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.
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
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.
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:
Baltimore (Written by Randy Newman)
Pirate Jenny (Written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil)
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’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
Interview (2009) with Michael Alago in Gay Life Maryland available online
As you know, I love that I can listen to the BBC online. Bizarrely, I have probably gotten more high-brow Black, African, and Caribbean programing off the BBC than off of Canadian or American radio or television.
I just finished listening to part one of BBC Radio 2’s One Station Under the Groove, The Story of Funk, hosted by Blaxploitation film diva, Pam Grier. The first part of the series, Funk Used to be a Bad Word, can be summarized as follows:
In this first part, Pam goes back to the source, when funk – in the words of George Clinton – ‘used to be a bad word’. Pam reveals how jazz and the R ‘n’ B music of the 50s informed the rhythms and energy of funk music. As well as the all important architects of the sound like James Brown and Sly Stone, the programme also shines a spotlight on some of the unsung heroes such as Charles Wright and the Last Poets.
At the beginning of the documentary, Pam states:
…Funk was not just the soundtrack to my films but also to a very important time in African American history, a time of struggle and self-discovery and ultimately finding pride in who we were. The music reflected all of that.
But the fact that this music came to be known as Funk is strange, seeing as Funk used to be a bad word. According to journalist Rickey Vincent, who wrote the book Funk: The Music, The People, and the Rhythm of the One (St. Martin’s Press):
Funk was in the vernacular as something dirty, something downtrodden, something kind of country and unrefined. If it’s funky it’s not quite refined, it’s not smooth, it’s not together.
One of the first times the word funky was used in the title of a song was with Funky Butt, controversially attributed to Buddy Boldon (1877-1931), of of the key figures in the development of jazz. The song goes: She got stinky butt, funky butt,/leave it alone `Cause I don’t like it nohow.
The documentary explores the possible origins of funk. According to Grier: “Many people credit Little Richard as the originator of Funk for switching the emphasis of the beat to the beginning of the bar.” But it is clear that James Brown was the key figure in the development of funk, even though he is also the “Godfather of Soul”. But Brown’s choice of musicians was also very important. He worked with some of the best musicians in the industry such as Alfred Ellis, Maceo Parker, and Jimmy Nolen. Brown and these musicians created the blueprint for funk. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, is considered the first funk hit because of “its funky backbeat, choppy guitar licks and syncopated brass riffs. Brown’s success did not blind him to the conflicts of his times, and he risked his career by going political but he found support in the Black community. According to Grier:
This is when James Brown realized that he was in a position of power that could affect change. He assumed the role of a soul-powered preacher standing up for the rights of African Americans like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were also advocating, Brown encouraged African American communities to stand on their own two feet and run their own affairs. He led by example, purchasing his own businesses like radio stations, restaurants and hotels.
According to journalist Rickey Vincent:
Even at his shows, backstage, he would hold court with local leaders in the community and by leaders I don’t mean city council people and that type of thing, it would be folks who are respected in the community for doing activist work, organizing work, preachers, spiritual work, and so in every town James Brown went to he was hearing, he was aware of what was happening in these communities and these communities were filled with rage and anger and a sense that its time for change to come.
It was during this time that Brown wrote a song that would become an anthem for that time in African American history: Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud. According to Adiodun Oyewole, from The Last Poets:
That was a very important piece because it really served almost as a chant for our movement. I don’t think there was anybody in America, Black or White, who did not know “Say it Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud” and as a matter of fact even today if I say it to the kids in the classroom they know it, they’ve heard it, it’s in their DNA.
According to Khalis Bayyan (formerly Ronald Bell) of Kool and the Gang: “The music’s part of that besides the message. That’s some serious funk, I mean listen to that, that’s some hot stuff, man.” According to journalist Rickey Vincent:
Say it Loud, it kind of was a watershed event, he was saying what people were feeling but weren’t sure if they had the courage to say that out to the world in triumph and Brown gave a whole generation of Black people the freedom and the courage to say that to do something like that to say yes, I’m black and I’m proud and the whole world needs to know it.
James Brown was a notoriously strict bandleader who would fine his band members if they made mistakes on stage, eventually, most of the musicians who help to make Brown’s sound in the 60s left by the 70s. However, he would find other great musicians to work with, such as bassist Bootsy Collins who recorded such funk hits with Brown as Get Up-Sex Machine, Soul Power and Super Bad. Brown’s tracks were key to the development of hip hop in the 80s and 90s as it was often his tracks that were sampled from to form the backbeat of hip hop hits.
The documentary continued by focusing on the group The Last Poets.
One of the most influential to funk and later hip hop was a New York band of Soul Brothers called The Last Poets. The Last Poets were the single clearest articulation of revolution in Black music. Nobody delivered the message harder, or clearer or with more insight and love for Black people than The Last Poets were able to do.
According to The Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole:
Gotta understand Martin had just been killed on April 4th of that same year so I was fired up ‘cause I had completely changed when they killed Martin Luther King even though I would never had marched with Martin because Martin was letting the dogs bite him and letting people call him names and pushing him and mistreating and abusing him and I’m a fighter I mean you push me I’m gonna push you back, you know, you get a dog to bite me I’m gonna get a bigger dog but I really respected what he was trying to do because somebody had to do something in the south, it was just total out of control.
At this time, the Last Poets included Abiodun Oyewole, Jalal Mansur Nurridin, Umar Bin Hassan, and percussionist Nilaja Obabi. The purpose of their music was to wake Black people up. Their style included the use of proto-raps/Spoken Word over conga drums. Key songs from this time included Niggers are Scared of Revolution.
Motown Records, based in Detroit, Michigan, ruled pop at the time and Berry Gordy despised the word funk so much that he would veto any record with the word on it. But the studio’s musicians, who backed most of Motown’s tracks from 1959 to 1972, were nicknamed the Funk Brothers and are considered the unsung heroes of funk, most notably drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson. Motown producer, Norman Whitfield, kept the label competitive while funk became the dance music of choice. He’s considered responsible for turning The Temptations funky with tracks like Cloud 9. Motown’s Southern counterpart, Stax Records, based in Memphis, Tennessee, took to funk more easily and produced funk hits like Rufus Thomas’s Do The Funky Chicken.
On the West Coast, Charles Wright, another of Funk’s unsung heroes, was writing great funk tracks like Express Yourself. Wright grew up in Mississippi with no education. His exposure to music began in church. But although blues legend Muddy Waters lived across from his grandmother he didn’t get to hear much R’n’B until he left home because his father considered it to be the devil’s music. In the documentary, Wright spoke about his experiences of police brutality and how this was leading to civil unrest at the time:
You know that at that time I had moved out of town because the police were giving me a hard time, the police were really really brutal. They are the reason it happened because of their brutality and the way they were treating people. I mean they would stop me-I hate to say this on the radio-and feel my testicles, you know I just got tired of that and I moved out of that part of town.
Wright worked with DJ Magnificent Montague, who was key in turning on thousands of West Coast radio listeners to Funk. His famous catch phrase, “Burn, Baby, Burn!” became the rallying cry of the 1965 Watts Riots.
According to British soul singer Beverly Knight:
One of the great funk classic songs is Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” which very famously was sampled by N.W.A. and became a world-wide smash hit record and again took on that mantle of civil rights struggle , the whole I’m black and I’m proud thing which he was at the forefront of.
The documentary then went on to explore the contributions to Funk of Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) and is considered the “Godfather of Funk”. His creation of Sly and the Family Stone was innovative as bringing together male and female vocalists, as well as Black and White musicians, was unprecedented at the time, and also spoke to the group’s values of racial harmony at a time of racial conflict. They were initially not very commercially successful, with only a few hits, like Dance to the Music. But with the album Stand! (1969), the band achieved mainstream success, with tracks promoting racial harmony like Everyday People, written by Sly. They even performed at Woodstock.
In the documentary, Italian American Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico reflected on an incident with National Guard Troops:
Just looking for a gas station in an inner-city somewhere, you know we get pulled over by National Guard Troops protecting a city that is in riot, racial riot, pulling over a van full of male and female, black and white, dressed funny and “what are you doing here?” “what are you” and it was like get out of the car, hands up against the wall, spread your legs and we got machine guns . The thing that made it a little more scarier was Sylvester was frisky at this point and he kind of challenged the situation and it got hairy and you don’t want to do that when you got 20 guys with whatever kind of machine guns they were lining you up against a brick wall in the inner-city during a riot at 2 o clock in the morning.
