Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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Marian Anderson

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Marian Anderson (1897–1993), a famous operatic singer during the first half of the twentieth century, enjoyed the notoriety of being the United States’ third highest concert box office draw.

Anderson’s popularity came to her in spite of the racial discrimination of her times. She was often refused hotel accommodations and service at restaurants while on tour. One of her most famous racist experiences gained national attention. In 1939, when managers at Howard University tried to arrange a concert for her in Constitution Hall, the largest and most appropriate indoor location in Washington, D.C., the organization called the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who owned Constitution Hall, refused to allow Anderson to sing there. In response, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to schedule Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which drew a crowd of over 70,000 people. The story of Anderson’s confrontation with the Daughters of the American Revolution became the topic of many news stories, thus bringing attention to other issues of racial discrimination that existed in the United States.

In 1954, Anderson was given the chance to sing in the role of Ulrica in the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, thus becoming the first African American to sing on the Met stage.

Harry Belafonte

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Harry Belafonte was born in 1927 to West Indian parents and would eventually spend some of his youth in Jamaica, although he was a U.S. citizen. As a young adult, he would return to his birthplace in New York City and begin his acting career, first on stage and later in film. In 1953, he won a Tony Award for his performance in Almanac. The following year, he would co-star with Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. In 1960, Belafonte became the first African American to receive an Emmy for the television program Tonight with Belafonte.

Acting was not the only talent that Belafonte possessed. In 1956, after having entered an amateur talent show, Belafonte recorded a collection of tunes with a West Indian bent, and his album Calypso became the first record to sell more than a million copies.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Belafonte developed a relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was he who put up the money for bail when King was sent to Birmingham City Jail, he who financed the Freedom Rides, and he who raised thousands of dollars to gain the release of other jailed civil rights protestors. He also was one of the principal organizers for the March on Washington in 1963. Belafonte was also involved in organizing the joint effort of producing the song ‘‘We Are the World,’’ which generated millions of dollars in the fight against famine in Ethiopia.

Dorothy Dandridge

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Dorothy Dandridge (1922–1965) began her acting career as a child, appearing on screen for the first time with the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races. Many of the roles that she played in movies were bit parts, as the Hollywood film industry, during the early part of the twentieth century, offered very little opportunity for African-American actresses. Dandridge’s most significant roles were in two of Otto Preminger’s films: Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1957).

Carmen Jones, a modernization of George Bizet’s opera (first staged in Paris in 1875) tells the tragic story of a young, sensual gypsy woman. Preminger’s movie featured an all-black cast with Bizet’s music and lyrics arranged by Oscar Hammerstein II. Other African-American performers in Carmen Jones included Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey. Dandridge played the starring role of Carmen, for which she was nominated for best actress by the...

(This entire section contains 218 words.)

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Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first African-American actress to be so honored.

In 1999, a movie about Dandridge, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry, aired on HBO. The movie covers the struggle Dandridge endured in combating racial prejudice in the movie industry as well as some of the abusive details of her personal life. In 1965, Dandridge was found dead, the apparent victim of an overdose of sleeping pills.

Chester Bomar Himes

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Chester Himes was born on July 29, 1909. An author and expatriate living in Paris, he published a series of black detective novels. The voice of his writing is often described as more angry than the voices of his contemporaries, who included Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. Himes’s writing reflects a strong awareness of racism, which he was not afraid to depict in very specific terms. Personal details about his life are often used to explain the source of his anger. Although raised in a comfortable and well-educated, middleclass environment, Himes’s life took a turn for the worse when he first was physically impaired after suffering an accidental fall down an elevator shaft and later was expelled from Ohio State for what Himes claimed was a prank. Shortly afterward, at age nineteen, Himes received a twenty-five-year jail sentence for armed robbery. It was in prison, however, that Himes turned to writing.

Himes’s first novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945), tells the story of a black man who works in a defense plant during World War II. The novel details the suffering that the man endures in a racist environment. His second novel, Cast the First Stone (1952), is about prison life.

Himes lived in Paris at the same time as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison and often met with these other writers. Although not as well known in the States as he was in Europe, Himes, especially after he began his nine-book detective series, was able to make a comfortable living off his writing. In 1965, Himes’s Cotton Comes to Harlem was published. Five years later, this book was made into a popular movie with the same title.

Other Characters

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Louis Armstrong
Some people believe that trumpeter/singer Louis Armstrong was responsible for bringing the concept of jazz to white audiences throughout the United States. He began his musical career during the 1920s and was known for his creative improvisations. Over the years, however, he gradually combined jazz elements with popular music until, at the height of the swing era in the 1930s, he was playing strictly conventional pieces. Armstrong possessed, however, a very appealing stage personality, upon which his popularity soared. Although he would return to a more traditional jazz repertoire in the late 1940s, it was through his renditions of popular music that he would gather his wealth.

Pearl Bailey
Pearl Bailey was a singer and popular entertainer. She sang with the big bands in the 1930s and 1940s and played various acting roles in film and on stage. She appeared in the movie Carmen Jones (1954) with Dorothy Dandridge, although the allblack stage version of Hello, Dolly (1967–1969) would become her most famous role. In the early 1970s, Bailey also starred in her own television show.

When she was sixty-seven years old, Bailey graduated from Georgetown University. She went on to publish several books about her life. In 1975, she served as a special ambassador to the United Nations and later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1975).

