This is my favourite Bessie Smith song. It was recorded in 1927. James P. Johnson is on piano. This is the song that James Baldwin quoted in the post, Of Dusky Maidens.

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When it rained five days and the skies turned dark as night.
When it rained five days and the skies turned dark as night.
There was trouble taking place in the low-lands at night.

I woke up this morning, wouldn’t even get out of my door.
I woke up this morning, wouldn’t even get out of my door.
Enough trouble to make a poor girl wonder where she gonna go.

They rowed a little boat, about five miles’ cross the farm.
They rowed a little boat, about five miles’ cross the farm.
I packed up all my clothing, throwed it in and they rowed me along.

It thundered and it lightened and the winds began to blow.
It thundered and it lightened and the winds began to blow.
There was a thousand women, didn’t have no place to go.

I went out to the lonesome, high old lonesome hill.
I went out to the lonesome, high old lonesome hill.
I looked down on the old house, where I used to live.

Backwater blues have caused me to pack my things and go.
Backwater blues have caused me to pack my things and go.
‘Cause my house fell down and I can’t live there no more.

Mmm, I can’t live there no more.
Mmm, I can’t live there no more.
And there ain’t no place for a poor girl to go….

Copyright 1927, Frank Music Corp.

Source: African American Registry.



Racists read history backwards and assume that all ancient Greeks and Romans were Europeans, that they were as lily-White as they are in Hollywood films, that there were no Africans apart from the occasional slave.

Here is an incomplete list of people born in Africa in Greek and Roman times, listed by approximate year of birth:

-340: Euclid – wrote “The Elements”, the book on geometry.

-276: Eratosthenes – came up with the first good measurement of how big the Earth is. Born in Libya.

-247: Hannibal – one of the greatest military commanders ever. In -218 he brought his soldiers and elephants over the Alps in a surprise attack on Rome.

-190: Terence – Latin playwright, influenced Cicero, Horace, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Moliere. Quote: “I am a man, and reckon nothing human is alien to me.”

-120: Sosigenes – astronomer, advised Julius Caesar on reform of the Roman calendar, giving us the Julian calendar, not topped by Europeans till the 1500s.


-69: Cleopatra – queen of Egypt. Pictured above is a forensic reconstruction of a woman who was likely Arsinoe, her half-sister.

-25: Philo – philosopher, combined Judaism with Platonism.

+69: Suetonius – wrote “The Twelve Caesars” about Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors.

100: Ptolemy – his books on geography and astronomy were not topped by Europeans till the 1500s.

124: Apuleius – wrote “The Golden Ass”, the only complete Roman novel that we have.


145: Septimius Severus – Roman emperor from 193 to 211. His sons Caracalla and Geta also became emperors.

155: Pope St Victor I – Roman pope from 189 to 199, the first to write in Latin.

155: Tertullian – father of Latin Christianity.

165: Macrinus – Roman emperor from 217 to 218.

185: Origen – Christian theologian. Out of favour now, but was big for over a thousand years.

188: St Perpetua – Christian martyr.

205: Plotinus – founder of the Neoplatonist school of philosophy.

207: Aemilian – became Roman emperor in 253. Two months later his troops killed him in favour of Valerian.

210: St Cyprian – Christian writer, bishop and martyr. Quote: “Whatever a man prefers to God, that he makes a god to himself.”

250: Arius – founder of Arianism, a heresy that deeply divided the Christian world in the 300s.

251: St Antony of Egypt – the first Christian monk.

270: St Miltiades – Roman pope from 311 to 314. Presided over the Lateran Council.

297: St Athanasius – defender of the Church against Arianism. The first to list the books of the New Testament as most Christians now know them.

300: St Catherine of Alexandria – one of the saints who appeared to Joan of Arc.

331: St Monica – mother of St Augustine (see below) and namesake of Santa Monica, California. She was Berber.


350: Ivory Bangle Lady – a rich woman who lived in York in Britain, probably Christian. Her tomb was discovered in 1901. Forensic reconstruction pictured above.

350: Hypatia – philosopher and astronomer in Alexandria, pulled from her carriage by a Christian mob and killed.

354: St Augustine – one of the greatest Christian theologians ever. Many of the authors he read were also Africans: Apuleius, Plotinus, Victorinus, Terence, Origen, Tertullian, St Cyprian, Arnobius and Lactantius.