Unfortunately, Sly Stone’s growing drug addiction led to erratic behaviour, like not showing up to shows when thousands of people had bought tickets. Eventually, the band slip up. Sly Stone’s addiction continued, eventually leading to imprisonment. In the documentary, Grier states that he now lives as a virtual recluse, in relative poverty as he had signed away his recording rights.
BBC’s The Story of Funk Part Two can be heard online for the next 7 days.
Rickey Vincent’s Website
Interview (2009) with Rickey Vincent available online
Interview (1980) with James Brown and Al Sharpton available online
The Last Poets
Profile of The Last Poets on the PBS Website
Profile of The Last Poets by Russell Porter available online
Profile of The Last Poets by Jalal Nurriddin available online
Interview (2009) with The Last Poets available online
Jalal Mansur Nurriddin’s Website
Umar Bin Hassan’s Website
Charles Wright and DJ Magnificent Montague
Charles Wright’s Website
DJ Magnificent Montague’s Website
Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines: A Filipina American Grandaughter remembers her African American Grandfather
While researching Buffalo Soldiers, I stumbled upon an interview by Evangeline Buell, a Filipina American activist, discussing her grandfather, an African American who had fought in the Philippines. My knowledge of Filipino History isn’t what it should be so this interview and my subsequent research was really an eye opener.
The Spanish American War began in 1898, and was fought in several Spanish colonies around the globe, including the Philippines. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, in December 1898, and the United States took over control of the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Filipino Nationalists, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, were not happy about having to trade one colonizer for another and resisted American occupation. In February 1899, these Filipino insurgents (insurectos) began attacking U.S. Troops. Thus began the Philippine American War (1899 to 1902). During these wars, African American soldiers were recruited to fight for the United States in the segregated Black regiments of the 24th and 25th Infantry, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and African American National guardsmen.
Evangeline “Vangie” Canonizado Buell is a leading Filipina American writer and activist living in San Francisco, California. She is the co-founder of the Filipino American National Historical Society’s East Bay Area Chapter and is the retired Events Coordinator of the University of California-Berkeley International House. She has written books about Filipino American history, including a memoir about her family, Twenty-Five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride: Growing Up in a Filipino Immigrant Family (T’Boli Publishing, 2006). Her family immigrated to the United States in 1928 and she was one of the few Filipinos growing up in West Oakland, California in the 1930s and 40s, a difficult time for Asian Americans. She remembers seeing signs stating “No Filipinos or dogs allowed” posted at restaurants. During World War II, she had to wear a button that declared “I am a loyal Filipino” in order to avoid harassment if she was mistaken for Japanese.
This memoir also records the life of her grandfather, Ernest Stokes, an African American who came to the Philippines as a Buffalo Soldier during the Spanish American War and stayed during the subsequent Philippine American War. According to Buell, her grandfather joined the military in order to escape racism in the American South. In a reading from her memoir for a 2007 podcast of San Francisco Chronicle’s Pinoy Exchange commemorating Black History Month, Buell states:
My grandfather Ernest Stokes was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee around 1870. Grandpa Stokes wanted to escape from the South where he had experienced oppressive racial prejudice. In 1898, he found an opportunity to leave for an overseas assignment, hoping for a life free of racial discrimination in another country. He responded to a call for volunteers for the Spanish American War in the Philippines and travelled with a group from Tennessee to San Francisco to receive training at the Presidio Army Camp. The windy and cold military base on the scenic hills overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge, the gateway to the Pacific Ocean. Grandpa Stokes and the other Tennessee volunteers would cross the largest and deepest sea in the world to fight a war in a land they knew nothing about and later on in life Grandpa Stokes explained to his second wife, Roberta: “We had to leave this deplorable country even if it meant facing the unknown, at least we had a chance for a new destiny, perhaps a better life than here.” Grandpa Stokes was among 6,000 African American soldiers who were sent to the Philippines in 1898 to fight in the Spanish American War. Upon arriving in the Philippines he became part of the 9th Calvary of the United States Army. My grandfather became a sergeant in that unit consisting of African American members who were called Buffalo Soldiers.
But he, as well as his fellow Black soldiers, still faced discrimination in the US Military. As Buell explains: “He was sent out by the Caucasian soldiers into the front line to take the bullets from the opposite side. It was only their cunning and their street-wise defiance that they were able to not get shot.”
Buell says that Stokes loved life in the Philippines, including its people, culture and food. While in the Philippines, Stokes, like many other Buffalo Soldiers, married a Filipina woman, Maria Bunag, Buell’s grandmother and lived in a Filipino village. They had three daughters, including Felicia, Buell’s mother. According to Buell, Stokes was accepted by most of Maria’s family. Maria died in 1917, and Stokes could not raise his daughters and serve in the military at the same time so he sent one sister to live with her grandmother, and two of the sisters, including Felicia, to live with their mother’s cousins. This was a troubling time for these Black Filipina sisters. These relatives were not accepting of these darker-skinned and coarse-haired girls. According to Buell, her mother and aunt were treated like servants and beaten. They were also repeatedly raped by older male cousins. This went on for five years, until their father discovered what was going on and rescued them.
Buell’s grandfather later remarried another Filipina, Roberta Dungca. It is from Roberta that Buell learned about her grandfather’s life in the Philippines and his early life in the United States. According to Roberta, Stokes refused to shoot Filipino insurgents because he understood their resistance to American colonial rule. Many African American soldiers felt torn about fighting Filipinos and African American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells, were outspoken in their opposition to the Philippine American War.
After living in the Philippines for 25 years, Stokes returned to the United States with all his children and Dungca. They settled in West Oakland, California in 1928.
Buell remembers her grandfather fondly. She stated that:
…her favorite memories are of her grandfather bouncing her, her younger sister and their cousin on his knee while he counted to them in Cantonese and sang in Tagalog. Stokes learned eight languages while in the Philippines, including Tagalog, Chinese, Spanish and various Philippine dialects.
Stokes died in 1936 and is buried at the Presidio in San Francisco. According to Buell:
The relations between the African Americans and the Filipinos, the beginning of that, was in the Philippines. … And it’s important today in terms of Filipinos getting to know black Americans and (black people) getting to know the Filipinos — to know that we have had that relationship way back, a hundred years ago.
Filipina activist Buell writes family history to understand herself (2007 article available online)
Buffalo Soldier came to Philippines to fight, instead found new way of life (2007 Audio Interview available online)
The Philippine War: A Conflict of Conscience for African Americans (article available online from the National Park Service Presidio of San Francisco Website)
White Backlash and the Aftermath of Fagen’s Rebellion: The Fates of Three African-American Soldiers in the Philippines, 1901-1902 by S. Brown (essay available online)
November is Black Catholic History Month. In 1990, during their convention at Fordham University in New York, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States voted to establish November as Black Catholic History Month. November was chosen because of the number of important dates to the World’s Black Catholics that fall within this month. These dates are as follows:
November 1st: All Saints’ Day, an opportunity to review the lives of the hundreds of Saints of African descent in the first 300 years of the Church.
November 2nd: All Souls Day: a time to remember all those African lost to cruel treatment in the Middle Passage crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
November 3rd: Feast of St. Martin de Porres, the only Saint of African descent in the Western hemisphere
November 13th: The birth of St. Augustine in 354 A.D., the first Doctor of the Church from North Africa.
November 20th: The death of Zumbi of Palmares in Brazil, a symbol of African resistance to Portuguese slavery for Afro-Brazilians.
It is estimated that there are approximately 270 million Catholics of African descent throughout the world. They represent almost 25% of the World’s one billion Roman Catholics.
There are an estimated 141 million Roman Catholics in Africa, with the largest communities in Nigeria (34 million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (28 million), Tanzania (10 million), and Uganda (10 million). The tallest Catholic Church is actually in the Ivory Coast, Our Lady of Peace Basilica of Yamoussoukro, which stands at 518 feet tall.
This text is important for several reasons. First, it chronicles the conversion of the first Black person in recorded Christian history. Second, the text suggests that the man was a wealthy, literate, and powerful emissary of the Nubian Queen and also a faithful, practicing Jew prior to his baptism. Clearly, he was not an ignorant heathen. Third, the Ethiopian Eunuch’s conversion predates the conversions of Saints Paul and Cornelius. Most significantly, many cite this conversion as the very moment when the church changed from a Hebrew and Hellenist community to the truly Universal and Catholic Church.
