My Mother & The Thinkers

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When I was a little girl, Jim Crow laws did not allow African Americans in our town to use the segregated public library in the 1950s.

My mother believed people who appreciated art were better thinkers than those who do not.

In the 1950 and 1960s, there was segregation in schools and most other facilities and services in the Southern United states and many areas of the North. To maintain Jim Crow laws, our city like many others sent a bookmobile into certain neighborhoods to discourage African Americans from using the downtown library. A bookmobile was a converted bus with rows of shelves with books. The bookmobile was most active in summer and came to area parks and other public places where African Americans were allowed to gather.

Times do change.

That same library in my hometown has hosted celebrations of my career and actively collects my work. However, when I was a child, until we were allowed to use the library, my mother and I took a Greyhound Bus 100 miles away to Houston to use the Houston Public Library. It was an all day affair, but worth it, even if we didn’t qualify for library cards because we were from out of town and not because we were black. We sat among all those art books on the shelves and read until it was time for us to catch our bus back home.  At the time, we concentrated on art because there wasn’t a great deal written in books about people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. At that time, neither neither my mother or me imagined that I would write books and take photographs chronicling African Americans that would be collected by the Houston Public Library; or maybe Littie did imagine that when I was a child.

However, the thinking part had to do with getting a college education. Without education, she said, perhaps you won’t be able to go as far as you can.”

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Martin Luther King, Jim Crow Laws & Television

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WHEN I LEARNED ABOUT MARTIN LUTHER KING, ROSA PARKS, CIVIL RIGHTS AND JIM CROW LAWS, AMERICAN SCHOOLS, MOVIES, TELEVISION AND POLITICS WERE ALSO BLACK AND WHITE IN RACIAL TERMS.

Jim Crow Laws in America
The History of Jim Crow Laws in America

A little blue door leading up rickety stairs on the outside of the movie theater to segregated smelly balcony seating did not stop my mother from taking me to see movies in the 1950s and ’60s.

Black children my age being abused by southern white law officials like Bull Conner did not stop me from watching fifteen-minute national news broadcasts on television. That’s what television was for me back then, a medium that led to change in the Jim Crow laws in America. 

What I realized over the years is that people were set in their ways of thinking. And their behavior was based on their ways of thinking. It takes a lot of energy and creativity on both sides of an issue to break old habits. But it can be done. Once you look at yourself honestly, you can be shamed into changing your behavior. Television and movies were a big part of shaming people into changing their behavior and changing the way the America looked at itself. Even the staunchest haters and believers in inequality cringed at the sight of themselves and those who represented their views on screen.

 

Shooting Without A Gun

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In the neighborhood I grew up in, guns, knives, fists, chains and other weapons were common. I saw first hand what guns and other violence could do to a neighborhood, a family, a childhood.

On weekends, people got drunk and forgot what they had been taught at home, if they had ever been taught anything at home. As a child, I saw this behavior around me, no matter how hard my mother tried to shield me from it. The behavior was in my family. Cousins, aunts, uncles who visited sometimes had too much to drink, and sometimes started fights with each other or friends or neighbors or anyone handy.

Walking home from school, I passed five beer joints where drunks staggered to the sides of the buildings to relieve themselves in plain view. Fights were so common, we simply crossed the street to avoid being hit by flying beer bottles. My cousin was shot in the arm passing by a beer joint at mid-day. All the violence around me was hard to digest. People were saying it was because poor black people felt cheated and discriminated against; and they didn’t know any other way to handle their frustrations than violence.

Even the president wasn’t safe from the violence. President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas as I watched on television with the rest of my schoolmates. Some Americans said they were not saddened by his assassination and blamed his liberal Civil Rights policies for his death.

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President John F. Kennedy

At the time, I was child struggling with a life that was filled with violence. If the president of the United States could not be protected from violence, how could I feel safe? Television was filled with police violence against civil rights marchers and bus riders. Dogs were even set loose on little school children protesting Jim Crow laws.

When a man killed a cousin of mine by beating her to death with a car chain, he went to prison for about a year. I vowed to kill him when he got out, not because I was afraid of him. I felt pure vengence when I stole my grandmother’s gun from her underwear drawer. But I couldn’t find her bullets. She discovered my plan and confronted me. Later, she presented me with a Brownie camera and said, “Now, you can shoot without a gun.

