Black History Month: James Baldwin

Born on August 2, 1924, in New York City, James Arthur Baldwin published the 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, going on to garner acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality and humanity. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head as well as essay works like Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. Having lived in France, he died on December 1, 1987 in Saint-Paul de Vence. 

Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. Whether he was working in Paris or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.

His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if unnameable tensions. Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976).

Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration not only of black people, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement. 

James Baldwin — the grandson of a slave — was born in Harlem in 1924. The oldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious stepfather. As a child, he cast about for a way to escape his circumstances. As he recalls, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” By the time he was fourteen, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.

During this early part of his life, he followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin recalled, “Those three years in the pulpit – I didn’t realize it then – that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.” Many have noted the strong influence of the language of the church, the language of the Bible, on Baldwin’s style: its cadences and tone. Eager to move on, Baldwin knew that if he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at eighteen he took a job working for the New Jersey railroad.

After working for a short while with the railroad, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he worked for a number of years as a freelance writer, working primarily on book reviews. He caught the attention of the well-known novelist, Richard Wright – and though Baldwin had not yet finished a novel, Wright helped him secure a grant with which he could support himself as a writer. In 1948, at age 24, Baldwin left for Paris, where he hoped to find enough distance from the American society he grew up in to write about it.

After writing a number of pieces for various magazines, Baldwin went to a small village in Switzerland to finish his first novel. Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, was an autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem. The passion and depth with which he described the struggles of black Americans were unlike anything that had been written. Though not instantly recognized as such, Go Tell It on the Mountain has long been considered an American classic.

Over the next ten years, Baldwin moved from Paris to New York to Istanbul, writing two books of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), as well as two novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). The essays explored racial tension with eloquence and unprecedented honesty; the novels dealt with taboo themes (homosexuality and interracial relationships). By describing life as he knew it, Baldwin created socially relevant, psychologically penetrating literature … and readers responded. Both Nobody Knows My Name and Another Country became immediate bestsellers.

Being abroad gave Baldwin a perspective on the life he’d left behind and a solitary freedom to pursue his craft. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” In a sense, Baldwin’s travels brought him even closer to the social concerns of contemporary America. In the early 1960s, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the times, Baldwin returned to take part in the civil rights movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). This, too, was a bestseller: so incendiary that it put Baldwin on the cover of TIME Magazine. For many, Baldwin’s clarion call for human equality – in the essays of Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time – became an early and essential voice in the civil rights movement. Though at times criticized for his pacifist stance, Baldwin remained an important figure in that struggle throughout the 1960s.

After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to St. Paul de Vence, France, where he worked on a book about the disillusionment of the times, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). Many responded to the harsh tone of If Beale Street Could Talk with accusations of bitterness – but even though Baldwin had encapsulated much of the anger of the times in his book, he always remained a constant advocate for universal love and brotherhood. During the last ten years of his life, he produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He also turned to teaching as a new way of connecting with the young.

By 1987, when he died of stomach cancer at age 63, James Baldwin had become one of the most important and vocal advocates for equality. From Go Tell It on the Mountain to The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), James Baldwin created works of literary beauty and depth that will remain essential parts of the American canon.  Source: PBS



Black History Month: Otis Boykin

Otis Boykin was an inventor responsible for many important electrical devices that are used in modern times, most notably the electrical resistor. On February 21, 1961, an improved version of Boykin’s electrical resistor was published and caught the attention of the military and one of America’s top computer companies.

Boykin was born August 29, 1920 in Dallas, Texas. The Fisk University graduate spent two years at the Illinois Institute of Technology, leaving early to pursue work. One of his more than two dozen inventions was a wire resistor, which is used in devices to control the flow of currents and power distribution. In 1959, one of his resistors made was patented and produced by companies.

In the mid ’50’s, Boykin continued tinkering with the resistor, which culminated in a much improved version of the invention. This new resistor was used by IBM in some of their computers and the military branches used the new design in some of its guided missiles.

Aside from the resistor, Boykin’s most notable invention might be circuit improvements made to the pacemaker. In some accounts, it was said that Boykin was moved to work on the device after losing his mother to heart failure.

By the time of his death in 1982 from heart failure, Boykin had presented several inventions, including a burglar-proof cash register and a chemical air filter. Varying reports say he held between 26 to 28 patents.

Black History Month: Ruby Bridges

The image of a young Ruby Bridges entering the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans made her an icon of the burgeoning civil rights movement. What many don’t know is that later in life, Bridges became an activist after an unfortunate twist of fate led her back to the school that transformed her life.

