Monday, January 21, 2013

"Emancipation: The Meaning of Freedom" A Humanities Conference at Essex County College

"We want more soul, a higher cultivation of all spiritual faculties. We need more unselfishness, earnestness, and integrity. We need men and women whose hearts are the homes of high and lofty enthusiasm and a noble devotion to the cause of emancipation, who are ready and willing to lay time, talent, and money on the altar of universal freedom." –Frances E.W. Harper, The Anglo-African Magazine, 1859 

On January 29, the Humanities Division of Essex County College (where I teach) will host a conference entitled "Emancipation: The Meaning of Freedom." As the conference organizer (and I will also be delivering a paper), I have to say that it has been my pleasure to work with my colleagues on this exciting endeavor. Click here to be taken to the conference website. There, you can view the panel sessions, meet the conference participants, check out some of the recommended readings, and look at the links to other sites related to abolitionism, slavery, and emancipation.

I have also created a sample assignment for the classroom. American History High School in Newark is scheduled to bring students to some of the panels--it's going to be an awesome day at Essex County College! Dr. S. Aisha Steplight Johnson, our Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, will deliver the Keynote Address. Dr. Steplight Johnson holds a doctorate in African American Studies from Temple University--click here for her biography.

I especially encourage our local educators here in Plainfield to visit our conference site!

All best,


Friday, January 18, 2013

Thinking About Plainfield and MLK: Conscience and Courage

Poor People’s Campaign of 1968-the Mule Train from Marks, Mississippi.

Over the past few days, I have been thinking about some words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They were in a speech he gave less than two months before his assassination. He was speaking about leadership in the context of the Vietnam War, but I think his words are appropriate ones for our elected officials (mayor and city council) to reflect upon as we head into 2010.

I hope that anyone reading these words will challenge our mayor and all of our council representatives to move forward into the "invincible future" (borrowing the words of Oswald Chambers) by truly putting Plainfield (as opposed to self-interest and political expediency) first.

Dr. King:

On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.

Click below for the link to the whole speech:

Monday, January 7, 2013

Souls of Sin

Click on title to watch movie 

I first saw the luridly-titled Souls of Sin (1949) over 20 years ago, when BET used to show low-budget "race" films made in the 1930s and '40s. I always remembered it because the storyline was unique--a writer named (Roberts), a gambler who gets involved in a heist (Dollar Bill), and a singer (Alabama)* room together in a basement apartment as they dream of artistic success (in the case of the two artists) and making a big score (Dollar Bill). Other characters also have colorful names, such as Cool Breeze, and another (played by the film's director, Powell Lindsay) named Bad Boy George. A young woman named Etta** follows behind Bill, even though he treats her poorly and attempts to rape her (he is stopped by Roberts). I won't go into more detail--watch for yourself!

The film is not "well-made," meaning, the acting is quite uneven (and at times amateurish), the sets are cheap (during one of the poorly-staged fight scenes, the actors nearly fall through the flimsy walls of the set), and there are many incongruities in the story and breaks in the plot, including a stop to the action so that a character can dance in all his scenes (he also dances with the male bartender). The film also contains a number of time-worn comedic routines. One character (Cool Breeze)  exists solely as comic relief--he enters the bars scenes to shuffle speedily in and out of the men's room.

l. to r. Bill Greaves, Billie Allen, and Emory Richardson
However, I think what appealed to me about Souls of Sin was the character of Roberts, the writer. I don't know of any other race film of this era that featured blacks engaging in artistic endeavors outside of music and dance and, although Roberts is an unpublished and struggling writer, he has integrity, and his work is taken seriously, respected, and validated by his cohorts. The film also has a happy (sort-of) ending. I have pasted the link to view the film here--it is worth seeing.

Bill Greaves
*William (Bill) Greaves, who played the young singer, Alabama, went on to have an outstanding career as an Emmy-award winning producer/writer/director (AND he attended my alma mater, City College!). My own connection to him is that he called me one day about 11 years ago (right after I stopped working as a sound recordist) to hire me for a project--I had to turn it down, but it was thrilling nonetheless to speak to a living legend of African American cinema--he chuckled when I told him how much I enjoyed Souls of Sin. Click on William Greaves Productions to go to to his website to learn more about his life and career.

Billie Allen

**The character of Etta was played by a very young Billie Allen (click here for a brief biography), who also went on to have a successful theater career as an actress and director. I met her when I was a college sophomore, working as a production assistant on Losing Ground, an independent feature film by the late Kathleen Collins Prettyman, my mentor. This past October, I glimpsed Ms. Allen (now aged 88) in the audience at a performance of playwright Eric Lockley's Blacken the Bubble at the HSA Theater in New York.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Blog: The Darkinboddy Chronicles

Many of you know of my love for history, my love for 19th century literature, and my love for baking cookies (don't worry--it all relates!). To that end, I have just begun a new blog entitled The Darkinboddy Chronicles, which relates the adventures of an unusual individual who lived through some of the most tumultuous events ever recorded in American history. Her name was Melanie Darkinboddy.*

Melanie's story has also inspired a new beginning for the Baked by a Negro Cookie Company and, finally, the long-awaited web publication of her unusual memoir, much of which I have had to reconstruct from rough notes, sketches, and jottings:

I hope to be able to publish at least three entries per week as a running serial, with imagery and other ephemera in an attempt to evoke the rich history from which her cookie empire was sprung. Below is a bit of biographical background on Melanie.

Born in 1857, the same year the Dred Scott Decision was rendered, Melanie Darkinboddy (pictured) was the original proprietor of Baked by a Negro Cookie Company, which she founded in 1896 in New York City. Naming her store "Baked by a Negro" to honor the wishes of a formerly enslaved woman known only as "Aunt Hagar," the small shop, located in a tiny storefront on 125th Street in Harlem, became one of the most successful small black-owned businesses of the fin de siecle. The success continued through the early decades of the 20th century and, with her new-found wealth, Melanie Darkinboddy became a generous and socially-conscious philanthropist, supporting every important Negro cause of the era, including Ida B. Wells's anti-lynching crusade, providing small grants to other black entrepreneurs, and funding the higher education of young Negro women and men.

Dearest to her heart, however, was her dedication to providing money and other assistance to Negro foundlings. A five year-old survivor of the conflagration that enveloped the Colored Orphans Asylum during the New York City Draft Riots in July of 1863, Melanie was devoted to ensuring that "... sad little colored foundlings such as myself receive a fair chance when thrust into this breathing world of ours." Business prospered in the early decades of the 20th century, as Melanie's indescribably delicious homemade cookies became the most popular two-penny treat in the neighborhood. Oddly, repeated attempts to convince her to market the cookies on a national level were met with a stone-faced resistance as Melanie echoed the words of her favorite poem, "Invictus", saying only "I am the master of my fate, and the captain of my soul."  Thus the years went along for the cookie-maker.

During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920 and '30s, also known as the "Jazz Age," Melanie Darkinboddy, then in her sixties,  became a humble patron of black artists, writers, and musicians, hosting innumerable parties in their honor from her elegant yet rather modest apartment overlooking Riverside Drive. A beloved figure throughout all of Harlem for the wit and wisdom she shared, along with her delicious small batch cookies, Melanie never turned a child away, sending many a  wayward youth home with a warm cookie and some good advice.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed in its wake took a heavy toll on Harlem businesses, and on the 125th Street shop in particular. In 1931, Melanie, then 73 years old, was forced to shut down. She continued to support her causes, albeit on a much smaller scale, often giving a few dollars here and there to young students attending the City College and Columbia University, respectively. The consequence of what she euphemistically called "a life so thoroughly and truly well-lived" began to take a toll on her health. By then, she only baked cookies for her small circle of friends, and was rarely seen in public.

In 1935, however, in horror at what eventually became known as the Harlem Race Riot, Melanie came out of retirement and managed to quell the palpable anger of the populace in the aftermath of the violence and bloodshed through the sheer power of her formidably humble personality. In an interview with a well-known reporter from the Negro press, the 78 year-old doyenne stated, "This is not how we Negroes carry ourselves. We must build up, not tear down. Heed my words--our Negro lives will not be worth much without capital in this capitalist world." Those words constituted the last public utterance by Melanie Darkinboddy. Her last known appearance was at an early June organizing rally for the 1941 March on Washington Movement, then being  organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Darkinboddy was seen leaving the rally before its end, but not before receiving a warm embrace from Randolph's wife, Lucille Campbell Green.

She disappeared into obscurity until May 17, 1954, when a tiny notice in the obituary section of one Negro paper recorded the passing of one "...Melanie Darkinboddy, shop-owner, Harlem, aged 97."  In a will probated nearly a year after her death, it was found that Melanie had left her small fortune in equal sums to various private charities engaged in the support of orphans and to historically black institutions of higher learning, and her papers to an anonymous beneficiary. 

All best in the New Year,


*Melanie Darkinboddy is a fictional character.