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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Black History Month - A Summary

So, over the last twenty-seven days, I've featured twenty-seven different entries that have ties to “Black History Month”. Many of them were tied to pop culture events, but there were a few entries that put the focus on historical events and contributions as well.

So, for this, the final day of February, I thought that I would write a diary entry about why I made the decision to do a “Black History Month” in this blog, what I learned from doing this theme month, whether I'll try this again next February...and I'll talk about the only disappointment that I've experienced this past month.

Intrigued yet? Keep reading.

February 28, 2013

Another Thursday has arrived, and another month is about to be bid adieu. It's February 28th today, and as I look out my window, there is still lots of snow and slush outside. It's a wonder that a posse of people from my hometown haven't threatened to hunt down Wiarton Willie and stuff him the same way a taxidermist would. But, I'm not that vicious. I'm just as content to smile and curse that groundhog from the depths of my mind.

But I'm not writing these lines to talk about the weather, or listing ways in which we can get rid of the groundhog permanently. Instead, I'm here to talk about what I have learned this past month from doing a month long feature in my blog that could be challenging as well as rewarding to do.

I had made the decision to make February 2013 “Black History Month” quite some time ago. Looking back on what I had chosen for blog topics in February 2012, I didn't really do justice to “Black History Month” at all. In fact, if I can remember some of the topics that I wrote about in February 2012, the only one that stands out was the death of Whitney Houston. Other than that event, I don't think I wrote any other topics about black entertainers, artists, authors, or historical figures at that time. And, considering that the month of February was a month that was set aside to teach people all about the vast contributions of black people, I was kind of disappointed in myself that I completely ignored that last year.

So, I suppose that sort of weighed heavily in my decision to create a “Black History Month” in this blog for this year. I wouldn't necessarily say that I did it out of guilt though. It was more along the lines of making up for lost opportunity.

The opportunity to make a statement about something.

This whole month has been an exercise in awareness. Not just for the African-American, African-Canadian, etc population, but for everybody in general. I'll even admit to learning quite a bit about myself while I was doing topics for this blog.

Firstly, I had no idea just how much of a challenge it was trying to find topics of discussion for this month. That's not to say that I didn't have fun trying – I always loved a challenge. It's just that some theme days were a bit harder to choose topics for than others (Saturdays and Wednesdays were especially frustrating this month). I'm thinking that for next year, I'll temporarily change the theme days around a smidgen so that way, I can just sit down at my trusty computer and just type whatever topic comes to my mind first.

Secondly, I had absolutely no idea just how many unsung heroes there were in black history throughout the years. Of course, we all knew about the main leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. But, when I was doing my research for this month's set of blogs, I learned so much more. I had no idea that Maya Angelou was such a key player in the Civil Rights Movement, and that she had ties to both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. On that note, I had absolutely no idea of the struggles that Maya Angelou herself went through in her own life until I started reading excerpts from “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”.

Of course, we all know that the world was a lot different just a few decades ago. It's hard to excuse the fact that there was once a time in which white men gathered around a park or a public place just to see a black man get hanged.

It's also tough to view images like the one up above. The student in question is Elizabeth Eckford, one of the so-called “Little Rock Nine”. The photo was taken in 1957, at a time in which the state of Arkansas was experimenting with desegregating schools. Nine black students were to attend school at a previously all-white high school. As you can see, poor Elizabeth had to endure incredible abuse on her first day of school. It seems almost bizarre to even think that things like that even went on at that time, but they did. It's just a grim reminder of how many hardships people of colour had to go through just to get some of the rights that many of us now take for granted.

I mean, even in 2013, while we've come a long way, there are still instances of racial abuse, racial profiling, and discrimination. I just don't understand why in 2013, there are still so many people who have so much hatred towards people because of something that they cannot change.

In the case of the Little Rock Nine, talk show host Oprah Winfrey invited seven of the nine onto her show as guests in 1996 to talk about their experiences, as well as bringing on some of the people who would hurl insults and physical abuse onto them when they were there. It was difficult to hear exactly what some of the people went through there, but at the end, everyone found some sense of closure, and there were plenty of apologies and forgiveness witnessed that day.

But I don't think that the surviving members of the Little Rock Nine will ever forget what they experienced, nor should they.

Part of the reason why “Black History Month” exists is because we all need to know just how hard people of colour struggled just to get equal rights in North America. In some nations, that struggle still goes on.

Just think about it for a second. Imagine having to go through life without the ability to have a say in which political candidates get elected into office, or being forced to eat at a different restaurant or drink from a different water fountain, or being subjected to abuse and vandalism because you happen to be the minority in a neighbourhood. It wouldn't be much fun, would it? Yet, that was the harsh reality that people of colour had to endure for decades before the Civil Rights Movement formed. That's why I think it's important to have “Black History Month” because we must not forget how hard it was for them to fight for their rights. Besides, people of colour have brought a lot to our world.

