Archive for the ‘New York’ Category

Staceyann Chin (1971- ) is a slam poet from Jamaica who now lives in the country of Brooklyn in New York City. She travels the world performing and teaching poetry. Unlike most poets she has been on Oprah’s television show and has her own Blockbuster Online page.

I thought maybe she was just television-driven fluff, that she had no substance, but when she made me cry at her grandmother’s death – not mine but hers – then I knew she could write.

She was a slam poet before slam poets were in fashion, when it was still underground in New York. Like in Ancient Greece, slam poets perform their poetry for an audience with judges picking the winner. Their pieces generally run three minutes long and tell a story. A video of one of her pieces is at the end of this post.

She got into slam poetry almost by accident: one day she went to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The rest is history.

Her first published book is not of her poetry – she is not ready for that yet – but a  story in prose about her first 24 years: “The Other Side of Paradise” (2009).

She was born on Christmas day in Montego Bay, Jamaica, the unwanted daughter of a rich Chinese businessman and a poor black woman. Her mother left the country soon after and Chin was brought up by her grandmother, then in her sixties. Although unwanted by her mother, her grandmother loved her unconditionally. No one has ever loved her more. Because her grandmother could not read, Chin read the Bible to her, especially the psalms – a slam poet in training!

All that ended at age nine when her mother arrived from Canada, briefly, and put her with a great-aunt whose sons tried to force her into sex. She was shifted from house to house without a home, till age 16 when she went away to boarding school and then university – paid for by a Chinese businessman who denies he is her father.

At age 21 while at university she found out she was lesbian. She only told close friends: in Jamaica  you cannot live openly as a homosexual and expect to not be beaten up or, in the case of women, raped.

As much as she loved Jamaica, she had to leave: it would not allow her to live freely as a lesbian. So at age 24 she came to New York:

New York was my godsend. As soon as I landed, I knew I was in a place that welcomed misfits.

No one in New York cared if she kissed girls. She was free! Yet not free: she was black. In Jamaica, because of its colourism, she was favoured for her light skin. But in America she found herself at the bottom – for the very same skin, now seen as black. America may have been more enlightened about lesbians, but it was way less enlightened about black people.

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Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (1922-2010) was an American professor and historian, best known for his book “A People’s History of the United States” (1980). It is not a story of presidents and generals but instead “a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.” He was to the left of Mao and proud of it.

He did not just teach history, he took part in it, like marching at Selma and hiding the Pentagon Papers. He was brave, doing what was right even though it meant that Spelman fired him and the Boston police beat him.

He grew up in the poor parts of Brooklyn. When the Second World War came he joined the Air Force to fight the good war against Hitler and fascism. He bombed towns in France and Germany. From his plane, six miles up in the sky, he could not hear the screams or see the blood.

TheThere is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.He came home and went to university on the G.I. Bill. There he read John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” (1946) and began to think about the people he killed, many of them children. He began to see that America was an empire no different from all the other empires in history.

In 1956 he became a history professor at Spelman College. He found himself teaching American history to black women from books that said little about blacks. He began to question the way American history was taught.

Then came the civil rights movement, the fight for equal rights for blacks. He joined SNCC and the sit-ins. He urged his students to protest too. Spelman fired him. Writer Alice Walker, one of his students, puts it this way:

Well, he was thrown out because he loved us, and he showed that love by just being with us. He loved his students. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens. He didn’t see why we shouldn’t be able to eat where we wanted to and sleep where we wanted to and be with the people we wanted to be with. And so, he was with us. He didn’t stay back, you know, in his tower there at the school. And so, he was a subversive in that situation.

In 1964 he went to Boston University where he taught till he retired in 1988. There he took part in the protests against the Vietnam War and became friends with Noam Chomsky.

In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg gave him one of his copies of the Pentagon Papers, which held the government’s secrets about the Vietnam War. The big secret was that it knew the war was hopeless but lied to the people about it. Zinn found out that the war was not about freedom and democracy but about tin, rubber and oil. America in the 1960s, it turned out, was no different than Japan in the 1940s.

In 1980 he came out with “A People’s History of the United States”. The first printing was only 4,000 copies, but in 2003 the millionth copy was sold! The latest, and now last, revision comes out in July 2010.

