Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category


As some may have noticed, I am not a big blues fan, but I love this song.  The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton did covers, but I like this version way better. Sorry, but this song is not believable coming from them.


And I followed her to the station
with a suitcase in my hand
And I followed her to the station
with a suitcase in my hand
Well, it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell
when all your love’s in vain
All my love’s in vain

When the train rolled up to the station
I looked her in the eye
When the train rolled up to the station
and I looked her in the eye
Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome
and I could not help but cry
All my love’s in vain

When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues
and the red light was my mind
All my love’s in vain

Ou hou ou ou ou
hoo, Willie Mae
Oh oh oh oh oh hey
hoo, Willie Mae
Ou ou ou ou ou ou hee vee oh woe All my love’s in vain

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The following is based on part eleven of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about quantum physics:

We used to think that science could give us a perfect picture of the material world. But we now know, because of quantum physics in the 1900s, that absolute knowledge is impossible. There is a limit to what we can know – even with the most perfect and most powerful instruments imaginable.

For example, with a high-powered electron microscope you can see atoms. Yet no matter how much you increase the power you will never get a sharp image.

Even something as simple and straightforward as the position of a star in the sky is not perfectly knowable: different human observers come up with different positions and even the same person repeating the observation does not come up with the very same answer each time.

Karl Gauss in 1795 noticed that the observations made a bell curve – the closer you get to the average position, the more observations there are. But you cannot even say that the star is at the average position – all you can say is that it is the most probable position, which is not quite the same thing as its true position.

Gauss lived in Gottingen, a small German university town. It was here, over a hundred years later, in the 1920s, that some of the leading minds of physics came on the train from Berlin to work out the physics of the atom and its parts: quantum physics.

The atom is made of moving parts, such as the electron, and yet there is something very strange about them. Werner Heisenberg in 1927 found that you can tell what the position of an electron is but not its speed and direction – or, if you nail down its speed and direction, then you cannot tell its position. It is one or the other but never both at the same time. This is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Gottingen had something else: a collection of skulls. These skulls were used to support a racist view of the world, a view of the world that dealt in inhuman certainties. It came to power in the person of Hitler. The skies darkened over Europe, as they had in the days of Galileo. The great minds of Europe fled – or fell silent:

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

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Imitation_of_Life_1959_poster“Imitation of Life” (1933) is a book written by Fannie Hurst, a once-famous American writer. The book was made into a Hollywood film in 1934 and 1959. It was the only Hollywood film of the 1930s to view race as a serious issue. The film was so famous among blacks that Peola, the name of one of the main characters, was still a byword for self-hating blacks as late as the 1970s.

My understanding of the story before I saw the two films was that it was about a black girl named Peola who looked white and tried to pass for white by disowning her very black-looking mother. In the end she sees the error of her ways and comes home to make up with her mother – only to find that her mother has just died! She cries on her mother’s grave and the story ends, the story of the tragic mulatto.

That would have been a great film, especially if they showed how her heart was torn between the white world and the black world and her fight to become a whole person at peace with herself.

Well, that in fact is pretty much the story of “Passing” (1929) by Nella Larsen, herself a black woman who could pass, not “Imitation of Life” by Fannie Hurst, who was white even if she was part of the Harlem Renaissance scene.

Unlike “Passing”, “Imitation” has white main characters and was made into a Hollywood film. It seems that American film-goers, who are mostly white, do not care enough about a black girl passing to make a whole film about it. So, like in the 1959 poster pictured above, the black characters have the less important part of the story. (On the 1934 poster only the white characters appear!)

Both films are mainly about a white woman who becomes rich and famous and gives her daughter everything – but her love. Peola gets the subplot. She thinks by being white she will have everything – but she will not have her mother’s love.

The 1934 film sticks closer to the book, but it is slower and stiffer, like a stage play. Peola’s mother is pure Mammy, even to the point of wanting to give up millions to remain the servant of a white woman! Peola is not believable either: she wants to be white no matter what, her mother be damned! She is also a stereotype: the tragic mulatto – the idea that mixed-race people can never be happy.

