Lift Every Voice
Black History is American History
When I was 15, I took my first trip to New York City from Los Angeles with my high school drama class. From December 26 to January 2, we explored the Big Apple and saw 4 Broadway shows. 42nd Street, Amadeus, Woman of the Year (Lauren Bacall) and a little known show in previews called Dreamgirls. At the same time, I was interviewing with a woman named Cynthia Robinson, who would later become my first theatrical agent in Hollywood. Having visited NYC countless times since and even living there, that first trip was life changing for me.
Education: This is who we were from 1619 to 1865
There is a systemic attack on education in this country. Lawmakers want to ban discomfort in schools. History is discomforting. Therefore, it should be banned to keep our children and the next generations from feeling uncomfortable. This dangerous theory is perpetuating rapidly. The Georgia state Senate has introduced four bills that would ban teaching concepts that cause “guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.” Mississippi has reintroduced “Jim Crow” laws, Jim Crows laws resurrected in MS. Similarly, there are 17 states trying to enact bans on Black History. American History. The list is growing. Above all, it feels like we’re just sitting around and letting it happen. Only 60% of the eligible voting population votes during the National elections. Dropping to a mere 40% for the midterms.
The Power of the Black Woman
Firstly, my friends and I had spent nearly a week tearing up NYC and all its offerings. The drinking age was 18 back then and we took full advantage ordering rum and coke in the bars on 8th Avenue across from our hotel, The Milford Plaza. In other words, three drunken teenagers on the loose. Our drama teacher, who shall remain nameless, was having an affair with one of the students and they were nowhere to be found, except at the shows, so, supervision was minimal. We even spent New Years Eve in Times Square, something our parents explicitly forbade us to do. Silly parents. Before the trip, my Mom had driven me into Hollywood to my first meeting with a new agent, Cynthia Robinson. She was a beautiful black woman who had seen me at a workshop and invited me to her offices on Sunset boulevard for an interview at her agency, The Robinson Company.
Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Divine
Cynthia’s deep, soothing voice was in itself, intoxicating and I remember her asking me about the upcoming trip. I told her about the shows we were to see. Her voice elevating as she said “I have a friend that’s in Dreamgirls. Her name is Sheryl Lee Ralph. You must tell her I said Hello.” I didn’t really think much of it at the time, but, at the Imperial theatre that night, in their 9th preview before opening, my friends and I sat, front row center, buzzed on Cuba Libres, and witnessed a life changing performance.
Clearly, none of us had seen anything like that before. Or since, quite frankly. Jennifer Holliday, at age 19, was a force of nature that moved the audience to rock concert-like screams and ovations by the end of the first Act. In addition, the actress Cynthia had told me about, was the lead. I shared with my friends what she had told me during the intermission, but that I wasn’t going to do anything because surely Ms. Ralph didn’t know anything about me. My friends called me an idiot and told me to send a note to her via an usher. I did. After the amazing theatrical experience was over, the usher approached me and told us to wait in our seats until the theatre emptied. The 3 of us sat there not knowing what to expect.
An unforgettable moment in History
We were hoping to get signed programs and to be sent on our way, which would have been fantastic after what we had just witnessed. Instead, we were ushered backstage and straight to the dressing room of Sheryl Lee Ralph and her roommate, Loretta Divine. They spent an hour with us. We met the entire cast. The clip above of her winning the Emmy a few months ago for her role in my favorite show, Abbott Elementary, is exactly who she is now and was then. She asked me if I was an actor. I said “I hope to be.” She said, “don’t you ever give up.” I’ll never forget that. I’ve seen her a few times over the years, including her coming to a play that I was in. I’ve never told her that story. Way too shy.
Till Earth and Heaven Ring
In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), dubbed Lift Every Voice and Sing the Negro National Anthem. Now called the Black National Anthem, the beloved poem and song written by Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, got its highest exposure recently at Super Bowl LVII. As a result, the first Super Bowl in history to feature two black quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, and with celebrated legend Sheryl Lee Ralph, was widely panned by critics and audiences alike. Conservatives angered over the singing of the Black National Anthem at the Super Bowl. The joyful song meant to serve as a reminder to Black Americans, or just Americans, to challenge each generation to lift up their voices, along with those in their communities, to demand and protect their human rights, makes some people feel guilt, or anguish or discomfort. It begs the question: Who Are We?
The NFL will not allow me to post the Sheryl Lee Ralph version at the Super Bowl. This is the Kirk Franklin version.
I’ve grown tired, as I’m sure you have, of seeing me write “I’m back to posting” and then going months without producing anything. Suffering with bouts of depression and motivation to sit down at the computer and create something, no matter how therapeutic, presents a daily challenge for me. Relying heavily on one’s faith provides only marginal relief at times and it’s hard to keep telling myself to “dig deeper.” I’m not that deep. However, I do have this creation, now approaching its fourth year, that I just can’t let die. I still have hope, and hope springs eternal. Thanks for reading.
Should History be retold to prevent guilt or anguish or discomfort?