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Article

Stefanie K. Dunning

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928. Because her brother Bailey could not say her whole name as a child, Marguerite became Maya. Angelou's life is synonymous with her work; she has published a series of five autobiographies, her most famous being I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). In each of these five works, Angelou writes about particular and important parts of her life. Yet not only does each book elucidate periods in Angelou's own life, but these books also paint a picture of the time she is writing about within the black community. Angelou's work demonstrates that the personal is political and that the events that shape and inform an individual life are often related to large political movements and events that affect an entire community.

Long before the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ...

Article

Lisa Clayton Robinson

The wit, wisdom, and power of Angelou's work have made her one of the most beloved contemporary American writers. Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. Later she chose a new name for herself by combining her childhood nickname, Maya, with a version of her first husband's last name. Her family moved to California soon after her birth, but her parents divorced when she was three, and she was sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to be raised by her paternal grandmother. When Angelou was seven, her mother's boyfriend raped her. The trauma of this made Angelou unable to speak for five years. During this period she began to read widely.

Angelou returned to California during high school and took drama and dance lessons. As a teenager, she became San Francisco's first female streetcar conductor. She gave birth at age sixteen to her only child, Guy Johnson To ...

Article

Sholomo B. Levy

writer, poet, and performer, was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, the second of two children of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and a naval dietician, and Vivian Baxter Johnson, a card dealer who later became a registered nurse. Her parents called her “Rita,” but her brother, Bailey, who was only a year older, called her “My Sister,” which was eventually contracted to “Maya.” When Maya was three years old, she and Bailey were sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, whom Maya often referred to as “Mother.”Mrs. Henderson was a strong independent black woman who owned a country store in which Maya lived and worked Maya was a bright student and an avid reader she absorbed the contradictory messages of love emanating from the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and of hatred revealed in the pervasive mistreatment of ...

Article

Sharon Carson

Although she spent most of her adult life living in France and touring the world, Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri. After a difficult childhood, she left home at thirteen, starting her dance career with a vaudeville troupe called the Dixie Steppers. In the early 1920s, she worked in African American theater productions in New York such as Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandies. In 1925 Baker left for Paris to begin her long international career with companies like Revue Nègre, Folies Bergères, and, later, the Ziegfeld Follies.

As her career evolved, Baker increasingly focused on political concerns. During World War II Baker toured North Africa while providing information to French and British intelligence. Later she used her considerable fame to advance civil rights issues during her frequent visits to the United States. In 1951 the NAACP honored her political work by declaring an official Baker Day ...

Article

Justin David Gifford

pimp-turned-novelist, autobiographer, essayist, and central figure of the black crime fiction movement that began in the 1960s, was born in Chicago, Illinois, as Robert Lee Maupin Jr., the only child of Mary Brown, a hairdresser, and Robert Maupin Sr., a hustler and one-time cook for Chicago mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson. In 1919, the year of the bloodiest race riots in Chicago's history, Robert Maupin Sr. tossed his infant son against a wall and abandoned the family. Beck survived, and Mary Brown supported her infant son by working as a door-to-door hairstylist. In 1924 she met Henry Upshaw the owner of a cleaning and pressing shop the only black business in Rockford Illinois Remembered by Beck as the only father I had ever really known Iceberg Slim 23 Upshaw provided Beck and his mother with a relatively stable middle class life However ...

Article

Ann McCarthy

novelist, playwright, screenwriter, memoirist, folklorist, and educator, was born in Bolton, North Carolina, to Dorothy and Cecil Culphert Brown. His father was in prison until Brown was thirteen, so he and his brother Donald Ray were raised until then by his Uncle Lofton, who recognized and nurtured young Cecil's talent for academics and his facility with words. Brown describes this part of his life as a kind of idyll haunted by the mysterious but terrible situation of his father.

When he was fourteen years old Brown reluctantly moved with his brother and father to Green Swamp, North Carolina, to grow tobacco. Considerably less supportive of Cecil's bookishness, Culphert Brown beat him for reading when he should have been plowing It was around this time that Brown first encountered the Stagger Lee story which would be the focus of much of his scholarly research Friends of his father would ...

Article

Roanne Edwards

Best known for his weekly Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television show Tony Brown's Journal, Tony Brown has become a controversial figure in the landscape of American race relations. Although once active in the Civil Rights Movement, he has criticized present-day black activists for prioritizing civil rights at the expense of black business initiatives and education programs in computer technologies. He advocates black economic self-sufficiency and has consistently opposed welfare as well as Affirmative Action policies that he believes mainly benefit middle-class blacks. “If America were capitalist,” said Brown in an interview with Matthew Robinson of Business Daily, “it could not be racist. Racism is flourishing because we are awash in socialistic controls.”

