Ira Aldridge

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James Northcote, Manchester Art Gallery: “Description Half length frontal portrait of Ira Aldridge, celebrated nineteenth century black actor, in the role of Othello. He is dressed in a white shirt, with a white lace necker-chief, he looks nervously to the left. Plain background.” 1826. This image is in the pubic domain. [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIra_AldridgebyNorthcote.jpg, accessed 25 March 2017]

Today we tip our hats to 19th-century Black actor, Ira Aldridge, whose career spanned two continents, won some of the most coveted leading male roles in the English-language literary canon, engendered praise (both earnest and patronising) and criticism (unequivocally racist) and provided a platform from which Aldridge publicly supported abolition. Aldridge may be generally unknown, but his life and career negotiated the oppressive white gaze trained upon him as Black man on and off the stage.

Aldridge was born in present-day NYC in 1807. He received an education at Manhattan’s African Free School (for free Black children), where his gift for oratory was recognised. His father, a minister, wished Ira to apply the gift to ministry. But Ira Aldridge’s lifelong vocation would be acting.

From the 1816 to 1824, Aldridge honed his craft, but racist casting discrimination limited his opportunities; he worked mainly backstage, though he also did land roles with the African Company, a Black-founded and Black-managed company that, in 1821, became “the first resident African American theatre in the United States.” (1)

In 1824, Aldridge moved to Liverpool, hoping for greater opportunities. Unsurprisingly, he worked in Black companies and/or was often cast in racialised roles (e.g., his debut role in England in 1825, Oroonoko, the lead in The Revolt of Surinam, or a Slave’s Revenge). But Aldridge’s many leading roles (and not all racialised ones, like Othello, but also King Lear, for which he donned white face) attest to his range and the space he claimed for himself.

Aldridge did not allow himself to be made a hack for theatres cashing in on racialised spectacles; he was dedicated to his craft, and also made the stage a platform for the abolitionist message to which he was devoted. He often reappeared on stage with his guitar after finishing performances to play abolitionist-songs, and eventually became known for his post-performance, closing-night addresses, during which he attacked the abominable, unjust institution of slavery. He also donated considerable funds of his own to abolitionist causes. Thus, he expanded his racialised and constricted position into a space not just for himself as a Black man, but also for abolition. Through his donations he redirected English theatre-goers’ funds to the movement.

Aldridge challenged the restrictions that racist social and theatrical conventions placed upon him. When he couldn’t get satisfying work in the U.S., he moved to England, where he was not just an urban curiosity of Liverpool and London. He toured the provinces for years, and later branched out to continental Eurasia, where his performances were well-received by audiences across nations. His career demonstrates the wrongness of the general assumption that England was completely white before the 20th century, or that those Black people in England before that time were wholly segregated. After leaving the U.S., Aldridge married an English woman, and when she predeceased him, he remarried his Swedish mistress, with whom he would have several children.

Considering Aldridge’s career opens up an avenue for us to recall the long history that Black people have in Britain, both on and off the stage. Successful as he was, Aldridge in another sense was simply another in a succession of Black actors in England going back at least to the time of Shakespeare. (2)

Footnotes*:

  1. Emmanuel Sampath Nelson, African American Dramatists: An A-to-Z Guide (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004).
  2. ‘Black Faces in Tudor England – The Scholemaster’, https://andrewbretz.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/black-faces-in-tudor-england/, accessed 25 March 2017; ‘Britain’s First Black Community in Elizabethan London’, BBC News, 20 July 2012, sec. Magazine, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18903391, accessed 25 March 2017.

*This entire piece is inspired by the articles in footnote 2.

Ira Aldridge

Babo and Mori

Following our last post from a few weeks ago, today’s HHBlog post is in commemoration of Black History Month here in the United States. However, we at the Blog believe that it is important to expand our knowledge and understanding of the African Diaspora to regions in the Americas beyond the conventional scope of the United States or even Anglophone and Francophone North America. Today’s post is therefore in commemoration of two West African men, a father and son, named Babo (father) and Mori (son). For those who have read Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno or Greg Grandin’s academic text The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (2014), this history will be a familiar one.

