by Wanda Sabir
Imani, or “Faith,” is the seventh principle of Kwanzaa, or Celebration of First Fruits. Everything starts with belief, and this belief is grounded in Imani, Nia (purpose) and Kujichagulia (self-determination). Once we know our purpose, everything else is possible.
Kujichagulia is the tenacity we hang onto even when we can’t always see the road around the corner or how far it is to the ground.
This year, African Diaspora people across all the false binaries and biases that keep us apart need to remember our histories and heritage – the uniqueness of each of our separate and collective journeys and the guiding principles that can unite us in Umoja. We are still one people, despite time, linguistic and cultural separations. It is the forgetfulness that weakens our growth.
Forgetfulness and unaddressed persistent trauma killed Levee – Chadwick Boseman – spiritually as he killed his elder in Denzel Washington’s 2020 production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Levee forgot his home training that taught him to be obligated to respect his elders and be silent when they speak so he could learn something. He got caught up in the enemy’s web. The devil in the North is relative to the devil in the South. Neither wore rouge. And the person who could help him, Ma, was dismissed. Levee didn’t recognize Ma’s power, her leverage – how she knew what she was worth to the white man at the scale and made him pay.
Maafa@25 art exhibit goes live
We are really excited to be exhibiting work from Alan Kimara Dixon, photographer, and photoartist TaSin Sabir. Both artists have documented the Maafa Commemoration SF Bay Area for a number of years and their portfolios give us a rendering of the breadth and magnificence of this sacred ritual and ceremony from 1999-2018. Baba Anyika Nkululeko’s 2019 photos are also included. Featured also is the work of sculptor Marva Reed in two-dimensional renditions of an African female goddess and ancestors.
We are also pleased to have the work of mixed media artist William Rhodes, whose quilt and other wooden pieces express the material nature of the journey our ancestors traveled. We have several multimedia pieces, from interviews to slideshows with original music. Sculptor Lorraine Bonner’s work is captured in a lovely film we have included here which the artist illustrates visually and poetically. Lastly, Wanda Sabir shares photographs and stories of her travels to Senegal, West Africa, and her participation in the indigenous healing Lip ceremony.
We also have the MAAFA@25 winter 20-21 newsletter available at this link and soon at maafasfbayarea.com. The virtual Maafa Commemoration is also available to view on facebook.com/maafabayarea. You can see or listen to the nine virtual Maafa townhalls as well at maafasfbayarea.com blog.
MAAFA@25 reader project call for submissions
We have reopened the call for the MAAFA Reader Project with the deadline June 30, 2021. For details, visit maafasfbayarea.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us know your interest and any questions. There is no entrance fee and we are accepting a variety of manuscript forms: scholarly, fiction, visual art or poetry. For those who submitted work in the past, please resubmit. The service we employed deleted all the saved work. Click here for a project narrative sample or go to https://maafasanfranciscobayarea.blogspot.com/2021/01/maafa-reader-project-narrative-sample.html.
Gertrude Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
I love this story: Black diva who knows her worth and makes the white manager and record producer who would exploit her talent – Irvin and Sturdyvant, played by Jeremy Shamos and John Coyne – pay. August Wilson’s epic that is a slice of Black life is set in Chicago, the only play in Wilson’s 10-cycle series set outside Philadelphia. It is the story of African creativity and how this genius keeps a people sane, or at least functional. All Wilson’s work has key women protagonists; however, “Ma Rainey” is a voice in more ways than one.
The “Mother of the Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey knows her business. At a time in American memory, when white folks owned Black people, it was a struggle for artists who were Black and a woman. More than once, Ma has to remind her manager Irvin – actor Jeremy Shamos – that he works for her; that he is to protect her interests.
Ma knows show business. A protégée who came of age in vaudeville with her parents as entertainers, young Gertrude later spends a decade with her husband on the road before she starts a career on her own. This experience gives Ma a business perspective and expertise lost on many a man who is tripped as he tries to cross her.
Under no illusions, Ma knows all these men love her voice. She tells Irvin she has never been invited to his house except to perform. Irvin cannot deny her unspoken accusation. “As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines,” she says to Toledo, a musician in the band, “then it’s just like if I be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.”
The diva says often that she doesn’t need Paramount; Paramount needs her. “My records sell more than all these artists combined,” she tells her agent. “If you don’t like it, I can take my Black bottom back down South and play for my people.”
Black audiences adore her. Lines down the dirt road to enter. Ma can fill a room with a promise. “White folks don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life. The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. Something’s been added by the song. This be an empty world without the blues.” (“Wilson Century Cycle,” p. 66).
Viola Davis’ Ma shakes what she’s got and sings. Transformed, Davis channels a woman whose music gives context to Black life more so now than ever. The blues, which Thomas Dorsey, pianist and arranger of sacred African American music – whom Ma Rainey performed with – played as well as gospel, show how closely linked this folkloric tradition is, which started in Mali ‘cross a transatlantic trade without translation.
