The Stand’s music columnist reflects on African Americans’ contributions
It’s February again and Black History Month is upon us. BHM is significant because it’s a time that the government and most of its people set aside in unison to honestly reflect upon the struggles through which the African American people have persevered in their insufferable fight to live with respect and dignity in this land to which they were unwillingly brought.
But as important; it is also a time when their sometimes-unheralded contributions in areas of the arts, sciences, sports, religion, politics and philosophy are celebrated.
History is said to be nothing more than things that have happened in the past and the study of it. So, when many of us think of history, particularly American history, what first comes to mind are things that we learned about in school. Commonly we remember things like the invention of the automobile and the air conditioner or maybe things from a little farther back like the invention of photography. We may even reel back to Columbus’ first voyage to the “New World.”
None of these things however are inclusive of the African American people’s experience. So rarely, do we collectively think first of the contributions that African Americans have made throughout our history. Even though black Americans have made numerous contributions, many of which have helped reshape the consciousness of America.
To that end, one contribution by African Americans was “Freedom’s Journal.” In 1827, Freedom’s Journal became the first newspaper in the United States published by African Americans. At the time, when free black men, Samuel Cornish and John Brown Russwurm published the paper, it was a criminal offense in many states for enslaved blacks to learn to read. The newspaper’s main readership was the 300,000 free blacks residing across 11 U.S. states, Washington D.C., Canada, Haiti and Europe.
Russwurm and Cornish’s objectives were to inject fresh thoughts into the consciousness of America through its readers. They wanted to counterbalance the racist and degrading negative stereotypes often depicted of black Americans by non-blacks, who through the media heavily influenced American perspectives. A direct quote from the initial pressing of Freedom’s Journal read as follows: “Too long have others spoken for us, too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations.”
Freedom’s Journal spoke out against slavery and other injustices performed against blacks. It encouraged positive black self-identity and highlighted black-autonomy by publishing the announcements of weddings and current events and the biographies of successful black people.
When people examine history, I believe they try to find in it something that they can relate to; something that highlights them in an honorable way. That honor provides them with a proud connection to their roots and fortifies their sense of belonging and purpose.
Dr. Alphonso Sanders said, “Owning one’s heritage can give us a noble sense of place in the world. However, the reward may be across the bridge of suffering and pain.”
On the flip side: “To that which one has made no contribution, from it nothing is owed.”
When people begin to reflect upon history and do not see themselves as having made any honorable contributions, they can begin to feel that they have no sense of belonging and start to question their own purpose. Beyond that, so might others after a while.
That’s why I feel that it is so important to celebrate Black History. Albeit only one month in duration it is still a time that we all focus together upon Black History.
Like Cornish and Russwurm, I too like writing about the positive contributions blacks are making in our community and to American culture.
They have made sizeable deposits in many areas, and we’ve all cashed in on them. Music is one such area. It is widely known and well accepted all over the world that Spiritual, Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll and Hip-Hop music are all original American art forms that emanated from the African-American experience.
Dr. Sanders is the director of the BB King Recording Studio and the BB King Day “Blues” Symposium at Mississippi Valley State University.
“The Blues is more than a style of music,” he said. “It is the translation of the soul into sound. It is the call and response of a spiritual cry. It is the chanting of the past toward the future. It is the improvisation of survival. It is the paradox of freedom and creativity in suffering and pain. It is the undefinable sounds of bent tones, groans and moans and silence.”
He is describing the black experiences through the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement and how it manifested itself into the music we refer to as Blues.
I had the opportunity to attend the annual last September. It was held at MVSU in Itta Bena, MS. One might recognize Itta Bena as being the place where Washington D.C.’s late Mayor Marion Barry was born; or MVSU as the place where Pro Football Hall of Famer, Jerry Rice, played college football.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a once brutally beaten Civil Rights leader and very vocal proponent of black’s voting rights, also lived very close to there.
My family, including my two uncles who brought their Gospel group “The Friendly Five,” from Clarksdale, MS to Syracuse, NY in the 1950s also came from that same area.
The area is commonly referred to as the Mississippi Delta and is said to be one of the most fertile deltas in the world. I believe that some of the most resilient and soulful people in the world sprout from that soil. As I’d said earlier when people examine history they look for ways to connect personally.
During the day, the Symposium presented Blues heavyweights and academics from all over the South but mainly the Delta. They performed and spoke about the history of the blues and how it derived from the voices of suffering and provided a musical soundtrack to the African American struggle.
The evening events culminated in Indianola, MS at the famous Club Ebony. Club Ebony is an historic black-owned “juke joint” from the old ‘Chittlin’ Circuit” where the Blues has been nurtured since entrepreneur Johnny Jones opened it in 1945. All the greats have performed there including Sonny Boy Williamson, Louis Jordan, Denise LaSalle, Bobby Rush, Teeny Tucker, Bobby Bland, Little Milton, Johnny Taylor and the king of the them all, BB King.
Over the years the business changed hands several times finally landing in the hands of Willie and Mary Shephard. When owner Mary Shephard retired in 2008, BB King purchased the club. It is now managed by the BB King Museum, which is just a stone’s throw away.
The symposium’s evening events unfolded like the following lyrics from an old Robert Cray/BB King song called “Playing With my Friends.”
I’m gonna call up some of my buddies
And a few of the ladies I know
I’m gonna rent a hall and get them all and
Put on a heck of a show
Make sure we got a kitchen
With a oven and a stove
We’ll all get in
Then we’ll throw open all the doors
Playin’ with my friends
I’m gonna buy a 100 pounds of catfish
Cook it all up on the grill
Fix some beans and corn bread
Everybody’s gonna get their fill
Then we’ll grab all the guitars
Greasy hands and all
Someone’ll count off a shuffle
And man we’ll have a ball
Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry performed with his daughter Sharo “Shy” Perry and his son Bill “little Bill” Perry Jr. Guitarist Ray “Lil Ray Neal” Neal and his brother Larry performed as well. Ray and Larry are the sons of the iconic late Blues-Harpist, Rayful Neal. Jessie “Guitar” Robinson was there and Teeny Tucker gave a thundering rendition of “Natural Woman,” in remembrance of Aretha Franklin who had just passed days before.
The evening was just like that ‘Catfish’ and all.
Have A Friendly Five suggestion? Contact Reggie at firstname.lastname@example.org or (315) 479-9620