Babo and Mori were two amongst many enslaved West Africans who were on board a slave ship, the Tryal, traversing the South Pacific towards Lima, Peru at the beginning of the nineteenth century. We know little about them – their lives before capture from Senegal and enslavement, their personal intimacies and thoughts – yet due to the events that transpired in 1804 and 1805, we in the academy know considerably more about their lives and desires than we do for the majority of the millions of enslaved Africans who were dispossessed of their homes and stolen to the Americas.

In 1804, as the Tryal was led to the Americas by Spanish sailors, Babo and Mori led a revolt on board the ship, killing their white captors save for a select few. Benito Cerreño, the Spanish owner of the ship and its captain, was kept alive and ordered by the West Africans on board to navigate the Tryal back to Senegal. Cerreño instead sailed back and forth along the coast of Chile hoping to be rescued,  until they came across a New England seal ship, the Perseverance. When the captain of the Perseverance, Amasa Delano (distant relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) boarded the Tryal, Babo, Mori, and the other West Africans aboard the Tryal performed their own enslavement in order to not be found out. They quite literally created a theatre out of what they knew the white gaze would believe to be true – not what was true i.e. that enslaved Black people had revolted and were in control of the ship and of white men – and what the white gaze accepted as “natural” roles for Black people.

They held Cerreño captive at knifepoint for the better part of an entire day, all the while Delano attempted to help what he believed to be a Spanish ship in distress. As Cerreño was forced into playing the role he had previously had – as captain and slaver – the Black rebels on board acted out the roles of enslaved and docile West Africans, all while keeping a close eye on their audience Amasa Delano. At the end of the day, after spending hours upon hours with a desperate but silent Cerreño, Delano boarded his own away ship after having given provisions to the Tryal and made his way back to the Perseverance. But as he pulled away from the Tryal, Cerreño dove on to Delano’s boat and suddenly the obvious was made clear to Delano. Delano’s New England crew rained violence down upon the West African rebels aboard the Tryal, leading eventually to the ship’s capture and a trial against the West Africans, including Babo and Mori, that took place in 1805.

The events of this rebellion of enslaved West Africans was later dramatized by Herman Melville, where I first encountered it for a course on Blackness in Latin America. The genius rebellion, down from the violent assault on their captors/enslavers to the performance of enslavement for a white American audience, is a captivating story that reminds us of both the attempts at dehumanization enslavement created, and the resistance to this dehumanization that the African Diaspora engaged in throughout the entirety of this diverse history. Although we do not know exactly what Babo, Mori, and the other enslaved West Africans thought before or after their revolt, we know from their actions that they were determined to resist enslavement by any means necessary.

~ M

Bibliography

Grandin, Greg. The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. United Kingdom: Picador, 2015 [2014].

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016 [1855].

 

 

Babo and Mori

Zora Neale Hurston

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[A fabulous photograph of Zora Neale Hurston in Eatonville, Florida. Found at https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/33048 ]

In celebration of the start of Black History Month here in the United States, today’s HHBlog post is dedicated to the poet, fiction writer, anthropologist, and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891 and spent the majority of her early life in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated Black township in the United States. Raised by her mother Lucy Potts Hurston and her father John Hurston until Lucy’s untimely death when Zora was thirteen years old, Zora Neale Hurston remembered her childhood as a relatively peaceful time where she was surrounded by Black success, inspiration, and support. After her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage, Zora struggled through school. Eventually Zora ended up, at age twenty-six, in Baltimore with no complete high school education. She enrolled in public school, claiming to be sixteen years old in order to receive her education for free; from this moment onward, her publicly-stated age was always to be ten years younger than her real age.