In the United States, there are 1300 Black Catholic Parishes, with 250 African American Priests and 300 African American Sisters. There are currently 13 Black Bishops in the US. The first Black Seminary in the US was established in St. Augustine Seminary in Greenville, Mississippi. In 1958, American Bishops declared that racism was immoral.
According to Father Cyprian Davis O.S.B., it is important for Black Catholics to know their history. He states:
Black Catholics want a sense of being Catholic, especially if they are converts; but they don’t want to be cut off from their roots. They desperately need and want a sense of identity. So many were not able to tell their children about what it means to be black Catholics or about black saints or black priests. But now they have that background information, and they can use it. They have a good reason to be Catholic and to be proud of it and not feel they have given up being black.
According to Davis, many African Americans have left the Roman Catholic Church. He explains:
…I think part of it was because the church probably didn’t have the personnel to minister to the blacks and also because the church tended to be racist. Louisiana, however, was a special case. Archbishop Francis Janssens of New Orleans was committed to the cause of blacks and the idea of a black clergy. He began to establish black parishes in the late 19th century. Later it became the law to provide blacks with their own parishes.
After the civil-rights movement started, bishops in the South began to open parishes so that everyone could attend the same church. What that meant most of the time, though, was that the black churches were closed down. What no one realized was that a whole infrastructure of parish life among black Catholics was being dismantled. When the black church was closed and the parishioners were told, “You’re now to go to the regular church,” there was really no place for them. In their own churches they had formed a choir, been the chief ushers and part of the council, had a place to play, and a vital social life; and now suddenly it was gone. White parishes had no place for them.
Roman Catholic History in the United States is troubling for African Americans because the vast majority of Roman Catholics supported slavery and were in opposition to its abolition. Father Davis explains:
The abolitionists opposed slavery on moral grounds and were usually very religious, well-educated people coming from establishment backgrounds. Yet many had an intellectual disdain for the Catholic Church. They often saw Catholics as lower-class immigrants with a bigoted religion, so Roman Catholics in this country saw the abolitionists as their enemy.
There were, however, other reasons for church support of slavery, one of which was exemplified by Archbishop Martin Spalding, who was the bishop of Louisville at the time of the Civil War and later became the archbishop of Baltimore. Spalding wrote a letter to the Vatican and explained his own version of the sociopolitical situation in America at the time. Though he talked about slavery as an evil, he said it would be worse to free the slaves because they would end up becoming drunkards or homeless people. Yet later, as archbishop of Baltimore, Spalding was the one bishop concerned about what to do with the freed slaves and really made an effort to begin evangelization.
The opposition to slavery that existed wasn’t organized, even among Catholics. The first bishop in the country who really took a public stand in support of the Union and the emancipation of slaves was Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, who, along with his brother, decried slavery at the outbreak of the Civil War. Later, however, Purcell met his downfall because Cincinnati became bankrupt and bishops were not happy that Purcell broke ranks.
Another outspoken Catholic abolitionist was Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell. Out of religious conviction, O’Connell saw slavery as a great evil. He castigated the Irish in America who were sending him money to fight for Irish emancipation from English rule while supporting slavery in the U.S. O’Connell sat in the British Parliament with his enemies who were opposed to religious freedom in Ireland and Irish rights, but he worked with them to end slavery in the British West Indies.
Claude Maistre, a French priest originally from the Diocese of Troyes in France, who worked a while in the Chicago area and ended up in New Orleans at the time of the Civil War, also took a very strong stand against slavery. In fact, the archbishop told him to stop preaching against slavery, but he refused. Ultimately, he put Maistre’s church under interdict to get him to stop.
By and large, the Catholic opposition against slavery, however, was found more firmly in Europe than in the United States.
American Catholic seminaries and university were some of the last academic institutions in the US to admit Black students. The first African American Priest who identified as Black was Father Augustus Tolton, who was ordained in 1886 in Rome because no American seminary would accept him. He established the Saint Monica Catholic Church in Chicago.
Father Tolton was raised as a Catholic by his parents who were slaves. According to Father Davis:
His mother, Martha Chisely Tolton, was a Catholic slave from Kentucky who became part of the dowry of a young lady who married and move to Missouri. Martha married a slave named Peter Paul Tolton, who was also a Catholic. They had three children; Augustus was the second. When Peter died, Martha decided to leave the plantation with her children and cross the Mississippi River at Hannibal and go to Quincy in Illinois, which was a free state.
Martha was very insistent that her children get a Catholic education, despite being treated very badly by the Catholics. Two priests in Quincy, One German and one Irish, befriended Augustus. He then decided he wanted to become a priest, and the two priests tried to find a seminary for him, but they really couldn’t; no one would accept this young man who was black. The German priest joined the Franciscans and through one of the Franciscans there in Quincy, Tolton was able to take courses at Quincy College. Eventually the minister general of the Franciscans arranged for him to go to Rome and become a seminarian at the Urban College. It was almost like a fairy tale.
Tolton was supposed to go to Africa after he was ordained. When the time came, however, the cardinal prefect said that America was a great nation and needed to see a black priest. So he sent Tolton back to the U.S.
It was a triumphant return, and the whole city of Quincy was there for his first Mass. But after he started work as a pastor of a parish, there was a racial conflict between another priest and him. Tolton almost had a nervous breakdown. He was not at all assertive and wanted to leave the diocese. Tolton never told the cardinal prefect back in Rome what was happening; and when word did get back to the cardinal prefect, he was very upset. Luckily for Tolton, Archbishop Patrick Feehan of Chicago wanted to have a black priest, so Tolton was sent there and formed the black parish of St. Monica’s.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II addressed the Black Catholic community of New Orleans. He stated:
I express my deep love and esteem for the black Catholic community in the United States. Its vitality is a sign of hope for society. Composed as you are of many lifelong Catholics, and many who have more recently embraced the faith, together with a growing immigrant community, you reflect the Church’s ability to bring together a diversity of people united in faith, hope and love, sharing a communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit. I urge you to keep alive and active your rich cultural gifts. Always profess proudly before the whole Church and the whole world your love for God’s word; it is a special blessing which you must for ever treasure as a part of your heritage. Help us all to remember that authentic freedom comes from accepting the truth and from living one’s life in accordance with it – and the full truth is found only in Christ Jesus. Continue to inspire us by your desire to forgive – as Jesus forgave – and by your desire to be reconciled with all the people of this nation, even those who would unjustly deny you the full exercise of your human rights.
My dear brothers and sisters of the black community: it is the hour to give thanks to God for his liberating action in your history and in your lives. This liberating action is a sign and expression of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which in every age is effective in helping God’s people to pass from bondage into their glorious vocation of full Christian freedom. And as you offer your prayer of thanksgiving, you must not fail to concern yourselves with the plight of your brothers and sisters in other places throughout the world. Black Americans must offer their own special solidarity of Christian love to all people who bear the heavy burden of oppression, whatever its physical or moral nature.
The National Black Catholic Congress’ Website
National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus’ Website
Global Count of Catholics of African Descent, includes a breakdown by country
Interview Father Cyprian Davis O.S.B.
Archdiocese of Chicago Office for Black Catholics Website
Archdiocese of Washington Office of Black Catholics Website
Archdiocese of New Orleans Office of Black Catholic Ministries Website
An African’s gift to the Vatican: the world’s largest church – Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Basilica of Our Lady of Peace by Hans Massaquoi (article available online)
I have recently reread the essay Women in Egypt by Angela Davis, which is available in her essay collection Women, Culture and Politics. The article was originally written in 1985 and published in Women: A World Report.
This essay is an account of Davis’ trip to Egypt and the discussions with women’s rights activists in the country. It also includes her reflections on how to work in solidarity with women’s movements in developing countries without succumbing to the sensationalism, paternalism, and sometimes downright racism of Western feminist movements that claim to want to “liberate” and “save” women in developing countries from their sexist male counterparts. Western feminists often do this without knowing much about the societies in question and not taking into consideration the dignity and agency of the women they claim they want to help. As Davis writes:
When I initially agreed to travel to Egypt for the purpose of documenting my experiences with women there, I did not yet know that the sponsors of this project expected me to focus specifically on issues relating to the sexual dimension of women’s pursuit of equality. I was not aware, for example, that the practice of clitoridectomy was among the issues I would be asked to discuss. Since I was very much aware of the passionate debate still raging within international women’s circles around the efforts of some Western feminists to lead a crusade against female circumcision in African and Arab countries, once I was informed about the particular emphasis of my visit, I seriously reconsidered proceeding with the project.
