Black History Month “They Call Me Mister Tibbs”

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As some of you may know, as a young lad, my world was very small and insulated…“Neverland”.  There was so much  happening right around me, but as a child, rightfully so, I was so unaware.  I still think that’s a good thing.  A child should be able to be to look at the world…his or her world, through their own eyes and also through the filtered eyes of their parents.  So you can imagine how big my eyes grew when I saw the movie “Blackboard Jungle” which was shown on TV one special Friday night.

What was so special about this Friday was that a few weeks prior to its showing, two events drew the attention of the media and so-called concerns of citizens in Detroit.  One event happened at my junior high school, Nolan, and the second event took place exactly one week later at the neighborhood high school, Pershing.

The Nolan event was a fight where one student had a knife.  It was a table knife that he had stolen from the school cafeteria.  I was right there when the knife was pulled and at the same time cops pulled up.  We ran like the proverbial roaches from light in all directions.  It was a fight between two black boys…you know the situation, friends for life, before and after.  The incident, so you know, was small potatoes in the hood but it became a big deal even in a city as big as Detroit was then…because of the knife.

The fight at Pershing again was between two black kids and this time it was a switchblade, as I recall.  The “establishment” went absolutely crazy!!!  There was a media explosion…editorials, exposé’s, re-hashes of past times and there were meetings and panels trying to figure out what had suddenly gone wrong with our kids and society.

And that is why on that special night the local television station showed the movie.  It was supposed to show what it is like in classrooms across America.  Blackboard Jungle wasn’t the only cautionary tale about high school life.  But it had one thing that most of the “ripped from the headlines” movies didn’t have…a great cast.  It featured Glenn Ford (Teacher) a young Vic Morrow (Bad Kid), Ann Francis (Wife), Richard Kiley (Music Teacher), Jamie Farr (Kid) and of course…Sydney Poitier!  It also featured the song that “marked the rock and roll revolution”, Bill Haley and His Comets “Rock Around the Clock”.  It was Number One on Billboard for 8 weeks, not bad for a boy from Highland Park, MI.

The first time I saw this movie I was still a child, eleven years old, with my insulated brain.  My world wasn’t like this and as enlightening as it was on a social level it was also kind of scary.  It felt so good that Detroit as I knew it, was not like the schools portrayed in this movie or any other.

So here I was watching a movie where blacks were in an integrated environment and were more than a backdrop.  I wasn’t crazy about the stereotype of blacks singing gospel songs at the drop of the hat, but he was an intelligent young man that in more ways than one I could relate to.

After that I paid more attention to the actor, Sydney Poitier.  I couldn’t help but notice that his roles and movies were pretty reflective of what was happening at the time.  Hollywood had a foil that they could use as an embraceable voice to society and he was good, make that very good at doing just that.  Most of his major roles were exercises on civil rights.  And he had many firsts in roles, billings and awards. Here’s a short list of his socially trailblazing movies…

·        Blackboard Jungle 1955

·        Edge of the City 1957

·        The Defiant Ones (with Tony Curtis) 1958

·        All the Young Men 1960

·        A Raisin In the Sun 1961

·        Pressure Point (with Bobby Darin) 1962

·        Lilies of the Field (Best Actor Oscar) 1963

·        A Patch of Blue 1965

·        To Sir With Love 1967

·        In the Heat of the Night 1967

·        Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? 1967

Sydney was the consummate actor and he could stand his ground with any actor and this list of movies notwithstanding, his range as an actor was incredible.  I am sure some roles were his by default, especially since he, as most actors of his generation, worked constantly.

So, in a retro-fitted way Sydney Poitier became that role model that a lot of people, including myself and probably a few people in my immediate family bought in to.  “Blackboard Jungle” did demonstrate in a raw kind of way that an “intelligent, savvy, street-wise, mentally strong black man, whether or not he was always socially correct”, could deal with white society (the establishment) at any level.  Many a time you would hear parents/adults admonish a black child or young adult saying “you should be like that a… SIT-NEE POE-TEE-AIR”.  That stopped around the time he married Johanna Shimkus, of course.

His accurate portrayals, of young black men at different emotional stages, like the role as Walter Lee Younger, in the film “A Raisin in the Sun” were impressive!  Walter Lee, who really wanted to be in charge of his own destiny, was hustled out of his money by actor Roy Glenn and so went his dream of getting out of the ghetto.  This film is loaded with great actors too.  Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands and Lou Gossett, Jr., were the featured performers.  I was 11 also when this movie came out and because it wasn’t “Godzilla or War of the Worlds”, I missed it.  But I saw this and another flick “Nothing Like a Man” starring Ivan Dixon, 3 times each in high school…Pershing High, knife fight, Pershing High.

