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A New (Digital) Liberation?

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, posse
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on Tuesday, 21 August 2012
in Today in Black History

I’ve grown up with video games from the times of 8-bit pixels to today’s high-definition virtual entertainment centers. I greatly enjoy all the fun, intrigue, and spectacle, as well as following all the latest news on upcoming titles and technological advancements. Because of that passion, however, it takes something substantial to floor me these days, something beyond improved graphics or a new installment in a beloved series. That is why I had to pause and re-examine the announcement of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation,” when it was revealed that its protagonist would be a woman by the name of Aveline de Grandpré, it would take place in mid-late 18th century New Orleans, Louisiana, and that she would be of French-African heritage.

Aveline de Grandpré

Aveline de Grandpré in a screenshot from her debut trailer. © Ubisoft Entertainment

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Fela & His “Musical” inspiration

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, posse
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on Wednesday, 07 March 2012
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Hit Broadway, Tony Award-winning musical “Fela!” came through Detroit on February 17, 2012 to March 4, 2012. In conjunction, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History welcomed a new exhibit, “Moving to His Own Beat – Fela: The Man, The Movement, The Music.” Museum writer Gregory Lucas-Myers muses on the central theme he sees running through it all.


I had the pleasure of seeing the musical “Fela!” on February 17, its public opening night at Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. The stage saw no standard, biographical scene-by-scene rundown of Fela’s life, but was instead host to an all-out concert. Many of Fela Kuti’s classic songs were performed live between Fela narrating the sometimes comedic, often tragic story of his life, personal trials, and of post-colonial Nigeria as a whole. Fela, faithfully realized by actor Sahr Ngaujah, enjoyed numerous back-and-forths with the audience, including an impromptu exchange with a man a few rows over from me in the balcony. One scene in particular, wherein Fela goes on a spiritual journey to seek the advice of his deceased mother, was as purely theatric as the play got, filled with all sorts of surreal imagery of crocodiles and light flashes and the actors turned into costumed creatures. Even then, the theme of “inspiration” was the driving factor.

 

Fela Kuti in Concert

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A Gap in Kwanzaa

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, posse
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on Tuesday, 17 January 2012
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From December 26 to December 29, 2011, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History held nightly Kwanzaa Celebrations, each event punctuated by a variety of activities and attractions. On the final evening, a fashion show graced the stage, featuring a pair of Detroit designers. Museum intern Gregory Lucas-Myers takes inspiration from that show to highlight the holiday.


Born out of the Black Power movement, Kwanzaa was first officially celebrated in 1966. One year earlier, Dr. Charles Wright and others established the International Afro-American Museum. Now, 45 years later, I find myself watching from the sound booth as the world’s foremost institution on chronicling African-American history put on the last event of its annual Kwanzaa observance. Each of the four evenings of festivities corresponded to one of seven principles, ideas or values that serve as foundations for the betterment of African and African-American life and culture. For Thursday, December 29, the principle was Ujamaa, or co-operative economics, defined as “To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses, and to profit from them together.”

 

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Voices of the Civil War Episode 1 "The Original Sin" Part 1

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on Monday, 16 January 2012
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JANUARY 2012: The Voices of the Civil War is a five-year film series dedicated to celebrating and commemorating the Civil War over the course of the sesquicentennial. Each month, new episodes will cover pertinent topics that follow the monthly events and issues as they unfolded for African Americans during the Civil War.

Within these episodes there are various primary sources – letters and diaries, newspaper reports, and more - to recount various experiences of blacks during this period. We encourage your feedback and commentary through our Voices of the Civil War web blog.

The American Civil War was one of the most destructive armed conflicts that the United States has ever fought. But, how did this nation, less than one hundred years old in 1865, arrive at the point of Civil War?

In episode 1, “The Original Sin,” we travel back to the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. Here we see disunion already brewing over the issue of slavery. Delegates like James Madison, George Mason, and Benjamin Franklin pontificate on the effects of building a new nation on the backs of tyranny.