We wouldn't have had successful open heart surgeries had one man not fought hard to become a doctor. We wouldn't have had ironing boards, mops, golf tees, and bicycles had it not been for the innovations by black inventors. Heck, we wouldn't be enjoying potato chips had it not been for a black chef (though as we all learned, that invention came as a method of revenge that didn't quite work out).

The point is that there's a lot of interesting footnotes under the subject of Black History, and the stories and inventions and innovations that can be found within it are fascinating, eye-opening, and beautiful.

That leads to the only disappointment that I had about doing a feature on “Black History Month”. This month has been one in which the page views have dropped a bit, and that disappoints me. But, it's not because of the fact that I am doubting my writing ability or because I'm mad about people not reading my work. We all have our peaks and valleys when it comes to getting an audience. I'm more disappointed that people don't seem to share the same passion about “Black History Month” as I and many other people do. In many ways, having just a month for Black History doesn't seem near enough because there are so many more stories to tell.

And, that's why I plan to devote next February to “Black History Month” as well. I think that I have told a lot of stories and tales that were fascinating and informed a lot of people...but there's so much more that still needs to be told. And, unfortunately, I couldn't do it all in just one month.

And, I guess that's all I have to say about that. February is now over, and we're heading into March. And, already, I'm thinking about topics for next year.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Over the course of the last three weeks, we’ve had a lot of fun learning about some of the inventions and innovations that African-Americans have come up with over the last two hundred years.  I’ll be the first to admit that I have learned a lot of things that I didn’t know.

But, since today is Wednesday, and since the Wednesday postings usually cover toys, games AND books, I didn’t think it would be right to end “Black History Month” off (well, for Wednesdays anyway) without bringing up a book that was written by an African-American author.  I know that I sort of did this already with the entries on “Roots”, “The Color Purple”, and “The Help”, but I mostly did this to do a feature on the associated films and television miniseries based from the books.

This week, we’re focusing solely on the book.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You probably didn’t log on here to read a book report.  I don’t blame you.  I hate writing book reports myself.  I find it much easier to write my own stories, not write about someone else’s.  But with this book fitting in so well with “Black History Month”, I had to write about it.

Have any of you ever heard of a writer named Maya Angelou?

She was born as Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri.  And, in her near eighty-five years on this planet, she has been through every possible thing imaginable, and came out from it being one of the most respected and cherished authors in the history of America.  She’s published six autobiographies, five collections of essays, several poetry anthologies, and has earned at least thirty honourary doctoral degrees.

And she certainly had a lot to write about.

When Angelou was just three, the stormy marriage of her parents ended, and she and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother.  They lived there for a few years before being sent back to live with their mother by their father.  When Maya was eight years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and confessed it to her brother, who proceeded to tell the family.  He was sent to prison for twenty-four hours, and four days after his release, he was found murdered.  This event caused Maya to become mute for five years, because she had believed that by telling what had happened to her, she caused his death. 

If there were any positives that could be found in her five years of silence, it was that she developed the innate ability to listen to the world around her.  She surrounded herself in books and literature, and eventually with the aid of her teacher, Beatrice Flowers, she began to speak once more.

However, when Maya was seventeen, she became a single mother to a son, Clyde.  And, in order to support her child, she performed jobs that were very much illegal, which included a stint as a prostitute.  The whole struggle can be read in her autobiography “Gather Together In My Name”, her second of six autobiographies.

Of course, one of the main issues that Maya has been linked to is that of civil rights.  She made what could be considered a daring move in the early 1950s when she married a man of a different race (the man being Greek electrician/aspiring singer Tosh Angelos).  Although the marriage ended in 1954, the union did give Maya the opportunity to take dance classes, even forming a dance team with the legendary Alvin Ailey.

After hearing Martin Luther King Jr giving a speech in 1960, Angelou - along with her novelist friend James O. Killens – organized the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Leadership.  From there, she became an outspoken crusader against Apartheid, befriended Malcolm X, lived in Africa for three years, and helped build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.  Sadly, this period was filled with great loss for Angelou, as Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr was killed on April 4, 1968 – Angelou’s 40th birthday.

Despite this dark period, Angelou managed to work through her grief, and put forth some of her most emotional works to date...including a work of literature that she released in 1969.

Her very first autobiography was released entitled “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, and the book details Maya’s life from the age of three until the age of seventeen (or in other words, the summary I wrote in regards to Maya’s early life a few paragraphs above).  And certainly, one can argue that Maya’s early life was filled with a lot of pain and a lot of horrible circumstances...things that no child should ever have to endure.

