by Anthony R. Green
February 2022 is coming up, and this month in this particular year marks the 121st birthday of Langston Hughes (born 1 February 1901) and the 19th anniversary of an incredible CD celebrating his poetry with spoken word and music. This CD is called Rhapsody in Hughes 101, and it was released in February 2003. You can purchase this album via Apple Music, and it is available on Spotify and other streaming platforms! Who created this celebratory album? None other than a true heroine of our times: Val Gray Ward, who, in August this year, will celebrate her 90th birthday! Age has not slowed her down; Val Gray Ward is still creating, teaching, and inspiring the many generations of Black artists she has come to witness and mother, having recently given virtual performances for students at Wellesley College and also lecturing at the Black Arts Movement School Modality at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The legendary Val Gray Ward was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi - an all-Black town founded in 1887 by former enslaved Black Americans. Throughout her life, she has achieved incredible accomplishments. She founded the Kuumba Theater Company in Chicago, which - among many other things - placed a strong focus on community. In this vein, Kuumba sponsored book parties, poetry readings, exhibits, writing workshops, and also broadcasted films. One unique aspect about their theater practice is that they developed a ritual theater style that induced audience reactions and interactions, another element that strengthened community. Through Kuumba, Val Gray Ward worked with James Baldwin when they staged his profound, semi-autobiographical play The Amen Corner. Kuumba toured with this play, with Val Gray Ward in one of the leading roles, and their tour also included a performance in Lincoln Center's Black Festival USA in 1979.
Outside of Kuumba, Val Gray Ward has received acclaim for her solo show titled My Soul is a Witness. In a 2015 interview, she states: "[This show] is my dramatic interpretation of the works of various black writers, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. I also perform a segment from The Life of Harriet Tubman which Francis [Ward, my husband] wrote for me many years ago." Her "multiple hats" style of working has resulted in her being the recipient of over 200 awards, including 21 Emmys for her "docutainment" film Precious Memories: Strolling 47th Street. She is known as "The Voice of the Black Writer" and her work has been significantly instrumental to the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Moreover, her lifelong friendships are near and dear to her, and she cherishes the friendships she has (and has had) with Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, and Nikki Giovanni (with whom she shared an hours long phone conversation recently!). It is impossible to even scratch the surface when it comes to paying tribute to such a phenomenal woman, but it is our strong desire here at Castle of our Skins for you all to read more about her, listen to her interviews, watch and share any related content online, and be enriched and enthusiastic about sharing her legacy! You can start with the following:
An appearance on Windy City Live with a short article: CLICK HERE!
A fantastic interview archived in the Library of Congress: CLICK HERE!
An article about her work with James Baldwin: CLICK HERE!
Note: this blog post would not be possible without the help of Dr. Liseli Fitzpatrick, and we thank you for your contribution and generous sharing of such a legend!
by Anthony R. Green
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hosting the incredible L'Merchie Frazier in a talk titled: Rhapsodies: a song for the beloved. This talk was built upon the following description:
Utilizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s poignant thoughts on Black music as a foundation, L'Merchie Frazier will discuss quilting, Black music, Black genius, and more. Through incorporating observations on the relationships between pain, beauty, and passion, Frazier will unearth and articulate the creative moments that often serve as intersections between art, creativity, and life.
This blog is a bit of a recap of 4 elements that were evoked during L'Merchie's incredible talk:
1) Dr. MLK Jr.'s essay on Black music;
2) Billy Strayhorn and his iconic work arranging and conducting King fit da Battle of Alabama;
3) Zilpah White and her relationship with Walden Woods;
and 4) The example of African agency at Ibo Landing.
L'Merchie, towards the early part of her talk, quoted Dr. King's essay on jazz that was featured in the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. The bold line from this essay is "This is Triumphant Music." King, in the essay, goes on to talk about various forms of Black music and its role in the lives of Black people as well as people around the world. L'Merchie applies these words to all Black music, irrespective of genre, and linked Dr. King's words to the various roles and purposes that unfold from all Black arts as well. These rhapsodic links set the foundation for the rest of her talk.
Fluidly flowing to Billy Strayhorn, L'Merchie mentioned his work as an arranger and conductor for King Fit da Battle of Alabama, a performance that significantly moved Dr. King. While many are familiar with Duke Ellington and Dr. King, L'Merchie shared her observations that Billy Strayhorn is lesser known, but a powerhouse musician. Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but in the mid 1930s, he knew this endeavor would be difficult, and switched to Jazz. Often uncredited or undervalued, Strayhorn is responsible for such hits with and without Ellington as Lush Life, Chelsea Bridge, and Take the 'A' Train. Listen to a performance of King Fit da Battle of Alabama at Boston's own Jordan Hall below (performed by the Boston Children's Chorus):
Later in the talk, when discussing how Black textile artists during the times of slavery spun cloth from scratch, and were given scraps which they transformed into the fine art that is quilts, L'Merchie brought forward Zilpah White, a formerly enslaved woman who resided as a lonesome hermit in Walden Woods (and was criticized for it) before Thoreau did the same thing (and was praised for it). Thoreau misspells her name in his recollections (writing Zilpha rather than Zilpah). According to many sources, she brought her spinning talents from the south to Walden, and would spin so long that it worsened her eye sight. You can read more about her HERE and HERE.