Credits

Shot 1-7,9,10,12,13,16,19,20,23,24,28,29,31,34,37,38,40-43: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, [lc-uszc2-2354, LC-DIG-ds-00120, LC-DIG-ppmsca-21740, LC-USP6-2415-A, lc-uszc2-2354, LC-USZ62-2276, LC-DIG-cwpb-05635, LC-USZ62-90258, LC-DIG-cwpb-03711, LC-USZC6-45, rbpe 00103300, LC-USZ62-67819, LC-DIG-ppmsca-31705, LC-USZ62-2770, LC-USZC4-7216, LC-USZ62 – 16960, rbpe 00103300, LC-DIG-ppmsca-05453, LC-USZ62-89701, LC-USZ62-90398, LC-USZC6-48, LC-USZC4-2520, LC-USZC4-528, LC-DIG-cwpb-05635, LC-DIG-ppmsca-21740, LC-DIG-ppmsca-10874]

Shot 8: Courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, http://library.sc.edu/socar/

Shot 11,18,36: From the collections of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, (Schneider Collection)

Shot 15,30,39: Courtesy National Archives, [ARC Identifier 1656604; ARC Identifier 1667751, ARC Identifier 301682]  

Shot 21: White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

Shot 22: Florida Center for Instructional Technology, http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

Shot 25: Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society, http://www.vahistorical.org/

Shot 32,35: Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol

Shot 33: © Courtesy of the Board of Regents of Gunston Hall

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An Unforgettable Name and Vision

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On Wednesday, December 21, 2011, The Wright hosted a free screening of "Taking Root: The Vision of Waangari Maathai." Museum intern Leah Johnson reflects on the impact of the documentary on herself and the audience.


The first time I came across the name Wangari Maathi was on my newsfeed on Facebook.

 

I learned she had recently passed, but left an amazing legacy as the first African woman given the Nobel Prize.

 

After reading the blurb of information about her, I continued scrolling down the page with the other news of the day, not knowing that her name and contributions would resurface at a later date.

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Troy Davis: A Division in the Discussion

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, posse
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on Tuesday, 13 December 2011
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On September 21, 2011, the state of Georgia carried out the execution of Troy Anthony Davis, who was first convicted of the fatal shooting of Mark MacPhail in 1991. In the 20 years between the conviction and the time of death, Davis steadfastly proclaimed his innocence and a multitude of challenges and contradictions arose, not the least of which included seven of the nine trial witnesses changing or recanting their original accounts of the incident. With the end result as it stands, the community is left tackling haunting questions. On November 22, 2011, the Charles H. Wright Museum played host to a special session of its “Black. Men. Power.” discussion series subtitled “A Referendum on the Execution of Troy Davis.” The evening event was lead by Kwasi Akwamu, Chairperson of Helping Our Prisoners Elevate, Imran Syed, Staff Attorney of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, and criminal defense attorney Jeffrey L. Edison.

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Art as History, History as Art

Posted by Ted Canaday
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A reporter writing a story on what history museums are doing to stay relevant in the current economic climate recently contacted me.  Our discussion spoke directly to the vibrancy of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as a preeminent historical institution, but also having a wide array of educational and performing art programming that makes it more of a "hybrid" organization, if you will, in reflection of the living tapestry that is African American history and culture and its manifestations in the present.

"The Wright Museum ties black history to other cultural events, including recent performances by the Dance Theatre of Harlem, subject of a featured exhibit and the highlight of a September gala that raised more than $400,000 for the museum, spokesman Ted Canaday said.

'You can't just say, "We're a history museum'' and only push the historic aspect,' he said. 'You have to show people how the history impacts people right now, how it impacts the choices they make, and one of the best ways to do that is through the arts.'"