As mentioned before, the book idea was given to Angelou at what was more than likely one of the lowest points of her life...the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  Because it happened on her birthday, it took her a long time to even celebrate the day, and she was depressed for some time afterwards.  Her longtime friend and mentor James Baldwin attempted to try and cheer her up by taking her to a dinner party of cartoonist Jules Feiffer.  At the party, all the guests began telling stories of their childhood memories, and Angelou was one of those who opted to share, despite the painful moments that she experienced.  Her stories captivated Feiffer's wife, Judy.  Shortly after the dinner party, Judy called the number of Robert Loomis, of Random House Publishing, and told him of Maya's stories, insisting that the tales could make for an interesting book.

Initially, when approached with the idea to write a book, Angelou turned the offer down, as she saw herself as more of a poet (she had been writing poems since she was a teenager), not a novelist.  But she was later, by Angelou's own accounts, tricked into writing it courtesy of a little reverse psychology from Loomis (as per a suggestion from Baldwin).  When Loomis told her that writing an autobiography as literature was just about impossible, Angelou saw it as a challenge.  And given how her entire childhood was one challenge after another, she was one never to turn a challenge down!

So, I suppose you could say that "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" was kind of an exercise that was part healing, and part "I'll show you people!"

The writing process for "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" took nearly two years to complete, and one thing I will say about Maya Angelou was that when she sat down to write a project, she did not let anything keep her from doing it.  She made sure that there was nothing there to distract her.  If that meant removing all pictures and wall decorations from her hotel room, that's what happened.  If that meant only having a deck of cards on her person to play solitaire in hopes of getting into the right frame of mind, then that's what she did.  And, if that meant re-imagining pivotal moments that brought her great sadness and sorrow in order to get her points across, she did so fearlessly.

Now, here's a little bit of trivia for you.  Do you know how the title came to be?  Well, the actual title comes from a combnation of the works of an African-American poet named  Paul Laurence Dunbar, and civil rights activist Abbey Lincoln.  Lincoln suggested the title, and the actual line comes from the third stanza of Dunbar's poem, "Sympathy"

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings -
I know why the caged bird sings.

But, you know something...the metaphor of a caged bird certainly fits the book that Maya wrote.  In many of Maya's literary works, she uses the image of a caged bird to represent slavery in the United States.  And, in some ways, the image of a caged bird represents the struggles that Maya went through.  For such pain to cause her to literally lose her voice for five years...well, I suppose that in many ways, Maya was trapped inside a cage herself.  It was only when she began to get her voice back through reading and learning that she began to "sing", so to speak.

The book also explains why Maya had such a strong passion towards making sure that African-Americans would one day receive equal rights.  When she and her brother lived with their grandmother, she was subjected to racism every day, and I think that coupled with the trauma of being raped at an early age, certainly contributed to Maya remaining silent for half a decade.  These instances of racism included...

- having to hide family members from the Ku Klux Klan
- having being told by a white speaker at her graduation ceremony that black students would not have the same opportunities as white students
- having to suffer from a rotting tooth because a white dentist refused to pull it out
- having a group of white children mercilessly teasing and bullying Maya and her family

As a result of some of the graphic scenes that are described in the book, the book is often challenged and banned from public schools...which is a shame, because her story is heartbreaking, yet captivating.  We see a young girl grow from being a victim of abuse and racism to a strong woman who has overcome many obstacles to get free.  And, while her life didn't begin to get better until she was an adult, she became better equipped to handle whatever life threw at her both physically and emotionally.

All because she let that caged bird sing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

February 26, 1928

Welcome to the last Tuesday Timeline of the month!  For today’s topic, we’re going back quite a few years into the past.  And, just as we have done with the previous three Tuesday Timelines, this one will be devoted to an event in “Black History Month” within the world of pop culture.

As always though, we have other happenings that took place in the world throughout history.  So, let us take a look back through all the February 26 world events of the past.

364 – Valentinian I is proclaimed Roman Emperor

1794 – Copenhagen’s Christiansborg Palace burns to the ground

1802 – Les Miserables author Victor Hugo is born in France

1815 – Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from Elba

1829 – Levi Strauss, the man who created the first company to manufacture blue jeans, is born in Germany

1887 – Actor William Frawley (a.k.a. Fred Mertz) is born in Burlington, Iowa

1909 – Kinemacolor – the first successful color motion picture process – is shown to the public at the Palace Theatre in London

1914 – HMS Britannia (sister ship of the Titanic) is launched from Belfast, Ireland

1917 – The world’s first jazz record is recorded by the Original Dixieland Jass Band

1919 – The majority of the Grand Canyon is officially declared a United States National Park by President Woodrow Wilson

1920 – Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” debuts in Berlin, which becomes the very first German Expressionist film (on the same day that actor Tony Randall is born)

1929 – President Calvin Coolidge signs an executive order to establish the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming

1932 – Country singing legend Johnny Cash is born in Kingsland, Arkansas

1935 – Adolf Hitler orders the Luftwaffe to be reformed, which violates the Treaty of Versailles

1952 – Vincent Massey becomes the very first Canadian-born Governor-General of Canada

1961 – Hassan II becomes the King of Morocco

1966 – The ROK Capital Division of the South Korean Army massacres 380 unarmed citizens in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War

1972 – One hundred and twenty-five people are killed following the collapse of a dam in Logan County, West Virginia

1987 – The Tower Commission rebukes President Ronald Reagan for not controlling his national security staff at the height of the Iran-Contra Affair

1991 – The town of Al Busayyah is seized and captured by American forces during the Gulf War

1993 – Six people are killed, and thousands more injured after a truck bomb detonates underneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City

1995 – The United Kingdom’s oldest banking institution, Barings Bank, collapses following a $1.4 billion loss by securities broker Nick Leeson

2004 – The Republic of Macedonia President Boris Trajkovski is killed in a plane crash in Bosnia and Herzegovina

2009 – British born actress Wendy Richard dies of cancer at the age of 65

2012 – 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is shot at close range by George Zimmerman, setting forth a controversial series of events

So, as you can see, February 26 was filled with lots of events...the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

February 26 also happens to have a lot of celebrity birthdays associated with it as well.  The following people who are unwrapping birthday gifts and blowing out candles are Tom Kennedy, Ariel Sharon, Josephine Tewson, Mitch Ryder (The Detroit Wheels), Sandie Shaw, Sharyn McCrumb, Elizabeth George, Emma Kirkby, Jonathan Cain, Michael Bolton, Rupert Keegan, Kevin Dunn, Joe Mullen, Greg Germann, Susan J. Helms, Kelly Gruber, Chase Masterson, Mark Dacascos, Mark Fortier, Currie Graham, Tim Commerford (Rage Against The Machine), Ed Quinn, J.T. Snow, Steve Agee, Erykah Badu, Max Martin, Jenny Thompson, Marty Reasoner, Greg Rikaart, Tim Thomas, Josh Towers, Corinne Bailey Rae, Gary Majewski, Kertus Davis, Nate Ruess (Fun), Kara Monaco, Alexandria Hilfiger, Hannah Kearney, Teresa Palmer, and Taylor Dooley.

Today’s blog subject also is celebrating a birthday.  Birthday number 85, to be specific.

So, right off the bat, this should tell you that our subject was born on February 26, 1928.

Our subject was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and grew up in the district known as the Lower Ninth Ward (the same area that was nearly wiped off the map in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina flooded the majority of the city).  His first language was Creole, and he was surrounded by music at an early age, with his father playing the violin, and his uncle being jazz guitarist Harrison Verrett.  I suppose his upbringing might have something to do with the fact that he had thirty-five singles charting on the Top 40 charts during his heyday, and released five gold records before he was thirty years old.

And, the reason why I mentioned Hurricane Katrina in the paragraph above?  I’ll get to that in a minute.

For now, let’s take a look at the life and career of Antoine Dominique Domino Jr.  Of course, those of you who might have been fans of his will know him best as Fats Domino, who turns eighty-five years old today!

Fats Domino first started to get attention as a recording artist at the age of just twenty-one, when he recorded his first single, “The Fat Man” in December 1949.  He co-wrote the song with Dave Bartholomew, and was recorded for Imperial Records at J&M Studio (run by Cosimo Matassa) in New Orleans.  While Domino sang and played the piano on the record, the rest of the band was made up of Earl Palmer (drums), Frank Fields (string bass), Ernest McLean (guitar), and four saxophone players (Herbert Hardesty, Clarence Hall, Joe Harris, and “Red” Tyler).

The song became a minor hit in New Orleans by Christmas 1949, with Imperial Records claiming that the single had sold ten thousand copies in ten days!  By 1953, the song had sold a million copies!  And, from that first single (which many people consider to be one of the first rock and roll records ever released), Fats Domino’s career continued to take off.

It took Fats Domino about five years to make a crossover into the more mainstream pop charts, but when Domino released the 1955 single “Ain’t That A Shame” reached the #1 position on what was called the Black Singles Chart (it peaked at #10 on the Pop Charts), it was kind of overshadowed by the fact that a cover version by Pat Boone that same year hit the #1 position on the charts for two weeks!  Of course, one of the speculated reasons behind the reason why Pat Boone’s version did better on the charts than Fats Domino’s version was because Boone’s version received more airplay in states and cities that were more racially-segregated.  Though, it appeared that Fats Domino’s feelings weren’t hurt too much.  He did compliment Boone for singing the song so well.

