… Rebecca Walker’s emotional and intellectual transformation through birth

Originally published in The Philadelphia Tribune, Sunday, March 25, 2007

The generation of child bearing women who are now in their twenties and thirties are faced with a myriad of choices as they contemplate pregnancy. Many young women are faced with uncertainty as they juggle the demand of their personal and professional lives. Like other women in her generation, bestselling author Rebecca Walker’s was at a crossroads when making her life altering decision to experience pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood and she share her concerns in her latest memoir, “Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence” (Riverhead Books, $24.95).

For fifteen years Walker recognized a persistent yearning to have a baby but feared actually choosing to do it. As a result, she almost missed what she now knows to be the single most meaningful experience of her life. “When I was writing the book I was thinking a lot about how important it is for young women to strategize and prioritize having a child if its something they want to do and not to let the very finite period of their fertility get past them because of their ambivalence, or because of fear or because of different relationships in their lives that haven’t been resolved. It is such a powerful experience that if you miss it, you miss. It’s a message I really diidn’t get when I was younger, and I wish I had, so I feel like it’s my responsibility having to come into that awareness to just put it out there.”

In Baby Love, Rebecca Walker tells the story of her pregnancy: not just the physical evolution, but also the emotional and intellectual transformation from ambivalence to certainty to unconditional love. It’s the story of the birth of her son, Tenzin, the development of her relationship with her partner, Glen, and the demise of her relationship with her mother and fellow author, Alice Walker.

This older Walker opposes her daughter’s decision to have a baby and challenges Rebecca’s account of their relationship in the memoir “Black, White and Jewish.” Alice ends their relationship and removes Rebecca from her will, and Rebecca endures a tumultuous pregnancy, estranged from her mother as she prepares to become one herself. Tenzin, now 2, has yet to meet his grandmother.

“I think it’s the best thing for everyone’s mental and emotional health,” Walker says. “I support the decisions that I have made to make a better life for my child. I’ve always been open to reconciliation and I always will be, but it has to be in such a way that healing will take place and not harm.”

Like her mother, Walker has received numerous awards and accolades for her writing and activism. The elder Walker is one of the most prolific and important writers of our times, known for her literary fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple (now a major Broadway play).

Walker acknowledges the sacrifice that her mother made to become one of America’s most recognized African American authors. “In many ways, it’s much easier for me than it was my mother,” explained Walker. “There are some differences in terms of the pressures and the arduousness of the task of being an African American woman writer at that time. She had to break ground that I don’t have to. The pressures and the resistance were tremendous in a lot of ways and so the impact on our home life was more intense. I clearly have obstacles that I have to negotiate, but it’s a different time so I think the extreme of the experience won’t be the same for Tenzin.”

As we speak, the sound of birds chirping emanate in the background of the Hawaiian home she’s made with her son and partner. Walker says she has found a secure place, within her self, to enjoy her life and her decisions. Today, Walker draws strength and serenity from the realization that her unconditional love for her son is vastly different from her mother’s love for her.

“I think (motherhood) makes me more appreciative of this journey to have realized that I could have missed it allows to embrace it even more every day,” reflects Walker. “I could just stare at my son for hours. I have to stop myself because I’m just so in awe of the experience. I definitely think that coming close to missing it has made it a more precious experience for me.”



From obscurity to worldwide recognition…the rise of ‘Oh Happy Day!’

First appear in Sunday, March 18th edition of the Philadelphia Tribune.

The power of music was clearly demonstrated in the late 1960’s when a simple song recorded in a church basement became an unlikely social phenomenon. An old gospel song had been revamped by Edwin Hawkins and recorded live with the Northern California State Youth Choir as two-track-recording of 500 copies. Street buzz in the Bay Area lead to the track being picked up by a local DJ and subsequently released commercially. The initially humble recording of “Oh Happy Day” would within months transform the worldwide definition of gospel music, soar into the US Top 5, win a Grammy and secure massive sales worldwide. On an international level, you can guarantee that audiences know the lyrics to “Oh Happy Day” just as well as other merry sing-alongs like “Happy Birthday” and “Jingle Bells.

The funky, soulful and R&B infused gospel sound of “Oh Happy Day” single-handedly ushered in the Contemporary Gospel sound that resonate four decades later. The song also introduced us to the vocals of Tramaine Hawkins, the then-16 year old granddaughter of Bishop E.E. Cleveland, one of the founders of the Church of God in Christ. “When they took it underground and they started playing it on secular radio and it caught on, we went on our first tour to New York,” recalled Hawkins. “It was about 60 of us. And we had chaperones, baby! Some of us had never been out of Oakland. We’d never been out of Berkeley.”

“Oh Happy Day” became an instant classic and propelled the Edwin Hawkins Singers to unexpected major cross over success. “That song opened the door for us,” Hawkins said. “We opened for Diana Ross. We were on with the Jackson 5 singing ” ‘Oh Happy Day.'”

