Tequia Burt

Support These Black-Owned Seed Companies

One way to show love for the Black community during these times is to support Black-owned businesses. The following is a list of Black-owned seed sellers that I will try to keep updated. Happy shopping!

Black-Owned Seed Sellers

If you would like to be added to the list, or know of a Black-owned seed company not on the list, let me know!

<span class="has-inline-color has-vivid-red-color">Tequia Burt</span>
Tequia Burt

Tequia Burt is a Chicago-based editor, writer, content creator, and brand storyteller with 20 years of experience. In addition to being the Editor in Chief of Backyard Chicago Garden, she is the Founder-CEO of Content[ed.], which provides custom content and strategy to businesses.

Black Farms Matter: 8 Black-Owned Urban Farms to Support

It has never been a better time to support Black farmers.

As the chorus of “Black Lives Matter” rang out across the United States in the past few months, Americans have become more likely to seek out Black-owned business. Citing “a surge in online searches for Black-owned businesses,” even Google has hopped on the bandwagon. The search giant now lets Black business owners list themselves as such, making it much easier for customers to find and support them.

But how many Black farmers are there left to support?

Right now, according to the USDA’s latest figures, Black farmers comprise less than 2% of all farmers in the United States. In a 2019 analysis, the Center for American Progress released a report detailing how the devastating effect of discrimination by the USDA itself led to black farmers losing 80% of their land from 1910 to 2007. “The impact of structural racism—or systematic discrimination by private and public institutions—over the course of U.S. history on the wealth of black families is staggering,” the report said.

However, despite those dire figures, Black-owned farms are growing, according to the USDA. Even as the overall number of farmers are shrinking, the number of Black farmers is on the rise. Despite the odds against them, Black farmers are reclaiming the earth and using it to heal racial traumas for whole communities and to foster a closer relationship to the land. Here are eight to support today.

Grow Greater Englewood
Chicago, IL
https://www.growgreater.org

Established in 2014, Grow Greater Englewood promotes community wealth-building through sustainable agriculture. Cooperative farming is a central aspect of GGE’s community organizing, which seeks to turn struggling neighborhood Englewood into a “food oasis,” and play an active role in the “real food revolution that can generate equity, prosperity and wealth for local residents.”

Root Life
New Haven, CT
https://www.rootlife.org

Praxis, the owner of Root Life, has been urban farming in New Haven for eight years, working as a fulltime farmer and environmental educator for Common Ground High School and volunteering with local agricultural organizations such as New Haven Farms, The New Haven Land Trust, The Yale Sustainable Food Project and The Yale Botanical Gardens. In addition to working for and volunteering for local agricultural organizations, Praxis also helps to establish local community gardens and facilitate after-school garden club programs.

Chi City Foods
Chicago, IL
https://www.chicityfoods.com

Founded in 2018 by Xavier Maatra, Chi City Foods is driven by the passion to provide poor and marginalized groups in Chicago with access to fresh produce and training opportunities in urban agriculture. The current incubator farm is located in Altgeld Gardens, one of the most isolated housing developments in Chicago. This community is in a food desert with only one convenience store located within two miles. As the farm grows, its priority will be to train and hire people directly from the neighborhood, especially youth.

Mother’s Finest Family Urban Farms
Winston Salem, NC
https://www.mothersfinesturbanfarms.com

Through the leadership of Mother/ Certified Beekeeper and Master Gardener Samantha “Foxx” Winship, Mother’s Finest Family Urban Farms promotes innovative farming practices, product development and operations. In addition to growing all kinds of produce, the farm cultivates bees, chickens, worms and mushrooms. They have even trained their children to handle basic farm operations, beekeeping, vermiculture, poultry care and growing food!

Your Bountiful Harvest
Chicago, IL
https://yourbountifulharvest.wixsite.com/yourbountifulharvest

Your Bountiful Harvest is a sustainable urban farm and garden consultation service that provides environmental and hands-on farm education classes on-site in your backyard, community garden, farmers markets and/or classroom. Non-GMO, organic and heirloom seedlings are also available for purchase during the Spring (mid-late May) and Fall (Mid-September).

Farms to Grow
Oakland, CA
https://www.farmstogrow.com

Farms to Grow lists three missions: 1) To promote the sustainability and legacy of Black farmers as well as sprout the next generation of small farmers; 2) To document and disseminate farm history to advance the public’s understanding of the important roles of Black farmers; and 3) To improve the access to urban food markets including schools, restaurants, and individual consumers for Black and other underserved farmers.

Fresh Life Organic
Houston, TX
https://www.freshlifehtx.com

Fresh Life Organic was launched in 2016 to provide agriculture assistance to urban and rural areas and was created as a response to a community need for fresh local veggies. Over the last few years, the farm has expanded and produced multiple farms and gardens from Houston to now around the world. The farm specializes in Aquaponics/ Hydroponics, row crop farming, operations, risk management, and marketing agriculture products and is best known for its sustainable agriculture planning designing, building, and maintaining of farms, gardens, and greenhouses.

Footprint Farms
Jackson, MS
https://footprintfarmsms.com/

Cindy Ayers Elliott founded this 68-acre farm with a focus on agritourism for community development in Jackson, MS. Growing and array of fruits and vegetables, raising meat goats, chickens, cattle, and horses, she believes that “planting seeds in the earth will grow fresh vegetables, however, planting a seed in the minds of young people will create a new universe of scholars.”

<span class="has-inline-color has-vivid-red-color">Tequia Burt</span>
Tequia Burt

Tequia Burt is a Chicago-based editor, writer, content creator, and brand storyteller with 20 years of experience. In addition to being the Editor in Chief of Backyard Chicago Garden, she is the Founder-CEO of Content[ed.], which provides custom content and strategy to businesses.

Celebrate Juneteenth By Planting These Traditional African American Heirloom Seeds

After the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Louisville, Kentucky, respectively, I pressed the pause button on this blog; posting about gardening as people stood up for black lives across the country felt, well, trivial.

But as the civil unrest around me grew, I turned to my garden for succor. Putting my hands in the earth, nurturing new life has comforted me these past few weeks.

Every year in my garden, I try to grow at least one African-American heirloom crop. So, in honor of Juneteenth, which marks the liberation of our ancestors held as slaves, I offer this list of African American heirloom seeds that you can try in your garden today.

Tree Collard

Although the actual origin of tree collards is unknown, it is said to have originated in Africa and have been passed down through generations of black farmers. They are perennial in warm climates and can grow up to 10 ft tall, though they are usually a more manageable 4-5 ft. They are hardy to 20-degrees, but gardeners in chilly climates like me can bring them inside the garage or basement.

I grew tree collards last year and it is going to seed in my garden right now. This is exciting because they rarely go to seed and I can’t wait to collect them. Generally, since they rarely go to seed, they are grown through propagation. They used to be hard to find unless you knew a gardener that shared, but now you can find cuttings or plants from multiple Etsy sellers or from Project Tree Collard.