This film is the second in an August Wilson series produced by Denzel Washington, the first being “Fences,” also starring Viola Davis, who got an Academy Award for her role as Rose. Directed by George C. Wolfe, with screenplay by Ruben Santiago Hudson, cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler, composition by Branford Marsalis – this adaptation couldn’t lose.
“Fences” was produced by HBO. The contract agreement for the next nine films based on Wilson’s canon are now with Netflix. Chadwick Boseman’s Levee to Davis’ Ma is a striking parallel. The young horn player’s got so much promise, but no one can tell him anything. “Back up and leave Levee alone about the white man,” he tells the older men in the group. “I can smile and say ‘yessir’ to whoever I please. I got time coming to me. You all just leave Levee alone about the white man.” (“Wilson Century Cycle,” p. 56).
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2019) was the last film Boseman as Levee made before passing. Coleman Domingo as Cutler, guitar and trombone player, and Michael Potts as Slow Drag, double bass player, and Glynn Turman as Toledo round out Ma’s band. Toledo is pianist. The elder philosopher and Levee, a kid with a lot on his mind and nowhere to put it safely get into it a lot.
Boseman’s Levee (trumpeter) reads rather cathartic given what happens later on in the actor’s life. Was his ghost speaking? Sojourner Truth says, “I sell the shadow to keep the substance.” Levees are walls between bodies: water and land. In Boseman’s case, two worlds, white and Black, heaven and hell, sickness and death. Can Levee hold off the forces threatening to cripple him? Can Boseman hold off the illness and complete his work?
There is a scene where Boseman’s Levee curses God, curses God because the God his mother believed in did not save her or his father when systemic racial violence did great harm to her and to his daddy. A little boy at that time, 10 years old, his dad told him to protect his mom, to be the little man in his absence. But how could he?
As we watch Levee tell the men in the rehearsal room his shocking story juxtaposed to his hat-in-hand shuffling plea to Sturdyvant, the record producer who asks to see some of the kid’s songs. Levee gives the work to him without a receipt. Levee doesn’t know contracts like Ma does, or the record business. Sturdyvant tells Levee later on the studio can’t use the work, stuffing a few dollars in the young man’s pocket as he walks away. Levee is so devastated he doesn’t notice the change in his pocket or ask for his music back.
Paired down for film to just 94 mins, the epic sweep of Wilson’s work remains in Hudson’s adept hands. “Ma Rainey” and its impact is just as powerful given the artist choices, direction and writing. The cinematography and score are also amazing.
Although Davis is not Ma’s look-a-like, she certainly conjures Ma’s spirit. A handsome woman with beauty seeped in her pores, Davis’ performance leaves one satisfied. Her Ma sings the kind of songs that help a people forget the world outside the club while they are within. Ma, medicine woman, conjures a safe place where Black folks can for a moment feel free, whether that is in person or on the Victrola. Her work tells our stories. Later on, the industry called such songs “race” music; however, Ma’s songs were “love” songs for her people. I think the same could be said for all the songs, whether that was Rainey’s disciple Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter or others.
Ma Rainey says, “They say I started it … I ain’t started the blues way of singing. It always been here. I just helped it out. Filled up that empty space a little bit. That’s all. But if they want to call me the Mother of the Blues, that’s all right with me. It don’t hurt none.” (“Wilson Century Cycle,” p. 66).
The citations come from “The Wilson Century Cycle” boxed set, 2007, “1927 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” 1981, 1985, by August Wilson.
On the fly “How it Feels to Be Free“ tells the inspiring story of how six iconic African American female entertainers – Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier – challenged an entertainment industry deeply complicit in perpetuating racist stereotypes, transformed themselves and their audiences in the process. The film premieres nationwide Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, at 9 p.m. on PBS. Check local listings at pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app. Directed by Yoruba Richen.
Now on American Masters, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise“ is an amazing documentary. Listen to an interview with co-directors Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules on Wanda’s Picks, October 6, 2016 at https://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks/2016/10/06/wandas-picks-radio-show-special. Watch the documentary here https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/maya-angelou-still-rise-watch-full-film. The documentary “Celebrating the Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker“ is available to watch now on PBS https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/charlie-parker-documentary/14979/.
31st Annual Celebration of African American Poets and Their Poetry is on Feb. 6, 2020, time TBA. We will be on Zoombut are still working out the details, so stay in touch. We will feature alumni and an open mic. We will also share a draft of the African American Celebration through Poetry Anthology as well. The time is 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. For information, send an email to email@example.com. The theme this year is “2021, The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.” Visit the Association for the Study of African American Life and History for more depth on the topic: https://asalh.org/black-history-themes. In the Name of Love: The 19th Annual Musical Tribute Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will take place Sunday, Jan. 17, 4 p.m. PST, in support of the Living Jazz Children’s Project. For free or pay-what-you-can ticketing visit https://www.livingjazz.org/mlktribute.
Bay View Arts and Culture Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.