The Woyingi Blog

Woyingi Links of the Week: August 28th to September 4th 2012

What the Woyingi Blogger stumbled upon over the last week

Britain

Africa: Hollywood’s Invisible Continent

Eritrean British journalist Hannah Pool wrote this article in 2011 in The Guardian. In this article which promotes the Film Africa Festival and discusses the need for us all to watch more African Cinema, she asks:

How is it that stories produced by Africans, be it film, music, or literature, are still considered niche, worthy, or somehow “less” than art created by non-Africans? At best, African cinema is considered “art house”, African art is labelled “craft”, and African literature must focus on the big three (famine, war or poverty) to be deemed authentic…If Africa is only ever viewed through a western prism, how can you expect to have anything other than a deeply unbalanced view of a continent of more than 50 countries and 2,000 languages?

She bemoans the difficulty faced by African filmmakers to get their films distributed in the West:

Why do film distributors never come under fire for failing to adequately distribute African cinema? And why is it assumed that white audiences prefer Africa to come with a thinly veiled colonial backdrop, which usually involves a white hero saving a poor downtrodden country from itself? Blood Diamond, anyone? Africans are now telling their own stories. It’s time the rest of the world started consuming them.

Guyana/Britain

Grace Nichols Returns to Guyana

I have discovered BBC’s awesome Learning Zone sites which provides video clips and ideas for teachers to explore a variety of topics in class. The site includes videos featuring the poetry of Guyanese British poet Grace Nichols. The videos include readings of some of her poems. In the clip, Grace Nichols Returns to Guyana, Grace reflects on her trip to her homeland Guyana. In another clip, Grace Nichols-“Even Tho”, Grace discusses finding her voice as a poet and the use of Standard English versus Creole. Unfortunately, the video is only available fro viewers in the UK. I found a great video interview with Grace Nichols where she discusses and recites her poem Island Man on Youtube.

Kenya/United States

US group raises red flag over chemical in Coke

In Business Daily Africa, I came across this article by David Mugwe which contains some startling information for people who drink Coke. According to the US-Based consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the level of the cancer-causing chemical 4 methylimidizole (4-MI) in Coca Cola are too high, the highest levels recorded are in the Coca Cola sold in Brazil and Kenya. According to the article about their findings on the CSPI site:

The carcinogen forms when the ammoniated caramel coloring used in colas is industrially produced. Coke began using a less-contaminated caramel coloring earlier this year in California after the state required a cancer-warning notice on soft drinks with excessive levels of 4-MI.

But according to Business Daily Africa, there is no intention to change the level of this carcinogen in Kenya:

The Coca Cola office in Nairobi said there were no plans to change the formula, saying its products were safe. “All of our products are safe and comply with regulations in every country where we operate. Regulators throughout the world have approved the use of caramel in our products,” said Norah Odwesso, the Public Affairs and Communications Director for Coca-Cola Central East and West Africa Business Unit. She said the company was not changing its formula and, therefore, would not affect the colour, taste and quality of its drinks. The firm does not agree with the State of California’s decision to require a warning label on some food products containing trace levels of 4-MI.

You can view more information about CSPI’s findings here.

Nigeria

A FarmVille for Africa

Nigerian start-up Maliyo Games is profiled in the BBC Online’s Technology Section. The company creates online games for the African Market. As one of the company’s founders, Oluseye Soyode-Johnson, states:

We looked at the local culture, the local attitudes and trends, and we tried to make games out of them,” Obi says. For Maliyo, that meant creating local characters, and putting them in familiar environments. In a game called Okada Ride, you are the cheeky driver of one of the many motorbikes (Okadas) that can be found on the streets of Lagos. In an effort to get to your office as quickly as possible, you pilot the bike through traffic, and avoid potholes, policemen, and other obstacles that are common on Nigeria’s streets and roads.

The article also discusses the African mobile market where smartphones do not yet dominate, but that is quickly changing. According to South African-based Tech Consultant Andrew McHenry:

The biggest trend right now is probably the rise of $50 to $100 Android-based smartphones across the continent. As we see more of these devices come online, you’ll see more native application games with in-app purchasing becoming available.

Many of these phones are being sold by Chinese companies. Hugo Obi, also with Maliyo Games, notes some of the challenges involved in drawing in the African market for phone apps:

Traditionally, Africans don’t use credit or debit cards to purchase things on the web, or on mobile devices. So, we need to think about how we’re going to give people opportunity to purchase these games, or make in-app purchases

The games currently on offer through Maliyo include Mosquito Smasher,  where to get to smash annoying mosquitoes, Kidnapped, where you have to save your neighbourhoods who have been kidnapped and held for ransom, and My Village, for those nostalgic for the rural life they have left to come to Lagos. If you want to learn more about Maliyo Games, visit their website and view this video interview with the company’s founders.

Somaliland/Canada

Fahima Osman, surgeon and DOVE Role Model

Dove Soap has complied profiles of Female Role Models which have been posted on YouTube. American singer Mandy Moore introduces these videos. Somali-Canadian Fahima Osman is profiled. Here is the description of her profile:

Fahima wanted to be a doctor from age 5. Along her journey from Somalian refugee to heroine of her community, she faced quiet racism and discouragement. Now, as the first Canadian-trained doctor in her community, surgeon and volunteer in Somaliland, she should be famous for inspiring women and refugees everywhere with her determination and success.

The video can be viewed online here. In 2011 Fahima won a John Hopkins Global Health Scholarship. She is studying at John Hopkins School of Public Health. She states:

My career goals are to improve access to health care resources in rural communities, particularly in the field of breast cancer. The research skills acquired at Johns Hopkins School of public health will allow me to increase the body of knowledge in access to health care services disparities and find ways to improve access in underserviced areas in North America and in Somaliland.

Uganda

How to share the wealth of Uganda’s oil?

Catherine Byaruhanga reports for the BBC about the current debate brewing in Uganda about how to ensure that Uganda’s new found oil weath is shared fairly. There is already local concern from farmers and fishermen that they are being displaced from government land around Lake Albert because of the oil exploration. Tullow Oil is currently the biggest player in Uganda’s oil industry. They say they are building clinics, schools and roads so that local communities benefit from the growing oil extraction industry. Fears of government corruption surrounding the burgoening oil industry have already been raised but Ugandan Ministry of Energy Spokesman Bukenya Matuvou dismisses them. You can watch the video report here.

Early Black European Lives: Joseph Knight (Scotland)

Posted in Countries: Jamaica, Countries: Scotland, Early Black European Lives, Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by the woyingi blogger on October 31, 2011

I don’t know when Joseph Knight was born or when he died. I first learned about his story while watch the BBC Documentary Series A History of Scotland. Joseph Knight’s story is also the basis for the novel Joseph Knight by Scottish author James Robertson, a novel with has been ranked as one of the 100 Best Scottish Novels.

Cover of the Novel Joseph Knight

What we know of Joseph Knight’s life has been documented for posterity in the records of his case, (“Joseph Knight, a Negro of Africa v. John Wedderburn of Ballindean“) against his master, John Wedderburn which was heard by the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1778.

Joseph Knight is said to have been taken captive as a slave from Guinea in West Africa when he was about eleven or twelve. He was brought on a slave ship to Jamaica. John Wedderburn was a Scottish plantation owner who had made a fortune in Jamaica after escaping the persecution of Jacobites after the battle of Culloden (He subsequently named his plantation Culloden). Wedderburn took a distinct liking to the young Joseph when he saw him for sale. Wedderburn bought the boy, named him after the captain of the slave ship he had been brought to Jamaica on, Joseph Knight, and kept him as a house slave. This meant that Joseph was not subjected to the back-breaking work in the sugar fields of the plantations which even Wedderburn testified later in court would have probably killed the boy. Wedderburn even had Joseph baptised, which was quite uncommon for slaves at the time, and allowed him to be taught how to read and write by the same schoolmaster who taught Wedderburn’s own children. About nine years after purchasing Joseph, in 1769, Wedderburn decided to leave Jamaica and return to the more appealing climate of his Scottish homeland; he took Joseph Knight with him. Wedderburn settled on his estate called Ballidean. But Joseph was growing up, and although allowed to quarter with Wedderburn’s house servants he was still a slave and was not paid a wage, although he was given pocket-money. Joseph asked to acquire a trade and so Wedderburn paid for him to apprentice with a barber in Dundee. During this time, it is likely that Joseph learned of the case of the fugitive slave James Somersett who had successfully appealed to the court in England to be freed from his master in 1772.

Joseph became involved with a female house servant named Annie who became pregnant. This greatly displeased Wedderburn who dismissed Annie, but allowed her to stay at Ballindean to give birth, paid the doctor’s bills and for the funeral of the baby when it subsequently died. However, Joseph continued his relationship with Annie, who had moved to Dundee, and again fathered a child with her. Joseph wanted to be able to work to support his family and demanded that Wedderburn either give him a cottage on his estate for his family or give him wages so that he could provide for them. Otherwise, he was going to leave. Wedderburn refused these demands so Joseph left. Wedderburn successfully appealed to the Justices in Perthshire to enforce his rights of property against Joseph and Joseph was arrested and returned to Wedderburn. As Maclaurin, Joseph Knight’s lawyer in the case Joseph eventually raised against Wedderburn at the Court of Session in Ediburgh, said, according to the court documents which have been written as dialogue in James Robertson’s novel:

‘It was at this point that Mr Wedderburn applied tae the Justices o the Peace o Perthshire tae prevent his taking aff in this mainner, on the grounds that he had aye treated him kindly and furnished him wi claes, bed, board and pocket money, and that in consequence o haein acquired him legitimately in Jamaica he had the richt tae detain him in perpetuity in his service for life. The justices, all, let it be said, guid freens o Mr Wedderburn’s and some wi their ain interests in the plantations, upheld his petition and the pursuer was arrested and returned tae him.’