Bridges was born September 8, 1954 in Tylertown, Miss. Her parents moved to New Orleans when she was four, hoping to provide a better life.

In the spring of 1960, after the landmark Brown V. Board of Education decision, Bridges and several other Black students passed a test to enter William Frantz. Despite the legal decision to overturn segregation, execution of the law lagged behind.

That fall, Bridges had to be flanked by four federal marshals and could not eat the school’s lunches because of threats that she would be poisoned. Angry white mobs gathered daily and threats against the little girl and her family were commonplace. While Bridges remembered feeling terrified, an interview of one of the marshals who guarded her commended Bridges on her bravery.

Barbara Henry, a teacher from Boston, volunteered to teach Bridges after white parents at the school pulled their children out of classes. Henry and Bridges established a deep bond.

The following year, crowds died down as both Black and white families stood up to the racist mobs and surrounded Bridges with protection. Bridges was also assisted by a child psychiatrist, Harvard University professor Robert Coles. Coles worked weekly with Bridges in those days, and wrote a book about her experience to help others cope with similar problems.

As an adult, Bridges worked as a travel agent, married Malcolm Hall and became a full-time homemaker raising their four sons. But her life took a turn in 1993 after the death of her brother when she became the caretaker of his children who all attended Frantz. Bridges began volunteering at the school as a parent liaison.

She learned that Coles wrote a book about their chats and was reunited with Mrs. Henry, the teacher who taught and helped guide Bridges in those early days, during an emotional episode on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996.

In 1999, Bridges founded The Ruby Bridges Foundation which works to eliminate racism and educate youth. Bridges has been honored many times over, including getting the Presidential Citizen’s Medal from President Bill Clinton in 2001. In 2011, Bridges visited the White House and viewed the famed 1966 painting of her on the schoolhouse steps by artist Norman Rockwell alongside President Barack Obama.  Source: Black America Web

Black History Month: Bobby Short

After he took up residence in the lounge of New York’s elegant Hotel Carlyle in the late 1960s, vocalist and pianist Bobby Short became an icon of New York and American cultural life. Short called himself a saloon singer, but actually he roosted at the top of the hierarchy of entertainers who perform in cocktail lounges, and indeed he did much to define the modern categories of lounge singer and cabaret singer. New York visitors stopped in at the Café Carlyle for decades to hear Bobby Short, to glimpse the lifestyles of the city’s well-heeled residents, and to take a tour through the classics of American popular song with one of its most knowledgeable curators for a guide.


Robert Waltrip Short, the ninth of ten children, was born in the small town Danville, Illinois, on September 15, 1924. His father was a coal miner from Kentucky who sometimes landed higher-paying jobs, and the family had a piano and a radio tuned to jazz. At age four, Short taught himself to play the piano. The resourcefulness that put Short on the road to performing in posh nightclubs was inherited in part from his mother. She “taught survival. I think she had a framework of cast iron,” Short told CNN. The young musician had a childhood remarkably free of racial discrimination. “There was a total absence of any kind of overt racial prejudice in those years, and it was kept that way by our teachers—which I was not aware of then,” he wrote in his autobiography, Black and White Baby.

But survival instincts were necessary after the Great Depression of the 1930s hit the Short family hard. When he was nine, Short began to supplement the household’s income by playing and singing in taverns. His skills developed quickly, and he turned into something of a teenage sensation. Agents who heard of his talent booked him into clubs and hotels in Chicago and New York. Short developed a taste for fine clothes, and later in life he would frequently appear on lists of best-dressed men. But his father’s death in 1936 interrupted his high-flying career; he went back to Illinois to be with his family.

Short launched his adult career in 1942, performing at Chicago’s Capitol Lounge. His reputation spread, and he landed nightclub slots in other large cities. Sometimes he shared a bill with singer Nat “King” Cole, a friend who influenced his expressive vocal style. By 1948, Short was a regular at the Cafe Gala in Los Angeles, staying there for three years and leaving only when he felt that he had become stuck in a “velvet-lined rut,” as he was quoted as saying in the Times of England.

As a vocal stylist, Short was quite unusual. New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett wrote that Short had “a searching down sound”: a versatile baritone that could unexpectedly drop into a gruff tone or emphasize psychologically significant points in a song’s lyrics. Short could bring out the sexy qualities that lay behind the conventional rhymes of Broadway pop, and he could find an elegant quality in more raucous old jazz and blues songs. He often performed blues diva Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer).” Short tried to uncover African-American roots of the classic Broadway sound, and he often revived little-known pieces by the likes of Thomas “Fats” Waller and his Madagascarian-American lyricist, Andy Razaf.

