Archive for the ‘It’s a Black Thing That You Need To Understand…’ Category

Odunde festival lives on

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand..., The Book Report on June 12, 2009 at 10:02 pm

Richard Wright “was very preoccupied by the impact of racism.”

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand..., The Book Report on April 19, 2008 at 4:55 pm

Richard Wright, the acclaimed author of “Native Son” and “Black Boy,”
was born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, but it is Philadelphia
that is honoring him with the proclamation of Richard Wright Week from
April 20- 27, 2008. Wright, who would have turned 100 this September, will
be the focus of a number of citywide presentations, including a
special Robin’s Bookstore address from the author’s daughter, Julia
Wright. The acclaimed author’s final manuscript, “A Father’s Law
($14.95, HarperCollins)” was just released by the younger Wright in
honor of her father’s birthday.

“As a present for his centennial, I dug up his last unfinished novel,”
explained Wright. “It’s the only existing draft of what he was working
on when he died. ‘A Father’s Law’ is about the relationship of a Black
police chief and his brilliant university-bound son. The police chief
slowly comes to suspect his son is the serial killer that he has been
assigned and promoted to find and punish.”

The novel was written during a six-week period near the end of
Wright’s life. “The book is unfinished, so you don’t know if the
father is imagining it, or whether the father has indeed a serial
killer for a son. It is an extraordinary book. Had he lived to finish
and perfect it, I believe it would have been a masterpiece. As it is,
it is riveting reading.”

Wright, the grandson of a slave, was born on the Rucker Plantation in Roxie,
Mississippi September 4, 1908. Soon after his family moved to Memphis,
Tennessee, in 1913, his father, a former sharecropper, abandoned the family, leaving his mother to support them alone. His family moved to Jackson, Mississippi to live with
relatives, and he graduated as valedictorian of his 9th grade class in May 1925, but left school a few weeks after entering high school. However, even as a youngster, Wright knew his calling. At the age of 15, Wright wrote his first story “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre”, and it was published in the Southern Register, a local Black newspaper.
Wright’s daughter explained that her father died prematurely at age 52
in Paris from the combined childhood effects of malnutrition and the stress of
the FBI’s continued investigation for being a member of the Communist
Party between 1932 and 1942. He departed the party in 1942 because of
ideological disputes.

“He spent some time in the communist party before effectively leaving
the United States never to return,” said Wright. “For people like (former FBI Director) J. Edger Hoover, once a communist always a communist. My father had grown beyond communism, but remained under surveillance and duress for the whole of his life, especially abroad where they were fearful he would denounce racism in the United States
in France where he lived.”

The literary giant raw and powerful prose was a source of fascination
for poet Lamont B. Steptoe. “I made a point of taking a course in
Black literature where I read ‘Uncle Tom’s Children,'” recalled
Steptoe. “I found the work compelling, poetic, nightmarish and
unforgettable. I made it a point to read everything that was published
by Wright. In 1992, I journeyed to Paris for a conference at the
Sorbonne in honor of Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes
that would bring together many of the surviving members of the heady
days of the Black ex-patriot community in Paris from the fifties up
through the late sixties. There I met Ellen Wright, Julia Wright, the
late Ollie Harrington, who was one of Wright’s closest friends and
Wright’s grandson, Malcolm.”

The younger Wright noted that her father tackled astonishingly modern
themes for novels written over 45 years ago.

“He was very preoccupied by the impact of racism on the mind of Black
men and Black women,” said Julia. “That is exemplified in his study
‘The Mind of Bigger Thomas’ and his concerns throughout his whole life
on what makes a Black man angry. (He wondered) can we act on some of
these factors and give Black male minorities a rest from duress? It’s
such a present day problem and it’s being debated everywhere today.
It amazes me when I speak to audiences because I find so many time
bubbles in his work.”

“Red Ink: Celebrating the Radical Tradition in Literature” with Julia
Wright discussing Richard Wright and his work will feature Lamont
Steptoe and other area writers on Sunday April 27, 2008 at 2pm at
Robin’s Book Store, 108 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. For more
information on various Richard Wright Week activities visit or call 215-735-9600.


…For MC Hammer, the Future Net is “in my blood.”

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand... on April 1, 2008 at 1:43 am

e-mc-hammer-lg.gifBy Bobbi Booker

A unique technology education forum featuring hip hop pioneer MC
Hammer drew community members, ex-offenders and students from the
nearby Renaissance Advantage Charter School to the Southwest
Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for the Re-entry of Ex-Inmates last week.