Knight could not accept remaining as Wedderburn’s slave. He appealed to the Sheriff of Perth who decided in his favour, as he found the laws of slavery that applied in Jamaica did not apply in Scotland. Wedderburn than appealed to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland’s Supreme Civil Court at the time, arguing that Joseph Knight owed him lifetime service. The case was considered so important at the time that it was given a full panel of judges, including a central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, Lord Kames (Henry Home). Knight’s lawyers argued in his favour on several fronts including raising the fear that Wedderburn intended to send Joseph back to Jamaica, where the slavery laws would mean that Joseph could be punished for desertion. According to Maclaurin in Robertson’s novel:

The defender, Mr Wedderburn, has been at pains in aw his written submissions tae the court, tae emphasise his kindness and generosity tae the pursuer. We will leave aside, for the moment, whether these words can ever be applied tae a relationship founded upon ae man’s absolute power ower anither. But we note that he seeks frae the court no jist the richt tae the pursuer’s service in perpetuity, but also the richt tae send or cairry him back tae Jamaica if he should choose it. He insists that he has nae intention o daein that, but, as he acquired him legitimately there, he must be entitled tae return him there. Whit, though, would be the purpose o assertin that richt, were it no tae exercise it? My lords, if Mr Knight behaved in Jamaica as he has done here, that is if he claimed his freedom and acted upon that claim, he would be subjected tae the maist horrific punishments for desertion. Are we tae believe that if he were sent tae that island, it would be for his security and happiness and the guid o his soul?

According to the National Archives of Scotland (NAS):

The records relating to the Knight v Wedderburn case survive among Court of Session records in the NAS (reference CS235/K/2/2). They consist of five bundles of papers, including an extract of process by the Sheriff Depute of Perth (20 May 1774), an extract of process by the Lords of Council and Session (30 May 1774), and memorials for John Wedderburn and Joseph Knight (1775). Of these, the memorials are the most interesting. In their respective memorials each man presents his side of the story and legal arguments concerning the definition of perpetual servitude. Wedderburn blamed Knight’s relationship with another servant, and her subsequent pregnancy, as the cause of a falling out between master and servant and Knight’s desire to leave his service. Knight’s 40-page memorial includes an account of his life (including his baptism and marriage in Scotland), evidence – partly in French – on enslavement of Africans by their chiefs as judicial punishments, and descriptions of the miseries of slavery in the colonies.

The court found in Joseph Knight’s favour. According to judge Lord Kames:

….the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negro’s service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent: That the Negro was likewise protected under the act 1701, c.6. from being sent out of the country against his consent.’

According to Lord Auchinleck, the father of another figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, James Boswell, and another judge on the panel who voted in favour of Joseph Knight:

Although in the plantations they have laid hold of the poor blacks, and made slaves of them, yet I do not think that is agreeable to humanity, not to say to our Christian religion. Is a man a slave because he is black? No. He is our brother; and he is a man, although not of our colour; he is in a land of liberty, with his wife and child, let him remain there.

Joseph Knight won his freedom from Wedderburn but we know nothing of his life after this. Was he able to find employment and support his family? What was life like for his children in Scotland being of mixed race? James Robertson, in his 2003 novel Joseph Knight, mixes fact and fiction by having John Wedderburn hire a Dundee private detective to go looking for Joseph Knight 25 years after the court case. In a 2011 interview, Robertson discusses his novel, which won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Award in 2004:

I first came across a brief mention of the story of Joseph Knight in a book about Dundee in, I think, 2000.

There were gaps in the historical record – not least being a complete absence of information about what happened to Knight after he faced down his master John Wedderburn in court – but this simply meant that fiction came into its own as a means of reconstructing the past. In fact, the cast of real-life characters – Knight and Wedderburn themselves, other planters, slaves and their families, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and all the eccentric, hard-drinking judges, philosophers, poets and lawyers who made Enlightenment Edinburgh such a vibrant place – was so extraordinary that it was tempting (though not very) to tone them down a bit to make them more credible. As I gathered information, I became fascinated by the profound humanity of some of the people in the story, which was matched only by the hypocrisy of men in Edinburgh coffee houses debating what constituted a civil society while enjoying the products of slave labour thousands of miles away.

Somebody directed me to an aphorism of the Nigerian writer Ben Okri: ‘Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free themselves for future flowerings.’ This gave me the key to what I felt the book was about: Joseph Knight, or his story, came to symbolise a Scotland full of possibilities, past, present and future. I’d always been interested in how different times can speak to one another, how our understanding of ‘then’ can influence our understanding of ‘now’ and vice versa, and here was that same thing happening again.

…Despite good reviews and the reception of both the Scottish Arts Council and Saltire Society Book of the Year awards, and although many readers have told me how much they enjoyed it, of my four novels it has sold the least well. I don’t know why this is, but it makes me all the more grateful that it got the recognition it did back in 2003–04. You can never tell what books will survive their own times – many bestsellers are gone and forgotten a decade after first publication – but I like to think that someone, some day far in the future, may pick up Joseph Knight and find that it opens a door for them into the strange but perhaps not irrelevant world of Enlightenment Edinburgh and Scotland’s deep engagement with slavery and the plantations.

Further Reading:

Slavery, freedom or perpetual servitude? – the Joseph Knight case (The National Archives of Scotland) article available online

Guardian Review (2003) of the novel Joseph Knight by James Robertson by Ali Smith available online

Extract from James Robertson’s novel Joseph Knight available online

Interview (2011) with James Robertson available online

Scotland and the Slave Trade (National Library of Scotland) article available online

Scotland and Abolition by Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte article available online

African American Women’s Lives: Krishna Kaur (formerly Thelma Oliver)

Thelma Oliver was a dancer and actress who in the mid to late 1960s was making her mark on Broadway and on US film history in director Sidney Lumet’s film The Pawnbroker. Then she started studying yoga and became Krishna Kaur. This is her story.

Oliver was born in Los Angeles, California in 1941. Her father, Cappy Oliver, played trumpet with Lionel Hampton’s band and her mother sang before settling down to raise five children. Oliver studied dance at the Jeni LeGon School and later majored in Drama and Theatre Arts at UCLA. Then in 1961 Oliver made the fateful decision to drop out of school and head East with the song and dance show Kicks and Company. However, the show was not a success and closed in Chicago after only four performances. Oliver found temporary work as a typist in New York and kept her Broadway dreams alive. Oliver’s New York stage debut was off-Broadway in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, where she starred as Virtue along with Lou Gossett Jr as Edgar She played the role of Virtue off and on for two years. She also had the opportunity to star in a one-woman show on CBS Repertory Theatre.

With her small role as “Ortiz’ Girl” in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, Oliver, ended up making movie history in 1964.  The Pawnbroker, based on the novel by Jewish American writer Edward Lewis Wallant,  stars Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman, a bitter pawnbroker in East Harlem who lost his family in the Holocaust. This is actually the first Hollywood film to deal with the Holocaust and its psychological impact on those who survived it. Oliver stars as a prostitute who is also the girlfriend of Nazerman’s Puerto Rican employee Jesus Ortiz. Desperate for money, she offers herself to Nazerman, taking off her clothes and appearing bare-breasted. This was the first time this had EVER occurred in a mainstream Hollywood production. Seeing her naked, Nazerman ends up having flashbacks to his wife being raped by Nazi prison camp guards. He ends up covering “Ortiz’ Girl” with a raincoat and gives her $20. Because the film was dealing with the issue of the Holocaust and its impact, this scene was able to get by the censors because the nakedness was deemed to be integral to the story. It was the first film to get a Motion Picture Association of America Production Code seal of approval that showed bare breasts. The film was scored by the legendary Quincy Jones.

Oliver’s big break came when she landed the role of Helene opposite Gwen Verdon in the Broadway hit Sweet Charity. Oliver auditioned in 1965 for the role only five weeks after surgery to have a tumor removed. The character of Helene is a close friend of the show’s main character Charity; both women work as “hostesses” in the Fan Dango taxi dancehall. Interestingly, the role of Helene is “non-racial”, meaning that it is not specified that she is a Black character. In October 1966, Ebony Magazine published an article about Oliver entitled New Girl on Broadway. The magazine describes her performance as Helene as follows:

Thelma cavorts, smiles, sings, and dances her way through the show, always bubbling with a humourous philosophy that overshadows the sordidness of life.

According to Oliver: “Sweet Charity has been good to me and has changed my life in a wonderful way.” In the September 1966 edition of Jet Magazine, Oliver, when asked about the future of Black actors in the theatre states:

It is certain that as the role of the Negro changes in society, so much it change in the theatre. For the theatre is merely a reflection of society. I feel that the main enemy of the Negro in theatre is fear. Not his fear but the white man’s fear-fear of losing the ‘dollar’. Therefore, I believe the real future of the Negro in the theatre lies in the hands of Negro producers. Negro producers who will take a chance and exploit potentially great Negro talent. Not to just utilize the Negroes who have already been accepted as great, but all of the Negroes out here bubbling over with talent who haven’t had a chance to express themselves.

Oliver would go on to organize a production of Sweet Charity with eight inmates of New York’s Women’s House of Detention, after having only five hours of rehearsal. The women put on a performance of the show for adolescent inmates who were finishing their year at the institution in 1967. But Oliver’s future would not lie with showbiz. In the Ebony Magazine article New Girl on Broadway, it mentions that Oliver studies yoga philosophy. In September 1975, Ebony Magazine published the article Yoga: Something for Everyone, which took a look at how various Black celebrities, including Herbie Hancock and Angela Davis, were embracing yoga and various other Eastern philosophies. This article focused on Thelma Oliver, who by then had changed her name to Krishna Kaur. Kaur, meaning “Princess” is the mandatory last name for female Sikhs after Amrit (Sikh Baptism).

Krishna Kaur studied yoga under the tutelage of Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh from India’s Punjab who had established 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) in Los Angeles where he taught Kundalini Yoga. Many of Yogi Bhajan’s American students, including African-Americans like Thelma Oliver, began to convert to Sikhism after observing with admiration the way of life of the Yogi. This would eventually lead to the development of the Sikh Dharma Movement. Yogi Bhajan particularly felt that yoga would be beneficial for African-Americans. In the 1975 Ebony article he says:

Outer help cannot help the handicapped and we’ve got to start admitting that the Black community is handicapped. My personal feeling is that the entire community should check it out.

Krishna Kaur began running the Guru Ramdas Ashram (school) in central Los Angeles, teaching Kundalini Yoga. She also began doing work in the community, sharing the practice of yoga with inner-city students. In the 1975 Ebony article there is a striking picture on page 96 showing Krishna Kaur teaching yoga to students at South Central’s John C. Fremont High School. In the article, Krishna Kaur rejects militant Black activism and states:

The revolution is really one of the mind. Blacks have got to realize where the power really is. The struggle is not on a physical level. It is on the level of the mind.

Krishna Kaur has continued her work bringing yoga to inner-city schools with the creation of the Yoga for Youth. Krishna Kaur describes the work of Yoga for Youth, as well as her own spiritual transformation in the following article posted on lifebyme:

My life changed during the late 60s, just as my career as a performing artist was about to take off. At that time, the Vietnam war was raging, the U.S. Civil Rights struggle had peaked, and more Third World and African Countries were gaining independence from European domination. I was excited about my growing fame in New York – I was in a big Broadway hit, a major film, and a one-woman TV show. However, something else was unfolding inside me at the same time.

I began to feel another calling, outside of the theater, a calling which pulled hard at my psyche. The internal voices continued to drown out my usual excitement about performing. After several months of internal struggle and fear, I learned how to slow down the incessant mental chatter so I could hear the voice in my heart telling me that my true purpose in life was to serve my people in a meaningful way. As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” So I took my love of theater to the streets and began to teach yoga and meditation to kids on the playground, adults recovering from drug and alcohol addictions, gang members, and high school students throughout the Watts area in South Los Angeles.

Every day for the past 40 years, I’ve woken up excited to bring the art and science of Kundalini Yoga to people struggling to make sense out of life – good people, young people, people who have been discarded by mainstream society. They motivate me to get up every morning, enthusiastic about teaching, training, and nurturing them to experience who they really are. My work fulfills me. It gives me hope for the future of humanity and makes me optimistic about stepping into the challenges of these times.

Teaching urban youth through my non-profit Organization, YOGA for Youth, is the most gratifying part of my life. Our youth have every right to be healthy, happy, and productive in their lives. Yet many of them have inherited an environment that doesn’t support such longings. By teaching and training other yoga teachers to reach this very special population, I help plant seeds of greatness that will feed this country and the world, for many generations. When I see the light come on in the eyes of a young person, I know their life will be changed forever. That is worth living for, and that is what keeps me getting up in the morning.

Krishna Kaur is now a world-renowned as a yoga teacher with over 40 years of experience. In 1998, she established the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers which aims to promote the practice of yoga within the Black diaspora, with a particular focus on its power for social transformation. Through the work of this association, she has begun projects in Africa educating locals as Kundalini Yoga teachers. A video of her work in Ghana in 2005 is available online (starting at 4:24 min) as well as a video of actor and Kundalini Yoga student Forest Whitaker sharing a message of support for Krishna Kaur’s work.

In 2000, Krishna Kaur was interviewed for Yoga Journal. In the article Yoga in Black and White, Krishna Kaur addresses the challenge of making yoga relevant for Black people:

“How is yoga going to put food on my table or keep the police from going upside my head?” -these were the kind of questions we were constantly faced with when we first started reaching out to the black community in 1971. But we knew that yoga could help our young people see reality, live reality and find out where their power was, so that they were not always just reacting to their life situations.

I find the remarkable journey of Krishna Kaur (formerly Thelma Oliver) fascinating and a great example of spiritual transformation.

Woyingi Blogger’s Note: This post would not have been possible if I didn’t decide to google “black sikh” one day because I was interested to know if there were any Black converts to the religion of Sikhism.

Further Reading:

New Girl on Broadway (Ebony Magazine, October 1966, p. 52) available online from Google Books

New York Beat (Jet Magazine, July 27th 1967, p.62) available from Google Books

Yoga: Something for Everyone (Ebony Magazine, September 1975, p. 96) available online from Google Books

Yoga in Black and White (Yoga Journal, September-October 2000, p. 105) available online from Google Books

Yoga for Youth by Krishna Kaur article available online

Krishna Kaur’s Website

Yoga for Youth’s Website

International Association of Black Yoga Teachers’ Website

Video of Krishna Kaur’s 2005 Trip to Ghana available online (starting at 4:24min)

Video of Forest Whitaker discussing Krishna Kaur’s work available online

Video Interview (2009) with Krishna Kaur available online

Video Presentation Part 1 and Part 2 by Krishna Kaur about Yoga for Youth at the First Conference on Yoga for Health and Social Transformation available online

Black Canadian History Quiz: Test Yourself

Posted in Black Canadian History, Black Firsts by the woyingi blogger on May 29, 2011

The following quiz was published in the Ottawa Citizen. I have made some updates and corrections-The Woyingi Blogger

Background: February is Black History Month. Test your knowledge of the significant contributions made by Canadian blacks in this quiz prepared by the black history committee of Ottawa. Answers, in bold, follow the questions.

THE ARTS

1. This internationally recognized artist was appointed artistic director of the prestigious Ballet British Colombia.

John Alleyne

2. This renowned Canadian singer-songerwriter was the first black Canadian to achieve major international success in popular music.

Dan Hill

3. This jazz composer and pianist has received numerous awards including Juno and Grammy awards. He was also named a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Oscar Peterson

4. This Jamaican born, African-Canadian artist received Juno awards for her albums Revolutionary Tea Party and Conditions Critical.

Lillian Allen

5. She came to Canada in 1967, has been active in women’s groups and jazz music. She is also the creator of Jazz message and Black Arts production.

Ayanna Black

6. She was in a singing group called “Andy and the Bey sisters” .

Salome Bey

7. Who was the founding director of Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop?

John Antonio Cayonne aka Jamaica Johnny Cayonne

BUSINESS & PROFESSIONS

1. They started one of the first black owned businesses in the Ottawa area in the 1950s.

Estelle and Herbert Brown started Brown’s Cleaners

2. This African-Canadian was the first black person to be called to the Bar in Canada.

Delos Rogest Davis

3. This first judge of African descent in Canada was Maurice Alexander Charles, in what year was he elevated to the Ontario bench?

1969

EDUCATION

1. What world leader, frequently in the news throughout the summer and fall of 1994, studied at the University of Montreal in the 1980s?

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide

2. Marcus Garvey is renowned for his back to Africa ideology. His son Julius studied in Canada and graduated with a medical degree. What Canadian university did he attend?

McGill

3. In 1952 he became Toronto’s first black public school teacher. He served as principal at various schools from 1966 to 1986.

Wilson O. Brooks, who was one of the first black commissioned officers in the Royal Canadian Air Force

HISTORY AND DISCOVERIES

1. One of the Canadian West’s best known black settlements was established at Amber Valley, east of Athabaska, Alberta, by this 22 year old man.

Jefferson Davis Edwards

2. This African American arrived in Canada in 1825 from Virginia and formed Ontario’s first Baptist Church.

Elder Washington

3. Many blacks were among the Loyalists who fled the United States after the American Revolution. In which area of Canada did most settle?

Some black loyalists settled in Upper Canada (Ontario), however the majority settled in Nova Scotia.

4. What is the Underground Railroad and what is its significance in the settlement of Canada?

The term refers to a secret operation to help slaves in the Southern U.S. escape slavery for freedom in some northern States and Canada. A large number of the slaves who travelled on the “Underground Railroad” settled in Southern Ontario, others settled in New Brunswick and Quebec.

5. In what year was slavery abolished in Canada?

In 1834 Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire, including Canada.

6. The Elgin and Dawn Settlement were two of the earlier black settlements in Ontario. Name the persons most associated with these settlements.

Josiah Henson, upon whom Harriet Beecher Stowe is believed to have based the title character of her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was one of the founders of the Dawn Settlement. The Elgin Settlement was the brainchild of Rev. William King, a Presbyterian minister.

7. Who is the first recorded black resident of Canada?

Oliver Le Jeune. He was an eight year old boy from the island of Madagascar and was the slave of David Kirk, the English privateer who attacked Quebec in 1628.

JOURNALISM AND THE MEDIA

1. This highly respected black newspaper was founded by Trinidadian-born Arnold A. Auguste in January 1978.

Share, which is now the largest ethnic publication with a readership of over 75,000.

2. This former member of the Canadian Women’s Olympic Basketball team produced a TV special in 1992 about her famed Uncle Oscar Peterson.

Sylvia Sweeney

3. This Canadian born woman was the first black to produce a TV series here.

Betty Riley

4. One of the first black newspapers in Canada was published by Henry Bibb at Sandwich Ontario between 1851 and 1853.

The Voice of the Fugitive

LANDMARKS AND SITES

1. What important monument to black civilization is located in Amherstburg, Ontario?

The North American Black History Museum

MATHS & SCIENCES

1. During his lifetime he patented more than 50 discoveries; his first in 1871. Name him.

Elijah McCoy

MEDICINE

1. Dr. Anderson Ruffin was the first black Canadian to graduate from medical school in 1861. What medical school did he attend?

Trinity College, University of Toronto

MILITARY

1. During the war of 1812 this all black company of soldiers participated in several battles including Queenston Heights and the battle of Stoney Creek.

The Company of Colored Men

2. This Canadian of African descent was made an officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) by King George VI for his distinguished service in the Second World War.

Beresford Augustus Husbands

POLITICS & SOCIAL ACTIVISM

1. Who was the first African Canadian to be elected mayor in Canada?

Dr. Monestime Saint Firmin who was elected mayor of Mattawa, Ontario in 1974.

2. This black woman coordinated the first National Congress on Black Women in Canada.

Kay Livingstone. Born in London, Ontario, Livingstone travelled across the country, contacting organizations for women of color and informing them of their rights. She was also a successful radio broadcaster on CBC and CFTR.

3. In 1959, this man became the first black Canadian to run for the Ontario Legislature.

Stanley G. Grizzle. Grizzle was defeated in the election and four years later Leonard Braithwaite became the first black elected to the Ontario Legislature. He also held a post with the Ontario Ministry of Education.

4. What do these six Canadians of African descent-Isaac Phills, Harry Winston Jerome, Oscar Peterson, Winslow A.S. Case, William White and Dr. Carrie Best-have in common?

They have all received the Order of Canada.

SPORTS

1. Who was the first Canadian baseball player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame?

Ferguson Jenkins

2. This black Canadian is a Vezina Trophy winner and a member of five Stanley Cup winners with the Edmonton Oilers. Who is he?

Grant Fuhr

3. Who became the first Canadian woman to run the 800 metres race in less than 2 minutes in 1990?

Charmaine Crooks

Further Reading:

Canadian African Heritage Month Document available online

BBC Radio Play Review: Choice of Straws

BBC Radio 4 rebroadcast an adaptation of Afro-Guyanese writer E. R. Braithwaite’s novel Choice of Straws. The BBC Radio 4 website describes the radio play as follows:

Choice of Straws by ER Braithwaite. London’s East End 1960. Twins Jack and Dave Bennett are a happy-go-lucky, rootless pair of Teddy boys. If they do occasionally rough-up a black guy it’s just a game to them. Until a victim in Whitechapel fights back and Dave pulls a knife. From the writer of To Sir With Love.

