or five times a week,’ Savage once recalled. … She persevered, and the principal of her new high school in West Palm Beach, where her family relocated in 1915, encouraged her talent and allowed her to teach a clay modeling class. This began a lifelong commitment to teaching as well as to creating art.

“In 1907 Augusta Fells married John T. Moore. Her only child, Irene Connie Moore, was born the following year. John died shortly thereafter. In 1915, she married James Savage; she kept the name of Savage throughout her life. …

“In 1919 [she] was granted a booth at the Palm Beach County Fair where she was awarded a $25 prize and ribbon for most original exhibit. Following this success, she sought commissions for work in Jacksonville, Florida, before departing for New York City in 1921. She arrived with a letter of recommendation from the Palm Beach County Fair official George Graham Currie for sculptor Solon Borglum and $4.60. Borglum declined to take her as a student, but encouraged her to apply to Cooper Union in New York City where she was admitted in October 1921.

“She was selected before 142 other men on the waiting list. Her talent and ability so impressed the Cooper Union Advisory Council that she was awarded additional funds for room and board when she lost the financial support of her job as an apartment caretaker. …

“In 1923 Savage applied for a Summer art program sponsored by the French government; although being more than qualified, she was turned down by the international judging committee solely because she was a black person. … The incident got press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, and eventually, the sole supportive committee member sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil – who at one time had shared a studio with Henry Ossawa Tanner – invited her to study with him. She later cited him as one of her teachers.

“After completing studies at Cooper Union, Savage worked in Manhattan steam laundries to support herself and her family. … During this time she obtained her first commission for a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois for the Harlem Library. Her outstanding sculpture brought more commissions, including one for a bust of Marcus Garvey. Her bust of William Pickens Sr., a key figure in the NAACP, earned praise for depicting an African American in a more humane, neutral way as opposed to stereotypes of the time. …

“Knowledge of Savage’s talent and struggles became widespread in the African-American community; fundraising parties were held in Harlem and Greenwich Village, and African-American women’s groups and teachers from Florida A&M all sent her money for studies abroad. …

“Savage received a commission from the 1939 New York World’s Fair; she created Lift Every Voice and Sing (also known as ‘The Harp’), inspired by the song by James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson. The 16-foot-tall plaster sculpture was the most popular and most photographed work at the fair; small metal souvenir copies were sold, and many postcards of the piece were purchased. … Savage did not have funds to have it cast in bronze or to move and store it. Like other temporary installations, the sculpture was destroyed at the close of the fair. …

“In 1945 Savage moved to Saugerties, New York. … While she was all but forgotten at the time of her death, Savage is remembered today as a great artist, activist, and arts educator; serving as an inspiration to the many that she taught, helped, and encouraged.”

More at Wikipedia, here. I love all the random details at Wikipedia — like her cultivating a garden at her Saugerties home and selling pigeons, chickens and eggs. Check it out.

Photo: Andrew Herman
Augusta Savage posing with her sculpture
Realization, 1938, created as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.

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Although black history is not a one-month-a-year-thing, having a dedicated month does seem to turn up stories that might not otherwise be heard. I got this one from the BBC television show Our Classical Century, “a celebration of the most memorable musical moments from 1918 – 2018,” which focused on broadening the audience for classical music.

In this episode, Sir Lenny Henry expressed admiration for forgotten black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

“I have been enthralled and captivated by the story of a man from Croydon in south London who died more than 100 years ago and who wrote one of the biggest musical hits of the 20th century. He was a total genius – a bit like Prince, but for late 19th-century London rather than 1980s California – and his name was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. …

“Young Samuel was brought up by his mother and her extended family in Croydon. He never met his doctor father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, who was originally from Sierra Leone and had come here to study medicine in London. …

“The family clubbed together to pay Samuel’s fees at the Royal College of Music, which he entered at 15 as a violin scholar. But the violin was set to one side and composition took centre stage and he was taken under the wing of the composer and conductor Charles Villiers Stanford. … For two years running, Coleridge-Taylor won the RCM’s Lesley Alexander composition prize and was championed by Edward Elgar, who recommended the talented young composer for a major commission – an orchestral work for the Three Choirs festival, his Ballade in A Minor, opus 33.

“The thing I like about Coleridge-Taylor is that he fought adversity to reach the top. He suffered racial abuse at school – apparently he even had his hair set on fire – but remained dignified. His compositions are dynamic, bold, incredibly melodic and immediately accessible. I was blown away. And I wasn’t the only one. He was known as the ‘African Mahler’ and his success stretched far and wide.