When Hammer heard the murder rate in Philadelphia had skyrocketed to
an average of one per day, he called his friend (and Germantown
native) Rev. Eugene Williams and pledged his help. For the past year,
Hammer (born Stanley Kirk Burrell) has reached out through his
technological initiative called LOOK University, a socially
responsible program to reduce violence through music, digital media
and the arts.

Rev. Williams explained that LOOK University is a groundbreaking
strategy that uses the digital media to educate the hip-hop cultural
community to the realities of the impact of violence, incarceration,
risky sexual practices and hopelessness.

“LOOK University is a project that teaches you how to create your own
buzz. How to use digital media and all of the tools that are available
to everybody today and how to turn that into a different message and
become an entrepreneur.”

Williams, CEO and National Director Regional Congregations and
Neighborhood Organizations Training Center, has always been concerned
with making the connections between theology and community development
and revitalization. While speaking to the 75 guests, Williams noted
that, “Language is important. These are not ex-offenders. These are
residents who are returning from prison. They are not aliens coming from
outer space. These are people that we nurtured from the cradle and
people some of us have known.”

Building upon the demand for services by the ex-offender population,
services like the Office for the Re-entry of Ex-Inmates have been
designed to provide previously incarcerated individuals with an even
broader range of transitional services to help them address the
barriers many face as they strive to regain self-sufficiency and
secure employment.

MC Hammer delivered a message that covered his dramatic journey as one
of America’s entertainment legends. As he explored his life as a
rapper who is now focused on spirituality and family, Hammer encourage
both the youths and their elders to continue to dream big. “When I
first decided I was going to rap, and again being a young man of
vision, I already owned two houses.”

However, it was Hammer’s quest to provide wider consumer access to his
music videos, like “U Can’t Touch This,” that lead him to Silicon
Valley developers. Today, Hammer is an adviser to stealth Internet
start-up, Dance Jam. “I took that information, studied that and 14
years later, when it comes to anything that marries music, film and
entertainment and placing it on the Internet, a mobile or wireless
device, I’m one of the experts in Silicon Valley.”

Hammer’s influence on hip hop culture and music was not lost on those
in attendance where half of the room vividly recalled his catchy Top
10 hits, while the other half had yet to be conceived.

“To return to our rightful position is not just ending violence, it’s
also instilling the true history so that you know who you are,”
explained Hammer during a brief history of Blacks and technology.
“Kings and queens is what you truly come from. When Napoleon got over
to Egypt, he could not believe what he saw. He said, ‘The same people that
we have enslaved are the ones who created science, math, astrology,
medicine.’ Somehow, since that day, we’ve have been tricked into
believing we are the inferior ones. Inferior!? Of course, I know how
to build businesses from technology. It’s in my blood.”

=Originally Appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune on Sunday, March 30, 2008=


…”Stop being musicians and start being the music.”

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand..., The Book Report on March 10, 2008 at 1:22 pm

World-renowned film composer and trumpet player Terence Blanchard was returning from a two-week stint in Japan when Hurricane Katrina struck his New Orleans hometown. Blanchard and his family were forced to evacuate from their New Orleans homes for months, and his evolution as a displace musician fighting for the cultural rebirth his hometown continues to blossom. A portion of Blanchard journey is captured in both the CD and the documentary, “Flow: Living in the Stream of Music,” that follows Blanchard and his band on a stunning round-the-world musical journey. Additionally, director Spike Lee invited Blanchard to score his tour-de-force 4-part documentary, “When the Levees Broke.” One of the most poignant scenes in the film depict Blanchard and his aged mother and aunt clinging to each other during the family’s first post-Katrina visit to their ravage homes. Today, Blanchard says his mother and aunt are on the verge of moving back into their homes, but he is still concerned about the future of his hometown as it struggles to recover from a storm that occurred nearly two years ago.
During a quick studio break on Friday evening from mixing the “Levee” soundtrack he’s re-scoring for release this summer, Blanchard says he is concentrating on keeping a spotlight on the gravity of the new Orleans situation were thousands of residents continue to suffer.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do with the album is keep the awareness out there,” said Blanchard. “When we were recording the record, we did a take of a tune I had written in the New Orleans tradition in 4/5. It was very upbeat kind of song and I was going to close the album with it. But we decided to pull it form the album because we didn’t want to give anybody the impression that everything was okay. You know, because we want people to still talk about what’s going on and be involved in what’s happening.”

Blanchard was a pivotal voice in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz “Commitment to New Orleans” initiative which includes the relocation of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance to the campus of Loyola University New Orleans from Los Angeles. “The Monk institute has a strong commitment to community service. They have a big outreach program that reaches a lot of high school, middle school and grade school kids. That program in itself will touch the lives of a lot of young kids outside the music world and hopefully will encourage some young musician in the field of jazz. We also told the students to come with a horn in one hand and a hammer in the other cause it’s all about rebuilding the city.”