410: St Gelasius I – Roman pope from 492 to 496, the last (so far) to be born in Africa. First pope to be called the Vicar of Christ.

– Abagond, 2016.

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Bessie Smith

bessie-smithBessie Smith (1894?-1937), an American singer, was one of the greatest blues singers ever. She sold over 8 million records in the 1920s and 1930s, making Columbia Records’s fortune.

Louis Armstrong:

“She used to thrill me at all times, the way she could phrase a note with a certain something in her voice no other blues singer could get.”

Langston Hughes said she was

“not softened with tears, but hardened with laughter, the absurd, incongruous laughter of a sadness without even a god to appeal to.”

James Baldwin, writing his first novel, “Go Tell it on the Mountain” (1953), in Switzerland, played his two Bessie Smith records over and over again:

“It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me dig back to the way I myself must have spoken.”

Thomas Edison, the inventor of recorded music, rated her NG for “no good”.

Most Whites did not know who she was or cared for her music. Middle-class Blacks, therefore, as a rule, did not like her music either. But tons of ordinary Black people did, getting together a dollar so they could buy her record from the Pullman porters who sold it from trains going through the South.

She never sang for White audiences. That meant she never had to change her music to appeal to them.

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of seven children of a poor Baptist preacher. As a young teenager she left home to join a travelling show as a dancer, later becoming a singer.

By the First World War she had her own travelling show, the Liberty Belles. Audiences loved it, but theatre managers did not, presumably because her dancers were not thin enough and light-skinned enough and were too raucous.

After “Crazy Blues” (1920) by Mamie Smith (no relation) became a hit among Blacks, the “race record” was born. White record companies started looking for Black singers. But they all passed on Bessie Smith: her voice was too “rough”, her accent  too Southern, her personality too crude. But one record company, which was going broke, took a chance on her: Columbia Records. They paid her $125 for recording “Downhearted Blues” (1923) – and made $750,000 in the first six months the record was out! In time she became rich too, making 150 recordings for Columbia.

In 1925, she recorded “St Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong, arguably her best song.

Some say she and blues legend Ma Rainey were lovers.

In 1937, on the road from Memphis, she got in a car accident in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Some say she bled to death because the nearby White hospital would not take her. She died at a Black hospital, which later became the Riverside Hotel where Ike Turner wrote “Rocket 88” (1951), the first rock and roll song.

Ten thousand came to her funeral. She was buried at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia. It was not till 1970 that a tombstone was put up – by Juanita Green and Janis Joplin.

– Abagond, 2016.

Sources: Mainly “The African-American Century” (2000) by Henry Louis Gates, Jr and Cornel West; “Black Intellectuals, Black Cognition, and a Black Aesthetic” (1997) by W.D. Wright; Contemporary Black Biography (1993); “Blues People” (1963) by LeRoi Jones.

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In “A World Without Black History” (2016), the best “Decoded” yet on MTV, Chescaleigh takes Chad to a world where there were never any Black people. His grandfather is dead – because there are no pacemakers or open heart surgery. Mobile phones or personal computers are less advanced. On the radio the music is polka, Irish step dancing, crooning and classical. Potato chips do not taste as good. Light bulbs burn out after a few days. Clothes are boring. New York is a boring-ass town. The US ends at the Mississippi River, never to become big food producer or world power.

“Decoded” is MTV’s weekly video short on US racism, featuring Chescaleigh, aka Franchesca Ramsey. She used to make videos about racism on her own, now and then, but with MTV putting her on a weekly production schedule, we get one every week! However, she just joined “The Nightly Show” with Larry Wilmore, so I do not know how many more we will get.

– Abagond, 2016.

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Key & Peele: Negrotown

“Negrotown” (2015) is my favourite Key & Peele skit by far. They go to a place called Negrotown.

The song informs us:

“In Negrotown you can walk the street without getting stopped, harassed, or beat. And there’s a always a cab when you need to get around – and they always stop in Negrotown.

“You won’t get followed when you try to shop. You can wear your hoodie and not get shot. No White folks to cross the street in fear. No trigger-happy cops or scared cashiers.

“That loan application can’t get turned down. You’re always approved in Negrotown.

“We’re going down to Negrotown, where the strong Black men are raining down. There’s light skin, dark skin, every shade, and there’s no White bitches to take them away.

“In Negrotown you live long and well. There’s no disease, no sickle cell. No stupid-ass White folks touching your hair or stealing your culture, claiming it’s theirs.

“Hanging out in a group doesn’t make you a gang. Every word that you say ain’t considered slang. No one trying to get in on the latest trend by making you their token Black friend.”

At one point Key says, “This sounds too good to be true.” Peele agrees, and so do I. But the thing is, White people take most of these things for granted. The US, in other words, is Caucasiantown.

When it came out last year, I used a scene from it for my masthead:


– Abagond, 2016.

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My Black Media Month


Naomie Harris, Idris Elba and Lindiwe Matshikiza, 2013 / Pathé France (p).

For February 2016 I will stick to a Black media diet: Black books, Black blogs, Black magazines, Black music, Black films, Black television, Black news outlets, Black Twitter, etc. So, for example, I will not be watching the Oscars. Or reading The Economist. And so on.

My media diet for January 2016 (based on sources listed for posts):

  • 60% White
  • 23% Black
  • 13% Native
  • 3% Asian
  • 0% Other

I will count as Black anything that seems to be by or for people from Africa and the Diaspora. So, for example, Melissa Harris-Perry will count, even though she is on White-owned MSNBC. The Root counts even though, for all I know, the editor-in-chief is White. Ancient Egyptians count. So does Nollywood and Augustine. So does any Twitter or Tumblr account with a Black avatar or Black-oriented content. I will not unfollow anyone who seems to be non-Black, just skip over their posts and tweets for now.

Links: I can follow links that go to or from Black content, but not any between non-Black content. I can use Google, but only to find Black content. I can use the Wikipedia, but only those parts written in a language native to Africa, like Swahili or Wolof.

Research for posts: I will be limited to some 20% of my books and an even smaller share of the Internet. For Black Women’s History Month, though, that should not be a big deal since most of my sources would have been Black anyway.

Will this narrow my range of media? Blacks, after all, are only 13% of the US. But even to think of it that way buys into the very White gaze I want to avoid. Over half of my current media diet comes from Whites in the US and Britain – from less than 4% of the world! Africa and the Diaspora are nearly five times that – and its media is way less likely to under-represent and mis-represent Black people.


The top ten languages of Africa and the Diaspora, in rough numbers:

  1. English: 240 million speakers as a first or second language
  2. Arabic: 170m
  3. Portuguese: 150m
  4. French: 120m
  5. Swahili: 100m
  6. Hausa: 50m
  7. Spanish: 30m
  8. Yoruba: 28m
  9. Oromo: 34m
  10. Amharic: 32m

Only the last two I cannot read or get a quick, rough translation of.

Just on the strength of English alone, though, it is almost the size of White America and White Britain put together (250m).

Exceptions: All that said, I will allow the following exceptions to my Black media diet:

  1. The Bible,
  2. The Oxford dictionary,
  3. “The X-Files” (2016),
  4. anything required for work (computer stuff), and
  5. anything directly having to do with this blog (comments, links people give me, guest posts, fact checking, etc).

In March I will write about my experiences. Sooner, if I do not last that long. I will then consider what changes I should make to my media diet going forward.

If you have any Black or African media you want to recommend, especially news outlets and YouTube channels, please let me know in the comments below.


– Abagond, 2016.

See also:



February 2016 is Black Women’s History Month on this blog. That means that, with any luck, I will do more posts on Black women’s history than I do in most months.

I will do these posts:

  • Flo Jo
  • Sarah Rector

The following received three or more nominations. I will do as many of them as I can manage (some already have posts):

  • 5 Alice Walker
  • 5 Maya Angelou
  • 5 Queen Nzingha
  • 4 Fannie Lou Hamer
  • 4 Lupita Nyong’o
  • 4 Viola Davis
  • 4 womanism
  • 3 Angela Davis
  • 3 Annie Easley
  • 3 Audre Lorde
  • 3 Bessie Smith
  • 3 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • 3 Henrietta Lacks
  • 3 Ida B. Wells
  • 3 Mary McLeod Bethune
  • 3 Nina Simone
  • 3 misogynoir

I will fill in the links as I do them.

Those in bold are on my list of Promised Posts.

I also did posts on these for Black Women’s History Month:

  • (nothing yet in this list)

These received fewer than three nominations, but already have posts:

Thank you for all of your wonderful nominations!

– Abagond, 2016.

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