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, Brown was reared by two domestic workers, Elizabeth Sanford and Mabel Holmes who informally adopted him at the age of two months after his father deserted the family ...

Article

Patit Paban Mishra

academician, businessperson, author, talk-show host, and journalist. The fifth son of Royal Brown and Katherine Davis Brown, William Anthony Brown was born in Charleston, West Virginia. The marriage of his parents broke down in the racist environment of Charleston. His father was a light-skinned person, whereas his mother was of dark color. For several years he was raised by a foster family, Elizabeth Sanford and Mabel Holmes, before he was reunited with his mother and three siblings. Brown had a turbulent childhood, but by sheer determination, perseverance, and hard work along with the support of his foster parents and several school teachers, he rose in life—primarily through education. After high school he attended Wayne State University in Detroit, where he earned a BA in sociology (1959) and an MSW in psychiatric social work (1961).

After graduation Brown obtained a ...

Article

Teresa Tomkins-Walsh

author, historian, teacher, and pianist, was born Olga Thelma Scott on 26 September 1905 in Houston's Third Ward, the only child of Ella and Walter Scott. Ella Scott, the daughter of slaves, was a full-time wife and mother; she was an excellent seamstress who sewed for her family but also taught neighbors to sew clothes, make quilts, and embroider. Walter Scott worked in a tobacco shop. Later, he followed in his father's footsteps to become a mail carrier, delivering mail to the homes of elite white families in the Second Ward.

Encouraged by the example of her paternal uncle, Emmett J. Scott, Bryant studied hard. She spoke as salutatorian at her Douglass Elementary School graduation in 1918 presenting her essay America s Share Is Our Share Bryant s family expected her to attend college and she expected to study out of state Although there ...

Article

Comedy  

Danielle Heard

Comedy has played a central role in the lives and experiences of African Americans from the time of slavery to the present day. Most significantly, it has served the important role of providing emotional and spiritual survival in the face of oppression and injustice by means of cultural redress. Comedy has also given African Americans effective strategies of resistance against subjugation at the same time that it has offered modes of activism for political and social change.

Historically African American comic performances could be found in both spectacular and quotidian contexts not just in the blackface minstrel show or on the vaudeville stage on radio or television programs in literature on film or in nightclubs African American comedy has also appeared on plantation fields and in slave huts in barbershops and salons on street corners in kitchens and around card tables Despite comedy s positive function in African American culture ...

Article

Samuel A. Hay

writer, actor, and director, was born in Cogdell, Georgia, the oldest of four children of Kince Charles Davis, an herb doctor and Bible scholar, and Laura Cooper. Ossie's mother intended to name him “R.C.,” after his paternal grandfather, Raiford Chatman Davis, but when the clerk at Clinch County courthouse thought she said “Ossie,” Laura did not argue with him, because he was white.

Ossie was attacked and humiliated while in high school by two white policemen, who took him to their precinct and doused him with cane syrup. Laughing, they gave the teenager several hunks of peanut brittle and released him. He never reported the incident but its memory contributed to his sensibilities and politics. In 1934 Ossie graduated from Center High School in Waycross Georgia and even though he received scholarships to attend Savannah State College and Tuskegee Institute he did ...

Article

Jennifer Jensen Wallach

author, composer, and activist. When Shirley Graham Du Bois was thirteen years old she met the prominent scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. The meeting had a profound impact on her political and personal development, for she eventually married Du Bois in 1951. She became well known as W. E. B. Du Bois's second wife, causing some to overlook her tremendous personal accomplishments.

Shirley Graham was born near Evansville, Indiana, to David Graham and Etta Graham. Her father was an African Methodist Episcopal minister, a career that caused him to move his family to various locations in the United States, including Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and Nashville. At his churches Shirley first discovered a love for music, learning to play the organ and piano. She completed high school in Spokane, Washington, and then moved to Seattle, where she married Shadrack T. McCants ...

Article

Jennifer Drake

writer, was born in Toledo, Ohio. Since the beginning of her career Evans has been reticent about revealing personal information, saying that her work speaks for her. It is known that she attended public schools in Toledo and went to the University of Toledo to study fashion design before taking up writing; it is also known that she is divorced and is the mother of two sons. She has resided for most of her adult life in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she has been actively involved in community organizations including the Fall Creek Parkway YMCA, the Marion County Girls Clubs of America, the Indiana Corrections Code Commission, and the Statewide Committee for Penal Reform.