In 1997, well over 70 years old, Short rethought his backing band at the Carlyle, expanding it from a trio to a nine-piece band. He tried to retire in 2004, but popular demand induced him to sign a contract to appear for another year. He continued to work even after receiving a leukemia diagnosis, and he worked on a new CD of Fred Astaire songs until just before his death. He never finished it, but he left a sturdy legacy nonetheless: the younger cabaret performers that revived the art in the 1990s and 2000s all looked to Bobby Short as an inspiration. “Bobby Short,” singer and pianist Michael Feinstein told the Chicago Tribune, “was the inventor of what all of us do.”

Selected discography


Songs by Bobby Short, Atlantic, 1955.

Bobby Short, Atlantic, 1956.

Speaking of Love, Atlantic, 1957.

Sing Me a Swing Song, Atlantic, 1957.

Nobody Else But Me, Atlantic, 1958.

The Mad Twenties, Atlantic, 1959.

Bobby Short on the East Side, Atlantic, 1963.

My Personal Property, Atlantic, 1971.

Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter, Atlantic, 1973.

Bobby Short Live at the Cafe Carlyle, Mobile Fidelity, 1975.

Bobby Short Celebrates Rodgers & Hart, Atlantic, 1982.

Moments Like This, Atlantic, 1986.

Guess Who’s in Town: Bobby Short Performs the Songs of Andy Razaf, Atlantic, 1991.

Late Night at the Cafe Carlyle, Telarc, 1993.

Swing That Music, Telarc. 1995.

Songs of New York, Telarc, 1999.

How’s Your Romance, Telarc, 1999.

You’re the Top: The Love Songs of Cole Porter, Telarc, 2001.

Source: Bobby Short Biography

Black History Month: Lorraine Hansberry 

Lorraine Hansberry was born at Provident Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on May 19, 1930. She was the youngest of Nannie Perry Hansberry and Carl Augustus Hansberry’s four children. Her father founded Lake Street Bank, one of the first banks for blacks in Chicago, and ran a successful real estate business. Her uncle was William Leo Hansberry, a scholar of African studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Many prominent African American social and political leaders visited the Hansberry household during Lorraine’s childhood including sociology professor W.E.B. DuBois, poet Langston Hughes, actor and political activist Paul Robeson, musician Duke Ellington and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens.

Despite their middle-class status, the Hansberrys were subject to segregation. When she was 8 years old, Hansberry’s family deliberately attempted to move into a restricted neighborhood. Restrictive covenants, in which white property owners agreed not to sell to blacks, created a ghetto known as the “Black Belt” on Chicago’s South Side. Carl Hansberry, with the help of Harry H. Pace, president of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company and several white realtors, secretly bought property at 413 E. 60th Street and 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue. The Hansberrys moved into the house on Rhodes Avenue in May 1937. The family was threatened by a white mob, which threw a brick through a window, narrowly missing Lorraine. The Supreme Court of Illinois upheld the legality of the restrictive covenant and forced the family to leave the house. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision on a legal technicality. The result was the opening of 30 blocks of South Side Chicago to African Americans. Although the case did not argue that racially restrict covenants were unlawful, it marked the beginning of their end.

Lorraine graduated from Englewood High School in Chicago, where she first became interested in theater. She enrolled in the University of Wisconsin but left before completing her degree. After studying painting in Chicago and Mexico, Hansberry moved to New York in 1950 to begin her career as a writer. She wrote for Paul Robeson’s Freedom, a progressive publication, which put her in contact with other literary and political mentors such as W.E.B. DuBois and Freedom editor Louis Burnham. During a protest against racial discrimination at New York University, she met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish writer who shared her political views. They married on June 20, 1953 at the Hansberrys’ home in Chicago.

In 1956, her husband and Burt D’Lugoff wrote the hit song, “Cindy, Oh Cindy.” Its profits allowed Hansberry to quit working and devote herself to writing. She then began a play she called The Crystal Stair, from Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son.” She later retitled it A Raisin in the Sun from Hughes’ poem, “Harlem: A Dream Deferred.”

A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by an African American to be produced on Broadway, she drew upon the lives of the working-class black people who rented from her father and who went to school with her on Chicago’s South Side. She also used members of her family as inspiration for her characters. Hansberry noted similarities between Nannie Hansberry and Mama Younger and between Carl Hansberry and Big Walter. Walter Lee, Jr. and Ruth are composites of Hansberry’s brothers, their wives and her sister, Mamie. In an interview, Hansberry laughingly said “Beneatha is me, eight years ago.”

Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, about a Jewish intellectual, ran on Broadway for 101 performances. It received mixed reviews. Her friends rallied to keep the play running. It closed on January 12, 1965, the day Hansberry died of cancer at age 35.

Although Hansberry and Nemiroff divorced before her death, he remained dedicated to her work. As literary executor, he edited and published her three unfinished plays: Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers? He also collected Hansberry’s unpublished writings, speeches and journal entries and presented them in the autobiographical montage To Be Young, Gifted and Black. The title is taken from a speech given by Hansberry in May 1964 to winners of a United Negro Fund writing competition: “…though it be thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic, to be young, gifted and black!”  Source: Chicago Public Library 

Black History Month: Shirley Chisholm

The first African–American Congresswoman, Shirley Anita Chisholm represented a newly reapportioned U.S. House district centered in Brooklyn, New York. Elected in 1968 because of her roots in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood, Chisholm was catapulted into the national limelight by virtue of her race, gender, and outspoken personality. In 1972, in a largely symbolic undertaking, she campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination. But “Fighting Shirley” Chisholm’s frontal assault on many congressional traditions and her reputation as a crusader limited her influence as a legislator. “I am the people’s politician,” she once told the New York Times. “If the day should ever come when the people can’t save me, I’ll know I’m finished. That’s when I’ll go back to being a professional educator.” Source: History, Art & Archives-United States House of Representatives 

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was a woman who was known for her moral character and her relentless ability to stand up for her community and what she believed. A child to immigrant parents, she learned from an early age the importance of an education and the value of hard work, both of which she applied to her political career and her accomplishments while serving as a Congresswoman.

Chisholm attended Brooklyn College where a blind political science professor, Louis Warsoff, encouraged Chisholm to consider politics based on her “quick mind and debating skills.” She reminded him that she had a “double handicap” when it came to politics—she was black and a woman. Chisholm joined the debate team and after African-American students were denied admittance to a social club at the college, she started her own club called Ipothia—In Pursuit of the Highest In All.

Shirley graduated with honors in 1946 and worked as a nursery school aide and teacher while she attended evening classes at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She received her masters degree in early childhood education in 1951, and eventually became a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care in 1960. 

It was during her 2nd term in the House that Chisholm ran for the US Presidency. She became the 1st black woman to run for president, but this is not what she wanted people to focus on during her campaign. The fact that her campaign was seen primarily as “symbolic” by many really hurt her. She did not run on the mere base of being a “first,” but because she wanted to be seen as “a real, viable candidate.”

Her bid for the presidency was referred to as the “Chisholm Trail,” and she won a lot of support from students, women and minority groups. She entered 11 primaries and campaigned in several states, particularly Florida, but with little money she was challenged. Her campaign was “under-organized, under-financed and unprepared.” It was calculated that she raised and spent only $300,000 between July 1971 when she first thought of running, and July of 1972.

Overall, people in 14 states voted for Shirley Chisholm for president, in some fashion or the other. After six months of campaigning, she had 28 delegates committed to vote for her at the Democratic Convention. The 1972 Democratic Convention was in July in Miami, and it was the first major convention in which an African American woman was considered for the presidential nomination. Although she did not win the nomination, she received 151 of the delegates’ votes.

Chisholm served a total of 14 years in the Congress and made numerous contributions before she made the decision to retire in 1982. During her time in office she was one of the four founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, was appointed to the “powerful” House Rules Committee in 1977 and introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation. President William J. Clinton nominated Chisholm to be the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but she declined due to ill health.

Chisholm went on to teach college and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women, which represented black women’s concerns. When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Chisholm said, “When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be a catalyst of change. I don’t want to be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress. And I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make the bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century. That’s what I want.”  Source: National Women’s History Museum

Black History Month: W.E.B.Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95.

On Feb. 23, 1868, W. E. B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Mass., where he grew up. During his youth he did some newspaper reporting. In 1884 he graduated as valedictorian from high school. He got his bachelor of arts from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1888, having spent summers teaching in African American schools in Nashville’s rural areas. In 1888 he entered Harvard University as a junior, took a bachelor of arts cum laude in 1890, and was one of six commencement speakers. From 1892 to 1894 he pursued graduate studies in history and economics at the University of Berlin on a Slater Fund fellowship. He served for 2 years as professor of Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Historical Series. This important work has yet to be surpassed. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children.

In 1896-1897 Du Bois became assistant instructor in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. There he conducted the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). These first two works assured Du Bois’s place among America’s leading scholars.

Du Bois’s life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshaling and presenting evidence to refute the myths of racial inferiority. Source: