Happy 90th Birthday Lena Horne!

Lena Horne. Born June 30, 1917. Brooklyn, NY.

When I was a kid in the 1980’s, Lena Horne was this woman who everyone in my family revered because she looked so fabulous in her 60’s and 70’s. She also physically looks like the Higgins and Jones women on my mom’s side–who also age just as well! I remember seeing her as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wiz, and her appearances on The Cosby Show and A Different World.Of course, I knew that “Stormy Weather” was her signature song. I remember my grandfather always bragging about the fact that Lena was the first Black “pin-up girl” they could have to display when he was in the Navy during WWII.

I came to better appreciate Horne’s career and talent after seeing an A&E produced show and CD An Evening with Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club, and PBS produced video in 1996 called “Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice.” The latter led me to read her autobiography entitled Lena.

Most people dismiss her as a cafe-au-lait Hollywood glamour girl with a so-so voice who got over because of her light complexion, and pretty face. Lena actually got into the business because her mother (herself an actress) was more interested in Lena’s career as a performer than Lena herself was. Also, Lena is the first to admit that she was first able to get work because of her looks more than her talent, but it ws Billie Holiday who told her to sing anyway dammit, you have kids to take care of.

But I, and many critics, also think Lena got better with time. By the 1950’s Lena had developed a style that was all her own. It was sassy, irreverent, and her live performances were full of an undeniable power she commanded on stage. She says that alot of her style of singing by the 1950’s and 1960’s, sometimes biting down hard and spitting out the words like nails, was due to the fact that se was so angry about having to come thru the back door of these clubs and venues and sing for white people that she interpretted the songs with a ferocity. But her anger was often mis-interpreted as her playing the sex-kitten.

She was also the bff and muse of black gay composer Billy Strayhorn, who wrote songs like “Something to Live For“and “Maybe” especially for Horne. She said in her autobiography that she loved Billy so much and would have married him had he been straight.

Lena spent much of her early career hyper-concerned about what others thought (and said) about her voice, whether she was too black or not black enough depending on whom you asked, and spent a lot of time trying to please everybody. She was also blacklisted in the 1950’s due to her political beliefs and her loyalty to other lefties like Paul Robeson.

By the time she gets to 1981, when her Broadway retrospective “A Lady and Her Music” opens, Lena, in her early 60s, has clearly stopped trying to please anyone but herself in her work, and the result is that you are entirely pleased with her self-assurance. On PBS show The NewsHour’s piece celebrating her her 80th birthday, she said

“My identity is very clear to me now, I am a black woman, I’m not alone, I’m free. I no longer, I say I’m free because I no longer have to be a credit, I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else. “

She has continued to record into this new millineum, but is not making any public appearances anymore. I love you Lena, and appreciate all that you have contributed to the world of entertainment.

Happy 90th!

For a complete biography, visit her Wikipedia Page.

NPR also has a new piece about Horne’s 90th birthday.

Here are videos from her Tony Award speech and performance of “If You Believe” from the Wiz, and as I posted last week, my favorite, “Yesterday When I was Young.”

Afro-Punk Festival Rocks Brooklyn!

If you’re in NYC over the next week, and you’re Black, and you wanna meet up with some other Black people who are a little left of center, head over to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (and several band venues) to check out the 3rd (and biggest) year of director James Spooner’s AFROPUNK Film Festival –named after his groundbreaking documentary on Black folks in the punk-rock scene.

It’s been really amazing to watch Spooner (who recently relocated from NYC back to his native California to be closer to the film world…aka Hollywood)grow this scrappy lil film into a major brand, with his periodic Liberation Sessions parties/conceerts, DVDs, online community of thousands of Black rockers, clothing, and now, an entire film festival with one of NYC’s most prestigious artistic venues, BAM. This year, Spooner is debuting his second film, this one a feature called White Lies, Black Sheep, and has added a visual art installation and an Afro-Punk block party!

I have been an attendee of the first two festivals, and it’s definitely worth it! Spooner has helped to create community spaces of Black folks of all nationalities, genders and orientations to celebrate a more expansive definition of Black culture. And to also create an opportunity for black artists who are shunned by both white or mainstream and (usually white-owned) “Black” artistic venues to show their work, or to play music. Black rock, has been especially maligned by mainstream record industry, who didn’t think white kids would listen to black rock artists, much less Black kids (heard Rihanna’s new single Umbrella? I can hear the capitalizing on a Black rock-ish sound in the instrument and vocal arrangement. In fact, it’s actually a little Grace Jones sounding, don’t you think?). But I bet that some record company execs have their greedy little eyes all over this scene, and is probably searching for their own tired ass version of any number of these artists.

So if punk rock is not your thing, never you worry. The film are a collection of rare black films past and present, and span different subject matters. The bands are heavy on the rock end of things, but some are a more souful or funky sound, some are more hardcore. Spooner also plays host to a number of DJ’s who are usually more on the house/rare groove/funk side of things, so you can usually go to another space and shake a tail feather if you’re not feeling the band.

Anyhow, I am in ATL now for the US Social Forum. When I get back to NYC, catch up with me at the AfroPunk Film Festival. Here’s a clip of the film, AfroPunk:

BET Awards Wrap-Up

OK. I am in an airport right now but I wanted to sum up the BET Awards in a few sentences to give you a taste. If you saw it, feel free to comment as well. If you missed it and have cable–you know BET, it will be on again…and again…and again…! LOL!!!!

Mo’nique: Was the host again this year, after Damon Wayans‘ offensively bad snoozefest the year before. I like Mo’nique. I thought she was a good host. Her clothes were fab, she’s funny and knows how to keep it movin. I thought her send-up of Beyonce was a little stale. I mean, she did it two years back with “Crazy In Love,” and it was fab. Twice? Not so much.

J-Hud & J-Hol: Jennifer Hudson and Jenifer Holliday joined each other on stage to sing “And I am Telling You.” It was great to see and hear both of them together, and to put aside the drama and speculation of backstabbing that came with this film version of Dreamgirls.

Gerald Levert Tribute: I have to say, as cheesy as the song “Wind Beneath My Wings” is, I got a lil teary eyed watching Eddie Levert of the O’Jays sing this song about his departed son. Gladys Knight joined him onstage, and then Ms. Patti Labelle, who wore the kids out and Gladys eventually put down her microphone because Patti carried. Oh! I forgot Yolanda Adams was a part of it too, but who can keep track? Patti was onstage!

50 Cent: Brought tacky to a new level low. I am not a prude, but 50 Cent’s performance was so misogynist and gross I wanted to puke my guts out. What made it even worse was watching him curse and get bleeped out while he was meandering thru the audience, passing Ms. Diana Ross while he’s cuttin de fool. I know I got a potty mouth, but that juxatposition did make my stomach churn, and I am still old fashioned enough (and 50 and I are in the same age range) that you just don’t behave so in front of your elders.  It just made me think of all the things Diana Ross and the Supremes (and by extension, Motown) stood for in terms of trying to create images of Black people that we could be proud of. And while there’s a bunch of consumerist, upward mobility, poltiics of respectability up in all that, we now underestimate just how much those artists success and their images meant to black people at the time. As much as Tyler Perry weirds me out, seeing 50 do everything he could to be a offensive as possible (and it did seem very contrived), reminded me of that scene in Madea’s Family Reunion when Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou are sitting on the porch and watching the young people in the family carry on, as if a slap in the face of everything they’ve worked to create. It really represented a low point in the annals of Black history. OK. I’m being dramatic. But it was pretty gross.

Diddy & Keyshia Cole: I love the song “Last Night,” but they looked like they coulda used another rehearsal. Seemed a lil slap-dash. And Lil Kim’s rhyme I couldn’t hear, and the three of them were stepping all over each other’s parts. Sloppy.

Beyonce & ’em Kelly Rowland: HOT!!!! B started off encased in this glod plaited cyborg getup and launched into “Get Me Bodied.” She brought Mo’Nique out again and they shook it up. THEN Kelly came out, looking OVAH!!!! She did her jam “Like This” and actually got me kinda hyped about the record.

Diana Ross Tribute: Alicia Keys did the tribute history piece, and I was looking forward to Crucial Keys ripping thru a Diana number, but she wasn’t seen again. My girl Erykah Badu did a real sexy version of “Love Hangover–I just wished she didn’t go for the 70’s camp in her costume–it was just kinda clumsy. BUT I LOVE HER ANY HOW. Then Chaka got on board for “I’m Comin’ Out ” and I gotta say Chaka was all over the place. I love her too, but I was very disappointed. But Stevie Wonder closed the segment with a so-funky-you-make-ugly-faces version of “Upside Down.” They KILLED IT!!! Diana’s kids all took to the stage and introduced her. her speech was very gracious, thanking both Berry Gordy and ALL the Supremes, and sent her love to Mary Wilson. The “the Boss” got fierce and said that she was tired of all the cursing and tackiness in today’s music, and she was living proof you could have longevity without being a mess. EAT YOUR HEART OUT 50! She’s the BOSS!!!

James Brown Tribute: Rev. Al Sharpton did the tribute portion. Public Enemy did a bunch of their songs that sample JB. They pretty much did the same thing they always do. SNOOZE.

OK. My flight is about to board. Bye!

Justice for Erika Keels

Erika Keels, a 20-year-old black transwoman, was murdered on March 22, 2007, at the corner of Broad and Thompson in North Philadelphia, in a hit-and-run assault. Witnesses saw a man eject Ms. Keels from his car and intentionally run her over four times, killing her and leaving the scene. The medical examiner’s report states that Erika was run over not just once but multiple times, supporting these eyewitness accounts. The driver, Roland Button, was later apprehended, but has yet to face any charges; indeed, he is still driving, his license has not been suspended, and his car has not even been taken for evidence. The Philadelphia police have refused to conduct an investigation of Erika’s death and have closed the case.

Erika Keels was a vibrant, expressive, resilient young woman, and her friends were devastated and enraged by her murder. The failure of police to follow procedure when responding to Erika’s death, even to carry out steps required for a hit-and-run accident, amplified the pain of her murder for those who loved Erika. Some of Erika’s friends refused to accept this second affront, and questioned police officials about the classification of her death as an accident. Officials attempted to intimidate them by demanding their “birth” names, and told them they were “trying to make something out of nothing.” Erika’s friends began organizing to demand that her case be reopened and her death be investigated as a murder. The police seemed determined to keep Erika’s murder as quiet as possible, and Erika’s friends, as well as allies who soon joined them, were just as determined to bring to light the violence and injustice which brought an end to this remarkable person’s life, and which the Philadelphia police were continuing to perpetrate.

The story of Erika’s death is a shocking, upsetting one, and has touched many people who never knew Erika when she was alive. However, Erika’s murder is by no means an anomaly. It is part of a devastating pattern of violence against trans people of color in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The murder rate of trans people in the United States is estimated at 7-10 times the national average. Trans people of color living and working in Philadelphia know they are at near-constant risk of physical attack, and many experience daily harassment and discrimination. Erika herself experienced a tremendous amount of violence, harassment and discrimination during her short lifetime. On and off the street from the age of 13, Erika was failed by the very systems that claim to offer support, opportunities and protection to youth like her, including the Philadelphia school system, the Department of Human Services, and, of course, the Philadelphia Police Department.

Violence against trans youth of color in Philadelphia takes many forms. The Trans-health Information Project (TIP) drop-in night, a spot Erika frequented, is held weekly at a building in the Gayborhood of Center City Philadelphia. The TIP drop-in is aimed at building community, fighting isolation, and providing education and services; for many months it was home to a thriving Vogue group, popular with trans and gender-variant youth of color in and out of the ball scene. Not two weeks after Erika’s death, TIP was forced to shut down the Vogue group, due to police harassment and complaints from white neighbors about youth hanging out in front of the building. There has been a long-time presence of trans, gender non-conforming and queer youth of color on the streets of the Gayborhood, but a combination of gentrification and Philadelphia’s push to corner the gay tourism market have led to youth of color being increasingly unwelcome in this predominantly white-owned, ritzy neighborhood. Displacement, police harassment, cultural eradication, and the elimination of what little community space is available to trans youth of color – these forms of violence are not as gruesome as the violent murder of a young woman. But individuals touched by Erika’s death would be well advised to acquaint themselves as well with the structural, day-to-day violence faced by her and her community.

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Join the Justice 4 Erika campaign in demanding that the Philadelphia Police Commissioner and the Accident Investigation Division to reopen Erika’s case and conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding her death. We stand together to demand police accountability, justice for trans and gender non-conforming people, and respect for the inherent dignity and worth of every person.

Steps to Take Action:

1. Sign our community support letter (http://www.petitiononline.com/ErikaK/petition.html ).

2. Add Justice 4 Erika as a friend on Myspace (http://www.myspace.com/justice4erika).

3. Get organizations or groups you’re in to sign on to the support letter. (Organizations should email Justice4Erika@gmail.com to confirm their support.)

School Officials Use Marker to Hide Gay Kiss Yearbook Picture

24yearbook-2190.jpgI initially saw this story on KeithBoykin.com.

The yearbooks were finally printed and ready to be picked up by students at Newark’s East Side High School — but not before some officials snapped open their correcting pens to edit out a picture of two males kissing. The New York Times wrote:

Andre Jackson, a senior at East Side High School, leaned over his boyfriend’s shoulder one day several months ago and kissed him on the lips. He took a picture of the smooch with his digital camera.

Like other students, Mr. Jackson later paid $150 to have his own special page of photos in the school yearbook. He decided to include the picture of the kiss, to make not a political statement, but a personal one.

“I didn’t intend to say, ‘Oh hey, look at me, I’m gay,’ ” said Mr. Jackson, 18. “It was just a picture showing my emotion, saying that I’m happy, you know, whatever. It was to look back on as a memory.”

On Thursday evening, when the seniors gathered at a restaurant here for the Senior Banquet, students received the yearbooks they had bought for around $85. But the picture of Mr. Jackson kissing his boyfriend was gone. School officials had blacked it out. Roughly 250 yearbooks were distributed, and all of them had a black-marker splotch covering every inch of the photo.