By the 70’s Hawkins had become the lead singer for the best-selling “Love Alive” series (spearheaded by her former husband Walter Hawkins) and quickly became a popular solo artist. She would go on to be inducted into the International Gospel Hall of Fame, win two Grammy Awards, two Dove Awards, an NAACP Image Award and a Gospel Music Excellence Award. With 10 solo albums to her credit and a self-imposed hiatus behind her, Lady Tramaine, as she is now known, has just released her latest CD, “I Never Lost My Praise (Zomba Gospel, $17.95) to rave reviews. Many critics are heralding her reinterpretation of “Oh Happy Day,” which Hawkins recorded solo for the first time in her career. She says it was not only time to memorialize her version of the song, but it was also time to honor the creator of the masterpiece. “I felt it was time to give tribute to Edwin,” said Hawkins. “He started all of this before any of us. Edwin is the one who penned ‘Oh Happy Day’ and put the contemporary sound on the map. It’s time, I feel, to allow him to know how much I appreciated his walk with the Lord. Edwin is the same today as he was in 1968 when we all fell in love with the Edwin Hawkins sound.”

The Hawkins Sound allowed Tramaine to travel the world with her musical ministry. “I’m one of the busiest artists out there without having any material or a CD out there,” said Hawkins, who had in recent years lost both parents, suffered health crises and faced “life altering personal challenges.”

She said it was during the 2000 recording of her last CD, “Still Tramaine” that she “could sense that things were really changing in the music and recording industry. And that wasn’t so comfortable in feeling that I had the kind of passion and desire to deal with all that stuff. I come from a different era, so to speak. I’m grateful for the true pioneers: The Caravans, Mahalia Jackson and all of them. They really put Gospel on the map and they were my mentors. I grew up listening to those trailblazers.”

One of the challenges Hawkins faced was fitting into a new music marketing world where focus groups and chart position determines airtime, and ultimately overall recording income. “I been through some real rough places and had some major disappointment, even with this industry and my own record company,” Hawkins sighed. “After six or more years of not recording and becoming, honestly, real, real disenchanted–uninspired–with the industry. Feeling like there is so much now that is totally different from the heydays of the (“Oh Happy Day”) recording I was a part of, the ‘Love Alive’ series and even my earlier albums. It was about the real music. It was about relationships. Now, what I’m told it’s about, is the real business of it with focus groups, this that and the other, making decisions.”

Hawkins also knows that an underground DJ would stand little chance of revolutionizing music genre. Today, the focus is on branding, not cultivating. “Announcers that lived and breathe the music were responsible for some of the airplay that the Hawkins family has received down through the years. Songs that people even continue to sing now, they just continued to play and it didn’t matter if it wasn’t in the top 10 or 30.”

During her recording interim, her producer son Jamie Hawkins, introduced her to praise and worship material. Then the younger Hawkins and gospel hit maker Kurt Carr team up to produce “Praise.” For Lady Hawkins, the timing of her and Carr’s teamwork could not have been better. “He collaborated with my son and just did his thing.”

As the organist of the late Rev. James Cleveland and a skilled performer in is own right, Carr had been a longtime fan of Hawkins. Hawkins said she took one of Carr’s initial calls about the project while she was in the midst of a prayer service. “‘I got a song for you,'” Hawkins recalled Carr saying. “‘God told me to call you and sing it to you over the phone.'” Hawkins sheepishly acknowledged that while she shouldn’t have had the phone on during service she was glad it rang. On the other end, Carr sang what would eventually become the title song of the collection: “I lost some good friends along the way/Some loved ones departed in heaven to stay.”

“Tears began to stream down. I listen to the whole song and afterwards I was just about speechless because I was so emotionally in tune to the song because it was just what God had been allowing me to go through since my hiatus from the recording industry.”


…Tavis Smiley does it again. And again. And…

By Bobbi Booker

Originally appeared in the The Philadelphia Tribune

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

After receiving the coveted number one New York Times bestselling position for over 13 weeks, Tavis Smiley shopped his “Covenant With Black America” follow-up with several New York publishers, only to be turned down.

“I couldn’t get a single publisher in New York to take this book,” Tavis disclosed exclusively to the Tribune during his impromptu March 1st visit to Philadelphia. “I couldn’t get anyone to take because they thought the first one was a fluke,” he explained, mockingly adding the adage, “Black people don’t read books.”

Well, again, African American readers have proven the publishers wrong with “The Covenant in Action”(Smiley, $10) entering the NY Times list last week at number 14. “They did not ever think we would make another book that would make the list,” Tavis said.

Upon its release during the State of the Black Union 2007 last month, “The Covenant in Action” is a compendium of advice for the African American community to become more civically and politically engaged. “Something is happening where Black readers are concerned,” noted Smiley. “Black America, again, is ready for a thoughtful dialogue about how we advance the community.”

“The Covenant in Action” was developed to continue the inspirational spirit of the “Covenant With Black America” and to empower people to take effective action to achieve “The Covenant goals. The information, tools, and ideas presented in “The Covenant in Action” will enable people to become agents of change in their respective communities and to become partners in a larger Covenant movement.

According to Smiley, proceeds from this recent text will be used to finance the movement. “You can’t sustain a movement without funds,” Tavis explained. “And in the 21st Century, you’ve got to have a 21st Century strategy which means Internet, a website. We had the website up and running, but we couldn’t build upon it, grow it, make it more interactive, or use it as the meeting place for all the covenant activities because it needed funds to make that happen.”

“The Covenant in Action” is organized into three parts: stories about the projects and actions that everyday people have undertaken over the past year that were inspired by the Covenant With Black America; motivational essays from young Black activists who are on the ground impacting their environments; and a toolkit outlining steps you can take to organize, connect, and act.

Many of the hundreds of Philadelphians who came out to meet Smiley during his two area book signings last week said they have already incorporated the “Covenant” messages into their lives. “I think that he’s a trailblazer when it comes to organizing and bringing prominent people together in order to tackle Black issues,” said James Johnson, a 41 year-old poet and prison correctional officer at Graterford prison. “A lot of the things he talks about I implement in speeches or in my poetry.”

As a community leader, Raymond T. Jones, Jr., co founder of Men United for a Better Philadelphia says his group has implement similar innovative approaches to their organizing and community building. “Some of the stuff that we’ve done with Men United has been a quasi ‘Covenant’, if you will,” Jones said. “That’s why we get on those street corners because we have a connection to the plight and the future of Black men. We thought if you’re going to make a change, you’ve got to go where brothers are.”

While in town, Smiley also met with Mayor John F. Street to finalize plans for “Table of Free Voices USA” that will be staged in October in Fairmount Park Philadelphia, with more than 100 leaders for “the world’s largest social discourse” discussing a range of issues and topics with an audience in a Q&A-style setting that will have a Web simulcast. “The concept is basically is to keep The Covenant conversation moving. So, here we are now with a 400 year journey behind us, these presidential elections in front of us.”

Smiley, who hosts an eponymous talk show based out of PBS’ Los Angeles affiliate KCET-TV, will host a forum with Democratic presidential candidates to air June 28 at Howard University in Washington. A similar session with Republican candidates will be held September 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “I get a chance to lead a discussion with all the candidates forcing them in primetime on PBS to address the issues in ‘The Covenant’ that matter to Black people. So the old saying is true that Black folk have no permanent friends; we have no permanent enemies. We only have permanent interests.”

Smiley is heard or seen daily with via the web, television, his nationally syndicated commentary, The Smiley Report or via his political commentary on the nationally syndicated “Tom Joyner Morning Show.”

Smiley’s gift as an impassioned speaker has rallied millions of African Americans to become more politically savvy. Smiley has brought thought provoking discussions, engaging town hall meetings, and exciting consumer expos to communities across the country. Conversations such as “The Black Think Tank,” “Building Inroads to Technology: Bridging the Digital Divide” and the “State of the Black Union” series have reached over one hundred thousand conference attendees and 83 million C-SPAN viewers.

Since last month’s “State of the Black Union” the Virginia state officially passed legislature regretting it role in America’s slave trade—a mere 144 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. “I think it’s an effort—an attempt on their part—and I think that an all-out apology would be very important,” Smiley said. “I wish that Bill Clinton had apologized, when he was president, officially. To express deep regret verses saying, ‘We’re sorry, we were wrong and we apologize’ are two fundamentally different things.”

Last week’s announcement that New York City symbolically banned use of the word nigger today drew a calculated response from Smiley. “My measure opinion is it hasn’t risen yet to the top of my personal agenda for the work that needs to be done,” Smiley said. “That doesn’t mean I condone the use of the word; it just means that investing the energy into that is a fight somebody ought to fight, and I’m glad somebody is.”

And one of the biggest debates mainstream media is engaged in is the definition of “Blackness” when it comes to the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, an issue Smiley deftly tackled. “The question as to whether or not Barack is Black enough is a ridiculous and absurd question. We don’t have the luxury in Black America–the luxury or the right, quite frankly–to ask who is or isn’t Black enough. And I don’t know how you define that anyway. So the question for me is where does he stand on the issues that matter to Black people? If Black is the standard, than (Hilary Clinton) and any of the other candidates aren’t Black enough. It’s not about whether you’re Black enough or white enough; it’s whether you are right on the issue that matter to Black people. The bottom line is this: it’s not about Black or white as much as it is about wrong and right. Is Barack right or wrong on the issues that. Once he gets a chance to be heard on those issue, than we can make an informed decision.”

Smiley’s goal to share the inspirational spirit of the “Covenant” continues to resonate with Black America. “Tavis is just very inspirational,” said South Philadelphia resident Katrina Daws, 40. “I think he provides our people speech. He really provides us with a lot of information and I think that’s very important in the African American community.”

For more information, go http://www.covenantwithblackamerica.com