TRIVIA:  The Four Seasons also recorded a version of the song “Ain’t That A Shame” in 1963, which peaked at #22 on the charts.

Here’s some more trivia surrounding the debut album of Fats Domino.  Did you know that it was released with two different titles?  When the album was originally released in November 1955, it was under the name of “Carry on Rockin’”.  It was subsequently released as “Rock and Rollin’ with Fats Domino” in early 1956.

And, no matter what name the album went under, this single below ended up becoming one of Fats Domino’s biggest hits.

Although “Blueberry Hill” was not an original Fats Domino composition (it was originally released in 1940 by the trio of Vincent Rose, Al Lewis, and Larry Stock), it peaked at #2 on the Pop Charts in 1956.  It became his biggest hit, selling over five million copies between 1956 and 1957, and it would forever be immortalized by Ron Howard in the television series “Happy Days”, when his character, Richie Cunningham, would sing the opening line of the song in several episodes of the sitcom.

Fats Domino would continue to have much success on the charts throughout the 1950s and early 1960s with singles such as “I’m Walkin’”, “Valley of Tears”, “Whole Lotta Loving”, “Be My Guest”, “Walkin’ To New Orleans”, and “My Girl Josephine”.  Of course, that success did not come without some lows...perhaps the most public display of this came in November 1956, when a riot broke out during one of his concerts in North Carolina.  The riot got so out of hand that Domino had to escape out of a window!

Domino remained with Imperial Records until 1963, when the company was sold.  During his time with Imperial, he had recorded sixty singles in total, with two-thirds of those songs placing within the Top 10 on the R & B charts alone!  In 1963, Domino moved to a new label, ABC-Paramount Records...but the change in record label came at a price.  He was forced to relocate from New Orleans to Nashville, and was assigned a new producer and arranger, which effectively put an end to the partnership he shared with Dave Bartholomew (though they would later reunite in the late 1960s when Domino joined Bartholomew’s Broadmoor label).  The change in label and personnel also changed the sound of Domino’s sound, and despite recording almost a dozen singles with the record company, only one (1963’s “Red Sails in the Sunset”) charted within the Top 40.  Domino left ABC-Paramount in 1965, and continued recording at a variety of labels before deciding to cease recording new material in the early 1970s.

By the 1980s, Domino returned to New Orleans to spend the rest of his life, and despite being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 with the opportunity to perform at the White House, he refused to go.  He was finished with touring (he had said in numerous interviews that he didn’t like going on tours), and he already had a comfortable income from song royalties.  He moved to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, and remained there until the mid-2000s. 

In the late night hours of August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was about to make landfall in New Orleans, and while many of the residents of New Orleans fled the city or took shelter in the Superdome, Fats Domino opted to stay at his home with his family because of the fact that his wife was in poor health.  When Katrina passed over New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward was almost completely flooded, and one of the houses that were affected was Fats Domino’s.

In fact, Fats Domino’s home was so badly damaged that it was initially believed that Domino had died in the storm, because nobody close to him had heard from him since.  It wasn’t until September 1, 2005 that everyone learned that Fats Domino and his family were rescued by the Coast Guard, and evacuated to a shelter in Baton Rouge.  Sadly, Fats Domino ended up losing everything in the hurricane, but he still had his family, which was more important.

Slowly, but surely, Fats Domino’s life has gotten back on track.  The National Medal of Arts Award that Fats Domino was awarded in 1997 was destroyed in the hurricane, but on August 29, 2006 - the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – Domino was awarded a replacement medal by President George W. Bush.  Domino also released an album in 2006, in which all the proceeds from the album went to the Tipitina’s Foundation (a charity designed to benefit local musicians).  Domino was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by OffBeat Magazine in January 2007.  Nine months later, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.  And, in May 2009, Fats Domino sat in the audience at “The Domino Effect”, a concert named after the legend aimed at rebuilding schools and playgrounds in New Orleans neighbourhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

So, I suppose it’s fitting that Fats Domino would spend his retirement years helping raise awareness towards the city that he has called “home” for the majority of his 85 years on this Earth.

Happy birthday, Fats Domino!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Soul Food

For this edition of the weekly Monday Matinee, I want to talk about soul food.

Yes. Soul Food.

I decided that I would bring up the topic of soul food because it is something that can be linked to “Black History Month”. After all, “soul food” is cuisine that is typically found and consumed in African-American households.

It really wasn't until the 1960s that the words “soul food” were coined in modern day vocabulary, and some examples of soul food are fried chicken, ham hocks, sweet potatoes, okra, cornbread, grits, peach cobbler, and black-eyed peas. Not those Black-Eyed Peas. I mean, these ones.