The Institute’s programs will also provide employment for New Orleans musicians while attracting displaced musicians living in other areas of the country back to their hometown, and unite the city’s jazz, arts, and cultural communities.

“I don’t see the music (in New Orleans) as being lost forever because it’s such a part of our culture,” explained Blanchard. “It’s our DNA; you know, it’s what we’re made of. So I don’t ever really see that as something that’s going to be lost. But I do see (the music scene) taking a huge hit right now because there are a lot of musicians who are just not at home and they’re living elsewhere to make do, and that’s hard. I know some guys who’ve been instrumental in the music scene on New Orleans and they’re not in New Orleans right now. We have to be concerned about that. And there are people making efforts to bring those people back. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

“When it comes to jazz there’s certain cities in certain part of the country that get all the attention, you know, Detroit, New Orleans, Kansas City, New York. But, I went to school at Rutgers University and one of the things I learned is that New Jersey has a vast history with the music. And it gets overlooked a lot one of the pivotal creators of this music. He carved out a new path for the role of the guitar in jazz.

Terence was a featured panelist at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (he will also perform at the upcoming festival in 2007) and served as a keynote speaker at the Billboard Film and Television Music Conference in November. Flow: Living In The Stream of Music is scheduled to screen at various film festivals throughout 2006/2007, and has been touted as an engaging documentation of what it means to commit to a life in music, a landmark educational film for young people — and for anyone of any age facing the uncertain prospect of a career as a musician. “The overriding goal in what we do,” says Blanchard, “is to stop being musicians and start being the music.”

…Celebrating Black Men as Fathers

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand... on March 10, 2008 at 11:10 am
Celebrating a central role in families
Most mainstream media often overlook the role that Black men share as father, mentor and supporter. The distinct and unique role fathers have in African-American culture was explored with several Philadelphia fathers who reflected on the impact men and fathers have on their children.
Democratic mayoral candidate Michael Nutter says fatherhood is about teaching and guidance.“I think fatherhood is a very serious responsibility, as is motherhood,” said Nutter. “The impact that men and fathers have on their children is often underestimated or ignored or even downplayed. If you look at any of the television shows, the fathers are not necessarily actively involved, or in many cases not even around.”

“I learned any number of very important lessons in life from my own father, who is still with me. Whether as a young boy playing sports or learning how to throw or how to act in competition, there’s a verbal and non-verbal communication that goes on and kids pay attention to what their parents do and listen to what they say and often imitate those behaviors in their own lives. I certainly see many of those things with my own children.”

Nutter says the many life skills he learned from his father are shared with his own children, Olivia, 12 and Christian, 24, who flanked him last month onstage election night of Democratic nomination.

Fatherhood was the theme of Nutter’s most successful campaign commercials, which featured his daughter, Olivia, who discusses her father’s daily activities. Nutter says one of his prime responsibilities since pre-school is taking his daughter to school.

”(My children) have helped to make me the person that I am and, of course, for the better,” said Nutter.

“The fathers are often looked upon for that great kind of silent strength and are often seen as the protector and guardian. I think that’s a very powerful image and reality for many children throughout Philadelphia.”
Before he became a father, Yeadon resident Rajieb Allen, 31, thought he would eventually have several boys. Today, he says that his three daughters — Milan, 10, Morgan, 4, Meadow, 3 — have utterly transformed his life.

“Nowadays, being a father means everything to me because of the way the majority of the children are being raised and the things that change in the world,” said Allen.  “I can’t even put it into words, to tell you the truth.  It’s a delight to see them grow. I never thought I would have girls, so it’s just a change in life for me. It slowed me down tremendously. (Having daughters) made me look at life in many views. They are my future.”

Together, Fatin Dantzler and Aja Graydon are the husband and wife duo known as Kindred the Family Soul.

As a business couple, they run The Kulture Shop on Baltimore Avenue and as a loving Black family, they share their lives with their children Aquil, 8, Diya, 5, and Nina, 3.

Graydon says she see positive messages of love in the families throughout her neighborhood, yet many times Black men (especially the incarcerated) are overlooked.

“I think that the fathers who are out there busting their behinds and are really working and doing their thing are overlooked. I live on a block with fathers who take care of their children but are definitely overlooked. Even the fathers who do have unfortunate situations, where fathers are incarcerated or who have been incarcerated who come out and take care of their kids or who continue relationships with their children throughout a very difficult situation, and we forget about them too, but they exist.”

Dantzler says although his father was not involved in his life, another man helped him in his life’s journey.