Two childhood events are significant for Evans. In “My Father's Passage,” an essay published in the groundbreaking anthology that she edited, Black Women Writers (1950–1980) (1984), she credits her father and Langston Hughes ...

Article

Diane Todd Bucci

journalist, music critic, author, filmmaker, and television producer, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He attended St. John's University, and while there began his writing career at the black newspaper the Amsterdam News, where he was a college intern. During this time he also contributed to the music trade journal Billboard. After graduating from St. John's in 1979, George worked as a freelance writer and lived with his mother and sister in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn. It did not take him long, though, to begin what would prove to be a flourishing career. George found employment as a black music editor, first for Real World magazine from 1981 to 1982, and then at Billboard from 1982 to 1989. He moved on to write a successful column entitled “Native Son” for the Village Voice, from 1989 to ...

Article

Robert M. O'Brien

composer, bandleader, cornetist, author, and recording artist. Known as the “Father of the Blues,” William Christopher Handy was an influential songwriter and musician in the first half of the twentieth century. While Handy did not invent the blues genre, he was one of the first to use the term “blues” and helped to popularize the music.

Article

Rachel Westley

playwright and director, author, and educator, was born in Greenwich Village, New York, to Thelma Inez Harrison and Paul Randolph Harrison. Although he was reared in the North and nurtured by the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, his roots are from below the Mason-Dixon Line, in North and South Carolina.

In the South the Harrison family was strongly immersed in Gullah culture and Marcus Garvey s Back to Africa movement Harrison s grandfather in fact was a major leader of and played an active role in the Garvey movement in North Carolina The household was also greatly involved in the African Methodist Episcopal AME Church in the Carolinas and much of the mystical curiosity in Harrison s work can be attributed to his grandmother s spiritual influence He was embraced by this richness as a young man and it created the resonating aura of self ...

Article

Pamela Lee Gray

dancer, painter, choreographer, actor, author, photographer, director, musician, and costume and set designer, was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He was one of four children of middle-class parents of Irish, French, and African descent.

Holder was educated at Queen's Royal College in Port of Spain. His grandfather, Louis Ephraim, was a French painter whose influence led both Holder and his older brother Boscoe to begin experimenting with oils Geoffrey began teaching himself to paint at age fifteen when he was forced to stay home from school due to a prolonged illness He also learned much from Boscoe who was a pianist painter and dancer When Boscoe moved to England Geoffrey took over as director of his brother s dance company while continuing to create new paintings and display work at gallery exhibitions Holder s work was displayed at ...

Article

Maud C. Mundava

basketball player and coach, actor, and author Born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr and known early on as Lew he was a very big baby about 13 pounds and 22 inches He grew up in a racially mixed middle class neighborhood in Manhattan as the only child of Al Alcindor and Cora Alcindor Al Alcindor was originally from Trinidad and he was a fairly successful jazz musician and a New York City Transit Authority police officer Jabbar grew up a Catholic and attended St Jude s Elementary School and a boys only Catholic school Power Memorial Academy He was a shy and withdrawn child because he was taller than most of the kids his age but he showed a lot of determination in pursuit of excellence He always wanted to be the best As a result of his values and upbringing Jabbar was well spoken stayed out of ...

Article

Jennifer Drake

poet, was born Robert Garnell Kaufman in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Joseph Kaufman, a Pullman porter, and Lillian Vigne, a schoolteacher. Many myths circulate about Kaufman's formative years, perpetuated by word of mouth and scholarly sources alike. The literary scholar Maria Damon debunks many of these in her book The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry. The legends, however, bear repeating, as they have become part of Kaufman's biography. The usual story is that Kaufman was born to a German Orthodox Jewish father and Martiniquan Roman Catholic voodoo mother, and that at age thirteen he joined the merchant marine, where he was introduced to literature by a first mate and circled the globe nine times in twenty years.

The truth, according to interviews with Kaufman's brother George is that their paternal grandfather was part Jewish and that their mother came from ...

Article

Robert W. Logan

Eartha Kitt began life in an impoverished family that quickly fell apart. By the time she was six she was picking cotton to earn her keep. By the time she was twenty-six, she had grown into the toast of the international nightlife circuit and a star on Broadway. Her stage persona is that of a gold digger, a slinky seductress, a feline presence with a wry sense of humor singing jaded laments about the pursuit of pleasure and wealthy men. There are also sultry interpretations of classic torch songs, ethnic songs from around the world, and a generous supply of comic numbers that poke fun at her image.

Eartha Mae Kitt was born the illegitimate daughter of sharecroppers in North South Carolina Her father disappeared when she was just a few years old and she lost her mother when she was six For the next two years she lived with ...