As an Afro-American woman familiar with the sometimes hidden dynamics of racism, I had previously questioned they myopic concentration on female circumcision in U. S. feminist literature on African women. The insinuation seems frequently to be made that the women in the twenty or so countries where this outmoded and dangerous practice occurs would magically ascend to a state of equality once they managed to throw off the fetters of genital mutilation or rather , once white Western feminists (whose appeals often suggest that this is the contemporary “white women’s burden”) accomplished this for them. (Davis pages 117-118)
It is important for those reading this essay to know that Angela Davis is politically positioned on the left and so most of her encounters are with Egyptian women who are also politically on the left. However, Davis is very frank about the fact that she is meeting mostly with women who are from the socio-economically privileged and urban classes and regrets that time and language barriers do not permit her to connect more with peasant and working class Egyptian women. Just as Western societies are complex so are non-Western societies, so assuming that the perspectives of the most privileged of a society are the norm is counterintuitive.
Davis has an opportunity to meet with several of Egypt’s prominent progressive intellectuals and writers such as Sherif Hetata, husband of Egyptian Feminist, novelist and founder of the Arab Women’s Solidary Association (AWSA), Nawal el Saadawi; artist Inji Eflatoon, one of Egypt’s first socialist feminists to link gender and class oppression, who we learn has painted a portrait of Davis; Dr. Latifa al Zayyat, who wrote the acclaimed novel Open Door (that was turned into a film starring the legendary Egyptian actress Faten Hamama (ex-wife of the more internationally renowned Egyptian actor Omar Sharif-he converted to Islam in order to marry her); Fathia al Assal, one of Egypt’s first female playwrights and head of the Progressive Women’s Union.
Davis emphasizes the economic oppression experienced by Egypt’s women, particularly after Sadat’s reforms to Egypt’s economy moving it from Nasserite socialism to free market capitalism. This has resulted in increased unemployment in Egypt. This process was called Infitah. As Al-Ali explains:
Infitah not only constituted the declared economic policy of privatization and open markets, but its laissez faire undertone also extended into the realm of the government, administration, migration, foreign policy etc. (Ayubi, 1991). In other words, infitah did not exclusively refer to economic liberalization, but also entailed a neoliberal reform of the state sector and a realignment of international alliances, that is, a rapprochement with the United States.
As Davis and most of the Egyptian women she interviews are Marxists, they constantly link Egyptian women’s oppression to Sadat’s economic liberalization and the forces of global capitalism. For readers who are sympathetic to Marxism this connection might seem forced. However, I recommend the readers reflect on the fact that several Middle Eastern countries that are well-integrated into global capitalism and have strong ties to the United States are also incredibly behind in terms of women’s rights, for example Saudi Arabia, where women are not permited to drive, and Kuwait where women only got the right to vote in the last few years. Capitalism and close political ties to the West do not equal women’s empowerment or liberation.
Davis and the women she encounters also see that sexual liberation does not automatically equal women’s liberation. Davis reflects on the West’s sexual revolution due to the availability of The Pill and how although this made it easier for women to control their reproductive health it did not necessary create equal romantic relationships. Davis reminds Western readers that women in the West still face many barriers and this is humbling and helps the reader see the Egyptian women Davis writes about as equals who we can learn from and not victims to be pitied. I think we in the West need to consider the ways in which sexual liberation without real political and socio-economic liberation for women have actually put women at a disadvantaged and played into patriarchy.
It is clear that it is impossible to focus on Egyptian women’s sexual oppression without addressing their socio-economic and political oppression. The fact that several of the women activists Davis interviewed had been imprisoned under Sadat for their political dissidence makes it quite clear that women’s oppression in Egypt goes beyond sexual oppression based on religious fundamentalism.
Angela Davis was visiting Egyptian women activists during a pivotal moment, as it was during the 1980s that women’s organizations developed out of politically leftist organizations in Egypt. As Al-Ali writes:
In an article on feminist activism in the 1980’s, Akram Khater argues that the movement was divided into two main camps: Nawal El-Sa’dawi and the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) on one hand, and Fathia Al-Assal, the head of the Progressive Women.s Union, on the other (Khater, 1987). However, the narratives of several women activists involved in forming a coalition at the time provide evidence of a much broader spectrum and more diversified movement than that described by Khater. The coalition called Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Woman and the Family consisted of leftists, Nasserists, Wafdists, enlightened Islamists, women from the Arab Lawyers. Union, AWSA and other interested individuals (Hi-jab, 1988). The committee included mainly party affiliates and independent organizations, while charity groups have been increasingly absorbed into the growing NGO movement.
The very act of forming the emergency coalition, when the constitutionality of the Personal Status Law was challenged in 1985, represented a break from prevalent nationalist- and liberal-modernist discourses in Egypt that only focused on women’s rights in the public sphere as part of creating new societies. (Hatem, 1993:42).
Davis was visiting Egypt at a great moment for observing Egyptian women’s political engagement on women’s rights issues. The resistance of Islamist social and political forces to the amended Personal Status Law, which manifested into a challenge to the amended laws constitutionality, created an opportunity for Egyptian women’s rights activists to directly challenge women’s oppression in the private sphere. The Egyptian Personal Status Law had been amended officially in 1979, the first major amendment and revision since 1929. As Al-Ali explains:
Under the influence of the president’s wife, Jehan Sadat, reform of the Personal Status Law (governing marriage, divorce, custody, etc.) was proposed. The reformed law, labelled Jehan’s Law, granted women legal rights in marriage, polygamy, divorce and child custody; it was implemented in 1979 by presidential decree along with another law that introduced changes to women’s representation in parliament.
In 1985, women’s rights activists had to fight to maintain these amendments as the Mubarak government was being pressured to scrap the amendments due to the Islamists’ challenge to its constitutionality. Egyptian women’s rights activists would end up winning this battle as Al-Ali explains:
The early years of the Mubarak regime were characterized by a search for stabilization and consolidation. In 1985, the Personal Status Law, which had been at the centre of the debate on the state.s legitimacy, was amended due to strong opposition from the Islamists who perceived it to be anti-Islamic. The revised law abandoned many of the rights that women had attained in the earlier version (Bibars, 1987). A strong women’s lobby used the 1985 Nairobi Conference.marking the end of the decade for Women.to protest and pressure the government to refor-mulate the law. Two months after its cancellation (just prior to the Nairobi Conference), a new law was passed that restored some of the benefits the 1979 version had provided.
Unfortunately, it would take the death of 12 year old Badour Shaker during her circumcision at the hands of a doctor for Egypt to offically ban female circumcision in 2007.
This essay is a great introduction to the secular leftist Egyptian women’s movement in the mid-80s and give interested readers some direction in pursuing further studies into Egyptian and Middle Eastern women’s movements.
The Woyingi Blogger’s Personal Reflections:
As a veiled practicing Muslim woman, the only real difficulty I had with Angela Davis’ essay was the dismissal of women’s engagement in religious leadership as a way of promoting women’s rights. I believe the fact that Davis and the activists she most closely identifies with are working from secular ideologies is a barrier to them truly engaging with the diversity of Egyptian women. (It is important to note that Egypt does not only have Muslims, although they are the majority. There are also Christians and Baha’is. Egypt also used to have a significant Jewish community but with the escalation of antagonism between Egypt and Israel, many Egyptian Jews were forced to leave Egypt.) Although Davis and her Egyptian counterparts connect the wearing of the veil/hijab with middle and upper class conformity because they observe that many peasant and working class women do not veil, they seem to underestimate their own class privilege and its influence on how they perceive the veil. My own personal experience with Egyptian and other women and men from Muslim majority countries has been somewhat challenging as they often equate my wearing of the veil with ignorance, lack of education, and lack of career ambition. Davis, through how she recounts her exchanges with veiled students, seems to connect wearing of the veil with a desire to stay at home and not work. I don’t agree with this and I don’t believe that the achievements of veiled Muslim women in academics and various careers around the world supports such a connection.