“For every father, the experience is different in raising your children in the different ways that they may need you or in how you have to assist or teach them, things that you didn’t realize that you were a teacher of. That, within itself, is just a blessing and a beautiful thing that you get an opportunity to see yourself as a person who is worthwhile and meaningful in someone else’s life.

“We get an opportunity to see the direct connection that we have with our children. I value the opportunity to be in my children’s lives.”
Senator Vincent Hughes’ recalls his father every year with the James Hughes Memorial Scholarship Fund and Golf Classic named to honor his father’s legacy as an advocate for education in a way that is beneficial to young people seeking higher education opportunities.

Hughes says his father’s influence “was like a blanket blessing that hung over my life, and still does, because of his life, his work and who he was as a person. In life, he was solid as a rock for me. When I talked about running for public office, which came out of nowhere, he was right there asking the appropriate questions, probed and made sure he stood with me.”
Hughes won a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives at the age of 30. Today, Hughes and his wife, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, share a blended family which includes the Senator’s children, Ariell and Alek; grandchildren Dylan and Khaya; and Ralph’s children, Etienne and Ivy.

Hughes says the lessons he learned from his father are passed forward to the next generation.

“I’m a grandfather now,” reflected Hughes. “And I try to be solid, consistent and dependable for my children. I try to explain the pros and cons of what the issues are for them. And I try to do what I can to help them realize their dreams.”

=Originally Published in The Philadelphia Tribune on Father’s Day, June 17, 2007= 

For 58 years Mr. Culver delivered the news on his bike…

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand... on February 6, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Mr. Floyd CulverBy Bobbi Booker

On Tuesday, February 5, 2008, newspaper deliveryman Mr. Floyd Culver died. He was 100 years old, and the following interview was done on the eve of his century-old mark. Mr. Culver still possess the old bike he delivered papers on for nearly 60 years, but he now uses a sporty little mobility chair to get around in. I could almost see the wink in his eye when he first proposed to me and his charm gave me insight to why he’d been married thrice. Ironically, his first child wasn’t born until he was 50 years old, the age she now is. He was a treat to speak with, and his presence will be missed.

=Originally featured as a front page feature in the October 9, 2007 edition of

The PhiladelphiaTribune=

As door-to-door delivery from the iceman and the milkman were fading
into the past, newspaper deliveryman Floyd Culver maintained a
substantial route in South Philadelphia. For 58 years Culver rode his
custom-made bike throughout the region servicing homes, business and
both Graduate and Pennsylvania hospitals. So, when he retired from
his route five years ago, many of his customers were sadden but
understood that it was time for the 95-year old gentleman to rest his
bike. Although Culver agreed to give up his paper route, he still has
not only his bike (which he still rides occasionally) but also a
motorized chair to tool around in.

Today marks a century since Culver‘s birth in Alabama on October 9th,
1907. “I was born in a little town they call Headland, Al.,” recalled
Culver on the eve of his 100th birthday. “Born on a farm. Worked in
the field. Went to school four months a year. Finished 6th grade. My
mother took me out of school and I worked at a grocery store for 24
cents a day. That was in 1914, when I was only about 5 or 6 years old.
I rode a bicycle then.”

As a young man, Culver joined the Navy and was part of the World War
III invasion of Okinawa after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After his
tour of duty, his travels brought him to Philadelphia which has been
his home ever since.

It came as no surprise that Culver has married thrice, considering his
first words to the reporter after hello was, “Would you marry me?” As
charming as Culver is, he was a decidedly more business minded
individual. After his divorce from his third wife (with the legal
assistance of a young Leon Higgonbotten, Jr. Esq.) Culver attended the
William Penn Institute and earned his business degree in two years.
His first venture was a candy store at 18th and Bainbridge before he
realized another opportunity: newspaper delivery.

In his heyday, Culver sold upwards of 3,000 daily papers along a route
that spanned from Broad Street to 23rd Street and from Pine Street to
Washington Ave. In addition to selling The Philadelphia Tribune and
several other Black newspapers of the time, Culver also sold the
(now-defunct) Philadelphia Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The
Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. “At one
time I had three boys working for me,” said Culver. “That’s when I had
the route all the way down to Moore Street. I had the biggest route in
South Philly.”

At age 50, Culver welcomed his only child, Brenda J. Taylor (now 50
herself). “That’s my backbone,” he says of his daughter. He is also
grandparent to a grandson, Evan, and granddaughter, Nicole, both
residents of Atlanta, GA. He’s a devout reader of the Bible, and looks
forward to the rare visits he makes to Shiloh Baptist Church at 21st
and Christian Streets. As a person who has bore witness throughout the
20th Century, Culver has lived through incidents of inner-racial
disparity. “I went to the church at 16th and Christian one time and
sat on the wrong side of the church where the light skinned people sat
and the (usher) girl come moving me over where the dark people sat. I
said ‘I won’t go to this church no more.'”