In the 1959 film Peola, named Sarah Jane, gets more of a storyline so we find out more about her, but she and her mother are still the same two stereotypes, although less extreme and more believable. It also has a more powerful ending. Mahalia Jackson sings too!

The 1959 film is worth seeing, but do not get your hopes up. And, as always, the book is probably better than either film, though I do not know that for a fact: F. Scott Fitzgerald did say people would forget the book in ten years.

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senghor02Leopold Sedar Senghor (1906-2001) – his last name sounds like Song Gore – was a Senegalese poet, scholar and statesman. He was the first president of an independent Senegal, a French poet and one of the top black African thinkers of the 1900s, one of the founders of the negritude movement. He was also the first black African admitted to the French Academy, long the preserve of white men.

He was president of Senegal for 20 years, from 1960 to 1980. He was one of the few African leaders to leave office peacefully and one of the few who had a free press. People said he kissed up to the French too much. He said a country as poor as Senegal needs a friend.

Senghor was born in a small town along the Mamaguedy, 100 km south of Dakar, Senegal. He grew up Catholic in a land that was mostly Muslim. He went to a missionary school and loved to read French books. In time he became one of the top students in Senegal and won a scholarship to study in Paris.

So in 1928 he got on a ship to France and left Africa. Thus began what he called his 16 years of wandering.

In Paris he became friends with Aime Cesaire of Martinique and Leon Damas of French Guiana . Like Senghor, they found themselves caught between two words, one black, one white. The white world was tellling them it had all the answers, that their blackness was holding them back. Yet they found whites cold and stiff and full of themselves, living in “the world that has died of machines and cannons.”

So together they came up with negritude: the idea that black thought, feeling, art and ideas were just as good as those of Europe. It became a movement among black writers, an early form of black pride.

Senghor loved France and the French language and yet he also loved Africa too. He felt torn, something he wrote about in his poetry. He felt like he was two different people. Yet choosing to be just one would narrow him. So he chose neither and remained whole.

He got his degree from the University of Paris in 1935 and became a French and Latin teacher in France. Because he was black some of his students were surprised to see that he wore clothes!

Four years later war came. Senghor fought for France with the Tirailleurs Senegalais, France’s West African army. He spent two years in a Nazi German prison camp. There he wrote a book of French poetry.

After the war he represented Senegal in the French National Assembly. He pushed for greater freedom for Senegal, but not for outright independence. He also pushed for Senegal and French Sudan (now called Mali) to become one. He thought that so long as Africa remains divided into little countries it will remain weak and poor.

In 1962 his name was in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lost to John Steinbeck.

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A French poem by Senghor about the Tirailleurs Senegalais, the African soldiers who fought for the French Empire, particularly in the two world wars of the 1900s. Slam poem Manu performs.

Part of this translated into English (by M.A. Yemane):

Listen to me, Senegalese sharpshooters, beneath the solitude of the black earth and of death
In your solitude without eyes, without ears, more than my dark skin in the depths of the French provinces
without even the warmth of your comrades sleeping next to you
like the old days in the trenches
like the old days in the village under the baobab tree
Listen to me, black-skinned Senegalese sharpshooters, albeit without ears, without eyes
in your triple enclosure of night.

The whole thing in French:

Aux Tirailleurs Sénégalais morts pour la France

Voici le Soleil
Qui fait tendre la poitrine des vierges
Qui fait sourire sur les bancs verts les vieillards
Qui réveillerait les morts sous une terre maternelle.
J’entends le bruit des canons—est-ce d’Irun ?—
On fleurit les tombes, on réchauffe le Soldat Inconnu.
Vous, mes frères obscurs, personne ne vous nomme.
On vous promet 500 000 de vos enfants à la gloire des futurs morts, on les remercie d’avance, futurs morts obscurs
Die schwarze Schande !

Ecoutez-moi, Tirailleurs Sénégalais, dans la solitude de la terre noire et de la mort
Dans votre solitude sans yeux, sans oreilles, plus que dans ma peau sombre au fond de la Province
Sans même la chaleur de vos camarades couchés tout contre vous, comme jadis dans la tranchée, jadis dans les palabres du village
Ecoutez-moi, tirailleurs à la peau noire, bien que sans oreilles et sans yeux dans votre triple enceinte de nuit.

Nous n’avons pas loué de pleureuses, pas même les larmes de vos femmes anciennes
Elles ne se rappellent que vos grands coups de colère, préférant l’ardeur des vivants.
Les plaintes des pleureuses trop claires
Trop vite asséchées les joues de vos femmes comme en saison Sèche les torrents du Fouta
Les larmes les plus chaudes trop claires et trop vite bues au coin des lèvres oublieuses.

Nous vous apportons, écoutez-nous, nous qui épelions vos noms dans les mois que vous mourriez
Nous, dans ces jours de peur sans mémoire, vous apportons l’amitié de vos camarades d’âge.
Ah ! puissé-je un jour d’une voix couleur de braise, puissé-je chanter
L’amitié des camarades fervente comme des entrailles et délicate, forte comme des tendons.
Ecoutez-nous, morts étendus dans l’eau au profond des plaines du Nord et de l’Est.
Recevez le salut de vos camarades noirs, Tirailleurs Sénégalais


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Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was an American singer. It was 70 years ago this Easter, on April 9th 1939, that she sang at the Lincoln Memorial. Toscanini said that a voice like hers comes along only once every hundred years. Her singing could bring people to tears or make them shout for joy. Despite her great talent, White Americans at first refused to hear her sing – because she was black. In time they changed their minds, making her the first black singer whose appeal crossed over the colour line in America in a big way.

She sang at the Lincoln Memorial because she could not sing at Constitution Hall, one of the top concert halls in the capital, Washington, DC. It was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Even though Anderson was world famous by then, they said no because she was black.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, heard about this. She belonged to DAR and asked them to reconsider. They still refused. Roosevelt quit DAR and set it up so Anderson could sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead. Anderson sang there on Easter Sunday 1939 to 75,000 people and to millions across the country who heard her on the radio. Her first song was “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”.

She was born over a hundred years ago in South Philadelphia. She grew up singing in church and at school. She loved to sing more than anything, but she did not know that a black person could make a living from music till one day when she was walking down the street and saw a black woman play the piano.

So she dreamed of becoming a singer. She went to apply to a music school. She stood in line all day but they did not call on her till everyone was gone. They told her, “We don’t take coloured.”

She had to get a private teacher. After two teachers taught her everything they knew she went to see Giuseppe Boghetti, a famous voice instructor. He said he had no time to take on another student, but when he heard her sing “Deep River” he changed his mind. He became her teacher for over 20 years.

As good as she was she soon found that she had little future in America: she could not fill a concert hall because few whites would come. So in 1928 she went to Europe. She was a huge success there. They could see past her colour. She even sang for kings.

By the time she came back to America in 1935 she was world famous. Now the white people would pay to see her. She sang in cities all across the country and then came at last to Washington, DC….

It was not just DAR that was racist: as famous as she was many hotels and restaurants turned her away too and many concert halls would not allow blacks to sit next to whites even if it meant losing her. But her example helped to bring change.

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robeson2Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an American singer, actor and a fighter for equal rights for all men. He is best remembered for singing “Ol’ Man River” (1936).

In the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the best known black men in the world, but by the 1950s he had become known as a suspected communist.

His father was a slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad, later becoming a Presbyterian minister. He spoke out against injustice and was forced to resign. His mother was a schoolteacher. When Robeson was six her clothes caught on fire from the stove. She died.

From his father Robeson learned to have an “unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty”.

Robeson did well in school, became an All-American football player and then went to New York to get his law degree at Columbia University. He got into a top law firm but then found that whites refused to work with him.

He turned to stage acting. He was best known for playing the lead in “Emperor Jones” (1924, New York; 1925 London) and “Othello” (1930, London; 1943, New York). He also acted in films, “Show Boat” (1936) being his best-known. But later he left film acting: the stereotypes that Hollywood made blacks act out sickened him.

Robeson had a very deep, rich singing voice. He gave concerts and put out records. In 1925 he became the first person ever to give a concert of Negro spirituals.

