April 16, 2013
In 1947, when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke major league baseball’s color barrier, the world was still 16 years away from the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement as just getting organized. The Montgomery bus boycott was eight years away and housing discrimination based on race would remain legal until 1968. In his first season with the MLB, Robinson would win the league’s Rookie of the Year award. He was a perpetual All-Star. And in 1955, he helped his team secure the championship. Robinson’s success was, by no means, inevitable and in fact he earned it in a society that sought to make it altogether impossible.
Unsurprisingly, his story seemed bound for Hollywood and in 1950, still in the midst of his career, he starred as himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Now Robinson’s story returns to the screen in the new film “42,” this time played by Howard University graduate, Chadwick Boseman, who was at the American History Museum Monday evening for a special screening for members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We caught up with him there.
Are you happy to be back in D.C.?
I’m excited, you know, this room got me a little hyped. It’s fun coming here after having been here a few weeks ago after meeting the First Lady and the President for the screening at the White House. I went to college here and you always think, oh, I’m never going to get to go in that building, I’m never going to get to do this or that so coming here and doing it, it’s like wow, it’s a whole new world.
You said you can’t remember ever not knowing who Jackie Robinson was, but that it was important not to play him as just a hero. How did you get all those details? Did speaking with his wife, Rachel Robinson, play a big part?
The first thing that I did was, I went to meet her at her office on Varick Street. She sat me down on a couch, just like this, she just talked to me very frankly and told me the reasons why she was attracted to him, what she thought of him before she met him, what attracted her once they actually started conversing, how they dated, how shy he was, everything you could possibly imagine. She just went through who they were.
I think she sort of just started me on the research process as well because at the foundation, they have all the books that have been written about him. It was just a matter of hearing that firsthand information.
Then I met her again with children and grandchildren and in that case, they were sort of examining me physically, prodding and poking and measuring and asking me questions: Are you married, why aren’t you married? You know, anything that you could imagine. Actually, before they ever spoke to me, they were prodding and poking and measuring me and I was like, who are these people? And they said, you’re playing my granddad, we gotta check you out. It was as much them investigating me as it was me investigating him.
So they gave you a seal of approval?
They did not give me a seal of approval, but they didn’t not give it. They were willing to gamble, I guess.
What were they looking for, what did they want to make sure you got right?
She was adamant about the fact that she didn’t want him to be portrayed as angry. That’s a stereotype that is often used, just untrue and one-dimensional with black characters and it was something that he had been accused of, of having a temper. In some senses, he did have a temper but it wasn’t in a negative sense.
I, on the other hand, after reading the script knew that it was necessary to not show him as being passive or a victim, which is another stereotype that’s often used in movies. I didn’t want him to be inactive, because if he’s passive, he’s inactive and you run the risk of doing another story that’s supposed to be about a black character, but there’s the white guy, there, who is the savior. There’s a point where you have to be active and you have to have this fire and passion. I view it more as competitive passion as Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns said to me today, that he had a competitive passion, competitive temper that any great athlete, whether it be Larry Bird or Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, they all have that passion. That’s what he brought to the table. . . .My grandmother probably would call it holy anger.
Was that dynamic something you were able to talk about with Harrison Ford, who plays the team executive Branch Rickey, and the writer?
First of all yes. But they already had really advanced and progressive points of view about it anyway and were very aware. Harrison was also very clear, even in our first conversations about it, that he was playing a character and I was playing the lead and that there are differences in the two.
There were instances where I might voice, this is what we need to do, and everybody listened to it and that’s definitely not always the case, definitely not always what you experience on the set. But I think everybody wanted to get it right. I can’t really think of a moment, I know that they came up where it was like, well I’m black so I understand this in a different way, but they do happen and everybody was very receptive to it.
Was there any story that Mrs. Robinson told you about him that stuck in the back of your head during the process?
She just talked about how he adapted after very difficult scenes where he was being abused verbally or threatened. She said he would go hit golf balls because he would never bring that into the house. The question that I asked that brought her to that was: Did he ever have moments where he secluded himself at home, or where he was depressed, or you saw it weighing on him? And she said: ‘No, when he came into our space, he did whatever he needed to do to get rid of it, so that our space could be a safe haven, and he could refuel, and could get back out into the world and be the man he had to be.’
