Monday, June 22, 2009

Black Ballerinas: Remembering my Father

Last month I had the honor of attending not one but TWO events where Mrs. Michelle Obama was the keynote speaker. As I mentioned before, I have been given the plum assignment at work to cover the First Lady. Quite honestly though, May 5th was the first day that I had a real "AHA!" moment about it all.

In the morning, I had the chance to hear the Mom-in-Chief herself speak at the re-opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Any excuse to visit the MET is right up my alley as it is my fave museum in the Big Apple. But furthermore, there were children from all over NYC attending the ceremony – even Cambria Heights, Queens (a mere 10 minutes from where I grew up). The genuine, warm hugs Mrs. Obama gave those students (most of whom looked like me) even after the event was over and some of the cameramen begin to leave, gave me a feeling I will take to my grave.

Later in the day I went to NYC’s Lincoln Center for the American Ballet Theater opening. It was a huge deal and the attendees were a who’s who of NYC society. Guests included Renee Zellweger, Caroline Kennedy (who introduced Mrs. Obama) and Susan Fales-Hill. There were a whole ‘lotta other folks there who I didn’t recognize but from their seat’s closeness to the stage I know they sign big checks. People were dressed to the nines and since I LOVE to people watch I enjoyed the "show" way before the curtains were raised. This was about the time I had my "AHA!" moment.

My father (RIP) was adamant about me learning ballet at an early age. While he didn’t necessarily want me to become a professional ballerina (although he wasn’t opposed to that either), ballet dancing, like piano playing, was a skill he thought a little girl would just benefit from having. He would tell me that it would help me with my posture. He thought most ballet dancers had a graceful walk. And while I took ballet lessons as a little girl (along with piano) I never perfected the dance form. Never perfected piano playing either…

While I watched the ballet in Lincoln Center that evening of May 5th, I felt my father’s presence stronger than I had in a long, long time. I imagined telling him all about it the moment I left the center and giving him a blow-by-blow of the day’s events. I then imagined his roaring gut-belly laugh when I reenacted certain scenarios. I cried several times that night (as I am crying now) – I’m sure the people around me thought I was a little nuts. Here I was, this young Black woman from Jamaica, Queens at major foo foo, chi chi events twice in one day with the First Lady of The United States of America! I knew, on that day, my father was smiling right along with me.

Long before we even knew Barack Obama existed my father would tell my mother I needed to know how to properly set a dinner table because I might eat with the President at The White House one day and I would need to know what fork to use when. I haven’t eaten in The White House (yet) but it isn’t nearly as far fetched now as it was back in the 80s when he called it. And I actually did break bread with the then Mayor of NYC, Rudy Giuliani during a black-tie affair for a scholarship I received my senior year of high school. A man who grew up on the gritty streets of South Philly and South Jamaica, Queens envisioned all this (and much more) for his little girl. Pretty special, huh?

Despite the success of Alvin Ailey and The Dance Theater of Harlem, the very idea of Black ballerinas used to be an oxymoron to some (and still is for others). Black women were supposedly not built to be great ballerinas. But, sorta like Michelle Obama, lots of Black young ladies defied the odds and succeeded at it anyway. Now I know that is what my father was trying to teach me all along. It was never just about ballet, piano or even table etiquette as much as it was about being able to hold my head up high wherever I was – be it Gracie Mansion, The White House or a greasy spoon in South Central L.A.

Thank you Daddy. Happy Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Looking Back to Go Forward: My Introduction to The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Durning Memorial Day Weekend, I had the pleasure of hearing my lil' cous' sing with his college choir at The Schomburg Research Center in Harlem. I have heard my cousin sing before and our entire family is well aware of his musical talents. I was excited, sure, but I had no idea what I was in for during this concert. He (a resident of North Carolina) was in the Big Apple for a bunch of shows and I was looking forward to seeing the kid on my turf (normally we're in N.C. when our fam gets together) and showing him around the big city. But, my baby cous' was actually the one who taught me something during his visit.

Said cousin just happens to attend Fisk University (the recently deceased John Hope Franklin was a grad) in Nashville, Tenn. and is part of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Now, in my opinion, ALL HBCU's have a rich history but I had no idea that Fisk was the owner of such an OUTSTANDING legacy. While this country was barely (just barely) out of slavery, Fisk students were over in Europe singing before royalty to raise funds for their school. That tradition continued and now the singers travel the world (still) to perform in front of all sorts of folks.

My cousin (yes, I'm bragging) has trekked all over the United States, Europe and even Africa exposing the young and old alike to beautiful traditional gospel music and Negro Spirituals. The acappella hymns these students belt out are nothing short of amazing and each song tells a story of resilence and tenacity. To hear these young voices carrying on this legacy...well, it's pretty darn impressive. The African-American stuggle is rarely celebrated. I am extremely proud of my lil' cousin and the other Jubilee Singers for reminding folks of how fly we truly are. You too can expereince their talent here and even purchase one of their cds.

Take a listen and tell me what you think. ;-)