Little did I know this small, upstate New York newspaper’s story would be picked up by the Associated Press and end up in dozens of papers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.  Nevertheless, my contention that history's relevance in the present can well be illustrated through the arts was borne out by two incidents this past weekend.  The Wright Museum presented a follow-up performance (to their September 9 Gala appearance) by the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble at the nearby Detroit School of Arts, which quickly sold out all 750 available tickets.  The performances were stunning, including excerpts from The Joplin Dances, a modern piece entitled Episode, and DTH's famed Return, set to the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin, which of course brought the house down.  But it was the world premiere of the Christopher Huggins-choreographed In the Mirror of Her Mind, a meditation on a woman haunted by the men from her past, that absolutely floored me.  Admittedly, I’ve never been much of a ballet enthusiast, but am now in awe of how Dance Theatre of Harlem has taken an art form codified in 17th century France and masterfully imbued it with a multicultural context while becoming one of the storied companies of our time.  Having been exposed to its history through the exhibition, Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts, and the artistry and discipline so obvious in their performance, has opened my mind and heart to it.  In other words, I've gained an appreciation for the art through its history.

So moved was I by In the Mirror of Her Mind that with some Internet sleuthing I was able to track down the haunting piece of music the ballet was choreographed to; that of contemporary classical composer Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3, Opus 36, 2nd Movement (excuse the pretension, but I was a music school geek), which is written around the words a teenage girl etched into the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in World War II.  Listening to (and watching) this performance, filmed at the site of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, brought me to tears as I imagined the innocence lost and weight of human suffering that has wracked history since time immemorial.  This was an instance of art transporting me to a particular moment in history, and that history brought harrowingly home through art.  Furthermore, I felt its emotional resonance, something the arts can do with more immediacy than any other medium; so, an awareness of history through art.

History and the arts are inextricably intertwined, as are our collective stories and experiences as human beings, and to see them as separate is folly, and speaks to dichotomies that exist only in the mind.  A divine piece of music, written by a Polish composer and inspired by the horrors of the Holocaust, then forms the basis of a modern ballet for a distinctly African American-inspired dance company, the subject matter of which is heart-wrenchingly poignant in its portrayal of an individual's recollection of love and loss.  The arts, and the histories they explore and represent, have that crucial ability to transcend boundaries of race, gender, and even time, and in the same token, unite us in the universality of human experience.  Truly, the richness of that experience is a deep and luxurious quilt whose threads cannot easily be separated.

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“Betty, Cab, and Louis”

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On October 15 and 16, 2011, the Wright played host to “Rhapsody in Boop,” a musical tribute to the big band jazz that helped to turn a cartoon character into an icon. The songs of greats that leant their music to Betty Boop’s cartoons, such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, were performed by Kathy Kosins, The Paul Keller Orchestra, and a selection of Detroit-based and national artists including Dwight Adams, Sean Dobbins, and more. Museum intern Gregory Lucas-Myers gives his impressions on the subjects of the evening.

The decision to attend “Rhapsody in Boop” was a no-brainer. I enjoy jazz. I enjoy animation and animation history. I was not disappointed in the least, as lively string bassist Paul Keller laid the foundation of the music for the rest of his band to kick off, song after song performed to perfection. Detroit drummer Sean Dobbins brought his signature fire to the toms and hi-hat, while Kathy Kosins took over songs with her ability, including those originally performed by men. Trombone and saxophone solos interjected themselves into songs freely. Amidst the vintage songs, photos of the Jazz Age musicians, and stills of Ms. Boop’s cartons, I enjoyably listened along without any expectation of being surprised or provoked. That changed when the band got to one song and accompanying cartoon in particular.

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An Evening of Betty Boop & Jazz

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Leah Johnson provides insight on the Sunday performance of the Rhapsody in Boop concert at the Wright museum. 

Believe it or not, Betty Boop brightened my day and it did the same for Hazel Mohammed. It’s understandable if that sounds farfetched, but when analyzing it, it reminded me of why I do what I do. Allow me to explain.

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Off the Runway: An Interview with a Top Model

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Leah Johnson presents an interview with Naima Mora, the fourth winner of the Tyra Banks-hosted TV show "America's Next Top Model."

