Thursday, January 31, 2019

Girl Groups in the Bronx: Race Gender and the Pursuit of Respectability

10:16 AM (2 minutes ago)


     As many historians of popular music have noted, Rock and Roll, when it first burst on the national scene, was an overwhelming male phenomenon, with stars like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and the Everly Brothers defining new ways of singing dancing and courting for a generation of American teenagers. Although the musical forms which were re-branded as Rock and Roll, rhythm and blues and country music, had strong female artists like Ruth Brown, Etta James and Patsy Kline whose stage presence was as commanding as any male Rock and Roll Star, none of these were pushed forward by the Radio DJ's, concert promoters, and owners of small record companies who engineered the Rock and Roll Revolution during its breakout years from 1954-1957. While Rock and Roll was -correctly- perceived as racially insurgent, breaking long established traditions of social separation of whites and blacks on stage and in theaters and dance halls, it did nothing to challenge post war gender norms which encouraged women to suppress their individuality,  power and  independence, to make them more acceptable marriage partners to men whose incomes would provide the basis for middle class life styles
When women did finally break into Rock and Roll, it  was exclusively through the medium of the "girl groups"- harmonic singing ensembles whose songs glorified marriage, romance , and the reverential love women would have for men who had the wherewithal not only  to support them but marry them,  Physically attractive, meticulously well groomed, wearing dresses tight enough to inspire sexual fantasies, but proper enough to wear to church- the girl groups, whether black or white, helped define love and romance for a generation of American teenagers. While everyone loved the beautiful harmonies, there was a gender how the music was received Young men responded to the flattery ( He's so fine")  and the prospect of being cared for- young women saw their road map to  middle class happiness, , which required holding back sexual favors to assure an offer of marriage, captured and romanticized in song.
    Young Black women from the Bronx were major figures in the emergence of the girl groups. "Maybe," the first urban harmonic song from a female group to sell a million records when it came out in 1957, was sung by five young women from the Morrisania section of the Bronx who were 8th graders in St Anthony of Padua elementary school when "Maybe" appeared. The beautiful song they produced,  covered by artists from Janis Joplin to Patti Austin, invoked a vision of female longing and dependence that would be staple of virtually every girl group that followed.
Maybe, if I pray every night
You'll come back to me
And Maybe, if I cry every day
You'll come back to stay
Oh, maybe
Maybe, if I hold your hand
you will understand
And maybe, if I kissed your lips
I'll be at your command
Oh, maybe
In the early 60's the Chiffons, a group who met at James Monroe in the Soundview section of the Bronx, produced no less than three million selling hits  in which  women confidently displayed their powers, not to carve out lives or careers of their own, but to persuade reluctant men to commit to lasting relationships. :

One fine day, you'll look at me
And you will know our love was, meant to be
One fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl
The arms I long for, will open wide
And you'll be proud to have me, right by your side
One fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl
Though I know you're the kind of boy
Who only wants to run around
I'll keep waiting, and, someday darling
You'll come to me when you want to settle down, 

One of the most prominent features of their songs, something emblematic of almost all of the Girl Groups, was flattery, a rhetorical device  used to cement men into long term relationships.. which in an economy giving women limited access  to high paying jobs, was the only trustworthy path to economic security. No better example of this was their song "He's So Fine" with a legendary beginning and chorus "Doo Da Lang Doo Da Lang" that adds an element of majesty and mystery to what the singer hopes will turn into a marriage contract

Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang
Do-lang, do-lang
He's so fine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Wish he were mine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
That handsome boy over there
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
The one with the wavy hair
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
I don't know how, I'm gonna do it
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
But I'm gonna make him mine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
He's the envy of all the girls
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
It's just a matter of time
(Do-lang, do-lang)
He's so fine
(Oh yeah)
Gotta be mine
(Oh yeah)
Sooner or later
(Oh yeah)
I hope it's not later
(Oh yeah)
We gotta get together
(Oh yeah)
The sooner the better
(Oh yeah)
I just can't wait, I just can't wait
To be held in his arms
If I were a queen
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
And he asked me to leave my throne
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
I'll do anything that he asked
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Anything to make him my own
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)