“In the US, he was a household name in his lifetime, and travelled there by invitation of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington DC in 1904, and again in 1906 and 1910. The US marines band were engaged for his first performance and 2,700 people were in the audience, two-thirds of whom were black. He went on to compose Twenty Four Negro Melodies and Five Choral Ballads after that visit. He became interested in interpreting African American melodies, writing: ‘What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies.’ When success hit, he used it to tell stories about his racial origins in a musical way that might uplift others.

“His best known work, ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, part of the cantata trilogy ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ premiered in 1898 to huge acclaim, and went on to play, with the other two parts in a semi-staged version, at the Royal Albert Hall for a fortnight in June every year for almost 30 years in the interwar years. …

“But Coleridge-Taylor never got to enjoy his success – he died tragically young, aged 37, of pneumonia in 1912 – illness said to have been brought on by overwork. Nor did his family enjoy the financial fruits of Hiawatha’s success – the composer had sold the publishing rights to it to Ivor Novello’s company for a low flat fee.

“[My family] never went to a concert hall, and I didn’t see any black musicians. When I finally heard a live orchestra as an adult, it hit me like lightning. … Perhaps it’s time for everyone to take a fresh look at classical music and put aside the stereotypes. … This is our music – it’s music for everyone.”

More here.

Photo: Hulton/Getty
The multitalented 19th-century British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was best known for “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.”

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sheku-kanneh-mason-2-credit-lars-borgesPhoto: Lars Borges
As of February 2, 18-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason was 2018’s best-selling British debut artist – across all genres.

Here’s another story celebrating a young person who thinks differently and opens a new path. He’s a musician in the United Kingdom who refuses to limit himself to one kind of music — and shows that one can excel in different genres.

Katy Wright at Rhinegold Publishing reports, “Sheku Kanneh-Mason has become this year’s best-selling British debut artist – across all genres – to enter the Top 20 in the Official UK Albums Chart with his album Inspiration.

“The release, which features repertoire ranging from Shostakovich to Bob Marley, has entered the main chart at No. 18, and is at No. 1 in the classical chart.

“The 18-year-old is the first BBC Young Musician to break into the pop chart with his debut album, as well as the youngest cellist ever to reach the Top 20 and the youngest classical artist to break into the Official UK Albums Chart in almost a decade. …

“The album … features Shostakovich’s first cello concerto – the piece which propelled Sheku to fame as the first black winner of BBC Young Musician in the competition’s 38-year history – and Kanneh-Mason’s own arrangement of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’.

“Kanneh-Mason is the top streamed young classical artist, having received 2.5 million streams on Spotify alone.”

Wikipedia adds some biographical details. “Sheku Kanneh-Mason grew up in Nottingham, England. He is the third eldest of the seven children of Stuart Mason (a business manager) and Kadiatu Kanneh (a former university lecturer), and began playing the cello at the age of six, having briefly played the violin. At the age of nine, he passed the Grade 8 cello examination with the highest marks in the UK, and won the Marguerite Swan Memorial Prize. …

“In 2015, he and his siblings were competitors on Britain’s Got Talent as The Kanneh-Masons. He won the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year contest in May 2016, later telling The Observer that appearing on Britain’s Got Talent had been ‘a good experience for getting used to performing in front of lots of people, with cameras and interviews.’ …

“Kanneh-Mason is a member of the Chineke! Orchestra, which was founded by Chi-chi Nwanoku for black and minority ethnic classical musicians. …

“In 2016, Kanneh-Mason told The Guardian‘s Tom Service that ‘Chineke! is a really inspiring project. I rarely go to a concert and see that kind of diversity in the orchestra. Or in the audience. Having the orchestra will definitely change the culture.’ …

“In January 2018, it was reported that Kanneh-Mason had donated £3,000 to his former secondary school, enabling ten other pupils to continue their cello lessons.” More at Wikipedia, here.

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Photo: Craig T. Mathew / Mathew Imaging
Morris Robinson and Brenton Ryan in L.A. Opera’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio.”

Yesterday my husband and I were talking about Swedenborgianism. I’m not sure why. The little I know comes from an obscure 1876 Wilkie Collins novel called Two Destinies. From that I learned that followers of Swedenborg believe that nothing but trouble can result from trying to avoid your destiny.