And she’s going through it just as much as he is. She’s literally in the crowd. People are yelling right over, calling him names right over her or calling her names because they know who she is. That’s something people don’t really think about, that she was actually in the crowd. She has to hold that so she doesn’t bring that home to him and give him more to worry about and that’s a phenomenal thing to hold and to be strong. I love finding what those unspoken things were that are underneath what’s actually being said.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I hope they get a sense of who he really is. I think what’s interesting about it is that he played himself in that original 1949-1950 version. . .What I found is that him having to use the Hollywood script of that time does not allow him to tell his own story because he couldn’t really be Jackie Robinson in that version.
It wasn’t his exact story, if you look at the version it says all he ever wanted to do was play baseball and he didn’t. Baseball was his worst sport, he was a better football player, better basketball player, better at track and field. He had a tennis championship, he played golf, horse back riding, baseball was the worst thing he did. I’m not saying that he wasn’t good at it, I’m saying that it’s not the truth. He was a second lieutenant in the army, he was All-American, he led his conference in scoring in basketball and he could have been playing in the NFL, but he had to go to Hawaii and play instead.
So what is that? Why did he end up playing baseball? Because baseball was where he could actualize his greatness, it wasn’t the only thing that he was great at and so just that little untruth in the script skips all of the struggle that he had getting to the point of being in the minor leagues. He’s doing this because it’s one more thing that he’s trying to do in that United States at that time that maybe will allow him to be the man that he wants to be. He could have done any of those other things, it just wasn’t an avenue for him to actualize his full humanity, his full manhood and so that version doesn’t allow him to be Jackie Robinson.
When I look at this version, we live in a different time where you can tell the story more honestly. Ultimately I think that’s what you should take away from the film, I get to see who he is now because we’re more ready to see it.
April 15, 2013
North Carolina’s most in-demand, pre-Civil War, master cabinetmaker Thomas Day had everything it took to be Southern royalty–land, money, education. Yet, Day was a black man. Born in a community of free African-Americans in southern Virginia, Day was able to achieve such fame that his customers created a double meaning for the term “daybed,” a convenient play on his name. His story is as striking as his unique creations, marked by his very own “Exuberant Style,” of which a collection of 39 exemplary works can be seen at the Renwick Gallery for its new show “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color.”
Day came from educated and well-to-do parents. His mother, Mourning Stewart, was the daughter of a free mulatto who owned some 800 acres of land as well as slaves. His father, John Day, was the son of a white woman from South Carolina, who was sent away to a Quaker community to have her child. Because he was born free, John Day was required by law to learn a trade by the time he was 18, in this case cabinetmaking. Day, then, settled with his wife and two sons—Thomas and John, Jr—in Petersburg, Virginia, a community of free people. The family eventually relocated to North Carolina.
With his father’s tutelage and training, Thomas Day set up his own shop in 1827 in Milton, North Carolina. Though being a black cabinetmaker was a rarity–96 percent of the cabinetmakers in the state were white–Southern society was actually somewhat less restrictive in the early 1800s than in the period directly before the Civil War, according to Renwick Gallery chief Robyn Kennedy, who brought the show to the gallery from the North Carolina Museum of History. “He was accepted into elite mercantile plantation society,” says Kennedy. The exhibit opens with proof of his standing: a petition signed by members of the community to allow Day’s bride to travel from Virginia to North Carolina (something not allowed at the time for a free person) as well as a pew he designed for the otherwise white church he attended.
“He was a very astute businessman,” Kennedy adds. In addition to owning his own workshop and fields to supply timber, Day also employed roughly 14 workers and owned slaves. He sought to compete with cities like Philadelphia and New York and established a reputation for his output. Even when he represented 11 percent of the state’s furniture market, he never lost his unique artistic flair that kept customers asking for more. Governor David S. Reid, for example, ordered no fewer than 47 pieces from Day.
Though he “worked in a variety of styles,” says Kennedy, “it was basically what was popular at the time.” Greek Revival architecture called for matching pieces and Day was adept at crafting works to suit his client’s tastes, from conservative to more adventurous.
The beauty of his pieces, says Kennedy, is that at first glance, they fit the style of the day, but upon examination, small touches emerge that are unlike anything else being produced. Curves, cutouts and shapes unique to Day’s studio characterize his wooden masterpieces, which included architectural enhancements and features done in clients’ homes as well. One cabinetmaker installing replicas of some of Day’s pieces from North Carolina’s homes said to Kennedy, “Who was this guy–all the swirls and curlicues!”