But despite being a famous singer and actor who travelled the world performing, many whites still would not accept him. He was refused service at restaurants, rooms at hotels – and not just in the American South either.

In 1934 he travelled to the Soviet Union and there he found something he had never experienced before: “Here for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.” He saw communism as the answer to racism.

In the 1940s he spoke out against racism in all its forms and continued to sing.

In 1950 the American government asked him to sign a piece of paper saying that he was not a communist. He refused. They took away his passport.

It got worse: He was blacklisted by concert halls. His records were pulled from shops. His income fell from $104,000 (145,000 crowns)  in 1947 to $2000. They even took away his title as an All-American football player.

When he was brought before the McCarthy hearings they asked why he did not live in the Soviet Union. He said:

Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?

He wrote a book about his life story, “Here I Stand”. When it came out in 1958 the New York Times refused to review it.

He got his passport back that year because of a Supreme Court ruling, but by then he was a broken man.

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Negro (1555) is an outdated word meaning someone who seems to be at least part black African. From about 1712 to 1972 it was the main word in printed English for black people. Now it is kind of a put-down, except in certain phrases that come from that time, like  the “Negro League” and the “United Negro College Fund”.

“Negro” is what the Spanish and Portuguese called black people. That is no surprise because in their language it simply means “black”. The English had picked up the word from them by 1555. The word “nigger” comes from it. So does “negress. The word “night” is its distant cousin. So is the “nigra” in “denigration”.

In the 1600s, the words “Negroes” and “blacks” were about equally common in printed English. Negro did not clearly take over till the 1700s. Still, even in the 1780s, say, Jefferson rarely used the word, preferring “blacks” and especially “slaves”. Frederick Douglass in the 1840s and Solomon Northup in the 1850s preferred “colored”.

From 1749 onwards it was mostly written with a lower case n: “negro”, not “Negro”. In the 1920s, the NAACP pushed to have it capitalized. By 1928 the capitalized form became the most common. Two years later the New York Times started capitalizing it too: “in recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in the lower case.”

In the 1900s, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr and the early James Baldwin all preferred “Negro”. Booker T. Washington pushed for the US government to use it. The US Census used “Negro” from 1900 to 2010.

But that is printed, polite, middle-class usage. During Jim Crow times (1870s to 1960s), the main American working-class terms for black people were “coloured” and (among whites) “nigger”. Among ordinary black people, “Negro” was never all that common, probably because it sounded too much like the N-word. Whites often pronounced it as “Niggro”.

The 1960s swept all of that away.

Even though the early civil rights leaders used “Negro”, the word had become too much the creature of the older black leadership who thought the road to success and freedom in America was to act and dress and talk like white people, to depend on white approval.

By 1963 Malcolm X preferred “Black” to “Negro”. Notice how he uses the two words:

The Negro “revolution” is controlled by these foxy white liberals, by the government itself. But the black revolution is controlled only by God.

By 1966 Stokely Carmichael began to use “black” in place of “Negro”. Being black meant being proud of who you are. Black Power. Black pride. “Black is beautiful.” Two years later James Brown underscored that point with his song “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”.

By 1974 the word “blacks” became more common than “Negroes” in printed (mostly white middle-class) English. Among blacks in the US, “Negro” now meant an Uncle Tom, someone faithful to white people.

In 2008 it went like this in printed English:

  • 51.9% Blacks or blacks
  • 25.4% African Americans (caught on in the 1980s)
  • 19.8% Negroes or negroes
  • 2.5% niggers
  • 0.3% coloreds

The last two were never all that common in print.

– Abagond, 2008, 2016. Pretty much rewritten in 2014.

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Miguel Covarrubias (1902-1957) was a Mexican illustrator. I love his pictures! So did Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Vogue and the other top magazines of New York where his pictures appeared in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. He also did pictures for books, like those of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Pearl Buck and his own books about Bali and southern Mexico. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance.

Sometimes when you read about people from the past you wish you could go back in time and meet them. Dorothy Dandridge and Covarrubias are like that for me.

He lived mainly in Mexico City, where he grew up in the bohemian part of the city, and New York, where he became famous. But he also travelled the world. He saw San Francisco, Shanghai, Bali, Vietnam, India, Africa and Paris.

He dropped out of school at age 14 and drew maps for his father, who was a civil engineer for the government. In 1923 he left Mexico and came to New York. Vanity Fair saw his talent almost right away. He drew for them and other top magazines. They loved his caricatures of famous people.

Although he drew and painted for magazines and books, his work took on something of the style of the high art of the time. You can see something of Picasso and even Dali in his pictures. It may have looked cool then, but it looks dated now.

He knew all the best places in the city to go for drink, dance and music, many of them in Harlem. And he knew some of the most interesting people, like Eugene O’Neill, Langston Hughes and Frida Kahlo. He knew John Huston and Al Hirschfeld when they were still nobodies in New York.

In 1930 he married a dancer, Rosa Rolanda, and took her to the island of Bali for their honeymoon. They stayed there for three years! When he came back to New York he wrote and illustrated a beautiful book about the island and its people, the way it was before Australian holidaymakers took over the place.

I love his pictures of black and Balinese women. Some of them are pretty bad, but most of them are good, even wonderful. He did not draw them as if they were white women with a few things different. He drew them as if they were the only women on earth; he drew them as a man who loved how they looked, having seen them from living in Bali and New York.

Covarrubias loved to do those maps of countries with pictures showing what each part of the country is known for.

Covarrubias also did some wall pictures. You can still see some of them in Mexico City. He did one for the 1938 San Francisco world’s fair.

He died at 52 of blood poisoning. Rosa lived on and became friends with Adriana Williams, a writer. Williams drank in all of Rosa’s stories about Covarrubias and wrote books about him.

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Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was a French jazz singer and dancer who came from America. She was the Jazz Age made flesh, a shooting star that burned across its sky. Hemingway said she was “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw or ever will.”

She was tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles. So said Picasso.

About 1500 men asked for her hand in marriage. One killed himself at her feet. Two others fought over her with swords among the graves of St Stephen’s in Budapest.

She came to Paris in 1925. She fell in love with the city and called it her country.

Her “Danse sauvage” that year made her famous: wearing little more than some feathers she danced the Charleston to jazz music. She danced wild and free, possessed by the music.

Even though she came from a place as ordinary as St Louis in the middle of America, the daughter of a washerwoman, because she was black the white men of France saw her as more African than American. She was “primitive” and “exotic”.

“White folk’s imaginations are really something when it comes to the Negro,” she said.

She played to this picture of her as a black savage with the “Danse sauvage” and later with her famous banana dance: all she wore were 16 bananas!

From dancing she branched into singing and acting. She travelled the world and wore the most beautiful clothes. She walked her leopard down the streets of Paris.

Now famous in Europe, she returned to America in 1935. But America was not ready for an “uppity coloured girl”, as her husband later put it. When she got back to France she gave up her American citizenship and became French.

In 1940 Paris fell to Hitler. Because she was so famous she could travel freely behind enemy lines with few questions asked. She wrote down enemy secrets for the French Resistance in invisible ink on her sheet music!

In 1942 she sang for the troops in North Africa, raising their spirits in a dark time.

She was not able to have children herself – she nearly died during childbirth – so she adopted 12 children from her world travels:

  1. Aiko (Korea)
  2. Luis (Colombia)
  3. Janot (Japan)
  4. Jari (Finland)
  5. Jean-Claude (Canada)
  6. Moses (French)
  7. Marianne (France)
  8. Noel (France)
  9. Brahim (Arab)
  10. Mara (Venezuela)
  11. Koffi (Ivory Coast)
  12. Stellina (Morocco)

They all lived together at her big, beautiful house in south-western France.

She was a big believer in the brotherhood of man. That is why she spoke at the civil rights march on Washington in 1963 and yet could not support the Black Power movement.

By the 1960s she was deeply in debt and lost her house. The princess of Monaco gave her another, smaller one to live in.

In her last years she sang at Carnegie Hall in New York – accepted at last by America – and made a comeback in Paris. She died in her sleep at age 68, almost 50 years to the day after she came to Paris.

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