Now, in the United States, “soul food” began to gain in popularity around the Southern states around the 1960s, but the origin of soul food began much, much earlier in and around Africa and Europe. Back in the era where slave trading was commonplace, food items such as rice, sorghum, and okra were introduced to the Americas via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was said that these items became the main staples traditionally found in the diet of an African slave. In Europe, the conditions were even harsher, as slaves often ate whatever scraps were left over from the plantation. For example, the “vegetables” that the slaves ate might consist of a mixture of turnip tops, beet tops, and even dandelions!

As time passed, the menus became more and more elaborate and unique based on the limited amount of ingredients that they had to work with. Mustards, collards, and kale were used more often for greens. Discarded cuts of meat like ham hocks, pigs' feet, and tripe were used for main courses. Onions and garlic were used as flavour enhancers. And, because there were laws in place that made it illegal to teach slaves to read or write, many of the earliest recipes that were created had to be passed through word of mouth from slave to slave...often creating a set of brand new recipes in the process.

TRIVIA: The very first cookbook dedicated to soul food was composed by Abby Fisher in 1881. The title of the cookbook was “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking”.

One of the traditions associated with soul food is the idea of it being the glue that held African-American family celebrations together (something that I had no idea about until I began to do the research for this blog). If you pick up a modern day version of a cookbook devoted to soul food, one of the key points that you might notice is the emphasis on sharing. And, really, that's the whole purpose of soul food...a way to bring families together to share their traditions and values while being grateful for the meal that they are about to eat.

I suppose it's kind of similar to Thanksgiving...except that these gatherings are held more than once, and there's no turkey in sight. But still, reading more about the traditions associated with soul sounds really nice.

So, I thought to there a feature film that features soul food, as well as bonds between African-American families?

And, the answer is...yes.

On September 26, 1997, the feature film “Soul Food” was released in theatres. Although it only made $43 million at the box office, it was made on a budget of seven and a half million dollars, so it did make a profit.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia about the movie “Soul Food”. Did you know that one of the producers for the film was R & B singer/songwriter Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds? And, the film was directed by George Tillman Jr, who would later direct the highly successful 2004 film “Barbershop”.

This film also boasts a long list of highly successful African-American actors and actresses, including Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Mekhi Pfifer, Michael Beach, and Irma P. Hall.

The film is told completely from the point of view of one of the youngest members of the Joseph family. Eleven-year-old Ahmad (Brandon Hammond) is the son of middle Joseph sibling, Maxine (Fox) and her husband, Kenny (Jeffrey D. Sams). And, this is a marriage that has caused some bad blood between Maxine and eldest Joseph daughter, Teri (Williams). The reason why this is so is because Teri used to be Kenny's girlfriend until Maxine stole him away from her and married him. Despite the fact that Teri moved on with her life and became a very successful lawyer, she still seems to have resentment towards Maxine. Teri ended up marrying another lawyer, Miles (Beach), but Miles has a dream of making it big as the keyboardist of a R & B group called “Milestone”, and this causes tension between Miles and Teri because Teri doesn't seem to support him.

Adding to the tension is youngest Joseph daughter Robin (Long), who goes by the nickname of “Bird” in the film. Bird has just started up a new business (a combination barbershop/beauty salon), and she has just gotten married to Lem (Pfifer). What should be a happy time for Bird is marred by her family's disapproval of her choice of mate, because Lem spent time in prison.

Still, despite all of these obvious “soap opera plot” tensions within the family, they all manage to put aside the feelings of animosity, anger, and jealousy each and every Sunday night when the matriarch of the family, Mother Joe (Hall), prepares a feast of soul food for everybody to stuff their faces with. It has been a tradition that Mother Joe has kept going for four decades, and she was determined not to let anything prevent her from keeping the Sunday tradition alive.

Until one fateful day when Mother Joe ended up in the hospital.

Mother Joe had been battling diabetes for a while when the film began, and the effects of the disease forced her to have one of her legs amputated. During the operation, Mother Joe suffers a devastating stroke, which has left her comatose. This means that the person who kept the family together was unconscious, and the Sunday soul food feasts came to an end...which meant that the tension between the Joseph sisters grew even hotter.

Teri, for instance, decides out of the goodness of her heart to take in her troubled cousin, Faith (Gina Ravera)...but when Teri discovers Faith in bed with Miles, this sets the stage for one explosive confrontation. Meanwhile, Bird tries everything to help Lem find employment (which is a difficult task for him given his past conviction). She tries to get her ex-boyfriend (whoops) to help Lem find a job, but the fallout that comes from that request puts Lem back in the slammer (double whoops).

Meanwhile, Maxine and Kenny have their third child, and at first are seemingly the only couple to remain stable since Mother Joe fell ill. But then old wounds resurface, and the tension between Teri and Maxine blows up in both of their faces, and soon enough, their constant fighting and bickering tears the whole family apart.