After living for a time in Baltimore, Zora made her way to Harlem, New York and became an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, becoming friends with the likes of Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, and Sterling Brown. In 1928, she graduated from Barnard College (the women’s college attached to Columbia University). Throughout the 1930s and 1940s she wrote several short stories, novels (Jonah’s Gourd Vine published in 1934), and folklore collections (Mules and Men published in 1935). Perhaps her most famous work was 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God – a must-read novel for anyone and everyone, in our opinion here at the Blog. It was not until the publication of her autobiography in 1942, however, that she gained more prominent recognition. Even then, though, she received little compensation for her writing, as demonstrated by the fact that when she passed away in 1960 from a stroke, her neighbours in Florida had to cobble together money for her funeral. From 1960 until 1973, her grave remained unmarked – something that Zora had foretold in a letter she wrote to W.E.B. Du Bois regarding how often Black people’s graves went unmarked in the United States. It was not until 1973 when Alice Walker, a then-young Black author, made a pilgrimage to the segregated Florida cemetery Garden of Heavenly Rest that Zora’s grave received a tombstone, reading “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”

In honour of Zora Neale Hurston and all the Black women artists, writers, and cultural workers who came before and after her, we ask our readers to seek out, listen to, or watch the work of Black artists who dedicated themselves to displaying Black joy, complexity, and nuance in a world that affords little space for complicated understandings of Blackness.

If you haven’t read anything by her, check out this wonderful reading by Alice Walker of an excerpt from Their Eyes Were Watching God:

~ M

Bibliography

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows:The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Lisa Drew Books, 2004.

Boyd, Valerie. “About Zora Neal Hurston.” Accessed February 3, 2017. http://www.zoranealehurston.com/about/index.html

Zora Neale Hurston

Ella Josephine Baker

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[A photograph of an impassioned Ella Baker, date and photographer unknown. Retrieved from http://ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker]

I had planned to write the first HHBlog post of 2017 on a different day, one removed from Inauguration Day and all of the trauma and violence going on today with this incoming American administration. But that would have felt false to me on multiple levels. The violence of this election season and of this inauguration are not housed within the confines of particular calendar dates or in the bodies of particular human beings, no matter how vile we may feel they are. This violence is systemic. It is a foundational part of the very institutions upon which the United States – as a settler colonial, capitalist, white supremacist, and patriarchal state – is built upon. So today – January 20th, the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States Mr. Donald Trump – marks our first HHBlog post of the year to both remind us that this is an interconnected struggle that has been going on long before our lifetimes, and to celebrate those who have been en la lucha in the generations before us.

Today’s inaugural post of 2017 is therefore dedicated to the one and only Ella Josephine Baker, a radical Black woman who helped lead the fight for Civil Rights in the twentieth century United States. Born in December 1903 in Virginia, she was an organizer and activist for the majority of her life, working primarily in less public roles than some of the more prominent men of the Civil Rights Movement, although she was no less important! While working alongside several Black activists such as W.E.B. du Bois and the Southern Chiristian Leadership Conference (SCLC), she also mentored a younger generation of radical Black activists such as Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture.

Baker was a proponent of radical participatory democracy who disavowed what she called “professional” leadership. She believed that “strong people” did not need “strong leadership.” She began her engagement in activism as a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), traveling widely throughout the United States gathering funds and recruiting new NAACP members.  After some time, she returned to her adopted city of New York and worked with various local Civil Rights organizations until 1957 when she joined the SCLC as the executive director – at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her work with the SCLC eventually led to the organization of the event that created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), of which she remained an active member and supporter long after having let the SCLC.

After the demise of the Civil Rights Movement – due to American legislation, FBI infiltration, and assassinations of prominent leaders – Ella Baker continued to fight for racial justice, lending her support to the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee and the Third World Women’s Coordinating Committee. Ella Baker fought for justice for over five decades, eventually passing away on her 83rd birthday in 1986. Baker serves as an inspiration for those of us who fight – in whatever way we are able to – for intersectional racial justice. Baker understood that although she was principally concerned with Black Americans receiving justice, that this was a struggle connected to entire systems of oppression and injustice that affected everyone. Ella Baker serves as a critical reminder that women of colour, especially Black women, have been at the forefront in fighting for justice and rights for all of us. I encourage our readers to seek out the words and wisdom of women of colour who have led fights for justice, and who continue to do so in our communities today. Thank you, Ella Josephine Baker, and the countless Black women and non-Black women of colour who continue to fight on behalf of our communities.

~ M

Bibliography

“Ella Baker: Biography.” Accessed January 20th, 2017. http://www.biography.com/people/ella-baker-9195848#synopsis

“Who Was Ella Baker?” Accessed January 20th, 2017. http://ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker

 

 

Ella Josephine Baker

Ella Cara Deloria

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[A wonderful photo of Ella Cara Deloria, found on the website for the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center]

Ella Cara Deloria (Anpetu Wastéwin “Beautiful Day Woman”) was born in 1889 on the Standing Rock Reservation in what is known as the state of South Dakota, USA. Deloria was born to a prominent Christian Dakota family, with famous Dakota activist academics such as Vine Deloria Jr. (her nephew) and Philip J. Deloria (Vine Deloria Jr.’s son) making up part of her familial relations.

In 1915, Deloria received a Bachelor’s degree from Columbia Teacher’s College. During her time at Columbia, she met the famous anthropologist Franz Boaz with whom she began to collaborate with. Her knowledge of both Dakota and Lakota Sioux dialects became an asset within the early twentieth century world of anthropology, a discipline which was born of colonial, exploitative inquiry into the lives of Indigenous peoples by mostly white men. With her introduction to Boaz, Deloria began to become involved in anthropological work as a key translator and critical analyzer of Sioux texts.

Her work in the academy demonstrates some of the ways marginalized people navigated early twentieth century academia, and specifically how Indigenous women were intrinsic in the development of anthropology as a field of academic inquiry. While anthropology is embedded within a colonial history of exploitation, figures like Ella Deloria complicate what can often be painted as a one-dimensional narrative of academics exploiting Indigenous communities. Deloria demonstrates, quite literally, how Indigenous peoples spoke back with and against anthropologists during the twentieth century, often making space for themselves to work in helping their own people.

Outside of her work as an anthropologist, linguist, and ethnographer, Deloria was also a novelist and – interestingly – an advisor to the Camp Fire Girls, an early version of a settler girls “back to nature” style camp. Although camps such as the Camp Fire Girls utilized stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as “noble savages,” people like Deloria hoped to change these harmful stereotypes by working from within. From 1929 to 1931, Deloria taught Camp Fire Girls about different Indigenous philosophies, songs, and dances, advancing what Philip J. Deloria has referred to as “her own cultural mission – constructing positive images of Indians around the primitivist foundation laid by the Camp Fire Girls. Just as the Camp Fire Girls used a universal Indianness to reproduce specific ideals of middle-class womanhood, so too did Deloria seek access to American cultural institutions in order to reshape popular conceptions of Indianness” (122).

Deloria’s work spanned not only the academy, but everyday middle-class settler contexts such as summer camps for children. She worked tirelessly within institutions that were not meant to accommodate the voices of Indigenous people in general, and specifically not Indigenous women. Ella Deloria was of a generation of middle-class Indigenous activists who gained entry into settler academic institutions, albeit in often marginal forms, and attempted to work towards change from the inside out. Deloria, like many other members of her family, paved the way for later generations of Indigenous activists. As the recent and ongoing defense of Indigenous land, water, and treaty rights at Standing Rock demonstrates, the fight for justice continues. We here at the HHBlog tip our proverbial hats to Indigenous women such as Ella Deloria who fought – and continue to fight – in myriad ways for their respective peoples.

~ M

Bibliography

Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

“Ella Cara Deloria, Anpetu Wastéwin (Beautiful Day Woman).” Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. Accessed December 9, 2016. http://aktalakota.stjo.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=9006

Ella Cara Deloria

Shirley Chisholm

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[An absolutely fantastic photo of the brilliant (and one of my personal fashion inspirations, I mean the severity of a tightly buttoned, bright collared shirt with a big necklace?! Hello!) Shirley Chisholm, announcing her candidacy for Presidential nomination on January 25th, 1972 in Brooklyn, NYC. “Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for presidential nomination,” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog,  http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/ds.07135/ ]

We here at the Blog pride ourselves on taking the time and care to curate accessible snapshots of lives lived in search of justice, with a strident political commitment to paying tribute to the voices of rabble rousers, radicals, and all around historical badasses who challenged injustice, marginalization, and oppression in a myriad of ways while celebrating the beauty (sans fetishization) of historically subjugated and denigrated communities. The last several weeks have quieted us, however, at least in our writing at the Blog as we have taken time to reflect, discuss, and heal in light of the outcome of the recent American Presidential election. In tribute to the countless communities across the United States who are continuing the multilayered fights for justice amidst emboldened white supremacy, patriarchy, settler colonialism, and capitalism, today’s HHBlog post is dedicated to none other than Shirley Chisholm, the first Black congresswoman elected in the United States.

Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, NYC in 1924 to a Barbadian mother and a Guyanese father, and was raised between Barbados by her maternal grandparents and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn by her parents. After graduating high school in the 1940s, she went on to attend Brooklyn College and earned a degree in sociology. Following her graduation, she worked in childcare and, after marrying Conrad Q. Chisholm, returned to post-secondary education, this time for a Master of Arts in early childhood education from Columbia University.

In 1964, she was elected to the New York state legislature, only the second Black woman at that point to have done so. According to the U.S. House of Representatives biography of Chisholm, it was a “court–ordered redistricting that carved a new Brooklyn congressional district out of Chisholm’s Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood [that] convinced her to run for Congress.” After defeating several other Black candidates in the Democratic primary election of 1968, she went on to face off against Civil Rights activist and Republican-Liberal James Farmer, utilizing the argument (in her words) that “women [had] been in the driver’s seat” for too long in Black communities. Chisholm handily won her Congressional seat, gaining 67% of the vote in her district.

Chisholm served in Congress from 1969 until 1983 (91st to 97th Congresses), sitting on several important committees throughout her time as a congresswoman. While a congresswoman, Chisholm championed the causes she had fought for in her own community, including the right of domestic workers to receive benefits, federal funding for education, and immigrant rights. In 1972 she announced her candidacy for the Democratic Presidential ticket, the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s President nomination and the first Black person to run for President in the history of the United States. At the Democratic National Convention (DNC), she received roughly 10% of the delegate votes, which was rather sizeable considering the lack of access to large funding sources she had. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful in her bid, due to a combination of factors including a division in the Congressional Black Caucus (which she helped found, no less).

Chisholm was a luminary in American politics and embodied many “firsts” in the political history of the United States. While she was a champion of Black rights, she never once flinched at criticizing Black patriarchal practices and norms alongside white patriarchy – something that garnered her both respect and incredible amounts of criticism. Chisholm, who once said that “[i]f they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” continues to be an inspiration to communities of colour, especially Black communities, across the United States despite often being ignored in white American mainstream history.

Although it is difficult to see how a political system built on stolen land and the labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants can ever deliver true justice to the most marginalized people in this society, Shirley Chisholm continues to be a shining ray of  inspiration. Thank you Shirley Chisholm, and all the other Black women and non-Black women of colour who continue to fight oppression and injustice. Today, we pay tribute to Shirley Chisholm, who remained “unbought and unbothered” (her campaign slogan) until her passing in 2005.

~ M

Bibliography

“CHISHOLM, Shirley Anita.” History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/10918

Vaidyanathan, Rajini. “Before Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm.” BBC News, January 26, 2016. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35057641

Shirley Chisholm