I was really seeing more of what the world was really like through his movies.  Some fit right in with my little insulated world, like “A Patch of Blue”, the interracial love story, for one.  With the diversity surrounding us, just on the three blocks we lived on, we had a unique, yet special view of the world. Not special like we were the only ones to have such an existence, but like if we could have it why couldn’t everybody else live in harmony like we did.

The world changed as I got more mobile and uniquely so did Sydney’s roles.  First there was “To Sir With Love!”  This was a movie I totally resisted seeing at first.  I thought it was wimpy.  I knew the theme “black man raises the level of life and expectations of working-class kids and families”…another savior film.  This was not a movie that could have been distributed everywhere in the states so it was a little daring.

If you are old enough to remember the fashion and look of the times, Mary Quant cosmetics, etc., then you know how the look in film transferred to the kids walking the streets between Woodward and Van Dyke Streets between 7 and 8 Mile Rds.

My friend, Tessie Green, dragged me to see it one snowy Saturday afternoon. It was playing at the Palms Theatre.  The place was packed…there was such a mix of young and old, white and black, men and mostly women theatergoers.  It was good…admittedly; it was a great story and very well acted by all.  With just the right amount of sentiment and racial/social references.  What a success for the middle-class!

I remember when my buddy, future brother-in-law, Rickey and I went to see “In the Heat of the Night”.  Even in “Neverland”, it was hard not to know what was going on across the south and ghettos everywhere.  You saw “Burn Baby Burn” scrawled or posted everywhere as cities were burning down.  Racial tensions were high and here comes a movie that hangs it all out there in living color.

The opening scenes of the movie show us a man sitting at a lonely train station unaware that his life was going to change in a blink of an eye.  A black man, all alone, when a murder happens?  This is not a good thing, even if he wasn’t black, so this sets the stage for a journey that two men take as they learn about race relations, dignity and pride, two words that you always think about when you think of Sydney Poitier.

It was a fascinating movie, with great performances by Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, William Schallert and the great Beah Richards.  It had a lot of plot twists and devices that showed the good and bad of the old south.  Bad traditions and social stereotypes were displayed to the naked eye.  The movie manifested everything I had feared about the south.  Nobody I knew at this time was singing, “Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton”.

In this movie, a man is briefly stripped and denied everything he stands for.  The words I had heard many times before, “I don’t know why you try so hard…you’re still a nigga to dem,” were marching through my mind.  As it is in most movies the good guy does win out, but you had some doubt as to how until Sydney’s Virgil exclaimed, “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!”  No more “boy” stuff as many a black man has heard and not just in the south.  Women had R-E-S-P-E-C-T!  Men now had D-I-G-N-I-T-Y!

Powerful words, said at the right time.  That single line has been recognized by the American Film Institute also.  It is ranked #16 on the institute’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes, a list of top film quotes.  And an untold amount of black mens backbones got a little firmer and straighter and they sought to take back or hold onto the two things that they were born with.

I never saw “Guess Who’s Coming Over for Dinner”.  That was too much like life in Neverland.  Only, we had breakfast and lunch thrown in there for good measure.  Integrated families, neighborhoods and schools were part of the existence.  Socially, I thought I was already past it.  But what was good theatre of polite chatter in a sophisticated world, totally different words and attitudes were being used and displayed in the real world.  I was personally surprised when I found this out. My naiveté was exposed once again and though they were merely speed bumps on the road of life, lessons that needed to be learned were learned.  Nonetheless, social consciousness was again raised and attitudes were again exposed, by a Sydney Poitier movie where people had to ask themselves “what if”?

Subsequent to the start of this project, I discussed its status with my brother Isaac and he had a few more suggestions, like

  • No Way Out 1950
  • The Edge of the City 1957
  • For the Love of Ivy 1968
  • A Warm December (directed by S. P.) 1974

I didn’t initially remember “No Way Out”, but after hearing his re-telling of the movie outline, I definitely remember it now.

So that’s my story for Black History Month.  I hope that it as enhanced your appreciation for a noteworthy black artist…a black artistic historical figure, whose impact on society and my life via his movies/roles is undeniable.  Ladies and Gentlemen…SIT-NEE POE-TEE-AIR!

Black History Month: “The Deuce” Oscar Hammerstein II

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Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerst...