Looked at with the wisdom of hindsight, these songs seem impossibly archaic. How could  young Black women from the Bronx , clearly possessed of talent and beauty, not only accept such  subservient gender roles, but romanticize them in ways that made virtually all of their peers hum their melodies, sing their lyrics and, on the dance floor and real life, try to act them out? Was this all a fake, an elaborate  and cynical charade designed to attract popular audiences, or did it reflect lived realities in the Bronx communities they singers grew up in?
Based on the scores of oral histories I did with Black men and women who grew up in the Bronx during the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's,  I would come down, with appropriate words of caution, on the "lived reality" side of the equation. During the 1940's and 1950's, the Morrisania community, and the newly built public housing projects built all over the Bronx starting in 1950- several of which were located  in Soundview where James Monroe was the local school, contained tens of thousands of upwardly mobile Black families who hoped that economic security, and middle class respectability, was within their reach. For young women brought up in such families, the path to that security went squarely through marriage, and for a while, they tried to live according to the script for such a goal laid out by the Girl Groups
The oral histories of Victoria Archibald Good and Andrea Ramsey, two brilliant, attractive young women who came of age in the Bronx in the 1950's, one in the Patterson Projects, the other in Morrisania,  provide a window into a time when racial optimism, the hope of prosperity, and extremely rigid gender roles  had a defining impact on their worldview.  Both Victoria Archibald and Andrea Ramsey were attractive, popular and academically successful women whose goal, like many of their neighborhood friends, was to get married shortly after they graduated from high school and then pursue whatever careers marriage allowed.  College and a profession were not on their horizon in the 1950's; they would only move in that direction after the drug epidemics, the Vietnam War,  the Civil rights Movement and Women's Liberation, would shake their world to its foundations.
   Their social life reflected the combination of romance and respectability which upwardly mobile families in their community felt. During their middle school and high school years, both women created social clubs which sponsored parties, outings, and charitable activities  which were not only places where women friends from the neighborhood could bond, but where they could meet eligible men. .The parties sponsored by the clubs highlighted the great music of the era, much of it produced by Bronx based groups.  A good number of the songs were slow dancers where men and women pushed one another to the edge of sexual excitement-  one local variant of slow dancing was  called "The Slow Grind."    But though the lights were turned down as the parties wound down,and the breathing got hot and heavy,  couples didn't pair off in empty  rooms to have sex.   These parties where chaparoned, with adults there to make sure nothing happened that would lead to unwanted pregnancies. The ultimate goal  was marriage, something the sound track of the music, and the social arrangements behind the parties, kept foremost in every young woman's minds.
  As it turned out, the  economic and political stability of the late 50's and early 60's turned out to be illusory, as the Bronx, and the nation, plunged into crisis after crisis. Many of the early marriages  collapsed, as men lost their cachet as providers in the context of drug epidemics, war, and the disappearance of high paying blue collar jobs, and women started finding new opportunities to attend college and pursue once male professions.  Both Andrea Ramsey and Victoria Archibald became successful professionals whose no longer depended on male incomes to support themselves and their families.
  But neither forgot the excitement and optimism of their early years, when great music  filled the streets of the Bronx,and the hallways of its apartment buildings, and  young women from their neighborhood put  the hopes and dreams of young women all over the country into musical form. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Italian Americans in Bronx Doo Wop-The Glory and the Paradox

The appearance of the Green Book, a mass market movie where the Italian American main character doesn't want Black people fixing things in his house, but feels confident  enough to school a Black classical musician on the music of "Little Richard" is a perfect opening for discussing the prominent- and ambivalent- role of Italian Americans in the growth of  Urban Harmonic Music- sometimes known as "Doo Wop"- in the Bronx.  A form of music that was first performed by black artists in the Morrisania section of the Bronx in the early 1950's, and popularized through hits like the Chords "Sh-Boom" and the Chantels "Maybe,"  it spread quickly  into  Bronx Italian American neighborhoods and led to scores of Italian Americans groups making records, and two Italian American singers, Dion DiMucci and Bobby Darin (Walden Robert Cossotto), becoming among the best known rock and roll stars of the later 50's. This dominance spread into the 1960's when a half Italian half Jewish singer songwriter named Laury Nyro ( Laura Nigro) became one of the most influential singer songwriters in the country

 The Italian American prominence in Urban Harmonic Music is paradoxical for several reasons. First, of the three major white ethnic groups in the Bronx, Italians, Jews and the Irish, Italian Americans were the only ones to make a major impact as rock and roll singers, even though they were a far smaller portion of the Bronx's population than their Jewish and Irish counterparts.  According to every account I have read,  all young whites listened to and danced to Rock and Roll, but only Italian Americans made a name for themselves performing and recording the music.   What makes this prominence all the ironic is that the relationships between Italian Americans and African Americans in Bronx were filled with moments of extreme tension as well as examples of collaboration an co-existence. Some of the most shameful episodes of racial policing of urban space took place in the largest Italian American  enclave in the Bronx, the Belmont Arthur Avenue community, and young Italian Americans constituted the bulk of the crowd during violent attacks on civil rights demonstrators protesting employment discrimination at a White Castle on Allerton Avenue and Boston Road in 1963. These violent attacks on African Americans by Italian youth were not only  documented by  numerous oral histories we did with African Americans who grew up in the Bronx, who spoke angrily of being chased out of the neighborhoods adjioining Fordham road in the 50's and 60's  by Italian American gangs like the Fordham Baldies, but by some Italian Americans who were embarrassed to reveal that bats were kept in the supervisors offices  in an Arthur Avenue vest pocket pocket to attack black youth who dared venture within its borders