Jack…..Harry Hepple

Dave…..Luke Norris

Michelle…..Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Mum…..Ellie Haddington

Dad…..David Hargreaves

Ruth…..Annabelle Dowler

Mr Spencer….. Alex Lanipekun

Officer…..Stephen Hogan

Dramatised by Roy Williams

Director Claire Grove

About the Play

Edward Ricardo Braithwaite is best known as the author of To Sir, With Love, the 1959  novel that was adapted into the 1967 hit film To Sir, With Love, starring Sidney Poitier, and the hit song To Sir, With Love, sung by Sidney Poitier’s co-star Lulu. His lesser known novel, a Choice of Straws, was originally published in 1965.

Choice of Straws is told from the perspective of Jack, a White East Londoner, who usually follows along with his Twin Brother Dave, who, while being inadvertently stabbed while attacking and killing a Black man, ends up dying in a car crash in a car driven by another Black man, a Medical student named Bill Spencer. Jack tells the truth to his parents about what happened and tries to dodge police inquiries. He also begins to discover himself as an individual, no longer in his brother’s shadow. This involves getting a girlfriend (Ruth) and losing his virginity while pursuing a romantic relationship with Bill’s sister Michelle.

Through Jack’s relationship with Michelle, Braithwaite revisits the divisions that race and class construct in people’s lives that he explored in To Sir with Love. In To Sir, With Love, the educated and sophisticated Afro-Caribbean Teacher is a victim of racism, however his pupils are victims of classism, which has meant that they have received a completely inadequate education to prepare them for anything but work as common labourers. Jack is working-class while Michelle is middle class and has a university education. She ends up ending their relationship for fear that Jack is just using her in order to experience dating a Black girl. This has happened to her before. Even the issue of Jack and Dave attacking the Black man is complicated by the fact that late in the radio play we learn that their father was assaulted by Black men during the 1958 Notting Hill Riots.

Choice of Straws doesn’t provide any easy answers to the racial and class conflicts that still divide Britain into many small islands, but it is a great exploration of these divisions and is itself an action of walking in the “other’s” shoes.

About E. R. Braithwaite

E.R. Braithwaite was born in Guyana in 1920. He was raised in a relatively privileged Afro-Guyanese family, both his parents were graduates of Oxford University. He served in the Royal Air Force as a pilot during World War II. He attended the University of Cambridge where he earned a doctorate in Physics. Like many people of colour in Britain after World War II, despite his qualifications, he found it hard to find employment in his field so was forced to take a job as a teacher in East London. The book, To Sir, with Love, was based on these experiences. Braithwaite pursued a career in social work and ended up getting a job finding foster homes for non-White children for the London County Council. He based his second novel, Paid Servant, published in 1962.

E. R. Braithwaite, photographed by Carl Van Vecten

Braithwaite’s books were banned in Apartheid-Era South Africa until 1973. At this time, Braithwaite applied for a visa to visit South Africa. His visa as granted and he was given the status of “Honorary White”, which gave him far more freedoms  and privileges than the indigenous Black population. He wrote about his experiences traveling in South Africa in the memoir Honorary White, published in 1975.

Braithwaite has worked as an educational consultant and lecturer for UNESCO, as the permanent representative for Guyana to the United Nations, as the Guyanese Ambassador to Venezuela, and as Writer in Residence at Howard University. Most recently, he has been a visiting professor at Manchester Community College. He now lives in Washington, D.C.

About the Notting Hill Race Riots

The 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots raged over the August Bank Holiday in Nottingham. Although dismissed by police at the time as just hooliganism perpetrated by White and people of colour alike, In 2002, theLondon Internal Metropolitan Police released documents related to the riots which told a different story:

The Met commissioner was told that of the 108 people who were charged with offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were “coloured”.

It is popularly believed that the riot began on the night of Saturday August 20 when a 400-strong crowd of white men, many of them “Teds”, attacked houses occupied by West Indians. Among the victims was Majbritt Morrison, a young white Swedish bride of a Jamaican. She was pelted with stones, glass and wood, and struck in the back with an iron bar as she tried to get home.

The internal police witness statements provide graphic evidence of the motives of the mobs – at one point crowds several thousand strong roamed the streets of Notting Hill, breaking into homes and attacking any West Indian they could find.

PC Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people in Bramley Road shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” PC Ian McQueen on the same night said he was told: “Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We’ll murder the bastards.”

The fact it is believed one of the first people attacked by Whites was  a White woman in a romantic relationship with a Black man  just demonstrates how subversive such unions were perceived as at the time. My own mother used to be called a “Nigger Lover” and “Race Traitor” jokingly by her family members when she married my father. The level of contempt that White women who agreed to be in romantic relationships with men of colour at this time, and in some places even now, is a phenomenon which I feel has not been explored well enough in anti-racism circles’ discussions around White Privilege.

The Notting Hill Carnival, an annual street festival led mainly by Britain’s Trinidadian and Tobagonian community, began in 1959 as a community response to the Notting Hill Race Riots. The first festival was organized by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian American Communist and journalist who had been granted asylum in Britain in the late 195os after having been imprisoned and eventually deported from the United States due to her communist activities. In 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the Black community. She is considered “The Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival”. Black Academic Carole Boyce Davies has written her biography, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. The title of the book refers to the fact that Jones, who died in 1964 due to heart disease and tuberculosis, is buried in London’s Highgate cemetary to the left of Karl Marx.

About Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Mixed Race British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw has recently gained recognition in the United States as the star of the cancelled J.J. Abrams’ TV Series Undercovers. I can’t help but suspect that Undercovers partly failed because it had two Black leads playing “non-traditional Black roles”. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of any American TV Series with Black Leads, other than comedy series, that have survived very long. Despite this, Gugu’s beauty and talent has been “discovered” and we will be seeing more of her on the American screen. Gugu was born in 1973 in Oxford, England to South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and English nurse Anne Raw, who met while working together at a hospital .  Her full name, Gugulethu, means “Our Pride” in Zulu. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I first saw her in the British Sci-Fi  TV Series Doctor Who, portraying Tish Jones, the sister of Doctor Who’s First Black Companion, Martha Jones. In 2009, Gugu played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in Donmar West End and Broadway Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We will  be seeing her  on the big screen soon in the comedy drama  Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and in the American Supernatural Thriller “Odd Thomas“.

Further Reading:

E.R. Braithwaite

To Ricky with Love by Caryl Phillips (2005 Guardian article available online)

Notting Hill Race Riots

After 44 years secret papers reveal truth about five nights of violence in Notting Hill by Alan Travis (2002 Guardian article available online)

The Forgotten Race Riot (2007 BBC article available online)

Long History of Race Rioting (2001 BBC article available online)

Profile of Claudia Jones available online

Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Interview (2009) in The Guardian available

Interview (2009) in The Telegraph available online

Video Interview (2010) available online

Black British Literature

Black British Literature since Windrush by Onyekachi Wambu (BBC History article available online)

BBC Radio Play Review: God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe

God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a play that was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its Friday Play Series to mark the 30th anniversary year of the Independence of Zimbabwe. According to the BBC Radio 4 website:

Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play tells the story of the tense negotiations around the Lancaster House Conference, and the road to Zimbabwe’s Independence.

On 4th March 1980 the Shona majority in Rhodesia was decisive in electing Robert Mugabe to head the first post-independence government as Prime Minister. Six weeks later, on April 18th, Zimbabwe celebrated its first Independence Day.

On the 21st December 1979, following three months of talks, the Lancaster House Agreement finally brought independence to Rhodesia following Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.

Margaret Thatcher’s government had invited Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith, and the leaders of the Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo  (Zimbabwe African People’s Union/ZAPU)and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe African National Union/ZANU) to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in London, to be chaired by the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington.

The purpose of the Conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an Independence Constitution, and to ensure that elections should be supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means.

Each scene of the play takes place on crucial day of Zimbabwe’s history, some of these days are well-known, others are not. The play jumps back and forth in history and goes back as early as 1960 and as late as 1980, covering twenty years in the history of Zimbabwe’s independence movement. British Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati (best known for his role as Mr. Matekoni in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies, Detective Agency) plays Robert Mugabe.

18th November 1971, in Salisbury Prison, Rhodesia

Alex Douglas Hume, the British Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Heath  and Bishop Muzorewa of the United African National Council visit Robert Mugabe and Edgar Tekere, who have been imprisoned by Ian Smith’s government. They are there to discuss the proposed constitutional settlement. The British government wants to get Tekere and Mugabe’s opinion.

Mugabe and Tekere feel that the proposal is just British capitulation to Ian Smith’s demands. Hume argues that the mechanisms are in place to lead to majority rule eventually. Bishop Muzorewa also objects to the proposal.

17th May 1979, Office of Lord Carrington, Britain

Lord Carrington reflects on Margaret Thatcher’s speech in regards to the crisis in Rhodesia. The British are considering recolonizing Rhodesia, establishing a constitution that both sides accept, then leaving. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t want to be seen as a racist by the Commonwealth and has sent a video of her speech to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda in order to assure him that she supports Black Majority Rule.

3rd September 1979, Havana, Non Aligned Movement Summit, Cuba

Zambian President Kaunda is meeting with Robert Mugabe and challenging him on his squabbles with Nkomo. Kaunda doesn’t want to see more of his people die because Mugabe is behaving in a reckless and criminal fashion. Kaunda threatens to shut all of the ZAPU bases in Zambia if Mugabe won’t accept to negotiate a peace at Lancaster House.

10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Lord Carrington observes that Nkomo has come separately from Mugabe and they are both staying at separate hotels and have different PR representatives although they are both members of Zimbabwe’s Patriotic Front.  Bishop Murorewa arrives with Ian Smith; they are both members of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia delegation.  Edgar Tekere arrives with Robert Mugabe.

10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Opening Plenary Session, Britain

Lord Carrington presents the proposed constitution for Rhodesia with which Britain will be prepared to grant independence. Lord Carrington expresses his anger that a cease-fire has not been called during these negotiations. Mugabe accuses Bishop Muzorewa of betraying the nationalist movement for siding with Ian Smith and defending thee rights of the White Minority. 

In the bathroom, Robin Renwick, who works in the Rhodesia Department of the British Foreign Service, meets Tekere and expresses his hope that, even if  official talks break down, he and Tekere can keep communicating.