Read more about Sunny Nash’s childhood in her book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, about life with her part-Comanche grandmother, Bigmama, during the era of Jim Crow laws in the United States. Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.

African American Women in the Olympics

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African American women have a long history in the Olympic Games, having qualified for Olympic events since 1932.

 In 1929, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama organized one of the nation’s first female track and field teams and campaigned for the inclusion of its black athletes in Olympic competition, starting with the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

1948 Olympic Gold Medalist, Alice Coachman

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1988 Olympic Gold Medalist, Florence FloJo Griffith-Joyner

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2012 Olympic Gold Medalist, Gabby Douglas

In both the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games and the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, two Tuskegee track stars, Louise Stokes and Tydie Pickett, earned their places on the U.S. Olympic track and field team. In both Games, 1932 and 1936, U.S. Olympic officials replaced Louise Stokes and Tydie Pickett at the last minute with white runners they had previously defeated.

U.S. politics, Jim Crow laws and racist policies played as significant a role as foreign influences in both the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. In 1936, some observers blaimed the German government for forcing a change in the line-up of the women’s team because of that’s country’s attitudes toward non-Aryans, including 20-year-old German-Jewish high jumper, Gretel Bergmann. This German policy against non-Aryans may have caused the Americans to remove Louise Stokes and Tydie Pickett from the line-up in 1936.

Because the world was involved in World War II, the Olympic Games were cancelled in 1940 and 1944. The next Olympic Games were held in 1948 in London. In that Olympic Games, African American female track and field stars set records and won medals. And since that time, African American female Olympians–from high jumper Alice Coachman, the first African American female gold medal winner, to sprinter Florence FloJo Joyner, fastest and flashiest Olympian in track and winner of three gold medals, to gymnast Gabby Douglas, most recent of the African American female gold medal winners–have been making Olympic history and showing the world who they are.

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Sunny Nash is author of Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, chosen by the Association of American University Presses for its value to the understanding of U.S. race relations and recommended for Native American Collection by the Miami-Dade Public Library System.

Ethel Waters & Jim Crow Television

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When Ethel Waters entered show business, television and radio broadcasting, film making and music recording were in their infancy. Watersachieved fame and fortune in Hollywood as an actor in race movies. Radio and television producers, bandleaders, songwriters and executives in the music recording industry took notice of Waters as she developed into a natural talent in front of the camera as television was being born.
 
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Known as the first black female superstar, Ethel Waters became one of the most popular and highest-paid entertainers of her day, rising up from her humble childhood, daughter of a rape victim, mostly raising herself on the streets of Chester, Pennsylvania, until she married at age 13. She soon left the abusive husband, moved to Philadelphia and became a hotel maid until she was encouraged to sing a couple of songs. That changed everything. At age 17, the youngster began singing and dancing her way through the vaudeville circuits to Broadway to Hollywood and became the second African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for her 1949 performance as Dicey Johnson

in the movie, Pinky.

Increase Productivity with Classical Music

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II learned that classical music improved my writing productivity when I became immersed in live classical music at the James Dick International Festival Institute at Round Top. One summer at the Institute, I produced recordings of recitals, piano and string solos, chamber ensembles and orchestras, as well as hosted the syndicated radio series, for which I wrote script copy for intermission segments while listening to the live performances.

Kenny Burrell – Jazz Guitarist At Work

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Kenny Burrell–Grammy Award winning jazz guitarist, composer, educator, National Endowment Jazz Master and State Department Cultural Ambassador–lectures and performs at age 81.

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Over the noise of the outside world, I listened to Kenny Burrell and tried my best to copy his phrasing with my voice. That’s how much his music moved me. Listening to this incredible musician, now, I still love his luscious sounds, 45 years later, with a special appreciation for the man who was then only 35 years old with so much of his life and career still to be explored.

 

Of course, the rest is history. Kenny Burrell went on to become a Grammy Award winning jazz guitarist, composer, educator, National Endowment Jazz Master, State Department Cultural Ambassador and UCLA professor of ethnomusicoloy. At age 81, he lectures and performs.

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