Fish Pepper

undefined

Arriving in North America via the Caribbean, fish peppers have historically been popular among the African-American community in Philadelphia, Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay region. A beautiful striped pepper that has traditionally been used in seafood dishes, it nearly went extinct but has been rescued by several seed savers. Baker Heirloom Creek gives us a rundown of this unique pepper’s history:

“This one-of-a-kind pepper would be lost to us if not for an unusual exchange. Horace Pippin was a black folk painter who served during World War I in the 369th Infantry called the ‘Harlem Hellfighters.’ He lost the use of his right arm after being shot by a sniper, and this left him with arthritic pain. Searching for some relief, he resorted to an old folk remedy that called for bee stings. Horace began giving seeds to a bee-keeper named H. Ralph Weaver. Horace’s seeds sometimes came from his far-flung old-time gardening friends, who sent wonderful and rare varieties. H. Ralph Weaver saved the seed in his private seed collection, where it remained until 1995 when his grandson William Woys Weaver released it to the public.”

Though you can purchase seeds via Baker Heirloom Creek next year, it’s a little late in the season to be starting pepper seeds. Never fear; this Etsy seller still has some plants for sale.

Jamaican Burr Gherkin

undefined

Originating in West Africa and brought to the Caribbean via the Transatlantic slave trade in the 1500s, this small gherkin tastes like a cucumber. It can be eaten raw, pickled, or cooked like squash.

The burr gherkins are still popular in the Caribbean—in the Bahia region of Brazil, Afro-Brazilians call them maxixe (mah-SHEE-shay) and use them in a traditional dish called maxixada (mah-shee-SHAH-dah). I grow a similar plant called the Sour Mexican Gherkin, and I can’t WAIT to grow this plant! You can find the seeds from Etsy Seller Plants With A Purpose.

Plate de Haiti Tomato

undefined

According to Food Historian William Woys Weaver, African American heirloom tomatoes are difficult to find and document. Dr. Carolyn Male shared this creole variety with him in 1992, and he, in turn, offered them through Seed Savers Exchange.

In his book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, he writes: “The earliest record of this tomato is a botanical drawing in Konrad Gessner’s Historia Plantarum (1561). Gessner’s specimens were doubtless grown from seed only recently brought from the Caribbean. Whatever its true origin, the tomato has been associated since the 1550s with the island now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It is known to have entered North America in 1793 with the Creole refugees who fled the slave uprising in Haiti. Beyond this, documentation of the tomato has remained elusive; little effort was made in the nineteenth century to investigate the plant varieties grown in the kitchen gardens of American blacks.” You can find this variety at True Love Seeds.

Roselle

undefined

One of the crops I’m most enthusiastic about growing this year is Roselle, which is native to West Africa. Also known as Sorrel, Florida Cranberry, and Flor de Jamaica, most people in the U.S. know it as Hibiscus tea, popularized as Celestial Seasonings “Red Zinger.” In the Caribbean, it is best known as the main ingredient in the holiday drink Sorrel.

Although a perennial in tropical climates (hardy in zones 8-11), it’s best grown as an annual in colder climates. Roselle produces big, beautiful blooms in the summertime, and, after the flowers fade, you can harvest the calyxes for jellies, teas, and Agua de Jamaica. (Find a recipe for Agua de Jamaica here.) It is definitely too late to grow Roselle from seeds this year because they have to be started indoors a couple of months before your frost date. But purchase them next year from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

<span class="has-inline-color has-vivid-red-color">Tequia Burt</span>
Tequia Burt

Tequia Burt is a Chicago-based editor, writer, content creator, and brand storyteller with 20 years of experience. In addition to being the Editor in Chief of Backyard Chicago Garden, she is the Founder-CEO of Content[ed.], which provides custom content and strategy to businesses.

Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll Little Richard Dies at 87

Richard Wayne Penniman, the “architect of rock ‘n’ roll” better known as Little Richard, has died, according to Rolling Stone. The cause of death was bone cancer, the musician’s lawyer Bill Sobel told Rolling Stone. After surviving a heart attack in 2013, he retired and had largely remained out of the public eye.

When the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer flamboyantly burst on the scene in the 1950s sporting a mile-high pompadour, mascara-coated eyelashes and pancake foundation makeup, wailing with a gender-bending falsetto all while pounding the piano, Penniman was, indeed, unlike any performer who had ever been seen before. He was an expert at working adoring crowds into a frenzy and gave us such enduring classics as “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “The Girl Can’t Help It.”

“Sexually ambiguous, loudmouthed and just plain noisy, Little Richard was like a visitor from another planet transported to the segregated South of the 1950s,” declared  the Los Angeles Times in 2000.

Little Richard performing Tutti Frutti in 1955

Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, on Dec. 5, 1932, and was one of 12 children. While his devout Seventh-Day Adventist family failed to support his musical interest, singing gospel and learning piano at their local church was all the succor Penniman needed.

At 15-years-old, his parents threw him out, he claimed, because he was a “sissy.” However, Ann and Johnny Johnson, the white couple who ran the Tick Tock Club in Macon, adopted Penniman.

In the late 1940s, he entered his adopted parent’s world of vaudeville. He performed in drag in a red evening gown as Princess Lavonne in Sugarfoot Sam’s Minstrel Show. While Penniman always remained coy about his sexuality — he admitted to being attracted to both men and women — that vagueness was calculated. He once told a musician complaining about having to use makeup for their performance:


“You know how many coloreds play here? None. I am the first. I am the only. You want to call me a sissy, go ahead. Knock yourself out, boy. But you make sure to call me a rich sissy.”


Penniman achieved breakthrough success in 1955 with “Tutti Frutti,” which he wrote when he was working as a dishwasher at a Greyhound bus station in his hometown. In a later interview, he revealed how he came up with the song:

“I couldn’t talk back to my boss man. He would bring all these pots back for me to wash, and one day I said, ‘I’ve got to do something to stop this man bringing back all these pots to me to wash,’ and I said, ‘Awap bop a lup bop a wop bam boom, take ’em out!’ and that’s what I meant at the time. And so I wrote ‘Tutti Frutti’ in the kitchen, I wrote ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ in the kitchen, I wrote ‘Long Tall Sally’ in that kitchen.”

The song was a sanitized version of a dirty ditty — the original lyrics are “Tutti Frutti/ Good booty/If it don’t fit/Don’t force it/You can grease it/Make it easy” — cleaned up with the aim of drawing a white audience. He had often performed the original version for black audiences in the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of black-only nightclubs in the South where trailblazing musicians like Penniman, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Otis Redding, Lena Horne, Etta James and B.B. King got their start.

The more-wholesome adaptation sold more than a million copies — to both black and white teenaged fans, much to the chagrin of their scandalized parents. As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, Penniman helped to break down color barriers by attracting a mixed-race audience during a period of entrenched racial segregation.

Little Richard performing Good Golly, Miss Molly in 1958

“You have to remember, I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy. And the parents were really bitter about me,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony — they were ‘white spectators.’ But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.”