Renwick asks if Tekere knew Mugabe before the liberation struggle because they seem so close. Tekere says he knew Mugabe would be their leader from the first time he spoke.

20th  July 1960, Highfield Township, Salisbury, Rhodesia

Robert Mugabe has participated in demonstrations against and been chased by riot police. Tekere encourages Mugabe to speak to the crowd of demonstrators. Mugabe is hesitant because he doesn’t know what to say. Tekere tells him to just talk about his experience in the demonstration. Tekere introduces Mugabe to the crowd, explaining that he has three university degrees and has just returned from Ghana. Mugabe finally speaks. He says that Ghana was the first African state to gain independence and his expresses his admiration for that country where Africans are in control of their own affairs. While in Ghana, Mugabe realized that in Rhodesia Blacks are taught to worship the White man. Mugabe encourages the people in the crowd to stand up for their rights.

Tekere tells Mugabe that he is going to introduce him to Nkomo and invites him to join the party. Tekere tells Mugabe that he would be a great spokesperson. Mugabe states that he is a teacher in Ghana but Tekere says that now Mugabe’s job is to fight for freedom in Rhodesia.

10th September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Bishop Muzorewa is meeting with Lord Carrington on his own. Carrington emphasizes that if there is no settlement the British will not lift sanctions against Rhodesia. Carrington tells Bishop Muzorewa that his party needs to accept that White Privilege will come to an end in Rhodesia.

10th  October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, Britain

The land of White farmers will be protected for 10 years in the proposed constitution. Mugabe says that this war is mostly about land and is angry about idea that Blacks will have to compensate Whites for the land they stole. Lord Carrington wants Mugabe to sign off on the constitution. Carrington informs Mugabe that he will only negotiate with Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith because they accept the proposed constitution. He tells Mugabe and Tekere that their attendance at the conference is no longer required and that they should keep in mind that Britain will be lifting sanctions on Rhodesia so they will facing a war with an economically revitalized country.

Mugabe is fed up with trying to negotiate with Carrington and decides to go over his head.

15th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain

Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who Mugabe has contacted, confronts Lord Carrington about his decision to expel Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo from the conference and accuses him of treating Mugabe like a child and being too close to Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith. Lord Carrington states that he thinks Mugabe is an unreasonable monster. Ramphal informs Lord Carrington that there are rumors that he had a separate meeting with Bishop Muzorewa, making it clear to him that he would get Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo to leave the negotiating table. Bishop Muzorewa discussed this meeting in a letter which has been leaked to African newspapers.

Ramphal says he can get Mugabe back to the table. Lord Carrington accuses Ramphal of being too close to the Africans. Ramphal explains that there are things he can get Nkomo and Mugabe to agree to that Lord Carrington can’t. 

15th October 1979, a Hotel in Central London, Britain

Ramphal, Mugabe and Tekere are meeting. Mugabe is furious that in the proposed constitution Blacks will have to buy land from Whites at market price. Ramphal says that he spoke with President Jimmy Carter and America will contribute to the land resettlement fund to buy the land so it will not have to come from the new Zimbabwean government’s budget. 

18th October 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Tekere and Mugabe show up with a signed copy of the constitution, much to Lord Carrington’s surprise.

Now, the transition to democracy can be discussed. Lord Carrington says that Britain will return to Rhodesia for two or three months to monitor new elections.

Mugabe flips out and demands that their be a new Chair instead of Lord Carrington. He then storms off.

Robin Renwick tries to speak with Tekere before he goes off to follow Mugabe.

25th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain

Bishop Muzorewa is meeting again with Lord Carrington. Lord Carrington asks Bishop Muzorewa to stand down as Rhodesian Prime Minister during the transition period because if he stays in power it looks like he is getting an unfair advantage. As he was only elected six months earlier, Bishop Muzorewa is not happy with this proposal. Lord Carrington assures the Bishop that British intelligence says that he is sure to win the election again and that Mugabe won’t be able to get his campaign together in only a few months so Muzorewa should not worry.

7th November 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Lord Carrington is meeting with Robin Renwick. Lord Soames will be appointed as the New Governor of Rhodesia during the transitional period, although he knows nothing about Rhodesia.

14th November 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain

Lord Carrington is happy that Bishop Muzorewa has agreed to step down as Prime Minister of Rhodesia. He reflects on the fact that in 1974, Ian Smith released Mugabe and his comrades from prison, only because the South African government asked him to. But then these former prisoners started getting killed. It looks like they were only released so that Ian Smith could take them out.

18th November 1974, Cambazumo/a Service Station, Salisbury, Rhodesia

Edgar Tekere picks up Mugabe in a car, Bob Marley music is playing on the radio. They are heading for the mountains at the border with Mozambique where they will walk to safety. They are fleeing assassination attempts by Ian Smith’s mercenaries. They have learned that Ian Smith’s mercenaries have sneaked into Patriotic Front camps and slaughtered men, women and children.

6th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain

President Kaunda is meeting with Mugabe. He assures him that the Patriotic Front should not fear attacks by Ian Smith’s mercenaries as there will be a Commonwealth Monitoring Group stationed in Zimbabwe to ensure that the cease-fire is maintained.

14th December 1979, Press Conference , Hotel in Central London, Britain

Mugabe holds a Press Conference criticizing the negotiations and demanding that the international community become involved in order to protect the Zimbabwean people from the Rhodesian Security Forces.

14th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain

Lord Carrington is angry about Mugabe’s Press Conference. Mugabe demands that Patriotic Front (ZAPU and ZANU) militias be permitted to have a central assembly point in Rhodesia so they are not vulnerable to attack at the country’s borders. He will only sign the Lancaster Agreement if his is allowed.

21st December 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Members of the Patriotic Front delegation, the Zimbabwe Rhodesia delegation and the British delegation sign the Lancaster House agreement. Despite this, Mugabe expresses that he feels wronged and cheated.

20th February 1980, Election Rally, Harare, Zimbabwe

Mugabe and Tekere return to Zimbabwe after five years in exile. Lord Soames has been threatening to kick them out of the elections but if that happens, they have declared that they will consider the forces of the Patriotic Front absolved from maintaining the Lancaster Agreement, particularly the ceasefire.

4th March 1980, Harare, Zimbabwe

Nkomo’s Part, ZAPU has won 20 seats. Bishop Muzorewa’s party has won only 3 seats. Mugabe’s ZANU has won 57 seats. Although he has won, Mugabe says that the fight has only just begun.

18th April 1980, Zimbabwe House, Harare, Zimbabwe

Bob Marley has been invited to perform for Zimbabwe’s first Independence Day. Mugabe is so excited to meet him. He explains that Patriotic Front soldiers sung Marley’s songs while they fought the resistance struggle. Marley will be performing the song he wrote in support of Zimbabwe’s freedom struggle, Zimbabwe.

Bob Marley expresses concern with what he sees going on in Harare. He says that he doesn’t just want to perform for “Uptown people” and doesn’t want to see ordinary people being beaten by police just because they want to come and see him perform but were not invited. Mugabe agrees to organize a free concert for the masses on the next day.

Bob Marley quotes from the song Zimbabwe  “Soon we will see who is the real revolutionary”.

Carrington, Renwick asks if they got the right man, relates that there have been reports of atrocities in the north, Carrington says that it’s Africa so a strong leader is needed, not sure

Personal Reflections

I’m not sure if you can consider this play “entertaining” in the traditional sense; however, for those of us who are interested in how politics actually works, it is a great play and incredibly informative. Dramatically speaking, there are many interesting moments which could be considered even poignant if you are knowledgable about Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. For example, the fack that Edgar Tekere was so close to Mugabe, that he actually was the one to encourage Mugabe to become a leader in his party, is ironic given their current rivalry. Bob Marley quoting from his song Zimbabwe by saying “soon we will see who is the real revolutionary” is very striking, as it has become quite clear that, although a Black Nationalist, Mugabe has seemed particularly inconsiderate about the lives of poor Zimbabweans and the fact that he at first only organized Marley’s concert for the political elite and their guests foreshadows this. Rasta Ngwenya describes Bob Marley’s first concert in Harare as follows:

In fact, the first official words uttered in Zimbabwe, following the raising of the new flag, were: “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”

Twenty minutes later, Bob and The Wailers started their set. As soon as the first notes rang out, pandemonium broke loose in the enormous crowd gathered by the entrance to the sports stadium: the gates shook and began to break apart as the crush increased, the citizens of Harare, both excited and angry at being excluded from seeing these inspirational musicians.

As clouds of teargas drifted almost immediately into the stadium itself, the audience on the pitch fell on their feet in an attempt to protect themselves. The group members tasted their first whiffs of the gas and left the stage. “All of a sudden,” said Judy Mowatt, “you smell this thing taking over your whole body, going in your throat until you want to choke, burning your eyes. I looked at Rita (Marley) and Marcia and they were feeling the same thing.”

“I feel my eyes and nose,” remembered Family Man, “and think, from when I was born, I have to come all the way to Africa to experience teargas.”

Bob, however seemed to have moved to a transcendent state. His eyes were shut, and for a while the gas didn’t seem to have an effect at all. Then he opened his eyes and left the stage.

Backstage, the group had taken refuge in a truck. Outside they could see small children fainting and women collapsing. It looked like death personified to Mowatt, who briefly wondered whether they had been brought to Zimbabwe to meet their ends.

She persuaded someone to drive her and the other I-Threes back to the hotel, only to discover on the television that the show had resumed. After about half an hour Bob and the Wailers had gone back on stage. They ended their set with Zimbabwe, a song Bob had worked on during his pilgrimage to Ethiopia late in 1978, and which became arguably his most important single composition.

Bob was just coming offstage as Mowatt and her fellow women singers returned to the stadium. “Hah,” he looked at them with a half-grin, “now I know who the real revolutionaries are.”

It was decided that the group would play another concert the following day, to give the ordinary people of Zimbabwe an opportunity to see Bob Marley.

Over 100 000 people-an audience that was almost entirely black- watched this show by Bob Marley and The Wailers. The group performed for an hour and a half, the musicians fired up to a point of ecstasy. But Bob, who uncharacteristically hadn’t bothered to turn up for the sound check, was strangely lacklustre in his performance; a mood of disillusionment had set in around him following the tear-gassing the previous day.

After the day’s performance, the Bob Marley team was invited to spend the evening at the home of Tekere. This was not the most relaxed of social occasions.

As the henchmen strutted around with their Kalashnikovs, Mills was informed by Tekere that he wanted Bob to stay in Zimbabwe and tour the country. “Bob told me to say he wasn’t going to, but the guy didn’t want to hear me.”

While Bob remained in the house, Rob Partridge and Phil Cooper sat out in the garden. “I could hear,” said Cooper, head of international affairs, “Tekere saying to Bob, ‘I want this man Cooper. He’s been going around putting your image everywhere. He’s trying to portray you as a bigger man than our President.’ I could hear all this.

“Then Bob came out and said to us, in hushed, perfect Queen’s English; ‘I think it’s a good idea for you to leave’.”

“Partridge and I went and packed, and took the first international flight out, which was to Nairobi. About five months later Tekere was arrested and put in jail; he had been involved in the murder of some white settler.

I was particularly fascinated to learn about the roles played by Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and Indo-Guyanese politician and former Foreign Minister of Guyana, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who is played by the writer of the play Kwame Kwei-Armah.

About Kwame Kwei-Armah

Kwame Kwei-Armah is a British playwright, actor, and singer. He is the First Black Briton to have a play staged on London’s West End when his play Elmina’s Kitchen was staged in Garrick’s Theatre in 2005. He was born Ian Roberts in London. His parents are immigrants from Grenada. He changed his name to Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 20s after he traced his family’s roots to Ghana.

Further Reading:

Zimbabwe’s History: Key Dates (BBC News article available online)

Zimbabwe at 30 Audio Slideshow (BBC News article available online)

Joshua Nkomo’s Obituary (BBC News article available online)

Viewpoint: Kaunda on Mugabe (BBC News article available online)

House of Stone at 30 by Farai Sevenzo (BBC News article available online)

Lucian Msamati Cut His Teeth Doing Political Theatre in Zimbabwe. Now He Has a Lead Role in Alexander McCall Smith’s Rose-Tinted Vision of Africa by Aida Edemariam (Guardian article available online)

Interview (1980) with Lord Carrington by Time Magazine (Time article available online)

Interview (2000) with Lord Carrington by David Frost (BBC News transcript available online)

When Bob Marley Caused a Riot in Africa by Rasta Ngwenya (article available online)

Video of Bob Marley performing Zimbabwe, with lyrics available

Profile of Kwame Kwei-Armah (article available online)

Interview (2008) with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online

Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online

Book Review: Some Great Thing by Lawrence Hill

Posted in Black Canadian Literature, Lawrence Hill, Novels, Winnipeg by the woyingi blogger on March 7, 2011

Black Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill has won international acclaim with his novel The Book of Negroes but my review is of his first novel, Some Great Thing, first published in 1992 and reissued in 2009 by Harper Collins Canada.

I chose to read Some Great Thing while travelling by bus to Winnipeg, where the novel is set. This was my first trip to Manitoba and I had a 33 hour bus ride to survive. I easily lost myself in Some Great Thing, with its array of contrasting characters, its insights on Canadian local media, and the cultural context of Canada in the early 1980s.

The central character of the novel is 25 year old Mahatma Grafton, a light-skinned Black Canadian who has reluctantly taken a job as a journalist with The Winnipeg Herald after taking a Double Major in History and French at Laval University and a Masters in Economics at the University of Toronto. Hill describes Mahatma as:

…an intellectual bum. No. He was worse than a bum. He was an M.A. graduate over his head in student loans. He had no particular job skills and no goals in life. What thinking citizen would place his life, or his liberty, or even his bank savings in the hands of an economics major? What Mahatma had discovered about journalism was this: it was the only pseudo-profession left in the world that still hired bums.

Mahatma has also had to move back in with his father, Ben Grafton, a widower and a former Railroad Porter, who he hasn’t kept in touch with during his studies. It was his father who decided to name his son Mahatma, feeling that it was necessary that his son have the name of a great man.It is been who urges his son to do “Some Great Thing”, which is what African American pioneers who came to the Canadian West were urged to do.  Ben Grafton’s past as a Railroad Porter is a tribute to the Black presence in early 20th Canadian History, unlike the US, Canada has a relatively small Black population of recent origin. Black Railroad Porters, often originally from the US, worked and sometimes settled in Canadian cities like Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal. In the novel, we get to learn about Ben Grafton’s and his fellow Railroad Porters experiences of racism. The relationship between Ben and Mahatma as they rediscover each other is subtly developped throughout the novel. The novel opens with Ben and Mahatma’s first meeting. Hill writes:

His son was born in 1957 at the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, before men had to start watching their wives give birth. Asked about it years later, Ben Grafton replied, “What’s a man to do in a place like that, except grow all bug-eyed and wobbly and make a shining fool of himself?”

On that windless January night, Ben Grafton didn’t enter the delivery room. He didn’t consider it. He waited until Louise was “finished,” poked his head in the door and shouted “atta way Lulu!” Wearing a blue woolen cap that stopped short of his huge brown ears, he followed two nurses who took the infant to the nursery. Ben Grafton was not invited. Nor was he self-conscious. He was a forty-three-year-old railroad porter who had coped with all sorts of nonsense in the past and had long stopped wondering what people thought of his being this or that. They turned to tell him he couldn’t stay in the nursery. He said he wanted to look at his little man.

The novel traces his journey from a cynical, apathetic, reluctant journalist to a passionate writer who wants to stand for something.  Many of the issues Mahatma becomes passionate about are related to Winnipeg and Canada’s history in the early 80s. For example,  Winnipeg has a significant French-Canadian population who consider themselves marginalized. French-English disputes become fodder for The Winnipeg Herald and Mahatma, who unlike many of his colleagues, is bilingual, befriends with French Language Rights activists and their community’s plight. Mahatma also covers the many triumphs and tragedies of Jack Corbett, a disabled welfare recipent who becomes a public figure through is protests against having his welfare payments cut. Mahatma also encounters a Cameroonian journalist, Yoyo, who makes a hero out of Jack Corbett in Cameroon. In an interview, Hill says that Yoyo is his favourite character in the novel:

But my favourite character in Some Great Thing is Yoyo, for his complete astonishment at the silly, inexplicable ways that we live in rich, developed nations. I like the way his being a foreign visitor to Manitoba offers the reader a fresh lens through which to see Canada and its foibles.

I particularly was fascinated with Betts, the editor of The Winnipeg Herald, and his obsession with the city’s mayor, Novak, who he believes is a communist and therefore will not be allowed to pass through the United States. This novel is set during the Cold War and the paranoia around alleged communist affliations reminds me of what we are living through now with the “War on Terror” and the media’s obsession with “Islamists and Muslim Radicalization”. This makes the novel particularly timely.

Many aspects of the novel are obviously autobiographical, as Hill says:

I could never have written Some Great Thing without having worked as a reporter in Winnipeg. The characters and their flight paths are of my invention; it is truly a work of fiction. But working in a newsroom and pursuing stories daily for two years in Winnipeg offered experiences—sad and hilarious, personal and professional—that made it possible for me to imagine the novel. After I had been away from the world of journalism for a year or two, I had enough emotional distance to look back and begin to concoct Some Great Thing.

Mahatma was urged by his father to do “some great thing” in life, and my own father certainly did the same. I stepped into the world of newspapers feeling somewhat cynical, as does Mahatma. And we both moved from that initial cynicism into a place of personal engagement with journalism. The novel does reflect my voice and its construction reveals the way my mind operates, so in the deepest sense it is autobiographical.

Hill faced obstacles in getting his first novel published because it was set in Winnipeg, but, as he states, there was no where else this story could take place:

The first time I sent the novel in draft form to a prospective agent, I was turned down and encouraged to consider setting the story in a more interesting place than Winnipeg. The argument went that if I set it in Toronto or New York, it would no longer be seen as a regional novel. To me, this was hokum. It suggested that a novel is “regional” if it is set in Winnipeg, but of global, universal reach if it is set in a big metropolis. But Winnipeg is pretty well the only city in Canada where this novel could unfold. The novel gives Winnipeg a communist mayor in the 1980s. What Canadian city, other than Winnipeg, could have had a communist mayor at that time? And the particular French-English conflict that provides the socio-political backdrop for Mahatma Grafton’s growth on the job could only have taken place in Manitoba. I do not like to think of Some Great Thing as a regional novel. I prefer to think of it as a novel set in a specific time and place— Winnipeg, in the 1980s, during a crisis over the constitutional rights of French Canadians in English Canada—that will, if it works successfully as fiction, appeal to a wide swath of readers. I love novels that are anchored in specific times and situations. This doesn’t make them regional. It makes them real.

 

Further Reading:

Lawrence Hill’s Website

Lawrence Hill Discusses Some Great Thing (interview available online)

Browse Inside Some Great Thing on the Harper Collins Canada Website

Black Canadian Profile: William Sylvester Alpheus Beal 1874 to 1968

I recently just got back from Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was my first time visiting this province so in honour of my trip, I decided to write a profile of one of the province’s first Black settlers. The Black population of the Canadian West grew quite slowly in the 19th and 20th Century, with most migrants coming from the United States. One of the first and best documented Blacks to migrate and settle in Manitoba was William S. A. Beal aka Billy Beal.

Billy Beal, Photo Taken by Beal himself

Billy Beal was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on January 16th 1874, the son of Loretta H. Freeman and Charles R. Beal. Billy Beal grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he graduated from high school. Minnesota was a region where the Manitoba government was focusing its immigration advertising at the time. Beal immigrated to Canada in 1906 where he worked in the Swan River area of Manitoba as a steam engineer at a saw mill. The area was mainly settled by Icelandic, Scandinavian and German immigrants. Beal describes life on a pioneer homestead in the region as follows (I have made spelling corrections to the original):

The idea of taking a homestead did not occur to me at that time. It was in the fall of 1906 that one of my acquaintances asked me to spend the winter on his homestead. That was in the district that is called Lancaster now. We went out there to fix up the house and things because he had a wife to share his good fortune with him. The scrub was so dense out there that we had to climb a tree to see much of his possessions. I had originally come from the city and I thought a man must have an awful grudge against a woman to take her out in the woods like that.

