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David Dabydeen

Africanjournalist and nationalist born in Egypt of Egyptian and Sudanese parentage. At the age of 9 or 10 Ali was sent to England to be educated. He never returned to Egypt and spent most of his time between 1883 and 1921 living in Britain. During this period, he was poverty‐stricken, attempting to earn a living through his pen and tour acting. Ali published Land of the Pharaohs in 1911, an anti‐imperialist book that became a significant contribution to the decolonization efforts in the United States and West Africa.

In 1912Ali and John Eldred Taylor, a journalist from Sierra Leone, inaugurated the African Times and Orient Review (1912–20), a magazine that sought to deal with anti‐colonial issues that not merely embraced Pan‐African matters, but incorporated Pan‐Oriental topics as well. The journal was inspired by the Universal Races Congress in London in 1911 which advocated ...

Article

James V. Hatch

playwright and minister, was born in Wichita, Kansas. Little is known about his parents, although his mother is said to have been an active reformer and a poet. Anderson completed four years of school (the only formal education that he ever received) before his father moved the family to California to take a job as a janitor in the post office. The following year Anderson's mother died, and at age twelve he left home to become a newsboy, selling the Telegraph Press on the corner of Third and Market streets in San Francisco.

After working as a porter on the railroad, Anderson worked for the next fifteen years as a bellhop in various San Francisco hotels. During this period he also became a temporary convert to Christian Science. One afternoon in 1924 he saw a performance of Channing Pollack's moralistic drama The Fool and knew immediately that he ...

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Tasha M. Hawthorne

Angelou’s creative talent and genius cut across many arenas. One of the most celebrated authors in the United States, Angelou writes with an honesty and grace that captures the specificity of growing up a young black girl in the rural South.

Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, to Bailey, a doorman and naval dietician, and Vivian, a registered nurse, professional gambler, and rooming house and bar owner, Angelou spent her early years in Long Beach, California. When she was three, her parents divorced, and she and her four-year-old brother, Bailey Jr., were sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their maternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou recalls in vivid detail this lonely and disconcerting journey to Stamps.

Under the watchful and loving gaze of her grandmother Angelou lived a life defined by staunch Christian values and her grandmother s ...

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

Lisa Clayton Robinson

Etta Moten was born in San Antonio, Texas. The daughter of a minister, she married at age 17 and had three children before divorcing six years later. After her marriage ended, Barnett attended the University of Kansas and in 1931 received a B.F.A. degree in music. Her senior college recital led to an invitation to join the Eva Jessye Choir in New York City.

In New York Barnett appeared in the Broadway musicals Fast and Furious (1931), Zombie (1932), Sugar Hill (1932), and Lysistrata (1933). She also sang on the soundtracks of several motion pictures and appeared in the movies Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Flying Down to Rio (1934).

In 1934 she married the founder of the Associated Negro Press (ANP), Claude Barnett During the next several years Etta Moten Barnett gave concerts ...

Article

Harry Belafonte may be best known to audiences in the United States as the singer of the “Banana Boat Song” (known popularly as “Day-O”). However, it is his commitment to political causes that inspired scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to observe: “Harry Belafonte was radical long before it was chic and remained so long after it wasn't.” Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York, to West Indian parents. The family moved to Jamaica in 1935 but returned five years later. Struggling with dyslexia, Belafonte dropped out of high school after the ninth grade and, at the age of seventeen, joined the U.S. Navy. The work was menial: scrubbing the decks of ships in port during World War II. Naval service, however, introduced Belafonte to African Americans who awakened his political consciousness and introduced him to the works of radical black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois.

In ...

Article

Ronald M. Radano

(b New York, March 1, 1927). American popular singer and actor. He lived in Kingston, Jamaica, for five years (1935–40), returning to New York in 1940. In 1945 he began a career as an actor, having studied in Erwin Piscator’s drama workshop at the New School of Social Research. He experienced greater commercial success, however, as a popular singer, making his début at the Royal Roost, New York, in 1949. The following year he rejected his popular song repertory and began to sing traditional melodies from Africa, Asia, America and the Caribbean, which he collected in folk music archives. Having secured an RCA recording contract in 1952, Belafonte went on to become the most popular ‘folk’ singer in the USA. His interpretations of Trinidadian calypso music between 1957 and 1959 won him his greatest success and marked the pinnacle of ...

Article

Chris Bebenek

singer, actor, activist, and producer, was born Harold George Belafonte Jr. in Harlem in New York City, the son of Harold George Belafonte Sr., a seaman, and Melvine Love, a domestic worker. Belafonte Sr. was an alcoholic who contributed little to family life, other than occasionally hitting his spouse, and the young Harry was brought up almost exclusively by his mother. Harold and Melvine, who were both from the Caribbean, had a difficult time adjusting to life in New York, and after the Harlem race riots of 1935 Melvine and her son moved to her native Jamaica where Harry spent five years shielded from American racism When World War II broke out the Belafontes returned to Harlem Hoping for better conditions the family would often try to pass for white With white relatives on both the mother s and father s sides they were ...

Article

The Birth of a Nation was first released on February 8, 1915. The film's depictions of blacks as idling and brutish sparked a massive wave of protests from thousands of African Americans. The explosive controversy set off by the film revealed Hollywood's power to reflect and to shape public attitudes about race, while it set the stage for what would be a decades-long struggle to improve the portrayal of blacks on film.

Unprecedentedly long—three hours (and 12 reels of film)—The Birth of a Nation chronicles the fall of the South during the Civil War (1861–1865) and the reemergence of white political domination over the interracial state governments of the Reconstruction era. In the film's final scenes, the Ku Klux Klan, described in a New York Times review as a company of avenging spectral crusaders sweeping along moonlit roads takes revenge for the attempted rape ...

Article

Leyla Keough

In 1932 a group of European Communists proposed a film, Black and White, to dramatize the unhappy plight of black industrial workers in the American South. Eager to encourage African American membership, the Russian-dominated worldwide organization of Communist parties, the Communist International (Comitern), agreed to finance the film. The Communists construed the predicament of American blacks as an issue of class, not race, and even before the film was proposed had appealed to African Americans to support their international cause. But by the late 1920s only 1,000 African Americans had joined the Communist Party of America.

Based in Berlin, Germany, the film company behind Black and White hired Louise Thompson who had organized the Harlem Chapter of Friends of the Soviet Union to help recruit the twenty one African Americans needed for the project Few of those who joined the cast had ever actually acted in film or ...

Article

Dwain C. Pruitt

Between 1970 and 1975, Hollywood released over one hundred movies, mostly over-the-top action films, aimed primarily at African American filmgoers. These films have come to be known collectively as blaxploitation cinema. The term was coined in 1972 by Junius Griffin of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP in response to Superfly. Griffin and others felt that the film, the story of a cocaine dealer named Priest trying to make one final drug deal before leaving the business, exploited African American audiences’ desire to see African American stories portrayed onscreen by “taking our money [and] feeding us a forced diet of violence, murder, drugs, and rape.” Despite protests that black audiences were not being exploited, the term persisted and offers important insight into why these films were created and why they were so intensely popular during the first half of the 1970s.

Article

Born in Brooklyn, New York, St. Clair Bourne is the son of St. Clair Bourne Sr., who was an editor of the Amsterdam News and a reporter for the People's Voice in the 1930s. Although the younger Bourne began his education at Georgetown University in 1961, he was expelled for student activism. In 1967 he received a B.A. degree from Syracuse University after working with the Peace Corps. He began a degree in filmmaking at Columbia University in 1968, but was again asked to leave because of his political activities.

From 1968 until 1970 Bourne was a producer, writer, and director for the public-television series Black Journal. He established his own company, Chamba Productions, and produced African American documentary films such as Something to Build On (1971) and Let the Church Say Amen! (1973). In 1974 he received the Bronze ...

Article

Kissette Bundy

playwright. Bullins, an American dramatist of the black theater movement, was born in Philadelphia to Edward Dawson Bullins and Bertha Marie Queen Bullins. He lived with his mother, a power machine operator, and attended integrated schools. He dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Navy in 1952. While in the navy, Bullins competed as a pugilist, using the skills that he had learned and needed on the tough streets of North Philadelphia.

Out of the navy in 1955, Bullins attended two college-prep high schools. Three years later, without a diploma and apparently financially hoodwinked by a female classmate, he left Philadelphia for California. Bullins earned his GED and then continued at Los Angeles City College, publishing his short stories, essays, and poetry in the literary magazine Citadel, which he founded with an instructor, Isabelle Ziegler.

Bullins the playwright emerged during the vortex of ...

Article

Frank Cha

playwright, teacher, and activist, was born in Washington, D.C., the daughter of Clara and John Burrill. She attended the M Street School, originally named the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, and there developed an interest in literature and theatrics. Upon graduating high school in 1901, she moved with her family to Boston, where she enrolled at Emerson College and became one of the first African Americans to graduate from the school in 1904.

In 1905 Burrill moved back to Washington, D.C., and began a career in teaching that would last almost forty years. She alternated between Armstrong Technical High School and her alma mater, renamed Dunbar High School after the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar Burrill taught English and drama eventually accepting a permanent position at Dunbar one of the leading schools for African Americans in the Washington D C area in the early ...

Article

Courtney Q. Shah

actress and singer. Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother, Ruby Dandridge, had left Dorothy's father shortly before Dorothy's birth. Ruby worked as a housecleaner and did occasional musical or dramatic performances to make ends meet. Ruby eventually moved in with Geneva Williams, who trained Dorothy and her sister, Vivian, in music, singing, and dancing. They moved the family to Nashville, Tennessee, and signed with the National Baptist Convention to tour churches across the South, performing musical numbers, dances, and acrobatics as the Wonder Children.

Approaching adolescence, the Dandridge Sisters, as they now called themselves, changed their act to focus on singing and dancing. Joining with Etta Jones, the new trio made their uncredited film debut in The Big Broadcast of 1936 Early films tended to use African Americans in musical numbers rather than as developed characters Other small film roles ...

Article

Roanne Edwards

Ossie Davis was born in Cogdell, Georgia, the son of a railway engineer, and grew up in Waycross, Georgia. The harassment of his parents by the Ku Klux Klan impelled him early on to become a writer so that he could “truthfully portray the black man's experience.” At Howard University, under the tutelage of drama critic Alain Locke, Davis developed his theatrical talent, performing in a 1941 production of Joy Exceeding Glory with Harlem's Rose McClendon Players. Following his theater debut, however, he received few job offers and for nearly a year found himself living on the street.

Davis never lost his sense of purpose. After serving in the United States Army during World War II, he returned to New York, New York, where he won the title role in Robert Ardrey's play Jeb (1946). In 1948 he married fellow performer Ruby ...

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

Niambi Lee-Kong

actor, playwright, producer, director, and civil rights activist. Ossie Davis, though commonly known for his work in the dramatic arts, was a humanitarian and activist who used his talents and fame to fight for the humane treatment of his people and for recognition of their contributions to society.

Raiford Chatman Davis was born in Cogdell, Georgia, to Kince Charles Davis and Laura Cooper Davis. Though neither parent was formally educated, Davis's father was a preacher and a railroad construction engineer. Davis's name “Ossie” came from a clerk's misunderstanding the pronunciation of the initials “R. C.” when recording his birth.

In 1935 Davis graduated from Central High School in Waycross, Georgia. He then attended Howard University, where he met Alain Locke a professor of philosophy who had been the first black Rhodes scholar Locke recognized Ossie s talent introduced him to black theater and encouraged ...

Article

Samuel A. Hay

actress and writer, was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, the third of four children of teenage parents, Gladys Hightower and Edward Nathaniel Wallace, a Pullman car porter. After Gladys ran off to follow a preacher, the couple divorced in 1924, and Edward married Emma Amelia Benson, a former schoolteacher, who lived in New York City. Emma, whom Ruby called “Mother,” reared the Wallace children in Harlem, New York, where family lessons included picketing white-owned Harlem businesses that refused to hire African Americans.

Ruby graduated from Hunter College High School in 1939 and entered Hunter College, in New York City. Her professional theater career began in 1940 during her sophomore year, when the writer and director Abram Hill cast her in his social satire, On Strivers Row (1940) at the American Negro Theater (ANT), which he had cofounded with Frederick Douglass O'Neal ...

Article

Hilary Mac Austin

A true Renaissance woman—poet, writer, director, adaptor, actor, activist, philanthropist, wife and mother—Ruby Dee summed up her approach to life in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America: “You just try to do everything that comes up. Get up an hour earlier, stay up an hour later, make the time. Then you look back and say, ‘Well, that was a neat piece of juggling there—school, marriage, babies, career.’ The enthusiasms took me through the action, not the measuring of it or the reasonableness.”