How is it that an ethnic group so determined to keep African Americans out of its largest neighborhoods and engaged in turf wars and gang battles at numerous high schools could take an form of  popular music  of African American derivation and give it such  loving treatment and provide an appreciative audience to African American practitioners of this art, right up until this day?

To understand that, we have to  both probe deeply into  tensions surrounding the Italian American drive to assimilate into mainstream American whiteness, something which first became possible in the post World War 2 era, and the cultural commonalities which in certain circumstances made Blacks and Italian American good neighbors, good friends and occasionally  marriage partners. Throughout the interviews we did for the Bronx African American History Project, we found as many examples of Black Bronx residents describing  friendships with Italian American school mates, team mates and neighbors as we did examples of racial boundary policing and conflicts in school. Commonalities in language, the construction of masculinity and the theatrical presentation of the self- all described eloquently in John Gennari's new book "Flavor and Soul", made bonding between Black and Italian- American young men easy and comfortable when the pressure of the outside world didn't intervene.  Several oral history  interviews we did with Black men who grew up in  Italian-American  neighborhoods and with Italian men who were the only whites in all Black/LatinX housing projects spoke of the ease with which acceptance came in the communities they grew up in- though this did not always translate when they left their immediate surroundings..   

These cultural commonalities  shaped the powerful attraction young Italian American men felt when they heard their black counterparts singing, whether on the radio or  in the cafeterias and hallways of schools they attended. Not only did young Italian men have numerous examples of vocal virtuosity from their own tradition, ranging from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Enrique Caruso, they had the physical self confidence to sing in public in contested space. More than any white ethnic group in 1950's New York, Italian Americans were feared and respected for their ability to defend themselves, an attribute which gave them cachet with young women as well as young men.  If they started singing in public, no one was going to make fun of them or try to intimidate them, especially if they had talent.

  And the talent was there! One beautiful song after another was produced by Italian American groups from the Bronx, from "Dream Lover" by Bobby Darin to "Tell Me Why" "Teenager In Love" and " I Wonder Why" by Dion and the Belmonts, to :"Barbara Ann" by the Regents.  There was also the great Italian American lead singer of the multiracial Bronx group "The Crests", Johnny Maestro, who was the lead on the epic hit "Sixteen Candles."  These hit makers were supplemented by scores of neighborhood groups, some of who made recordings at the Italian American music center on Fordham Road, Cousins Records

  In the battle for the streets of the Bronx, sometimes ugly, sometimes infused with racial hostility, doo wop constituted a way of commanding space that was joyous optimistic and free from the threat of violence.. Blacks and Italian- Americans, sometimes fighting one another, sometimes befriending one another,, found in an art form a way of minimizing the damage that Racism and White Supremacy inflicted when it put them them in competition and gave Italian Americans an edge in status, employment and property ownership. 

Some would call Italian American Doo Wop appropriation, but it also contained elements of homage, and perhaps served as a vehicle of escape from racial violence into a realm of beauty and harmony. Along with its Black counterpart, it is represents some of the most beautiful music ever produced in the Bronx, or for that matter anywhere else 


Monday, January 28, 2019

The Multiracial Bronx:A Unique Cultural Incubator in Post War America

In 1950, a  basketball team from City College of New York achieved a feat that had never been equaled before and has never been equaled  since, winning the two most prestigious college basketball tournaments the NCAA Championship, and the NIT Championship, in  a single year. The team that achieved this remarkable feat was entirely composed of players from New York City public high schools, but what made it even more remarkable was that the four stars of the team. Ed Roman, Ed Warner, Irwin Dambrot, and Floyd Lane, two of whom were Black, two of whom were Jewish, all came out of the Bronx. In the light of research I have done on Bronx communities in the post war years, this hardly seems accidental.  In the late 1940's and early 1950's, the Bronx had more racially mixed neighborhoods, more racially mixed housing projects and more racially mixed high schools, than any place in New York City and quite likely, any place in the United States. The result of this was an explosion of cultural creativity, visible in sports as well as popular music, that was unique at the time and worth  celebrating and commemorating

The demographic context for this was the migration of nearly 100,000 people of African descent into the Bronx between 1940 and 1950, most of them upwardly mobile families from Harlem. Of both Southern and West Indian ancestry, they moved largely into Jewish working class neighborhoods in the Southern Bronx filled with tenements and apartment buildings, Morrisania, Hunts Point and Tremont, and into North Bronx neighborhoods, Williamsbridge and Baychester, filled with small private homes largely owned by Italian Americans..Because the new arrivals were at the same economic level as residents of the neighborhoods they moved into, and because leftist influences were still strong among Jewish working class Bronxites, these neighborhood integrated without immediate white flight, and without the violence and overt discrimination that greeted Blacks if they tried to move into neighborhoods like Belmont, the Grand Concourse, Morris Park or Norwood. In addition, every single housing project in the Bronx constructed between 1950 and 1960, whether in the South Bronx, West Bronx, Southeast or Northeast Bronx, was racially mixed

  What this meant, is that from the early 1940's through the mid-1950's, most Blacks in the Bronx lived in racially mixed neighborhoods, and without exception, attended racially mixed high schools. This became clear to me when, during  the early years of the Bronx African American History project, I interviewed Black people from the Bronx who went to high school in that borough in the 1940's and 1950's.  Every single high school they mentioned, Morris, Clinton, Taft, Walton, Roosevelt, Evander, Columbus and Jane Addams, was a racially mixed institution. And while three of the schools, Roosevelt, Columbus and Evander, were located in neighborhoods hostile to Blacks and featured significant racial tensions, most of the other schools were far more welcoming. Indeed one school, Morris, located in the Morrisania community, who had a principal who prided himself on building " a little United Nations" in his building may have been the single most integrated high school in the United States in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Two of the most distinguished products of the Bronx, Civil Rights leader/ historian Vincent Harding, and General/Secretary of State Colin Powell attended Morris in those years, and extolled Morris' integrated character in their writing and speeches.

 Integrated schools and neighborhoods not only nurtured academic achievement, they promoted cultural creativity. Not only did the Bronx produce some of the nation's greatest basketball players during the 40's, 50's and 60's, ranging from the 1951 City College national champions, to NBA great Nate "Tiny" Archibald, to three of the players on the 1966 Texas Western NCAA Championship team, it also spawned artists who had a lasting impact on American popular music.  The Chords, whose 1954 song "Sh-boom" was the first Urban Harmonic Song to sell a million records; were students at Morris High school when they had their first hit. The Chantels,  the first female harmonic group to sell a million records, were 8th Graders a a Catholic School in Morrisania in 1957 when their hit "Maybe" came out. The first white urban harmonic group to sell a million records, Dion and the Belmonts, were also from the Bronx- their signature song,"Teenager in Love" came out in 1957

 The same neighborhoods that spawned ":doo wop" - along with two other South Bronx communities, Mott Haven and Melrose, would also become crucibles for the creation of Latin Music.  A Puerto Rican migration from East Harlem to the Bronx paralleled the African American and West Indian migration  from Central Harlem, and had an equal impact on American popular music, Many important  innovators in the music that became known as salsa, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto and, Barry Rodgers came out of the public schools of the Bronx, joining the older generation of artists like Machito, Maria Bauza, Arsenio Rodriguez, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez who performed regularly in Bronx clubs and theaters. Bronx artists like Pete Rodriguez  also played an important role in the creation of  Latin Boogaloo while Pucho and His Latin Soul Brothers explored the boundaries between Latin Soul and Funk.

  The mixing of cultures and peoples in the post war Bronx is something that deserves further study, not just because of its unique features, but because it may have had parallels in other cities, from Los Angeles to Denver, to Chicago, to Cleveland, to Pittsburgh, to Newark where Black and LatinX migration created new kinds of communities and new kinds of public schools. Since these were the years where Rock and Roll exploded on the scene as a multiracial music marketed to American youth, it is time to take a look at the multiracial communities and schools which helped make this possible.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

In the Shadow of The Great Depression- Car Imagery in Post War Rhythm and Blues Country Music and Early Rock and Roll

 In the Shadow of The Great Depression- Car Imagery in Post War Rhythm and Blues Country Music and Early Rock and Roll

You may have heard of jalopies
You've heard the noise they make
But let me introduce you to my Rocket '88
Yes it's great, just won't wait
Everybody likes my Rocket '88
Baby we'll ride in style
Movin' all along
V-8 motor and this modern design
Black convertible top and the gals don't mind
Sportin' with me, ridin' all around town for joy
Blow your horn, Raymond blow your horn
"Rocket 88"-- Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats 1951
"As I was motivatin' over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a coup de ville.
A Cadillac a-rollin' on the open road,
Nothin' will outrun my V8 Ford.
The Cadillac doin' 'bout ninety-five,
She's bumper to bumper rollin' side by side."
"Maybelline"  Chuck Berry, 1955

      One of the most striking aspects of post war rhythm and blues and country music, as well signature songs in the early years of Rock and roll (1954-1964) the prevalence of car imagery, particularly imagery boasting of  cars as objects of personal consumption.   Whether it is  Hank Williams going "Honky tonkin round this town"   or Chuck Berry "Riding around in my automobile, my baby beside me at the wheel" there are literally hundreds of country, R&B and rock and roll songs where racing cars, driving to dates, or impressing a women with a luxury car is a central theme
      The most obvious explanation for this car imagery is the long and deep post war prosperity that put disposable income in the hands of working class as well as middle class Americans, . and allowed adolescents to have enough income to become a consumer market all their own. From 1945 on, even the most marginalized sections of the American working class, Blacks, Latinos and southern whites, were making enough money to buy cars for personal consumption and were supporting themselves in jobs which allowed them time for leisure.
      The sheer joy that ownership of a new and beautiful car provided to those who had once known poverty, or whose parents never stopped talking it, cannot be underestimated. Think of the first line of the Jackie Brenston  song "Rocket 88"  "You may have heard about jalopies, you've heard the noise they make, but let me introduce you to my Rocket 88 "  During all the years of the Depression, and even during World War 2 when few cars were manufactured, most Americans, if they had cars at all, owned ancient, rusted vehicles that used for work or family functions. Significantly, there is no Depression era music that portrays "joy riding"--the most powerful vehicular images to come out of that period is of broken down vehicles piled with people and possessions heading from Oklahoma and Texas to California after dust storms and bankruptcies had displaced them from their homes. So when Jackie Brenston invokes the "jalopy" to highlight a shiny new Oldsmobile he was able to purchase, he is extolling a new and wonderful time in American history for people like him.  Wages are high (thanks to strong unions), cars are affordable, gas is cheap, and life is good, even for a Black man who still faces discrimination and dangers most whites will never know. Freedom from the humiliation of Depression Era poverty is a beautiful thing, and a beautiful shiny car makes a man feel powerful, especially in a gendered society where cars are a symbol of manhood.,
       Years later, Bruce Springsteen would capture that feeling of power in so many of his songs, none more than in Cadillac Ranch
Well there she sits buddy just a-gleaming in the sun
There to greet a working man when his day is done
I'm gonna pack my pa and I'm gonna pack my aunt
I'm gonna take them down to the Cadillac ranch
Eldorado fins, whitewalls and skirts
Rides just like a little bit of heaven here on earth
Well buddy when I die throw my body in the back
And drive me to the junkyard in my Cadillac"
But perhaps the best  expression of it is the scene in the movie about Chess Records, "Cadillac Records", where Leonard Chess gives Muddy Waters a new Cadillac and where the Willie Dixon character, memorably played by Cedric the Entertainer, talks about what owning a car like that meant to a "Jew Boy and a Black Boy." 
  As the movie makes clear, owning a  Cadillac was not a magic elixir to make racism disappear. But it did symbolize the end of Depression era poverty and humiliation that  had scarred everyone who experienced, and whose passing was an occasion for joy and celebration.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Unacknowledged Economic and Political Forces Which Shaped the Rise of Rock and Roll

The Unacknowledged Economic and Political Forces Which Shaped The Rise of Rock and Roll

Dr Mark Naison

Fordham University


 As someone who has taught a course called “From Rock and Roll to Hip Hop” for sixteen years, I have been frustrated by the absence of an historically grounded, nuanced, explanation for the rise of Rock and Roll comparable to the one we have for the origins  of hip hop.

 Every historian of the subject agrees that Rock and Roll arose, during the early 1950’s, when a variety of figures in the music industry, mostly in small record companies and local market radio stations, noticed that white youth were buying rhythm and blues records that had originally be targeted for an all black market, and decided that giving  a non-racial label to the music could lead to a vastly expanded market and far greater profits.  They were able to do this,  historians argue, because of a post war prosperity that put disposable income in the hands of ( mostly white) adolescents, allowing them to emerge for the first time in US history as a “teenage consumer market” to which an exciting, and rebellious form of popular music could be marketed and sold. In doing this, the DJ’s, record company entrepreneurs and concert promoters who were the formative figures in the rise of Rock and Roll- the Allan Freed’s and Sam Phillips’s of the world- ended up crossing racial barriers with deep roots in American culture and history, provoking and angry reaction not only from segregationists and white supremacists, but from a cross section of political and religious leaders who felt the music undermined important moral standards. Rock and Roll, which began as a marketing innovation, ended up subverting racial norms and undermining racial barriers, at a time when a powerful Civil Rights movement was beginning to form that would challenge legal and ultimately end legal segregation, and restore voting rights to Black Americans in all Southern states.  Although the music itself never discussed political themes, and rarely if ever mentioned race, promotional strategies that put Black and white artists on the same stage, and had black and white young people dancing in the same venues proved revolutionary in terms of US race relations and helped create an implicit level of support for an integrated society that the Civil Rights movement was able to build on in the 1960’s.

   This narrative of Rock and Roll History appears in almost every work on the subject. However, one piece of this historical puzzle is almost never discussed- how is it that music targeted to perhaps the most stigmatized and discriminated against group in the nation- African Americans- could have such a market presence on the airwaves that it influence the musical tastes of white youth all over the country- from LA to Chicago to Philadelphia and New York.  How did it come to pass that radio shows targeting black audiences could be found in almost city in the country, that numerous small record companies made a living recording black artists and that their records were found in small specialty record shops in almost every Black urban neighborhood? How was it that African American communities were able to support so many talented  professional  musicians, who were not only able to make a living performing , but were able to get income from the sale of  records they made?

    To understand this party of the story, we have how and why Black urban communities in the middle and late 1940’s had enough earning potential to support such a vibrant musical culture. And to do this, we have to examine a unique combination of migration patterns, shifts in employment and civil rights gains  which led per capita income among Blacks to rise markedly from 1940-1950, not only absolutely, but relative to whites ( Note: Black per capita income was 44 percent of the white total in 1940, it was 57 percent in 1950). In a strictly economic sense, the 1940’s were a period of remarkable economic progress for African Americans, even though deeply rooted patterns of discrimination in the economy, as well as the society, remained intact.

  Some of the rise in earning capacity was a result of migration alone, migration from South to North, from farm to city. Between 1940 and 1950, over 2 million Black people left the rural south for either Southern or northern cities, moving from a low wage or debt peonage economy, to a wage economy where incomes were far higher.  And while some of these jobs were in the domestic service occupations within which Black had been trapped for much of US history, a growing number were in factories and the transportation sector where a wartime labor shortage had opened opportunities. All over the country, black men and women could be found in steel mills and auto plants, in factories making tires and electronic equipment, working in mines, and driving buses and trucks.  Many of these occupations, especially in the North, Midwest and West, were unionized, giving black workers enough income to leave disposable funds for entertainment after basic necessities were cared for. This unionized black working class provided a major audience for the burgeoning rhythm and blues market that exploded during the 1940’s, but they also provided an audience for gospel and jazz.   By the late 1940’s, every Black urban community in the northeast, Midwest and West had an array of clubs in predominately black neighborhoods where black musicians performed, and more than a few had theaters where hundreds, even thousands of people could gather. In the Morrisania section of the Bronx, an emerging Black community which I have studied closely,  more than 7 music clubs catering to Black audiences opened between 1945 and 1955 as the community became predominantly black; while a local theater holding 2,000 people, the Hunts Point Palace, started featuring black artists.  The same pattern could be found in Buffalo, Atlantic City, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and a score of other cities, providing the basis for a national touring experience for Black artists known as the “Chitlin Circuit.”


 This emerging and extraordinarily vital musical culture, which few whites other than music entrepreneurs knew about, would provide the musical roots for the Rock and Roll explosion.  But its emergence was not just a result of war time prosperity, It also reflected a generation of black activism and civil rights victories which preceded the much more visible and publicized Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960’s  This activism, a response to Depression conditions which pushed most Blacks into extreme poverty took to forms- a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaign” let largely by Black nationalists that aimed at forcing stores in Black communities to hire black workers as sales people; and a campaign led by Communists to end discrimination in the labor movement, in government employment, and in the nation’s largest employers.  By the time World War 2 had started, both of these campaigns had made significant gains- storeowners in black communities in Norther cities began to hire black workers,  a major breakthrough came in the labor movement when the Congress of Industrial Organizations, founded in 1935, decided to organize basic industry on a non-discriminatory basis, bringing that interracial organizing strategy to successful campaigns to unionize the steel auto and electrical industries. Sometimes, collaboration between the labor movement and Black activists yielded major employment breakthroughs in public utilities, such as when the Transport Workers Union and Rev Adam Clayton Powell collaborated in opening jobs for blacks as drivers and motormen in the New York City Transit System.  When the economy finally revived with onset of World War 2, Black people in the Northeast, Midwest and West had access to hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions of jobs in basic industry and public utilities and paid much higher wages than they had ever had access to in the past.