Unlike many other Black immigrants to the Canadian West, Beal was not initially interested in building a homestead, but he soon changed his mind under the influence of men at the sawmill and a book he read. He decided to settle in the Big Woody region. He writes:

Two years after at the sawmill where I worked most of the men were homesteaders and there was nothing but homestead talk every evening in camp. They would set around the table talked and joked each other about their braking and clearing. […] This and a book that I read that summer inspired me to try homesteading myself. So in the fall when the summer season at the mill was over, I applied at the land office in Swan River for a permit to file on a homestead. The only land then available near Swan River was ten miles North West of town some new land just opened for settlement. It was not then even included in the municipality and I was the first one to locate there. This was in 1908. It was very discouraging looking then, all heavy bush or rather dense trees like a forest and I had to clear and break fifteen acres in three years. There were no roads of course of any kind. Then too, there was the Woody River between it and town and no bridge. I had to cut a road in to haul material in to build my first shack.

But instead of focusing on clearing his land and farming, he started building a library. He collected catalogues from publishing houses and sent away for hundreds of books including the works of William Shakespeare, the Bible, Scientific Literature, Astronomy, and Philosophy. Unfortunately, Beal’s library was lost in 1911, burned to the ground in a spring fire which swept through the Swan River Valley. After this disaster, Beal focused on farming but gave it up in 1916 and returned to working for local lumber companies, just returning to his homestead on off seasons.

Beal was something of a renaissance man. Beal even built a homemade telescope out of lengths of stove pipe and rolled metal from tin cans. Some even believed he had medical training and he even assisted in giving inoculations in the diphtheria scare of 1915, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the smallpox outbreak of 1920.

In 1912, he was involved in the formation of the Big Woody School District and was elected its first Secretary Treasurer, a position that he held for 37 years. Beal helped to establish a circulating library within the school system. He was the first secretary of the Big Woody Sunday School. He also formed a literary society and debating teams, directed plays, and organized poetry readings and musical concerts.

On top of all this he was also an amateur photographer. Most of his photographs are of people from the Swan River Valley, pictured in their homes of outside in natural settings so that the photographs do not look staged. A selection of his photographs were featured in the self-published 1988 amateur biography entitled Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal Beal by Robert Barrow and Leigh Hambly.

Beal was a life-long bachelor. After he retired, he moved to the volunteer run Eventide home in the Pas in 1955. He died penniless on January 25th 1968 at 94 years of age. He was buried in an unmarked grave in The Pas Cemetery.

Very little is known about Beal’s life before he immigrated to Manitoba. Beal wrote an 8 page memoir in the 1950s but it begins, unlike most memoirs, with his immigration to Manitoba, not his birth. The memoir begins:

I came up to this country during Laurier’s land boom and effort was being made to settle the west by giving every man a “homestead” for $10.00, three years residence and fifteen acres cleared and broke. I did not come to this part of the country to homestead then but to follow my trade of engineer as there [were] many saw mills being operated.

Barrow and Hambly, who wrote Beal’s biography, interviewed neighbours, friends, and aquaintances of Beal’s in order to learn more about his early life. Much that they uncovered was only rumour and speculation as Beal didn’t tell many people about his past. According to Tom and Mary Barrow, two acquaintances of Beal’s, Beal immigrated because he was the dark-skinned child of a family that could pass as white, in an interview they state: “Well, he was a—he had Negro blood in him and it really came out in him, and his family, I guess, persuaded him to come up to this country so they wouldn’t be embarrassed having this fella who showed so much Negro in the family.”

Filmmakers Ernesto Griffiths and Winston Washington Moxam have written and produced a feature film about Beal’s life, entitled Billy. Griffiths stars in the film, playing Billy Beal, and Moxam directs. The film’s webpage on Telefilm Canada provides the following description for the film:

In 1967, a young journalist arrives at a retirement home to interview Billy, a 94-year-old black man. Billy tells him the story of his eventful life dating back to his early recollections of when he left the United States to move to northern Manitoba. He recalls his struggle as a homesteader, the racism he endured, his love of a woman, and his gift of photography.

Billy is the story of one man’s constant search for acceptance.

The filmmakers received the 2010 Human Rights Commitment Award of Manitoba for their film.

Further Reading:

The Black Prairies: History, Subjectivity, Writing by Karina Joan Vernon (thesis available online)

Billy Beal: One of the First Black Pioneers in Manitoba by G. Siamandas (article available online)

Profile of Beal by The Manitoba Historical Society available online

Webpage for the film Billy on the Telefilm Canada website

Interview with Ernesto Griffith about the film Billy Beal available online

Trailer for the film Billy Beal available online

Radio Documentary: Feeling Good The Nina Simone Story

Posted in Documentaries, Jazz, Nina Simone by the woyingi blogger on January 18, 2011

I just discovered that BBC Radio 2 is playing a two-part documentary about the life of Nina Simone. Unfortunately I missed the first part because I didn’t know about it. The documentary is narrated by Nina Simone’s daughter Simone (born Lisa Celeste Stroud), whose father, a former police officer, was Nina Simone’s manager for a time. According to the BBC Radio 2 site:

Nina’s daughter Simone explores the life and career of her mother – the protest singer, jazz chanteuse, blues artist and live performer – sharing her personal thoughts and providing a glimpse of the real woman behind the distinctive voice.

In part one, we hear about Nina’s musical beginnings as Eunice Waymon, a 5-year old child protégé, learning classical piano with the help of people in her home town. She won a place at New York’s famous Juilliard School but was turned down by the elite Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. This was an incredible blow to the young Eunice Waymon, who turned to teaching piano and playing in bars to make ends meet. At this point she took the stage name Nina Simone.

She moved to New York City and signed her first record deal [not reading the small print which would cost her dearly later in her career]. New York was the place to be and Nina became closely associated with the civil rights movement, connected with both the radical black playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X. She wrote her first protest song, Mississippi Goddamn, in 1963 – an enraged reaction to the deaths of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school in Alabama.

She also met and married Andy Stroud, who became her manager [and Simone’s father]. Throughout the 60s her output was prolific and she toured constantly in the US and Europe, always highlighting the civil rights message. When her marriage ended in the 70s, she left the US and became a global nomad, moving between Liberia, Switzerland, the Caribbean, the Netherlands, and finally France.

I was able to listen to the second part of the series, which concentrates on her later life, and her live performances. The second part is described as follows:

In part two, Simone explores her mother’s musical style and what she was like as a live performer. She began her performing career working as a singer-pianist in Atlantic City, taking her stage name from the French actress Simone Signoret. A commanding, if sometimes difficult, live performer, Nina often displayed an irrational temper but her shows were always an experience. Friends explain that this was due to her being bipolar, a condition she refused to admit to during her lifetime.

A fluke UK hit of My Baby Just Cares for Me, a resurrected 50s master, pushed the singer into the commercial spotlight when it reached number 5 in the 1987 UK charts, thanks to its use in a Chanel No 5 commercial. She also gave a series of mesmerising performances at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club during this decade. She recorded the classic album Baltimore and her last album, A Single Woman, was released in 1993. We hear from A&R man Michael Alago about how he signed Nina and got her to record again.

Her musical style can only be described as fearless: she refused to be categorised and often sang soul, jazz, blues, gospel, and Broadway tunes over the course of an album or concert. An uncompromising personality, Nina Simone was one of popular music’s great divas.

During the documentary, Nina Simone’s friends and family are interviewed. So are her drummer for 18 years, Paul Robinson, and music producer turned photographer Michael Alago. But the majority of the documentary is occupied by Simone’s reflections on her mother’s life. Sometimes she shares anecdotes while recounting her mother’s career from the 198os to the time of her death.

Here are some of the highlights:

Mommy’s regal bearing and unique stage presence earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul”. Her live performances were regarded not as mere concerts but as an experience. She compared it to mass hypnosis. On stage she moved from gospel to blues, jazz and folk and classical to numbers infused with all types of different stylings. She incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience and often used silence as a musical element.

She’d be under incredible pressure form a young age, being the musical genius and having the onus of a whole town depending on her success. It is understandable that she developed certain mental problems call it manic depression, call it bipolar disorder, whatever you choose to call it, she suffered.

She had quite a painful life. She lost many of her closest friends and family. She had a number of broken relationships, and she was angry with a lack of equal rights progress in America. But on a more personal level Mommy didn’t love herself and was always looking for peace outside of herself and not within. Amazingly, she was able to channel this, all of this, into her music.

She always paid great attention to the musical expression of emotions. Within one album or concert, Mommy could move from extreme happiness to tragic melancholy. You realized that on stage Mommy was truly free. She was able to express herself without being edited or judged and it was there that you actually saw the real Nina. Her gift to give new and deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions.

Her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, but in later years Mommy particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting humorous anecdotes related her to career in music and soliciting requests.

At this point, we get to hear a recording a live performance by Nina Simone, where she chats with a very enthusiastic audience:

Love songs are never ending. Sometimes I listen to the radio and I say “They’re still at it!” (Audience laughs) No matter what the language, they’re still at it. They want it and when they get it they run from it. (Audience laughs) Then they say we want a natural woman. Then they get one. Scares them half to death (Audience laughs and bursts into applause)

Simone continues to tell her mother’s story of the reemergence of her mother’s career in the early 198os thanks to a perfume ad and in the early 1990s thanks to an action film. Simone explains:

30 years after Mommy had originally recorded “My Baby Just Cares For Me” for her very first album, the song was re-released after it was used in a European advertising campaign for Chanel #5 perfume. It became a Top Ten Hit in the UK, bringing Mommy to a new generation of listeners and her career soared. And “My Baby…” became one of the most listened to songs of the 20th Century.

Mommy returned to Europe and as the 90s dawned, she enjoyed a revival of interest in her music that’s to the publication of her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You” and the release of the hit movie “Point of No Return” starring Bridget Fonda who played a character fascinated with the music of Nina Simone.

Towards the end of the documentary, we learn about Simone’s own career and her mother’s declining health:

Towards to end of the 90s, my own theatrical career was beginning to blossom. I was playing the role of Mimi Marquez in the musical Rent, on the first national tour of the United States. I remember we were in Chicago at the time, and I got a call from Mommy. “Hi darling, I’m here. Just flew in from Poland and I want to see your show. So typical. She came the next night and she came the night thereafter and enjoyed the show immensely as she sat right next to my husband who regaled me with her reactions to every scene.