Penniman’s crossover success was instrumental in spreading rock ‘n’ roll to white audiences. But his popularity only took him so far. “Elvis was paid $25,000 for doing three songs in a movie and I only got $5,000 for the same work, so if I didn’t break the ice, Elvis would have starved,” Penniman once observed.

Nonetheless, he remains one of the most influential figures in music across genres, inspiring artists like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Patti Smith, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Even Pat Boone, who released a cover of “Tutti Frutti,” gave Penniman his bona fides: “No one person has been imitated more than Little Richard.”

From ‘Alabamaland’ to Sundance

The family farm inspires this visual artist

After a bad breakup in 2007, April Dobbins ’99 landed on the doorstep of her grandfather’s Alabama farm as a single mother, feeling like a failure.

“Having to return to this place made me feel like I wasn’t able to cut it in life,” she says.

At that moment, Dobbins, an aspiring writer, would never have dreamed that one day she would be tapped by the Sundance Film Festival as a filmmaker with a bright future. But that’s exactly what happened late last year when she was selected as one of four 2017 Sundance Knight Fellows for a five-day residency during the annual film festival.

Recognized for her short-film work and her upcoming documentary feature, Alabamaland, Dobbins attended the festival in January and hobnobbed with film industry leaders at screenings, roundtables, and panels, established relationships with new mentors, and pitched her ideas to award-winning producers and directors from all over the world.

Alabamaland is getting all of this attention, and it’s not even done yet,” she says. “It’s stressing me out. All this recognition and going to Sundance is really life-changing. Now it’s got to live up to all of this hype!”

Dobbins hopes to finish Alabamaland in the next couple of years. Although currently she lives in Miami, she plans to ramp up travel to the farm to once a month to speed up production.

Though Dobbins had spent most of her life trying to leave Alabama behind, it was on her 688-acre family farm that she was finally able to find her voice as a storyteller. She began taking photos to document everyday life on the farm with her grandfather. Though she only had a point-and-shoot camera, Dobbins soon began to experience success as a photographer that had proved more elusive as a writer. She then decided to chronicle her family farm’s history — and its uncertain future — in a documentary.

“When this started out as a photography project, I thought of it as a journal. I’m talking about it as a documentary to high-level execs at companies like HBO, Netflix, and Amazon,” she says. “I was at Sundance pitching this quaint little story about a black family farm, but I was amazed that it resonated with so many different kinds of people.”

As a Grinnell student, Dobbins planned to pursue a theatre major and become an actress, a passion that Professor Sandy Moffett supported. However, after being typecast one too many times in student productions, Dobbins became interested in filmmaking because it gave her more control as an artist. Professor Katya Gibel Mevorach encouraged her to explore filmmaking, so Dobbins wrote and shot a few scenes that she presented at Grinnell’s Africana Studies Conference.

But it was just two years ago that Dobbins wrote and co-directed her first short film, Cutter. Since then she’s worked on numerous others, most recently producing the short film Paradise. Her films have been screened at festivals across the country, including the Los Angeles Black Film Festival, Key West Film Festival, Baltimore International Black Film Festival, and Filmgate Miami’s NoLA Film Festival. Presently, she is earning an M.F.A. in motion pictures at the University of Miami.

Most artists need a day job, so Dobbins is currently the director of prestigious awards and fellowships at the University of Miami. In her role, she advises students who are applying for internationally competitive awards and fellowships. Though she loves motivating those students, one day she would love to focus fully on filmmaking.

“Keep being a dreamer,” she advises. “Sundance is a celebration of artistic folks who took a risk and made a film. They come from all over the world. For some, it’s their first film. Others are established filmmakers. It’s like attending the filmmaker’s version of the Olympics. People are out here making inspiring art against all odds.”

Legacy of Activism

Concerned Black Students’ 50-year history at Grinnell College

Last fall, black students at dozens of colleges across the country protested against racial discrimination on their campuses, including demonstrations at Yale University, Claremont McKenna College, and Ithaca College. The most high-profile protests were held at the University of Missouri, which led to the ousting of Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri system.

As black youth organize via Black Lives Matter to speak out against police brutality, our nation finds itself amid a new civil rights movement. As it spreads, black student organizations have become lightning rods for controversy on college campuses, and Grinnell College has been no different.

In early 2015, racist slurs were posted anonymously on the social media app Yik Yak, specifically targeting black students on campus. In addition to calling for the disbanding of Grinnell College’s black student organization Concerned Black Students (CBS), messages harassed black student leaders by name. One post called a black student a “spear chucker”; another accused “blacks” of “ruining Grinnell.”

“The dominant narrative is that Grinnell is this great liberal place, that we’re all into social justice, that we’re a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Odom ’16, house monitor for the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center this past year. “But black students see the opposite side of this; we are often confronted with really conservative racist ideas projected on us. The school is radical until it comes to issues of race and black people.”

She adds: “I’ve had some of the best times in my life on this campus, but also some of the worst.”

As it has for almost 50 years, CBS serves as a home for black students during controversies big and small. It has also been a powerful vehicle for getting the administration and the Grinnell College community at large to consider a black perspective.

Origin story

Black students at Grinnell formed CBS in the fall of 1967 after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the college.

“We were just so inspired by Dr. King,” says Frank Thomas ’71, an administrator at the College for many years. “Plus, in ’67 there were a lot of things going on nationally — black student unions were forming in various colleges around the country, and there was a lot of unrest in various cities. So, the students at Grinnell, though not particularly ‘militant,’ still had concerns. We felt we needed to do something.”

Not much happened that fall, but the need to “do something” intensified in the spring of ’68 when King was assassinated in April. Before his assassination, multiple black students and faculty reported being verbally harassed and threatened with physical harm in town, according to The Scarlet & Black. Town-gown relations got so bad that a Grinnell College student, Lou Kelley ’68, was attacked and beaten up in his dorm room by a Grinnell townsperson. “The baddest black guy on campus was harassed and beaten up, so that was the impetus for us to decide, look, we’re really not safe around here,” Thomas says. King’s murder was the final straw, and black students got serious about organizing.

But things were relatively quiet until 1971, when black students chained the doors to Burling Library and locked themselves inside. The S&B reported that during the takeover, which lasted from 7:15 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., no white people, with the exception of a few administrators, including then-President Glenn Leggett, were admitted to the library. The chained doors were adorned with posters featuring such slogans as “Do You Deny Us As Black People The Right To Be Free?” and “We Are An American People Proud Of Our Blackness: We Want To Express Ourselves And Our Blackness In Our Academic Life On This Campus.”

Leggett met with a group of about 10 black CBS members in the president’s office, which was inside Burling at that time. CBS presented him with its “black manifesto,” a list of 10 demands designed to improve campus life for black students and faculty. Demands included boosting black student enrollment to “no less than 200” and establishing a larger black cultural center, a black library in Burling, and a black studies major.