He credits his good health to the healthy lifestyle he has maintained
for decades through diet and a regiment that includes 666(r) Cold
Preparation pills, castor oil and Epson salt. In 1940 he gave up red
meat. “The food that I ate at the time that I grew up had a lots to do
with my body because I don’t eat no pork and no beef,” said Culver. “I
eat a lot of green vegetables, fish, chicken and turkey. That’s the
way I go.”

When asked the secret to a long life, Culver replied, “Mind your own
business, stay clean and don’t try to harm nobody.”


“…This jewelry is like music to me.”

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand..., The Book Report on December 22, 2007 at 7:12 am

Remembering sculptor John Simpson’s genius through wood, words

John “Yah Yah” Simpson

By Bobbi Booker
Most folks look at a piece of wood and simply see the remnants of a tree. As a sculptor, John Simpson would look at the same piece of wood — a displaced branch or discarded tree trunk — and see a canvas.
Simpson’s death at age 71 on Dec. 3, lays to rest an artistic visionary whose highly evolved senses released the life forces inherent in wood and crafted into life-sized images of human figures that continue to resonate with art collectors, fans and friends alike.
Simpson, known affectionately as “Yah Yah” to many, was a unique and divinely inspired sculptor. He first started his craft as a boy in Norfolk, Va. fashioning play soldiers for himself from discarded wooden clothespins.
He was never formally trained, yet without being well versed in African art, he moved on to creating breathtaking works out of chair legs and baseball bats. When people first began comparing his sculptures to African works, he remained unaware of the connection. Others however, felt the sprit of Africa was clearly present in his artwork and jewelry.
“I feel so connected to Yah Yah’s jewelry,” neo-soul singer Erykah Badu recalled. “I remember when I first saw it, I was automatically taken back to the Congo, or whatever part of Africa represented in these atoms that are caught in this stuff. I could smell Africa with this jewelry.”
Badu, whose distinctive sense of style was enhanced by Simpson’s breathtaking jewelry, took time out from her studio sessions to poignantly describe her feelings after hearing the news.
“When I heard he died, I was wearing a ring that he made me out of turquoise rock and a spoon. This jewelry is like music to me. It carries millions of billions of atoms of those rocks and that metal in them. It’s impossible not to feel the expressions of my ancestors through that because Yah Yah’s hands did it.”
Simpson staged his first one-man show at age 18 with his 1959 Philadelphia exhibit debut. His work spanned over the course of six decades and was featured at the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is represented in the collections of such notables as George Dupont, Walter Edmunds and Charles Searles. Simpson taught art for three years at the Christina Arts Center in Wilmington, Del. and for one year in the Philadelphia Model Cities Program at the Ile Ife Black humanitarian Center.
Most recently, Simpson showcased his mixed media collection of wood sculpture and handcrafted silver artesian jewelry at the Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum.
“John was independent and one of the most productive people I’ve known,” said Richard Watson, curator of the African American Museum of Philadelphia. “He transcended description because his work was motivated by the love of the culture and people.”
Simpson married twice and was the father of five children: Karen Simpson, 50; John Ridley Seal Simpson, Jr., 47; Yvette Penny Simpson, 41; Oladele Simpson, 40 and Nile Simpson, 25. His oldest child remembered her father as an open-minded sprit who was intrigued with learning and sharing his experience from his global travels.
Simpson said her father traveled to South Africa twice, initially meeting with Winnie Mandela and gaining an audience with President Nelson Mandela on his subsequent visit.
“Every time he went somewhere, it was like he soaked up the culture, the people and the everything,” noted Karen. “He had that amazing ability to do that and then bring it back and put it into his artwork. It was unbelievable.”
Simpson’s halcyon years could be described as the period between the 1960’s and throughout the ’70s when maintained a studio at 34th Street and Spring Garden. The space served as a regional artist colony. Some of the guests that stopped by were legendary, yet Simpson, a quietly humble man, never bragged. It was just another natural occurrence in the life of a naturally gifted artist.
“Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, George Howard, Grover Washington and Stevie Wonder used to come to his studio when he was in West Philly,” evoked his daughter. “He was cool with them but it wasn’t like he was tripping about it. He would vibe with them and give them what he had to offer and would take in what they had.”
“He did a lot of work with entertainers,” concurred Watson. “He entertained the likes of people like the Funkadelic and Stevie Wonder and he made all kinds of things for people. Philadelphia International and the whole family of musicians frequented John’s studio. Erykah Badu was one of his latest clients and he was making jewelry for her. He did not go unnoticed and unappreciated whatsoever.”
Simpson was also a skilled conga player (he occasionally made and sold congas, as well) who frequently sat in on the jam sessions that would break out at his studio. “That place that he had at 34th and Spring Garden was really wonderful,” recalled friend and fellow artist, Falahuddain Deni.
“All the female dancers that used to be with Alvin Ailey would come down from New York and spend the night over there. He had drums set up in there along with a family of conga drums and an upright metal bass. Plus, he was such a groovy brother, even all the brothers loved him. He was the type of person who was natural with his leadership ability.”
Simpson’s art was the conduit that linked Africa to America and ultimately bridged the timeline between jazz and hip-hop. “Yah Yah” has been creatively described as a sorcerer of wood for his ability to take true nature forms such as a tree or piece of wood and breath a life-like image into it.
A piece of wood Simpson crafted into the image of Badu is prominently displayed in the vocalist’s Brooklyn apartment. “It’s like carving away at a piece of clay only to reveal what’s already there,” explained Badu. “Whatever piece he made, it was already there. He’s just filling the space up with the physical manifestation of it.”
A memorial honoring the life and work of John “Yah Yah” Simpson is scheduled for Sunday, January 6, from 1-4 p.m. at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, 701 Arch St.

