The first novel by a black woman I read was “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. She was and still is a controversial figure, but that introduction for me, a white male, to a black woman’s insights, made a deep impression.Hurston, at 9, was essentially abandoned by her father and stepmother. She didn’t get along with them, and they didn’t understand their complicated, intelligent daughter. However, abandonment didn’t faze Hurston. As a young adult, she turned up at Morgan State University in Baltimore with nothing but her talent for observation and learning. They served her well as she continued studies at Howard University in Washington, DC, then Barnard School of Columbia University, where she was the only black student, and finally Columbia University itself. She earned a degree in anthropology at the same time that she was writing short stories. Finishing school, she began cultural research of black Southern communities, where she documented local tales and history. Along with her life, those stories became the backbone of the novels she wrote as she joined other black writers and activists in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s.At her height, Hurston was a well-known figure for her research and books. She wrote four novels along with several non-fiction works on black culture and folklore. However, Hurston fell into obscurity in the 1940s as she differed with other black leaders on education and politics. Her work in folklore led her to represent speech patterns with dialect in novels. Other blacks resented the dialect, saying it demeaned blacks and only added to the cultural misconceptions that whites had of African Americans.I understand opposition to depicting dialect in novels. It can be used to degrade people because of the way they speak, especially uneducated people. But Hurston and other writers of the times were not doing it to demean people, but to depict their lives and situations as they were. But Hurston had political and social views that were just wrong.Hurston opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and she was against integration in some cases. She believed Roosevelt’s social platform was harmful, making black Americans dependent on social programs. Regarding integration, she thought black towns and schools could operate on their own and be just as good as white towns and schools. I think Hurston’s views were more a matter of pride than practical solutions for disadvantaged, oppressed people. There is nothing wrong with assistance in an unjust economic world. Also, races should cooperate, not turn the world into a field for competition. Besides, the races have never remained pure. There has always been interaction between cultures, and we don’t want to return to a world where countries, or people within countries, are debating or proving who is superior to whom. Hurston’s works gained interest again in 1975 when Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, reminded us of Hurston’s talent. Despite her radical views, Hurston’s novels and non-fiction works are insightful and still of interest today.
Jon Batiste has an infectious smile and outstanding talent, and he also has a genuine passion for people and a vision for human harmony.Batiste worked his way to musical perfection and recognition more than a decade ago, but the average American didn’t know about him until he and his band, Stay Human, became the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert five years ago. But Batiste is not just a comic sidekick for Colbert, even though that’s what people expect from a second banana to a late night show host. Batiste is a thoughtful, intelligent young man with a good nature that is evident in every interview he does and every project he involves himself in. For goodness sakes, as talented as he is, he started out playing music in public places and on public transportation just to meet people and share his music even though he wasn’t a busker.He is a musical genius, coming from a musical family in the New Orleans area. He began playing drums professionally with his family when he was eight. At 11, he switched to the piano and took lessons in classical music. He trained himself in songwriting by transcribing songs he heard on video games, then wrote and released his first album at 17 before moving on to Julliard School. In the seven years since finishing at Julliard, he has formed his band, produced and released music albums, performed concerts in 40 countries, found his way to becoming a TV personality, and as of late, co-wrote the score for a recent Disney movie Soul.I discovered Jon Batiste on YouTube years ago, and he has constantly amazed me with his talent. Jazz, which Batiste was raised on, is not my musical preference, but Batiste’s repertoire ranges wider than one genre. But even when he performs jazz, I appreciate his music, which Batiste calls “social music.” He describes it as “love, joy and community … through musical exchanges and … the blueprint of these kinds of exchanges are found in the centuries of history in humankind before music was commodified.” So while he is an innovator, Batiste does not dismiss tradition. Batiste says that while each generation looks for their own musical expression, all movements should build and maintain the artistic traditions of the past. They don’t arise to displace what came before, but enhance and build on them.Batiste also recognizes his responsibility as a public figure to stand up for truth and justice. He participated in the March for Science rally in Washington, DC, in 2014, which encouraged governmental policies to be guided and determined by evidence and facts, and promotes a sustainable economy in America, as well as equality. Batiste’s latest appearance in that role occurred last year in Harlem at a Black Lives Matter peaceful protest in Harlem, where he is the music director of The Atlantic and the creative director of the National Jazz Museum, all at the age of 34.
My favorite civil rights leader of all time is Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century abolitionist. He was a blend of twentieth-century leaders we know so well now, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Douglass exhibited the self-control and patience of King, but he also had the fire and aggressiveness of Malcolm X.Douglass’ face is as instantly recognizable as the face of any other historically important person of his era: Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Walt Whitman, or Ralph Waldo Emerson. But Douglass started much lower socially than any of those figures. Douglass was born a slave, in Maryland, at a time when young black males were taken away from their mothers. Douglass never knew his biological father, who probably raped his mother, and he was reared for about seven years by his maternal grandmother before he was sent to be a household slave at a home in Baltimore. Douglass was shown some favor by the mistress of the house as she began teaching him to read. However, she stopped when confronted by her husband who told her she would ruin Douglass as a slave. Then at sixteen, Douglass was sent to work on a plantation where he was frequently beaten by an overseer.It’s hard to imagine that anyone would be able to rise above the unjust and despicable treatment he received. But Douglass was no ordinary person. When the lessons from his mistress stopped, he sought help from young white children. Then when he could read, he began teaching other slaves, naturally in secret. From his self-education and reading, Douglass did “get ruined.” He learned that the United States did not observe its own principle that all men are created equal, damning some of its citizens to slavery and poverty. Douglass decided to do something about that beginning with defying the slave system, fighting back against his overseer then escaping, fleeing north to earn his freedom. There, asked to speak at an anti-slavery convention in 1841, he became a force for abolishing slavery. He wrote an account of his life as a slave, which is now a classic of American literature, and he was such an important voice for blacks that he became a consultant to President Lincoln.The foul and hurtful treatment Douglass suffered also made him sensitive to the plight of others. Douglass not only fought for equal rights for blacks following the abolition of slavery, but he also advocated for women’s rights. I didn’t read Douglass’ slave account until I was in college. It wasn’t on the list of required reading in my high school, and it should have been. The book is not just a slave account. It’s a study in the history of the events that led to the Civil War. It’s an account of Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery and race. And it’s a study in courage, something we could use more of today given the recent rise in America of racism, xenophobia and hate speech.