That said, there are obvious limits that taking a religiously based approach to Muslim women’s rights will impose and many of these limits cannot be tolerated in a truly free society. For example, an issue that has arisen in several Middle Eastern countries, most notably Lebanon, is a Muslim woman’s right to marry someone outside her faith. This is forbidden in Islamic Law, however it is a reality that women are doing this. Only a secular approach could address a reality like this. However, with the issue of female circumcision Islam can and has been useful in its eradication, particularly in Muslim diaspora communities. For example, when members of the Somali communities began to immigrate and meet other Muslims from countries where female circumcision is not practice it became clear that the practice was not religious but cultural and therefore not a requirement. I must note that female circumcision is not only practiced by Muslims but also by several other non-Muslim communities in Africa such as the Kikuyu of Kenya.
The veil is not inherently oppressive I believe. However, it is not inherently liberating either as some Muslim women have attested. I believe that the symbolic significance of wearing the veil changes based on one’s national, political, social, and economic context. As a Muslim woman living as a suspect minority in the West, my wearing of the veil could be interpreted as a form of resistance against Islamophobia and the pressures of Western conformity. However, if I were living in a country in which the veil was mandatory and one was forced to wear it by the government, this would not be the case.
The Women’s Movement in Egypt with Selected References to Turkey by Nadje S. Al-Ali (study available online)
Website of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA)
The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal El Saadawi
Daughter of Isis: an Autobiography by Nawal El Saadawi, translated by Sherif Hetata
Western Eurocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem by Leila Ahmed (Essay available online)
Review of Latifa al-Zayyat The Open Door by Al Ahram Weekly available online
Check out my page on Egyptian Literature
Website for Women Living Under Muslim Laws
Website for Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality (WISE)
Film: The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
Director: Ralph Nelson
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, and Rutger Hauer
I often go searching for DVDs at my local Giant Tiger. This is not just because DVDs are so cheap there. It is actually because I have found some of the strangest, rarest, and most fascinating films there. My entire collection of Sidney Poitier Films have been purchased from Giant Tiger.
The Wilby Conspiracy is probably one of the most unexpected roles I have seen Sidney Poiter play and one of the real gems I have discovered at Giant Tiger. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, it’s something of a comedy in the British 60s style which is both farcical and cheeky in its use of sexual titilation. When I say that it is an unexpected role for Sidney Poitier, I guess what I mean to say is that for about the first hour or so of the film I was thinking-“Why is Sidney Poitier, such a distinguished actor, in this piece of fluff?” The Wilby Conspiracy is sort of a sexy South African version of “The Defiant Ones” set in South Africa. But, The Wilby Conspiracy is actually one of the first Hollywood films to speak firmly against Apartheid in South Africa and watching the film must have been something of an education for American and British viewers as it truly brings home the injustices of the apartheid regime. It is also directed by Ralph Nelson, who had previously directed Poitier inLilies of the Field (1963), a role for which Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor, becoming the first Black person to do so. So, by the end of the film, I understood by Sidney Poitier took the role.
In The Wilby Conspiracy, Poitier plays Shack Twala, a Black South African dissident who has been in jail on Robben Island for ten years. We first meet him in a courtroom in Cape Town where his young and attractive White South African lawyer is trying to appeal for his release based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Miraculously, the court agrees. This is the begining of The Wilby Conspiracy.
Twala’s lawyer, Rina van Niekirk, is so excited by her victory that she invites Twala to come with her and her English boyfriend Keogh, played by a young and dashing Michael Caine, to go back to her office to drink champagne. Twala agrees, although it is apparent that for a Black South African dissident who has just been released after ten years in prison he can’t be as carefree as his young White lawyer. On their way to Rina’s office their car is stopped at a barricade and Twala is ordered out by the police because he doesn’t have a pass card.
In 1952, the Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was enacted. This misleadingly-named law required all Africans to carry identification booklets with their names, addresses, fingerprints, and other information. Africans were frequently stopped and harassed for their passes. From 1948-1973, over ten million Africans were arrested because their passes were “not in order”. Burning pass books became a common form of protest to the apartheid regime by Black South Africans.
Although Rina tries to explain to the police that Shack doesn’t have a pass because he has just been release from prison, the police arrest Shack and put him in handcuffs. Rina insists that they do not and ends up being punched by one of the officers. Keogh comes to her defence and he and Shack end up seriously beating up the police officers. Rina knows that both Keogh and Shack are facing arrest for assaulting police officers. Their only option is to get out of Cape Town. Shack proposes that he and Keogh make their way to Johannesburg where Shack has a friend who can get them across the border to Botswana. Keogh reluctantly goes along with Shack.
Shack and Keogh’s misadventures on the way to Johannesburg are reminiscent of the film The Defient Ones which stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two escaped prisoners who must work together in spite of their mutual prejudice to survive. But Caine and Poitier never achieve the level of cameraderie that Curtis and Poitier did, making this part of the film not as enjoyable as it could have been. Along the way, it becomes clear that Shack and Keogh are being followed by a South African Secret Police Officer named Horn. But why are they being followed? Why don’t the police just arrest them when they have the chance?
Shack and Keogh reach Johannesburg and must find Mukkerjee in the Indian district. Mukkerjee is a dentist and member of the same Black Congress that Shack is involved with. Shack gave Mukkerjee diamonds to hide. These diamonds are meant for Wilby Xaba, who is a leader of the Black Congress living in exile in Botswana and trying to collect money for weapons to lead an armed resistance to apartheid. But Mukkerjee no longer has the diamonds as he put them in a sink hole so they would not be found by the police. Mukkerjee’s assistant, Persis Ray, knows about Mukkerjee’s work with the Black Congress but doesn’t approve. She ends up killing Mukkerjee in order to get the diamonds for herself but in the end is killed by Keogh and Shack. Keogh and Shack retrieve the diamonds and get a plane ride out of South Africa on Rita’s estranged husband’s private jet. They are followed by Horn. We soon realize that the only reason that Shack was released from prison was in order to lead the South African Secret Police to Wilby Xaba’s location in Botswana so that they could arrest him. That’s The Wilby Conspiracy.
Wilby Xaba is played by Joe de Graft. It would be interesting to know how many people who saw the film in 1975 recognized him. Joe de Graft is a prominent Ghanaian playwright. He was a student and later a teacher at Ghana’s renowned Mfantsipim School. At the time of the film, he was living in Kenya and working at the University of Nairobi on a UNESCO appointment. He contributed greatly to Kenya’s theatre scene. He passed away a few years after the making of this film in 1978.
The Wilby Conspiracy is based on a novel by British Writer Peter Driscoll, known for writing thrillers set in foreign locales. According to Professor Mary-Kay Gamal Orlandi, the film version of Shack Twala’s character is more heroic than his literary counterpart. She writes:
Just how pointed Shack’s portrayal is in the film can be seen by comparing it to the novel. There Shack escapes from Robben Island through a secret police deal; he is forty years old, decrepit and scared. He and Keogh are thrown together by chance when Keogh takes pity on him; it is Keogh who arranges the flight, retrieves the diamonds, everything; Shack is killed by Horn during the retrieval of the diamonds. Rewriting this role and casting Sidney Poitier in it shows the filmmakers’ determination to present a strong, intelligent, politically educated African working for the liberation of his country.
The very fact that the film’s screenwriters had to rewrite the story in order to create a more noble Black character shows their own committment to both the anti-apartheid struggle as well as creating strong and positive roles for Black actors. Keogh is not allowed to be the White Knight Saviour in the film and it is only by the end of the film, after everything that he and Shack have experienced, that he takes a determined political stand. I appreciated this as it was more realistic. Shack Twala has no choice but to resist and fight on against all odds. Keogh is just trying to get back to his normal cushy life. The screenwriters also developped more interesting female characters than those in the original novel. As Orlani states:
The women’s roles, too, are strong ones. In the novel Rina is simply Keogh’s mistress; in the film (played by Prunella Gee) she is an idealistic lawyer, a bit naive in her assumption that the United Nations Code on Human Rights will be accepted by a South African court. (It is, but apparently this is part of the plot to get Wilby.) Her strength is physical as well as intellectual and moral: she stands up to and pays the price of a humiliating body-search. When she and the men are running through the veldt to catch the plane, she does not collapse and get carried, like so many heroines. The other woman in the film, Mukkerjee’s dental assistant Persis, tries to convince the others to divide the diamonds. She cares nothing for the struggle; she has bourgeois ambitions to get to London, “where a girl like me has a decent chance.” When the diamonds have been retrieved, she asks Mukkerjee, “You are determined to give the diamonds to those black terrorists?” Mukkerjee replies, “Those black terrorists are the only hope for South Africa. If the emerging nations of the Third World are to obliterate terrorism and racism…” “I don’t give a damn about the emerging nations!” breaks in Persis and shoots Mukkerjee in an attempt to steal the diamonds. Her character is overdrawn and melodramatic, but she is certainly more than an ornament or sex object.
