Autobiographical Assignment Fall 2016

Me at 18 in 1970
For a very long time, I have included the standard assignment of a memoir, 1-2 pages from all of my students each semester.  It has to include a picture of the author, which has gotten easier over the years. In the old days before cell phone photos, I would permit them to do portraits of themselves, to use photos of their children or themselves as children, video self-portraits, and photocopies of their student ID.  Actually I still permit all these other ways of supplying an image. Because I find that it isn’t the likeness of the student that imprints their identity on my brain.  It’s the process. Indeed, I am often amused by how little the photos of the students look like them.

The initial reason for the assignment was to engrave upon my consciousness who the person was for at least the duration of the semester but over the years it has become so much more. Since I don’t grade the assignment or return it, I organize them alphabetically and use them to take attendance in the beginning.  I have found that many students are inclined to share vital information with me at a very early stage in our relationship.  Of course some students blow it off but the deep ones almost never do. It can be a way to discover their talents for music, art, dance or the sciences that might never emerge, given that the class is in English.  I then relish the opportunity to choose to incorporate these skills into the teaching to make it more interesting to this particular student. Something that is interesting to one student may be of interest to another. Also, a happy student spreads the word and sends you other happy students.  So then I get special students who are sent to me by special students I have had in the past.

The fact that I now do everything on blackboard has made it much easier for me to respond individually to the autobiographies.  Finally, if I have a student who is either a gifted writer or has a particular problem with writing in English, I find out immediately.  Teaching at a place like City College, with many poor and immigrant students, I am always astonished by how eager they are to share their journey with me. They are invariably proud and open regarding the obstacles they have overcome. They are thoughtful about the process of their education, their childhood dreams versus the reality of their young adulthood. At this stage in their lives, themselves is probably their strongest subject, so why not give them a chance to shine. .

A year or two ago I got drawn back into teaching memoir.  At that point, I added a brief memoir of my own, focused on my educational experience since I, too, had attended City College as an undergraduate, to provide students with an example of what one might do, although I emphasize that any kind of statement about themselves which extends to at least a half a page will be acceptable. I give them 15 points for this assignment, no exceptions.  Just looking over this piece of writing in preparation for the fall, I am aware that although I tell them not to model my essay, I can see that it has had an impact.  So, I decided to tweak this brief essay and include it here in honor of the last semester I expect to be teaching at City College. 

My grandmother Willi Posey, my Aunt Barbara, my grandfather Andrew Jones and my mother-to-be-Faith in 1950 at Aunt Barbara's wedding. I used this picture on the cover of my third book Dark Designs and Visual Culture (Duke UP 2005)

August 15, 2016
Autobiography of Michele Wallace
    My undergraduate college education took place from September 1969 through June 1974.  I was 17 years old when it started and I began with one semester at Howard University in Washington D.C.  I suffered much from being young and inexperienced in living away from home without the supervision and support of my mother.  Indeed, the summer before, my Mom had gifted me a trip to Mexico to study flamenco dancing and Spanish for the summer at the University in Mexico City for my high school graduation present and while I was there, I fell in love and decided that I did not wish to return to the United States. 
      Luckily for me I was only 17 so the decision to remain in Mexico was taken out of my hands when my mother rescinded the permission she had granted me to travel. It really turned into quite a mess, which resulted in my spending the balance of the summer in a juvenile home for wayward girls. I wrote about this adventure in my first book, Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman, which was published in 1979 when I was then 27 but the truth is I don’t believe I have ever fully understood what I was thinking that summer or even what got into me. The guy I fell in love with, Conrado, who was Guatamalan, I never saw again.  The love I felt for him turned out to be something like a passing fever or infection. It went as quickly as it had come.
   Despite my apparent misbehavior, mother gamely packed me up for my first semester as a student at Howard University.  She told me if I decided to return to Mexico, she would not even known when I had gone, that a new independence and sense of responsibility was expected of me.  I only had one semester at Howard. She felt as though I wasn’t working hard enough so she brought me back home to New York. She said that I needed to get a job so that I could pay her rent and that the decision to go to college was entirely on me.  Whereupon I went down to New York University and achieved immediate admission on the spot, except that they also wanted the tuition within days.  Of course I had no money, nor were my parents willing to pay. 
          In those days I believe anybody could buy their way into New York University. It was much smaller and the neighborhood around it was not the pricey SoHo, but bedraggled streets filled with abandoned factories and storefronts.  When I realized that tuition and NYU were not an option, I found myself at the City College of New York, a campus 10 blocks from where I had grown up and where I continued to live in Harlem. Also it was where my mother had gone to college beginning in 1948, majoring in art education (because then they didn’t accept women into the school of liberal arts) completing her B.S. in 1955, and her Masters in Art Education in 1959.  Her name is Faith Ringgold and she is now a famous artist.
    It took her 7 years to finish her Bachelors because in 1950 she eloped with my father Earl Wallace and in 1952 she had two children--myself in January and my sister Barbara in December.  By the time of her B.S. graduation, she had separated from my Dad and we had moved back in with my grandmother, whom I knew as Momma Jones.  In those days pregnant women were banned from all sorts of activities including school.  By the time she completed her Masters in 1959, attending classes at night and teaching during the day, the annulment of her marriage had been completed. 
      Although City College was not my first or second or third choice of a college to attend, in those days it was entirely free, and although it didn’t yet have open enrollment at the point at which I graduated from high school, my senior advisor had quietly applied for admission on my behalf without telling me. So when I went to City College, I found out I had already been admitted under the old standards.  Those years at City College were heady times, in more ways than one. The campus was organized entirely different including both Finley student center and the library having their own separate buildings on the South campus below 135th Street and Convent Avenue. The library stood where the Architecture School now stands and the Finley Center, which has since been torn down, was just beyond that.
   In place of NAC was the Lewisohn Stadium, a huge open air stadium ideal for large sports events as well as graduations, which is where I saw my mother receive both her Bachelor’s in 1955 and her Master’s in 1959.
   During my college years I didn’t do any of the things my mother did. I didn’t get married and I didn’t have any children.  I became a feminist and a writer and majored in creative writing and English after a short time taking art history and thinking about majoring in it.  I was discouraged from pursuing art history, although I loved it, because I felt an obligation to focus on the study of artists of color and such a focus seemed impossible then.
   Both my mother and my aunt were college graduates, and their grandfather was an elementary school principal in Palatka Florida when he died at an early age of appendicitis (in 1912), terminating college attendance among the family for a generation.  But my grandmother Momma Jones, also known as Mme. Willi Posey (she was a seamstress and fashion designer once she had raised her children), together with her oldest brother, Cardoza Posey, who had attended college, were very concerned that her three children would go to college. Momma Jones succeeded with two out of three. Unfortunately her oldest son, Andrew Jones, died prematurely at 39 and never got to go to college.  Aunt Barbara, my mother’s older sister, went to college at NYU in home economics at 16 in 1943 and graduated in 1948, the same year in which my mother Faith graduated from Morris High School.  Both sisters married in 1950.  Neither marriage would be successful.  Aunt Barbara never had any children and died in 1982, at the age of 55, the year after Momma Jones died.  I was 30 at the time and very sad indeed.



Ammiel Alcalay Introduces Amiri Baraka (Reprint) October 2013

In light of various mainstream press obituaries, I've taken the liberty of sending out this introduction to Amiri Baraka that I had the honor to deliver just a few months ago...

Introduction for Amiri Baraka at the Cape Ann Museum, October 19, 2013
 If performance, image, object and sound-making are forms of knowledge, then what we now call art gives a unique view of how things in the world are or are not responded to.
 In 1944, the great Martinican poet Aimé Césaire wrote “Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge” AND “what presides over the poem is not the most lucid intelligence, the sharpest sensibility or the subtlest feelings, but experience as a whole.”
 That same year, Césaire’s student, Frantz Fanon, perhaps aspiring to also become a writer, found himself in Algeria as a French soldier, and was horrified by what he experienced; it would lead him to become one of the 20th century’s most innovative psychiatrists, its most important theorist of race and colonization, and an Algerian revolutionary.
 On this side of the Atlantic, in the only hemisphere so thoroughly dispossessed that, up until very recently, not one single state used a native language officially, Bebop had already come into being, a phenomenon that Jack Kerouac called “the language of America’s inevitable Africa” expressing the “enormity of a new world philosophy.”
In 1944 Kerouac met Allen Ginsberg and poet Robert Duncan published “The Homosexual in Society,” announcing a new doctrine of human liberation that would also insure his continued UN-recognition as one of the century’s greatest poets. In 1944, alerted to changes in US policy in which Nazis and war criminals got filtered through the OSS and State Department to become key policy makers and scientists, Charles Olson resigned from his post at the office of War Information in the Roosevelt Administration to become, of all things, a poet.
Just some months before that, in a trial in Alabama over his status as a conscientious objector, Herman Poole Blount, known as Sonny, and later Sun Ra, did the unthinkable and unheard of: he told a white judge, in the deep south, that if he was forced to learn how to kill “he would use that skill without prejudice, and kill one of his own captains or generals first. The judge said: ‘I’ve never seen a nigger like you before,’ to which Sonny replied, ‘No, and you never will again,’ a response that immediately landed him in jail.” His psychiatric report echoed those of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and so many others, in which he was described “as a psychopathic personality,” but also as a “‘well-educated colored intellectual’” who was subject to neurotic depression and sexual perversion.” (John F. Szwed, Space is the Place, pp. 44, 46)
These are the over and undercurrents of the world Amiri Baraka grew up in. Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, NJ (the city his son Ras is now running for Mayor in), in 1934, Baraka’s importance and multiple legacies are truly mammoth.
In a review of a book about Billy the Kid, Charles Olson wrote:
“what strikes one about the history of sd states, both as it has been converted into story and as there are those who are always looking for it to reappear as art — what has hit me, is, that it does stay, unrelieved.”
This sense of the “unrelieved” and the pressure that brings to bear on what poet Ed Dorn called “this permissive asylum,” is enormous, and we know that the past cannot simply disappear. Given the circumstances of destroyed languages and peoples, slavery, and layered diasporas, we have a human, political, and cultural amalgam on this continent that is as dense and complicated as any the world has ever known.
The explosion of expression following World War II — Bebop, Abstract Expressionism, the New American Poetries, the Black Arts Movement, Free Jazz, Afro-Futurism and a host of other groupings and labels — is a massive response to this complexity, and represents an era of creativity that measures up to any known age of accomplishment we can think of. At the same time—facing the academic, ideological, and political straightjackets of the Cold War—these artists were first and foremost thinkers, and their work constitutes a vast realm of hardly explored concepts about the world we actually live in.
Amiri Baraka is one of a handful of the remaining key representatives of this era, and his personal, artistic, and political life cuts through almost every significant intersection of the age. There are no other living American writers able to traverse the traditional generic trio of poetry, prose, and drama, then move into the realms of essay, criticism, autobiography, and scholarship, while making an authoritative mark in each form. In fact, if we take the great British scholar Gordon Brotherston’s definition “that the prime function of a classical text is to construct political space and anchor historical continuity,” then Amiri Baraka is one of our truly CLASSICAL writers.
His disruptive and political practice refuses to conform to style or manner, allowing imagination to roam between the placard and the eulogy, between eyewitness reports stating facts and cosmic journeys reinstating the kinship of souls. He has both been “anchoring historical continuity” and redrawing the political boundaries of time and space, first in Newark, New Jersey, then in New Ark, out and gone, an otherworldly place through which he channels radio shows, movies, street banter, memories, diatribe, drama, scholarly study, fable, fiction, science fiction, investigative poetics, calculated public rhetoric, and on-the- spot reporting. He is a fantastic witness both to the astonishing un-reality of the daily real and an example of what can be done to answer it.
He has constantly exposed himself and his ideas to public scrutiny, even attack, opening a window into participation in the amalgamation of selves and ideas that form the creative, political subject. Amiri’s example has served as a constant reminder that such selves, ideas, forms, even communities, are won through struggle and confrontation with oneself and the world. They are not cheaply packaged and exchangeable things to pick up or drop for personal gain or according to dictates of fashion. Finally, though, this clarity of purpose rests in a stance, a position, a place one has to come to in consciousness and over which there can be no negotiation. The visibility of such a stance, bound to a real historical context, is itself a call to action, to activate those parts of one’s own consciousness and meet such a challenge in like terms. In recent years, Amiri has been quite explicit about the need to emphasize and carry on his diverse legacies. He has been extraordinarily generous in working with the Lost & Found Project; this began with a small collection of letters between him and Ed Dorn, finally resulting in the complete correspondence, due out from the University of New Mexico, edited by Claudia Moreno Pisano. Most recently, Amiri has lent his support to Il Gruppo, a gathering of writers initially convened to debunk a recent book claiming that Charles Olson was an exemplar of US imperialism, and that “Projective Verse” was based on a military paradigm. Amiri actually published “Projective Verse,” so if Olson is a big imperialist, perhaps, by association, Amiri is a small one. Without further ado, let’s give it up for Amiri Baraka.
  —Ammiel Alcalay
[APPLAUSE, which should continue…]

Malcolm X 2016

It is time something was said about this class this spring, and how truly difficult and yet rewarding it has been to veer off into this topic, which has in many ways taken me far from the assumptions with which I began my Blues People curriculum, in tribute to the work of Amiri Baraka in Blues People, and all the arguments, pro and con, that have emanated from his thesis.

Teaching Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye

Each time I "teach" (and I use the word teach advisedly) The Bluest Eye to undergraduates, I stumble headlong into some reason why I would rather not.  It use to be the problem of Cholly, the difficult and very unsympathetic father who rapes or molests Pecola, which results in her pregnancy.  Although Morrison goes to extensive lengths to explain and illustrate how Cholly became himself, someone who would force himself on a vulnerable child who was his own daughter.

Not only do i know a Cholly, i have known many Chollys. The Bluest Eye is like a menagerie of alternate species, not so different from the rest of us but just different enough that we are willing to deny the related genealogy. Teaching this is like teaching Kafka's Metamorphosis. Who are those people? Who is that bug? Well they are you.


Map Sheets to Minecraft--Digital Map Collections at NYPL

Attending a presentation at the grad center on maps and how the library is providing access to high resolution data on historical maps and translating this material into other kinds of information highly useful to thinking about many questions. Ben Vershbow of the NYPL Labs  and Greg Cram, who is the library's associate director of copyright and information policy, talked about a variety of methods and applications the library is using to incorporate the work and interests of the general public towards inputing what we can see of the city now in relation to hundred year old insurance maps.

Pursuing my interest in family history in Palatka and Jacksonville, Florida I have used insurance maps and city directories to precisely locate and identify my ancestors. I adore maps but as they have talked about, a low resolution map is almost worthless.


Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Ernest Withers, I am a Man: Sanitation Workers Demonstration in front of Clayborn Temple in Memphis Tennessee, 1968
I have been thinking about the emerging shape of the class at the graduate center in the time we have left, after a discussion with Naia. 

I think that perhaps the best way to take advantage of the time we have left is if those of you who have not had a chance to present anything in class, were to divide up the readings and the materials we have left and lead discussions on them in class.

This is our remaining schedule. We have refined our readings down to more precise units. Devoting our next two classes to Barbara Ransby's book about Ella Baker and Danielle McGuire's book.  We will spend May 5th, talking about our final writing projects--which will involve presentations from each of you, provided you are ready to do so.

These presentations will include Maribi Henriquez, who is registered with me for MALS thesis advisement, who has completed the writing of "La Feminista Nuyorquina" --Contextualizing the Latina Experience in the Space of Radical U.S. History: Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Presence in New York City."
Then we are making a field trip Thursday, May 15th to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties (March 7-July 6) in the Robert E. Blum Gallery on the First Floor.
See the following link for directions to the museum on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I use to live right around the corner and as I recall you can get there on the #2 train:
Our final session will be Friday, May 16th, at the same time as our regular class, 4:15-6:15, which is a university designated snow day. The plan right now is that this session may be devoted to the music of the civil rights movement, and a special presentation still being prepared by Rev. Lowell Coleman, from my CCNY class. Damelle may or may not participate since we plan to combine this with our farewell festivities. Perhaps we will adjourn to a local Korean Barbecue place, depending on how wealthy we are feeling.

I will also invite students from the other class to join us although it might be difficult for most of them.

To continue with discussion of the field trip to the Brooklyn Museum, you are free to come and go as you please. I will be at the museum, myself, from 1-6, and available to meet with you and guide you through the exhibit in two rounds. We will meet in the cafeteria the first time at 1 p.m. and the second time at 4:30.

There aren't a lot of women artists included in this show and it certainly has no feminist intentions that I can discern but it is the most inclusive exhibition of art and photography (in terms of racial, ethnic and gender diversity) from the the 60s that I have ever seen. I believe it may be indicating a future direction worth pursuing in art museums. Since it is at the Brooklyn Museum, which is located in a black neighborhood, who knows if it will indicate a trend? But this is the museum of choice of JayZ who is known to be a collector of art now.

There are little plans at present for this exhibition to travel but there is still time.

Just for your reference, there are 12 women artists in the show (8 of whom are African American, 2 Latina and 1 Japanese):

1. Faith Ringgold(my Mom)--Study Now (1964), and Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1967), oil on canvas;
2. Virginia Jaramillo (Mexican American), Divide (1964), mixed media on canvas;
3. Barbara Chase-Riboud, Monument to Malcolm X No. 2 (1969), Black Bronze and Wool, Newark Museum Collection;
4. Marisol Escobar, LBJ (1967), pain and pencil on wood, Collection of Museum of Modern Art;
5. Emma Amos, Three Figures (1966), oil on canvas;
6. Betye Saar, Whitey's Way (1970), Assemblage in box and Jim Crow Really Dead? (1972), Mixed Media Assemblage;
7. Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968), Cedar Sculpture and Negro es Bello II (1969), Silkscreen, Collection of Hampton University Museum.
8. Nancy Spero, Child in Sky/Victim in River (1966), Gouache,
9. Jae Jarrell, Urban Wall Suit (c. 1969) Printed Silk, and Ebony Family (1968) Cotton Velvet;
10. Yoko Ono, Voice Piece for Soprano (1961), print on paper;
11. Barbara Jones-Hogu, Unite (1971), silkscreen and Nation Time (1970), Silkscreen;
12. Pauline Boty, Countdown to Violence (1964), oil on canvas;
13. May Stevens (1970) Big Daddy Paper Doll, Acrylic on Canvas and Honor Roll (1963), oil on canvas.
My rough count of men in the exhibit (there isn't any checklist and I suspect that everything in the catalogue is not actually in the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum) is about 57 including many, many very well known artists, whom I will leave to your discovery and our discussions at the museum.

The 60s and the 70s were a time of great systematic political activism among artists particularly in New York, which is when I met most of the women included here by the side of my Mom, who was a very militant activist in the art world then.

To look at this exhibition and the catalogue that accompanies it makes me proud to see that the activism of artists is finally being recognized. Even in those cases in which the work, itself, might be viewed as without political content, it is interesting to see that the artists, themselves, often encoded messages of protest against racism and in support of the Civil Rights Movement or Black Power within their work. These works are included alongside more overtly political works such as those of my mother's. This exhibition brings all of these works to the fore alongside photographic work, which helps to connect it all to the events of the movement, itself.  Without such clarifications, in which culture is linked to the political context in which it occurs, history becomes inscrutable and incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't lived it. This is why I made so many mistakes in writing Black Macho. Even for me, having lived through it, events went by in a blur, and even the culture that was being produced in and around my own house was ultimately as inscrutable as if I had been born in Kansas. I had to learn. I had to teach myself. I had to study. And I was there.
Okay maybe its a bit of a stretch to put Robert Rauchenberg, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Catlett and the Africobra Collective Artists who did street murals in Chicago together, but I saw and knew them all. Moreover, it seems to me an art exhibition is forced to resort to a kind of shorthand for the times that produced them.
Also at the Brooklyn Museum, of potential interest is a longterm installation in the 5th Floor Lobby: Revolution: Works from the Black Arts Movement, a collection of 44 works from Africobra; also Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the 4th floor, as well as a vast array of African, Asian and Native American art all over the building. It's a wonderfully walkable museum still.
The photographs are great although they don't really begin to describe the role of photography in the Civil Rights Movement.
You can be helped in this endeavor by following this link to an online exhibition by Maurice Berger called For All the World To See:, which traces the role of visual images in racial thought from the 50s through the 70s. I served as a consultant for this exhibition and wrote many of the texts for the online film festival that was included. That was fun.
Also via Maurice Berger, his lens.blog posts for the New York Times located at
which includes columns on Leonard Freed's photos of the March on Washington, Gordon Parks, James Kareles, as well as photos of Malcolm X, who we should recall was murdered in 1965, and as such belongs more to the Civil Rights Movement than the Black Power Movement (the Black Panthers) and Black Cultural Nationalism (Amiri Baraka), although I don't always distinguish the three since they are all branches of the same tree of the struggle over racial inequality.

You may view the exhibition and visit the museum in any sequence you wish. Since we are going on a Thursday, which is a late night in which the museum is open until 10 and the admittance fee is pay what you wish, you have leeway. By the way, the fee is always pay what you wish.
What we have left are readings of McGuire
​, chapters 1-4​
and Baker
​, chapters 7-11.​
  Not sure who hasn't yet presented but you know who you are.



Black Feminism and The CRM: Not A Winning Combination

Michele Wallace in office at City College of New York pondering. by Stacy Long.

I am just now at the CUNY Graduate Center waiting for someone who has become one of my favorite students, Maribi Henriquez. I think this may be a name you may be hearing a lot. She is sitting in on the Black Feminism class and has enrolled with me for the completion of her MALS thesis.  She is, herself, Dominican American, and is interested in the role of East Coast Latina women in the Civil Rights Movement and/or the Women's Movement. Such an interest turns out to be more daunting than I thought since in the Women's Movement apparently the most active and the most quoted and published Latina women have been Chicano.  Until meeting and talking with Maribi, and now reading her thesis, I hadn't realized that. She needs papers signed today because she plans to graduate in May, so I thought I had better read her draft, which she sent me perhaps two weeks ago, and it was so wonderful and so educational for me. I am planning to ask her if perhaps we can share it with people in the class.

In any case, Maribi's plan is to go on to do her Ph.D. in Women's Studies at one of the few places in the country where this is possible, at Rutger's University where Women's Studies began and has continued full strength.  Maribi was among my students in this class who were present last week at our symposium event, Black Feminism, the Civil Rights Movement and African Anti-Colonial Struggle. I expected that it would be videotaped or streamed or at least audio recorded, as are many events at the Graduate Center but sadly it was not to be although there were world class black feminist scholars presenting--Barbara Ransby, the author of books on Ella Baker and Eslanda Robeson, as well as the Editor of Souls, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, author of Gender Talk, and so many other works in Women's Studies as well as the former Director of the National Women's Studies Association, and Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new book on Rosa Parks as well as numerous other works on women in the Civil Rights Movement.

That there is so little record of what was said was disappointing but this is what happens when you count on others, particularly when the others have anything to do with CUNY.  For a variety of reasons Women's Studies is generally not well regarded in the Academy, and particularly at the CUNY Graduate Center although the same is very much true at the City College of New York where I teach as well.  The reasons for this are many and complex, and some of them I would not even dare to say out loud much less write about it on my curriculum blog for the world to see should they choose to do so.

In any case, I did manage to have some documentation including many photographs taken by photography friend and student Stacy Long, who is also a member of the Black Feminism class at CCNY, as well as a few short films of some of the talks. My co-convener Funke and I had quite a time pulling this program together, including her panel on African Anti-Colonialism, given our demanding teaching schedules (3/3).  Although I wasn't particularly gratified by the reception of the Graduate Center (where there are always a million things going on simultaneously in any case), I was deeply moved by the attendance and support of my students from both the Graduate Center and the City College of New York.  I imagined that it would be an opportunity for them to meet one another--since the two classes are so different in strengths and constituency.  The overwhelming majority of all of my students were able to attend, perhaps a total of about 25.  And I think now that it was important to have such an event even though it was in a sense "hidden in plain sight.

One thing I liked about it a lot was the chance to see Barbara Ransby, Beverly Guy Sheftall and Jeanne Theoharis in action.  They were superb, each in her own way.  I would love to see all three featured at a real event focused on Feminism and the Civil Rights Movement. Since I have been teaching this topic, I have noticed from time to time events that have been given with a focus on women in the Civil Rights Movement and now I will continue to pursue this interest. As the author of Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman, such topics are of continued interest to me and I am still learning. 

We are just about to leave for our Spring break and when we return we will only have a few more classes.  We will want to do something focused on the music of the Civil Rights Movement, with singing and live accompaniment by Rev. Lowell Coleman (who is sitting in on the class at CCNY) and something on photography and visual art, maybe even a field trip either to Carrie Mae Weems' show at the Guggenheim Museum or Witness at the Brooklyn Museum.  All I know is tht I am exhausted but everything having to do with this subject matter energizes me.


Black Feminism, the Civil Rights Movement and African Anti-Colonialism

Our symposium on this topic last Thursday left me drained, exhausted in particular by the breathe of knowledge shared by the women gathered in a short period as brief as as a half a day.

I pondered most of all the difficulty of recognizing the vital contribution women leaders have made to the advancement of revolutionary struggles in the U.S. And Africa. The conversation turned to the portrayal of Winnie Mandela in the new film Mandela, which was said to be insufficient to her actual contribution. So I decided to watch this film this evening to see for myself. I find that Winnie Mandela occupies a large role.

The biopic, such as in the case of this movie, is a very difficult genre of feature film to execute well. The very process of concentrating the portrayal of historically and cataclysmic events in the form a biography of a single extraordinary individual as though change was the product of great men rather than the interactions of many great people forging a chain out of a series of events over time.

As such, this film does more than fail to tell the story of Winnie,. In general it is difficult to understand how events around the world led to majority rule and the freedom of Mandela, the man we now all revere. One thing that strikes me that this is truly the tale of a revolution in the sense of the American Revolution. It did not bring freedom for all or even well being for most but it began the discussion.


Every Tongue Got To Confess--Zora Neale Hurston's First book of Folklore

Harriet Powers, Bible Quilt 1898.  Of Clarke County, Georgia,  Powers was the author of one of this African American story quilt which is currently in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Art.  This work shows a strong folk tradition in African American Visual Art in the 19th century South. The story goes that the wives of faculty at Atlanta University had seen another of Power's Quilts and had commissioned this one.

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States edited by Carla Kaplan was finally published in 2001 with a brilliantly written foreward by the novelist John Edgar Wideman. The manuscript, which may be considered Hurston's first aborted attempt to compile for publication a collection of African American folklore, is markedly different from her subsequently published and well known volumes Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1937), both of which are distinctly anecdotal and narrative.  Whereas Every Tongue Go to Confess (which was never completed by Hurston, herself, for publication) was composed in 1927 of a series of discreet sections into the following categories--God Tales, Preacher Tales, Devil Tales, Witch and Hant Tales, Heaven Tales, John and Massa Tales, Tall Tales, Neatest Trick Tales, Mistaken Identity Tales, Fool Tales, Woman Tales, School Tales, Miscellaneous Tales, Talking Animal Tales, Animal Tales.  

In each section, the relevant tales are succinctly transcribed with the name of the person who gave the tale.  There are, for instance, in the first section, The God Tales, 12 stories.  

There are at the end of the book three appendices.  The first provides locations and dates, which include Alabama, Florida and Louisiana with specific information about the nature of the locations, such as for instance in the case of Alabama, "Mobile & Suburbs, i.e. Plateau, Magazine Point, Prichard. . . . A locale of sawmills, lumber camps and fishermen, illiterate and barely literate, except some school boys who told me tales." 

The second appendix provides a list of all the tellers of the tales by first and last name, age, education, location and occupation.  For instance, there is Della Lewis, who is described as "An illiterate woman around 70 years old. Born in West Florida. Mother of 11 children by 9 different fathers. Has always lived in Florida. Occupation: Midwife." Altogether there are 122 informants listed. 

The third appendix is devoted to a list of the 482 tales told by Kossula, who was the survivor of the slave ship Chlotilde, who she wrote about several times, not all of which are included in Every Tongue, but some of which I recognize by title from Mules and Men, for instance "Why de Porpoise's Tail is on Crosswise" and "Why the Waves Have White Caps."  

 The manuscript for Every Tongue turned up at the Smithsonian in the papers of William Duncan Strong, an American anthropologist who was a friend of Franz Boas, who trained Hurston in anthropology at Columbia University. Professor Akua Duku Anokye, who helped authenticate the manuscript in 1991, speculates that it may have found its way accidentally into Strong's papers when all the departmental papers were transferred to the National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C. In any case it is a fantastic find for anyone who is interested in tracking the evolution of Hurston's folktale collecting practice.  As is documented in her films, her letters and in her biographies, Hurston was as avid a collector of visual art, music, dance, songs and sermons as she was of folktales.  Moreover, it is thought that only a portion of Hurston's folklore collection exists and that much of it was inadvertently destroyed through her impoverished conditions later in her life.  Washington, D.C.

Hurston and Folklore Outline--Bibliography, Etc. (In Progress)

My maternal Grandmother and Grandfather, Willie and Andrew, both from Florida, Palatka and Tampa respectively, born in the early 1900s not too long after Hurston, both of whom I got to know and who spoke with a map of the South on their tongues and who taught me to recognize unlettered wisdom when I heard it.
These days there are many more ways than there once were to access various outlines, bibliographies, accounts and even analyses of African American folk culture-- from the storytelling practices, sermons and prayers to the music of gospel, work songs, blues, jazz and spirituals-- even as large and prestigious populations, black or white, continue to regard such work as useless, irrelevant, shallow and meaningless. One of the ways in which "folk culture" is dismissed and made incomprehensible is by the usual habit of denying that it has a history. In this formulation rap, hip hop and reggae are given precisely equivalent weight in an ahistorical template to blues, gospel, jazz and spirituals, all of which are seen as flat. Folk culture has no histories, no progressions, no series of developments because it was largely practiced and innovated by people who did not write histories or critical analyses or accounts of what they were doing. Therefore in a dominant culture in which the written is prized above all, African American folk culture lacks discernible depth.  
    Indeed, all those who attempted to analyze or historicize folk culture (among the texts in this tradition would be Blues People by Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka, to which this blog is dedicated) could not help but lose some essential  and definitive aspects of what which they were describing in the translation.  This is the nature of cultural preservation in writing of things that originate in the oral tradition, and many aspects of culture that we take for granted originated in oral forms but we rarely acknowledge this or take it into account. Indeed, I suppose the success of cultural preservation is measured by the degree to which an item in its inventory is no longer linked to its oral history.  Examples upon which we heavily rely would be The Bible, European fairy tales, Homer's Odyssey and the Iliad and there are many more.  We recognize these texts solely in their written forms, which allow us to access some portion of concepts and narratives that are centuries old.  However, invariably, some aspects of its origins in the oral traditions of the culture that bore them is lost. We Western people who become a society in which we rely upon that lost as a defining feature of excellence. As such a historical African American oral tradition cannot be recognized or incorporated, except to the degree that it can be disassociated from its roots among what Hurston called "the folk further down." 
    When I went to teach for two years at Cornell University (2005-2008) in African American Studies, my first experience of teaching at an Ivy League institution, I came to deliver the message of the wisdom of unlettered blacks to the cultural and educational elite only to find that I, myself, did not have the cultural authority to deliver it, that I had zero credibility.  That indeed, Hurston's own lack of credentials within the academy (despite her years as an undergraduate at Barnard without which I doubt we would even know her name even now), coupled with my own lack of credibility (no Ivy League degrees at all) gave me no power at all to convey importance on this topic, or on any other.  I learned from this a little bit about why people study the things they study in the academy, that is in order to convey upon themselves the authority to speak and be heard. 
    In any case, long before I fully understood this radical invisibility on my own part, which I had already diagnosed in my second book Invisibility Blues (1990), toward the beginning of my time at Cornell (actually I presented this material there for the first time) I constructed this preliminary outline of folk culture in order to describe to others the place of Hurston's Mules and Men in the context of African American culture, and its use in her fiction, plays and folklore.

 Folk Culture of African Americans

I. Religion

A.   Voodoo

1.     Haitian

a.     Music

b.    Services

c.     Beliefs and Practices

d.    Spirit Possession

e.     Dancing

2. Louisiana and U.S.

B. Christianity

1.     Baptist

a.     Music (Bernice Johnson Reagon)

*Traditional Spirituals—Congregational Singing

*Concert Spirituals

*Gospel Hymns

Say Amen, Somebody! (1982) Dir: George T. Nierenberg. With Thomas Dorsey, Sallie Martin, Willie May Ford Smith, the O’Neal twins.

*Instrumentation—Organ, Etc.

Berneice Johnson Reagan, ed. Wade in the Water: Vol 2: Congregational Singing: Nineteenth Century Roots. Smithsonian Folkways CD.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition. Bison Books. ISBN 0-8032-3913-0.

ML3187.R3187 2001.

The Story of Gospel Music: The Power in The Voice. BBC Video. VHS

The Gospel Tradition: The Roots and The Branches, Vol 1., Columbia/Sony Music 1991.

Willie Johnson,  The Complete Blind Willie Johnnson.”

Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. Limelight: 6th Edition, 2002.

---.  We'll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African-American Gospel Composers. DC: Smithsonian Press, 1992.

*Prayer Bands

b.    Sermon (C.F. Franklin, Alan Lomax)

*Liturgical or anchored by scriptural reference

*Chanting, Singing and Moaning

*Call and Response

  c. Services—this remains rather vague in her descriptions.

2.     Sanctified—Evangelical (clearly her heart was with this church, not the other)

a. Music

*Prayer Bands

THE QUILTS OF GEE'S BEND--VHS, produced and directed by Matt Arnett & Vanessa Vadim, A Tinwood Media Production, 2002, including footage from 1941, photographs by Arthur Rothstein for the Federal Security Administration and Music from HOW WE GOT OVER: SACRED SONGS OF GEE'S BEND, 1941 &2002 CD Tinwood Media.

 b. Sermon

*Liturgical or anchored by scriptural reference

*Chanting, Singing and Moaning

Alan Lomax Collection, Lay My Burden Down

*Call and Response

c. Service

*Spirit Possession


*Ring Shouts

*Other Practices and Beliefs

II. Secular—This portion of folklore, in some ways the most mysterious, includes a series of stories that are orally performed before an audience of one’s peers, and among whom the stories are already well known.   The mystery lies in where and how they begun, during slavery, after slavery and if so, why and how did the tellers arrive at the various narrative formats.  Such practices are thought to have largely prevailed into the 20th century in a rural and remote setting where electricity, juke-boxes, television and radio would have been less of an option as regular entertainment. 

Much of the value of the story is seen to lie in the particular performance and manner of telling, which is viewed as a competitive activity, even cause for exchanging sharp criticisms, such as the dozens in which outrageous things are said about the mother of one’s opposition.  Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men does an excellent job of providing an extensive sample of such stories and also setting the scene for situations in which the stories would be swapped one after the other, as in a contest to see who could tell the best one. The stories, according to Hurston, were known as “lies,” in recognition of their fictitious and phantomsgorical nature.

   In general, the stories take a humorous and cynical approach to often serious matters, such as slavery, the way God made the earth, the shenanigans of the Devil, various forms of menial labor, the relationships between men and women.  Also, I think there is a sense in which these narratives are actually the epistemological backbone of all other forms of folkloric performance both dance and musical.

MULES AND MEN. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott, 1935. Reprinted with foreward by Arnold Rampersad, New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

TELL MY HORSE. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott, 1938. Reprinted with a foreward by Ishmael Reed, New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Pamela Bordelon, Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston: From the Federal Writers’ Project. Norton 1999.

A.  Stories

            *Slavery Stories: John and the Master, especially

            *Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox—Animal Tales

            *Race Stories—How we became black

            *Stories about Heaven—particularly its racial composition

            *White Folks Stories---particularly the strange things they do

            *Devil and God—both amusingly personified

            *Bible Stories—humorous, ironic renditions of scriptural tales.

            *Flood or Water Stories—Noah’s may come up.

            *Preacher Stories—lots about the potential for absurd callings or mistaken calls to preach.          

     B. Legends

     C.  Work Songs—In Prisons, Outside of Prisons

Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm, 1947-1948 Volume 1: Murderous Home and Volume II: Don’tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling? The Alan Lomax Collection,

     D.  The Blues—Instrumentation



*Other Instruments—Harmonicas, etc.

E. The Blues—Singers

Charles Keil. Urban Blues.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

James Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. Oxford UP, 1992

Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. Verso, 1998.

Pete Daniel. Deep'n As It Comes: The 1927 Mississippi Flood. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

David Evans, "The Origins of Blues and Its Relationship to African Music." In Images de L'africaine de l'antiquite au XXe siecle, edited by Daniel Droixhe and Kalus H. Kiefer, pp. 129-41. Frankfurth; Peter Lang, 1987.

W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues; An Autobiography of of W.C. Handy, edited by Arna Bontemp, 1955. Reprint: New York: Da Capo Press, 1985

W.E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.

Dena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. Urbana: University of Ill Press, 1970.

Selections from DEVIL GOT MY WOMAN, 1966, Vestapol 13049 DVD in which Alan Lomax simulated the atmosphere of a local jook joint during the Newport Blues Festival, held in tandem with the Jazz Festival in 1966. It was at one of these festivals at which Bob Dylan inaugurated the use of electronic amplification with his folk music. Much more to be said about this some of it in the Autobiography of George Wein, published in the past five years, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival.


There were many black women blues singers and instrumentalists but they are rarely commented upon or written about for reasons passing understanding. I guess they don't fit in with some of the most popular stereotypes about the blues.

Selections from THE AMERICAN FOLK BLUES FESTIVAL, VOLUME III: Big Mama Thornton, HOUND DOG (1965) Big Mama Thornton has numerous recordings, many of which I have in my collection, but she is grossly under-documented and is awaiting further analysis and commentary; Koko Taylor & Little Walter, WANG DANG DOODLE (1967). Koko Taylor is also a revelation, about whom I know even less.

                        1. Rural—Regional

Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began. The New Press, 1993.

The Land Where The Blues Began. CD 1993.



                        2. Urban



F. Jazz

            1. Instrumentation

            2. Singers

G. Children’s Songs

            1. Lyrics

            2. Music

H. Games

Bessie Jones, Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Let Your Backbone Slip”  Rounder CD C11587

I.  Other Music—Country, Zydeco?

1. Children’s Songs

2. Storytelling

3.  Games


Seraph on the Suwanee (1948).

Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston. Turtle Island 1985.

Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. With Langston Hughes, 1997.


Cheryl Wall, ed. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook. Oxford UP 2000.

Robert W. Croft, A Zora Neale Hurston Companion. University of Florida Press, ISBN 0-8130-2793-4.

Carla Kaplan, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Doubleday 2003.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: a Biography / Urbana: University of IllinoisPress, 1980.

My Name is Zora!

PBS Home Video, American playhouse (Television program) VHS

Zora in Florida. [electronic resource] / edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, c1991.

Zora in Florida edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel.  Orlando: University of Central Florida Press. ISBN 0-8130-1061-6. 

Speak, so you can speak again : the life of Zora Neale Hurston compiled by Lucy Anne Hurston and the estate of Zora Neale Hurston, Doubleday, c2004.w/cd.


Cd tracks 1-11 Zora Neale Hurston interviewed by Mary Margaret McBride on WEAF Radio, January 25, 1943; tracks 12-25 folk songs collected by Hurston for the WPA and the Library of Congress in Jacksonville, Florida on June 18, 1939.

“Let’s Shake It,” “Dat Old Black Gal,” “Shove It Over,” “Mule on the Mount,” games of “Georgia Skin” and “Let the Deal Go Down,” “Uncle Bud, Ever Been Down, “Halimuhfack,” “Tampa,” “Po’Gal,” “Mama Don’t Want No Peas, No Rice,” “Crow Dance,” “Wake Up, Jacob,” “Oh, Mr. Brown.”

Zora Neale Hurston: Recordings, Manuscripts, and Ephmera in the Archive of Folk Culture and Other Divisions of the Library of Congress. Compiled by Laura K. Crawley and Joseph C. Hickerson


Alan Dundes, editor. Mother Wit: From the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpetation of Afro-American Folklore. University of Mississippi 1995.

William J. Faulkner, The Days When the Animals Talked: Black American Folktales & How They Came to Be. Africa World Press, 1993.

Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, eds. Book of Negro Folklore, Dodd Mead, 1958.

The Journal of American Folk-Lore.

Bruce Jackson, editor. The Negro and His Folklore in 19th Century Periodicals. University of Texas, 1967.

   ----. ed. Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons. Cambridge; Harvard UP, 1972.

Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes. Step It Down; Games, Plays, Songs and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Harold Courlander.  A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. Crown Publishers, 1972.

Joel Chandler Harris. Uncle Remus Stories and Other Folklore (various collections). 1880s through 1920.

Richard Dorson. American Folktales. Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett, 1956.

Alan Dundes, ed. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973.

Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1941; revised edition 1958.


Bruce Jackson, ed. The Negro and His Folklore in 19th Century Periodicals.  University of Texas Press, 1967.

Morris Turner III, America’s Black Towns and Settlements: A Historical Reference

Guide. Volume One 1998.

Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices. Thunder Mouth Press, 1941.

Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom, 1939.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Illustrated Souls of Black Folk edited by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr. Annotated, Illustrated, Documentary Edition. Paradigm Publishers 2005.

Robert Baron, African in the Americas: Melville J. Herskovit’s Folkloristic and Anthropologic Scholarship, 1923-1941, 2 volumes.  Dissertation 1994.


Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1852.

--- The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1853.

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Is Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices. Oxford UP 1993

Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus Tales.

James Weldon Johnson: Writings. Library of America 2002.

Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays. Library of America 2002

Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Heart of Happy Hollow: Stories. ISBN 0-7679-1981-5 Dodd Mead

Paul Laurence Dunbar, When Malindy Sings. Illustrated with Photographs by the Hampton Institute Camera Club. Dodd Mead 1903

Lida Keck Wiggins, The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Kraus Reprint 1971

In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar edited by Herbert Woodward Martin & Ronald Primeau. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.

   --- Sport of the Gods, 1901.

   ---.  The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Toni Braxton, editor. University of Virginia Press Dodd Mead 1913. 1993

Dubose Heyward, Porgy 1933

Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life, 1933.

NOVELS AND STORIES. Edited and with notes by Cheryl Wall. New York:

Library of America, 1995.

THE SANCTIFIED CHURCH. Foreward by Toni Cade Bambara. Berkeley, Calif: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981.

SPUNK: THE SELECTED SHORT STORIES OF ZORA NEALE HURSTON. Berkeley, Calif: Turtle Island Foundation, 1985.

There are as well many unanthologized articles, stories and plays, including at least three novels, one of which was about King Herod, that have been completely lost.  Her later articles and interviews were the most controversial,

such as "The 'Pet Negro' System" first published in AMERICAN MERCURY 55 (July 1942) and then condensed in NEGRO DIGEST 1(June 1943), pp. 47-49 and her negative review of Richard Wright's UNCLE TOM'S CHILDREN in SATURDAY REVIEW, April 2, 1938, p. 32.

On the other hand, she wrote many invaluable articles and essays, such as "Three Days Among Maroons." Review of JOURNEY TO ACCOMPONG by Katherine Dunham, NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE WEEKLY BOOK REVIEW, January 12, 1947, p. 5.

It is difficult to believe that one person can be so wonderful and so awful at the same time but Hurston is definitely a case of that.  Her final reasons for doing and saying things remain a mystery to most of us.

But you can see by the illustrious list of black writers and intellectuals who have aligned themselves with her work that many many smart people remain in awe of her gifts as writer, playwright, anthropologist and folklorist.


There's quite a lot at this point but in my estimation, the irreplaceable work, which has completely re-shaped my analysis is Valerie Boyd's WRAPPED IN RAINBOWS: THE LIFE OF ZORA NEALE HURSTON. Scribner's 2003 and Carla Kaplan's ZORA NEALE HURSTON: A LIFE IN LETTERS. New York: Doubleday, 2002.