Whether or not bad things would have happened to Morris Robinson if he kept running from his destiny, I can’t say, but as Christopher Smith writes in the Los Angeles Times, it sure took the acclaimed bass a long time to embrace it.

“Opera,” writes Smith, “is often called the most irrational art form. Seen through that lens, bass singer Morris Robinson’s unlikely career path makes wonderful sense.

“At a young age, from a family and culture that reveres singing, Robinson aspired to be a drummer instead. He ignored college music scholarships and conservatory programs for a free-ride to play football at a military college. Afterward, bypassing all thought of studying music at grad school, he worked for a Fortune 500 company in regional sales of data storage.

“At 30, in finally attempting to sing professionally, he tried out for the chorus of ‘Aida’ at the Boston Lyric Opera, the biggest company in New England. A week later, the music director handed him music for a solo role, accompanied by a plea: ‘Please don’t screw it up.’

‘A lot of the purists, they don’t believe my story,’ Robinson said. ‘They don’t believe it until they witness it themselves.’ …

“Now 47 and equipped with 18 years of major roles with A-list companies nationally and internationally, Robinson has forged a life path in opera that seems inevitable in retrospect. After all, he was ‘the rare person,’ L.A. Opera music director James Conlon said, ‘born with the great voice where strength predates technique. It’s a round, large voice.’ …

“But throughout his life he seemed to ignore, even actively ward off, singing — though it was always around him.

“Raised in a musical clan in Atlanta, Robinson had a dad, mom and three young sisters who all sang. Around 6, he participated in a church choir and then the Atlanta Boy Choir, alternately immersed in religious and secular music.

“But singing was at best a backdrop, maybe even an obstacle. …

“ ‘To me, at heart, I was a drummer. Because if you’re going to be in a church in the South, there has to be rhythm. It was always about beats, beats, beats.’

“He entered a performing arts high school. His senior year he made all-city band and all-state chorus.

“But all he really cared about? Football. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in the high 200s, he was aware ‘the cool guys are out there making plays on the football field while you are wearing your uniforms, marching around at halftime. … Who wants to do that?

“ ‘I had to redeem myself, my masculinity, I guess.’ ”

Read how Robinson kept resisting the inevitable and how destiny got the last say, here.

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The Concord Museum has an exhibit on dollhouses right now, and I walked over to check it out. I’ve always liked dollhouses and even sought out one for Suzanne  when she was in utero.

At the museum, children were playing happily with the sturdy contemporary dollhouse they were allowed to touch, but I suspect the people most intrigued by the glassed-in displays from the Strong Museum and various private collectors were the adults.

The Concord Museum is a history museum, and so I was less troubled by the accurate recreation of inequality in the miniature scenes than by the lack of relevant commentary in the placards. I couldn’t help thinking, for example, that some of the black schoolchildren who pass through the museum might be troubled by one dollhouse and might appreciate some discussion of the life of the servants in the attic and kitchen. But the placard was silent about wealth, poverty, and the legacy of slavery.

Another aspect of social history that seems fundamental to a discussion of dollhouses involves the many women who created them as a hobby.

Women who had servants in the attic and the kitchen were not folding the laundry. They were not cooking or tidying up. They were not raising their children. They did not have jobs. In short, they had almost nothing useful to do — a recipe for depression.

I often wonder about the psychological constraints that kept such women from giving themselves permission to go out into the world, as Jane Addams or Beatrix Potter did, each in her own way.

If making exquisite little worlds at home gave the dollhouse creators and their friends and families pleasure, that is a great thing in itself. If it represents a determination to create something fine when hardly any meaningful activity was allowed, then that is an even greater thing.

The dollhouse exhibit is up through January 15. Related events may be found here.

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An ESPN sports producer set out to do a piece on two high school wrestlers with disabilities. Today they think of her as family. Karen Given reports the story at WBUR radio’s Only a Game.

“Dartanyon Crockett … is legally blind. ‘Being a black kid in the inner city with physical limitations, or what people call a disability, you’re already written off,’ Dartanyon says. ‘No one expects much from you. You’re basically useless. And I wasn’t in a position where I could fix that.’ …

“So he pretended he could see. He joined his high school wrestling team and didn’t even tell the coaches. … Dartanyon didn’t want the coaches to treat him any differently, so they didn’t. Then one day during senior year, Leroy Sutton joined the wrestling team at Lincoln-West High School in Cleveland. Dartanyon was one of the team captains, and he wasn’t the least bit worried that his team’s new recruit was missing something. Well, two somethings.