Both of the female characters in the film are used for sex appeal, however their roles are quite complex and interesting. Rina is the only White South African character who we are supposed to like in the film. She is trying to fight for justice in her homeland which puts her own freedom and safety in peril. The predicament of the White South African with a conscience during apartheid was a tough one. During the 1970s more and more White South Africans became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Those who became activists risked imprisonment and many had to go into exile. The apartheid system was built to keep each racial community away from each other. Although Whites were meant to be the benefactors of this, they were also not supposed to cross the boundaries. Rina is a rebel not only in her resistance to the apartheid regime but also in her romantic relationships. She is seeing Keogh but she is in the process of getting divorced from her abusive rich playboy husband Blane, played by a young and strapping Rutger Hauer. Rina has to use Blane’s plane in order to get Keogh and Shack out of South Africa to Wilby in Botswana. This means Blane has to pilot it. She has to use sexual favours in order to get his help; however she also blackmails him by saying that she will tell his father, who is an ardent racist, that Blane has been having sex with Black women in Mozambique. Sex and marriage between Blacks and Whites was outlawed officially in 1950 under the apartheid regime. This law also classified South Africans into three racial categories: Whites, Coloreds (mixed race peoples and Asians) and natives (Black Africans).
Interracial sex takes place between an Indian and a Black South African in the film. Shack Twala has been in prison for 10 years and it becomes apparent that he is desperate to have sex. In a strange scence, Shack forces Persis into his hiding place. It is clear he wants to have sex with her but he doesn’t communicate this to her with words. The two exchange looks until it becomes clear that Persis is game and then the two have sex. I think this could be the first time a Black man and a South Asian woman have engaged in sex on film…making Mira Nair’s steamy Mississipi Masala, starring Denzel Washington, the second time. Sex between Indians and Blacks was also forbidden under apartheid law, and generally the two communities did not socially mix apart from business transactions. Even in terms of resistance to apartheid, South Asians and Black South African relations were strained. Persis’ character, played by the gorgeous 1965 Miss India Universe Persis Khambatta who is best known for her role as Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is the most enigmatic in the film. She seems to have nothing but contempt for Blacks and yet she has sex with one. She expresses that she feels trapped in the Indian district of Johannesburg. With Persis’ character, one can see that although the South Asian communities of South Africa were definitely at an advantage in comparison to Black South Africans, they were also ghettoized and trapped. Persis sees her way out by betraying Mukkerjee and stealing the diamonds as opposed to working in solidarity with Black South Africans like Shack. Like Rina, she is rebelling against the conformity of the society she lives in, but only for her own benefit. The dilemma of which side to support plagued both South Asian and Coloured politics throughout the apartheid regime, and was particularly frustration for Indian South African activists like Fatima Meer, who wrote the first authorised biography of Nelson Mandela.
The supreme villain of the film, Horn, is also not a conventional bad guy. He is intelligent and seems to have real conviction about what he is doing. He is comparable to the character Nic Vos that Tim Robbins plays in the filmCatch a Fire. Nic Vos is meant to be an amalgam of several real-life South African secret police officers. Both express a deep concern that the activists of the anti-apartheid movement are communists and being supported by communist countries (which was actually the case-The film Catch a Fire was written by Shawn Slovo, who is the daughter of noted anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo, who were leaders of the South African Communist Party). Considering that this is the time of the Cold War, these concerns seem quite understandable. However, unlike Vos, Horn is also a racist and deeply against racial mixing. Again, when one understands how deep-seated this thinking was and is still among Afrikaners, to the point where many believe that to be true Christians they must remain racially pure, one sees that racist ideologies are not simply a matter of ignorance or stupidity, as we too often try to dismiss them today. The determination and intelligence of Horn’s character is what makes him so frightening and what makes Michael Caine’s actions at the end of the film seem almost unavoidable. As Orlani writes:
The character of Horn is crucial to the film’s success, not only because it is superbly acted by Nicol Williamson but because it avoids easy judgments of him as just a baddie. Historical and ideological reasons, not individual moral ones, are suggested for his positions and behavior. He is an Afrikaner, probably a farmer’s son. His racism is not a sign or a result of his being evil. It is an article of belief and his actions proceed naturally from it. When (in disguise) he approaches Keogh on the road to Johannesburg, Keogh pretends to be a commercial traveler. “Ladies’ underwear?” says Horn. “I’d hate for your kaffir to handle the merchandise.” When Horn comes to threaten Keogh and Rina, he finds them taking a bath together, “I’m surprised your friend Shack’s not in the bath with you — he’s shared your plates and sheets, hasn’t he?” He says to Keogh with genuine puzzlement, “It hurts me to see an intelligent educated white man so against his own people.” He regards antagonism between the races, as the natural state: to Mukkerjee, “Stick to what you Indians know best — cheating the blacks.
The only character that I would probably want to take the screenwriters to task on is that of Mukkerjee. He seems to be written as a stereotypical Indian, who is rather nervous, feeble, and mousy. He is Shack’s main ally yet there seems to be no cameraderie between them. More should have been invested in trying to demonstrate why Shack would trust Mukkerjee with the diamonds. As it is portrayed in the film Shack doesn’t seem to like Mukkerjee and Mukkerjee seems afraid of Shack. I would have preferred to see Mukkerjee as a stronger and cleverer character who has a genuinely strong connection with Shack based on common values and convictions. Orlani writes about Mukherjee as follows:
Mukkerjee, by contrast, is a rather comic character. Short, middle-aged, nervously smiling, he is terrified when Horn invades his office to search for Shack, naive in his idealism and no match for Persis’ determination. On the other hand, his depiction makes the important point that a revolution is not made up exclusively of handsome heroes. When Keogh finds out who Shack’s contact in Johannesburg is, he says incredulously, “A politically committed Indian dentist?” setting Shack up for another good answer: “We have all colors, even yours.”
That said, the film is definitely promoting a message of solidarity between differing racial and class groups. Collective efforts are the most succesful in the film as opposed to individual efforts. As Orlandi writes:
The film clearly promotes unity, not separatism, as the way of change for South Africa. The characters in the film can be seen as representative of their various classes and races — blacks, Indians, whites, working-class, lower-middle class, and bourgeoisie — working together. More important, there are several scenes in which the individual stars are upstaged by group efforts. When Shack and Keogh stop in the village, men and women push over a hut to hide the car, children rub out the tire tracks with their feet. As the two fugitives eat and recuperate, they are surrounded by smiling faces while music plays in the background.
The most dramatic scene depicting the power of the people is when Horn’s helicopter is brought down by several of the villagers Wilby has been working with. They then tear the machine apart. The most striking point the film makes is that violent resistance to apartheid is necessary. At the end, Horn says that he won’t stop hunting down the likes of Shack and Wilby. Keogh says that he knows this and then proceeds to shoot Horn dead. Keogh has gone from being a disinterested and disengaged English visitor to a violent militant. It is important to remember that Nelson Mandela, now one of the world’s most beloved political figures, was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing and was considered a terrorist by the apartheid regime. One man’s terrorist is often another man’s freedom fighter. However, this opens up many questions about the ethical use of violence in contexts of resistance and revolution. These are of course questions that a film like The Wilby Conspiracy doesn’t have the capacity to answer.
The Wilby Conspiracy was filmed in Kenya. Michael Caine wrote about the experience in his autobiography. He was surprised that no one recognized him as a celebrity; however everyone recognized Sidney Poitier. Poitier got the best tables in restaurants and was even invited to meet the then President of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta. The film could not have been filmed in South Africa for obvious reasons. Sidney Poitier, along with other American entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Arthur Miller, and Nina Simone signed the We Say No To Apartheid Pledge in 1965. Poitier was well aware about the apartheid regime as it had effected the distribution of his films in South Africa. Several of his films were outright banned, for other films Poitier was edited out of interracial scences. As America was trying to integrate, South Africa was enforcing segration. The casting of Poitier in The Wilby Conspiracy must have brought home to American audiences the similarity between the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for integration and civil rights in the United States.