Day was given considerable freedom to create his playful style. “A lot of his work was done with a verbal description and a handshake,” says Kennedy. His own adaptation of the French Antique tradition was known as “Exuberant Style.” Kennedy says elements of his fluid forms don’t seem to show up again until Art Nouveau.
But 1857, however, even his reputation could not sustain him through an economic crash and impending Civil War. He had to sell his shop and fell from the state’s first to fourth most prominent cabinetmaker. Day died in 1861 and after the war, one of his sons bought the shop back and tried for a few years to revive the business. He would eventually move to Washington state, likely in response to KKK activity. His other son is lost in the records far before then. He was rumored to have “passed” for white, married a white woman and moved to Washington, D.C. to work in government. Meanwhile Day’s brother, John Jr., had traveled to Liberia as a minister. There he helped draft the country’s constitution and was eventually appointed to its Supreme Court in 1854.
Day’s great-grandson, William A. Robinson traveled back to Milton and says, “old aristocratic families, now poor, who have old rotting mansions and formal gardens ‘gone to pot’. . . still have antique furniture made by Thomas Day, which they now consider their most valuable possessions.”
“Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color” is on view through July 28, 2013 at the Renwick Gallery.
February 25, 2013
Some stories and museum collections can’t be presented with words alone. For them you need music. Maybe even art. Or photography. During Black History Month 2013, the history of the community of Gees Bend, Alabama, and the spirit of the women of the Gees Bend Quilts, is being brought to the nation by jazz pianist Jason Moran, using music to help animate history and interpret museum collections.
A museum exhibition can showcase a collection. But music gives it soul, emotionally connecting the public to the spirit and rhythms of people and unknown stories behind objects. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History is among a vanguard of museums who have used live music performances and commissions for decades to interpret and showcase American history and collections.
The Chamber Music Society performs on the Smithsonian’s quartet of rare Stradivarius instruments bringing cultural and artistic context to classical music scholarship. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) enriches jazz collections with live performances of unpublished music from the collections and appearances by jazz masters representing living history. The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City—a Smithsonian Affiliate—has musicians of diverse genres interpret art on exhibition and musically engage the public in themes inherent in Himalayan art and culture.
Other museums are catching onto the music-collections connections.
In 2008, Moran, artistic adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center, was commissioned by The Philadelphia Art Museum to compose music for a Gees Bends Quilts exhibition. The result was a jazz symphony that melded rhythms from the community’s past with improvisational jazz felt in the moment. When the quilts and the stories were put away, the music remained in their stead. Recently, Moran staged his Gees Bend jazz at the Kennedy Center. During this Black History Month, jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater is taking the music and the Gees Bend story to the nation via the first national broadcast of the composition, offered over NPR’s JazzSet.
To develop the piece, Moran, his wife Alicia, an accomplished opera singer, and members of his band traveled to Gees Bend to conduct research and embrace the people of the remote community. Their improvisational conversation is recorded in musical masterpieces ranging from Alica’s rendition of the Quilter’s Song, first recorded in the field in 1941 for the compilation How We Got Over: Sacred Songs of Gees Bend, to the band’s musical interpretation of a quilt pattern. The Morans have created similar music commissions to help museum’s present history and collections. A case in point is Bleed, created for the Whitney Museum of Art.
Baltimore photographer Linda Day Clark has traveled to Gees Bend annually since 2002 after discovering the community on assignment for The New York Times. In a podcast for the Philadelphia quilt exhibition, she discusses the “amazing microcosm of culture” in Gees Bend, calling it both “a blessing and a curse” for its historic authenticity.
Day related a conversation she’d had with Gees Bend elder Arlonza Pettway, a descendant of slaves. Pettway told Day about sitting on her great grandmother’s quilt to hear the stories of her great grandmother’s capture in Africa, being held captive with other slaves, lured onto a ship, and their experiences during the Middle Passage.
“We’re looking at a group of Africans brought over during slavery,” says Day, ”and when slavery ended, they stayed. Very few people in Gees Bend have moved in or out.”