And lastly, in discussing Black agency and the Black relationship to water, L'Merchie mentioned Ibo Landing. I remember learning about this recently (on Instagram) and immediately thinking about the beloved spiritual Oh, Freedom! In 1803, a ship containing West Africans who were stolen from Africa survived the middle passage journey and landed in Savannah. From this group of stolen Africans, 75 Nigerians were purchased for $100 each to work on St. Simons Island, about a 1.5 hour drive south of Savannah. During the trip from Savannah to St. Simons Island, the enslaved Nigerians captured and drown their purchaser. Upon arrival, the Nigerians refused to be captured and enslaved, so they marched into the water at Ibo Landing and drowned themselves. This powerful piece of history was linked with Phillis Wheatley, who - as a child in West Africa - most likely spoke Wolof, and also survived the dreadful middle passage journey over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The Black relationship with water includes the ancestral memories of these trips, and L'Merchie's creative practice, as she states, is deeply involved in memory.
I wish I could highlight all of the beautiful elements of L'Merchie's deeply moving talk. These are only a couple of incredible moments from the lecture. Be sure to check out L'Merchie's beautiful artwork on her website HERE, and stay tuned for the video version of Sound & Appliqué in the near future!
by Anthony R. Green
Do you remember the first time you saw a quilt made by someone you knew or someone close to you or related to you? In this ever-quickening world, are the chances of coming across such things diminishing? Do your chances depend on your geography or the geographical relationships of the people who are close to you and/or within your access? Do your chances depend on the interests and the hobbies of the people who are close to you and/or within your access? Has the internet helped with exposure to quilting traditions? So many questions!
When I was growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, I remember one of the church members (who was the wife of a minister and the mother of one of my church friends) headed a quilting project with a group of young girls (I believe they were called AB Girls - American Baptist Girls). She was explaining the process of creating the squares. I remember thinking to myself: wow - the math that is going into this is something I could not imagine! It got me really curious, but with music, homework, and other interests and responsibilities, I never took a journey into the world of quilting as a maker.
Now that Castle of our Skins is preparing to present (a slightly altered version of) Sound & Appliqué, it has been such a wonderful journey reading and watching video clips and documentaries about quilting, especially how rich the tradition of quilting is within Black US American traditional textile practices. Believe it or not, this project was conceived in 2018, and THIS BLOG about finding inspiration for new compositions based on quilts from December 2018 is proof! Not only does that particular blog post contain a wealth of information, but there are also quite a bit of informative links to follow as well. For those who'd like to maybe have some inspiration to start quilting, perhaps the video below might provide some good information.
Sound & Appliqué will be presented live in Vermont, with a digital talk given by the incredible L'Merchie Frazier, who (on top of many other talents) is an incredible quilter! This project will also be recorded for a digital release later this season. Stay tuned for the details, and enjoy your quilting journey!
by Anthony R. Green
Happy 2022, everyone! As my interest in Black composers of "classical music" increases, I find myself constantly scouring the internet, looking for organizations who promote such composers in myriad ways. In recent searches, I stumbled upon two really wonderful projects who are supporting Black and marginalized voices in major ways. This quick BIBA is to give a shout-out to them!
The first is the New Music Initiative for Black Voices. According to their website, they are a is a US "nationwide invitational that aims to celebrate and empower Black composers and their music". Black composers across the US apply to have a relatively new string quartet (composed in 2010 or after) workshopped, read, and recorded by professional string players. As of now, the website implies that this initiative took place in 2021, and there is currently a new cohort for 2022. The website also has the profiles of the string players, their board members (some really fantastic people), and - of course - selected composers (one of which was featured in Castle of our Skins's #BCMC 2.0!!). I hope this initiative continues, and perhaps even changes instrumentations from time to time (string trio, sax quartet, wind quintet, chamber voices, mixed sextet, etc ...). Keep up the good work!
The second is the Rising Tide Music Press. This publishing company focuses on publishing "print works by BBIA (Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian) musicians in their 10 years of professional-level work as composers and arrangers". Consequently, many young Black composers are featured and supported by this incredible project, and their scores are easily available to purchase (as this is a publishing company!). A great feature of their website is the attention they give to their featured composers. Each composer has their own individual page, and most composers have links to audio or video of the pieces that are available to purchase. In this way, one can hear quite a bit of the incredible music that this company supports, and one can also see watermarked score samples (if interested). Wonderful organization!!!!!
If you know any other organizations doing similar work, drop a line!
Writings, musings, photos, links, and videos about Black Artistry of ALL varieties!
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