The African Company: An 1821 Black Shakespearean Theater Co.

William Henry Brown was a Black man born in the West Indies.   He resided in New York City in the early 1800s and served as a steward on ships that travelled between England, New York and the Caribbean.  He was a “free” man.  Slavery ended in New York in the late 1820s but “free Blacks” were still brutalized and terrorized by whites, and Blacks were still prohibited from attending public schools, voting, traveling freely between states, etc.  In part, as a result of this, Blacks established their own businesses and institutions.

In 1816 Brown resigned from his job on a Liverpool liner and bought a house in Manhattan on Thompson Street.  He started holding soirees in his tea garden backyard where he provided various forms of entertainment (music ensembles, singers, poetry readings or dramatic works) and food and drink as well.  These events were such a big hit that people traveled from all over NY to attend. A theater company grew out these tea garden performances.

Brown moved to a larger home on Mercer Street in 1821 and built a 300-seat theater on the second floor of his home.  Brown hired Blacks to perform mostly Shakespearean plays for Black audiences.  “Richard III” and “Othello” were the most popular.  James Hewett and Ira Aldridge who was a teen at the time, were the principal actors.  The latter went on to achieve international acclaim after moving to Europe where he was a stage actor for more than 40 years.  I’ believe the group was originally The African Grove Company and at some point became The African Company.

Brown wrote “King Shotaway,” a drama about the 1796 Black Carib War against English and French settlers.  It was performed in 1823.  It’s believed to be the first Black play written and produced in America.

The African Company productions were also attended by whites although they were restricted to sitting in the back of the theater.  The more popular the company became, the greater a threat it posed to the larger white theaters.  As a result of its success and racial tensions in general, the Black company was forced to move to new locations more than a few times.

The white owner of the Park Theater (Stephen Price) had hired a famous British actor to star in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Around the same time it was scheduled to open, Brown rented a hall next door to mount The African Company’s production of that same play and it opened on the same night as the Park Theater’s production. Stephen Price paid whites to stage a riot during The African Company’s performance and the police shut them down.

Although it’s not conclusively known why the company folded, some reports say it may have been due to Brown declaring bankruptcy and others says the company folded because the last theater that housed the company mysteriously burned down in 1926. There are no records about this company after 1923.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson Father of Black History

Dear Subscribers,

I will add a new blog post on Monday, Feb 4.  I decided not to do a part II to my post on rappers because the lyrics and misogyny are too punishing to my soul. Next week I will devote a post to the extraordinary Paul Robeson.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “Father of Black History,” is the son of former slaves, Anna Elizabeth and James Henry Woodson.  Woodson was born in 1875 in New Canton, Virginia and started working on a farm at an early age to help his father support their large family.  His schooling suffered for many years because of this, but he was determined to get an education so at age 20 he entered high school in Huntington, West Virginia.  He earned his diploma in less than two years and then five years later he returned to Douglass High School and became the principal.

Dr. Woodson later received a bachelor’s degree in literature from Berea College in Kentucky.  He studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, France  and in 1908 received a M.A. from the University of Chicago.  In 1912 he received a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University.

In 1915 Dr. Woodson and a group of friends founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.  It was an organization established to recognize and preserve Black contributions to America.  ASNLH was initially housed in Chicago and a year later gave birth to the “Journal of Negro History.”   In February of 1926 Dr. Woodson established Negro History Week.  He selected February because it’s the month of Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birth.  Dr. Woodson hoped a time would come when Negro history would be included in American history and that there wouldn’t be a need for Negro History Week.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson,  was a scholar, journalist, historian, etc. who wrote several books about Black history. Here are some of the titles:

The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the US from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. Published 1915

The Mis-Education of the Negro.  1933

A Century of Negro Migration.  1918

The Rural Negro.  1930

Negro Makers of History.   1928

Negro Orators and their Orations.   1926

Free Negro Heads of Families the US in 1830:  Together with Brief Treatment of the Free Negro.   1925

The History of the Negro Church.   1921

Sonia Sanchez & Love Advice

Sonia Sanchez is a Black poet/playwright/essayist/children’s author who was born in Birmingham, Alabama  in 1934.  She’s written close to 20 poetry books, many children’s books and she’s published at least seven plays.  Sonia has lectured at more than 500 colleges and universities and read her poetry in various nations in Africa, The People’s Republic of China, England, Australia, Cuba, as well as other countries.