“Campus opinion was widely split on the issue, ranging from full support to unspeakable bitterness and a parody ‘manifesto,’” stated the May 15, 1973, special commencement issue of The S&B. “CBS held meetings with students and trustees clarifying its position and undertook extensive negotiating sessions with the administration.”

Many goals of CBS’s “black manifesto” have not been realized — there still aren’t 200 black students on campus. Current students still contend the campus sees its share of racial unrest. So the question remains: What has been gained through CBS’s efforts?

Recruiting black students

Following the Burling takeover, Leggett, along with the trustees, agreed to establish a black studies major and an admissions board for black students. They also agreed to give black students space in the form of the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center, which has been affectionately called “The House” over the years.

However, the Black Admissions Board was doomed from the start. The faculty dissolved it in 1976 after the College received a letter from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare indicating that a separate black admissions board was “unacceptable.” Students were promised that the general admissions board would be sensitive to black needs, according to TheS&B.

Over the years, Grinnell College has had varying levels of success in recruiting black students to campus, but it still isn’t known as a destination school. For example, it failed to rank on Essencemagazine’s recent list of the 50 best colleges for African Americans, while similar private liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Wellesley, and Williams (all in Massachusetts) made the cut. According to Amherst, for example, black students composed 10 percent of first-year students this past year, the lowest it has been in the past few years. In comparison at Grinnell, average black enrollment has hovered at about 6 percent since 2003.

According to the latest figures from Grinnell’s Office of Analytic Support and Institutional Research, during the 2015–16 academic year there were 96 African American students at Grinnell, who overall made up 5.6 percent of the student body. In 2014, the College for the first time reached a 100-student milestone. That may not seem like much, but Grinnell has never had a big black student population — in 1998, which had the lowest population of African American students in the past 25 years, there were only 35 black students.

“There were fewer than 30 of us when we formed CBS,” Thomas recalls. “As an organization, it was really important for us to be there to support current black students, but also to call for increased enrollment of black students.”

According to Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid, the College has made great strides toward increasing those numbers. On staff is a coordinator of multicultural recruitment, and each year the admission office revisits its goals and strategies for the enrollment of underrepresented students.

“We have a nationwide recruitment strategy with a special focus on [African American and Latino] populations,” he says. “Our outreach efforts include targeted school visits and building relationships with CBOs [community-based organizations]. And we underwrite the costs associated with trips to campus for underrepresented students to ensure that cost is not an impediment to the campus visit for domestic students of color who may be living in lower-income households.”

Those efforts have recently yielded an unprecedented number of applicants, Bagnoli says. This year almost 50 percent of the College’s domestic applicants identified as students of color. Additionally, domestic students of color currently make up almost 25 percent of the student body.

But Bagnoli admits that because of federal mandates that would discourage the College from identifying quotas, they address recruitment in terms of promoting broader diversity rather than focusing on how to specifically increase numbers of black students.

“We’re not just talking about [black students] as a group,” he said. “We’re talking about them as representative of various underrepresented students within that broader category. So, black students are often a part of our conversation. Latino students are often a part of our conversation, as well as first-generation college students and Pell-eligible students.”

Posse impact

Recently, Grinnell College President Raynard S. Kington announced that the College was severing ties with the Posse Foundation. Grinnell had partnered with Posse since 2003, and it has been a significant source of black students for the College. In 2015, there were a total of 33 black Posse Scholars, making up 27 percent of black domestic students.

The Posse Foundation works to discover public high school students across racial groups with extraordinary academic and leadership potential, many of whom might be overlooked in a traditional college selection process. Once those Posse Scholars have been identified, they receive four-year, full-tuition scholarships to one of the organization’s partner schools.

“Posse has helped us to pursue our goals for diversity and student success and grow as a diverse institution,” Kington said in a statement. “Posse Scholars have brought great energy and student leadership to campus and given us a good sense of what close faculty-student mentoring can achieve. As we plan for the future we will seek to incorporate those ideas into our planning and engage Posse scholars and alumni in it.”

The decision caused a furor both on campus and in the alumni community. A letter signed by hundreds was sent to the administration asking for clarity on the memo announcing the decision.

“More troublingly for us, the memo provides very little insight into how the College will continue to recruit excellent students from urban areas and support these students. The memo alludes to a ‘more comprehensive approach to achieving our goals for diversity,’ but it fails to explain what this approach entails and does not specify the nature of the goals,” the letter read.

Bagnoli says he understands the frustration, but that the College is moving in the right direction in terms of getting more students of color on campus.

“When we entered into a relationship with the Posse Foundation, we were having a much more difficult time trying to attract the attention of underrepresented populations of all kinds,” he says. “Fast-forward to an applicant pool of over 7,300 students in 2016, when almost half of those domestic applicants are from students of color.”

He adds: “The Posse Foundation has provided Grinnell access to 20 finalists in two cities. We have loved getting to know the Posse finalists. They’re great people. But they now represent a small fraction of the total pool of underrepresented students who apply for admission. So, by virtue of an agreement that we reached over a decade ago, the seats we reserve for them are off-limits to a growing population of other talented applicants who don’t have the same opportunity to be considered for admission. Eventually, it leads to the question: Is there equity in the admission process? And it is increasingly difficult to answer that in the affirmative.”

Helping black students succeed

CBS has also done its share in helping to keep black students on campus once they’ve arrived. Grinnell formally tracks first- and second-year retention, which was 100 percent for black students in 2014. The most recent four-year graduation rates are 81 percent for black students, compared with 84 percent for white students.

For many of the more than 30 alumni interviewed for this story, being a member of CBS was key to thriving at Grinnell — and beyond.

“I joined CBS to expand my support network within the black community to better position myself for success in the classroom, in a predominately white community, [in] my profession of choice, and life after Grinnell,” says Darryl Dejuan Roberts ’98. “Being in CBS also provided a support system, which was essential to my survival at Grinnell, and it provided me with leadership opportunities, which gave me the confidence to participate in other campus organizations.”

For many students of color on campus, daily macro- and micro-aggressions can be an additional burden. These range from big assumptions that black students are only accepted to Grinnell because of affirmative action to smaller slights like comments about the texture of African American hair.

“If I listed all the micro- and macro-aggressions that I endured as a student, it’d be a long list,” says April Dobbins ’99. “It got to a point where it was literally making me crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I do have fond Grinnell memories, but to say that I fought to get to the other side of all the negative would be an accurate description.”

Dobbins did not originally join CBS. But being a black kid on a predominantly white campus took its toll.

“Honestly, I avoided CBS like the plague my first two years at Grinnell. It seemed like a really tight-knit group, and I didn’t want to try to get into their circle,” she says. “I came to Grinnell pretty exhausted from being bullied by other black kids all through high school for not being black enough. I was naive and I underestimated the need for CBS on campus. After being at Grinnell for two years, I came back from study abroad in London, and I just needed CBS. I needed a place where I didn’t have to explain my hair or certain struggles on campus. I needed a place [like The House] where I could watch Poetic Justice or something and not have to have a big dialogue. I found my spot there.”