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Anatole Broyard in 1971 at age 51

Anatole Broyard (1920-1990), an American writer, was the first black literary critic for the New York Times – but the thing was, they did not know he was black! He passed for white. His daughter, Bliss Broyard, wrote about it in “One Drop” (2007).

Broyard was born in New Orleans into a Creole family that was a liberal mix of both black and white. Going by his daughter’s DNA test, Broyard was about 34% black and 56% white – a common mix for Puerto Ricans. Growing up in New York he got into fights because he was too black for the whites and too white for the blacks. In his high school picture in 1937 he looks black.

But then a year later on March 2nd 1938 he went to the Social Security office to apply for a government tax number so he could work. Right there on the form, which we still have, you can see him make his decision: he marks Negro but then scratches that out and then marks white!

Before he went off to fight in the Second World War he married a black Puerto Rican woman and had a daughter by her, Gala. But when he came back from the war he divorced her. He then proceeds to make a name for himself as a white writer, marries a white woman and moves to a white neighbourhood in a very white town and brings up his son and daughter as white. They had no idea he was part black till he was on his deathbed (though his wife and some friends knew).

The New York Times would not have hired him as a literary critic if they knew he was black: blacks, after all, can only write about “black” subjects! It is the same reasoning that Hollywood uses too: black actors can only play “black” characters. Blacks are not seen as “universal”, but whites are.

Broyard thought that he did not need to be black or white, that he could just be himself. But to succeed as a literary critic he had to present himself to society as a white man, which meant turning his back on his mother and two sisters, who lived as black (one sister could pass but not the other).

One time his mother wrote him a letter begging to see her grandchildren before she passed away. He let her see them – once. They did not understand who she was.

That makes him sound ice cold, but his daughter says he was a loving family man. She says the way he had to keep the two sides of his family separate tore him apart inside.

When his daughter found out she was part black she thought it was cool, but did not like how her father had kept it a secret from her for 25 years. She supposes that he wanted to spare her the pain he went through growing up.

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Gina Torres (1969- ) is an American actress. She starred in the television shows “Firefly” (2002-2003) and “Cleopatra 2525” (2000-2001), but in general she plays a supporting character in science fiction & fantasy or FBI agent sort of shows, like “Hercules”, “24”, “Alias”, “Standoff” and two of the Matrix films. You can see her now in “FlashForward” which is an FBI science fiction show!  She is tall, pretty and does her own stunts. Oh, and she can sing opera too.


gina18Those who do not watch those sort of shows might remember her as the wife of Chris Rock in “I Think I Love My Wife” (2007).

Off stage she is the wife of Larry Fishburne, another serious black actor. They married in 2002 and had a daughter, Delilah, in 2007. They live in New Rochelle, New York just north of New York City

She is tall, thin and has beautiful eyes and beautiful lips! Her natural hair seems to be Type 3. She is as tall as a model: 5 foot 10 (1.78 m). And as tall as her husband!

At first I thought she was Nuyorican. She is in fact from New York – she was born in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx – but her parents came from Cuba, not Puerto Rico. Her father was a newspaper typesetter.

Her parents loved Latin jazz and so did she. She wanted to be a singer – and had talent: she got into La Guardia High School for the Arts in New York. She sang opera, jazz and gospel. She wanted to go to university and had the grades but her parents did not have the money.

So she went to Lincoln Center and did office work hoping to get noticed. She did. That led to stage acting (“Dreamgirls”, “Antigone”, “Blood Wedding” and others) and, in time, to television. From 1995 to 1996 she played Magdelena on the soap opera “One Life to Live”.

She got her start as an action character on “Xena: Warrior Princess” in 1997. She only appeared once, but that led to a regular part on “Hercules” (1998-1999) and then to two seasons of  “Cleopatra 2525” (2000-2001) where she was one of the three main characters. That led to parts on the Matrix films and primetime shows.


You have to have a spirit of warrior in you. You’re going to be facing battles as a woman in this industry and a woman of color. You have to be prepared to face battles of respect and pride and sexuality, and you can’t tire of fighting.