Devastated by the constant arguing and the chaos that has erupted in the family since Mother Joe's stroke, Ahmad tries to come up with a plan to bring the family back together to resume their Sunday night dinner tradition with the hope of smoothing out the tension between the Joseph sisters. But when he goes about it by telling a little white lie involving Mother Joe and a secret stash of wonders if his plan will do more harm than good.

And, you'll just have to keep wondering, because I'm not going to spoil the ending!

But, I will share with you a little trivia about some of the behind the scenes things you might not have known. For instance...

  • Before Vanessa L. Williams was cast in the role of Teri, other people considered for the role included Halle Berry and the late Whitney Houston (wow...Whitney was considered for both this role, and as Sondra Huxtable).
  • Vivica A. Fox also auditioned for the role of Teri, but producers felt she was a better fit for the role of Maxine.
  • Before Nia Long was cast in the role of Bird, other actresses that were considered included Regina King, Kenya Moore, and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

  • Milestone was made up of some rather famous faces in the music industry. In addition to Beach, the rest of the band was made up of K-Ci and JoJo, and Babyface and his brothers Melvin and Kevon Edmonds.

  • The soundtrack album for the movie was released in 1997, and contained the Boyz II Men single “A Song For Mama”, and Earth, Wind, & Fire's “September”.
  • The film won four NAACP Image Awards in 1998, including the award for Best Picture.
  • The film was adapted into a cable television series in 2000. Irma P. Hall was the only cast member to reprise the same role in both the film and the TV series.
  • In a weird connection, all three lead actresses once starred on the television series “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” as love interests for Will Smith!
  • Malinda Williams, who portrayed Bird in the television series, was once married to Mekhi Pfifer, who played Bird's husband in the movie!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ebony and Ivory

This is the tale of two men, both of whom became successes in their own rights, teaming up to create a song that became a number one hit for several weeks on the Billboard charts.  Although their backgrounds were quite different, and they each took a different route to stardom, their duet not only brought them together, but created a song that was brilliant, had a deeper meaning than what it was, and was a symbol of racial harmony.

It’s a perfect song to close off the final Sunday in “Black History Month”.

In the case of one man, he was a member of one of the biggest, most popular bands to ever come out of Britain, and together with his bandmates released twelve studio albums, thirteen EPs, and well over fifty-five singles, many reaching the top of the charts.  Even after the band split up in 1970, this man continued his career with another band throughout the 1970s and early 1980s before that band split up in 1981.  Within a year, he recorded and released today’s featured song with another music legend.

You see, this other man became a superstar despite having only four of his major senses intact.  He was a child prodigy, and signed his first record deal at just eleven years of age!  He has released at least thirty singles that have charted within the Top 10, and he holds the record for most Grammy Awards won by a solo male artist, with twenty-two awards at last count!  He was a leader in the campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday (which was first observed January 20, 1986), and in 2009, he was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Not bad, huh?

Have you guessed our blog subjects for today?

If you guessed Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, you’re bang on the money.  And, this was the collaboration that they worked on together thirty-one years ago.

ARTIST:  Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder
SONG:  Ebony and Ivory
ALBUM:  Tug of War
DATE RELEASED:  March 29, 1982

Nope, that’s not a misprint.  The song peaked at #1 the week of May 15, 1982, and remained on the top of the charts until June 26, 1982, when it was dethroned by The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”.  That’s seven weeks.

In regards to this song, this was Paul McCartney’s longest-running chart topper post-Beatles, and for Stevie Wonder, it was his longest-running #1 hit ever!  But, there are lots of other things about this song that you probably didn’t know.

Did you know that the song has one of those double entendre meanings?  It’s true.  The simple meaning has to do with the music video.  Notice how there seems to be a lot of focus on piano keys?  Well, what do you think piano keys are made out of?  The top keys are made of ebony, while the bottom keys are ivory.  And, McCartney admitted that he came up with the title for the song after being inspired by a quote uttered by Spike Milligan...”Black notes, white notes, and you need to play the two to make harmony, folks!”

This explains why the chorus makes references to being “side by side”, and “in perfect harmony”.

But, the second meaning is quite interesting, as the song promotes racial harmony.  After all, McCartney is white, and Wonder is black, and they’re performing side by side in perfect harmony, aren’t they?

The song was recorded in studio at the same time by McCartney and Wonder, but when it came down to filming the accompanying music video, there were work conflicts that prevented both of them from meeting up with each other to film the video together.  What ended up happening was that McCartney and Wonder recorded their parts separately, and the footage was spliced together into one video.  I’ll admit, the editing staff did a great job, as it’s nearly impossible to tell that both parts were filmed separately.

Here’s another interesting fact.  There was a temporary ban of the song in the country of South Africa at the time of its release...which unfortunately coincided with the Apartheid era.  As far as I know though, the ban was lifted following the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela.