In 1984 she published “Home Girls and Hand Grenades,” a collection of poetry and prose.  It includes the true story “Just Don’t Never Give Up on Love” about  Sonia’s actual encounter with Mrs. Rosalie Johnson, an 84-year-old Black woman.  Here’s that story in a nut shell.

Sonia goes to the park to write a book review for a magazine, but shortly after she sits down on a bench, Mrs. Johnson, her bench mate, immediately attempts to engage Sonia in a conversation. Sonia’s attempting to meet her deadline and she isn’t trying to listen to “some ancient love” this woman “carried inside her.” Undaunted, Mrs. Johnson continues to talk until Sonia relents.

Mrs. Johnson tells Sonia that her first husband was a “pretty man.” During their marriage she’d repeat his name over and over “until it hung” from her “ears like diamonds.” Mrs. Johnson asks Sonia if she “had ever loved a pretty man.” Sonia replies, “No” and adds, “They keep their love high in the linen closet and I’m too short to reach it.”

Mrs. Johnson’s “yellow” husband continuously broke her heart with his cheating ways so after five years of marriage she left him. William was her second husband. When she met this wonderful Black man she was “spitting metal,” but he “just pick me up and fold me inside him. I was christened with his love.” Before Mrs. Johnson departs from Sonia she gives her this advice,  “Just don’t never give up on love.”

Black in Nazi Germany, Hans Massaquoi

Hans Massaquoi, the former managing editor of Ebony magazine, died this month.  Here’s his unusual story.

Hans was born in Germany in 1926 to a German mother and a father who was the son of the Liberian consul general in Hamburg, Germany.   Hans’ mother was a nurse and his father a law student in Dublin who periodically lived with his family in the consul general’s villa. The diplomatic status of Hans’ grandfather afforded him a life of privilege during his first few years.  Hans viewed Black skin as superior to white skin because their servants were white and his grandfather was the man in charge.

When Hans was in second grade he dreamed of joining the Hitler Youth Movement because its members wore “cool uniforms” and “did exciting things – camping, parades, playing drums.”  One day Hans convinced his babysitter to sew a swastika on his sweater, but his mother removed it later that night. Unfortunately, earlier that day his teacher had taken a picture of him wearing the sweater while standing among his classmates.  That photo appears on the front cover of his 1999 memoir, “Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany.”

In 1929 his lifestyle dramatically changed after his grandfather was called back to Liberia.  Hans and his mother went from residing in a villa, to living in a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Hamburg. The thing that troubled him the most about their new environment was the fact he was shunned and pointed at because of his “exotic looks.”  He was one of a very few bi-racial children and they were targets of racism and were considered second-class citizens.

Although African pride was something Hans rarely felt, that changed in 1936 when Joe Louis went up against Germany’s Max Schmeling and Jesse Owens won Olympic gold in Berlin, Germany.

Hans said he managed to survive Hitler’s reign of terror because there were so few Blacks in Germany that the Nazis made them a low priority for mass extermination, unlike in the case of Jewish people. He also credits the advancing allied forces with playing a role as well.

Germany barred him from pursuing higher education and from preparing for a professional career, so Hans served as a machinist apprentice.  In 1951 he traveled to the US on a student visa.  Due to a clerical error, Hans was ordered to serve as a paratrooper in the 82 Airborne Division during the Korean War, although not a US citizen at the time. He made the most of the GI bill and earned a journalism degree from the University of Illinois. Hans was a journalist at Jet magazine and then moved to Chicago and worked for Ebony magazine where he served as the managing editor until he retired in the late 90s.

Hans married Katharine Rousseve and their union produced sons Steve and Hans, Jr.  Hans Massaquoi passed away on January 19, 2013.  He was 87-years-old.

Black Opinions in White Society

Periodically I read Black American discussion boards on various race topics, and I often wonder to what degree Black people’s opinions are influenced by the fact they’re growing up in a white supremacist country.

When people criticized Quentin Tarantino for using “nig**r” over 100 times in “Django Unchained,” he said that the use and frequency of the slur were authentic given the time period.  Some of his most vocal defenders were Black people.  Perhaps what many Black fans don’t take into account is how grossly differently Tarantino treats Black and white viewers.  When it comes to race, he largely spares the feelings of white viewers by not subjecting them to Blacks voicing anti-white insults.  In contrast, Tarantino bombards Black viewers with “nig**r” in most of his films.  If Blacks do consider this, they don’t seem to hold it against him.  Why is that?

And some Black fans defend his inclusion of the slur.  In a manner of speaking, this is akin to Blacks defending the right of a white man and the white film industry to continue to demean their race.  Have some Blacks been so brain-washed that they not only accept this abuse, they co-sign it and attempt to persuade other Blacks not to take issue with it?

I’ve wondered about this for a long time, but more recently after I posted comments on “Django Unchained” discussion boards.  I criticized Tarantino for his “nig**r” obsession and a few Blacks criticized me for finding fault with him.  Their reaction reminded me of comments Carter G. Woodson’s made about mind control.  He said if a man, conditioned to only enter people’s homes through the back door, encounters a house that doesn’t have one, he’ll build a back door just so that he can enter. Have some Blacks grown so accustomed to being racially maligned that they even impose it upon themselves?

Waiting to Exhale Sequel

I recently learned that a “Waiting to Exhale” sequel might be in the works.  The original film, based on the best-selling novel, chronicles the friendship of four Black women living in Phoenix, Arizona.  The movie was enthusiastically received when it was released in the mid 1990s.

I was among the throngs of women who watched Gloria, Bernie, Savannah and Robin spend time hanging out at a club and discussing the men in their lives. I enjoyed the laughter the women shared and their trappings of success, and I hope that the sequel will include those things as well.  I also hope it includes a man taking one of these women on a date.

There are four Black women and not one scene where a man takes any of them on a real outing. Robin beds three different men, yet the closest she gets to going on a date is when her new lover takes her to a house party and immediately deserts her to go do drugs.  Neither of the two men Savannah sleeps with take her anywhere.  In many movies, when Black males date white females, Black males take them on dates.

All of these Black women are portrayed as sex starved.  None are cherished on screen, except in one brief instance, and none are tenderly touched unless it’s a prelude to sex or some sexual context.

A Black man named Marvin moves into Gloria’s neighborhood and the movie implies they have a romantic relationship, but the film doesn’t show it on screen. Beyond their initial introduction they’re in three scenes together.  Marvin’s washing dishes in one scene and his back is to Gloria most of the time so he doesn’t touch her.  The only time Marvin affectionately touches this Black woman is shortly before he seduces her.

Considerable time is devoted to these women having sex, especially with married men, and time’s alloted to Black men and Black women being at odds.  In one scene, Robin’s new man curses her out, calls her a “bitch” and hurls a piece of fruit at her.  A negative Black male-Black female interaction scene runs about 3 1/2 minutes long.  In contrast, Gloria and Marvin share one lighted-hearted moment as sort-of-a-couple and it runs about 30 seconds.  The one healthy Black male-Black female relationship is given so little time

The only woman that viewers consistently hear a Black man speak about in the most loving terms is a white woman. She’s the wife of a Black attorney who’s away on a business trip.  He talks about her at length in three different scenes.  Although this relationship is true to the novel written by a Black woman, I don’t know if the author/screenwriter is the one who gave short shrift to positive Black male-Black females interactions in the script or if it was the director or someone else.

I’d like to see these women again but I hope a man cherishes at least one of them, and I hope that a white woman doesn’t receive the lion’s share of a Black man’s affection in the sequel.

Thanks for Visiting

Thank-you for visiting.  I will resume tomorrow.