=Originally published in The Philadelphia Tribune December 21, 2007=

“…In my head, I’m thinking about music.”

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand... on December 22, 2007 at 7:06 am




Photographer pushes the boundaries
Man of many talents dazzles with ‘innovative’ collection

John Dowell

photo by Michele Hunter


By Bobbi Booker,

As a great contemporary American painter, etcher and lithographer for more than 35 years, John Edward Dowell, 65, has now added master photographer to his list of accolades. During a debut of his latest exhibit “Cityscapes,” which opened in Philadelphia on Friday at the Brandywine Workshop, Dowell greeted dozens of art enthusiast, collectors and colleagues who were captivated by the scope and artistic depth of his latest collection. The North Philadelphia resident happened upon his innovative, cutting-edge style of photography less than a year ago as he experimented with combining lithographs with photo images of slices of urban life. Eventually, photography evolved into his primary focus. Dowell now shoots photos using a 4-by-5-format field camera and then digitally scans the images. The final pictures are produced as nearly 2-by-3 foot prints that are amazingly detailed. High-rise vantage points serve as his backdrop for capturing spectacularly detailed slices of urban life. What is most unusual is that each of Dowell’s photographs captures a natural, ethereal-type of iridescence that results from a blend of light and movement. As guests survey the multidimensional photographs, they marvel at the spectrum of color and cutting-edge photographic style. They also point out the clarity of everyday life captured in the photos, which convey the tale of metropolitan life in each respective city. In one photograph, Dowell shoots Chicago’s landmark Marina City, built by architect master Bertrand Goldberg. The photos capture the Twin Round Towers (aka corn cobs) in a multidimensional montage that reflects, in extraordinary detail, a McDonald’s work crew cleaning up after closing on the building’s ground floor; a Christmas tree twinkling in a eighth floor bay window, the continuous blur of saffron highway traffic and mirrored images reflecting iridescent scenes off of the Chicago River. “What blew me away was they aren’t like any approach to photography I’d ever seen,” said Allen Edmonds, president and executive director of Brandywine Workshop. “It’s the choice of contrast, the colors, the time of day and they were not manipulated. That’s composition … that’s understanding. So they’re really paintings. You couldn’t do this and just be a photographer with a camera. You’ve got to be an artist to do this.” Dowell’s works in canvas, ceramics and print currently sits in 58 private museum collections worldwide, including the Biblioteque Nationale Museum in Paris; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and Yale University Museum. “ It’ s electric,” said Larry Robin, owner of Robin’ s Bookstore. “ His art has evolved from ceramics, to lithography, to photography. John has a mind that just doesn’ t stop. He wasn’ t a photographer. He was looking for a way to express the continuity of what you see.” He is the chair of the Printmaking Area and a full, 35-year tenured professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. Dowell instructs students in his master’s of fine art classes to think beyond the rules, urging them to interpret art with the nostalgic vision of their mind’s eye and creative autonomy. A Lindback Award recipient, recognized for distinguished teaching, Dowell has taught his innovative perspective on art at universities spanning from Rome to Seattle. Still, it is his laid-back North Philadelphia style and artisan’s finesse that people notice before they’ve even glimpsed his work. “He was never trained as a photographer, if so, they would have told him that he couldn’t do this,” Robin said. “He knew what he wanted and he made the camera do what he wanted, which was to be able to see and sense the history, movement, continuity, while capturing the separateness and space.” A major element in Dowell’s art has been to find an abstract, visual interpretation of poetry and music. He has been drawn in particular to the equivalent of a artsy-style visual of jazz. “In my head, I’m thinking about music,” Dowell said. “I want to shoot where you see a reflection from the outside (and wonder) is that real or not real? But then, I’m shooting inside the building and you see people inside. But it’s all caught in an instant. I hear one guy blowing the saxophone and all of a sudden the drummer comes in with a solo. See that’s what I hear and I’m looking for that and I see that in my images.” Artist and poet Theodore Harris said, “It’s so shocking and beautiful. The fact that he has expanded his vision with photographs and experimentation, ever since I’ve seen John’s work from his abstract prints and drawing to this he’s always expanding his work … moving into realms of thought. This takes you into another world and let’s you know more about him as a person and an artist. That’s what it’s all about: taking chances and rolling the dice and see what we hit. I think John hit big time with this.” “Illuminations” featuring the photographic work of John E. Dowell Jr. and Andrea Baldeck runs through July 8 at the Brandywine Workshop, 730 S. Broad St . For more information contact (215) 546-3675 or visit