And, one more fact.  While the song is ranked at #59 on the list of Billboard’s Greatest Songs of All Time, it was also ranked on Blender Magazine’s list of Worst Songs of All Time at #10.  So there’s definitely a clear divide in regards to whether people love it or hate it.

Myself?  I love it.  But, then again, there’s very little that Stevie Wonder has released that I despise.  He’s probably one of the most influential artists to ever make his presence on the music charts.

And, considering that it’s “Black History Month” (and the fact that I remember doing at least three separate blog entries on Paul McCartney alone), I thought that I would close this entry off by delving into the rich history of Stevie Wonder, the trip he took to get to the “Ebony and Ivory” sessions, and what he has done since.

Stevie Wonder was born Stevland Hardaway Morris (try saying that three times fast) on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan.  Stevie was born six weeks prematurely, and one of the complications that happened was that Stevie was born without his sight.  Not that being born blind ever was a roadblock for Stevie.

When Stevie was just four years old, his parents split up and his mother packed up the family and moved to Detroit, where he became interested in playing music.  When he was growing up, he sang in his church choir, and by the time he was ten, he had learned how to play the piano, harmonica, bass, and drums!

In 1961, the brother of “The Miracles” band member, Ronnie White heard Stevie singing, and practically dragged Ronnie over to Stevie’s house to listen to him perform at his home.  White was so impressed by Stevie’s talent that he arranged a meeting with Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who immediately signed the eleven-year-old prodigy to the company’s Tamla label under the recording name of “Little Stevie Wonder”.

By the age of thirteen, he had already scored a huge hit with “Fingertips (Pt. 2)”, which topped the charts for three weeks in August 1963!  He became the youngest artist ever to have a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, a record that to this day remains unbroken.  The following year, Wonder made his feature film debut in the 1964 film “Muscle Beach Party”.  And, by 1965, he had dropped the “Little” from his stage name, and continued to make history by scoring one hit right after another.  Most teenagers were content hanging out at the drive-in theatre, going to school dances, and sharing a chocolate shake at the malt shop...but then again, Stevie Wonder was anything but your typical teenager. 

Would you like to know some of the songs that became huge hits during his teenage years?  Well, there was 1966’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, which hit #3, there was 1967’s “I Was Made To Love Her”, which charted at #2, and the peak position for “My Cherie Amour” was #4 in 1969.  And, those are just three singles in Stevie’s huge catalogue!  All three of them peaking within the Top 5, all before Stevie turned twenty.  That is phenomenal.

As if recording vocals for his own songs wasn’t enough, Stevie Wonder was responsible for coming up with the background music for the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles single “The Tears of a Clown”, which was released in September 1970.  So, he not only had hits by himself, but he helped other artists come up with their own successes on the charts.  Is there anything that Stevie Wonder couldn’t do?

His success continued throughout the 1970s.  He had a #3 hit with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”, back-to-back #1 singles with 1972’s “Superstition”, and 1973’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, another #1 hit came courtesy of his collaboration with the Jackson Five on the single “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”, and he once again had back-to-back #1’s in 1977 with “I Wish” and “Sir Duke”.

And, this brings us to the year 1982, and his collaboration with Paul McCartney, which would become Stevie’s seventh #1 hit!  

I think I can state with absolute certainty that Stevie Wonder did not let his inability to see stop him from having a rich, rewarding career in the music industry.  And, just going back to the theme of “Ebony and Ivory”, I believe that Stevie Wonder helped encourage other young artists of all racial backgrounds realize that there was a door open for them to achieve their dreams.  It didn’t matter whether you were black or white, it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, and it didn’t matter if you had the ability to see or not...if Stevie Wonder managed to find a way to make his dreams come true when the odds were against him, then that should give anyone the strength and courage to pursue their goals and dreams that they themselves have.

Stevie Wonder’s career continues well after the release of “Ebony and Ivory”.  I still remember being a kid and hearing “I Just Called To Say I Love You” on the radio at least a dozen times a day.  And, why wouldn’t it have was his eighth #1 single.  “Part-Time Lover” became his ninth, and the collaboration that he did with Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Gladys Knight (That’s What Friends Are For) hit #1 as well.

And, well...I suppose if you wanted to stretch things a bit, you could argue that his contribution to U.S.A. for Africa’s “We Are The World” was his eleventh #1 hit...although he shared the honour with at least thirty other artists.  Maybe we’ll call it ten and a half?

At any rate, there’s one final footnote that I want to make before I close off this blog for another day.  When it came down to performing the single “Ebony and Ivory” live in concert, both McCartney and Wonder performed the single during their tours following the release of the single, but they never performed the single live together...

...that is until 2011 when they performed the single together for the first time in twenty-nine years at the White House in Washington D.C.