Located in a bend of the Alabama River, with one road leading into and out of the community, Gees Bend was founded by a North Carolina cotton grower, Joseph Gee, and 18 slaves who relocated with him to the region to farm cotton. The Gee family later sold the plantation to a relative, Mark H. Pettway.
During this 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, the Smithsonian is presenting the exhibition Changing America to commemorate African Americans’ quest for freedom and equity in America. It may be argued that little has changed in Gees Bend in 150 years. Yet the stories this community has preserved and the artwork it creates continues to inspire and inform a rapidly changing world outside its reach. And with artists’ like Moran history is becoming music to their ears.
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Take 5! Where Old Jazz Heads Meet Jazz Novices Over Sweet Notes and Wynton Marsalis, Honoring Duke Ellington.
February 12, 2013
The photos of revelers celebrating Mardi Gras in the 1930s and 40s in Washington, D.C. seem familiar—a little fancier maybe, but the costumes and merriment are transcendent. These particular photos, documenting Howard University’s Omega Psi Phi fraternity’s festivities, tell a story as much about Mardi Gras as they do about D.C.’s prosperous African American middle class.
At the time, the district’s black population represented a little less than a third of the total population, but it was steadily growing; and by 1960, a full half of the city’s residents were African Americans. Founded at Howard University in 1911 the Omega Psi Phi was the first predominantly African American fraternity at a historically black college. And more often than not, their celebrations were captured by Addison Scurlock, a black photographer whose work in the community would span nearly three-quarters of a century and whose U Street studio would become home to an unofficial archive of African American life in D.C.
Addison Scurlock came to Washington, D.C. in 1900 at age 17. In the census that year, he would list his profession as “photographer.” By 1911, he had opened his studio on U Street and was quickly on his way to becoming one of the city’s most prolific chroniclers of black life, documenting everything from concerts to birthday parties, dances to baptisms. Business at the Scurlock studio, spanned nearly a century, after his sons, George and Robert, took it over in 1963—just a year before their father died—and ran it until 1994. In 1997, the Smithsonian acquired the Scurlock Studio Collection, including 250,000 negatives and 10,000 prints.
In his 2010 article, “The Scurlock Studio: Picture of Prosperity,” Smithsonian reporter David Zax wrote:
Dashing all over town—to baptisms and weddings, to balls and cotillions, to high-school graduations and to countless events at Howard, where he was the official photographer—Addison Scurlock became black Washington’s “photographic Boswell—the keeper of the visual memory of the community in all its quotidian ordinariness and occasional flashes of grandeur and moment,” says Jeffrey Fearing, a historian who is also a Scurlock relative.
What made his work so unique was not just his subjects but the respect he gave them:
At a time when minstrel caricature was common, Scurlock’s pictures captured black culture in its complexity and showed black people as they saw themselves.
And the annual Mardi Gras celebrations were certainly a big part of that. Covering the party all the way in Pennsylvania, the New Pittsburgh Courier wrote in 1963 that the:
Alpha Omega Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity had its annual Mardi Gras, at the National Armory last Friday evening. It was a howling success with over 5,000 guests enjoying the festivities. Those who did not wear costumes came in formal attire.
The Washington Post covered the 1996 affair, describing a lavish scene:
Bright eyes flashed through sequined masks. Feathers flew as disguises were donned. The magic of Mardis Gras melted all mindfulness of the mounting snow outside, and the march began. The New Orleans Strut, they called it–a leisurely, lounging gait. A circular stroll that skirted the ballroom thrice. Two abreast here, four astride there, a single now and again. The Dixieland band was booming–its tuba, trombone and bass drum exclaiming, proclaiming about “those saints, come marching in…”
The 1995 Mardi Gras king, Frank Patterson told the Post, “Fraternalism among African Americans is a little different than it is among whites…We started out bonding with each years ago when we couldn’t be Lions or Kiwanis.” He added, “For black Greek organizations, there’s life after college.”
February 11, 2013
In 1960, Joseph McNeil looked at the world of Jim Crow segregation around him and asked, ”My God, when is it going to stop? Who’s going to stand up and say no?” As one of the four college freshmen who led the now famous sit-in that began February 1 at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, McNeil decided he would be the one to say no. His story, along with the stories of Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin McCain, and David Richmond, is featured in the Smithsonian Channel program, Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4, airing February 11, 10 p.m. EST.