Monday, February 24, 2014

An Outstanding Tribute to Black History Month

Billy Holiday

HOLLA – If you hear me – The Voices of the “Black Experience”

A review of the performance

Recently I had the opportunity of attending a tribute to Black History Month at the Princeton Theological Seminary.  This was the best tribute to Black history that I’ve attended.  The event was a fund-raiser for The Generations Center that aids mostly women who have mental health issues.  Dr. Melinda Contreras-Byrd works for the center and helped to organize the event.  Melinda was my classmate in the 1970’s at Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey and she invited me to the event.  Her daughter Alexa Esperanza Byrd was the featured vocalist.  Alexa was assisted by Joshua Foster on drums and Alec Gross on guitar.

Mental Health

We can begin by saying that mental health might be the most used of the health care specialties in this country.  We might also say that Dr. Gabor Maté has documented the connection between emotional stress and physical disease in his book, When the Body Says No.

We might also mention that the United States spends more money, per person, for health care than any other nation in the world.  Yet, this country ranks about 34th in the world with respect to access to health care.  While mental health is one of the most needed specialties, this is the area that has received the most cutbacks in funding.  These are the underlying reasons why this fundraiser was necessary.

Black History

When we look at the topic of Black history there is one area that is rarely mentioned.  This is the fact that much of the enormous wealth that exists in this country was, and continues to be created because of the work of Black people.  Slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the continued discrimination we have today, has helped to create conditions that allow for a tiny percentage of the population to live in opulence.

These are some of the reasons why James Baldwin made his statement that, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”  Baldwin was one of the best writers that I know of and he knew the definition of words.  We might notice that he used the word rage and not the word anger. 

The rage and the joy

The immensely talented Christian A Cheairs gave deeply moving performances of his poetry at this event.  The audience listened to his justifiable rage in his tributes to Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin.  Cheairs spoke about why Jordan Davis might have wanted to play his music loud.  Apparently this was all it took for a modern day lynching.

The title of Cheairs’ tribute to Trayvon Martin is Skittles and Ice Tea.  Apparently these were the so-called weapons that led to the lynching of Trayvon Martin.

Melinda Contreras-Byrd performed a wonderful poem titled, Revolution.  Clearly the idea of a political revolution doesn’t come from the fact that people are merely angry at a government.  No, feelings of rage against the existing environment provokes masses of people to demand a completely different kind of government.  We listened to this justifiable rage in Melinda’s poem.

However, it would be a serious mistake to argue that all of Black history consisted of rage.  There were also expressions of profound joy.  We listened to the background of two songs, and then Alexa Esperanza Byrd gave breathtaking performances of each.  One of these songs was Duke Ellington and Irving Mills’ 1931 song, It Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing.  The other song was Bricusse & Newley’s 1964 hit, Feeling Good.

Clearly Duke Ellington was one of the most important contributors to music as well as the style of music known as Jazz.  Saying this, we can also say that most of Ellington’s compositions were collaborative efforts.  His primary collaborator was Billy Strayhorn.  Strayhorn didn’t receive much of the credit he deserved because he didn’t fit the stereotype of a star at that time.  He was Black, short, and gay.  My opinion is that Strayhorn is just one more name that needs to be remembered when we talk about Black History.

Black Latino History

This was the first Black History tribute I have attended where part of the program was dedicated to Black people who speak Spanish.  Alexa Byrd performed the song Angelitos Negros.  This song was taken from a Mexican play.  The play portrayed a white racist mother who gave birth to a Black baby.  She then learned that part of her family was indeed Black.

We might also consider that the language spoken by most Black people in the Western Hemisphere is not English or Spanish, but Portuguese.  There might be as many as one-hundred-million Black people who speak Portuguese and live in Brazil.  A new estimate that I have read argues that today Brazil is a majority Black nation.

What’s Goin’ On

Then, we listened to Alexa Byrd’s rendition of Marvin Gaye and Al Cleveland’s monumental 1971 hit, What’s Goin’ On?  This song argues that, “We’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”

This program ended in a similar way as Billy Holiday’s performances ended many years ago.  This was with dimmed lights and the singing of Abel Meeropol’s and Billy Holliday’s 1939 song Strange Fruit.  Meeropol wrote this song after he learned of a lynching in Indiana.  This song is a painful reminder that the United States is not the land of “liberty and justice for all” or the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”  No, the song Strange Fruit is a reminder of the savage repression that has also been a part of the history of this country.

Malcolm X

I will end this review with a quotation from Malcolm X who gave, in my opinion, the best reason for why we study Black history.

In an interview with a reporter from the Village Voice Malcolm argued:

“The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals.  You have to wake the people up first, then you’ll get action.”

“Wake them up to their oppression?” the interviewer asked.

“No, to their humanity, to their own worth, and to their heritage.” Malcolm replied.

Yes, by educating people about Black History, we can learn that humanity has had the capacity to confront the most stubborn obstacles.  Understanding these facts, we will see that people living today also have the capacity to transform the world.            


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