How Larry Fishburne won her heart: the Wikipedia says they met on the set of a Matrix film. Not true: they met and dated years before. One of their dates was during the New York blizzard of 1995: all the snow of one winter fell in one day. And they were outside having a snowball fight in Fort Tryon Park! Then they sat down on a bench overlooking the Hudson River. Sitting there knee-deep in snow he pulled out his harmonica and serenaded her.


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arrestAngela Davis was arrested in New York by the FBI on Tuesday October 13th 1970. She had been on the run for over two months, crossing the country from Los Angeles to New York.

Her face was on the cover of Life magazine and it was on television. Hiding out in Miami she watched one of those shows on television where the FBI saves the day at the end in some big shoot out. She imagined it was her getting killed. Just then her picture appeared on television and a deep voice said:

Angela Davis is one of the FBI’s ten most wanted criminials. She is wanted for the crimes of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. She is very likely armed so if you see her, do not try to do anything. Contact your local FBI immediately.

Her gun had been used to kill a judge. That made her party to murder. Once she left California and crossed state lines that brought in the FBI.

She says it had little to do with the gun or her flight: the government was looking for an excuse to come after her to weaken black power. Ronald Reagan, the governor, had already fired her from UCLA for being a communist.

When she heard about the judge getting killed she did not return home. She laid low for a few days in Los Angeles and then was driven in the night by a showgirl to Las Vegas. There she caught a flight to Chicago and got to a friend, David Poindexter, before the FBI did. They went to Detroit, New York, Miami and then back to New York.

One by one the FBI found each of her friends and relations, except for Poindexter, and kept a close watch on each one.

lifeIn New York Davis and Poindexter stayed in room 702 at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge at 861 Eighth Avenue at 51st Street. They made a striking couple. Her picture was everywhere. A man noticed her in Times Square even though she was not wearing her trademark Afro and looked kind of Puerto Rican.

That night when they returned to their room the door opposite opened and an arm came out and took hold of her. It was the FBI. The man asked, “Angela Davis? Are you Angela Davis?” She said nothing but soon her fingerprints proved that they had found her at last.

They took her to the Women’s House of Detention at Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street. When she was 15 she had walked passed that prison every day on the way to school, acting like she could not hear the women inside screaming. Now she would be one of those women.

They put her in with the madwomen. They gave her wrinkled hot dogs and cold potatoes to eat. If found guilty of the charges she could be sentenced to death. Yet she felt better than she had in a long time: if she listened carefully she could hear the people outside protesting for her.

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Note: This post does not set out to prove anything – it is just food for thought.

Here are the top ten girl names of those born in New York City in 2007:

  1. Isabella
  2. Sophia
  3. Emily
  4. Ashley
  5. Sarah
  6. Kayla
  7. Mia
  8. Olivia
  9. Samantha
  10. Rachel

Sophia and Isabella are tied for first.

Now break that down by race, where Hispanics count as a separate race:

Top white names:

  1. Sarah
  2. Rachel
  3. Sophia
  4. Olivia
  5. Ava
  6. Isabella
  7. Esther
  8. Julia
  9. Chaya
  10. Emma

The top Asian names:

  1. Sophia
  2. Emily
  3. Chloe
  4. Tiffany
  5. Angela
  6. Ashley
  7. Rachel
  8. Isabella
  9. Fiona, Jessica, Sarah (tied)

Top Hispanic names:

  1. Ashley
  2. Isabella
  3. Emily
  4. Mia
  5. Brianna
  6. Samantha
  7. Angela
  8. Melanie
  9. Sophia
  10. Jennifer, Kayla (tied)

The top black names:

  1. Madison
  2. Kayla
  3. Jada
  4. Brianna
  5. Nevaeh
  6. Alyssa
  7. Makayla
  8. Gabrielle
  9. Taylor
  10. Imani

Please note: There are white girls named Kayla, etc. These are merely the most common names for each race.

No name made all four lists.

Only two names made three lists: Sophia and Isabella. They were on all but the black list.

What I find interesting are the names that made only two lists. Why? Because I see it as a measure of how much races deal with each other as equals. That might be wrong, but for this post I will assume it is true.