“…For many African Americans, it’s not an unfamiliar story that somebody passed.”

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand... on December 22, 2007 at 7:00 am
Blood test: Author explores famed father’s hidden lineage
Two months before he died of cancer, renowned literary critic Anatole Broyard called his grown son and daughter to his side, intending to reveal a secret he had kept all their lives and most of his own: He was Black.But even as he lay dying, the truth was too difficult for him to share, and it was his wife who told their daughter Bliss that her WASP, privileged Connecticut childhood had come at a price. Ever since his own parents, New Orleans Creoles, had moved to Brooklyn and began to “pass” in order to get work, Anatole had learned to conceal his racial identity.As he grew older and entered the ranks of the New York literary elite, he maintained the facade. Now his daughter Bliss tries to make sense of his choices and the impact of this revelation on her own life in her memoir, “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race and Family Secrets” ($24.99, Little, Brown).The book’s title stems from the uniquely American caste system that holds any person with any Black ancestry, no matter their appearance, is Black. The elder Broyard was Creole and his family ranged in every color from brown to white.Consequently, when 6-year-old Anatole’s family arrived in Brooklyn in 1927 his parents had to pass for white in order to get work in 1930s New York. The struggle for employment lead to Broyard’s eventual decision to cut his family ties to maintain his status in the white world.

Broyard was born into a post-Reconstruction America in which almost every state had a one-drop law on the books, or something equivalent by 1925.

The one-drop rule was ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 when it overturned the Virginia Racial Integrity Act.

Non-Americans found those classifications outrageous. Simply put, America’s one-drop rule means if you are not quite white, then you are Black, whereas outside the U.S. culture if you are not quite Black, then you are white.

For most of the 1970s and ’80s, Anatole Broyard was a book critic for the New York Times who held considerable influence and was widely known in literary circles.

When Broyard died in October 1990 after a long, painful and debilitating struggle against cancer, continuing interest in him was insured by the disclosure that he was, as his wife told their two adult children, “part Black.”

According to Bliss Broyard, “My mother explained that my father had ‘mixed blood,’ and his parents were both light-skinned Creoles from New Orleans, where race-mixing had been common.” Broyard’s racial identity was an open secret to those who knew him and were aware — or suspected — he was not a white man.

Controversy erupted in many literary, journalistic and social circles when several years after Broyard’s death, Henry Louis Gates reported the mixed ancestry of the famed literary critic in an article for the New Yorker entitled, “The Passing of Anatole Broyard.”

“For many African Americans, it’s not an unfamiliar story that somebody passed,” said Bliss Broyard. “The people that I have met have appreciated the fact that I want to reclaim this history, because a lot of people feel like I didn’t have to explore this and make a part of who I am. There’s a respect for that, but at the same time my dad’s choice — and I can understand this, too — makes people angry.

You look at somebody like Walter White who passed to investigate lynchings, but then he was the first director of the NAACP, but he used it to benefit the race. I can understand the anger at my dad and I can also understand my dad’s desire outside of racial categories. He should not have had to do that. He isolated himself and paid a price.”

Eventually, the younger Broyard searches out the family she never knew in New York and New Orleans, and considers the profound consequences of racial identity while chronicling her evolution from sheltered WASP to a woman of mixed race ancestry.