” ‘We were talking in the cafeteria, and I asked him what happened to his legs,’ Dartanyon says. ‘And he told me that, “Yeah, I was run over by a train.” And I laughed, one of those deep belly laughs. He had always heard the, “Oh, my god. Oh, I’m so sorry. Oh, how did that happen? Oh.” Just to see someone not feeling sorry for him, just kinda sparked a bond almost instantly.’ …

“Soon, Dartanyon was carrying Leroy on and off buses, up and down stairs and into the bleachers. …

” ‘I didn’t know he was blind,’ Leroy says. ‘I found out in class. I noticed he was, like, really close to the book we were reading. So I was like, all right, he has problems seeing. So I turned to a couple of the other students around me and I was, like, “Hey, man, let’s do this like a project style and read out loud.” ‘

“And that’s probably how things would have stayed, Dartanyon and Leroy helping each other out — both thinking it was no big deal — if not for an ESPN feature producer named Lisa Fenn.”

Fenn goes to interview them and is greeted by a coach who said that “he’d been praying really hard for Dartanyon and for Leroy because he felt, once they graduate, the world had nothing for kids like them.”

Turns out the world had quite a bit for them. But it took years. Read the whole story at “Only a Game,” here, because look:

Four years after they first met, Leroy “wrote Lisa a letter for Mother’s Day. … That letter is printed in Lisa’s new book, Carry On, A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family. …

When I first met you those were dark days,
In that time I was stuck in my dark way,
There was no light, so you set the world ablaze,
And you snapped me out of that phase,
Then you went further,
Showing me you cared,
Answering my calls now I know that you’ll be there,
Then you ask questions, so slowly I shared,
This world you showed me is simply more fair,
You pull me out of a world where it was not clear,
Glad you did, there was no more air,
But now these days I’m full of smile, and full of play,
Hope you feel loved today,
So I’d like to take this moment to say,
Thank you Mom.
I love you.

Photo: Brownie Harris
Leroy Sutton (left), Dartanyon Crockett (center) and Lisa Fenn, the ESPN producer who came to Cleveland to tell their story.

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Photo: Robert W Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Langston Hughes on the front steps of his house in Harlem, June 1958.

Before Suzanne and Erik moved to Providence, they were living in a lovely renovated brownstone in Harlem.

There’s a fine line between newcomers investing where there’s been too much disinvestment — and gentrification. The early changes seem to benefit a neighborhood and its people, but inevitably rising property values push out many longtime residents and institutions.

Today, a group of Harlem artists from various disciplines are banding together to keep a significant piece of the Harlem Renaissance around to nourish African American arts.

Tom Kutsch writes at the Guardian, “All that signifies the legacy of a house once occupied by the poet laureate of Harlem is a small bronze plaque, partially covered by a cedar tree’s branches and the green ivy that envelops much of the building.

“The onetime home of Langston Hughes has sat largely unoccupied for years, but a new movement is trying to reclaim, for a next generation of artists, the space of a man who is forever intertwined with the Harlem Renaissance.

“Spearheaded by writer, performer and educator Renée Watson, the collective effort is busily trying to raise the necessary funds to purchase a lease and make needed renovations to the house. …

“Watson plans to make the Hughes house the home of the I Too, Arts Collective that she launched alongside the effort, which aims to, in her words, have ‘programming that nurtures, amplifies, and honors work by and about people of color and people from other marginalized communities.’ …

“The collective gets its name from one of Hughes’s most famous poems – I, Too – in which his narrator concludes by intoning:

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

“Watson is using the crowdfunding website Indiegogo to solicit donations for the project, for which they’re hoping to raise at least $150,000 to cover a lease and begin the renovation process. By the time of publication, they had raised more than $54,000, already exceeding the $40,000 Watson says would cover at least a six-month lease. …

“For more than a century, Harlem has been inextricably linked to black life and culture in America; the birthplace of the aforementioned Harlem Renaissance, which fostered a wide array pre-eminent black artists and writers, from Zora Neale Hurston to Claude McKay and Duke Ellington. …

” ‘The erasure of black Harlem may come despite our best efforts …’ said Tracey Baptiste, a local children’s author who is involved with Watson’s collective. ‘But this project is about making sure that gentrification doesn’t also happen in the hearts and minds of our artists.’ ”

More here.

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