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Making of a Firebird

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On Sunday, July 31, 2011, The Wright played host to a very special event as Christina Johnson (pictured right), former principal dancer of Dance Theatre of Harlem, led a members-only tour through the Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts exhibit, followed by a public Q&A session with Brianna Furnish, founder of Ballet Renaissance. Leah Johnson (pictured left), an intern at the museum, was in attendance and provides her own perspective.

Whenever a former Firebird ballet dancer walks into a room, commanding attention comes naturally.

Therefore, when Christina Johnson, former Dance Theater of Harlem principal dancer appeared in the Wright Museum’s rotunda on National Dance Day, I immediately decided that she was synonymous with the beautiful art of ballet.

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Only When I Dance: A Review

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July 20th marked the showing of the movie “Only When I Dance” at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The movie was followed by a discussion led by Debra White Hunt, the artistic director at the Detroit Windsor Dance Academy. Chelsea Talifer, an intern at The Wright, provides this review of the film.

       When I think about the movie “Only When I Dance” I think about a movie that has a powerful title, and a powerful story. This movie focuses on two bright, young, passionate ballet dancers (Irlan & Isabela) from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil who have hopes to make it big. “Only When I Dance” shows how dancing transformed, and changed Irlan and Isobela’s lives. Ballet wasn't just a hobby to them, it was their life. Dancing took them out of their environment of poverty, and provided them with a vision of a different future. Irlan showed great focus and determination when it came to dance. He disconnected himself from his peers to avoid becoming distracted from his goals of dancing and providing a better life for his mother and father. Isobela had the same goal and determination, but she struggled to achieve them because of her dark skin complexion and body type. Successful ballerinas are usually Caucasian, thin and they come from affluent backgrounds. Dance companies like the Dance Theatre of Harlem provides the opportunity for young dancers like Isobela to succeed, and achieve their dreams.

        It’s unfortunate that many people have not seen or heard about this movie. To see Irlan and Isobela overcome the tremendous obstacles set before them, and the great sacrifices they make, is inspiring. Many people in America take for granted all the opportunities that we have, and for some this movie could be a reality check. To watch two young people living in poverty working so hard to accomplish something that would seem almost impossible to others is truly breathtaking.

 

Only When I Dance DVD cover art

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The Transformative Power of African-American Artists

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By Juanita Moore, President and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

The African-American community thrives on the arts. It is one thing that has always been accessible. The ability to create, interpret and reinterpret remained with us even through slavery.

During the Harlem Renaissance, visual artists joined their counterparts in literature, music, theater and dance to create images of the New Negro. They created bold, stylized images of African Americans and African-American life. These images were disseminated through publications that were widely read and distributed nationally, creating mass appeal. The art moved people, changed minds, created a sense of pride and brought people together.

The trend continued in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s with a growing social and racial consciousness permeating the work of many artists. However, it was the Black Arts Movement in the ’60s and ’70s that had art and the community speaking with one voice.

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Friday Photo History: Hanging With the Boys

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July is here and the joys of summer are present everywhere.  Fireworks light up the sky, the smell of hot dogs fills the air, and parks, backyards, and front porches are filled with friends and family enjoying the summer.  Summer is in full swing.  It is also a time when a breeze, a sunset, or a smell can remind us of more innocent days where we would spend all day out with friends.  Neighborhoods became giant playgrounds for tag, baseball, basketball, or a hundred other games.  Days didn't pass by quite so fast and sunset was when we returned home exhausted and ready to do it all over again the next day.

This is another photo from the incredible Indianapolis Recorder Collection.  They are, and have been for many years, one of the leading African American news publications in the country.  This photo was most likely taken between 1930-1960, but the feelings that the photo conjures up are timeless.  The innocence and magic that can only be found in youth are seen on each of the boys faces.  It is a sentiment that hopefully resonates with everyone.

Have a wonderful and safe 4th of July!