Multiculturalism debates

For black students used to being both invisible and hypervisible on campus, becoming a part of CBS was a way to get their distinct voices heard. Over the years, black students tried to become a part of the conversation by advocating for a black perspective in the curriculum.

Starting in 1980, Grinnell began to offer “a special nonmajor program” in Afro-American studies. By the time the ’90s rolled around, though, the concentration suffered due to a lack of classes, faculty, and enrollment. At the same time, racial tension was ratcheted up on campus. It was then that students demanded that an African American Studies concentration be launched and a black faculty member be hired to helm it.

In 1995 student organizations of color, including Asian Students in Alliance (ASIA) and Student Organization of Latinas/os (SOL), lobbied the College for physical space in which to hold meetings and cultural events. While black students already had The House, CBS decided to lend its support to these groups.

Some white students were very unhappy about it. In 1995 The S&B published a column written by a student, a senior editor, claiming minority faculty were unqualified and that the College’s efforts to promote multiculturalism fostered reverse racism and segregation. “The College also pursues an ambitious affirmative action employment program at all levels of hiring with little regard to the quality of the candidate or actual cultural contributions he or she might make,” the column said, concluding: “Grinnell is degrading into a racial battleground. Minorities are arguing over who deserves houses and departments while the administration points pridefully at the number of colored sanitation workers and calls the school multicultural.”

Kesho Scottassociate professor of American studies and sociology, took issue with being called unqualified and wrote a letter to the editor in response: “I take your insults personally, for while I uphold freedom of speech, it becomes problematic when it is used to slander, especially when such slander is not based on any factual information; for example, there are no ‘colored sanitation workers’ employed by this institution, unless of course you were reducing those of us who teach here to sanitation workers.”

Racial tensions continued to escalate. First there was an incident at a basketball game where students used racial slurs and then, separately, two disc jockeys from KDIC were suspended after they used the n-word on the air. In response to these events, CBS staged a demonstration. Black students wore all black, taped their mouths shut, and stood in the back of their morning class with signs explaining they were protesting racial tension on campus. “Many [white] students were both shocked and offended by the demonstration, which was not widely understood,” according to The S&B.

But for black and other students of color, the protest was seen as an effort to talk about racial issues on campus that they dealt with on a daily basis. “That article kind of had like a Trump effect. It set off a lot of stuff that was simmering beneath the surface,” says Roberts. “Then we had the KDIC DJ using the n-word over the air. All these little incidents began to add up. It was almost like they ignited a fire and pulled the covers back to expose some things that had been going on on campus. Some white students felt it was acceptable to say things that were very hurtful and racially motivated, and we wanted to challenge that.”

After the protest was staged, CBS led campuswide discussions, as well as discussions with the administration. As a result, the College established an Africana studies concentration and hired Katya Gibel Mevorachprofessor of anthropology, to head the now-defunct program, which lasted six years.

Black studies history

Grinnell first began its foray into black studies in 1969 when it introduced “a special upper-class general education program” called African and Afro-American studies, similar to concentrations today, but with a much lower credit requirement (16). The program ended in 1971, according to Jason Maher, registrar of the College.

Members of CBS lobbied for the creation of a black studies major in the “black manifesto,” and College administrators responded by establishing an interdisciplinary major in black studies in 1972. It was a 36-credit major and included courses in anthropology, economics, English, history, music, political science, and sociology. The major was discontinued in 1979 due to lack of interest. At the time, The S&B reported that just 10 students graduated with majors in black studies from 1972 to 1979.

After the protest in 1995, Grinnell introduced an interdisciplinary concentration in Africana studies in 1997, replacing the largely ignored Afro-American studies program that was launched in 1980. For the first time, the program had dedicated introductory and seminar-level coursework, Maher says.

But despite bringing on board Gibel Mevorach, who created a nationwide conference and brought numerous and varied speakers to campus, the concentration was never very popular with students and was discontinued in 2005. From 1999 to 2005, there were a total of 20 students who graduated with an Africana studies concentration. In comparison, the very popular gender, women’s, and sexuality studies (GWSS) concentration had 124 concentrators from 2000 to 2012. The program was so popular that it was turned into a major in 2010 that has since seen 87 majors graduate.

Africana studies wasn’t so fortunate. After seeing zero interest in upper-level Africana courses and limited interest in introductory classes, the faculty, including Gibel Mevorach and Scott, suggested dissolving Africana studies as an interim move toward something more comprehensive.

“The administration had nothing to do with this decision. This was not a problem of not enough faculty to teach a course — there were no students,” Gibel Mevorach says. “GWSS absorbed most students of color interested in diversity who were interested, as well, in gender studies; and more than a few potential recruits were sociology majors.”

Following last year’s Yik Yak incidents, black students in CBS once again began advocating for the establishment of an Africana studies concentration, despite the tumultuous history of black studies at Grinnell. “This is an issue of institutional amnesia,” Gibel Mevorach says.

In light of this history, some students are unsure if a new major is the best way to proceed. Some alumni say advocating for more black faculty might be a better way forward.

“There have been huge things we’ve accomplished since ’67. CBS’s activism has profoundly influenced campus,” says Dixon Romeo ’16, one of CBS’s leader’s last year, “Ultimately, though, I would much rather have a positive, healthy, and safe space for black students to support them academically and mentally until they graduate. Right now we’re trying to find balance between these two things.”

CBS today

Shortly after the racist Yik Yak posts appeared last year, members of CBS met with President Kington and presented a list of demands, including the creation of a mentorship program with minority alumni and a hate crime/bias-motivated incident team, increased diversity training during New Student Orientation, and improvements to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Romeo says, “No one that we were meeting with in the administration had any issues with supporting us. They were ready and willing to help.”

Since then, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been restructured. Lakesia Johnson, associate professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies, was tapped as chief diversity officer to address diversity within the curriculum and help recruit and retain a diverse faculty. Leslie Turner Bleichner ’07 was hired as director of intercultural affairs and works directly with students on the cocurricular side. Yik Yak was also ultimately banned from campus.

Since Johnson and Bleichner were hired, the two have invigorated the Diversity Council, a board of students, faculty, and administrators. The Office of Intercultural Affairs is also developing a “diversity plan” to address some of these issues on campus. An early draft of the plan was released recently for feedback. It includes expanding the preorientation program for underrepresented students into a full first-year program; developing a local-host program to promote connections and ameliorate feelings of isolation for students; and increasing the number of staff who provide support for student success and diversity issues.

“I’m excited about the new structure because people are finally thinking strategically about the student-of-color experience at Grinnell,” Bleichner says. “We are finally getting the right combination of folks with the right skill sets who can help students really address what it means to be a student of color in the middle of Iowa.”

Following the Yik Yak incidents, CBS also helped to foster campuswide discussions to address what they feel is a hostile and unwelcoming climate, including an event last fall designed to show solidarity with students at the University of Missouri.