The Wilby Conspiracy is a fun ride with a political conscience. I recommend that you check it out.
The Wilby Conspiracy: Action for the sake of politics by Mary-Kay Gamel Orlandi (film review available online)
The Wilby Conspirarcy New York Times Film Review available online
Introduction to Apartheid: Lesson Plan for Middle Schools available online
I couldn’t resist seeing the latest incarnation of The Karate Kid starring the progeny of Will Smith and Jada Pickett Smith, Jaden Smith, and China’s Number One Internationally Recognized Action Hero Jackie Chan.
But I wonder why it was called The Karate Kid? Did the film’s producers really worry that people wouldn’t go to see the film if there was no brand recognition? Didn’t they think that the adorable Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and a theme song by every tween’s favourite Canadian Heartthrob Justin Bieber would be enough to get people to the box office? Unlike when the original Karate Kid starring Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio came out in 1984, your average North American knows a thing or two about Asian Martial Arts. For example, your average North American viewer knows that what Jackie Chan ends up teaching Jaden Smith isn’t karate, it’s kung-fu. So why not call the film The Kung-Fu Kid? Actually, the film is called The Kung Fu Kid in the People’s Republic of China!
The film begins with Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) preparing to leave his apartment with his mother (Taraji Henson). We learn that his father is dead and his mother has been transferred to Beijing, China by the Auto Factory she works for. Dre isn’t happy to leave his Black neighbourhood in Detroit for China, where he thinks everything is old.
There is a great scene on the plane ride to China when Dre’s mom forces him to greet a fellow passenger who looks East Asian in Mandarin Chinese. The passenger replies in perfect American English that he comes from Detroit.
On his first day in Beijing, Dre has to go looking for his new apartment’s handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) because the hot water isn’t working (it actually is working, it’s just not automatic due to an energy-saving switch). Dre’s first meeting with Mr. Han doesn’t go well as Mr. Han ignores him and instead picks up a dead fly with his chopsticks and then continues to eat noodles with said chopsticks-Gross.
Dre is befriended by another expat White kid who takes him to the local park to play Basketball with the local Chinese kids. Dre isn’t good at Basketball (Way to Challenge Black Stereotypes!). Instead, he decides to chat up an adorable Chinese girl named Mai Ying who is sitting on a park bench practicing her violin. She immediately takes a liking to him and asks to touch his hair (Oh, the universal request when anyone not used to Black people meets a Black person-They want to touch our hair!!!) But Cheng, whose family I close to Mei Ying’s family, doesn’t take Dre’s fraternizing with Mei Ying well. There is really no reason for this kid’s beef with Dre given other than that maybe he himself has a crush on Mei Ying but that’s not developed. Cheng and his friends continue to bully Dre at school and terrorize him whenever they see him.
After rescuing Dre from a brutal attack by Cheng and his gang, Mr. Han decides to help Dre by approaching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher. Mr. Han believes that any genuine Kung-Fu teacher would be horrified to learn that his students were starting fights and ganging up on defenseless kids. But after watching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher, Master Li, in action, it becomes clear that he won’t be of any help because his whole predatory “no mercy” approach to teaching Kung-Fu is actually why his students are such bullies. In order to get himself and Dre out of Master Li’s class without getting themselves beaten up, Mr. Han promises to register Dre in the upcoming Kung-Fu Tournament. In return, Master Li forbids his students from attacking Dre, until the tournament. Mr. Han then promises to teach Dre Kung-Fu.
Jackie Chan is a really fun actor to watch and early on in the film we are intrigued by the quiet and slovenly maintenance man who seems to know Kung-Fu so well but is so sad. What’s his story? We will learn that Mr. Han comes from a remote Chinese village in the Wudang Mountains where the teaching of the ancient art of Kung-Fu goes way back and people can harness their chi to manipulate cobras-Say What? Hopefully, people watching this film will know that this is a “fantasy” aspect of the film. Far too often, North American films about the Chinese and Martial Arts tend to not differentiate well between fantasy and reality, The Karate Kid (2010) is unfortunately no exception. Kung-Fu is mixed up with “magic” as is practical Chinese Medicine which Mr. Han uses to heal Dre’s wounds twice in the film, the second time with totally unrealistic results. More on the side of realism, we learn that Mr. Han has a drinking problem and lost his wife and child in a car accident in which he was the driver. Having the Mr. Han character be a broken man who ends up finding himself again through his mentorship of the fatherless Dre brings the story to a level higher than a just a vehicle to make Jaden Smith a big star (remember this film is co-produced by his parents!).
Dre’s relationship with Mei Ying is sweet to watch and as a product of a mixed race relationship myself I always love to see young mixed race love on screen (and Black/Asian hook ups are too few and far between in films for youth audiences) but this romance is a bit troubling considering their ages (Dre is supposed to be 12). Am I a prude to be freaked out by 12 year olds kissing and doing sexy dances to a Chinese Dance Dance Revolution version of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face? I think not and Simon Abrams from Slant Magazine agrees with me.
Needless to say, Dre ends up winning the tournament, overcoming a deliberate injury to his leg through the miracles of Mr. Han’s Chinese Medicine. Cheng is beaten by Dre but instead of being a sore loser ends up pledging his allegiance to Mr. Han and is soon followed by other students of Master Li. And all is right with the world.
All in all it was a pretty entertaining film, although I really do feel an opportunity was missed to do a remake of the song “Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting” to go along with the film.
The Karate Kid (2010) and The Karate Kid (1984)
Watching The Karate Kid (2010) helped me to really appreciate The Karate Kid (1984).
The differences between the films point to the superiority of the original film’s message.
A Fatherless Boy Moves to a New Town
Karate Kid (2010) Dre, an African American 12 year old, moves from Detroit, Michigan to Beijing, China with his mother.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel, an Italian American high school senior, moves from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California with his mother
The Fatherless Boy Gets Beaten Up by Really Mean Guys
Karate Kid (2010) Dre becomes a target of Cheng and his kung fu student friends because he befriends Mei Ying, who Cheng knows but isn’t romantically involved with and doesn’t seem to have any romantic interest in.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel becomes a target of a karate student after coming on to his girlfriend.
The Asian Maintenance Man Comes to the Rescue
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han, the Chinese maintenance man at Dre’s apartment, rescues Dre when he is attacked by Cheng and his friends.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawan maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment, rescues Daniel when he is attacked by the Karate student whose girlfriend he came on to.
The Asian Maintenance Man Tries to Enlist the Help of the Bullies Martial Arts Teacher
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to the Kung Fu School where Cheng and his friends are students. Mr. Han believes that any true Kung Fu Teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Han realizes that Master Li is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. No reason is given for why Master Li is such a nasty dude. In order to get out of the Kung Fu school in one piece, Mr. Han agrees to register Dre in the upcoming Kung Fu tournament. Master Li promises to make his students leave Dre alone in the meantime. Mr. Han promises to teach Dre kung fu.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to the Karate dojo where his bullies are students. Mr. Miyagi believes that any true Karate teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Miyagi realizes that the teacher at the Karate dojo, an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran, is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. Being that the teacher is an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran and generally speaking American sentiment in the 1980s was that the Vietnam War was totally unnecessary and brutal, his military background goes to explain why he’s such a nasty guy. In order to get out of the Karate dojo in one piece, Mr. Miyagi agrees to register Daniel in the upcoming Karate tournament. The teacher of the Karate dojo promises to make his students leave Daniel alone in the meantime. Mr. Miyagi promises to teach Daniel karate.
Simple Chores Equal Mad Martial Arts Skills
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han makes Dre repeat the steps of putting his coat on, taking it off, and hanging it up over several days. This frustrates Dre because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with kung fu. But one of the things we know about Dre from the beginning is that he always leaves his coat on the floor, much to his mother’s chagrin, so it’s probably for the best that he gets in the habit of hanging his coat up. Mr. Han finally reveals to Dre that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key kung fu defensive and strike techniques.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel do household chores, like waxing a car (the now classic “Wax on, Wax off!”). This frustrates Daniel because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with karate. Mr. Han finally reveals to Daniel that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key karate defensive techniques.
