People in Hell Want Ice Water

Hello HellfighterThe thing about putting a piece of writing down for a period of time–whether a few days, months or years–is that I do some living and growing that brings me to a different entry point of the story.

When last my Black history script and I huddled in June, the protagonist was a woman, and the story focused on her and her nemesis’ careers. This time around, the scenes that got me ignited were the main male character’s relationships: Whom he loved privately because she appealed to him, and whom he loved publicly because of how he knew others would judge him.

My character’s love story starts near the end of World War I, circa 1918, where Black folks are catching hell:blog jo baker

A year earlier, America had implored Black men to fight for democracy abroad, while still being lynched regularly at home. Yet they signed up, hoping to earn respect and expanded rights that didn’t materialize. Some men were even lynched in  uniform.

Black folks, such as Josephine Baker and Marcus Garvey, advocated walking away, Baker looking to France, and Garvey to Africa.

blog-Langston In Central AsiaThe likes of Langston Hughes (left, center of group) and Paul Robeson took an interest in the politics of Russia–then our ally–where the tender shoots of Communism had broken ground. Rather than hoarding money and land among the rich at the top, the system advocated resources be shared amongst the working class. garvey.africa

Black soldiers didn’t get much respect in the US, but our French allies, with whom the 369th regiment out of Harlem fought shoulder to shoulder, held them in high regard. The unit received that nation’s prestigious Croix de Guerre. While the Germans, against whom the US fought (Italy and Austria-Hungary being the other foes), called the 369th “the Harlem Hellfighters,” due to their toughness and reputation for never losing a man through captureblog ww1 jazz, trench, or foot of ground, according to author Peter Nelson in A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters’ Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home.

As they say, people in hell want ice water. And on Feb. 17, 1919, the 369th got a taste. They marched up Fifth Avenue from just below midtown Manhattan, well into Harlem, as hundreds of thousands–possibly even millions–turned out to cheer their bravery, and toss chocolate candy, cigarettes and coins from open windows as they passed. Black soldiers in Chicago, Savannah, GA, and other US cities enjoyed a similar heroes’ welcome.

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WATTS: Through the Eyes of a Native Son

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/138345829″>Watts Opener Clip 9.4.15</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user4469955″>Pamela K. Johnson</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

At a recent Afro FuturismIMG_1738 event, one of the speakers appeared not to have gotten the memo: Lindsay Holmes (left) ruminated about the past, relaying his experience of growing up in Watts, CA, one of (his father’s) 24 kids, and his memories of the smoke rising from the flames that engulfed his community when he was 14 years old. Holmes said he planned to lead a curated tour of Watts for the 50 anniversary of the riots, stopping at select childhood haunts.looting-in-Watts_1965

Half of me listened impatiently, thinking:  When is this guy going to bring it around to Afro Futurism? The other half started taking notes, quickly realizing that the speaker had a good story. I got his number before he left.

A few days later, I called Lindsay, and said, “Let’s go to Watts with a video camera and hit some of the spots on your upcoming tour.” And so we did, Lindsay, cameraman Christian Gilder (at bottom), and me.

Lindsay is a compelling subject and a natural on camera, and for the last several weeks, I’ve been editing a micro doc I’m calling “10 Minutes in Watts.”

Doing this short piece makes me wIMG_1754ant to delve deeper because many people only know about those six days in ’65, when fed-up black folks went ballistic after white police stopped a black driver—actually outside of Watts—lighting a long-simmering fuse. I found it compelling to hear about the community back in the day from Lindsay, an insider.

We went to the house he grew up in, his elementary, middle and high schools, and the famous Watts Towers. He recalls it being a community  IMG_1715where he knew no black entrepreneurs. Everyone worked for someone else, he said, and after the riots, the jobs they did have all went away because the businesses had burned to the ground. His family had to catch a bus to a community a half hour away to buy school clothes that September.

Lindsay grew up to become a McDonald’s franchisee, and his teenage sons, now in college, also run their own (music-related) business.