     This accumulation of Depression Era victories was magnified by the March on Washington Movement led by A Phillip Randolph in 1941, which threatened to bring hundreds of thousands of angry black people to Washington if the President didn’t integrate the armed forces and ban discrimination in defense industry.  President Roosevelt didn’t integrate the military, but he did issue a proclamation banning discrimination in defense industries, and setting up a commission to oversee the new policies. As a result of this proclamation, Black men and women were able to find jobs all over the country, mostly outside of the South in shipbuilding, aircraft production and the manufactures of armored  vehicles and weapons, almost all of them unionized and paying much higher wages than they ever had access to. Not only did the Black population in Northern cities grow rapidly as a result of Black migrants coming to take these jobs, such cities now contained a critical mass of black people with incomes sufficient to become music consumers, transforming into incubators of musical creativity in genres ranging from blues, to jazz, to gospel, to jump blues and urban harmonic singing.

    It is this emerging black consumer market that led radio stations in almost every city to organize music programming aimed a Black audience and small storefront record companies to record black artists who had demonstrated popular appeal.  And while the clubs and theaters in Black neighborhoods attracted relatively few whites, some Black musicians who songs were played on the radio started to attract young white listeners, some of whom actually went to record stores in Black neighborhoods to purchase songs they liked.  These artists, some of whom offered romantic harmonies ( Sonny Till and the Orioles) others who performed hard driving dance numbers ( Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner) others who offered racy lyrics  and an eroticized persona( Ruth Bronx, Hand Ballard, The Dominoes) became the core performers in the early Rock and Roll Shows offered by promoters like Allen Freed to take advantage of the new white youth market. They would soon be joined by people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley who would do more to define the new genre


   But without all the cultural political and economic changes that allowed Black communities to become incubators of commercial music, Rock and Roll would have never arisen, much less arisen at the time that it did.

     The 1940’s is when these changes took place, deserves more attention from historians as signal moment in the emergence of modern African- American politics and culture, and a time when profound racial changes began to take place in a society where discrimination and white supremacy were almost as powerfully entrenched in the North as the South.

Friday, January 11, 2019

An Emerging Behavioral Crisis in Schools: Testing and Gentrification Are a Toxic Mix

Yesterday, during one of our many discussions, Jesse Turner told me that the pendulum may be swinging way from testing toward more creative approaches to learning because of a behavioral crisis in schools. As teachers on all levels confront children who are disruptive, violent, and unstable, policy makers are starting to wake up to the down side of wearing children down with test prep or making them sit in front of computers all day. Unless these children have opportunities to express themselves, have curricula which speak to their experiences, and be given time for exercise and play, they will literally turn over the tables in whatever learning environments they are placed
What Jesse told me reinforces what I have been hearing more and more from teachers who work in the Bronx and other high needs communities, including those in rural areas. Teachers in those places are facing more and more students who are angry, inattentive, violent or heavily medicated on drugs they purchase in the underground economy. The difficult atmosphere contributes to high teacher turnover, which creates destabilizing influences of its own.
I agree with Jesse about the destructive role of test driven pedagogy in this unfortunate situation. But we should not ignore the role that gentrification, homelessness and income instability play in the student behavior crisis. In every city and town where rents are rising faster than incomes, working class families are being forced to double and triple up, take in boarders, move from apartment to apartment, or join the ranks of the homeless. The toll this takes on children in terms of stress, lost sleep, hunger and too often physical and sexual abuse is devastating. Children in such circumstances are coming to schools in extreme pain, bearing stress levels few can handle. Needing comfort, care and opportunities to relieve stress, they are forced to sit still and have knowledge crammed into them by teachers with state mandates hanging over their heads. The pedagogy alone would drive many children crazy- the pedagogy applied to deeply wounded children
Is a prescription for an explosion.
The school policies of the last twenty years, along with neo liberal economics, has pushed schools into crisis. We have to humanize schools to protect students and teachers, but we have an equal responsibility to humanize our economy

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Another Heartbreaking Account of Teacher Abuse- This Time From Tennessee

Hi, Dr. Naison,

My name is ……... and I am a first grade teacher in Tennessee.  While I am only in my fifth year of teaching, I have been working in schools and with kids my whole life in several different states throughout the country.  My kids are my passion.  

I found an article about your incredible commitment and passion towards helping teachers have a voice while I was researching teachers being mistreated.  I have been at my current school for three years, and completed part of my student teaching there as well.  It is a low income school with lots of diversity in every sense of the word.  Long story short, I am being pushed out by administration. I cannot prove it, but I feel strongly that it is because I have a very strong voice for my students and also because I am vocal about my refusal to "teach to the test."  

Every year 30-60% of my students face incredible difficulties - things that no person, never mind child, should ever have to deal with.  I advocate for them tirelessly, and I put my focus into growing them as people to help them be their best selves.  I promise them every year that I would never ask them to do something I didn't think they could do, academically or otherwise.  Unfortunately, my administration does not like that my students are not performing at a scholar level on their benchmarks and state assessments.  