Here are which names appear on only two lists:

  • white/Asian: Rachel, Sarah
  • white/Hispanic:
  • white/black:
  • Asian/Hispanic: Angela, Ashley, Emily
  • Asian/black:
  • Hispanic/black: Kayla, Brianna

I listed all six possible pairings, but only half of them have anything. These are just the pairings you would expect if you assume race in New York is a four-layer cake that looks like this:

  1. white
  2. Asian
  3. Hispanic
  4. black

With whites at the top as the richest and most privileged.

Whites and Hispanics do use some of the same names (Isabella and Sophia), but only if Asians use them too – just as if Asians are the go-between.

This seems to rule out two possible models of race in New York:

  1. Whites at the centre: If that were true, then the white pairings would have the most names. Instead two of them have no names at all: white/Hispanic and white/black. And even the remaining one, white/Asian, is outdone by Asian/Hispanic. This also shows, by the way, that names are not coming directly from a white mainstream but spread some other way.
  2. A white/Asian overclass and a black/Hispanic underclass: If this were true then the Asian/Hispanic pairing would have few to no names. Instead it is the strongest pairing of all.

You can also get a measure of ghettoization, of how separated each race is from the others, by how many names are found only on its list:

  • white (6): Olivia, Ava, Esther, Julia, Chaya, Emma
  • Asian (4): Chloe, Tiffany, Fiona, Jessica
  • Hispanic (4): Mia, Samantha, Melanie, Jennifer
  • black (8): Madison, Jada, Nevaeh, Alyssa, Makayla, Gabrielle, Taylor, Imani

To prove anything you would at least have to look at more years and go deeper in the lists to see if these patterns hold up. You would also have to study just how girl names start and spread.

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AliciaKeysAlicia Cook (c. 1979- ), better known by her stage name of Alicia Keys, was one of the top American R&B singers of the 2000s. She is best known for “Fallin'” (2001) , which made her name and is still her most unforgettable song to date. Smokey Robinson says she is one of the best new singers.

So far six of her songs have hit number one on the American R&B chart:

  • 2001: Fallin’
  • 2003; You Don’t Know My Name
  • 2004: If I Ain’t Got You
  • 2004: My Boo (with Usher)
  • 2007: No One
  • 2008: Like You’ll Never See Me Again

“Superwoman” and “Teenage Love Affair” never hit number one.

Half these songs also hit number one on the American pop chart:  “Fallin'”, “My Boo” and “No One”.

For comparison, during this same period Beyonce had five number one hits on both the R&B and pop charts in America and Mariah Carey had three each.

Mariah and Beyonce have sold way more records than Alicia Keys: they have been at it longer and their music crosses over to white audiences better.

Alicia Keys is not only talented and successful but beautiful – one of the most beautiful black women according to white people. She is half Italian by blood and looks nearly white.

Her father is black (Jamaican); her mother is white (Italian-American). She considers herself to be black, not biracial or mixed race. Unlike with Mariah Carey, it has never been a question. Also, unlike Carey, her early music was more clearly black too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents split when she was two. She saw little of her father, a flight attendant, though he did remain in her life. Her mother was often poor but somehow she always found money for Alicia’s piano lessons. Alicia:

I’ve had a deep love for music since I was four… . Music came before everything, everything, everything. I would risk everything for it.

By seven she could play classical piano. By 11 she was writing songs. One of the songs on her first album she wrote at 14. She continued to learn and practise her singing and piano.

In 1997 she got a record deal with Columbia Records – and dropped out of Columbia University. But then Columbia Records did what they did to Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen before her: tried to make her into someone else:

I felt that they wanted me to be a clone of Mariah or Whitney, and I couldn’t do that. I’m not the sequined dress type, or the high-heeled type, or the all-cleavage type. I’m not coming like that for no one.

They parted ways.

Clive Davis, the very man who brought us Whitney Houston, stepped in. He was struck by her talent and beauty. She was struck by how he took her seriously.

After many delays – Davis was kicked out of Arista and formed J Records, bringing Keys with him – she completed her first album in 2001. “Nothing before its time,” she says. Davis got her on Oprah’s television show and the rest is history.

– Abagond, 2009.

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