There’s a point for every parent and child when suddenly the caring roles are reversed. This happened for my mother and I in January 1998 when I received a call that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had had to undergo and emergency mastectomy. I knew exactly where her mind was and that I had to get to her quick fast. Mommy had previously lost her father and her elder sister my aunt Lucille to the disease and it was something she hadn’t gotten over. When I got to her, she was almost catatonic with shock. But I pulled her out of it and I let her know how much I loved her and how much I needed her to stay with me. I told her not to let this thing beat her and that if she wanted to live, and not for herself, then perhaps for me. Then she looked at me and said “Baby, I’ll do it for you.” And sure enough a year later, I fulfilled my dream of sharing the stage with her at the Dublin Music Festival in Ireland, July 24th 1999.

My favourite parts of the documentary are the interviews with Michael Alago, who, at the time when he met and worked with Nina Simone, was the A&R representative for Elektra Records, during which time he also signed Metallica. Alago’s anecdotes about Nina are often outrageously funny. Here are a few:

I first met Nina in 1989. I knew she was coming to do a gig in New York. I had been in touch with her brother Sam Waymon. I told him I did A&R for Elektra and I wanted to meet her. So I decide that I’m going to go to sound check. She’s already at the piano. And the hall is half-lit and she sees me in the back of the room and she says “Hey, man! This ain’t a freak show. Who are you? What do you want?” I said “Hi, I’m Michael Alago. I work for Elektra Records.” “Ah! You’re the man.” And she starts laughing and she says “You have any money for me?” And I said “No, I came to say hello.” And I went up on the stage and I kissed her hand and she just kept staring at me curiously and I just kind of went off just telling her how much I loved her all these years. And, you know, of course she loved that so immediately she said “Would you like some tea?”. And I said “I’d love some tea.” Like did I know that her favourite tea was a Black Tea with honey, lemon, and tonnes of cayenne pepper. So I take a huge sip of this tea and I’m almost dead. I can’t speak for a moment. My eyes are watering and she’s laughing and when I got my bearings again, I was laughing. I think it was three years later in 1992 when I actually signed her. We made a beautiful recording in Los Angeles with a 50 piece orchestra. She was a big fan of Frank Sinatra. One of the records she loved most was called A Man Alone. She reinterpreted it as A Single Woman. Little did I know that that would be the last full-length record that she would make.

There was a story that one day there was a fire at her place. So immediately I dialled and I said “What happened?” They said “Oh, she doesn’t want to talk to you. She says the fire was your fault.” I’m sitting here in New York City and the fire is my fault. Explain. She says “You sent her too many faxes that day. She’s not a White Man, she’s an artist, and why are you sending her all this paper work?” I said I think you should remind her that I was sending her all that paper work ‘cause it was part of the advance that I needed to send her. And he said “Oh, when I tell her that, she’ll be happy.” And I said “I know that why I tell you. Now tell me the real story.” He said “Well, she was walking up to the second floor and underneath those stairs was a linen closet and unfortunately she dropped a cigarette, didn’t pay attention, and there was a fire.”

Alago also makes a great observation about Nina Simone’s covers of other artists. I know that I personally often prefer the Nina Simone version of a song than the original. Alago states:

When she sung Bob Dylan, Kurt Weil, George Harrison, it made you feel like she wrote those songs. She sang with such heart and soul that it could tear your heart out, it could make you smile and that was the beauty of her.

Nina Simone’s drummer for 18 years, Paul Robinson, also has some interesting anecdotes about working with Nina, who he met at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. He recalls:

She would look sometimes and she’d give you this look and you’re not sure what it was. So if you were unsure of yourself, you might take that look as being a look of hatred, whereas really she was just trying to find out what’s going on. Nina never told anybody what to play, or how to play, she didn’t even tell to what key you were going to play in, she would just start going and the guys, if they didn’t know it, had to find it pretty quickly and then get on with it. You never really knew where we were going, which, you know, was sort of spiritual jazz. That was the beginning of creating a chemistry between Nina and myself. And it was working really well. But we went backstage and I said “Nina, I got to talk to you about money.” And she had a glass of champagne in her hand, and she got angry and she threw this glass of champagne. But I’m still staring at her and I’m only a couple of feet away. And it hit the wall right next to me and I knew that I got my money because otherwise she’d have punched me or the glass would have hit me. It just hit the wall. She was just showing her anger that I’d broached the subject. And I went away feeling quite confident that at the end of the week I was going to get it, and I did, I got the extra money, which was great.

At list of songs available on Youtube that were played during the documentary and that I particularly like:

Sinnerman (Original), Sinnerman (Remix by Felix Da Housecat)

Baltimore (Written by Randy Newman)

Pirate Jenny (Written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil)

Wild Is The Wind

Feeling Good

See-Line Woman (originally an American Folk song) See Line Woman (Remix by Masters at Work)

Further Reading:

Nina Simone

Interview (1999) with BBC News available online

Obituary on BBC News available online

Profile by James Gavin the New York Times available online

Profile available online

Audio Profile on NPR available online

Excerpts from the biography of Nina Simone Princesse Noire : The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas available online

‘Why?’: Remembering Nina Simone’s Tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. on NPR interview available online

1969 Documentary by Peter Rodis about Nina Simone available online

Simone

Simone’s World: The Website of Nina Simone’s Daughter

Interview (2006) with Simone on the All About Jazz site available online

Simone, daughter of famed singer Nina Simone, wins rave reviews for her performance in ‘Rent.’ article available online

Michael Alago

Interview (2009) with Michael Alago in Gay Life Maryland available online

Play Review: Burned to Nothing by Rex Obano

Recently, I got to listen to BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Play entitled Burned to Nothing by Rex Obano. The BBC Radio 4’s synopsis of the play states:

Matthew returns to Nigeria, the land of his birth. He has come to secure the release of his son who has become caught up in the politics of a land in turmoil; a land he has fallen in love with.

The cast of the play is as follows:

Matthew …. Lucian Msamati

The General …. Jude Akuwudike

Medina …. Lorraine Burroughs

Keith …. David Ajala

Sunday …. Obi Abili

Inenevwerha …. Gbemisola Ikumelo

Director: Femi Elufowoju Jr.

The story begins in Britain with couple Matthew and Medina being interrupted by a telephone call from Nigeria. The scene changes rapidly to an airport in Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Medina is upset because thieves have run off with her bag and the houseboy, Sunday, did nothing to stop them. Matthew doesn’t seem to really care; he is more concerned with why he and Medina have come to Nigeria-to find his teenage son who is missing after reportedly been involved in an oil fire that has killed many people. He speaks with local Area Boys in order to find someone who can help him locate his son and they direct him to The General. From the General, Matthew learns that his son has become an activist for the rights of the people negatively affected by oil drilling and has joined the group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). He demands that Matthew bring money in order to continue the search for his son and bribe the police who are also searching for his son because of his involvement in the fire. 

As the story progresses, we learn that Matthew, a British Nigerian widower and engineer who grew up in Warri but left when he was 10, sent his then 13 year old son, Keith, to live with his aunt in Warri after his son shot him. His son Keith was getting involved with local gangs in Peckham and also was very unhappy about his father’s relationship with British Jamaican Medina. Five years later, and Keith has gone missing.

Medina is very uncomfortable in Nigeria and looks for comfort and advice from her father who used to work in the Jamaican Embassy in Nigeria. Matthew asks Medina for the money to give to the General, some $20,000, and her father helps her get it into the country. After reading a news article about the devastation of the oil fire which is blamed on Keith, Medina concludes that Keith is dead but Matthew doesn’t believe her. According to the article, Keith, as well as other Niger Delta militants, was involved in illegal oil bunkering, basically stealing oil from oil pipelines. As many of the local people can’t get access to or afford fuel, they often try to come and collect some of this oil as well, although most of the oil is collected by militants in order to pay for supplies and arms in their struggle. Fires often break out at these pipelines, as had happened in this case, and many people died. Matthew and Medina go to visit the site of the oil fire with Sunday and they meet Inenevwerha, who lives in abject poverty and whose brother died in the fire. Matthew was told that she had seen his son but she doesn’t speak of him and instead breaks down after talking about the devastation of the oil fire which burned people down to their bones. Medina is deeply moved by Inenevwerha’s story.

Matthew is still convince that his son did not die in the fire. He confronts the General who admits that Keith is not dead and that he is actually hiding him from the police. It is the General who indoctrinated Keith into the resistance movement of the Niger Delta. The General considers Keith to be like his son, as he and his wife have been unable to have children due to infertility produced by oil pollution. Matthew gets to see Keith, who now wants to be called by his Nigerian name Keefay. Keith tells his father how abandoned he felt when he was sent to Nigeria but he is also happy because it is in Nigeria that he learned to be a man. Matthew learns that Keith is actually in a relationship with Inenevwerha and they are expecting a child. Matthew asks for Keith’s forgiveness and the father and son are reconciled. Matthew leaves the money with Keith and says that he will stay in Port Harcourt as he wishes to see the birth of his grandchild.

Personal Reflections:

The play explores identity as we see through out that Matthew is trying to assert his “Nigerianness” but constantly fails because he is out of touch with the political situation and can’t even really understand the local language anymore, apart from pidgin English. When he finally meets his son, he has to demand that he speak to him in English. Medina and Matthew’s relationship seems to fracture also because of identity. Medina, although Black, isn’t African or Nigerian and feels very out of place in the Niger Delta. Matthew doesn’t seem to appreciate the situation he’s put her in and goes on to demand to borrow a large sum of money from her. At the end of the play, he dismisses Keith’s concerns that Medina might not be happy to learn that Matthew wants to stay in Nigeria. Matthew’s lack of consideration for Medina upset me and seemed completely disrespectful, particularly after he borrowed the money from her. It’s as if in reclaiming his Nigerian identity and thus being able to connect with his son, he feels he must reject Medina and her Black British identity. It seems that Matthew is asked to choose between Medina and what she represents and his son, the choice which Keith had demanded his father make five years earlier when he shot him. Medina’s character is not played or written to be unlikable, quite the opposite, which makes Matthew’s treatment of her even more troubling.

The injustices facing the peoples of the Niger Delta are very clearly laid out in the play and will hopefully draw Westerners’ attention to the ever worsening situation in the area.

Further Reading:

Interview (2009) with Rex Obano available online

Interview (2010) with Rex Obano available online

Interview with Lorraine Burroughs available online

Interview (2010) with Lorraine Burroughs available online

Interview with Gbemisola Ikumelo available online

Interview (2003) with Femi Elufowoju Jr.available online

Interview (2009) with Femi Elufowoju Jr. available online

Interview (2010) with Femi Elufowouju Jr. avaialble online

Blood Oil dripping from Nigeria by A. Walker (BBC article available online)