My principal has put me on an indefinite "growth plan" that requires me to do outrageous amounts of work on top of the 60+ hour work week I am already working.  I have had 4s and 5s (5 is highest in TN) on all of my observations, with the exception of observations she completed over the last two years.  I was always a level 4 teacher until this past school year.

I don't know that there is necessarily anything that you could do, but I wanted to reach out and share my story with you if not for anything else, to share my voice to the community.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all that you do.

All my best,


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Reflections of a Recently Retired Michgan Teacher on the Destruction of a Profession He Loves

Kirk Taylor's Reflections

4:38 PM (4 minutes ago)
I retired two years ago after my 39-year career teaching mostly eighth grade English. In 1978, when I arrived at my first position, a general sixth grade classroom, I was shown a stack of books and given a lesson plan book, a grade book, an attendance book and a key. I was told to talk to the other sixth grade teachers if I needed ideas. Other than that, I was on my own. 

And so I did what any new teacher would do: I got to work, made mistakes, learned from them, and improved. 

However, because I was given as much space as I needed to figure out who I was as a teacher, at the end of my first year my students hosted a “Welcome to Summer Festival” that included a film we made together, a poetry recital, skits, dancing, and even stand-up comedy. My students did five more festivals over the next five years, and then came the 13 middle school plays I directed, the 25 student films my students and I made together, the literary magazines, the newspapers, the songs my students wrote and performed, the dialogue journals (best in show, PM me for the details), the field trips to the Holocaust Memorial Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts, the pen pals, the intensive studying of musicals like “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Evita,” watching, discussing and writing personal essays about the original “Degrassi Jr. High” TV show, the countless second recesses in which I played on the playground with my students, the 30 years of coaching basketball, etc. 

All of the above happened because I was trusted to dream and reach for my dreams. You know, what guest speakers exhort our students to do on graduation day. 

I did my best. Mistakes were made, but I was given space to learn from them and grow without fear of reprisal. And so I did. 

Ah! But what did I experience at the end of my career? 

While I was told that I was a master teacher and that I was appreciated—and I did feel appreciated—I was also handed a curriculum guide designed to improve test scores. The guide included a few tiny spaces for “teacher’s choice.” 😂 And like the other eighth grade English teachers in my school, I was given scripts to read for the sake of grade-level uniformity. And I attended meetings to study test score results and afterwards the curriculum guides became stricter. Among other redundancies, the guides included an entire month devoted to our students writing pre on-demand argumentive essays, reteaching argumentative essays, and having our students write post on-demand argumentative essays. Yes, it is good to teach argumentative essays—you will get no argument from me!—but can we do it without crushing our students’ souls? 

More important to me, I looked carefully at my curriculum guide but there was no time allotted for “Welcome to Summer Festivals” or anything that resembled it. 

That was when I knew it was time to move on, and so I did. 

I will say that those imposing this madness on us meant well and that they had good intentions. But as the German-Jewish writer Kurt Tucholsky once wrote during the time of Hitler, “The opposite of good is good intention.” As Michigan’s Republican Party made their now mostly successful attempt to destroy Michigan’s public schools, our public schools needed to be defended. But the administrators did not; and we teachers did not; and so standards and test scores took over.

I do understand that it is a big deal for an administrator or a teacher to put his or her job on the line. I know I did not want to lose my job! But I also did not want to leave behind my chosen profession because I did not buy into teaching to the test—teaching was and is my destiny. 

There was no easy answer. In fact, because we were all so insanely busy spinning on our legislated hamster wheels, the only easy decision we had was to pretend that what was happening wasn’t happening, and sneak in the humanity when no one was looking. Sigh. I know that everyone wanted to be humane, they just could not figure out how to squeeze it into the curriculum guide. 

And so it goes. 

As I look back, the truth in my case—a truth I know beyond a shadow of a doubt—is that TODAY, where I spent my career anyway, my 23-year-old self would never even be given an interview let alone be hired to teach. Ha! My 23-year-old self would have tried to “play the game,” but his innate desire and need for independence would have been impossible to fully conceal. Therefore, his resume would have been glanced at before being tossed onto the “nope” pile. 

We can do better. 

I hope that our “schools” possess their own innate power to make happen what needs to happen for our students to learn and thrive. After all, evolution cannot be tamed. 

But we can do better. And so there’s nothing to do but get smarter so that we can do better. After all, I may be retired, but every school day here in Ann Arbor, I listen to the children joyfully playing on the nearby playground. I listen and I know, they are my children, too. 

We have to do better.