Oscar Hammerstein II ( Wikipedia)

(July 12, 1895 – August 23, 1960)

Believe it or not today’s article is about a non-black man.  A man that I sincerely believe understood the mindset and the tragic conditions of black men and women in the past and the current times until his death in 1960. It wasn’t until a recent show about his life on PBS that led me to this conclusion.  In a minute, I will tell you why I came to this belief, but before I go any further, I should tell you the name of whom I am talking about…Oscar Hammerstein II.

Oscar Hammerstein II was the product of the entertainment industry.  His grandfather, who he was named after, was a respected vaudevillian that owned the Village Theatre in New York City.  His father managed the theatre and according to sources, was opposed to his son’s desire to participate in the arts.  It was not until he died that young Oscar participated in his first play, a college variety show called On Your Way.  Ultimately, Oscar had a very celebrated career, winning awards eight Tony Awards and two Academy Awards for Best Original Song.  Many of his songs have become standard repertoire for singers and jazz musicians through the years.  He co-wrote 850 songs.  Hammerstein was the lyricist and playwright in his musical partnerships; his collaborators wrote the music.  He collaborated with composers Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, Rudolf Frinl, Richard A. Whiting and Sigmund Romberg; but his most famous collaboration by far, was with Richard Rodgers(A list of some of his most noteworthy work/songs can be found below.)

So what did he do that makes him worthy of my modest black history acknowledgement? Two of his works, to me, strengthen my position.  The first is Showboat, a musical that I initially saw as a film, first in black and white that featured the great Paul Robeson as “Joe” and a second time a 1951 production that was filmed in color and in “Cinemascope” that featured William Warfield also as “Joe”.   The casting of Ava Gardner in the latter film was really an insult, I’ve never had much respect for her as an actor and in this case, she was definitely miscast.  The second work that I think makes him a noteworthy individual was his production of “Carmen Jones”, an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, that had an all-black cast that initially was a Broadway musical in 1943 and a film in 1954.  The film starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry BelafonteOtto Preminger, whom Dandridge had an affair with for nearly 4 years, also directed it.  A third musical, South Pacific also dealt with racial issues.

Hammerstein was one of the more tough-minded and socially conscious American musical theater artists and it definitely shows as he delved deeply into the black culture in these two pieces of work.  He did not run from the racial prejudices of his time.  Showboat’s bold underlying plot was about miscegenation…interracial relationships and marriages. At the time, many states, if not most in the U.S., had laws preventing it.  He didn’t mince words either…his plays, especially this one, used the words of the day.  Negroes were “Nigga’s” and “boys” and “mammies”.  In today’s politically correct times, the use of those words, even in the context of the times, are intolerable to some.

True story:  I saw the revival production of Showboat twice, the first time in Toronto (more about that experience will come later) and the second time at the Masonic Temple in Detroit.  For the Detroit performance, I took a black friend who was so incensed and offended by the words and terms that were used in the play, we had to leave and we were only 20 minutes into the performance.  Every time a white performer used the “N-word” she winced.  She ultimately chastised me for bringing her to the performance, dinner was cancelled and any romantic notion that I might have had as far as she was concerned was over…stick a fork in…it was done (forevvvvver)!  She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t offended too.  At $100 per ticket it would have taken a lot to have offended me and anyway I wasn’t responsible for the words, it wasn’t like I could change them.  To be truthful, why would I?  The play was a story about the south in the 1800’s, the time of showboats, and racial epithets were used all of the time.  If it happened in “polite” society, would you…could you expect it to be any different on the docks.  It represented the reality of those times, not that you had to like it…and I tend to think that he wanted you to hate it, because he didn’t like it either.  Some say that when you look at the overall body of his work, Oscar was a softy, a sentimentalist.  I move that he had to be that to grace his characters with the dignity and genuine humility that they portrayed.  I can guarantee that the actors that performed his words…sang/spoke the lines he wrote, were just as proud to be his vessels, as the, many of us were that heard them.

Another true story…January 1994, I went to Toronto, with a very special lady I was seeing at the time, to see the first run of Showboat at The North York Performing Arts Centre.  This was the first time I saw it.  The second time was the ill-fated occasion at the Masonic Temple.  With regards to the performance, the setting…the staging was far better than what I subsequently saw back home in Detroit, plus it had our hometown star, Lonette McKee.  The stage was HUGE! It made good use of the technology of the times…lighting, set design, for a while it was the best set I had ever seen (I loved Les Mis too) and the most dynamic.  Anyway, my girlfriend and I had great seats.  We were first row, just slightly off center…it was such an unexpected surprise that we sat so close.  When I got home I sent a card to thank my travel agent.

So, anyway, the lights go down and the show begins with a couple of songs.  Finally, they get to Old Man River.  The character “Joe”, played marvelously by Michel Bell, comes on stage looking right at me, smiles, and goes into the song.  It was fabulous!!!  The next song was Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, a group performance that included Joe, Lonette MeKee’s character “Julie” and Joe’s wife “Queenie”, who was played by Gretha Boston.  One by one whenever a black performer came on stage they looked at me, smiled and sung each song as if they were performing for me.  I got chills from Gretha’s “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun”.  It wasn’t my birthday and I must admit that I felt a little self-conscious.  I wondered if anybody else had noticed or was I just dreaming.  At the end of the show, m’lady asked how did it feel to have a private performance of the musical.  I confessed that I loved it immensely, surprised that she noticed it too, and was very happy that I hadn’t imagined it all.  When we stood to leave we turned to see that I was the only black person in the audience.  They were performing for me (and of course, my girl as she was sitting next to me)!  How COOL was that?

The revival of Hammerstein and Kern’s adaptation of the Edna Farber book was a tremendous success.  Like Mark Twain’s work I hope that his or Ms. Farber’s efforts survive the politically correct censors that walk the streets today.  PC cannot or should not be retrofitted on classic works…of literature, art or performance.  Oscar Hammerstein was not just one of a kind.  There are many like him…that have a sensibility about the characters and situations that they write about. He reminds me of Mark Twain, another fantastic storyteller.  I hope there will be no attempt to “sanitize” his words, as they were trying at one time to Twain’s work.

Oscar Hammerstein II was and remains a transformative figure in the history of Broadway and musical history.  His honest use of dialect and language makes for some “powerful” playmaking and his legacy shall live on forever!

Play List

Showboat

  • Ol’ Man River
  • Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man
  • Make Believe
  • Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’

Oklahoma

  • Oklahoma
  • People Will Say We’re Falling In Love
  • Oh, What A Beautiful Morning
  • The Surrey With The Fringe On Top

Carousel

  • You’ll Never Walk Alone
  • If I Loved You
  • June Is Bustin’ Out All Over

South Pacific

  • Some Enchanted Evening
  • Bali Hai
  • You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught
  • I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair

King & I

  • Getting To Know You
  • Shall We Dance
  • Something Wonderful!
  • Whistle A Happy Tune

Sound of Music

  • Sound of Music
  • Climb Every Mountain
  • Do-Re-Mi
  • Edelweiss

Lady In Red

  • The Last Time I Saw Paris

State Fair

  • It Might As Well Be Spring

Source: Wikipedia

BLACK HISTORY MONTH – The Work of Wendy Woods Jackson

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As part of Black History Month, I would like to introduce you to Wendy Woods Jackson.  Ms. Jackson is a writer that currently resides in Texas where she now teaches school.  Born in 1959 to Henry and Ruth Woods in Indianapolis, Indiana, she is the second of four children.  She attended St. Monica Catholic School, Ladywood-St. Agnes Academy in Indianapolis and subsequently enrolled in the HBCU (in case you don’t know…that is a Historic Black College/University)…Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina where she achieved B.A.& B.S. Degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Journalism.

Upon leaving college, Ms. Woods (Jackson) worked with the late Earnest R. Rather on his book “The Chicago Negro Almanac and Reference Guide”.

Wendy enjoyed a successful 20-year career at the Dallas Morning News where she wrote the prestigious 56-year-old column “Shopping the Town”.  Wendy is a “Silver Star” member of Alpha Kappa Sorority, Incorporated and is an active member in the Omicron Mu Omega chapter in Dallas.  She is the proud married mother of twins, Justin Wayne and Jennifer Ruth Jackson.

What makes Wendy a noteworthy person for Black History Month is that she is more than a writer.  When you read her material, what comes through loud and clear, is that she is a historian/preservationist as well.  Through her stories, she has preserved the tone and spirit of days gone by and the culture of the people that have preceded us. With her words, she deftly takes you on a journey back into time that is rich with imagery and the vernacular of black people of the day.  Her portrayals of the times are vividly strong, provocative and accurate.  Though, we now live in a time where some people are inclined to revise our literature and our history to make it “politically correct” (think Mark Twain, school books in Texas, the U.S. Constitution), she pulls no punches and makes no apologies for it.  This is a lady who writes and tells it like it is…or should I say “how it was”.  Oral history written at its very best!

Click Here to read select Excerpts from The Black Vineyard

Her book “A Soulful Christmas Carol” can be found on Amazon.