“The biggest issue we have is with white students who didn’t think the racist attacks were a big deal or who were defending what took place on Yik Yak,” Romeo says. “Our dialogue was not directed at the administration, but to white students on campus.”

Just like at Missouri, Romeo claimed the Yik Yak attacks were not isolated, but part of a larger pattern of racially charged incidents on campus.

“The Yik Yak incident was just the biggest one,” Romeo says. “Whenever people talk about this, they talk about it like it was just one incident. There were multiple incidents. Students were saying hateful things about CBS.”

For black students dealing with racist incidents like Yik Yak, joining CBS can be like grabbing a lifeline. In addition to providing them with the support to help them address the special challenges that go along with attending a predominantly white college, it also gives black students a unique and powerful voice on campus.

“After the Yik Yak scandal, we were in a room discussing our concerns with the president of the College and various deans within a week or two,” says Odom. “Whether or not people are satisfied with the outcomes, it is huge to know that we can begin these conversations. My hope is that CBS has helped to promote a campus culture that encourages transparency and honest communication between the students and the administration.”

 

Prince Dead at 57

Dearly beloved

We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life
Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you
There’s something else
The after world
A world of never ending happiness
You can always see the sun, day or night
So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
You know the one, Dr. Everything’ll Be Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby
‘Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You’re on your own
And if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy

2016 continues to be a brutal year. First it was Lemmy. Then it was Bowie. Now the news that Prince has passed away at age 57 from unknown causes is breaking hearts across the country. According to multiple sources, and confirmed by the Associated Press, his body was discovered this morning in his Paisley Park home.

“It is with profound sadness that I am confirming that the legendary, iconic performer, Prince Rogers Nelson, has died at his Paisley Park residence this morning at the age of 57,” the pop pioneer’s publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure, said in a statement to the press. “There are no further details as to the cause of death at this time.”

Last Friday, Prince’s private plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Illinois as he was returning to the Twin Cities from two shows in Atlanta. Reportedly just sick from the flu, Prince showed off a new purple piano at a dance party at his home the following Saturday. He told the Star Tribune: “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”

“From the beginning, Prince and his music were androgynous, sly, sexy and provocative.”

One of the most iconic and influential musicians in pop, Prince produced 39 studio albums and sold more than 100 million copies, making him one of the best-selling musicians of all time. He won seven Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.

“He rewrote the rulebook, forging a synthesis of black funk and white rock that served as a blueprint for cutting-edge music in the Eighties. Prince made dance music that rocked and rock music that had a bristling, funky backbone. From the beginning, Prince and his music were androgynous, sly, sexy and provocative. His colorful image and revolutionary music made Prince a figure comparable in paradigm-shifting impact to Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton,” said the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2004.

Since the news broke of his passing, there has been an outpouring of love and grief. Minnesota Public Radio reporter Andrea Swensson, who was among dozens who gathered at Prince’s estate after hearing of a death, remarked that “even the journalists are hugging each other,” and President Obama also weighed in.

“Today, the world lost a creative icon.,” the President said. “Michelle and I join millions of fans from around the world in mourning the sudden death of Prince. Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly or touched quite so many people with their talent. As one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time, Prince did it all. Funk. R&B. Rock ‘n’ roll. He was a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant bandleader, and an electrifying performer. ‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said — and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, his band, and all who loved him.”

After his sudden passing, fellow musicians have taken to Twitter to collectively mourn.

https://twitter.com/MCHammer/status/723202503244914688/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

https://twitter.com/JLo/status/723210321993723904/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

 

Prince Rogers Nelson was born and raised in Minneapolis. While he was just 19 when he released his first album For You in 1978, it was the release of 1999 in 1982 that made him a superstar.

But it was Purple Rain, along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, that defined a generation in the ‘80s.

The 1984 classic featured a string of hit singles including “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” and sold more than 13 million copies, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. It also won Prince an Oscar for Best Soundtrack for the movie “Purple Rain,” which was loosely based on his life in Minneapolis.

Prince played the lead role of “The Kid,” and the movie featured his band the Revolution, which included guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardists Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman, bassist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z.

Wendy and Lisa released this statement via Facebook:

“We are completely shocked and devastated by the sudden loss of our brother, artist and friend, Prince. Thank you to all the fans and supporters for your endless love, and for making such big dreams come true. We offer our love, support, and condolences to our extended family, friends and all fans of our sweet Prince.”

In addition to being known as one of the greatest musicians of all time, The Purple One also took on the music industry in the early ’90 during a contract dispute with his label Warner Bros. It was then that he became the “Love Symbol,” or, more commonly, “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Often appearing with the word “slave” written on his cheek, he gave the following statement at the time:

“The first step I have taken toward the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. . . I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros. . . I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was the Love Symbol, a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about.”

After he was freed from his contract in 1999, he became Prince again in 2000.

Rest in Power, Prince.

Prince Dead at 57 originally published at Reverb on April 21, 2016

The Music of Nina Simone and Her Powerful, Beautiful Blackness

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Zoe Saldana (@zoesaldana) on

 

Everybody is talking about High Priestess of Soul Nina Simone right now, but for all the wrong reasons.

Last month, the trailer for “Nina,” a biopic centered on a difficult part of the legend’s life, was released and all hell broke loose. Instead of honoring one of the most iconic black women musicians in American history, the film is instead mired in controversy over the casting of lightskinned actor Zoe Saldana as Simone.

“There are many Nina Simone fans and critics who have been looking for a public way to affirm her contribution to American culture and to the black freedom struggle because she’s been largely unrecognized,” says Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American Studies at Yale and a Nina Simone scholar. “To finally have that realized through this project seems to really disregard the politics of Nina’s very overt engagement with the politics of race and radical thinking around blackness.”

The trailer, featuring Saldana sporting a bad make-up job and a prosthetic nose, has Simone fans outraged. Not only have the filmmakers been accused of basically putting Saldana in blackface, Nina’s daughter Simone Kelly blames them for several inaccuracies. The biggest one, she says, is the misrepresentation of her mother’s relationship with her manager, Clifton Henderson.

“The project has been tainted from the very beginning,” she told CNN. “Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother’s life, and everyone now knows that.”

However, the fury and frustration around “Nina,” which hits theaters this Friday, throws a spotlight on larger and more uncomfortable questions of race and gender in Hollywood and in American culture. In a way, having these high-profile conversations in the mainstream (even The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a column) is a fitting tribute to a woman whose blackness and preoccupation with racial justice profoundly informed her career in both public and private ways.

Strong Enough to Take the Pain

Simone rose to popularity in the late ‘50s and ‘60s when “girl groups” reigned supreme. Nina Simone didn’t look like Diana Ross, the kind of black female singer white audiences were willing to embrace. Her dark skin, wide nose and full lips were features disparaged everywhere – including the black community.

“We all have a story. My mother suffered. We can go all the way back to when she was a child and people told her her nose was too big, her skin was too dark, her lips were too wide,” Simone Kelly told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s very important the world acknowledges my mother was a classical musician whose dreams were not realized because of racism.”

But Simone’s story does not end there. To fans and black women across generations, she is a hero, a goddess. Her avant-garde elegance and grace defied conventions of beauty and flipped a middle finger to those who didn’t recognize it.

The Education of Nina Simone

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone started playing piano when she was three years old. Her mother was a preacher, so she began to play at church revival meetings at an early age. By the time she was seven, white music teacher Muriel Mazzanovich, who had heard Simone play at church, took a special interest in the little black girl who lived across the tracks. Mazzanovich began giving her classical piano lessons and eventually established a fund, putting together recitals to showcase Simone’s astounding talent.

With money from the Eunice Waymon Fund, Simone attended Juilliard School of Music for a year and a half. When the money ran out, she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “I knew I was good enough, but they turned me down,” Simone later recalled. “And it took me about six months to realize that it was because I was black.”

It was then that Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone. To earn enough money to continue her classical piano education, she needed a side hustle. So Simone began playing at jazz clubs and changed her name so her pious mother wouldn’t find out.

Simone soon cultivated an impressive fan base and within a few years had a record deal. Her first major hit came in 1958 with an interpretation of “I Loves You Porgy” from George Gershwin’s musical Porgy and Bess. Simone used her voice to convey deep emotions – her distinctive, rich baritone sounded like no other – and her classical musical training was evident in hits like “Trouble in Mind” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

While she had explicitly avoided addressing the politics of race in her music, by the time the ‘60s rolled around, Simone felt compelled to take a stand. She had befriended members of the black intelligentsia, including Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael, who weren’t afraid to comment on the deep-rooted racism in Jim Crow-era America.

“Mississippi Goddam” was her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black girls. While the Supreme’s Diana Ross was asking “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964, Simone was boldly telling white audiences “Oh but this whole country is full of lies/ You’re all gonna die and die like flies/ I don’t trust you anymore.” The song was banned in several southern states, and radio stations across the country stopped playing her music, returning boxes of the records cracked in half.

Writer and activist Dick Gregory calls out Simone’s courage in the Netflix documentary “What Happened Miss Simone,” which was released last year. “There’s something about a woman. If you look at all the suffering that black folks went through, not one black man would dare say, ‘Mississippi, Goddam,’ and then to have someone with her stature talking about your problems, you know how happy they had to be,” he said.

Simone as Civil Rights Activist

Performing civil rights anthems like “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” gave Simone the reputation as the go-to for protest songs. She crossed police lines with black activists and performed “Mississippi Goddam” in front of 10,000 people at one of the Selma to Montgomery marches.

“It was very exhilarating to be a part of that movement at the time because I was needed,” she said in an interview featured in the Netflix documentary. “I could sing to help my people. And that became the mainstay of my life – not classical piano, not classical music and not even popular music, but civil rights music.”

Lord Have Mercy on this Land of Mine

But the inclusion of racial politics in her music took its toll. Soon Simone had trouble getting gigs in front of white audiences. Disillusioned, she fled to Barbados in 1970. Her career plunged into obscurity. It wasn’t until 1987 that she experienced somewhat of a resurgence with the re-release of her 1958 recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” which was used in a British television commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume.

What would Nina say about the controversy surrounding her biopic? After all, as Coates points out, “… there is something deeply shameful — and hurtful — in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.” We don’t know, but her daughter Simone Kelly, who is also an actor and singer, says Saldana shouldn’t be the recipient of disappointed fans’ anger.

“It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture,” she recently told Time. “It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”

She added: “There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother and could bring her to the screen with the proper script, the proper team and a sense of wanting to bring the truth of my mother’s journey to the masses. And ‘Nina,’ in my opinion, doesn’t do any of that.”

Yale’s Brooks says the controversy exemplifies the need to include more diverse perspectives in Hollywood. The team behind “Nina” is almost all white, according to Jezebel.

“We need to demand that filmmakers telling our stories are invested in and really well-versed in black history and black feminist theory,” she says. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a woman of color filmmaker, although that’s absolutely necessary. But at the very least we need filmmakers who understand that study on these topics is necessary before even engaging in such a project.”

The Music of Nina Simone and Her Powerful, Beautiful Blackness was originally published at Reverb on April 18, 2016.

Roots of Rock and the Chitlin Circuit

By Tequia Burt

In an era when African Americans sat at the back of the bus and were banned from “Whites Only” establishments, the so-called Chitlin Circuit flourished. Driven by the entrenched racial segregation of the Jim Crow era, the circuit gave comics like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor their first shots at infamy and it provided playwrights like August Wilson with an engaged audience. It also gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll music.

“The Chitlin Circuit was almost an entirely African-American phenomenon,” says the author of “The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Preston Lauterbach. “We’re talking about the black music business – black performers, black audiences – run by predominantly black businesspeople with a few whites in the mix. The circuit was basically the African-American segment of the entertainment industry during the days of segregation.”


A Juke Joint in the Chitlin Circuit

The circuit gave the architects of blues-fueled rock ‘n’ roll their start – icons like Bo DiddleyChuck BerryLittle RichardTina TurnerJimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers – in predominantly southern, black-only nightclubs. Even Gladys Knight performed in a house band on the circuit early in her career, playing at what she called “roadside joints and honky tonks across the South. No menus. No kitchens. Just a grizzly old guy selling catfish nuggets, corn fritters or pig ear sandwiches in a corner.”

And in the South, that’s exactly where black musicians played: hole-in-the-wall clubs, juke joints and roadside shacks. However, even though much of the circuit was located in the South, its origins can also be traced to big northern cities where pockets of African-Americans had migrated: The Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club in Harlem; the Regal Theatre in Chicago; the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia; the Royal Theatre in Baltimore; and the Fox Theatre in Detroit were all considered a part of the network.

The Regal Theatre in Chicago

 

According to Ali Colleen Neff, assistant professor of Africana Studies at Virginia Tech and author of “Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story,” the Chitlin Circuit provided black musicians and performers, locked out of the mainstream white music industry, safe venues and an audience willing to go beyond convention. Black musicians could do things in front of a black audience that they couldn’t do in front of a white one. As they transformed southern rhythm and blues into a sound no one had ever heard, black performers had juke joints jumping as they swiveled their hips, growled into their mics and pounded their instruments.

“Black audiences in the circuit were highly participatory in creating these new genres,” Neff says. “You didn’t play anything to a black audience – who were often interested in empowering new, emerging forms of music – if they weren’t encouraging you to do it.”


The Bo Diddley Beat

It was on the Chitlin Circuit in the 1950s and ’60s that Bo Diddley fine-tuned his famous Bo Diddley beat, which is widely credited as the rhythm that makes up the backbone of rock ‘n’ roll music. While the syncopated beat, made up of three strokes/rest/two strokes (bomp-ba-domp-ba-domp, ba-domp-domp), is firmly rooted in African American slave culture, it can also be traced to drumbeats of the Yoruba and Kongo cultures.