Lena Horne Lena Horne is an African-American singer and actress. One of her first roles on Broadway was in the play Blackbirds of 1939. Eventually, she made her way to Hollywood where she signed a movie contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, insisting that the movie studio never cast her in a stereotypical black role. In 1942, she got her first big break, playing the leading role in Cabin in the Sky. The following year, she was cast in Stormy Weather, for which she also sang the title song, a song that would become her trademark.

Horne won a Grammy for the album based on her award-winning Broadway show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, the longest running onewoman show in Broadway history. In 1984, she was honored with the Kennedy Center Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.

Joe Louis
Joe Louis was the first African American to attain hero status both with the African-American community and the white community in the United States. Louis was a boxer, one of the first African- American athletes to enjoy a prominent role in the cultural history of the States. His career began in the 1930s, and he would go on to become the heavyweight champion of the world at a time when boxing was at its apex, thus giving Louis his prominent status. Known as the Brown Bomber, Louis first lost and then later won back his title from Germany’s Max Schmeling, who was viewed as a symbol of Hitler’s regime. The year was 1938, right before the beginning of World War II, which made Louis’s triumph that much more celebrated. Louis died in 1981 in Las Vegas. President Reagan made arrangements for him to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., thus honoring him as a hero.

Otto Preminger
Otto Preminger originally entered the world of stage and screen as an actor but made his fame as a director of plays and film. He worked for various studios in the first half of the twentieth century, but in the early 1950s he became an independent producer and director. It was at this time that Preminger gained a reputation for taking on controversial subjects. His movie The Moon Is Blue (1953) dealt with the topic of virginity and pregnancy, taboo subjects at that time, and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was one of the first films to deal with drug addiction. Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) not only were successful musical movies but also involved all-black casts.

George S. Schuyler
George S. Schuyler (1895–1977), a journalist and columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s premiere weekly newspapers written mostly for a black audience, has often been compared to H. L. Mencken for his style of writing and his crusade against hypocrisy. He wrote a novel called Black No More (1931), a satirical story about what would happen if African-American people could change the color of their skin whenever they found it more convenient to do so. The novel did not find a broad audience but has been recently reprinted.

Although his name has been all but forgotten and his works seldom studied, Schuyler is recognized as having been one of the first black journalists to gain prominence in the United States. He was also one of the first black foreign correspondents for a major metropolitan newspaper, the New York Evening Post. Schuyler, whose conservative rhetoric ran contrary to the popular image of African- American thought during the Civil Rights Movement, eventually was unable to find outlets for his writing. In 1964, Schuyler was fired from the Courier for his opposition to Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. He died in 1977. His autobiography, Black and Conservative, was published in 1966.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe, born in 1811, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which relates a somewhat romanticized story of the cruelty of slavery and the challenge of escape. Although the book was well received in her time, due mostly to the topic and the Christian sensibility of her themes, modern critics tend to focus on the lack of literary merit of Stowe’s writing.

Stowe lived in Cincinnati at the time she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and thus witnessed first-hand the slave trading that occurred along the Ohio River. Her family, which included her father, Lyman Beecher, a Congregational minister and president of Lane Theological seminary, and her husband, Calvin Stowe, a professor of biblical literature at the seminary, shared her abolitionist sentiment and were often involved in hiding runaway slaves.

Although Stowe published many other works (writing a book a year across an almost eighteenyear span), she is best known for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Having been published in a popular weekly newspaper in forty separate installments and having been written in an episodic and suspenseful form, the reading of Stowe’s novel became something of a habit for a large portion of the U.S. population. When the episodes were finally collected and published in book form, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold a half million copies, breaking sales records at that time. Although Stowe’s writing style and form do not fair well under close literary scrutiny and her characters come across as stereotypical representations rather than fully fleshed out people, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is considered a classic of its time and remains required reading on many college campuses.

Henry A. Wallace
Henry A. Wallace (1888–1965), vice president under F. D. Roosevelt and a prominent leader of the Progressive Party, was criticized for his social idealism and lax attitude toward communism. For these reasons, he lost favor with the Democratic Party and joined the Progressives. In general, the Progressive Party was against international military activity but supported peace discussions with the Soviet Union, the development of a strong United Nations organization, and civil rights. Wallace also spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy, the leading voice in the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Wallace was often accused of being a communist, which in the late 1940s had taken on very negative connotations. When the Communist Party of America decided to endorse Wallace’s candidacy, Wallace found himself in a very difficult position. He was often banned from speaking in certain areas of the United States and denied interviews by many members of the press. Wallace did not fare well in the presidential election of 1948, left the party, and retired from politics. After Wallace’s resignation, the Progressive Party fell apart.

Richard Wright
Richard Wright was born in the deep South, the grandchild of former slaves. He was a contemporary of James Baldwin and helped launch Baldwin’s writing career. Wright became famous after the publication of his novel Native Son (1940), a book that was so popular that it went into a second printing before the first printing hit the book stores.

Wright was one of the first African-American writers to move away from a style of writing that was heavily influenced by white audiences. His works are filled with anger and are often criticized for their overtly political stances. He is, however, credited with creating a new movement in African- American writing, one which promoted more realistic black characters in more significant, and socially relevant, life situations. Wright is also known to have had a heavy influence on Baldwin, despite the fact that Baldwin would later criticize Wright’s work.

Like Baldwin, Wright became very frustrated with the social and political environment in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s and moved to Paris. His autobiographical work, Black Boy (1945), also became a bestseller, but his later works received little popular attention. Wright died in France in 1960.




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