“I was upset,” Mr. Jackson said. “I was hurt. I felt embarrassed and abused.”

It’s interesting to me largely because I just movd back to Jersey City, NJ, which is sorta in-between Manhattan, NY and Newark, NJ. I recently determined to get more involvd in Black LGBT work here in NJ, because most of the young people (at least half) found hanging out on Chrstopher Street’s West Village are from New Jersey–mostly Newark. So many of us do all our work in NYC, which has its value, but why not invest some time in NJ, since I do live here? And I feel like there is so much happening with Black LGBT community in Northern NJ–like this high school story, and the case of the 4 lesbians now doing time.

So check out the story. And black queers–get involved in your community.

read more | digg story

STILL Not Showing Up: Black Military Enlistment Continues Drop

The Associated Press report on newly released statistics showing Black enlistment in all branches of the armed forces has dropped 36% since 2001, mirroring a 2005 report from the Army showing a drop in Black enlistment dropping from 23 percent of all enlistees in 2001 to 14 percent by 2005. The AP reports:

According to Pentagon data, there were nearly 51,500 new black recruits for active duty and reserves in 2001. That number fell to less than 32,000 in 2006, a 38 percent decline.

When only active duty troops are counted, the number of black recruits went from more than 31,000 in 2002 to about 23,600 in 2006, almost one-quarter fewer.

The decline is particularly stark for the Army. Blacks represented about 23 percent of the active Army’s enlisted recruits in 2000, but 12.4 percent in 2006.

And like the 2005 report, black youth cite the unjust war in Iraq/Afghanistan and the opinions of their elders as the main reasons for their lack of enthusiasm. In the AP story, one recruiter, Sgt. Terry Wright noted

“I go to high schools every day, and for the most part it strikes me how many of them are serious about going to college,” said Wright, 32.

It “strikes” him as what?

The story also noted increases in enlistment by other racial groups:

The decline in black recruits overall has been offset partly by an increase in Hispanic recruits and those who classify themselves as other races or nationalities.

This category could include people who consider themselves Portuguese, or of other European descent that are not covered by the main categories of white, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaskan, black or Hispanic.

The active duty services largely have met recruiting targets in the past two years, while the Army, Army National Guard and Air National Guard fell short of their goals last month.

If black youth are not showing up for enlistment in the armed forces, how come they have not significantly joined the Anti-war Movement? I wrote about this issue last year in an acrticle called Not Showing Up: Blacks, Military Recruitment, and the Anti-War Movement, originally for the Nonviolent Activist, and was later reprinted on Black Commentator.com.

(The photo above is of Toccara R.Green, age 23, killed in 2005 when several roadside bombs in Iraq exploded near her unit.)

White Privilege at Work: Angelina Jolie

UPDATE: Read the Washington Post Article on RACE and Performance and how other bloggers feel about Jolie in “A MIghty Heart.”

Meet Angelina Jolie. The Academy Award Winning Actress has a new film out today that’s the buzz of all Hollywood called “A Mighty Heart” the story of Mariane Pearl’s (played by Jolie) quest to find answers about her husband, journalist Daniel Pearl’s kidnap and murder by terrorists in Pakistan.

Jolie–despite her Cambodian and Ethiopian children–is white. Pearl, is black (biracial). Now, some people may see this and saying I’m being essentialist or whatever…blahblahblah…But Halle Berry wasn’t available? Thandie Newton too busy? If I had to think about bi-racial black women to play this role, they’d certainly have been the first two thoughts (I would have leaned toward Thandie Newton for this one in particular.) Despite Berry’s Oscar win, she really doesn’t have the box office draw of Jolie, and neither does Newton (neither of whom can have the power to really “green-light” a project.). Also, apparently Jolie had become friends with Pearl, and hubby Brad Pitt had bought the rights to Pearl’s book of the same name as the film.

What this does remind me of is all those films from the 40’s and 50’s that one of my favorite entertainers, Lena Horne, was up for but they ultimately cast white women in the roles of “mulatto” women. Don’t buy it? Here’s two examples.

1949…Pinky. Lena wanted to play Pinky. Jeanne Crain got the part.
1951…Showboat. Lena wanted to play Julie. The role went to Ava Gardner.

The list goes on.

But that’s white privilege. 1950-2007. Maybe Jolie can beat Whitney Houston or Alicia Keys to the punch, and play Horne in a biopic that’s in the works! (Reportedly Horne wants Houston. Oprah wants Keys. Farrow, also wants Keys.)

(Lena’s 90th birthday is coming soon, to which I’ll give a proper b-day salute. But I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Lena Horne songs, “Yesterday When I was Young.”)