Collection: Indianapolis Recorder Collection; year(s): 1930-1960.  Photograph courtesy of the Collections and Exhibitions department of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (http://chwmuseum.org). Research, caption and scanning by Derek Thomas Sojda. For more information please contact the Louise Lovett Wright Library and Robert L. Hurst Research Center at (313) 494-5840 or via email at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .  For this and other informative posts, please visit http://chwmuseum.org/explore/blog.

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Friday Photo History: Ordine H. Toliver

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This is a photo from the Detroit Conservatory of Music where Mr. Toliver was a student. Ordine Toliver is in the second row from the top, all the way to the right. Mr. Toliver would go on to compose and arrange Negro spirituals.

As June continues spinning along like a record, we have another featured picture dealing with Detroit's music history. Although the name of Ordine H. Toliver may not be a household name to most people, he was one of Detroit's, and especially Hamtramck's, most gifted composers. In the 1920's Mr. Toliver was one of Hamtramck's most distinguished African-American citizens. He served on the village's last council and ran a music school where he had many white students (a rarity at the time). This is a photo from the Detroit Conservatory of Music where Mr. Toliver was a student. Ordine Toliver is in the second row from the top, all the way to the right. Mr. Toliver would go on to compose and arrange Negro spirituals. Check back next week when we will share the sheet music from one of Ordine Toliver's compositions.

Special thanks to the Hamtramck Public Library for information on Ordine H. Toliver.

Collection: Ordine Toliver Collection; Year: June 1927

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Friday Photo History: Disc Jockey Memories

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In this photo Ed McKenzie is conducting what appears to be an interview with one of the most important female singers of all time, Ella Fitzgerald.

This is another photo from the Ed McKenzie collection. During his days on Detroit radio Ed McKenzie was responsible for bringing the music of some of the best artists in the world into the homes of Detroiters. Television was not the powerful force it is today in those years. There was no American Idol or America's Got Talent, MTV or any other variety of TV shows that the public depends on to discover and listen to new music. Radio was the way people heard sports, news, music, and entertainment. The public depended on radio disc jockeys like Ed McKenzie to pick the best artists and best songs to play. Disc jockeys were responsible for putting the best artists in the ears of the public. In those days before corporate radio, the disc jockey was an incredibly idolized public figure. Men like Dick Clark and Alan Freed became household names and important historical figures. They had magnetic personalities and were the gurus of all that was cool.

In this photo Ed McKenzie is conducting what appears to be an interview with one of the most important female singers of all time, Ella Fitzgerald. Often artists like Ella would stop in at the radio station and give an interview before performing at one of the city's venues that evening. Often the sound of an old radio show or a scratchy record can take us back to these times and we realize that it may have been a slower, different way of life but the memories still remain.

Collection: Ed Mckenzie Collection; Year: 1940 - 1955

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Friday Photo History: A Musical Bridge

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Ed Mckenzie is shown doing an interview with famed jazz saxophonist Charlie

As the days grow longer, the temperature goes higher, and sunny days become more frequent, we Metro-Detroiters welcome the first days of summer with open arms. The winter was long and just last month the thoughts of never seeing the sun (or being carried away by massive amounts of rain) crossed more than a few people's minds.

For the photo blog this month we have chosen to focus on music. There are few things better in the warm weather than cruising in the car with the windows down listening to your favorite songs or sitting outside with some friends, some beverages, and your iPod (or music player of choice) on shuffle.


Many years ago people didn't have all the options that we have to listen to their favorite artists and songs. It was either from the radio or vinyl records. One of the giants of Detroit radio throughout the 1940's and 1950's was Ed Mckenzie. Ed was one of the first Detroit radio deejays to play everyone's music regardless of race. For Ed, it was all about the music. At the time, this was a bold and risky move, but Mr. Mckenzie was able to bridge the gap of racial tolerance and open ears of all people to new music. This forward thinking would lead to Ed Mckenzie becoming one of the most respected radio disc jockeys in the country. This is a photo from the Ed Mckenzie collection. He is shown doing an interview with famed jazz saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker.