“I think of racial identity as a product of your experience of how you’ve lived your life,” Broyard explained. “On any form I check all that apply: Black, white, Native American. I think of myself as someone with mixed race ancestry, or mixed.

“It’s interesting since the book has come out and has made me some sympathetic for my dad because there are some people out there that have really strong feelings about what I should call myself or what my dad really is. [They feel] either he wasn’t Black because he looked white or his ancestry was white and why should he have to call himself Black. People feel really strongly about that.

“Or some people say that there’s really no such thing as mixed and African Americans come in all shades and all African Americans are mixed. It’s interesting and people have really strong feelings about this still.”


“…No other hair in the human family does that.”

In Black Folk who matter..., It's a Black Thing That You Need To Understand... on October 11, 2007 at 3:51 pm

By Bobbi Booker

Picture: Natural Hair Care Pioneer Yvette Smalls has shared her message via her “Hairstories” documentary

For the past dozen years or so, there has been resurgence in African American interest in natural hairstyles and care. Natural hair has been prominently featured with sports and entertainment stars and the general public has reflected the increased in popularity of styles such as cornrows, locks, braiding, twists, cropped and locked –most of which originated in Ancient Africa. This weekend’s 13th Annual International Locks Conference: Natural Hair, Health & Beauty Expo will celebrate the splendor of Black culture through classes on overall wellness. The expo, traditionally held during the first weekend of October, has expanded to two days of education, healthy food options, informative workshops, soothing healing circles, music, fashions, and a stunning hair show and competition.

Sakinah Ali-Sabree started as a conference volunteer and now serves as the operations manager. “The conference is about more than hair,” explained Ali-Sabree. “It also promotes Black businesses and have different vendors offer their products to the community and have workshops to educate the people in the community. It was an outlet for Black business that didn’t have a store.”

Although there has been a reemergence of natural hair, African Americans–and Black women in particular–still face an underlying tone that straightened hair is a more acceptable or professional hairstyle. As recently as August 2007, controversy erupted when “Glamour” magazine apologized for a staffer who called Black women’s natural hairstyles in the workplace “shocking,” “inappropriate” and “political.”

“People feel like locks are just a hairdo, but it comes with a little responsibility,” noted Ali-Sabree who accents her hair with elaborate ‘Gele’ head wraps. “That’s why I always stress the importance of education and learning about your hair, culture and your heritage, and basically the background on locks and where it comes from. I’ll have Asians or Caucasians say to me, ‘Oh that’s a nice hairstyle’ or ‘Maybe I should try that,’ and tell them it’s a history behind it. It’s not just a hairstyle for me; it’s a cultural statement.”

Expo presenter and natural hair pioneer, Yvette Smalls, has long used the slogan “Braid It-Don’t Burn It” to promote a pan-African appreciation of Afro-textured hair.

“Our hair is our crown and glory and we must embrace that standard,” said Smalls. “The standards of beauty that we’ve been taught are not necessarily beneficial for our people. I help Black women create our own standards.”

According to Smalls, natural hairstyles draw African Americans closer to their roots. “I believe that a lot of the empowerment lies in self-definition and shared experiences,” expands Smalls. “I encourage hair harmony because the essence of beauty is in the soul, not in or of the body.

“My quest of self discovery was beyond image and that’s what made me feel as though it were important to bond and share my experience with women so that we would have to go through some of the things we go through with the issue called hair.”

The Expo will also feature Hollywood newspaper columnist Rych McCain and his new book, “Black Afrikan Hair and The Insanity Of The Black Blonde Psych! (Why EVERY Black Afrikan “MUST” Wear Their Spiritually Divine, Nappy Hair Natural)!” ($25, Valley of Maat Publication). For over 20 years, McCain has researched the critical medial and social effects that have arisen from the poor self-esteem issues that African Americans have over their hair. “Hair is 75 percent of our personality,” said McCain, who has conducted education workshops for over 16,000 community youth and college students.

“The ladies know that,” stresses McCain. “They are not going to go out into the public unless their hair is together. I remember when my mother use to make sure that my sister’s hair was pressed. McCain’s research underscores the “spiritual divinity and physiological functions that natural nappy, kinky, and divine hair performs.”

“Our hair is the only hair that spirals out of the scalp and that’s because of the shape of the follicles but also because of our melanin,” maintains McCain. “When you look at the spiral it is the most profound motion in the universe. Everything on earth spirals. Blood spirals through your vain. Flowers and all plants spiral out of the ground. When you flush or take a shower and look at the water, the water spirals down the drain because of how the earth moves. The same force that creates the spiral of water going down a drain is the same force that creates the same spiral that makes our hair comes out of our head in a spiral form. No other hair in the human family does that.”