Watts has a much bigger story to share than many have heard. I hope to be a part of the telling.

IMG_1748

Back It Up (Traveling While Black Part II)

Hospital-interior-300x292Under Jim Crow law:

–White motorists had the right of way at all intersections.

–So-called passenger comfort was ensured by creating “equal but separate” train cars for blacks and whites.

–If a black person rode in a car driven by a white person, the black person sat in the back seat.

And woe be unto you if you traveled while black and got into a bad automobile accident. That’s what happened to entertainer Ethel Waters in Alabama circa 1918, where separate but equal almost cost her a leg.

In 1930, when NAACP leader Walter White’s father—who looked white—was struck by a car, his condition seemed to be stabilized at Atlanta’s clean Caucasian hospital. But when a relative of a darker hue arrived to visit, the criticallyDerricotteresize2 injured George White was summarily sent to the Colored wing. Severely underfunded, it was dirty and rodent infested; White died days later.

In ’31, Juliette Derricotte (right), dean of women at Fisk University, got into an accident in Chattanooga, TN. She and the driver received some emergency care from white doctors, but were refused admittance to the local white hospital, and succumbed by the following morning, causing an uproar around the injustice.

And those are just the bold-face names.

For Waters and many black performers during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from 1877 to the mid-1960s, touring was key to earning a living. Traveling was also a priority for many families whose members were at a distance from one another. (Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a must-read on black migration.)

Victor Hugo Green, a mailman in Hackensack, NJ, stepped into the void with the intention of keeping blacks safer on the road. Around 1913, he came up with the concept for the Negro Motorist Green Book and the Negro Traveler’s Green Book.

“[He] and his wife, the former Alma Duke of Richmond, VA, and their family often made the nearly 700-mile round trip to her hometown during their long marriage,” Calvin Ramsey wrote in a National Writers Union newsletter. Green’s books were issued for 30 years, from the mid-30’s to the mid-60’s.

An 80-page-plusGreen Book guide, it listed Negro hotels, restaurants, and homes where travelers could stay. Services such as beauty and barbershops, doctors and dentists’ offices, as well as restrooms and gas stations could be sourced.

“[His] dream was that one day the Green Book would not be needed because African-Americans would enjoy full accommodations on the open road,” Ramsey asserted. Though Green died in 1960, his daughter kept the publication going several more years, through the passage of the Civil Rights Bills of the mid-sixties.

Those bills, along with federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid, ultimately forced  the last few Jim Crow hospital facilities to integrate. And though he couldn’t save his father, Walter White used his sway as an NAACP exec to get his childhood friend Louis Wright, MD, on the staff of the formerly all-white Harlem Hospital.

Green ultimately moved to Harlem, and his legacy has become a major inspiration to Ramsey, whose children’s novel, Ruth and the Green Book, tells of an 8-year-old going with her mom and dad from Chicago to Selma, ALcalvin-ramsey-1, to see her grandmother in the 1950’s. Along the way, they encounter a host of obstacles—until they get their hands on a Green book.

Ramsey (right) also wrote a play called The Green Book. Staged in Washington, DC, it starred the legendary civil rights activist Julian Bond, who shared with Ramsey that his family always traveled with the book. Attending the performance that night was Ernie Green of the Little Rock (Ark) Nine, who integrated an all white school in 1957. His family also relied on the guide. Musician Wynton Marsalis’ grandfather, who ran an Esso gas station in New Orleans, both advertised in and sold Green’s book.

When he attended the funeral of two dear friends’ son who died in a traffic accident in Atlanta about 15 years ago, Ramsey first learned about Green. It turned out that the grandfather of the child who died had traveled from New York City and happened to ask Ramsey where he might track down a Green Book.

“It was his first time traveling to the South,” says Ramsey, “and he thought it was still needed.”

Photos: Ashville Colored Hospital 1945; (AppalachianHistory.net), Juliette Derricotte (Equal Justice Initiative); The Green Book; Calvin Ramsey.

Traveling While Black: This One’s for Watts

driving while black 2Traveling While Black. Where do I start? The accommodations on the slave ships? Full-price tickets for a Jim Crow ride? Accidents victims who were refused care at the white hospital, who died on the way to the “colored” one? Before there was Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, or Samuel DuBose, there was Marquette Frye, a motorist pulled over on a steamy August night 50 years ago. After he failed a sobriety test, his brother ran to get their mom to drive the car home to avoid having it impounded. All three ended up arrested, as more cops and more community members arrived on the scene, tensions mounting by the minute. That night all the police brutality, all the unemployment, all the broken American promises in a long-neglected community came due. Rage and fire spread over six days as 34 died, more than 100 were shot, and another 1000 were injured. The financial toll in destruction was upwards of $40 million—more than $300 million in 2015 dollars. Cut to 1991 where police beat motorist Rodney King to a bloody pulp after a high speed chase. In one of the earliest instances of a poliStraight Outta Comptonce-citizen encounter captured on videotape, people around the world watched in horror, certain that police would be found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon or excessive use of force. But the following year the jury couldn’t agree that the officers were in the wrong, so they walked. That’s when people took to the streets, and six black guys pulled white motorist Reginald Denny from his truck and beat him to a bloody pulp—the first blow in a rebellion that lasted five days, in which 58 died, 2,500 were injured, and $1 billion in property was destroyed. Cross dissolve to late July 2015, when I see an advance screening of Straight Out of Compton (pictured above), where director F. Gary Gray films several police encounters from the prospective of those detained: heads slammed against car hoods, chins pushed into pavement. “It’s the unnecessary humiliation that can be a part of policing” that sticks in the black community’s craw, Cube asserted. “They have to be heavy handed with criminals,” he added, “but why do they have to be that way with citizens?” Suffice it to say, it’s been a long, bloody ride. And we ain’t there yet.

Images: Russell Lee photo of five boys in Chicago on Easter 1941; still from Straight Outta Compton.

Adventures Along the Color Line

Before there was a biracial box, the juicy topic of light-skinned Blacks passing for white surfaced again and again in segregated America. In 1912, NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson published the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Manmike black & white, in which a fair-skinned guy witnesses a lynching, and then decides he’s done with the whole Negro thing, and goes undercover as a white man. But when he gets engaged to a woman in his new social circle, he must be honest with her, and find out if her love for him is more than skin deep.

In the 1920’s, Harlem Renaissance writers often embraced this subject, including Jessie Redmon Fauset in Plum Bun, a novel where the black main character trades on her light skin to gain social sway, but later feels she’s sacrificed, well, nella bookher soul. And then there’s Nella Larsen’s novella, Passing, about two women, once childhood friends, who make different choices: one marrying a white racist and living a lie, the other settling in with her black hubby in Harlem, and becoming active in the community.

(The latter story falls along the lines of my grandma, Wilma Johnson, who looked white and married my very brown skinned grandpa. I had thought she passed to shop on New York’s Lower East Side back in the day, but recently Dad said, “She shopped in East Harlem.”)

In Langston Hughes’ poignant short story, “Passing,” a light-skinned black son writes to his mother: “Dear Ma, I felt like a dog, passing you downtown last night and not speaking to you. You were great, though. Didn’t give me a sign that you even knew me, let alone I was your son.”

In a more humorous tale, Hughes’ “Who’s Passing for Who,” two of the people in the story appear to be passing for white, and then black, and then white—leaving the reader’s assumptions thoroughly upended.

walt & sis Walter Francis White, far right at his Atlanta University graduation, was both a Harlem Renaissance writer and a passer. But the NAACP leader never stepped out of the race to shed his blackness as if held captive. Instead, he whistled as he skipped along the color line, dipping his toe down on either side to stir things up.

From 1918 to 1930, he secretly investigated lynchings and race riots, reporting on them to raise awareness, and also to champion anti-lynching legislation in Congress. He never managed to get a bill through both houses, but did put mob violence on the map, attracting a host of allies, which served to reduce the number of lynching incidents.

Of Walter’s books, he writes on passing in the novel Flight, where the protagonist initially passes for Caucasian, and then later re-embraces her racial identity. The whole tragic mulatto trope of his time warned the light, bright and damn-near white not to risk crossing over, in part because it could be hazardous to your health if whites found out, but also because it cut you off from family as you nursed a spiritually cancerous secret. Still, at one point in the US, upwards of 13,000 light-skinned blacks a year exited the race, many never to be heard from again.walt & sis

Walter (right: with sister, Ruby) came from a family that could have easily passed. In fact a 1900 census listed them as white. And when his father got hit by a car in 1930, he received great care at the white hospital–until his daughter and brown-skinned son-in-law showed up. That’s when they wheeled the patriarch, still critical from his injuries, straight to the filthy Colored ward, where rats roamed at will. He died shortly thereafter.

Walter’s favorite whipping girl, Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel—for her series of stereotypical maid roles—got a career jumpstart because of a film that dealt with passing. Imitation of Life (IOL) starred a white woman, Claudette Colbert, and a black one, Louise Beavers, as mothers struggling to raise willful daughters. Till then, black folks were mainly on the margins of Hollywood films, but 1934’s IOL put the two women’s stories on nearly equal footing. The black woman’s greatest challenge was her daughter, Peola, played by uber light-skinned Fredi Washington fredi and louise(photo at left) who decides to pass for white for more opportunity and less hassle. Peola reclaims her blackness too late, returning home after her mother has died pining for her.

The upside of this sticky melodrama is that audiences ate it up, demonstrating to a doubting Hollywood that people really would pay to see a black woman co-star—as long as she was dark skinned and plump. Washington never worked in Hollywood again, returning disillusioned to her native New York where she became a journalist for a paper run by (the future Congressman) Rev. Adam Clayton Powell. (IOL got remade in 1959 with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore.)jenner-dolezal

Over time, passing stories began, well, to fade. In Hughes’ Who’s Passing for Who, his narrator arrives at this: “We literary ones considered ourselves too broad-minded to be bothered with questions of color. We liked people of any race who smoked incessantly, drank liberally, wore complexion and morality as loose garments, and made fun of anyone who didn’t do likewise.”

As we continue to move deeper into an era where gender, race, and sexual orientation are increasingly fluid, people try on identities until they find the one suits them best, as those who would judge wrestle with their discomfort and outmoded expectations.

Photo Credits: B&W Mike, vindicatemj.wordpress.com; Nella Larsen, goodreads.com; Walter at Atlanta University/with sister, White: The Biography of Walter White/Rose Palmer; Fredi Washington, essence.com; Dolezal/Jenner, resourcesforlife.com

Because Josh Said So (Notes on a Revision)

whitewallet2As I told the writing teacher the eight most important turning points in my script—a k a story beats—I thought: He’s only half listening. But Josh Hoover of Thunder Studios got it, and his suggestions made me open up my screenplay and whack 12 pages right off the top.

“Often, your story starts too soon,” he shared in his 2-day class, now taught monthly at Long Beach Public Access Digital Network (PADNET). Then he said something that provoked an even more radical shift in my screenplay: That my main character didn’t sound like the main char

acter at all. It was her nemesis who took the most action, setting off the farthest reaching chain of events; so the story seemed to belong to him, Josh asserted.josh teaching class

I’d heard this before, but when he added his voice to the chorus, it felt like a consensus. So in paring away the first 12 pages, which had established actress Hattie McDaniel’s journey as the one the audience would take, I’m instead introducing the NAACP‘s Walter Francis White’s first, and am now beginning to chart the tale more through his eyes and sensibilities.

The shift is uncomfortable for me. Walter was a gutsy businessman, traveling globally, and going toe to toe with Congressmen, Presidents and other world leaders. I relate more to Hattie, the woman and artist, who often struggled. But why wouldn’t I welcome the opportunity to step into Walter’s more imposing shoes? Probably because it scares me to assume authority for touching so widely on the evolution of black culture, as he did, from arts to politics, from law to education, and beyond.

Truth is though, Walter was also an awalter and famrtist and an author. Helping to initiate the Harlem Renaissance, he hungered to spend more of his time writing. No doubt I’m drawn to the story of these two, born two weeks apart–Walter on July 1, 1893, and Hattie on June 18, 1893, according to the US 1900 Census–because they’re more alike than they are different. They both sought progress in their own ways, but perceived it differently.

My friend, Jill Dotlo, saw a natural connection between my astrological chart and Walter’s nearly three years ago. “No wonder you picked him,” she said, noting that we’re both Mercury in Fire people (Mercury in Leo, Aries or Sagittarius), who express themselves with vigor, confidence, and enthusiasm, even when their plans may not be practical. His Jupiter is on my Moon: You evoke joy and a sense of adventure, but can also overdo it. And his Pluto is on my Mars—”Whoa!” Jill exclaimed—which is often a powerful indicator of intrigue.

So maybe I was born to write about Walter’s expansive accomplishments, incorporate Hattie’s impressive range as an artist,  and continue to develop my own character by blending the best of theirs.

Top: Walter’s wallet at the Beinecke Library at Yale University; center, Josh Hoover’s class at PADNET, Long Beach, CA; bottom, Walter and his family at home in Harlem circa the late 1930s.

Following in Their Footsteps

One of my flaws is that I get stuck in the past, re-rehashing experiences over and over. But recently it came to me that I’m being led into the pages of black history to help keep it alive.

Langston CollageWhen I resided in Harlem from 1993 to 2000, I often reflected that at any given moment, my foot could be landing on the same spot once touched by the giants of our culture. I imagined the white outlines of Langston Hughes’ steps as I trekked the same streets as he did throughout our Uptown neighborhood, with his landmark home (lower left) located at 127th  Street, while my apartment nearby was at 132nd.

Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier and more launched careers at the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street, and all around nightclubs thumped with the black magic of music legends, who made tracks to gigs in wingtips, slingbacks and peep-toe pumps.ethel black swan collage

In 1921, Ethel Waters (right) recorded for Black Swan Records on 138th Street in Sugar Hill. Pianist/composer Fletcher Henderson said he heard her performing in a Harlem basement one night, and invited her to come record some “sides.”  Label founder Harry Pace claimed that Waters was his discovery, when he happened upon her at a cabaret in Atlantic City, and then sent her a ticket to come up to New York and record “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy.”

Waters maintained yet a third version of the story: “I found Fletcher Henderson sitting behind a desk and looking very prissy and important. … I asked one hundred dollars for making the record. I was still getting only thirty-five dollars a week, so one hundred dollars seemed quite a lump sum to me,” according to redhotjazz.com.

The entertainer aimed for the stars, and never hesitated to give herself a raise, which proved well worth it to Pace, who reported: “I sold 500,000 of these records within six months.”

So you could make art in Harlem, as the Renaissance amply proved, and you could make love:

My future grandparents had their “meet cute” on the steps of the 135th subway station. That’s where Oliver Johnson bumped into Wilma Elliott one fine day when one walkedbaby pamzy 2 up and the other down the steps of the station. The Caribbean immigrants—he from Barbados, she from Antigua—had four kids, including my dad, the baby of the bunch.

My parents met in Harlem, too, on 111th Street, where my mother’s grandparents lived on one side, and my father’s parents on the other. Mom remembers Dad pulling the ribbons in her hair when they were kids. Years later, after a military tour in Germany, they came home to Harlem, my birthplace. Who knew that as my parents rolled my stroller along those fabled streets, before they relocated to L.A. a few months later, that I would grasp Harlem in my tiny, balled fists, and never let it go?