Information provided by: The Ed Mckenzie Collection at CHW Museum Archive Wordpress Blog: http://chwmaah-archive.com/?page_id=3413

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Friday Poetry History: A Poem by Arthur Pfister

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Our fourth entry for National Poetry Month from the legendary Broadside Press is a poem entitled, "Granny Blak Poet (In Pastel)" and is dedicated to Mrs. Margaret Danner. This poem was published in 1970 by Arthur Pfister. Unlike our previous entries, this poem does not have a striking watercolor color scheme or added graphics to illuminate the words; this broadside is brought to life by the words themselves. The way that the words are spaced and the paragraphs are structured is the artwork. Does the placement of the words mean anything for poem? How does it tie in to the subject matter? That is for the reader to decide, but this shows how the broadside was an amazing artistic medium for the conveyance of poetry. It could make the very words of the poetry visual and well as literal art. It was art of a different time embodying the spirit of creativity and risk. It was art that could only have been created with great ambition. That was Dudley Randall's vision; that was the Broadside Press.

Collection: Broadside Press Collection; year: Poem 1970. Photograph courtesy of the Collections and Exhibitions department of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (http://chwmuseum.org). Research, caption and scanning by Derek Thomas Sojda. For more information please contact the Louise Lovett Wright Library and Robert L. Hurst Research Center at (313) 494-5840 or via email at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .  For this and other informative posts, please visit http://chwmuseum.org/explore/blog.

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Friday Poetry History: Olumo

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Our third entry for our series celebrating National Poetry Month is the the poem, "Pearl Bailey sings Tchaikovsky & Grieg in the key of ELLINGTON-STRAYHORN: mushrooms & nutcrackers" by OLUMO (Jim Cunningham). This poem, as the title implies, is a celebration of music. The broadside itself is the cool hue of blue that is accented by three notes and a treble clef. These subtle touches enhance the power of the poetry and make the broadside a unique way to read a poem. This poem is a lucid dream-like dance through the story of a woman and her day, from "she didn't stray too far from the morning's mood to climb a mountain" to, "she was tired of her high heel shoes and kicked them off quicker than an overture". This is a wonderful example of the craft that enhances the English language and reaffirms how beautiful it can be. If only everything we read could be put on a broadside!

Collection: Broadside Press Collection; year: Poem 1972. Photograph courtesy of the Collections and Exhibitions department of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (http://chwmuseum.org). Research, caption and scanning by Derek Thomas Sojda. For more information please contact the Louise Lovett Wright Library and Robert L. Hurst Research Center at (313) 494-5840 or via email at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .  For this and other informative posts, please visit http://chwmuseum.org/explore/blog.

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Friday Poetry History: All I Gotta Do by Nikki Giovanni

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April is National Poetry Month, so instead of historical photographs, we will be featuring African-American poetry that was published by Detroit's own Broadside Press. The poems are each printed on colored paper, and each has a distinct look and style. Some of these poems have been autographed by the author. This week we will be featuring a poem from Nikki Giovanni.

Broadside Press was started by lifelong Detroiter and poet Dudley Randall in 1965. When he was 13 he had a poem published in the Detroit Free Press. Over the years he earned degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan in English and Library Science, respectively. He would move away for some years, but he returned to Detroit in 1956 and worked at the Wayne County Federated Library System as head of the reference-inter loan department. His most well know poem, 'Ballad of Birmingham' was a response to the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church. He continued to publish poetry and collections of poetry throughout the 1960s and 70s. In 1981 he was named Poet Laureate of the City of Detroit by Mayor Coleman Young. He died in 2000.

For more information on Dudley Randall please visit http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/randall/life.htm.

Collection: Broadside Press Collection; year: 1970. Photograph courtesy of the Collections and Exhibitions department of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (http://chwmuseum.org). Research, caption and scanning by Derek Thomas Sojda.  For more information please contact the Louise Lovett Wright Library and Robert L. Hurst Research Center at (313) 494-5840 or via email at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .  For this and other informative posts, please visit http://chwmuseum.org/explore/blog.

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