“I mainly play chords and stuff like that and rhythm. I’m a rhythm fanatic,” Diddley said in “Rock & Roll,” the 1995 PBS series. “I played the guitar as if I were playing drums. That’s the thing that makes my music so different. I do licks on a guitar like a drummer would do.”

Bo Diddley – “Hey Bo Diddley”

 

Diddley was not shy about experimenting on the circuit. He had women in his band; he played a rectangular guitar and included unconventional instruments like electric violins, maracas and washboards. And that famous beat went on influence everyone from Buddy Holly and Elvis to Bruce Springsteen and The Smiths. However, despite his massive impact, Diddley could never quite cross over to white audiences. George R. White, author of “Bo Diddley: Living Legend,” wrote: “Diddley remained firmly rooted in the ghetto. Both his music and his image were too loud, too raunchy, too black ever to cross over.” Even though white teenagers played his records on jukeboxes, radio station deejays were less enthusiastic. As were TV and movie execs.


Crossing Over

While black musicians were able to innovate while touring the circuit, many realized that the real money was made playing to whites. Little Richard, who had worked the circuit for years, at one point touring in drag as Princess Lavonne in Sugarfoot Sam’s Minstrel Show, achieved breakthrough success in 1955 with “Tutti Frutti.” The hit was a sanitized version of a dirty ditty that he performed often on the circuit: “Tutti Frutti/Good booty/If it don’t fit/Don’t force it/You can grease it/Make it easy.” Little Richard knew those lyrics just wouldn’t fly in front of a white audience.

“People called rock & roll ‘African music.’ They called it ‘voodoo music,’” Little Richard told Rolling Stone in 2010. “They said that it would drive the kids insane. They said that it was just a flash in the pan.”

Little Richard – “Tutti Frutti”

 

Much to the chagrin of their scandalized parents, white teenagers went crazy over flamboyant, pancake-makeup-wearing Little Richard. His more-wholesome adaptation of “Tutti Frutti” sold more than a million copies.

“I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy. And the parents were really bitter about me,” Little Richard added. “We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony – they were ‘white spectators.’ But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.”

Chitlin Circuit frontmen like Little Richard were instrumental in spreading rock ‘n’ roll to mainstream white America, but hardworking sidemen also had a part to play. The most successful to cross over was Jimi Hendrix.

After his discharge from the Army in 1962, Hendrix earned a living as a sideman for a few years, working for greats like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett and the Isley Brothers. By 1964, he was playing lead guitar for the Isley’s, recording the song “Testify.” Hendrix also played guitar for their single “Move On Over and Let Me Dance.” However, he left the Isleys, and the circuit, for good in 1965.

It was in the circuit that Hendrix was able to refine the style that made him famous, including playing solos with his teeth and behind his back on a right-handed guitar turned upside down and restrung for a lefty. He also sharpened his guitar-playing skills and perfected his sound, which was built on a foundation of rhythm and blues.

“It was a real place to be a professional musician, to learn, to grow as a performer, to evolve, to get better, to exchange ideas,” Lauterbach says. “There was no such thing as a media-made Chitlin’ Circuit star – there was no Chitlin’ Circuit idol, there was no corporation getting behind an individual. They had to get out there and kick ass every single night or they were screwed. It was a real survival-of-the-fittest type situation that forced the artist to be good, to be competitive in order to be able to make a living.”

Rare footage of Hendrix backing Nashville soul act Buddy and Stacy on the local TV show “Night Train” in 1965

 

The mainstream success of artists like Little Richard and Hendrix, coupled with the Civil Rights movement and desegregation, led to the Chitlin’ Circuit’s downfall. While it still survives today, featuring predominantly R&B acts like Bobby Rush, Clarence Carter and Denise LaSalle, it’s nothing like it was in its heyday in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

“The Chitlin Circuit has always been a tremendous source of pride for black musicians. It was never second best; it was where all of the best musicians were,” Lauterbach says. “Crossing over was always a way to make a better living, but the quality of the entertainment was absolutely second-to-none because it was where innovation took place, where new styles were made. This wasn’t any kind of backdoor situation at all; it was black-owned and black-operated for black audiences. Nothing second class about it.”

Read More

Originally published January 2016 on Reverb.com

Why Little League International is wrong about Jackie Robinson West

Bloomberg
Members of the Jackie Robinson West baseball team at a rally in Chicago in August.

 

By Tequia Burt

Getting up yesterday morning to see the Jackie Robinson West team stripped of its U.S. Little League Championship title was like a knife to the heart.

Like millions of Chicagoans, I cheered them on and rooted for our South Side team to go all the way. Even though the boys did not win the world title, to people across the city they still were our champs. Our boys were the first African-American team to win a Little League Championship.

And we all needed it—the black community, in particular, needed it. They won the title during a time of great pain, when black boys felt like their lives didn’t matter. They filled our terror-filled psyches with hope. We took a collective breath—our sons can be role models; they aren’t just criminals in hoodies stealing cigarillos. Then this happened.

And now they’re cheaters. Because, according to Little League International CEO Stephen Keener, at least two kids lived outside sanctioned boundaries.

Instead of being heroes, now they’re a “superteam,” fitting neatly into the narrative of black males as brutes imbued with superhuman strength. Innocence has been lost.

WHAT ABOUT THE NFL?

At a time when Deflategate is happening and MLB players admit to doping, these children are being told that they are learning a good lesson: Cheaters never win. In reality, the lesson they are learning is that cheaters don’t win unless they are powerful. Black boys are not powerful. And I’m pretty sure they are well aware that mistakes can cost them.

These children are being held to stricter standards than the NFL holds its teams and players: Even though 11 of 12 footballs the Patriots used in the AFC Championship were deflated, even though they are widely thought of as cheaters,the team went on to win the Super Bowl. No one is threatening to vacate their title.

While the adults in the Little League scandal have been appropriately punished, it still doesn’t change the fact that these children are being reprimanded for being successful. They were failed by their coaches, by the Little League organization and, even, by some parents. Yet they are the ones paying the ultimate price.

The Little League did not make the right decision by stripping JRW of its championship title. There are reports that Little League International knew that multiple Little League teams in the area violate boundary rules as a matter of course, including the Evergreen Park league, whose coach worked hard to get JRW stripped of its title.

If the rules were so important, why did the organization only begin the investigation after JRW won and someone complained and a reporter forced the issue? Eligibility should have been established long before any team played in the finals. If rules really mattered, this level of scrutiny should be placed on all the teams all over the country—from the get-go. The organization’s framework for evaluating residency is clearly flawed since JRW previously was cleared of wrongdoing.

The children should not be the ones made to suffer the consequences. Black boys are so often made into the bogeyman; let them be heroes for once.

So now it’s time to express our support, Chicago. We have to let these children know that they aren’t the ones to blame even though they’re being penalized. Let’s show the children in JRW that they’re still champs.

 

Tequia Burt is a native Chicagoan and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Her day job is as editor of FierceCMO, a digital publication targeted to B2B marketers.

Read More

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business Feb. 12, 2015

%d bloggers like this: