Posts Tagged ‘black’

Photo: Dua Anjum.
“Poet Hiram Sims,” the Christian Science Monitor reports,” has given poetry a permanent home in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.

This is another story about how the Covid pandemic gave some people a moment of “not much going on” to pursue a dream.

Dua Anjum writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “From Hiram Sims’ earliest memory, poetry defined his inner world – songs of praise at his church choir; the rap lyrics of The Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, and Mase’s ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’; Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ in seventh grade.

“ ‘Poetry’s like a frequency that I can hear above all other frequencies,’ he says. … ‘When I hear that sound, I pay attention.’

“That sound became his favorite form of expression. As a kid, he wrote about candy, his thoughts about God, and a lot of verses for girls at school. In college, while he progressed to mature writing around the Black experience in America and the struggles of being young and broke, witty comic poems remained key to his repertoire. He chuckles recalling a poem comparing Ugg boots to rhinoceros feet. Now, he has published three collections of poetry and frequently writes love poems for his wife.

“While it was clear early that his calling was poetry, Mr. Sims remembers having an anchorless feeling: Poetry sections of libraries were rare, and the poetry scene was a series of countless borrowed spaces in restaurants, cafes, and bars. It felt like ‘poetry is homeless because it’s constantly couch surfing,’ says Mr. Sims, who became a creative writing and composition professor at colleges in the area, including his alma mater, the University of Southern California.

“In 2020, he gave poetry a permanent home in his South Los Angeles neighborhood, founding the Sims Library of Poetry, for reading, writing, studying, and performing poetry. 

“The space has evolved into an indispensable gathering place for anyone looking for inspiration, say poets who live nearby. It whimsically invites the public in: ‘Poetry Lives Here’ is painted on a low concrete boundary. A mural pays homage to the dragon fire that poets spit in words. A ‘Poet Parking Only’ sign peeks from a patch of grass. 

“The spiritual foundation for this landmark came from what Mr. Sims considers a personal triumph: the Community Literature Initiative (CLI), through which he helps poets produce manuscripts ready for publication and connect to presses.  

“ ‘I was at an open mic and I heard all of these amazing poets. After the show, I said, “I’d like to buy a copy of your book,” and none of them had books,’ says Mr. Sims, who has coached poets in publishing now for 10 years in space provided by USC. … Sims Library origin story goes back to a $29.99 suitcase.

After assigning his CLI students to read one book of poetry a week, he realized: They couldn’t afford them, and libraries had slim poetry offerings. 

“So, he fit 80 books from his collection into the purple-brown suitcase, carted it around in his car, unzipped it, and let students borrow poetry collections by living authors, especially local LA poets.

“ ‘One of my students said, “This is the little Sims library of poetry right here.” And I was like, “Wow.” … After that, I put all my energy into building that microcosm of the library that I had in my head.’

“The idea came to life in his garage at a birthday party-turned-library-launch. … Several poets read their own verse. And people brought boxes full of books: The party started with 300 and ended with 2,000. 

“Mr. Sims’ mother, Gwendolyn, who remembers her young son loved to read greeting card stanzas at the Rite Aid, was one of the first to donate money. The library continued to thrive with family, community, and foundation contributions of books, cash, and grants. And CLI class tuition also helped. 

“It was peak pandemic, and the preschool run by his wife, Charisse, closed. The family decided to take over the building as the next iteration of the library. Mr. Sims’ father, Edward, who is a contractor, and his brother Job helped with shelves. Word of another donation drive reached further and book donations came from across the country. …

“The nonprofit offers more than 9,000 volumes of poetry, says Mr. Sims. ‘So many of these books are people that live in LA, you know, people in this community.’ 

“Open until 8 on Saturday nights, the thrum of activity – from book launches, workshops, and open mics – spills into the neighborhood with singing voices, fingers snapping, and the rhythm of rhyme. …

“Mr. Sims says, ‘I think the library represents value for a part of people they don’t often share. So people often bring poems from their shoeboxes and folders. It’s so personal with people.’ …

“ ‘When the first volunteers came in, they expected to come to a library, but then realized, we have to build one,’ says Karo Ska, library manager and a CLI writer. For them, the best part is that the library has books that can’t be found elsewhere – pre-1950s special collections, self-published collections, periodicals, local literary journals, and handmade chapbooks.

“ ‘The idea of giving back to the community is a phrase that a lot of people use but isn’t always manifested,’  says Lynne Thompson, 2021 Los Angeles poet laureate. ‘[Hiram] is as interested in the work of others and facilitating not only the writing of it but the publishing of it as he is in his own work.’ …

“Poet bridgette bianca, who grew up in the neighborhood without a public library nearby, says: ‘We are in an area that’s very much Black, very much brown, very much working class. And that somebody built a library here is just fantastic.’ 

“Now, as a community college professor, she uses the library as a resource, encouraging students to explore the poetry collection and attend events for extra credit.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall, but subscriptions are encouraged.

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Photo: Francesca Magnani.
Film- and hat-maker Richard Faison on the G train in Brooklyn. A photographer’s chance encounter on the subway led to this story.

Do you notice how very creative people are good in almost any field calling for creativity? I have a friend like that who takes classes in many kinds of art and always does a nice job even if she is never going to make that particular skill her main thing.

Photographer Francesca Magnani wrote recently at the art newspaper Hyperallergic about a filmmaker who became a creative haberdasher.

“One December morning, among the sparse riders waiting for the G train in Brooklyn, New York, I saw a tall Black man with a colorful jacket and a cowboy hat. I took some photos as I introduced myself to Richard Faison. ‘I am also an artist and I actually made this hat,’ he told me. 

“A few weeks later, a friend who was visiting from Florence casually mentioned she wanted to buy a hat while here, and I arranged to see Faison in his lab, which turned out to also be his apartment. The one-bedroom apartment was filled with dozens of hats at various stages of existence and along with my friend Michèle’s green hat, two more were being ‘blocked’ and were drying by the window. On the wall was hanging a shtreimel, the first one that Faison made: these hats, traditionally worn by Orthodox Jewish men, were in fact his specialty.

“Sitting down with Faison on his sofa on that day, and once again more recently, I asked him some questions. Our conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Francesca Magnani: You used to be a filmmaker. How did you become a milliner?

Richard Faison: I went to a small program at NY Film Academy for eight months. I started doing film by carrying around my mom’s video camera and shooting all my friends and my adventures, editing cool videos and creating a series that got pretty popular on Facebook. That led me to make music videos. I went to Toronto after meeting a few artists out there, and I became an editor and cinematographer for short films and documentaries.

“I started making hats legit by coincidence. I was friends with a Hasidic gentleman, Lov, and he came by my place for some drinks with friends. He said, ‘You always wear cool hats, you should work with a guy I sell fur to.’ That’s how I met my mentor and this entire adventure started.

FM: How do the two worlds, film and millinery, work in synergy?

RF: They are similar. You have to have an eye and a certain aesthetic that you want your pieces to have. The vision I see of a hat is like how I used to envision how I wanted certain shots to look like before going out to shoot, and just creating something with a story that people can either relate to or admire.

FM: You started your own business just a few months ago, last September. How did you build your own company, Oliver Lewis Hats?

RF: My mentor helped me: I worked for him in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for about three years. The day I asked for a second raise, he took me on a long car ride and looked me directly in the eyes. He said, ‘You are a true artist with your hands, but I’ll never pay you what you deserve.’ Those words were the most beautiful and hurtful I’ve heard in one sentence. After that, he got me my first hat body and told me where to get more, and I took off running.

FM: Coming from a background in filmmaking, are there artists and directors you look to for inspiration?

RF: My number one influence would have to be Jimi Hendrix. His style, his grace, the chances he took, how groovy he was, everything! I used to watch his old concerts and get lost in his rhythm and clothing choices. The second is André 3000 of Outkast. I moved to Atlanta in 2003 for high school. I remember getting bullied for wearing tight jeans back then but then I would look at the shirts, pants, and hats André 3000 would wear, and it gave me the confidence to be myself no matter what others thought. …

RF: I reach my customers best through Instagram, where I can show my skills through video reels and also communicate directly with my audience. I have an even number of male and female clients — the age range is usually 30 to 40. …

FM: You said you devised your own gluing technique for shtreimels; you use as ornament some Swiss figurines usually found in ‘Swiss cowboy’ belts, and the name of your business comes from Oliver Lewis, the first Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. How do influences from different cultures inform your creations? 

RF: Influences are how I came to be. They’re the essence behind my entire being and work. Growing up in Brooklyn, I had so many cultures surrounding me that would impact me. My dad being from Trinidad and being a huge cowboy lover was one of the biggest for me. I watched Clint Eastwood movies with him and thought cowboys were the coolest people on earth. Then I found out that most cowboys were actually Mexican and Black and that piqued my interest. … I get a lot of inspiration from the Italians in NYC (such smooth style!), Jamaicans, and Hispanic communities. The melting pot in Flatbush helped me create my unique style.”

Need a hat? Or do you “already have all” your hats, as they used to say of the ladies in Boston? Check out Oliver Lewis Hats on Instagram.

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall. Lots of cool photos.

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Photo: Garrett Houston.
Terrance Jackson came to Virginia’s Barter Theatre as an actor and now leads Barter’s Outreach and its Black Stories Black Voices initiative.

I have always loved August Wilson’s plays about the Black families in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where he grew up. I’ve seen most as many were tried out in Boston during Wilson’s lifetime. But there are other Black playwrights achieving success, and today’s article from American Theatre highlights efforts to help still more develop their skills.

Former Barter Theatre director Karen Sabo writes, “Barter Theatre in Virginia isn’t unique in their current position: It is a predominantly white institution that is currently attempting to better serve audiences and artists of color. But the innovative structure of Barter’s new Black Stories Black Voices program … could well serve as a national model for inclusive art-making that embraces and empowers Black communities at mainstream theatres.

“It may seem like a departure, but in some ways it’s also a continuation. When, 90 years ago, Robert Porterfield founded Barter in his rural, mostly white hometown of Abingdon, Va., in the midst of the Great Depression, he brought New York actors to this Appalachian agricultural area to match unemployed — and in some cases, underfed — actors with local farmers struggling to sell goods to people with little money. The price of admission was 40 cents, or an equivalent amount of produce, dairy, or livestock. ‘Porterfield and his partners accepted almost anything as payment,’ according to Encyclopedia Virginia. ‘A pig was worth 10 tickets, while two quarts of milk bought one ticket.’ …

“Full disclosure: I spent six years working as a director and resident actor at Barter in the early 2000s. My immersion in this organization gave me an appreciation for certain aspects of the institutional culture of this rural LORT [League of Resident Theatres] theatre. …

“During my tenure, Barter had an acting company made partly of out-of-towners — big-city pros who landed at Barter and stayed — alongside some home-grown artists. A few particularly talented local performers made their artistic home at Barter, and the Barter Players, the young, non-Equity company, produced many actors who eventually joined the resident acting company.

“While few would deny that the creation of regional theatres in the United States was a positive development, in their early days these organizations often operated with a kind of cultural imperialism, as they attempted to enlighten or elevate audiences by bringing work from the cities to ‘the provinces.’ In an attempt to better serve its Appalachian population, 20 years ago Barter started the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights. This encouraged writers to tell the stories of the unique region where Barter is located, and while some of these new plays featured characters who were Black, Indigenous, or people of color, they mostly told stories of the majority-white population of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

“Just before the pandemic, Katy Brown became Barter’s new producing artistic director, only the fourth in the theatre’s 90-year history. Brown herself is a home-grown leader; I remember seeing her first performance 25 years ago with the Barter Players shortly after she finished college. Like many other predominantly white theatres, Barter has begun hiring more people of color, and producing more shows telling stories of Black Americans. They’ve also designated that at least one play in the yearly Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights be written by a Black artist. But in the spirit of Barter’s culture of empowerment, honoring its region, and developing local artists, they’ve also created the program Black Stories Black Voices (BSBV).

“BSBV is the brainchild of collaborative thinking from many on the Barter leadership team. The first public performance under this new initiative was the 2022 Shine project last April 24, which featured professional actors reading new monologues submitted by Black residents of the counties surrounding Barter. …

“The Barter team wanted input from an authority regarding presenting more inclusive stories. They reached out to Dr. William H. Turner, a known expert on Black life in the South and Appalachia, and Turner suggested that rather than just focusing on producing Black plays, they help create Black playwrights.

“ ‘We wanted people who knew nothing about playwriting to get involved, so that’s where the story collection idea came from, and that came through Cathy,’ Brown said, referring to Barter’s resident playwright, Catherine Bush. Bush suggested asking local people to share stories and then hiring Black artists to help turn stories into monologues. At Shine, those monologues were performed by professional actors, and the Barter team intends the next steps to be turning monologues into scenes and eventually full-length plays.

“But to encourage the sharing of stories, Barter needed to strengthen their outreach and build relationships, especially with communities of color. Enter Terrance Jackson, a Florida native who initially came to Barter as an actor, and who now leads both Barter’s Outreach and Black Stories Black Voices.

“ ‘Our statement of intent is to provide a safe space for Black Appalachian artists to share their stories and showcase their work, while also fostering our Black community with a safe space to see theatrical work,’ said Jackson. … ‘I will be reaching out to different groups and different people, not just Black and brown people, but all types of people, and letting them know that they matter at our theatre, and that they have a place here.’ …

“Jackson summed up his experience with the project so far by saying, ‘Barter is a predominantly white institution still, and we are actively doing our best to, not necessarily to change that, but to make it equitable, and to build a space where all people feel comfortable to work and to see plays. We’re not done creating dope Black stuff — we’re just beginning. And hopefully we do work that really matters to Black folks in Appalachia, but also to the entire theatre world and theatre industry as a whole.’ ”

More at American Theatre, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Sophie Hills/Christian Science Monitor.
Mayor Jaylen Smith prepares for his first City Council meeting in Earle, Arkansas, on Jan. 24, 2023.

Have you noticed how many Gen Z people (born roughly 1997 to 2012) have been running for office? I think it’s a great sign of commitment to a better world — and probably disappointment with what older folks have done to the world.

Here is a teen who just became a mayor in Arkansas.

Sophie Hills reported in January at the Christian Science Monitor, “Many teenagers consider their wardrobes a statement of their identity. For 18-year-old Jaylen Smith, that means a suit instead of jeans and a backpack. Today, the new mayor of Earle, Arkansas, has dressed with special care: a navy two-piece suit, crisp white shirt, and brown dress boots. His tie is red. 

“Tonight, he will call the City Council to order for the first time as mayor. He’s also heading into Memphis – 30 miles away – to buy his own car, a Nissan Altima. …

“If he’s nervous about his big speech, it doesn’t show. … He works with his door open to the street, an invitation to his town. 

“Whether he’s in his office, on the road, or stopping at a parking lot to pick up chicken salad – and pause for a selfie with the guy selling it  – Mr. Smith is always on the phone. Dialing a number, he talks to a woman whose house just burned down. ‘Is there anything we can do for you?’ he asks. He listens to her response, nodding, and promises he’ll call the Red Cross. …

“Mr. Smith is the youngest Black mayor in the country, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He won in a runoff election, pledging to staff police 24 hours a day, tear down derelict buildings, and bring back the supermarket that closed down a few years back. …

“Mr. Smith graduated from Earle High School in 2022. Instead of packing for college and leaving, he spent the rest of the year campaigning door to door and shadowing mayors around the state.

“Perhaps more notable than Mr. Smith’s age is his choice not to leave Earle. As he tells Christopher Conway, his former high school counselor, ‘I always wanted to change my community before moving on to my next phase of life,’ he says. …

“Earle, Arkansas, population 1,800, may seem frozen in time by a lack of money and a declining population. The sense of community buy-in and optimism is clear in the halls of the elementary and high schools, and the well-attended City Council meeting – with an agenda including reports from the police chief and the water and sanitation department, and a debate about zoning. 

“Tucked on the side of Highway 64, Earle boasts three dollar stores and two schools, and a small grocery store that’s been around since 1945. The number of abandoned buildings suggest that Earle has seen better days – that Mayor Smith is pledging to revive. 

“Earle rose out of the post-Civil War timber boom that gave life to so many other small towns dotted along Southern railroads. Today, the town is majority Black. But its painful history includes lynchings and a race riot over school conditions, not to mention its namesake, landowner Josiah Francis Earle, who was active in the Ku Klux Klan.

“Eugene Richards, a photographer, writer, and filmmaker, found himself in Earle in the late 1960s as a member of Volunteers in Service to America. At the time, Earle was separated into white and Black, he says, ‘divided by the classic railroad tracks.’

“Mr. Richards and several VISTA volunteers helped start a paper, Many Voices, which reported on Black political action and the Ku Klux Klan. He was friends with the Rev. Ezra Greer and his wife, Jackie Greer, civil rights activists who led a march protesting segregated schools in 1970. When the marchers were confronted by an angry white crowd, five Black marchers were wounded. … Mr. Richards says, ‘Time went on and things slowly changed.’

“Mr. Richards, who compiled photos and interviews for a 2020 book about the town, says that while the violence of segregation may be in the past, Earle faces new challenges. ‘There’s a weariness – the town is going down very fast,’ he says.

“As student government president for his last three years at Earle High School, Mr. Smith implemented tutoring programs and an advocacy committee for students with learning disabilities. He was also a student advocate for special education students, and dealt with his own learning disability while in school. Those activities taught him how to get resources from the state, he says. After a visit to Washington, D.C., for a mayoral conference, he’s optimistic about receiving more federal grants as well. …

“Between learning the ropes of public office and taking a college course online as he pursues his degree – one class at a time for now – Mr. Smith doesn’t have much free time.

“His phone rings again. This is the part of the job he doesn’t like: being pressured for favors. In this case, he stands his ground over the open clerk position. Every applicant has to turn in an application, he says firmly. …

“Off the phone, he runs down his goals as mayor. He wants to improve public safety, including fully staffing the police department, currently at two full-time and four part-time officers; set up public transportation; and tear down those abandoned houses.

“He’s already spoken with a local business that has agreed to help demolish houses, and he’s confident he’ll find resources to achieve the rest of his goals. ‘They’re there,’ he says. …

“While Mr. Smith, a Democrat, aspires to higher office, he says he isn’t focused on party politics. He attends local Democratic and Republican party meetings to ‘see how they both do,’ he says.

“Mr. Smith opens an envelope and a check falls out of the card inside. He dusts chip dust from his fingers and makes another call: ‘What do I need to do with checks that come in the mail?’

“ ‘I can’t accept money as an elected official,’ he explains after. ‘But I can donate it to the city.’

“Donald Russell, a retired truck driver, was skeptical when Mr. Smith announced his campaign. But after getting to know him, he has ‘high hopes.’ And Mr. Smith ‘has a lot of community support,’ he says. …

“Thirty minutes before the council meeting, Mr. Smith stands up, puts on his suit jacket, locks the door, and crosses the street to the council chamber. People trickle in after him – one asks to take a photo together. Every seat is full, and residents are standing at the back. Mr. Smith opens the meeting, occasionally leaning over to check next steps and procedure with his more experienced companions. Then he stands to deliver his speech, announcing his goals to fully staff all police shifts and institute a neighborhood watch program.

“He ends with a quote from the Bible to nods, murmurs of approval, and applause from the room: ‘Let us not weary in doing well, for a new season we shall reap.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Matthew Healey/Boston Globe.
Jeremy Garcia, 22, of Providence takes a break from working on a mural at “The Avenue Concept” in Providence, Rhode Island.

Kids love contributing to community murals. I know because Suzanne and John helped paint one in our town years ago. But that mural — about local history — was bland compared with the passionate work of self-expression and healing by urban youth in Providence.

Alexa Gagosz writes at the Boston Globe, “After setting down her paint brush, Deborah Ndayisaba gazed up at the purple-colored protestors who spread across a section of a new large-scale mural on the exterior of The Avenue Concept’s headquarters.

“A senior at La Salle Academy in Providence, Ndayisaba, 17, said she had her own ‘advocacy awakening’ when the Black Lives Matter movement took off in 2020. She joined the diversity club at school, became involved in PVD World Music, which looks to celebrate and enrich traditional African music and arts, and researched how many of the racial injustices of the Civil Rights era are now still relevant today.

“The protestors, for her, are symbolic. ‘It’s unfair how racial discrimination can touch everything. And activism isn’t just marching on the streets,’ said Ndayisaba, who is applying to colleges to eventually go into the medical field where she hopes to help women of color.

“It’s those kind of personal elements that scatter this newly finished collage mural by local youth who are involved with the Nonviolence InstituteRhode Island Latino ArtsHaus of Codec, and PVD World Music — all Providence-based organizations. The effort was led by The Avenue Concept, a public arts organization, and international community-based public art organization Artolution. …

“The Avenue Concept, which is the state’s leading public art program, was founded in Providence in 2012. Since then, artists from around the world have been commissioned to paint mammoth-sized murals across downtown that are part of the city’s skyline today. …

“A few of the Concept’s most notable works address longstanding community issues, such as ‘Still Here‘ by muralist Gaia, which depicts Lynsea Montanari, a member of the Narragansett tribe and an educator at the Tomaquag Museum, as they hold a picture of Princess Red Wing, a Narragansett elder who founded the museum. In September, Boston-based artists Josie Morway painted a new mural in Warren that addresses sea level rise.

“This new project, which was completed after 10 painting days on Sept. 30, is a pilot for a larger community participation program that was identified in The Avenue Concept’s latest strategic plan. The goal of the program, Thorne explained, was to address representation, neighborhood voice, unique cultural perspectives, and community needs in their upcoming projects.

“ ‘Over the last year, we’ve really tried to listen and better understand the stories that are intersecting in our own neighborhood,’ [Yarrow Thorne, executive director and founder of The Avenue Concept] said. ‘We are looking to do more than just the giant pieces of beautiful art in downtown, but to serve the community that surrounds us.’

“Thorne said the Concept, which is based in the Upper South neighborhood of Providence, selected the four local organizations because of how their work makes an impact across a diverse set of communities. Each organization brought four to five members of their youth communities to learn, connect, co-create themes, and eventually execute the mural with the help of Artolution’s co-founder Dr. Max Frieder.

“Frieder, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and former classmate of Thorne’s, brings public art projects around the world — including in refugee camps. Frieder said he trains refugee-artists on how they can work with kids who have been through trauma and teach them to express what’s most important to them through art.

“ ‘With this project, we brought four very different community groups together and it has been remarkable to see them come together and reflect on their similarities,’ said Frieder, who has participated in public art installations on all seven continents. …

“Each participant painted a scene in a ‘memory ball,’ which looked like a golden orb with a scene of their choice inside. Some painted themselves playing basketball, another read ‘stop drug abuse,’ and one painted themselves playing a trumpet.

“One memory ball said, ‘You only get one life. It’s your duty to live it as fully as possible.’ It’s a quote inspired by Jojo Moyes, an English journalist and novelist.

“Each participant talked about the issues they and their families face in South Providence today: their communities getting priced out as the cost of living increases. Others have faced racism and homophobia in school. Some say their family’s generational trauma has prevented their own parents from healing.

“For example, Jeremy Garcia, 22, a self-described ‘proud, Black-Latino,’ described the stereotypes of South Providence being considered an ‘urban hood’ where residents are predominantly people of color. Garcia said many of their neighbors have watched cases of police brutality, such as the killing of George Floyd, and are afraid to call the police.

“ ‘These are the people who are supposed to save us and who we should be able to turn to when we are in danger,’ Garcia said. ‘If you can’t turn to the police, where do you turn?’

“Expressing themselves ‘and letting go of their past is the only way we can can heal and move forward,’ said Cedric Huntley, the executive director of the Nonviolence Institute. ‘We need more of this — in Providence and around the world. We all focus so much on the negative, which certainly impacts all of us, but there’s more to it in these young people’s lives.’ ”

More at the Globe, here. Nice photos. For a no-firewall article on the mural “Still Here,” check the Brown University newspaper.

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Photo: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal.
Mary Taris poses with Blended In Or Faded Out, by Colonese M. Hendon, at Strive Bookstore in Minneapolis on July 15, 2022. 

A Black educator and mother in Minneapolis saw a problem. There were few books with characters her students grandchildren could relate to. So she took action. And in the process, helped her own family and many others.

“When Mary Taris was raising her four children in north Minneapolis,” writes Noor Adwan at Sahan Journal, “she knew she needed to give them books more representative of their identity than the ones she’d had as a child. 

“ ‘I always had to spend extra time and money to find books that our Black children could relate to,’ she said. ‘At a certain point, after years of being frustrated, I just decided I needed to do something about it.’ …

“In 2018, Taris founded Strive Community Publishing to carve out space in the publishing world for Black authors. It has published fiction and nonfiction works for adults and children from 20 authors and five illustrators, and recently opened its first store at the IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis.

“Strive Bookstore’s grand opening [July 20 featured] Anthony Walsh, author of Hockey Is for Everybody. …

“ ‘We’re hoping that at the grand opening we can get to know some of the people who live in the downtown community and find out what they would like to see in a bookstore,’ Taris said.

“Taris’ experiences as a reader, educator, and mother all contributed to her aspiration to provide children with culturally relevant books. When she was a child growing up in north Minneapolis, reading was a reprieve from a chaotic home life.

“ ‘I would just be in my room reading anything I could get my hands on,’ Taris, 58, said recently during an interview at Sistah Co-op, the Black-woman focused business collective in the IDS Center where Strive is also located. ‘It was like reading for escape, and wishing I was somewhere else.’

“But she never felt represented in the books she read as a child. … It wasn’t until Taris was in her 20s that she read something that she could see herself in. One of her coworkers, an older Black woman, had stepped in. 

“ ‘Girl, you need to be reading some books by Black folks,’ Taris recalled her coworker saying. She loaned Taris Disappearing Acts, a novel by Terry McMillan. …

“Taris said the straw that broke the camel’s back came during her final few years of teaching. Her school, located in the Robbinsdale school district, had received an arts grant, and she was encouraged to put together an arts-integrated lesson plan.

“At the time, her class of predominantly Black fifth-graders was busy learning about autobiographies and biographies. But there were only a handful of Black biographies in the school’s library.

“To fill that void, Taris planned to have her students pretend to be adults, and write and illustrate their own autobiographies.

She put in a budget request for blank books and markers for her students. Her request was denied.

“ ‘That was it for me,’ Taris said. ‘It’s like, “I’m just gonna start my own business and I’ll spend my money on what I want for our kids.” ‘ … 

“When Taris founded Strive, she was supported by a circle of writers she calls her founding authors.

“ ‘I give them that distinction because they had to go through the learning process with me,’ Taris said. She said she felt fortunate that they trusted her – and Strive – with their stories.

“ ‘One thing that’s key in publishing is to be able to have the trust of the authors, especially authors who are marginalized like Black authors are, because they have been writing their stories for years,’ Taris said. ‘By the time it gets to me, they’re handing over their baby.’

“Donna Gingery, a 61-year-old Black woman and one of Strive’s founding authors, said one of her favorite parts of working with Strive was the support and encouragement she received throughout the writing process.

“ ‘There’s a lot of things I like about Strive Publishing,’ Gingery said. ‘The encouragement of the writer, the respect that you’re getting from the publisher, and not trying to change the narrative of your book. I think that’s really important.’ 

“Taris said that Strive does its best to hire Black editors to look over their books. …

“Taris’ vision for Strive doesn’t end with the IDS Center location. ‘We do have plans for growth and a possible second location,’ she said.

“In the meantime, she wants to focus on serving the downtown community. ‘We’re really striving to connect across cultures,’ she said.

“Part of that, she said, is portraying the Black community and all of its richness and diversity of talent in a positive light. Readers are already responding.

“ ‘This is a cultural exchange,’ Shimelis Wolde, 70, said recently as he browsed the co-op. ‘It’s important for the new generation.’ “

More at Sahan Journal, here. You can also read summaries of five new books available at the bookstore.

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Illustration: Paul Blow/The Guardian.

Summer is coming, and all over America, kids will be seeking out basketball hoops for pickup games or organized sports. Today we know that the recognized stars of the game are often Black, but apparently, that wasn’t always the case.

Frederic J. Frommer explains at the Washington Post why Edwin Bancroft Henderson is “known as the ‘father of Black basketball’ (or sometimes the ‘grandfather’). The first Black certified instructor of physical education in the United States, [he] brought the White-dominated sport to Black America. …

“ ‘Henderson and his contemporaries envisioned basketball — and sports in general — as providing a rare opportunity to combat Jim Crow,’ wrote Bob Kuska in Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever.

“[Henderson] learned basketball while studying physical education at Harvard University’s Dudley Sargent School of Physical Training. The school was affiliated with the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass., where James Naismith had invented the sport just a decade earlier. When Henderson returned to Washington, he organized a basketball league for Black players, in a city where only Whites had access to basketball courts or clubs.

“ ‘What’s sad is that more people don’t know the story of E.B. Henderson, who was a pioneer, a trailblazer, someone who was a direct protégé of Dr. Naismith,’ said John Thompson III, the former head men’s basketball coach at Georgetown University, now vice president of player engagement at Monumental Basketball.

“Today, community leaders are taking steps to raise Henderson’s profile. In February, the University of the District of Columbia renamed its athletic complex the Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson Sports Complex. The school also launched the Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson Memorial Fund, which will help pay for the renaming, a scholarship endowment and the creation of a permanent Henderson memorial on campus. …

“On April 1, the Wizards named forward Anthony Gillthe inaugural winner of the team’s E.B. Henderson Award, which recognizes the Wizards player most philanthropically active in the D.C. community.

“And last year, Virginia honored Henderson with a state historical marker in Falls Church, where he lived from 1910 to 1965 and helped organize the NAACP’s first rural branch. Henderson also served as president of the Virginia NAACP.

After completing his studies at Harvard, Henderson tried to attend a basketball game at a Whites-only YMCA in D.C. in 1907 along with his future brother-in-law, but they were shown the door by the athletic director.

“Undeterred, Henderson started the D.C.-based Basket Ball League, where his 12th Street YMCA team went undefeated in 1909-10 in competition with local rivals and teams from other cities and won the unofficial title of Colored Basketball World Champions.

“His playing days came to an end in 1910 when he was 27 [but] Henderson’s work continued off the court, as he formed the Public Schools Athletic League, the country’s first public school sports league for Black students, which included basketball, track and field, soccer and baseball.

“In 1912, Henderson moved to Falls Church, and soon he was taking on racial discrimination there, helping to challenge a local ordinance that restricted where Black residents could live. After a court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional, the Town Council rescinded it.

“Henderson continued to challenge discriminatory treatment of African Americans, often through the many newspaper articles and letters to the editor he wrote over the years. In a September 1936 letter to the Post titled ‘The Negro in Sports,’ for example, he touted the success of Black athletes such as track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

“ ‘Right here in Washington, it ought to be possible for a Jesse Owens, or a city-wide marble champion, or a Joe Louis to come up through the lists and tournaments,’ he wrote. ‘When will the Capital of the Nation meet this challenge?’

“In 1939, he wrote a book with the same title, The Negro in Sports, which he updated in 1950. In the intervening decade, Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier, and Black players had returned to the NFL after being shut out of the league for a dozen years.

“ ‘Henderson resists what might have been the high temptation to gloat at the sensational success of the Negro boys when finally they got their chance to play in the big leagues,’ Shirley Povich wrote in a Washington Post review of the revised edition. ‘Instead, he pays tribute to the American sportsmanship that sufficed, finally, to provide equal opportunity.’ …

“ ‘I never consciously did anything to be first. I just happened to be on the spot and lived in those days when few people were doing the things I was doing,’ Henderson said a few years before his death in 1977, at the age of 93. ‘But sports was my vehicle. I always claimed sports ranked with music and the theater as a medium for recognition of the colored people, as we termed ourselves in my day. I think the most encouraging thing, living down here in Alabama, is to see how the Black athlete has been integrated in the South.’

“Henderson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, following a campaign waged by his grandson, Edwin B. Henderson II, a retired educator and local historian.”

More at the Post, here.

Photo: University of the District of Columbia.
Edwin Bancroft Henderson, the “Father of Black Basketball.”

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Photo: Wikipedia.

The problem with crossword puzzles is like the problem with academic entrance exams: they assume a cultural knowledge common to the creators’ identity groups. An older woman who doesn’t read Harry Potter books is not going to know what a young crossword creator is hinting about owls. Recent Latin American immigrants may never have heard of John Paul, George, and Ringo. And it may depend on your family life if you know anything about Marian Anderson, W. E. B. Du Bois, or Bayard Rustin.

Read what African American crossword puzzle creator Portia Lundie has to say about that at the Washington Post.

“I’m a Black woman who creates crossword puzzles. That’s rare, but it shouldn’t be. … Margaret Farrar, who became the founding puzzle editor of the New York Times in 1942, is credited with popularizing daily crosswords. But despite the impressive distinction, she only published the work of a handful of women.

“That’s perhaps unsurprising in a world dominated by White men; when I published my debut 15-by-15 crossword in the New York Times during Black History Month last year, I didn’t know of any crosswords constructed by Black women in America’s crossword gold standard.

“Before last year, I’d made dozens of 9-by-9 grids, or ‘midis,’ for the New York Times crossword app. I knew that my pop culture-themed puzzles were among the most popular on that platform, but I didn’t know what publishing my first crossword on a major newspaper site would be like — that it would open me up to a wave of subculture criticism.

“When it was announced that the Times would feature a week of Black constructors for Black History Month, there were myriad opinions on popular crossword blogs: ‘I prefer puzzles to be fun, not dry activist treatises that promote political ideology,’ wrote one commenter in response to the word ‘REPARATIONS’ in a puzzle by Erik Agard. …

“Yet, finally, I found some relief. ‘Must admit to knowing very little about Marcus Garvey. … Thanks to crosswords … for leading me there,’ one enthusiast said. When it came to learning the name of a horse racing champion or their jockey, I was more like this last commenter — excited that a puzzle introduced me to something new. This attitude, while seemingly compatible with a love for testing your trivial knowledge, is actually rare in the world of crossword critics.

“The experience came with other revelations. My dad worked for his uncle’s newspaper in Guyana when he was a teen, reading submissions and judging the crossword competition. But he didn’t tell me about his experience with crosswords until after mine was published in the Times. He revealed he was ’embarrassed’ that he wasn’t as good at crosswords when he immigrated to America. Turns out, I was robbed of a chance to learn about crosswords at a young age in part because crossword culture does not encourage learning — rather, it rewards already knowing.

“I ended up being introduced to crosswords in my early 20s while dating a constructor. Of course, I had attempted them before, but no one ever walked me through the rules. [For example] studying words that are used much more in crosswords than real life — words like ‘ESTOP’ and ‘STE’ and ‘ERE,’ which are usually used for their vowel placements. …

“I ultimately used practice, dictionary obsession and occasional cheating to get better. Constructing and cluing my own crosswords made me even better at recognizing the patterns — not to mention, it allowed me to assert my particular voice and trivial knowledge of 1990s cartoon characters.

“But most crosswords, I’ve found, still reflect the majority of creators. Like so many other hallmarks of culture, crosswords as we know them were standardized by a profound woman, yet the authority on language still seems to be in the hands of a few White men. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a view from nowhere, and I’m glad to play a small role in giving crossword enthusiasts a view from someone who isn’t White, and isn’t a man.”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: David Levene/The Guardian.
Francis Kéré, outside his Serpentine pavilion in London, is the most recent recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture.

There’s a 7-year-old girl in my family who has been designing buildings this week, complete with elevators, staircases, rooftop playgrounds, and two kinds of dining rooms. With flowers. I can’t help wondering if this is the kind of childhood interest that leads to a career like the one in today’s story.

Oliver Wainwright reports at the Guardian, “Few architects have experienced such a meteoric rise, against such odds, as Francis Kéré. Born in a remote village in Burkina Faso without running water or electricity, he began his career by building a mud-brick school for his community, before being selected to design the country’s national parliament less than 15 years later. Now he continues his unparalleled trajectory, named as the winner of the 2022 Pritzker prize, architecture’s highest international accolade.

“ ‘It is unbelievable,” said Kéré, speaking from his office in Berlin. “I don’t know how this all happened. First of all I am happy and overwhelmed, but the prize also brings a great sense of responsibility. My life is not going to be easier.’

“He is the first black architect to be recognized in the [award’s] 43-year history, reflecting the profession’s overwhelmingly white, male, middle-class bias. …

“ ‘I don’t want to talk about racism directly,’ he said, ‘but this is a field where you need a lot of resources. You really need to be strong and be lucky, as competitions are not always so open. I hope that young people in Africa will see me and know that this is a possible path for them too.’

“Kéré has made a name for himself with a series of schools and medical facilities in Africa that appear grown out of their context, built by local communities with the bare minimum of resources. Often featuring walls of clay-earth bricks, shaded by large, overhanging corrugated metal roofs, his buildings are elegantly tuned to their arid climate – whether in Mali, Togo, Kenya, Mozambique or Sudan – using natural cooling to avoid the need for air conditioning.

” ‘Francis Kéré’s entire body of work shows us the power of materiality rooted in place,’ said the Pritzker jury, chaired this year by Chilean activist-architect Alejandro Aravena. ‘His buildings, for and with communities, are directly of those communities – in their making, their materials, their programmes and their unique characters. They have presence without pretence and an impact shaped by grace.’

“Born in Gando in 1965, Kéré was … the first in his community to attend school, sent away at the age of seven, after which he won a scholarship to study woodwork in Germany. He saw slim prospects for a career in carpentry in a country that had little wood, so he switched to study architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. For his final project he designed a primary school for his home village – and set about fundraising and mobilising friends and family to see it built. It was realized in 2001, for about [$26,000]. …

“Kéré’s Gando primary school set out the basic principles that would go on to define his work, using earth bricks made on site, topped with a perforated ceiling crowned by a thin ‘flying roof.’ …

“Kéré suspended his metal canopy above the classrooms to encourage stack ventilation, drawing cool air in through the building’s side windows and releasing hot air through the holes in the ceiling. The whole village was involved in construction: children gathered stones for the foundations while women brought water for the brick production, beginning a collaborative model of practice that he has continued ever since. The school won an Aga Khan award in 2004, catapulting Kéré to international fame and prompting him to found his practice in Berlin the following year. …

“International commissions including the Serpentine pavilion in 2017, and an installation for the Coachella music festival in 2019, have continued to help him raise funds and awareness of his work in Africa. …

“His biggest project so far, for the national assembly of Benin, is currently under construction, rising out of the ground in the capital, Porto-Novo, in the form of a majestic palaver tree. ‘The site is next to a botanic garden,’ he said, ‘so we proposed to extend the garden and place the biggest tree in the centre, with a debate hall beneath the figurative tree canopy – reflecting how democracy has always been conducted in west Africa.’

“His equivalent project back home, for the national assembly of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou, is now hanging in the balance, after the president was removed by a military coup in January. Kéré was commissioned in 2015, following a national uprising when the parliament was torched and the then-president hounded out of the country. …

“ ‘I want the people to take ownership over the parliament building,’ he said, ‘so that, one day, when the next revolution comes, they will protect it as their own.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Kim Hairston/ The Baltimore Sun.
From left, Lynnette Dodson, co-owner of Cuples Tea House, talks with Nicole Foster, co-owner of Cajou Creamery, inside the creamery. “They are among five Black-owned businesses in the 400 block of N. Howard St. that will help to revitalize this long neglected area,” says the Baltimore Sun.

Yesterday I wrote about people pulling together to help Ukraine. There is strength in numbers, as Pete Seeger said in the line that I often quote: “One and two and 50 make a million.”

Another aspect of pulling together is seen in the “solidarity” movement described by Lisa Elaine Held at the Washington Post.

“On a [2021] fall morning, despite the chill in the air, workers at Taharka Brothers Ice Cream were packing a freezer truck and a van with pints of honey graham, peanut butter cup and pistachio. In the office, business metrics on retail performance, catering and home delivery moved across a screen on the wall. ‘It’s a really busy day,’ said Detric McCoy. ‘Even right now, I don’t think I could run it by myself.’

“He doesn’t have to. In December 2020, Taharka officially became a worker-owned cooperative, and McCoy shares responsibilities that would typically fall on one person’s shoulders. …

“In November 2020, popular pizzeria Joe Squared reopened after a covid-19 hiatus with 13 new worker-owners. This fall, the plant-based dessert shop Cajou Creamery also became a cooperative. And in early December, Union Craft Brewing announced it had added six longtime employees as owners and in the future would offer ownership to all employees after five years with the company. …

“Historically, restaurants have been places where power imbalances — between the front and back of the house, star chefs and kitchen staff, servers and customers — were tolerated. The industry also disproportionately depends on the labor of people from marginalized groups — including people of color and undocumented immigrants. …

“ ‘Co-ops have always emerged and scaled during crises,’ said Tori Kuper, the operations coordinator at the New Economy Coalition who is also on the board of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. After the 2008 recession, Kuper said, the number of coops in the U.S. skyrocketed, and the spirit of mutual aid that arises during an economic downturn can also lead to interest in what the coalition calls ‘the solidarity economy.’ …

“Baltimore has been tending the fire of its solidarity economy for years, and many look to it as a model, Kuper said. …

Much of the story can be traced back to 2004 and Red Emma’s, a vegan cafe and bookstore that grew out of an anarchist bookstore called Black Planet Books.

“The seven founders set out to create a space for the city’s radical left and thought adding food and coffee to the bookstore would bring in more people, said Kate Khatib, who was one of those originals and is still a worker-owner.

“Worker cooperatives operate in many different ways, and Red Emma’s structure is entirely non-hierarchical. Everyone who is hired starts at the same hourly wage regardless of experience or background and is put on a track to ownership. If all goes well and they pass certain benchmarks over a set period of time, they join a team of worker-owners who share equal decision-making power and profits. Wages increase with time worked, but the highest-paid worker can never make more than twice the lowest. … She said, ‘We really started drilling down into: What does it mean for a business in this sector to be sustainable? And … how do we create jobs that are sustainable?’

“One answer was that they needed capital to buy a space, but traditional banks weren’t set up to lend to a group, and choosing the person with the best credit to take on the loan went against their operating values, since it strengthened the economic power of the most well-resourced owner over others. Red Emma’s began working with other cooperative organizations to fix that issue, which led to a nationwide cooperative lending network and then a local outfit that could provide both funding and technical assistance to worker coops. Today, that organization, the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy (BRED), connects the city’s growing patchwork of cooperatives.

“Emily Lerman, a project officer at BRED, is also one of the founders of Mera Kitchen Collective, which began as a group of friends hosting pop-up dinners and grew into a catering business that showcases the dishes of chefs from around the world. …

“But even with Lerman’s technical expertise, Mera has struggled to structure its business as a true cooperative. Immigration and visa issues have gotten in the way, as they do for many co-ops, so Lerman and her co-founders have focused on ensuring collective decision-making and on using the expansion to eventually put everyone on the team on salary and start profit-sharing. …

“Nicole Foster and Dwight Campbell of Cajou Creamery started selling ice cream, made from scratch with cashews instead of cows’ milk in such flavors as horchata, baklava and Mexican cacao, out of a new storefront on Howard Street in August. As they got up and running and planned further expansions, they worked with BRED to finalize a cooperative structure with an even more targeted goal: to create opportunity for formerly incarcerated people returning home. …

“Campbell said, ‘We want to give people a chance to show that they are much more than just somebody who served time. We want to give people the ability to dream about a future, to have ownership instead of thinking “I am just a drone. I’m here to work for a paycheck.” ‘ “

More on that at the Post, here.

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Photo: Kirk Brown/via Boston Globe.
Kirk Brown is the founder and CEO of the Black think tank Melanin MeetUps. The group launched The Better Together Project, which is demanding an end to what it calls the glorification of plantation houses, and the use of their grounds for parties and weddings.

In recent years, tourists at plantations in the South and stately homes in the North have started giving more thought to the people who kept the mansions running. There’s so much that wasn’t in our school histories. I, for one, was amazed to learn that when the colonial farmers fought the British at Concord’s North Bridge April 19, 1775, many of the folks minding the farm were slaves. What? In Massachusetts? Yes.

So I was interested in a recent Boston Globe story about a new, more thorough, house tour. Jon Marcus wrote, “After she graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Carolyn Michael-Banks worked as general manager for a tour company in Washington, D.C., where she quickly noticed that certain people and events were being left out of the script.

“ ‘We had absolutely nothing in there about African-American history,’ said Michael-Banks, who is Black. … So she added information about the Black abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass. About Benjamin Banneker, a Black surveyor who helped lay out the district. About how enslaved people were among the builders of the White House.

“Then the CEO called. ‘His question to me was, “What’s all this Black stuff?” ‘ Michael-Banks remembered.

“Today Michael-Banks runs her own tour company, A Tour of Possibilities, in Memphis, which visits the birthplaces and workplaces of cultural icons including Aretha Franklin and Black investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, landmarks of the civil rights movement and sites of the city’s slave markets and lynchings.

‘History can be uncomfortable but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it,’ Michael-Banks said. …

“Offerings like these are popping up all over the country, by and about people often excluded from the narratives delivered on those jump-on, jump-off bus and trolley tours.

“There are women’s history tours of Philadelphia, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Detroit, and LGBTQ tours of Charleston, S.C., St. Louis, New York’s West Village, and San Francisco’s Castro district. Native Americans tell their own stories on Navajo Tours USA in New Mexico and Nez Perce Tourism in the Pacific Northwest. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle offers tours of Chinatown that cover its history and not just its food.

“There are growing numbers of tours focused on Black history and culture, not only in Memphis, but in Austin, Texas; Birmingham, Ala.; Charleston; Chicago; Miami; Savannah, Ga.; Selma, Ala.; and Washington. Atlanta has Black history and civil rights tours and a cycling tour of off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods called Civil Bikes. In Tulsa, Okla., there are now tours of the places where the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred.

“A ‘truth and reconciliation’ tour of Montgomery, Ala., is run by a nonprofit from an office in a building where the words ‘white’ and ‘colored’ are still chiseled in the wall above a water fountain. And Alexandria, Va., last year launched a Black history trail and an Underground Railroad-themed tour. …

“Several house and plantation museums including Monticello and Belle Grove Plantation in Virginia and the Belle Meade Historic Site and Winery near Nashville, have started telling more about the enslaved people who built and worked at them. The state of Nevada last year converted the Stewart Indian School into a museum to illustrate the story of how Native American children were taken there to be assimilated. …

“When historic sites are treated solely as places for entertainment, said Stephanie Rowe, executive director of the National Council on Public History, ‘it becomes easier to focus on the furnishings and the stories of success and riches. But when we approach these sites as places to learn about our pasts, we’re called to broaden the narratives’ to include such things as who did the work, and under what conditions.

“In fact, said Paul Melhus, CEO of ToursByLocals, whose guides increasingly focus on the people who have been left out, ‘the history of America is the history of Black people. And gays are part of American history, and Hispanics. It’s all real, and you don’t really understand anything if all you’re doing is just looking at the pretty houses.’

“Others want to do more than change the script. The Better Together Project is demanding an end to what it calls the glorification of plantation houses, and the use of their grounds for parties and weddings.

“ ‘These were labor homes,’ said Kirk Brown, founder and CEO of the Black think tank Melanin MeetUps, which launched the project. … ‘Why is there this glamorization of these homes? It’s depressing and it’s disrespectful and it prevents us as a country from truly healing.’ …

“ ‘We haven’t been able to express ourselves in a way that’s proud,’ said Stacia Morfin, a member of the Nez Perce, or Niimíipuu, tribe and CEO of Nez Perce Tourism, which she started after finding that none of the tourism-related businesses in her part of Idaho were run by descendants of tribal people. … ‘The marginalized and the indigenous people are taking that power back.’ ”

More at the Globe, here.

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Photo: Prasidha Padmanabhan.
Prasidha Padmanabhan, 16, founded WEAR (Women for Education, Advocacy and Rights), a nonprofit with an executive board made up entirely of students.

The teen in today’s story not only pointed out the absence of women of color in her school’s history curriculum. She influenced a large school system. That takes a special kind of patience.

Theresa Vargas reports at the Washington Post, “If you happen to get into a conversation about American history with Prasidha Padmanabhan, you will have to keep reminding yourself of this: She is only 16. The names of historically overlooked women flow from her in the same way the names of modern-day A-list celebrities flow from other kids her age.

“She can tell you about the lives of Rebecca Lee Crumpler (the first African American woman to become a doctor), Queen Liliuokalani (the first woman and last person to rule Hawaii) and Claudette Colvin (a Black teenager who refused to give up her seat on a bus before Rosa Parks did). …

“She can tell you why, if you know about Paul Revere, you should also know about Sybil Ludington. Ludington was 16 when she rode through the night during the American Revolution to warn militia members of a British attack. …

“The teenager has not only spent the last few years learning about the historic and too-often unseen roles of women, and in particular women of color, but also has worked to make sure students in one of the country’s largest school systems have a chance to learn about them.

“During the pandemic, Prasidha went from seeing people on social media talk about repealing the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, to creating a student-led nonprofit, to working with educators from Fairfax County Public Schools to add more women’s history to curriculum offerings.

“Her collaboration with school officials is ongoing, but so far, she has worked with social studies teachers to create Civil War material made available for sixth-grade U.S. history lessons, and she has written minibooks about Native American women for the school system’s young readers.

“ ‘She like many others noticed that when it comes to the stories we tell about Indigenous people in our K-12 classrooms, too often Native American people do not show up as individual people with lives and interests and contributions,’ says Deborah March, who works for Fairfax schools as a culturally responsive pedagogy specialist, a position that calls for her to support teachers and curriculum writers. ‘She created these short, accessible, image-laden biographies so that our younger elementary school learners can encounter Native American women as full human beings whose lives are worthy of study.’

“Days ago, the U.S. Mint prompted public celebrations and conversations across the country. The Mint announced that coins from the American Women Quarters Program — which honors the remarkable contributions of women — had been shipped. …

“That these women’s names will soon be in our hands and in front of our faces should give us joy. It should also cause us to pause and think about why many people still don’t know their stories and what women we should have learned about but haven’t. …

“Prasidha is a first-generation Indian American and says those comments she saw online in 2020 about taking away women’s right to vote made her think about what she had learned in her history classes about women. She, like most people, had been taught about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony. But she couldn’t recall learning about what women did during the Civil War or during other notable periods.

“She told her parents she wanted to start an organization that would focus on getting those stories told. From that conversation grew WEAR (Women for Education, Advocacy and Rights), a nonprofit with an executive board made up entirely of students.

One of Prasidha’s first actions through the organization was to create a Change.org petition calling on Fairfax Schools to integrate women’s history into elementary and middle school curriculum. … The petition drew more than 5,000 signatures.

“Prasidha recalls the day she was at home, engaged in virtual learning, and an email caused her to let out an excited yell. She says it was from March saying she wanted to meet and talk about a possible collaboration between the school system and WEAR.

“ ‘I didn’t know what to expect,’ March says of her first encounter with Prasidha, who is a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. … ‘It was exciting for me to connect with a student who was on fire for just and equitable access to learning experiences that tell a complete story.’

“March says everyone benefits when educators take seriously the type of questions Prasidha and WEAR are raising: ‘What if we broaden the story? What if we rethink whose lives and contributions are deemed worthy of study in our classrooms and textbooks?’

“ ‘I think students have a better chance of seeing their power to shape our systems and institutions when they encounter lots of different examples of what that can look like, examples of diverse people as the doers and movers of history,’ March says. ‘It would be a shame if students came away from their K-12 education thinking they have to become a president or a general if they want to make a difference in the world.’

“March says she, her colleague Jen Brown and three social studies teachers met with Prasidha weekly at one point to work on the Civil War material that is offered to sixth-grade teachers. Prasidha was also invited in August to speak to educators. Her presentation was titled, ‘Expanding and Transforming Women’s History for K-12.’

“Brown recalls Prasidha telling participants about Susie King Taylor, who was born into slavery and attended school in secret. At 14, she became the first Black teacher to openly educate African Americans in Georgia, and she later served as a nurse for the Union army during the Civil War.

“ ‘I had never heard of Susie King Taylor, before Prasidha introduced me to her, and was so grateful for the opportunity to learn about her and other women who did extraordinary things,’ Brown says.

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Kirk Siegler/NPR.
Kenesha Lewis, 30, opened a juice and smoothie shop in her hometown of Greenville, Miss. where fresh and healthy food options are hard to find.

Why do valuable communities get forgotten? Because they are rural? Because they are minority? Because they are very small businesses? Well, watch out, World! Remember the Mouse That Roared. In two years of stepping back and taking stock, we are starting to see more people refuse to be sidelined.

Kirk Siegler has a report at National Public Radio (NPR) one one example: Black businesses in rural Mississippi.

“In Greenville, Miss., pop. 27,000, a modern, brightly lit juice bar stands out in the small downtown lined with mostly mom and pop businesses and a few taverns near the town’s riverbank casino. …

“Turning heads is the owner of Kay’s Kute Fruit, 30 year-old Kenesha Lewis.

” ‘I’m really excited for the young people to walk in, and they say, who’s the owner, and they’re like, what? I had somebody do that to me,’ Lewis says laughing.

“Growing up here, she can’t recall any prominent Black-owned businesses like hers (today the town is about 81% Black). She and her husband Jason Lewis opened up this brick and mortar last Spring after a few years of making edible fruit arrangements and smoothies and selling them out of their home on the side of their regular jobs. …

“The Delta is known the world over for its delicious comfort food, but fresh produce and even regular grocery stores are few and far between. At Kay’s the blenders appear to always be running, churning up pineapple or mango smoothies with the popular add-ons of chia seeds or turmeric. …

“Lewis got the idea to start a business after her husband kept getting on her case for eating too much sugar.

” ‘I lost two teeth and he said, “wait a minute now, you’re too young to be losing these teeth,” ‘ she recalls, laughing. [So] we created smoothies together, and I said, okay, this is good for me.’

“And it turns out, it was also good for business. Lewis exceeded her projected annual sales in her first month after opening. Growing up, she says people in her community were good entrepreneurs but they usually worked out of their homes. …

” ‘Our Black people are waking up, they know that they can do this,’ Lewis says. ‘I think that we have helped them to understand that they can do this, they can succeed.’ …

“Hundreds of new Black-owned businesses like Lewis’s are starting to spring up in this region long seen as being dismissed or ‘forgotten’ by outsiders.

“Drive south of Memphis, near the massive river levees, and a lot of small town store fronts are boarded up. … So when Tim Lampkin, 35, moved back to his hometown of Clarksdale after college and a stint working in corporate America, he had an idea.

” ‘When I came back I noticed that a majority of the businesses in [Coahoma County] are white owned,’ Lampkin says. Like in nearby Greenville, more than 80% of Clarksdale’s 15,000 residents are African American.

“In 2016, Lampkin started what he calls an economic justice non-profit. Higher Purpose Co. helped Kenesha Lewis in Greenville from start to finish, applying for a loan, prepping her for meetings with bankers. And they follow up frequently with her today, all things Lampkin says would probably be a given for aspiring white business owners in the area.

” ‘If we’re going to make special exceptions for entrepreneurs because, you know, they’re a white farmer and we know their family, why can’t a Black entrepreneur get the same level of access and understanding and patience when it comes to getting access to capital?’ Lampkin asks.

“A mentorship program Higher Purpose started in late 2019 is now helping some 300 Black entrepreneurs across Mississippi take their business acumen to the next level. The non-profit helps them do things like find grants to cover closing costs or tap into donations and seed money for renting or buying spaces and storefronts. …

“At Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, says the region is a microcosm for the country’s broader racial and economic inequality.