The Teacher and the Origins of the Martial Art
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to his village in the WuDang Mountains and visits an ancient Kung Fu monastery where Dre gets to drink mystical Kung Fu-powering giving water and watch a woman manipulate a cobra by harnessing her chi. Ya right….
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel about karate’s origins in Okinawa, a island of Japan where Mr. Miyagi comes from….a lot more realistic.
Why the Teacher is so Sad
Karate Kid (2010) Dre discovers that Mr. Han lost his family in a car accident. While arguing with his wife, Mr. Han lost control of the car and it crashed killing his wife and young son. This is why Mr. Han is so depressed and withdrawn.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel discovers that Mr. Miyagi lost his wife in childbirth while she was interned by the American government in an internment camp during World War II. Mr. Miyagi was away fighting the Germans in the American Army in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the United States. Mr. Miyagi’s tragedy opens Daniel’s eyes to a shameful part of American history, the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II. In this way, The Karate Kid is not only a film about an underdog who overcomes through martial arts. It’s an attempt at honouring the history and heritage of Japanese Americans, a community which has been an underdog in the United States. Japanese American actor Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi.
The Karate Kid (2010) and racism against Blacks in China
I found it problematic that the film never broaches the issue of Chinese anti-Black racism. Frankly, racism seems to be a better reason behind Cheng’s animosity towards Dre than the total lack of a good reason the film provides us.
There are two common Chinese racial slurs for Black people: Black Devil (hei gui) and Black Chimpazee (hei xingxing). I have the misfortune of being called both in my life time. I’ve even experienced not being allowed to visit some of my Chinese friends’ homes because I was a Black person. Although the awareness of difference between Chinese and Blacks doesn’t go beyond curiosity about hair in the film it is a serious problem in real life, no matter how many sequels to Rush Hour Jackie Chan might make with Chris Tucker.
While watching the film, I wondered what Dre’s mom was going to do about her hair while in China (that weave could only last for so long!). If you are Black and in China there is hope…African Hair Salons. There are actually a lot of Africans in China, particularly in Guangzhou. The area where they live is often referred to as “Chocolate City“. Some have come as students, others as small-scale entrepreneurs. Even Barack Obama’s half brother lives in China and recently wrote a novel entitled Nairobi to Shenzhen.
But being present doesn’t mean being liked…actually it often leads to the opposite. The most violent outbreak of Chinese anti-Black racism was the infamous Nanjing anti-African protests which were ironically the lead up to 1989 the Tiananmen Square Demonstrations for Human Rights.
The Nanjing Anti-African Riots began on December 24, 1988. According to the Wikipedia Page for The Nanjing Anti-African Protests:
On December 24, 1988 two male African students were entering their campus at Hehai University in Nanjing with two Chinese women. The occasion was a Christmas Eve party. A quarrel between one of the Africans and a Chinese security guard, who had suspected that the women the African students tried to bring into the campus were prostitutes and refused their entry, led to a brawl between the African and Chinese students on the campus which lasted till the morning, leaving 13 students injured. 300 Chinese students, spurred by false rumors that a Chinese man had been killed by the Africans, broke into and set about destroying the Africans’ dormitories, shouting slogans such as “Kill the black devils!” After the police had dispersed the Chinese students, many Africans fled to the railway station in order to gain safety at various African embassies in Beijing. The authorities prevented the Africans from boarding the trains so as to question those involved in the brawl. Soon their numbers increased to 140, as other African and non-African foreign students, fearing violence, arrived at the station asking to be allowed to go to Beijing.
By this time, Chinese students from HoHai University had joined up with students from other Nanjing universities to make up a 3000-strong demonstration that called on government officials to prosecute the African students and reform the system which gave foreigners more rights than the Chinese. On the evening of December 26, the marchers converged on the railway station while holding banners calling for human rights and political reform. Chinese police managed to isolate the non-Chinese students from the marchers and moved them to a military guest house outside Nanjing. The protests were declared illegal, and riot police were brought in from surrounding provinces to pacify the demonstrators, which took several more days.
The course of the Nanjing protests went from anti-African sentiment to banners proclaiming Human Rights. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 came 4 months after the anti-African protests in Nanjing and some elements of the Nanjing protests were still evident, such as banners proclaiming “Stop Taking Advantage of Chinese Women”.
Mira Sorvino, who starred opposite China’s other Internationally Recognized Action Hero, Chow Yun Phat in The Replacement Killers, studied Mandarin and for her Honours Thesis at Harvard wrote “Anti-Africanism in China: An Investigation into Chinese Attitudes towards Black Students in the People’s Republic of China” which won the Harvard Hoopes Prize.
The Karate Kid (2010) Website
The Nanjing Anti-African Protests Wikipedia Page
Big trouble in China’s Chocolate City, August 1 2009, The Toronto Star
Beijing police round up and beat African expats The Guardian Sept. 26 2007
China Racial Unrest Moves to Beijing: Students Protest Alleged Attack on Woman by African, January 3, 1989, Associated Press
This post is under construction.
Rick Riordan, a former Texas school teacher, is best known as the creator of the popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series. This series connected modern day young heroes and heroines with the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Greece. Riordan’s latest series follows a mixed race brother and sister, Carter and Sadie Kane, as they discover the truth behind their mother’s death, their family’s magical heritage, and the world of the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt.
Reading The Red Pyramid is itself an education in Ancient Egyptian Mythology. As young readers (and quite frankly older readers as well) are not as familiar with the myths of Ancient Egypt as they are with those of Ancient Greece, Riordan had to meet the challenge of writing a novel that is engaging for young readers but also informative. In an interview with The Seattle Times in 2010, Riordan expressed surprise that no other author had attempted to create a children’s book based on the fact that Ancient Egypt has the oldest school of magic in the world.
I was initially drawn to the book when I discovered that its central characters were mixed race. Riordan has stated that: “Egypt straddles civilizations — African civilization and Western civilization. I wanted to capture the sense that Egypt is a multicultural society, and that its African culture is part of African-American heritage.” This is definitely the sort of book that would make many of my Egypt-obsessed Afrocentric friends happy but what I must commend Riordan for is creating two mixed race characters who are allowed to express the identity conflicts that being mixed race creates for them. As Riordan states: “At a time when kids are searching for their identity, when you add race to it, it’s a big challenge.”
Carter Kane, 14, is visibly more “African” than his sister Sadie, who takes more after their English mother. Sadie Kane, 12, is light-skinned with carmel coloured hair and blue eyes. Since her mother’s death, she was sent to live with her English grandparents in England, whereas Carter continued to live with their African American father. The fact that the siblings are virtual strangers and don’t even look like siblings creates many challenges for them in the book.
Set, the main villain of the story, is the God of the desert, storms, darkness and chaos.
Isis, the Goddess of Magic and Fertility. Sadie is unknowlingly hosting Isis.
Anubis, God of Funerals and Mummification. Anubis is depicted in the book as something of an Edward Cullen wannabe. He is pale, handsome, and brooding. Sadie is infatuated with him and he seems to be also attracted to her. What’s with girls today and dead boys?
Thoth, the God of Wisdom. He is portrayed in the book as an eccentric University Student. We also learn that he is the God of Baboons which, in Ancient Egypt, were considered to be very intelligent animals.
Bast, Goddess of Cats. Bast is the protector of Sadie. She has been living in Sadie’s cat Muffin since being realized from her battle with Apophis by Julius and Ruby Kane.
Nut, Goddess of the Sky. She is the mother of Set, Osiris, and Isis.
Geb, God of the Earth. He is the father of Set, Osiris and Isis.
Serqet, Goddess of Healing Bites and Stings, in the book she is portrayed as a villain and the Goddess of Scorpions.
Sobek, God of the River and Crocodiles.
Other concepts from Ancient Egyptian Mythology:
Per Ankh, House of Life.
Duat, the Underworld.
Ma’at, Order, Truth and Justice.
First Chapter of The Red Pyramid available online
Interview with Rick Riordan about The Red Pyramind in The Seattle Times
The Kane Chronicles’ Website
Rick Riordan’s Website
Egyptian Legend: Apophis in the Duat
BBC Archive: Chronicle: The Key to the Land of Silence: How the Rosetta Stone translated ancient Egypt to the modern world.