Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Se Debe Ir Alli Para Conocer Alli: Cuba, 2017

During Spring Break, 2017, from March 5th until March 12th, I had the rare privilege of visiting Havana, Cuba. Through the International Studies program at Southwest Tennessee Community College and that of the University of Memphis, I accompanied my four students and a colleague to the little island in the Caribbean, where, depending where you look, time has virtually stopped. Only recently, in the last few years of Fidel Castro's reign, were educators, doctors, and politicians from the United States permitted to visit there. The island of Cuba is gradually opening itself up to commercial tourism with a wary eye.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating and memorable experiences I had on this week-long odyssey was my introduction to Santeria, Cuba's national religion. Santeria, like other syncretic religions (Obeah, Pokemania, Myal, and Vodu) synthesizes Catholic elements with those of primarily West African traditions. Also, like the other syncretic faiths we have discussed, the performance of music and the dances of Santeria convey a narrative concerning the way postcolonial culture has retained its origins in West African traditions through a Catholic guise, and attaining a means of militating against the forces of oppression.

The videos below offer insight into the colorful and lively performance of Santeria as well as an example of the nourishing processes it offers to its followers. 

Known more familiarly to us as Esu-Elegbara, or Papa Legba. As he represents the "beginning and ending of life', Elegba is at times portrayed as a spirited child; at others he is portrayed as an elderly man. Here he is portrayed as a playful child--by a woman performer (1).

Oya: Owner of the Wind: Oya is the "fiercest" of the female santos and fights alongside Chango, the "Lord of Fire and Lightening," wielding a sword in each hand. She is said to bring change--whether wanted or not--into the lives of believers.

Below, our guide, Elian, explains the order of gods, or Santeras, of Santeria that include the figures of Yemaya, Oya, Ochun, and Elegba.

The clips that follow show two santeros (Olorichas)--or priests--conducting a blessing.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) enjoyed a long and multifaceted career as essayist, critic, songwriter, poet, diplomat, attorney, educator and politician. In each of these capacities, Johnson dedicated his energies and passions toward the advancement of African Americans. Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida to parents of humble, yet noble vocations: his father worked as a headwaiter at the opulent St. James hotel; and his mother was the first female and black teacher at an elementary school in Florida. It was his mother who taught her son her love for music of the European tradition and English Literature (1). At the age of sixteen, Johnson became a student at Atlanta University. He graduated with his bachelor's degree in 1894, and later received an honorary MA from that institution. Johnson began a career in education with a teaching post at a rural, backwater Georgia school in which he taught the children of freed slaves. Later he continued at Stanton Preparatory College, eventually become its principal at the age of twenty-three. As principal, he broadened the curriculum with courses in English, Algebra, Spanish, and bookkeeping. Johnson left this post to pursue a law career, and passed the Florida Bar, becoming the first African American since Reconstruction to do so.

Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of James Weldon Johnson's illustrious career as a member of the African American--and American intelligentsia, was the emphasis he placed on the folk.While still a young man, Johnson went to rural Georgia, where he made his first acquaintance with the children of former slaves. Gates, et al. quotes Johnson as he reflected on the experience, saying that "[i]n all my experience there has been no period so brief that has meant so much in my education for life as the three months I spent in the backwoods of Georgia...I was thrown  for the first time on my own resources and abilities. I had my first lesson in dealing with men and conditions in the outside world...It was this period that marked the beginning of my psychological change from boyhood to manhood. It was this period which marked also the beginning of my knowledge of my people as a 'race'" (qtd. in Gates 791). Such a stance would put Johnson at odds with at least one of the most outspoken cultural leaders philosophers of Africana during this period: W.E.B. Dubois.

By the turn of the last century, Johnson launched a career in activism first through publishing, and founded the newspaper The Daily American. Though the publication went bankrupt only a few years later, Johnson was undaunted. Johnson became the first African American organizer--and later, secretary--of the NAACP, and served as editor and anthologist during the Harlem Renaissance. In this latter capacity he was instrumental in undermining white publishing entities and bringing numerous African American artists and poets to national attention.

Johnson's own literary contributions during this time were generative, and today have been anthologized and studied widely. His collection, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, was published in 1922, honors the tradition set forth by the African American 'folk' preacher, and celebrates the unique poetry and art expressed through the sermon.

Respected actor and bass-baritone singer, the late William Warfield recites James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation":

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Booker T. Washington: Up From Slavery

"I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed" (BTW 586). The "Sage of Tuskegee," Booker T. Washington was born in slavery in 1856 in what is now West Virginia. He had reached the age of seven by the time of Emancipation (1863), and recalls in his autobiography Up From Slavery with characteristic lucidity and plaintive effect the joy that he witnessed among the adult slaves when word came that they were free. Booker T. Washington came of age during the period known as Reconstruction. This period immediately following the Civil War (1861-1864) in which the South slowly rebuilt its financial losses from the war, and African American slaves, free from the constraints of chattel slavery, were fleeing the North to find enfranchisement and escape the racial tension of the South. Aided by the Army and the Freedman's Bureau, a Republican coalition, attempted to rehabilitate the South, and negotiations began concerning how to incorporate the seceding southern states back into the Union.
However, tensions grew as southerners resisted the South resented northern intervention into the affairs of what they envisioned as a "Solid (Democratic) South;" and raised arguments concerning the Constitutional and voting rights of freedmen. The Freedman's Bureau, an agency that assisted freed slaves, founded schools funded by missionaries and aid societies, to educate and edify freed slaves who were desirous of an education. By 1866, a Congressional Act enabled Freedman's Schools to be funded through the confiscation of Confederate property toward educational purposes (1). However, despite meagerly hopeful beginnings, the Freedman schools suffered through lack of funding. The increasing incidences of violence in the South and growing white Democratic power led to the dissolution of the Bureau and its projects. In light of the struggle of the Freedman schools, the accomplishments of Booker T. Washington stand as a major triumph against the white oppression of blacks in the U.S. following the Civil War. Practicing and advocating a credo of self-respect, hard work, and unwavering ethics, Washington extolled blacks of the South to "cast down your bucket where you are;" in other words, to make use of the soil where you stand by building an institution of learning, by pursuing self-education and improvement. Washington, who at fourteen made the journey to Hampton, Virginia to work for his tuition to attend the Hampton Institute. There he dusted and cleaned the libraries and offices of the Institute until he graduated with honors three years later. After serving on the faculty at Hampton, Washington was granted authorization from the Virginia legislature to found the Tuskegee Institute where all potential students worked the land, tilled the soil, assisted in the building of each structure in order to pay his or her tuition. Washington advocated self-improvement among blacks take place on the very soil where their ancestors had toiled; and to build this great school, Washington developed and utilized the multiple connections he had among white entrepreneurs, businessmen, and politicians.
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Board of Directors and Citizens: One-third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success. I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress. It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom. Not only this, but the opportunity here afforded will awaken among us a new era of industrial progress. Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill; that the political convention or stump speaking had more attractions than starting a dairy farm or truck garden. A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal,Water, water; we die of thirst! The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, Cast down your bucket where you are.

A second time the signal, Water, water; send us water! ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, Cast down your bucket where you are. And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, Cast down your bucket where you are. The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: Cast down your bucket where you are— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded. To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race,Cast down your bucket where you are. Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides. Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.