” ‘In the consciousness of America, this is considered to be one of, if not the most, racist states in the union,’ Herts says. ‘Everybody’s able to look at Mississippi and say, “at least we’re not Mississippi.” ‘

“Ever since the Delta was plowed up into plantations mostly after the Civil War, Herts says there’s been a permanent Black underclass. Many don’t trust the banks, for good reason, he says, and in turn many banks traditionally haven’t done business in the still segregated Black communities. …

“For Herts, it will take hundreds more groups like Higher Purpose to really right the wrongs of the past. But he does see momentum behind their work, which is driven by mostly young, energetic and social media savvy people.

“And the businesses they’re supporting are filling a need. One of Higher Purpose’s biggest success stories is Dr. Mary Williams in Clarksdale. She opened what was then the town’s first urgent and primary care facility about three years ago. Before then, she says, working people had to drive 45 miles or go to the local ER just to get routine care after hours.

“She soon discovered there were many untreated cases of hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity in her community. …

” ‘A lot of them … didn’t know their blood pressure was up, they didn’t know they were diabetic,’ Williams says.

“But getting to where she is today, weathering the pandemic with a clinic that now serves some 3,000 patients, wasn’t easy.

“While working as a nurse practitioner at the local hospital, Williams got ‘no’ after ‘no’ from banks when she applied for loans to start her business. One told her she may be a good health care provider, but that didn’t mean she was a good business owner. Another said there was no business like hers in Clarksdale to base her proposal on, so she’d have to put up her house as collateral.

” ‘I mean, the whole idea for this loan was for community development,’ Williams says. ‘Here I am bringing in a clinic to develop the community and improve our health care and I got a hard “no” unless I give them my house.’

“That lit a fire in her: she was going to help her underserved community if it took everything she had.” Read more at NPR, here.

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Photo: Photoquest/Getty Images.
American scientist and educator George Washington Carver (1864 – 1943) was also an artist. Above, he works on his painting “The Yucca.”

It’s reasonable to ask, Why celebrate women or Black Americans only one month a year each? But one advantage is that there’s an incentive for the media to dig out stories about interesting people we either wouldn’t know about at all or wouldn’t know about in detail. For example, most Americans know that a Black scientist called George Washington Carver did research on peanuts that helped farmers in the South. But I, for one, didn’t know anything about his paintings.

Eva Amsen reports at Forbes, “Last month, the Getty Foundation announced the grant recipients for the 2024 exhibit series ‘Pacific Standard Time 2024: Art x Science x LA.’ This event will include different galleries and institutes in California, which will each focus on the theme of science and art. While some of the planned exhibits focus on current and future science, one grant recipient is featuring an artist from science history. The California African American Museum received $120,000 for their exhibit ‘World Without End: The George Washington Carver Project.’

“Although George Washington Carver is best known for his research on new uses for peanuts, he was also an artist. In 1941, two years before his death, Time Magazine featured a piece about Carver in which they mentioned that 71 of his paintings were being shown at Tuskegee at the time.

“Carver spent most of his career as an agricultural researcher at Tuskegee, but he didn’t start his university career in science. When he initially enrolled in college (after searching for a place that would accept Black students in the 19th century) he studied art and piano at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. He’d always loved plants and particularly excelled at painting them. …

His art teacher, Etta Budd, encouraged him to enter one of his paintings to a local art exhibit, where it was selected as one of the artworks to represent Iowa at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Carver’s painting, ‘Yucca and Cactus,’ got an honorable mention at the fair.

“Despite his talents, Budd worried that Carver wouldn’t be able to make a living as an artist, so she suggested that he take his plant illustration skills to the botany department at Iowa State Agricultural College. After receiving his bachelor’s degree here in 1894 and his master’s in 1896, Carver took on a research position at Tuskegee Institute. 

“One of his initial interests was to help farmers increase the yield of their crops. Besides doing research, he invested a lot of time in talking to farmers and explaining the benefits of fertilization and crop rotation to restore nutrients to the soil.

“Partly thanks to Carver, crop production in the South did indeed increase, but this led to a new problem. Now farmers were stuck with an agricultural surplus of crops they had harvested but could not sell. … Carver invented more than a hundred new uses for sweet potatoes and over three hundred different ways to use peanuts. …

“Unsurprisingly, considering his art background, one of the new uses he found for peanuts was to develop paints.  He didn’t just use peanuts to make dyes, but other natural resources as well. Carver even created a line of household paints using pigments from Alabama soil that he envisioned would be more affordable for poor families.

“Carver used some of his self-created paints for his art as well. In the 1941 profile about his art, Time Magazine noted that he used a series of plant-based earth tones created by his assistant A. W. Curtis Jr.”

Using Alabama soil to make dyes caught my attention because I love the work of natural-dye scarf artist Jamie Bourgeois. Sometimes she augments nature to document the polluted waters of Cancer Alley in order to help the Louisiana cleanup efforts. It’s amazing to see how pollution changes the colors. Read about that work here. And support the pollution cleanup here.

More at Forbes on George Washington Carver, here.

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Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP.
National Museum of African American Music, Nashville, Tennessee.

I haven’t headed back to museums yet, but I’m pretty sure I will be allowing myself to go this year. I’ve been interested to read that many museums plan to keep some presentation techniques they’ve used during the pandemic. Meanwhile, other museums are actually just launching.

Kristin M. Hall reports at the Associated Press (AP), “A new museum two decades in the making is telling the interconnected story of Black musical genres through the lens of American history.

“The National Museum of African American Music, which opened with a virtual ribbon-cutting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is seated in the heart of Nashville’s musical tourism district. …

“Even as Nashville has long celebrated its role in the history of music, the new museum fills a gap by telling an important and often overlooked story about the roots of American popular music, including gospel, blues, jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

” ‘When we think of the history of African American music and the important part it has played in our country, it was long overdue to honor it in this type of way,’ said gospel great CeCe Winans, who serves as a national chair for the museum.

“The idea for the museum came from two Nashville business and civic leaders, Francis Guess and T.B. Boyd, back in 1998, who wanted a museum dedicated to Black arts and culture. And while there are museums around the country that focus on certain aspects of Black music, this museum bills itself as the first of its kind to be all encompassing. …

“Said H. Beecher Hicks III, the museum’s president and CEO, ‘[It’s]it’s one thing to say that I’m a hip hop fan or I’m a blues fan, but why? What was going on in our country and our lived experience and our political environment that made that music so moving, so inspirational, such the soundtrack for that part of our lives?’

The museum tells a chronological story of Black music starting in the 1600s through present day and framed around major cultural movements including the music and instruments brought by African slaves, the emergence of blues through the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement.

“When Winans recently took a tour of the museum, she saw her own family of gospel singers, the Winans, represented in the museum’s exhibit on spiritual music alongside the artists that influenced her own musical career.

” ‘You never start out doing what you’re doing to be a part of history or even be a part of a museum,’ said the 12-time Grammy-winning singer. She noted that the museum put gospel music in context with how it inspired social change, especially during the civil rights era. …

“The museum has 1,600 artifacts in their collection, including clothes and a Grammy Award belonging to Ella Fitzgerald, a guitar owned by B.B. King and a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong. To make the best use out of the space, the exhibits are layered with interactive features, including 25 stations that allow visitors to virtually explore the music.

“Visitors can learn choreographed dance moves with a virtual instructor, sing ‘Oh Happy Day’ with a choir led by gospel legend Bobby Jones and make their own hip-hop beats. Visitors can take home their recordings to share via a personal RFID wristband.

“There will be a changing exhibit gallery, with the first topic to be the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an a cappella group originally formed in 1871 to raise money for Fisk University. The group sang slave spirituals at their concerts. The tradition continues today.

“After a year of racial reckoning through the movement of Black Lives Matter, Hicks said the timing couldn’t be more perfect to highlight the contributions of Black music to our shared American experience.

“ ‘[It] is not an accident that we are able to finish and get the museum open in this moment, in this moment where we need to be reminded, perhaps more than others or more than in the recent past that we are brothers and we share more together than we do our differences.’ “

More at AP, here

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